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What is Star?

The Pleiades star cluster

A star is a massive body of plasma in outer space that is currently producing or has produced energy through nuclear fusion. Unlike a planet, from which most light is reflected, a star emits light because of its intense heat. Scientifically, stars are defined as self-gravitating spheres of plasma in hydrostatic equilibrium, which generate their own energy through the process of nuclear fusion. Stellar astronomy is the study of stars.

Star formation and evolution
Star formation occurs in molecular clouds, large regions of high density in the interstellar medium (though still less dense than the inside of an earthly vacuum chamber). Star formation begins with gravitational instability inside those clouds, often triggered by shockwaves from supernovae or collision of two galaxies (as in a starburst galaxy). High mass stars powerfully illuminate the clouds from which they formed. One example of such a nebula is the Orion Nebula.

Stars spend about 90% of their lifetime fusing hydrogen to produce helium in high-temperature and high-pressure reactions near the core. Such stars are said to be on the main sequence.

Small stars (called red dwarfs) burn their fuel very slowly and last tens to hundreds of billions of years. At the end of their lives, they simply become dimmer and dimmer, fading into black dwarfs. However, since the lifespan of such stars is greater than the current age of the universe (13.6 billion years), no black dwarfs exist yet.

As most stars exhaust their supply of hydrogen, their outer layers expand and cool to form a red giant. In about 5 billion years, when the Sun is a red giant, it will be so large that it will consume both Mercury and Venus. Eventually the core is compressed enough to start helium fusion, and the star heats up and contracts. Larger stars will also fuse heavier elements, all the way to iron, which is the end point of the process. Since iron nuclei are more tightly bound than any heavier nuclei, they cannot be fused to release energy. Likewise, since they are more tightly bound than all lighter nuclei, energy cannot be released by fission. In old, very massive stars, a large core of inert iron will accumulate in the center of the star.

An average-size star will then shed its outer layers as a planetary nebula. The core that remains will be a tiny ball of degenerate matter not massive enough for further fusion to take place, supported only by degeneracy pressure, called a white dwarf. These too will fade into black dwarfs over very long stretches of time.

In larger stars, fusion continues until an iron core accumulates that is too large to be supported by electron degeneracy pressure. This core will suddenly collapse as its electrons are driven into its protons, forming neutrons and neutrinos in a burst of inverse beta decay. The shockwave formed by this sudden collapse causes the rest of the star to explode in a supernova. Supernovae are so bright that they may briefly outshine the star's entire home galaxy. When they occur within the Milky Way, supernovae have historically been observed by naked-eye observers as "new stars" where none existed before. Eventually, most of the matter in a star is blown away by the explosion (forming nebulae such as the Crab Nebula) and what remains will be a neutron star (sometimes a pulsar or X-ray burster) or, in the case of the largest stars, a black hole.

The blown-off outer layers of dying stars include heavy elements which may be recycled during new star formation. These heavy elements allow the formation of rocky planets. The outflow from supernovae and the stellar wind of large stars play an important part in shaping the interstellar medium.

The Crab Nebula, remnants of a supernova which occurred around 1100 AD.


All text of this article available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License (see Copyrights for details).

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