The Evolution of the Sun

  • The hydrogen in the core is completed burned into helium nuclei. Initially, the temperature in the core is not hot enough to ignite helium burning. With no additional fuel in the core, fusion dies out. The core cannot support itself and contracts; as it shrinks, it heats up. The rising temperature in the core heats up a thin shell around the core until the temperature reaches the point where hydrogen burning ignites in this shell around the core. With the additional energy generation in the H-burning shell, the outer layers of the star expand but their temperature decreases as they get further away from the center of energy generation. This large but cool star is now a red giant, with a surface temperature of 3500 degrees and a radius of about 100 solar radii.

  • The helium core contracts until its temperature reaches about 100 million degrees. At this point, helium burning ignites, as helium is converted into carbon (C) and oxygen (O). However, the core cannot expand as much as required to compensate for the increased energy generation caused by the helium burning. Because the expanion does not compensate, the temperature stays very high, and the helium burning proceeds furiously. With no safety valve, the helium fusion is uncontrolled and a large amount of energy is suddenly produced. This helium flash occurs within a few hours after helium fusion begins.

    The core explodes, the core temperature falls and the core contracts again, thereby heating up. When the helium burns now, however, the reactions are more controlled because the explosion has lowered the density enough. Helium nuclei fuse to form carbon, oxygen, etc..

  • The star wanders around the red giant region, developing its distinct layers, eventually forming a carbon-oxygen core.

  • When the helium in the core is entirely converted into C, O, etc., the core again contracts, and thus heats up again. In a star like the Sun, its temperature never reaches the 600 million degrees required for carbon burning. Instead, the outer layers of the star eventually become so cool that nuclei capture electrons to form neutral atoms (rather than nuclei and free electrons). When atoms are forming by capturing photons in this way, they cause photons to be emitted; these photons then are readily available for absorption by neighboring atoms and eventually this causes the outer layers of the star to heat up. When they heat up, the outer layers expand further and cool, forming more atoms, and releasing more photons, leading to more expansion. In other words, this process feeds itself.

  • The outer envelope of the star blows off into space, exposing the hot, compressed remnant core. This is a planetary nebula .

With this understanding of how the Sun will evolve, we can follow its evolution on the HR diagram.

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