Supernovae: Dying Stars

Star Death

Lifetime of a Star

It is true that all living things come from stardust. In about 5 billion years, our Sun will have swelled to a red giant and engulfed the inner planets, ready to explode in a supernova. Supernovae enrich the interstellar medium with high mass elements, like iron and calcium. The high energy from supernovae also triggers formation of new stars. On average, supernovae occur only about once every 50 years in the Milky Way Galaxy. They are rare events— so rare that the last one in the Milky Way was discovered in 1604 (SN 1604, or Kepler’s Supernova)— spectacularly luminous and extremely destructive. In fact, supernovae can cause bursts of radiation more luminous than entire galaxies and emit as much energy as the Sun will in its entire lifespan! In a supernova, most of the star’s material is expelled into space at speeds up to 30,000 m/s. The shock wave passes through the supernova remnant, a huge expanding shell of gas and dust. Supernova are caused either by the sudden gravitational collapse of a supergiant star (Type I Supernova) or a white dwarf accreting enough mass or merging with a binary companion to undergo nuclear fusion (Type II Supernova). White dwarfs are very dense stars that do not have enough mass to become a neutron star (formed from supernova remnant, stars comprising almost entirely of neutrons). Supernovae can be used as standard candles (objects with known luminosity). For instance, the dimming luminosity of distant supernovae supports the theory that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Now, with powerful telescopes like Hubble, many supernovae are discovered each year. How perfectly supernovae represent the circle of life: from death comes life!

History of Supernova Observations (Milky Way)

  • SN185 by Chinese astronomers
  • SN1006 by Chinese and Islamic astronomers
  • SN1054 (caused Crab Nebula)
  • SN1572 by Tycho Brahe in Cassiopeia
  • SN1604 by Johannes Kepler

* Supernova (SN) are named by the year they are discovered; if more than one in one year, the name is followed by a capital letter (A, B, C, etc.), and if more than 26, lowercase paired letters (aa, ab, etc.) are used

Below is a video on supernovae! Enjoy.


Nuclear Fusion: What Fuels Stars


  • The interior heats due to gravitational contraction and radiates away this energy as black-body radiation
  • At 10K, fusion starts, pressure increases, and the star establishes hydrostatic equilibrium (the balance between gravity and gas pressure)
  • As gravity pulls inwards (fusion releases energy, and maintains the core’s high temperature), gas pressure pushes outwards (high temperature prevents the star from collapsing under its own weight)
  • When a star reaches hydrostatic equilibrium, it enters main sequence

* Energy produced more efficiently at core’s center

Difference Between Fission and Fusion

Nuclear Fission vs. Nuclear Fusion

Fission: splitting heavy nuclei into lighter ones (e.g. atomic bombs and nuclear reactors derive their energy from fission of uranium or plutonium)

Fusion: merging light nuclei into heavy nuclei (e.g. how stars shine, hydrogen bombs, “nuclear burning” – different from ordinary chemical burning processes)

Strong Nuclear Forces: protons in the nucleus repel by electrical forces, but strong nuclear forces, which can only occur at close distances, keep the atom together. As temperature rises, protons move faster. When 2 protons fuse, the output is 1 neutron, 1 positron, and 1 neutrino.

How Fusion Works: Proton-Proton Chain & CNO Cycle

Common Elements (and Their Isotopes) Involved in Fusion: ¹H (hydrogen) [1 proton], ²H (deuterium) [1 proton, 1 neutron], ³H (tritium) [1 proton, 2 neutrons], ³He (helium-3) [2 protons, 1 neutron], 4He (helium-4) [2 protons, 2 neutrons]

Proton-Proton Chain

Proton-Proton Chain

Step 1: 2 hydrogen nuclei –> deuterium nucleus => releases positron + neutrino

  • Positron (e+): antimatter of electron
  • Neutrino (ν): unchanged particle that only interacts very weakly with normal matter

Step 2: deuterium + hydrogen nuclei –> helium-3 => releases gamma ray

-> Repeat first two steps.

Step 3: 2 helium-3 –> helium-4 => releases two protons


Input: 6 protons

Output: 2 positrons, 2 neutrinos, 2 gamma rays, 1 helium nucleus, 2 protons

Net Output: 4 protons –> 1 helium-4 => releases 2 positrons, 2 neutrinos, 2 gamma rays

0.7% of the total mass of 4 protons is converted into energy, while 99.3% results in 1 helium nucleus. Some of the mass is converted into energy. Since E = mc², a little mass and release tremendous energy. While at rest, however, energy is equal to mass.

CNO Cycle

CNO (Carbon-Nitrogen-Oxygen) Cycle

The CNO Cycle is the main nuclear burning chain in main sequence stars hotter than the Sun. Using carbon as a catalyst to convert hydrogen into helium, the CNO cycle also converts 7% of hydrogen’s mass into energy; hydrogen fuses with carbon to form helium. 10% of the Sun’s nuclear fusion reactions is from the CNO Cycle. In 1967, Hans Bethe theorized on the energy production in stars.

Stellar Properties

Stars: Stellar Properties

Stars are balls of gas held together by force of gravity and generate energy and light by nuclear fusion.

A star’s “color,” or wavelength gives information on:

  1. Temperature
  2. Composition
  3. Conditions
  4. Motion (Doppler Shift)
  5. Classification Scheme

What to Measure and How to Classify Stars:

  1. Spectroscopy
    • To determine composition
      • Absorption line produced when an electron absorbs a photon; emission line produced when an electron emits a photon
      • Dual nature of light: light behaves as waves (electromagnetic waves) or as particles (photons)
      • High energy electromagnetic waves are high energy photons, low energy electromagnetic waves are low energy photons
      • Energy of a photon defined by: E = hf, where h is Planck’s constant (h = 6.63 x 10 ^ – 34 joules sec) and f is the frequency of the electromagnetic wave
      • Three Types of Spectra:
        • Continuous Spectrum: appears as a rainbow spectrum
        • Emission Spectrum: appears as distinct color lines, characteristic of chemical elements
        • Absorption Spectrum: appears as black lines on a rainbow background, reverse of emission spectrum
    • To determine temperature
      • All objects give off thermal radiation
      • Peak wavelength corresponds to maximum intensity of radiation
      • Peak wavelength of electromagnetic radiation is related to temperature
      • Wien’s Law: W = 0.00290/T
      • As temperature increases, wavelength decreases
      • The hotter an object, the bluer the radiation
    • To determine density
      • The thicker the spectral line, the greater the abundance of the chemical element present
    • To determine motion
      • Doppler shift of spectral lines
      • Red Shift = moving away
      • Blue Shift = moving closer
    • To determine distance
      • Measured in light years (ly) – distance light travels in one year and parsecs (pc) – one parsec is 3.26 light years
      • Parallax: the only direct measure of stellar distance, the angle across the sky that a star seems to move with respect to a background of distant stars) between two observation points at the ends of a baseline of one astronomical unit (A.U.); a star one parsec from Earth has a parallax of one arc second
  2. Brightness
    • Apparent Brightness
      • Affected By: absolute (true) brightness, distance, intervening space, Earth’s atmosphere, and eyes’ visual response
      • Measured by apparent magnitude “m,” relative brightness as seen on Earth; brightest star (m=1) to faintest (m=6); a 1st magnitude star is 100 times brighter than a 6th magnitude star
    • Absolute Brightness
      • Measured by absolute magnitude “M”
      • The magnitude of a star observed from a distance of 10 parsecs (1 parsec = 3.26 light years)
      • Stars further than 10 parsecs would “appear” brighter; M increases
      • Stars closer than 10 parsecs would “appear” dimmer; M decreases
    • m-M = 5 log (r/10)
  3. Distances
    • Distance as the primary factor in the decrease of stellar brightness as perceived on Earth, used to determine absolute brightness
    • Inverse Square Law: the intensity of light varies inversely with the square of the star’s distance from the Earth
  4. Mass and Size
    • MASS: For binary stars, both the period of revolution of one star orbiting the other and the distance between the two stars can be measured
    • SIZE: Diameters of stars can be determined from temperature and luminosity (calculated from absolute brightness) =>  L  =   σ  T^4  A, where L = luminosity, σ = distance, T = temperature, and A = absolute brightness
  5. Classification Scheme
    • Spectral Types: O, B, A, F, G, K, M; subtypes 0 to 9 (e.g. B1, A4, G2, and M0)
    • O stars are more than 10 times hotter than M stars
    • Developed by Annie Jump Cannon in the late 1800’s
  6. H-R Diagram: to study evolutionary tracks

What are Quasars?


QUASARS (Quasi-Stellar Radio Source) [QSR]

  • Appear like stars
  • Emits strong radio signal
  • Distant active nuclei of galaxies
  • A compact region in the center of a massive galaxy surrounding its central supermassive black hole
  • Traveling away from Earth at tremendous speeds (largest Doppler red shifts known)
  • First discovered 20 years ago (3C273) by interaction of optical and radio astronomy
  • In 1963, Maarteen Schmid discovered a quasar with a 16% Doppler red shift (~3 billion light years away)
  • Since then, more than 1,500 quasars discovered with red shifts up to 473%
  • Provide information of the early phases of the Universe
  • Have been found in a cluster of galaxies (“host galaxies”)

Hubble’s Law: large redshift means large velocities of recession = great distances

What are Brown Dwarfs?

Brown Dwarf

BROWN DWARFS: stars too small to perform nuclear fusion (no new energy) but too massive to be a planet

  • Masses range from 13 Jupiter-masses to 25 Jupiter-masses
  • Radius same as Jupiter but be up to 60-90 Jupiter masses
  • Some emit x-rays
  • All glow red in the infrared spectra until they cool off to 1,000 K

In 1995, the first brown dwarf, Teide 1 of the Pleiades cluster (M8 star), was discovered by the Spanish Observatory of Roque de los Muchachos and verified. Most brown dwarfs belong to spectral types L and T, which contain cooler stars than spectral type M. So far, more than 1,000 brown dwarfs have been discovered.

What are Neutron Stars?

Neutron Star

Neutron Stars

  • Remnant of cores of massive stars, left over after the core collapses in the supernova explosion
  • 1.5x more massive than the Sun, only 10 km in radius
  • 1 cm³ = 1 billion tons
  • How to Detect Them
    • Pulsars: spinning neutron stars that emit radio waves
    • X-Ray Binaries: in a binary star system, accretes matter from the other star


Pulsars: In 1967, Jocelyn Bell discovered that a radio source emitted regular “pulses” of radio waves every 1,337 seconds, like clockwork. A pulsar is a rotating neutron star (e.g. Crab Pulsar). Its strong magnetic field generates radio emission. Since a beam of radio waves “sweeps” past us as the star rotates, the neutron star appears to change in luminosity.

X-Ray Binary

X- Ray Binaries: In a binary star system, a neutron star can accrete mass spilling off of a companion star. There may also be black holes in x-ray binaries (e.g. GS2000+25)