The “Zombie” Planet Rises

The Zombie Planet

World War Z? Certainly looks like it. A planet though to be buried has come back alive… undead, some might say. Coincidentally, the analysis of Hubble Space Telescope’s observations came  right before Halloween. The massive alien zombie planet, called the Fomalhaut b (the name even sounds creepy, if you ask me), orbits the star Fomalhaut, which is 25 light years from the constellation Piscis Austrinus. These recent discoveries, however, contradict conclusions in November 2008 that indicated Fomalhaut b as a giant dust cloud. Fomalhaut b, three times smaller than Jupiter, was the first planet directly imaged in visible light. The planet seems to be inside a vast debris ring. Because the scientists did not discover any brightness variations in the 2004 and 2006 Hubble observations, they concluded that Fomalhaut b must be a massive planet. Watch the Halloween-themed video below on the Zombie Planet!

References “Massive ‘zombie’ alien planet rises from the dead.”, 28 2012. Web. 28 Oct 2012.


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.

More About the Sun

The Sun

The Sun: Basics

  • Radius: 696,000 km (109 times Earth’s radius)
  • Mass: 2×10³º kg (332,946 times Earth’s mass)
  • Temperature: 15,000,000 K – center; 5,780 K – photosphere; 2-5 million K – corona
  • Luminosity: 3.8×1026 watts
  • Rotation Period at Equator: 25.4 days
  • Photospheric Composition (by number of atoms): 92.1% hydrogen, 7.8% helium, 0.1% other elements
  • Photospheric Composition (by mass %): 73.5% hydrogen, 24.9% helium, 1.6% other elements

Energy Transport Mechanisms

  • Conduction: most important in solids (e.g. pot over open flame or stove)
  • Radiation: transport of energy by motion of photons; efficiency depends on how opaqueness of the matter (e.g. heater in a cold room)
  • Convection: bulk transport of packets of matter in a liquid or gas (e.g. boiling water — hot water rises, cold water sinks)

Layers of the Sun

  • Radiative Zone: the sun’s center is opaque, so energy takes hundreds of thousands of years to escape
  • Convective Zone: hot gases rise, cold gases sink

Solar Atmosphere (photosphere, corona, chromosphere)

  • Photosphere: 5,800 K; 500 km thick; granulation in solar atmosphere
  • Chromosphere: 10,000 K; 1,000 km thick; red color, Balmer series emission line of hydrogen
  • Corona: 2 million K; large region of high-density plasma

Solar Magnetic Activity

  • Sunspots: magnetic field prevents convective bubbles; lower temperature than rest of Sun’s surface; has magnetic storms; maximum number of sunspots at 11 years, which is half of a 22-year cycle; every 11 years, sunspots’ magnetic fields change
  • Solar Flares: powerful, energetic eruptions that releases magnetic energy, and up to 20 million K
  • Corona Mass Ejections: huge flows of hot gas at 1,500 km/sec

Detecting Solar Neutrinos

  • Neutrinos: matter that interact very weakly with normal matter; the interior of the Sun is transparent to neutrinos (discovered in 1956 by Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines)
  • First neutrino “telescope” at Homestead gold mine, South Dakota: used 400,000 liters of dry-cleaning fluid (perchloroethylene -C2Cl4) because a neutrino can interact with a chlorine nucleus to form an argon nucleus
  • Only 1 out of 10²² passing neutrinos reacted, once every two days
  • 1/3 of expected neutrinos detected based on understanding of the proton-proton chain
  • Other experiments: Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (1,000 tons of heavy water) and Super-Kamiokande experiment in Japan (50,000 tons of water)