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Michael K. Rulison
Professor of Physics

Chapter 20: Stellar Evolution

Main Sequence Stars:
Recall the main regions of the HR Diagram (

Once a protostar starts burning hydrogen in its core, it quickly passes through the T-Tauri stage (in a
few million years) and becomes a main sequence star where its total mass determines all its structural
properties. The three divisions in a stellar interior are the nuclear burning core, convective zone and
radiative zone. Energy, in the form of gamma-rays, is generated solely in the nuclear burning core.
Energy is transfered towards the surface either in a radiative manner or convection depending on
which is more efficient at the temperatures, densities and opacities.

The interior of three stellar types are shown below. Note that an O star is about 15 larger than a G star,
and a M star is about 1/10 the size of a G star, this scale is shown below the interiors.


Notice how the nuclear burning regions takes up a larger percentage of the stellar interior as one goes
to low mass stars. High mass stars have a very small core surrounded by a large envelope. The energy
released from the stellar core heats the stellar interior producing the pressure that holds a star up.

If stars were like cars, then they would burn their core hydrogen until they ran out and the star would
fade out. But fusion converts hydrogen into helium. So the core does not become empty, it fills with
helium ash.


As the helium ash builds up, energy generation stops in the core. The fusion process moves outward
into a shell surrounding the hot helium core. Helium can also undergo fusion but, since it is a larger
atom, it requires over a 100 million degrees of temperature to overcome its electrostatic repulsion (the
helium nucleus has two protons, double the hydrogen nucleus). For small stars, this temperature is
never reached and the helium core remains inert.

Stars begin their lives as 74% hydrogen, 25% helium and 1% everything else on the periodic table (by
mass). Fusion has been ongoing in the core of the Sun for 5 billion years, and its core is now about 29%
hydrogen, 70% helium and 1% everything else. Fusion alters the chemical composition of stellar
Note that since the cores of stars are so large and massive, it takes anywhere from 100s of thousands to
billions of years to run out of hydrogen fuel. Clearly, stars that burn brightest, burn fastest and, thus,
have the shortest lifetimes.


Post-Main Sequence Evolutionary Tracks:

As the supply of hydrogen in the core begins to decrease, the fusion rate goes down, and the amount of
energy generated drops. From thermal equilibrium we know that the temperature will then begin to
drop and then the pressure will also decrease in the fusion core.

From hydrostatic equilibrium, we know that a drop in pressure means that the core region of the star
will contract slightly. This will cause the temperature to go up again, and the fusion rate, for the
remaining hydrogen in the core, jumps up (even though the core hydrogen is almost gone, a last gasp).
The sharp rise in temperature also starts a hydrogen burning shell around the core, a region that was
too cool (less than 15 million degrees) to substain fusion before. At this point, the hydrogen burning
shell becomes important as the sole source of energy in the dying star.

Once the hydrogen burning shell is created, the star makes a small jump off the main sequence in the
HR diagram. It becomes a little brighter and a little cooler. The drop in surface temperature is because
the envelope of the star expands a small amount, increasing the surface area. This increased surface
area also increases the luminosity of the star.

Once the last of the hydrogen is used up in the core of an aging main sequence star, fusion stops in the
core and the temperature drops and the core collapses. The collapsing core converts gravitational
energy (potential energy) into thermal energy (kinetic energy). This energy is directed into the
hydrogen burning shell, which expands to consume more fuel in the stars interior.

The hydrogen burning shell generates more energy than the core did (it has access to a much larger
volume of the stars mass) and the star increases sharply in luminosity and expands in size to become a
red giant. Even though the star is brighter, produces more energy, its pressure has increased such that
its surface area has become very large, and the surface temperature of the star drops into the K and M
spectral type regions. (HR Diagram (

To see a movie of core collapse (


This whole process takes several million years but, in the end, the main sequence star becomes either a
red supergiant or a red giant, depending on its initial mass. Notice that where and how fast a star
evolves is determined by its main sequence mass. Hot, massive O stars age quickly and become red
supergiants. Cooler, less massive G stars live for 10 billion years, then evolve into red giants.

Notice also that we do not see evolutionary tracks for stars less than 0.8 solar masses. This is because
the time for those types of stars to evolve into red giants is longer than the current age of the Universe
(about 15 billion years). So even if a star was born right at Creation, there has not been enough time for
a star with that low a mass to use up all its hydrogen fuel. In fact, we know the lower limit to the age of
the Universe by looking at the masses of red giants, to see what are the oldest stars.

Red Giant Evolution:

A stars evolution after the red giant phase depends on its mass. For stars greater than 1 solar mass, the
hydrogen burning shell eats its way outward leaving behind more helium ash. As the helium piles up,
the core becomes more massive and contracts. The contraction heats the core as it becomes more

The density of the core increases to the point where the electrons become degenerate. The core begins
to act more like a liquid than a gas, and it becomes incompressible and further contraction stops.


As the hydrogen shell continues burning, the degenerate core grows hotter and hotter without
expanding. Helium, being a larger nucleus than hydrogen, requires more kinetic energy to fuse, which
means higher temperatures. At 100 million degrees, helium can be converted to carbon through the
triple alpha process.


The energy released by the triple-alpha process continues to heat the core raising its temperature even
more. Again, under normal circumstances, the heating would increase the pressure and the core would
expand and cool. But, with the core being degenerate, the temperature goes up yet the core does not
expand. Higher temperatures means a faster triple-alpha rate, which means more energy, which means
higher temperatures, etc

When the temperature of the core reaches 300 million degrees, a nearly explosive consumption of the
helium takes place called the helium flash. During the very short helium flash (a few minutes), the star
emits more energy than 100 times the output of the whole Galaxy. However, this energy never reaches
the surface but instead goes into removing the degeneracy of the electrons and expanding the core.
(Helium flash (

For stars more than 2 solar masses, the triple-alpha process starts before the electrons become
degenerate. And, so, there is no helium flash, just a gradual shift to a core helium burning region
surrounded by a hydrogen burning shell.

Horizontal Branch Stars:

Horizontal Branch Stars:
After helium burning begins (either explosively with a flash, or gradually for heavier stars), the star
has two sources of energy, hydrogen fusion in a shell around the core and helium fusion in the core.
Helium burns into carbon, and carbon combines with helium to make oxygen. The core of the star
becomes rich in carbon and oxygen nuclei, and the stars surface temperature goes up to become a
horizontal branch star.


Stars with masses greater than or equal to the Sun become smaller and hotter at a constant luminosity.
They evolve to horizontal branch stars by moving across the HR diagram at constant brightness. Low
mass stars at about 10 solar luminosities, high mass stars (10 solar masses) at about 200 solar
luminosities. Notice that as they evolve, HB stars cross the instability strip. For a short time, high mass
stars will be Cepheid variables and low mass stars will be RR Lyrae stars.

Asymptotic Giant Branch Stars:

After existing as horizontal branch stars for a few million years, the helium in the core of the star is
exhausted (now being mostly carbon and oxygen nuclei) and a helium burning shell will develop
underneath the hydrogen burning shell. The electrons in the core again become degenerate and the
star expands and cools to become an asymptotic giant branch star.


Most of the energy is coming from the hydrogen burning shell, the helium burning shell is small at this
time. However, the hydrogen shell is dumping helium ash onto the helium shell. After some time,
enough helium is built up so that the helium shell undergoes an explosive event called a thermal pulse.

The thermal pulse is barely noticed at the surface of the star, but serves to increase the mass of the
carbon/oxygen core, so that the size and luminosity of the star gradually increases with time. As the
star climbs the asymptotic giant branch, a wind develops in the stars envelope which blows the outer
layers into space. It is in this wind that dust particles (important for interstellar clouds and proto-solar
systems) are formed.



During this time, a thick dust shell blocks the visible light from the star such that even though it is
10,000 times brighter than the Sun, it is only seen in the IR.

To summarize the evolution of a stellar core, the following figure shows the changes in a high mass star
over time.



The stellar wind causes mass loss for AGB stars less than 8 solar masses. This loss is around 10-4 solar
masses per year, which means that in 10,000 years the star will dissolve, leaving the central, hot core
(the central star in a planetary nebula). If the star is larger than 8 solar masses, then the core continues
to heat. Carbon and oxygen fuse to form neon, then magnesium, then silicon. All forming into burning
shells surrounding an iron ash core.

Planetary Nebula


Iron is unusual in that it is extremely stable and resistant to fusion. The temperature of an iron core
can reach 3 billion degrees. When the iron core reaches a critical mass, it collapses, violently, into a
supernova explosion.

Planetary Nebula Phase:

As an asymptotic giant branch star becomes larger and more luminous, the rate at which is loses mass
also increases. For stars less than 8 solar masses, a strong stellar wind develops and the outer layers of
the star are removed to expose the hot degenerate core. As the gas is expelled and the core is visible,
the color of the star becomes much bluer and moves to the left in the HR diagram at constant


Only a few thousand years are needed for the temperature of a star to grow to 30,000K. At this
temperature, the star begins to emit large quantities of UV radiation. This UV radiation is capable of
ionizing the hydrogen shell of matter that escaped from the star during the AGB phase. This shell of
ionized hydrogen glows deep red as a planetary nebula. In the center of the planetary nebula is the
remnant core.

Stars above 20 to 25 solar masses end their time as AGB stars by becoming supernovae.

White Dwarfs:
Our knowledge of white dwarfs began in 1850 with the discovery of a companion to Sirius, called Sirius
B. It was 10,000 times fainter than Sirius A, however its mass was 0.98 solar masses. Since its
temperature was measured to be 10,000K, its small mass and faint luminosity did not make sense in the
context of the mass-luminosity relation for stars.

The only way it could be both hot and faint was for Sirius B to be very, very small, and so they were
called white dwarf stars. White dwarf stars are much smaller than normal stars, such that a white
dwarf of the mass of the Sun is only slightly larger than the Earth.


It was soon realized that the gas inside a white dwarf was too dense to behave as an ideal gas and,
instead, was degenerate. For normal stars, if you increase the mass, the star gets larger, its radius
increases. However, for white dwarfs, the opposite is true, increasing the mass shrinks the star. Notice
that at some mass the radius of the star goes to zero.

The size of a star is a balance between pressure and gravity. Gravity pulls the outer layers of the star
inward. Pressure pushes those layers upward. In a degenerate gas, increasing the density does not
increase the pressure (opposite to a normal gas). But increased density does increase gravity. So, as you
add mass to a white dwarf, the gravity increases, but the pressure only changes a small amount.
Gravity wins and the star shrinks.

Notice that the mass-radius relation for white dwarfs means you cannot keep adding mass to a star, for
eventually its radius goes to zero. This also means the massive stars (with masses greater than 1.4 solar
masses) must shed most of their mass as planetary nebula or the final contraction to a white dwarf
cannot be stopped by the degenerate electrons. If the mass can not be shed they will become neutron
stars or black holes.

Evolution of White Dwarfs:

White dwarfs are quite common, being found in binary systems and in clusters. Since they are
remnants of stars born in the past, their numbers build up in the Galaxy over time. It is only because
they are so faint that we fail to detect any except for the very closest ones.



Once a white dwarfs contracts to its final size, it no longer has any nuclear fuel available to burn.
However, a white dwarf is still very hot from its past as the core of a star. So, as time passes, the white
dwarf cools by radiating its energy outward. Notice that higher mass white dwarfs are small in size,
and therefore radiate energy slower than larger, small mass white dwarfs.

Radiative cooling is one way for a white dwarf to cool, another way is neutrino cooling. At very high
temperatures, around 30 million degrees K, gamma-rays can pass near electrons and produce a pair of
neutrinos. The neutrinos immediately escape from the white dwarf (because they interact very weakly
with matter) removing energy.

On the other hand, as a white dwarf cools, the ions can arrange themselves in a organized lattice
structure when their temperature falls below a certain point. This is called crystallization and will
release energy that delays the cooling time up to 30%.

The cooling process is very slow for white dwarfs. After a billion years the typical white dwarf is down
to 0.001 the luminosity of the Sun. But the end result is unstoppable as the white dwarf will eventually
give up all its energy and become a solid, crystal black dwarf.

Once a decade, on average, we observe a new star in the heavens. These stars, named nova from the
Latin word for new, are visible only for a few weeks, then fade from view. Comparing before and after
images of that region of the sky demonstrates that novae are old stars that dramatically increase in
brightness, such as Nova Herculis shown below:


The change is brightness is typically a factor of 106 (whereas a supernova is 108, a different object all
together). The light curves for a nova look like the following:

There are many reasons why a star might increase in brightness in a sudden and explosive-like
manner; the collision of two stars, core changes, unstable pulsations. However, novae are often
recurrent, meaning that after 50 to 100 years the nova will go off again. This means that whatever
causes the brightness changes must be cyclic (i.e. it doesnt destroy the star).

The best explanation for novae is surface fusion on a white dwarf. By definition, white dwarfs no
longer have any hydrogen to burn in a fusion reaction. They have used all their hydrogen at earlier
phases of their life cycle. However, a white dwarf in a binary system can steal extra hydrogen from its
companion by tidal stripping.

A binary system with a normal main sequence star and an old white dwarf will look like the following:



Eventually the main sequence star will evolve to become a red giant star.



As the red giant star continues to expand it will exceed its Roche limit and hydrogen gas will stream
across to the white dwarf, spiraling inward to form an accretion disk.


Hydrogen gas will build up on the surface of the white dwarf where the surface gravity is extremely
high. After a few decades, the pressure and density of the hydrogen outer shell will reach the point
where fusion can begin and the shell explodes in a burst of energy.



After the shell is fused, the process starts over again, thus explaining why we see recurrent novae.
Observations of old novae, several years after the event, demonstrates our theory is correct with the
discovery of expanding shells of gas around DQ Her and GK Per. These shells are moving away from
the binary at about 1,000 km/sec.

( (
web-lecture-notes/chapter-20-stellar- web-lecture-notes/chapter-20-stellar-
evolution/dqher/) evolution/gkper_sao3b/)
DQ Her GK Per

We will see a similar scenario around binaries where one of the pair is a neutron star. Since the
pressures on the infalling gas are so much higher, most of the energy is released in the x-ray, called an
x-ray burster.

Because most stars evolve to white dwarfs, novae are relatively common in the Galaxy. About 200 have
been discovered in the last few 100 years.

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