Red Giants and White Dwarfs

The history of physics from ancient times to the modern day, focusing on space and time. Stars end their lives as white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes, depending on how massive they are. Most stars eject their atmosphere, becoming a red giant, and collapse into a small core. The atmosphere eventually floats away, in a planetary nebula, and the core becomes a planet-like white dwarf.

Last updated on 5th June 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. Stellar evolution

When stars run out of hydrogen to fuse in their cores, stars below about 10 times the mass of the Sun become white dwarfs. More massive stars will become supergiants, and then undergo a supernova, becoming either a neutron star or a black hole[1].

Diagram showing that the final fate of stars depends on their mass.

Stellar Evolution. Image credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss/Public domain.

2. Red giants

When the Sun runs out of hydrogen to fuse in its core, it will no longer produce enough nuclear energy to counterbalance the force of gravity, and so it will contract slightly. This will cause it to increase in temperature, and allow hydrogen fusion to begin in the shell around the helium core.

Fusion creates extra radiation pressure, and this will cause the Sun to expand. The outer layers of hydrogen will decrease in temperature, which will make them redder, and the Sun will then be a red giant. All main sequence stars that are about one fifth to 10 times the mass of the Sun will become red giants[2].

Diagram showing the evolution of a Sun-like star.

Diagram showing the evolution of a Sun-like star, from protostar to red giant. After this, the core will become a white dwarf, while the outer layers will form a planetary nebula. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/CC-A.

The helium core of a red giant is so dense that it becomes degenerate. This means that it's as dense as the Pauli exclusion principle allows, and won't be able to change in size as it changes in temperature.

It cannot expand and cool when it is heated by the hydrogen fusion in the shell around it, and eventually it gets so hot that the helium nuclei began to fuse into carbon via the triple alpha process. The carbon can then fuse with helium nuclei to become oxygen and neon.

In stars less than about 2.5 times the mass of the Sun, this process is known as a 'helium flash'[3]. This is because helium fusion occurs in a matter of minutes to hours. The energy released by the helium flash means that the star becomes so hot that it stops being degenerate, it can then expand and cool. These stars are sometimes called horizontal branch stars.

When all the helium has been fused into other elements, radiation pressure decreases, and the star contracts again under gravitation. Much higher temperatures are needed for carbon and oxygen fusion to begin, and so this only occurs in stars over about 10 times the mass of the Sun.

Stars less than about 10 times the mass of the Sun become asymptotic-giant branch stars - red giants with inert, degenerate carbon/oxygen cores, which are fusing helium in the shell around the core. This helium fusion causes the star to become unstable and the envelope is ejected as a planetary nebula.

If the remaining core is less than about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, then it becomes a white dwarf. If it is more than about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, then it becomes a neutron star or black hole.

Photograph of the Cat's Eye Nebula.

Planetary Nebula: Cat's Eye Nebula. Image credit: J.P. Harrington and K.J. Borkowski (University of Maryland) and NASA/ESA/CC-A.

Photograph of the Eskimo Nebula.

Planetary Nebula:
Eskimo Nebula.
Image credit: NASA/Andrew Fruchter (STScI)/Public domain.

Photograph of the Ring Nebula.

Planetary Nebula:
Ring Nebula.
Image credit: NASA/Hubble Heritage Team/Public domain.

2.1 The triple alpha process

Diagram of the triple alpha process.

Image credit: Borb/CC-SA.

Helium fuses into carbon via the triple alpha process. Here two helium nuclei (made of two protons and two neutrons) collide to produce a gamma ray, and a beryllium nucleus (made of four protons and four neutrons). This decays into a carbon nucleus (made of six protons and six neutrons), a helium nucleus, and a gamma ray.

If the carbon nucleus collides with another helium nucleus, it will produce an oxygen nucleus. Neon nuclei are formed if oxygen nuclei fuse with another helium nucleus.

3. White dwarfs

Over 97% of stars in the Galaxy will become white dwarfs[4]. White dwarfs are stars that have ceased nuclear fusion, but still emit light from stored thermal energy.

White dwarfs are extremely dense because they are no longer producing nuclear energy to counterbalance the force of gravity. They are prevented from collapsing completely due to electron degeneracy.

White dwarfs are about half as massive as the Sun, but are not much bigger than the Earth. They have a very thin hydrogen and helium atmosphere, and a crust that is about 50 km thick. It's thought that there's a crystalline lattice of carbon and oxygen below this[5].

Photograph of white dwarfs.

White dwarfs, image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)/Public domain.

Diagram showing that white dwarfs are typically not much larger than the Earth.

The size of the Earth and a white dwarf to scale. Image credit: modified by Helen Klus, original image by NASA/Public domain.

If a white dwarf is part of a binary system - and at least half of all stars are in binaries because stars are formed close to each other[6] - then the crust may be stripped away, exposing the core. This is what's happened to PSR J1719-1438 b, which is known as a diamond planet.

When a white dwarf stops producing light, it's known as a black dwarf. White dwarfs are expected to keep radiating for well over 14 billion years, however, and so the universe is not yet old enough to contain any.

If a white dwarf is part of a binary system, it may acquire mass from its companion. This extra mass increases the white dwarfs' temperature but, because it's degenerate, it can't expand and cool. It can get so hot that carbon and oxygen begin fusing extremely quickly, creating explosions on the surface. This may release so much energy that it explodes in a Type Ia supernova (also known as a thermal runaway supernova), and ejects its companion into space.

4. References

  1. Chandra, 'Supernovas and Supernova Remnants', last accessed 01-06-17.

  2. Laughlin, G., Bodenheimer, P. and Adams, F. C., 1997, 'The end of the main sequence', The Astrophysical Journal, 482, pp.420-432.

  3. Bappu, M. K. V. and Sahade, J., 2012, 'Wolf-Rayet and High-Temperature Stars', Springer Science & Business Media.

  4. Fontaine, G., Brassard, P. and Bergeron, P., 2001, 'The Potential of White Dwarf Cosmochronology', Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 113, pp.409-435.

  5. NASA: Imagine the Universe, 'White Dwarf Stars', last accessed 01-06-17.

  6. NASA, 'NASA Telescope Finds Planets Thrive Around Stellar Twins', last accessed 01-06-17.

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The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

The Star Garden covers the basics for KS3, KS4, and KS5 science revision including SATs, GCSE science, and A-level physics.

Space & Time

Pre 20th Century theories

1. History of Constellations

2. History of Latitude

3. History of Longitude

4. Models of the Universe

5. Force and Energy

6. Newton's theory of Gravity

7. Age of the Universe

20th Century discoveries

1. Special Relativity

2. General Relativity

3. Big Bang theory

4. History of Galaxies

5. Life Cycles of Stars

6. Red Giants and White Dwarfs

7. Neutron Stars and Black Holes

Missions to planets

1. The planet Mercury

2. The planet Venus

3. The planet Earth

3.1 The Earth's Moon

4. The planet Mars

4.1 The Asteroid Belt

5. The planet Jupiter

6. The planet Saturn

7. The planet Uranus

8. The planet Neptune

Beyond the planets

1. Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

2. Pioneer and Voyager

3. Discoveries of Exoplanets