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The Life Cycle of a Star

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The Life Cycle of a Star

You may well have heard someone say that "we are all made of stardust" - but did you know this is actually true? Many of the elements our bodies contain can only be produced in a supernova, which is an enormous explosion some stars will produce when they die. These elements are scattered across the universe by these explosions, and some eventually end up being a part of you. Other stars may not die in a supernova but might instead turn into dwarf stars. This article explains the various life cycles a star could have, and what determines how a star will behave.

What is a star?

Stars are large celestial bodies that mainly consist of hydrogen and helium, the two lightest elements. They can have different sizes and temperatures and produce energy through continuous nuclear fusion reactions occurring in their core. We benefit from the energy released by our local star, the sun, as it heats and illuminates the earth. Stars are formed in a nebula and go through different stages in their life cycle depending on their mass. These stages will be explained in more detail below.

The life cycle of stars summary

The life cycle of a star is the sequence of events that takes place in the life of a star from its formation to its end. The life cycle of stars depends on their mass. All stars, regardless of their mass, are formed and behave similarly until they reach their main sequence stage. The initial three stages that occur for a star to enter its main sequence are described below.

The step-by-step life cycle of a star

We will now describe the stages of a star's formation in detail.

Stage 1: Formation of a star

A star is formed from a nebula, which is a huge cloud of interstellar dust and a mixture of gases, mostly comprising hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe). The nebula is so vast that the weight of the dust and gases start to cause the nebula to contract under its own gravity.

The life cycle of a star Carina nebula StudySmarterThe Carina nebula is visible in a remote location in the southern sky near Indonesia. It is approximately 8,500 light-years from earth.

Stage 2: Protostar

Gravity pulls the dust and gas particles together to form clusters in the nebula, which results in particles gaining kinetic energy and colliding with each other. This process is known as accretion. The kinetic energy of the gas and dust particles increases the temperature of matter in the nebula clusters to millions of degrees Celsius. This forms a protostar, an infant star.

The life cycle of a star Hubble image of a protostar in chamaeleon constellation StudySmarter

This image from the Hubble space telescope shows a protostar forming in the reflection nebula IC 2631, located in the southern Chamaeleon constellation. The protostar shines much more brightly than the surrounding nebula, as it is much hotter due to the accretion.

Stage 3: Main sequence of a star

Once a protostar has reached a high enough temperature through accretion, nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium begins in its core. This main sequence begins once the temperature of the protostar core reaches around 15 million degrees Celsius. The nuclear fusion reactions release energy which produces heat and light, maintaining the core temperature so the fusion reaction is self-sustaining.

The nuclear fusion reaction in a star's core fuses two hydrogen isotopes to form helium and large amounts of energy in the form of neutrino radiation.

Experimental nuclear fusion reactors are being developed by scientists to try and replicate this process on earth as a source of clean energy!

During the main sequence stage, an equilibrium is achieved in the star. The outward force created from the expanding pressure due to nuclear reactions is balanced wi the inward gravitational force trying to collapse the star under its own mass. This is the most stable stage in a star's life cycle, as the star reaches a constant size where the outward pressure balances the gravitational contraction.

If the protostar mass is not large enough, it never gets hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur - therefore the star does not emit light or heat and forms what we call a brown dwarf, which is a substellar object.

A substellar object is an astronomical object that is not large enough to sustain the nuclear fusion of hydrogen.

A star spends the majority of its lifespan in the main sequence, ranging from millions to billions of years depending on the mass of the star.

Final stages of stars

All stars follow a similar initial lifecycle, however, a star's behaviour following the main sequence is highly dependent on its mass. At GCSE level, we consider two general mass categories of stars; sun-like stars and massive stars. To categorise the masses of stars they are often measured in terms of the mass of our Sun.

  • If the mass of a star is at least 8 to 10 times the mass of the Sun, the star is considered to be a massive star.

  • If the mass of a star is more similar to the size of the Sun, the star is considered to be a sun-like star.

Stars with larger masses are much hotter, appearing brighter in the sky - however, they also burn through their hydrogen fuel much faster, meaning their lifespans are much shorter than average stars. Because of this, large hot stars are also the rarest.

The colour of a star is determined by its temperature. High-temperature stars will appear blue, and low-temperature stars will appear more red. The Sun has a surface temperature of 5,500 degrees Celcius, hence it appears yellow.

Low-mass stars

After several billion years of main sequence behaviour, low-mass, sun-like stars use up the majority of the hydrogen supply in their cores and the nuclear fusion to helium stops. However, the star still contains lots of hydrogen in its outer layers, and fusion begins to occur here instead - heating up the star and expanding it significantly. As the star expands it forms a red giant. At this point, other nuclear fusion reactions begin to occur in the core which fuse the helium into heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen - however, these reactions produce less energy and the star begins to cool.

As the rate of fusion reaction eventually slows to a stop and the temperature decreases, gravity once again becomes the dominant force and the red giant may collapse in on itself to form a white dwarf. The temperature of a white dwarf is significantly lower, in the region of hundreds of thousands of degrees. At this point, the star's life is over and the white dwarf continues to cool down until eventually it no longer emits heat or light and is known as a black dwarf. The flow diagram shown below illustrates the life cycle of a sun-like star on the left side.

The time required for a white dwarf to cool enough to become a black dwarf is estimated to be longer than the current calculated age of the universe. Therefore, scientists predict black dwarfs cannot exist in the universe yet.

Massive stars

Large stars also expand when the hydrogen supply in their core runs out and fusion reactions occur in the outer layers of the star. The heaviest element that can be produced in the main sequence stage of a star is iron, as fusion reactions combining energy heavier than iron no longer release energy. A massive star will expand into a red supergiant, which is the largest type of star we know of. As massive stars burn their hydrogen fuel much more quickly, the red supergiant will collapse rapidly when it eventually runs out of fuel.

The extreme temperatures and pressures created by the rapid collapse cause a massive explosion of the outer layers of the star. This explosion has the conditions for fusion reactions to produce elements even heavier elements than iron, such as gold. This cosmic explosion is known as a supernova.

Planet earth (and your body!) contain elements that are heavier than Iron. This indicates that Earth was formed from the elements created during the supernova of another star.

The supernova ejects its outer layers, scattering the elements produced into space and forming a new cloud of gases which will eventually collapse and form new stars and planets. The dense core of the star remains and can form different objects depending on its mass. If the surviving core of the star is around 3 solar masses, it will contract due to gravity and form an incredibly dense core comprised of neutrons known as a Neutron star.

The life cycle of a star Neutron star illustration StudySmarter Illustration of a Neutron star.

If the surviving core is greater than three solar masses, it will also collapse due to gravity into a very small point of infinite density forming a black hole. The gravitational pull of a black hole is so powerful that not even light can escape its pull.

The Life cycle of a star Image of a black hole StudySmarterThe first picture taken of a black hole, the supermassive black hole in galaxy Messier 87.

The life cycle of stars diagram

The life cycle of a star Flow diagram showing the life cycle of stars, Low mass stars sequence on the left, Massive stars sequence on the right  StudySmarter

Flow diagram showing the life cycle of stars. [Left] Sun-stars sequence. [Right] Massive stars sequence. StudySmarter Originals.

The Life Cycle of a Star - Key takeaways

  • Stars have different sizes, which determine how their life cycle progresses.
  • Stars are born in a nebula and die when they run out of fuel to supply nuclear reactions in the core strong enough to balance their own gravity.
  • Low mass stars evolve into red giants and high mass stars evolve into red supergiant.
  • Red giants eventually cool to become black dwarfs over incredibly long amounts of time.
  • Red super giants eventually explode in a supernova and become either neutron stars or black holes.
  • Elements from helium to iron are produced by the fusion reactions that occur in stars.
  • Elements heavier than iron are only produced in supernovas.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Life Cycle of a Star

The life cycle of a star is the sequence of events that takes place in the life of a star from its birth to its ending. We can usually predict how a star's life cycle will progress from its mass.

The 7 stages of the life cycle of a high-mass star are as follows: Formation, Protostar, Main sequence star, red super giant, supernova, and finally a neutron star or black hole.

The common four stages in a life cycle of a star include:

  1. The protostar formation in a nebula 
  2. Protostar accretion and heating
  3. Main sequence stage
  4. Expansion into a red giant.

Following this, the mass of the star determines if it will die as a dwarf star or explode in a supernova.

The mass of a star is the main factor in determining how its life cycle will progress. More massive stars burn faster and hotter, while smaller stars burn cooler for much longer.

The life cycles of stars of different masses diverge after their expansion into a red giant: a high mass star will result in a supernova once its fuel runs out, whereas a low mass star will cool off and become a dwarf star once the fuel runs out.

Final The Life Cycle of a Star Quiz

Question

What is the life cycle of a star? 

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Answer

The life cycle of a star is the sequence of events that take place in the life of a star from its birth to its end

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Question

Which of the following is the main factor which determines the life cycle of a star? 

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Answer

Mass

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Which of the following is valid?

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Answer

The larger the mass of a star the shorter its life cycle.

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Question

How long does the main sequence of a low mass star last? 

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Answer

Several billion years 

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How long does the main sequence of a large mass star last?  

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Answer

In the order of millions of years. Lower mass stars burn more slowly, and have a main sequence that lasts several billion years - like our sun for example.

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Question

Are black dwarfs visible with telescopes? 

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Answer

No, as black dwarfs cannot exist in the universe yet as the time needed for a star to become a black dwarf is longer then the current age of the universe. Even when they do eventually exist, black dwarfs do not emit light so would not be visible to the eye through a telescope.

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Question

What is a nebula? 

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Answer

Nebulae are massive clouds containing dust and gases (primarily hydrogen) that facilitate the formation of stars.

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What is a protostar? 

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Answer

A protostar is a dense body of gas which forms in a nebula due to the gas and dust contracting under its own gravity, a process known as accretion. Over time accretion raises the temperature of the protostar until it becomes hot enough to sustain nuclear fusion reactions in its core.

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Question

What is accretion? 

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Answer

Accretion is the accumulation of distributed matter into a larger body due to the influence of gravity. Accretion results in the growing body becoming more massive and hotter.

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Question

At what temperature does nuclear fusion in the core of a star typically begin ? 

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Answer

Around 15 million degrees Celsius.

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Question

What is a brown dwarf?

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Answer

It is an object formed by a protostar which does not have enough mass to sustain nuclear fusion and can not emit heat or light. 

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Question

What are the final stages of a low mass star's life after its main sequence? 

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Answer

A low mass star becomes a red giant after its main sequence stage,  then becomes a white dwarf and finally cools into a black dwarf.

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Question

What are the final stages of a high mass star's life after its main sequence?  

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Answer

A massive star grows into a red super giant after its main sequence, then explodes in a supernova. The surviving core of the star either becomes a neutron star, or if the mass of the remaining core is large enough it becomes a black hole.

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Question

What is the evidence that earth was formed from the remnants of a supernova? 

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Answer

Earth contains many elements heavier than iron, which can only be formed in a supernova as the fusion reactions that produce them no longer produce more energy than they consume. This indicates that matter in the earth was initially created in a supernova.

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