top of page

Get Ready for the Fireworks!

The Fate of Massive Stars

As we celebrate our country’s independence this month with an all-out firework show, the universe puts on its own display through one of the most energetic cosmic events – a supernova! After millions of years of producing energy, there comes a time when that fuel runs out. For stars that are at least 8 times the mass of our Sun, their lives end with a bang. Let’s explore a bit to see a massive star’s final moments.

 

For millions of years, the star has been stable, balancing the inward force of gravity and the outward pressures with nuclear fusion within its core, a term called hydrostatic equilibrium. As the hydrogen decreases and the helium increases, the core is no longer hot enough to fuse the newly replaced helium, so fusion stops. Gravity begins to take over and compress the core until the optimal temperature is reached to start fusing helium into carbon. The process continues, and as new elements are formed, it creates layers around the collapsing core. Fusion stops at iron because it takes more energy to fuse the nuclei than to release it, thus officially running out of fuel.

 

Gravity’s merciless force takes over and squeezes the protons and electrons in the iron core to produce a ball of neutrons 12 miles wide in less than one second. With nothing supporting the other layers, they all come rushing towards the core in a fraction of a second. The moment of impact sends shockwaves throughout and causes the most massive explosion in the universe – a supernova.

In related news: Keep an eye out for a "new star" that will appear within the next couple of months in the Corona Borealis constellation. The white dwarf, T Coronae Borealis, is part of a binary star system and has been gathering matter from its red giant partner. Eventually, the small star will reach its limit and trigger an explosion, causing the star to shine as brightly as Polaris. After about a week, it will fade and begin the process all over again until the next explosion occurs in 80 years. This phenomenon is known as a nova and is a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

supernova.gif

Credit: Freeara

Element shells.jpg

Credit: Arny & Schneider

Fusion table.jpg

Credit: Arny & Schneider

References:

  • Arny, T. T., & Schneider, S. E. (2010). Explorations: An Introduction to Astronomy, Sixth Edition. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

  • Freeara (n.d.). Supernova Explosion. A Hitchhiker's Guide to Space & Plasma

Physics. https://spaceplasma.tumblr.com/post/74724944019/supernova-explosion-artists-impression-one-of

 

  • Pearson, E., & Lintott, C. (2024). T Coronae Borealis nova could become a 'new star' in the sky any day now, and will be as bright as

the North Star. BBC Sky at Night Magazine. https://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/space-science/t-coronae-borealis-nova

bottom of page