Thursday, June 7, 2012

Cosmic carbon factories

The triple-alpha steps is strongly dependent on the temperature and density of the stellar material. The energy released by the reaction is approximately proportional to the temperature to the 40th power, and the density squared. Contrast this to the proton-proton chain which produces energy at a rate proportional to the fourth power of temperature and directly with density.

This strong temperature dependence has consequences for the late stage of stellar evolution, the red giant stage.

For lower mass stars, the helium accumulating in the core is prevented from further collapse only by electron degeneracy pressure. The pressure in the core is thus nearly independent of temperature. A consequence of this is that once a smaller star begins burning using the triple-alpha process, the core does not expand and cool in response; the temperature can only increase, which results in the reaction rate increasing further still and becoming a runaway reaction.

This process, known as the helium flash, lasts a matter of seconds but burns 60–80% of the helium in the core. In the core flash prodigious quantities of energy are produced, allowing the star to reach approximately 1011 solar luminosities which is comparable to a whole galaxy, although no effects will be immediately visible at the star's surface.

For higher mass stars, the helium burning occurs in a shell surrounding a degenerate carbon core. Since the helium shell is not degenerate, the increased thermal pressure due to energy released by helium burning causes the star to expand. The expansion cools the helium layer and shuts off the reaction, and the star contracts again. This cyclical process causes the star to become strongly variable, and results in it blowing off material from its outer layers.

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