- The hydrogen in the core is completed burned into helium nuclei.
Initially, the temperature in the core is not hot enough to ignite helium
burning. With no additional fuel in the core, fusion dies out. The core
cannot support itself and contracts; as it shrinks, it heats up. The
rising temperature in the core heats up a thin shell around the core until
the temperature reaches the point where hydrogen burning ignites in this
shell around the core. With the additional energy generation in the
H-burning shell, the outer layers of the star expand but their temperature
decreases as they get further away from the center of energy generation.
This large but cool star is now a red giant, with a surface
temperature of 3500 degrees and a radius of about 100 solar radii.
- The helium core contracts until its temperature reaches about 100
million degrees. At this point,
helium burning ignites, as helium is converted into carbon (C) and
oxygen (O). However, the core cannot expand as much as required to
compensate for the increased energy generation caused by the helium
burning. Because the expanion does not compensate, the temperature stays
very high, and the helium burning proceeds furiously. With no safety
valve, the helium fusion is uncontrolled and a large amount of energy is
suddenly produced. This helium flash occurs within a few hours
after helium fusion begins.
The core explodes, the core temperature falls and the core contracts
again, thereby heating up. When the helium burns now, however, the
reactions are more controlled because the explosion has lowered the
density enough. Helium nuclei fuse to form carbon, oxygen, etc..
- The star wanders around the red giant region, developing its distinct
layers, eventually forming a carbon-oxygen core.
- When the helium in the core is entirely converted into C, O, etc., the
core again contracts, and thus heats up again. In a star like the Sun, its
temperature never reaches the 600 million degrees required for carbon
burning. Instead, the outer layers of the star eventually become so cool
that nuclei capture electrons to form neutral atoms (rather than nuclei
and free electrons). When atoms are forming by capturing photons in this
way, they cause photons to be emitted; these photons then are readily
available for absorption by neighboring atoms and eventually this causes
the outer layers of the star to heat up. When they heat up, the outer
layers expand further and cool, forming more atoms, and releasing more
photons, leading to more expansion. In other words, this process feeds
- The outer envelope of the star blows off into space, exposing the hot,
compressed remnant core. This is a
planetary nebula .