The lives of stars are dominated by their battle against the
tendency to collapse under gravity. In a main-sequence star,
the internal pressure is high enough to balance gravity completely
and the centre of the star is hot enough for nuclear
reactions to provide a source of energy to balance the steady leakage of
energy from the star by radiation from the surface.
When all of the hydrogen in the core has been burned, the nuclear
reactions cease and the star must find an alternative source of energy
to balance the surface luminosity. In some stars, it may be possible
for a shell around the core to continue burning hydrogen, and in other
stars the only available energy source is gravitational potential
energy, which the star (or its core) draws upon by beginning to
contract. The central temperature eventually increases to the point at
which helium begins to burn, providing a new energy source and a new
equilibrium, which lasts until the helium is exhausted. Further
nuclear fuels are only available to the highest-mass stars, which can
go on to burn carbon and heavier elements.
In what follows, we will take a qualitative look at the lives of stars
of all masses, dividing the discussion
between low-mass stars, which we
will define as all stars with
and higher-mass stars. We
will then describe the endpoints of stellar evolution -
white dwarfs, neutron
stars and black holes.
Finally, we will look at how the
lives of stars are modified if they are members of a
close binary system.
©Vik Dhillon, 10th December 2013