(This column was written by my colleague Elizabeth Tasker, now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS). Trained as an astrophysicist, she researches planet and galaxy formation and also writes on space science topics. Her book, “The Planet Factory,” came out last year.)
June 30th has been designated “Asteroid Day” to promote awareness of these small members of our solar system. But while asteroids are often discussed in the context of the risk they might pose to the Earth, their chewed up remains around other stars may also reveal the fate of our solar system.
It is 6.5 billion years into our future. The sun has fused hydrogen into a core of heavier helium. Compressed by its own gravity, the helium core releases heat and the sun begins to swell. It is the end of our star’s life, but what will happen to the solar system?
While very massive stars end their element-fusing days in a colossal explosion known as a supernovae, the majority of stars in our galaxy will take a less dramatic exit.
Our sun’s helium core will fuse to form carbon but there is not enough mass to achieve the crushing compression needed for the creation of heavier elements. Instead, the outer layers of the dying star will be blown away to leave a dense remnant with half the mass of our current sun, but squeezed down to the size of the Earth. This is a white dwarf; the most common of all stellar ends.
The white dwarf rapidly cools to become a dim twinkle in the sky. Within a few million years, our white dwarf will be less luminous that the sun today. Within 100 million years, it will be dimmer by a factor of 100. But examination of white dwarfs in our galaxy reveals this gentle dimming of the lights is not as peaceful as first appears.
The remnants of stars too light to fuse carbon, white dwarfs have atmospheres that should be thin shells of residue hydrogen and helium. Instead, observations have detected 20 different heavy elements in this envelope of gases that include rock-forming elements such as silicon and iron and volatiles such as carbon and nitrogen.