Monday, 25 March, 2019

Thousands of stars, including the sun, could turn into huge crystals

White dwarf star in the process of solidifying White dwarf star in the process of solidifying. Credit Dr Mark A. Garlick
Sandra Phillips | 11 January, 2019, 21:13

Researchers at the University of Warwick detected stellar cores of solid oxygen and carbon, evidence of a phase change at the end of the stellar lifecycle.

"This is the first direct evidence that white dwarfs crystallize, or transition from liquid to solid", Pier-Emmanuel Tremblay, an astrophysicist at Warwick, said in a news release.

And there are billions of similar sparkling crystal spheres in the Milky Way alone.

"All white dwarfs will crystallize at some point in their evolution", Tremblay said in a media release. Therefore, gaining a greater understanding of how crystallization can stave off the cooling process, essentially making the stars appear younger than they really are, would help astronomers improve the accuracy of the white dwarf dating technique. "It was predicted fifty years ago that we should observe a pile-up in the number of white dwarfs at certain luminosities and colors due to crystallization and only now this has been observed".

"Before Gaia we had 100-200 white dwarfs with precise distances and luminosities - and now we have 200,000", Tremblay said, giving the satellite the bulk of the credit for the research team's discovery. The most massive stars collapse abruptly once they have burned through their fuel, triggering a supernova explosion or gamma-ray burst, and leaving behind a neutron star or black hole. "Using modelling, we infer that this pile-up arises from the release of latent heat as the cores of the white dwarfs crystallize", the researchers wrote in their study which was published on January 9. These observations mean that they are potentially billions of years older than astronomers previously thought. Then its core will shrink and the rest of the star will puff up into a relatively short-lived red giant phase which will last about 500 million to a billion years before it contracts once again.

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They distinguished a heap up, an excess in the number of stars at explicit colors and luminosities that don't compare to any single mass or age. And while they initially radiate enough heat that we can see them in our telescopes, they slowly lose their energy over billions of years.

If the stars did not crystallise they would cool at a steady rate, going from blue to orange to red and losing brightness along a smooth slope.

But just as the water in your freezer continues to cool after it releases all its latent energy, white dwarfs eventually resume their cooling as well.

"All white dwarfs [like our Sun] will crystallize at some point in their evolution, although more massive white dwarfs go through the process sooner".

The Sun still has about five billion years before it becomes a white dwarf, and the astronomers estimate that it will take another five billion years after that to eventually cool down to a crystal sphere. "The Sun itself will become a crystal white dwarf in about 10 billion years".

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