White dwarfs

Z Camelopardalis

White dwarfs

When a star reaches the end of its life and burns out the last of its nuclear fuel, it becomes unstable. What happens next depends how much mass the star has – it could explode and end up as a black hole or neutron star. But if the star has too little mass, theory predicts that it will slowly shed its outer layers and end its days as a white dwarf.

A white dwarf is a small, faintly lit object made of super dense stuff called degenerate matter. It is thought that most stars, including the Sun, will end their days as white dwarfs.

Image: Z Camelopardalis, a binary star system with a white dwarf and its companion star, surrounded by shells of ionised gas (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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Z Camelopardalis


Stars often end their days as 'degenerate matter'.

About White dwarfs

A white dwarf, also called a degenerate dwarf, is a stellar remnant composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter. They are very dense; a white dwarf's mass is comparable to that of the Sun, and its volume is comparable to that of the Earth. Its faint luminosity comes from the emission of stored thermal energy. The nearest known white dwarf is Sirius B, 8.6 light years away, the smaller component of the Sirius binary star. There are currently thought to be eight white dwarfs among the hundred star systems nearest the Sun. The unusual faintness of white dwarfs was first recognized in 1910 by Henry Norris Russell, Edward Charles Pickering, and Williamina Fleming;, p. 1 the name white dwarf was coined by Willem Luyten in 1922.

White dwarfs are thought to be the final evolutionary state of all stars whose mass is not high enough to become a neutron star (including our Sun)—over 97% of the stars in the Milky Way., §1. After the hydrogen–fusing lifetime of a main-sequence star of low or medium mass ends, it will expand to a red giant which fuses helium to carbon and oxygen in its core by the triple-alpha process. If a red giant has insufficient mass to generate the core temperatures required to fuse carbon, around 1 billion K, an inert mass of carbon and oxygen will build up at its center. After shedding its outer layers to form a planetary nebula, it will leave behind this core, which forms the remnant white dwarf. Usually, therefore, white dwarfs are composed of carbon and oxygen. If the mass of the progenitor is between 8 and 10.5 solar masses (M☉), the core temperature is sufficient to fuse carbon but not neon, in which case an oxygen-neon–magnesium white dwarf may be formed. Also, some helium white dwarfs appear to have been formed by mass loss in binary systems.

The material in a white dwarf no longer undergoes fusion reactions, so the star has no source of energy, nor is it supported by the heat generated by fusion against gravitational collapse. It is supported only by electron degeneracy pressure, causing it to be extremely dense. The physics of degeneracy yields a maximum mass for a non-rotating white dwarf, the Chandrasekhar limit—approximately 1.4 M☉—beyond which it cannot be supported by electron degeneracy pressure. A carbon-oxygen white dwarf that approaches this mass limit, typically by mass transfer from a companion star, may explode as a Type Ia supernova via a process known as carbon detonation. (SN 1006 is thought to be a famous example.)

A white dwarf is very hot when it is formed, but since it has no source of energy, it will gradually radiate away its energy and cool. This means that its radiation, which initially has a high color temperature, will lessen and redden with time. Over a very long time, a white dwarf will cool to temperatures at which it will no longer emit significant heat or light, and it will become a cold black dwarf. However, the length of time it takes for a white dwarf to reach this state is calculated to be longer than the current age of the universe (approximately 13.8 billion years), and since no white dwarf can be older than the age of the universe, it is thought that no black dwarfs yet exist. The oldest white dwarfs still radiate at temperatures of a few thousand kelvins.

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