White Dwarf

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A white dwarf is a small star composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter. A white dwarf is what stars like our Sun become after they have exhausted their nuclear fuel. Near the end of its nuclear burning stage, such a star expels most of its outer material, creating a planetary nebula. Only the hot core of the star remains. This core becomes a very hot (T > 100,000K) young white dwarf, which cools down over the course of the next billion years or so. White dwarfs are thought to be the final evolutionary state of all stars whose mass is not too high.

A typical white dwarf is half as massive as the Sun, yet only slightly bigger than the Earth. This makes white dwarfs one of the densest forms of matter, surpassed only by neutron stars. 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, 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.

Because a white dwarf's mass is comparable to that of the Sun and its volume is comparable to that of the Earth, it is very dense. Their faint luminosity comes from the emission of stored heat. They comprise roughly 6% of all known stars in the solar neighborhood. The unusual faintness of white dwarfs was first recognized in 1910 by Henry Norris Russell, Edward Charles Pickering and Williamina Fleming. The name white dwarf was coined by Willem Luyten in 1922.