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Cosmic recycling

The loss of mass by dying stars is a key step in the gigantic cosmic recycling scheme we discussed in Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space . Remember that stars form from vast clouds of gas and dust. As they end their lives, stars return part of their gas to the galactic reservoirs of raw material. Eventually, some of the expelled material from aging stars will participate in the formation of new star systems.

However, the atoms returned to the Galaxy by an aging star are not necessarily the same ones it received initially. The star, after all, has fused hydrogen and helium to form new elements over the course of its life. And during the red-giant stage, material from the star’s central regions is dredged up and mixed with its outer layers, which can cause further nuclear reactions and the creation of still more new elements. As a result, the winds that blow outward from such stars include atoms that were “newly minted” inside the stars’ cores. (As we will see, this mechanism is even more effective for high-mass stars, but it does work for stars with masses like that of the Sun.) In this way, the raw material of the Galaxy is not only resupplied but also receives infusions of new elements. You might say this cosmic recycling plan allows the universe to get more “interesting” all the time.

The red giant sun and the fate of earth

How will the evolution of the Sun affect conditions on Earth in the future? Although the Sun has appeared reasonably steady in size and luminosity over recorded human history, that brief span means nothing compared with the timescales we have been discussing. Let’s examine the long-term prospects for our planet.

The Sun took its place on the zero-age main sequence approximately 4.5 billion years ago. At that time, it emitted only about 70% of the energy that it radiates today. One might expect that Earth would have been a lot colder than it is now, with the oceans frozen solid. But if this were the case, it would be hard to explain why simple life forms existed when Earth was less than a billion years old. Scientists now think that the explanation may be that much more carbon dioxide was present in Earth’s atmosphere when it was young, and that a much stronger greenhouse effect kept Earth warm. (In the greenhouse effect, gases like carbon dioxide or water vapor allow the Sun’s light to come in but do not allow the infrared radiation from the ground to escape back into space, so the temperature near Earth’s surface increases.)

Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has steadily declined as the Sun has increased in luminosity. As the brighter Sun increases the temperature of Earth, rocks weather faster and react with carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere. The warmer Sun and the weaker greenhouse effect have kept Earth at a nearly constant temperature for most of its life. This remarkable coincidence, which has resulted in fairly stable climatic conditions, has been the key in the development of complex life-forms on our planet.

As a result of changes caused by the buildup of helium in its core, the Sun will continue to increase in luminosity as it grows older, and more and more radiation will reach Earth. For a while, the amount of carbon dioxide will continue to decrease. (Note that this effect counteracts increases in carbon dioxide from human activities, but on a much-too-slow timescale to undo the changes in climate that are likely to occur in the next 100 years.)

Eventually, the heating of Earth will melt the polar caps and increase the evaporation of the oceans. Water vapor is also an efficient greenhouse gas and will more than compensate for the decrease in carbon dioxide. Sooner or later (atmospheric models are not yet good enough to say exactly when, but estimates range from 500 million to 2 billion years), the increased water vapor will cause a runaway greenhouse effect.

About 1 billion years from now, Earth will lose its water vapor. In the upper atmosphere, sunlight will break down water vapor into hydrogen, and the fast-moving hydrogen atoms will escape into outer space. Like Humpty Dumpty, the water molecules cannot be put back together again. Earth will start to resemble the Venus of today, and temperatures will become much too high for life as we know it.

All of this will happen before the Sun even becomes a red giant. Then the bad news really starts. The Sun, as it expands, will swallow Mercury and Venus, and friction with our star’s outer atmosphere will make these planets spiral inward until they are completely vaporized. It is not completely clear whether Earth will escape a similar fate. As described in this chapter, the Sun will lose some of its mass as it becomes a red giant. The gravitational pull of the Sun decreases when it loses mass. The result would be that the diameter of Earth’s orbit would increase (remember Kepler’s third law). However, recent calculations also show that forces due to the tides raised on the Sun by Earth will act in the opposite direction, causing Earth’s orbit to shrink. Thus, many astrophysicists conclude that Earth will be vaporized along with Mercury and Venus. Whether or not this dire prediction is true, there is little doubt that all life on Earth will surely be incinerated. But don’t lose any sleep over this—we are talking about events that will occur billions of years from now.

What then are the prospects for preserving Earth life as we know it? The first strategy you might think of would be to move humanity to a more distant and cooler planet. However, calculations indicate that there are long periods of time (several hundred million years) when no planet is habitable. For example, Earth becomes far too warm for life long before Mars warms up enough.

A better alternative may be to move the entire Earth progressively farther from the Sun. The idea is to use gravity in the same way NASA has used it to send spacecraft to distant planets. When a spacecraft flies near a planet, the planet’s motion can be used to speed up the spacecraft, slow it down, or redirect it. Calculations show that if we were to redirect an asteroid so that it follows just the right orbit between Earth and Jupiter, it could transfer orbital energy from Jupiter to Earth and move Earth slowly outward, pulling us away from the expanding Sun on each flyby. Since we have hundreds of millions of years to change Earth’s orbit, the effect of each flyby need not be large. (Of course, the people directing the asteroid had better get the orbit exactly right and not cause the asteroid to hit Earth.)

It may seem crazy to think about projects to move an entire planet to a different orbit. But remember that we are talking about the distant future. If, by some miracle, human beings are able to get along for all that time and don’t blow ourselves to bits, our technology is likely to be far more sophisticated than it is today. It may also be that if humans survive for hundreds of millions of years, we may spread to planets or habitats around other stars. Indeed, Earth, by then, might be a museum world to which youngsters from other planets return to learn about the origin of our species. It is also possible that evolution will by then have changed us in ways that allow us to survive in very different environments. Wouldn’t it be exciting to see how the story of the story of the human race turns out after all those billions of years?

Key concepts and summary

After stars become red giants, their cores eventually become hot enough to produce energy by fusing helium to form carbon (and sometimes a bit of oxygen.) The fusion of three helium nuclei produces carbon through the triple-alpha process. The rapid onset of helium fusion in the core of a low-mass star is called the helium flash. After this, the star becomes stable and reduces its luminosity and size briefly. In stars with masses about twice the mass of the Sun or less, fusion stops after the helium in the core has been exhausted. Fusion of hydrogen and helium in shells around the contracting core makes the star a bright red giant again, but only temporarily. When the star is a red giant, it can shed its outer layers and thereby expose hot inner layers. Planetary nebulae (which have nothing to do with planets) are shells of gas ejected by such stars, set glowing by the ultraviolet radiation of the dying central star.

Questions & Answers

waad mahad santnihiin dhamaan waxaan doonayaa inaan wax ka barto astronomyga waa maxay xidigis?
Abdicaroog Reply
understanding astronomy
ricardo Reply
What About Understanding Astronomy?
Adam
yap
Janmarc
what is astronomy?
Janmarc
define..
Janmarc
Currently, I'm studying in 10th grade. What should I do after my 10th so that I can get an astronomy career?
Chaya Reply
try jee exam and achieve a good score in jee advance to join in IIST(Space research institute)
Sri
okay.. thanks
Chaya
this famous person was the first to recognise earthshine on the moin
Rajan Reply
Leonardo Da Vinci.....
Adam
what is string theory?
sakshi Reply
A Cosmological Theory Based On The Exsistence Of Cosmic Vibrating Strings.....
Adam
Does MIT have good astrophysics courses ?
priyanshu Reply
Probably The Best In The United States.....
Adam
But Don't Get Caught Up On Who's The Best, You Can Be The Next Noble Winning Astrophysicist.....
Adam
hmmm..........that's nice one....Adam had said.....
Gospel
How did ASTRONOMY helped you understand yourself ? 🤔
Hussain Reply
why do you want to study ASTRONOMY?
Hussain Reply
It is one of the natural sciences and therefore worth exploring. You are a part of the universe and it is a part of you. The sky is my classroom. (student of cosmology, Oxford Uni)
SuperNova
because everything in the space is just beautiful...interesting and worth studying and exploring...
Memo
I have been studying astrophysics an love it
Carla
I love to learn what makes up our lives an heavens an how it works there us so much more out there than books an our veiw of thw heavens can reveal
Carla
How did ASTRONOMY helped you understand yourself ?
Hussain
Because it proves the impossibles and the limitless.
Dark
It helped me realize that there are like countless possibilities in life and get all through it.
Dark
It honestly showed me to view the world in a balanced way. Because space beautiful and calm yet violent, and so is the world, and we should still help, but there will always be violent people much like violent astrophysical jets.
Da
What does ASTRONOMY means?
Hussain
Does anyone know where can I study astronomy in Spain? My budget is too low for traveling out there...
Valerian Reply
How long the duration was when the laws of physics became active after the big bang?And why the time is called plank's time?
Mostak Reply
how many galaxies in universe?
Shaikh Reply
10 to the power 11
Wwe
testing
Ahmad
thnx
Shaikh
if u can count all the sands on the beaches and on the deserts then u will know how much it will be.......some said more than 1,000,000,000 galaxies are there in our universe...
Gospel
it's ok bro
Wwe
I hope you will become a member of nasa
Wwe
just new in this area, from art background not science
Ahmad
what's ur name wwe
Shaikh
The Observable Universe Contains Between 200 Billion To 2 Trillion Galaxies.....
Adam
are u sure?
Caleb
It actually hasn't been proven, people have just made estimations.
Ariana
the thing is u can't count,maybe the our number system will collapse there...who knows?
Abdullah
What's the exact time when the laws of physics became active after the big bang ?
Mostak
Actually we still don't know the exact number of galaxies in the universe, since the universe is bigger than we can imagine and it is still expanding even bigger today than yesterday
Ismaee
we didn't actually find the exact number but may be it is around 100 billion
Smridhi
why this universe is expanding?
ATUL
Science Does Not Concern It Self With Why Questions, Science Is Geared For How And What Questions.....
Adam
Why Questions Form And Endless Loop.....
Adam
According to the universal law of cause and effect .any phenomenon that occur in this universe should have any reason , nothing happen without any reason.
ATUL
Can you tell me the expanding speed of this universe.
ATUL
yes that would be a great question to have answered what is the expanding speed of the universe?
Daijahrel
Remember that most of what you can see is light years away. We're looking back in time, we can never know the current nature of our observations, only glimpse the galaxies and stars as they once were. Strange but true, and a little sad.
SuperNova
Correct, That's Why Telescopes Are Like Time Machines, You See The Past.....
Adam
really telescope can see the past?....i meant everything is in its place, though it rotates or revolve or whatever it is.......but how can this telescope can see the past.....can we see how our Universe was created,how it formed out of it? thats my question to all of you guys can you plz tell me.
Gospel
Because We Dont See Any Object In Space As It Is, We See It As It Was..... Hope This Clears That Up For You.....
Adam
And One Day We Might Have A Telescope That Will Show Us The Big Bang.....
Adam
ok....... that will be nice one
Gospel
ok....... that will be nice one
Gospel
Travel at light speed in a spaceship at 186,000 miles every SECOND. At this speed it will take you 100,000 years just to cross our Milky Way galaxy, which is just a dot in the sky. Next stop, the Andromeda galaxy, after 2.5 million years, still in the Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, still a dot.
SuperNova
Pretty Much.....
Adam
there are nearly 200 million I suppose.
Amit
hi i need a telescope would you help mee
Nauman Reply
i can only advice you to go to some museum
Gospel
wher is it?
Nauman
but before that.......... i wanna know where are you from and from which state...and if you are nearer to that of the museum or will be able to go then.,.. i donot have any more words.
Gospel
What Do Plan To Observe?
Adam
sorry . i am from asia
Nauman
Check on amazon.Celeston telescopes are good for beginners.
priyanshu
can yoy introduce your self
Nauman
can you
Nauman
Asia...? from which country you belong into ...,,is it India or where?
Gospel
Do You Want A Telescope With ALot Of Maintenance Or Zero Maintenance?
Adam
pakistan
Nauman
with alot offf
Nauman
Any second hand online stores in your area? great for unused Christmas gifts etc..
Collins
So You Want A Newtonian Reflector?
Adam
hey guys I wanna ask you all that will it be safe or helpful to communicate with an intelligent civilization like are we safe ?
Samuel
Is the Orion Sky Quest XT6 a good Dobsonian?
TheDirtyGhost
Look for a Sky Watcher 130BKS, it has an upgraded dual speed 2" focuser. You can use 1.25" or 2" eyepieces with it and it is quite easy to pollinate using a simple visual collimating eyepiece. This scope is great and ready for prime focus astrophotography if you choose to go that route.
Robert
Sorry, spell check error. Pollinate should be collimate. lol
Robert
Dobsonians Require A Lot Of Maintenance, If You Don't Mind Cleaning And Collimating On A Regular Basis, Then Go Ahead A Dobsonian Puts Up Excellent Views Especially For Deep Space Objects..... Now If You Don't Want Constant Maintenance Then A Schmidt Cassegrain Might Be A Better Fit For You.....
Adam
So what i would put for that answer ?
Abdulla Reply
The largest observatory complex in the world is on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on Earth. Whatare some factors astronomers consider when selecting an observatory site? Don’t forget practical ones.Should astronomers, for example, consider building an observatory on Denali (Mount McKinley) or MountEverest?
Abdulla Reply
i need help on the the second part
Abdulla
Should astronomers for example considered building an observatory on Denali (Mount Mckinley) or MountEverest ?
Abdulla
I would take into consideration. climate weather pattern.
basim
also, could an establishment be built and be able to sustain years of being beaten by the weather?
basim
so far Mount Everest to my understanding is a difficult mountain
basim
it is because of light pollution in the cities that the observatories are situated in extremely remote areas.
Ashish
Everest ist the tallest mountain
Paul
how far us milky way galaxy?
ShowsSpy Reply
oh man
madison
We are part of the Milky Way Galaxy. We are within it, so it's not really away from us. Our galaxy is 100,000 light years in diameter. The nearest big galaxy is Andromeda, around 2 million lightyears away.
Jignesh
its 200,000 light years
Gospel
Practice Key Terms 3

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Source:  OpenStax, Astronomy. OpenStax CNX. Apr 12, 2017 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11992/1.13
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