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June 15, 2024 6 mins

After our sun dies, it and many other stars will eventually crystallize. Learn how astrophysicists figured this out -- and how it works -- in today's episode of BrainStuff, based on this article:

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
Lauren Vogelbomb here with another classic episode from our archives.
This one first aired back in January of twenty nineteen
after some fascinating research came out concerning the future of
our Sun and other stars. It turns out they'll eventually crystallize.

Hey Brainstuff, Lauren voelbomb here. Our Sun may look like
an eternal miasma of incandescent plasma, but one day it
will die. This may sound like a bummer, especially for
anything that's living on Earth in a few billion years,
but there is a bright side to the solar doom.
According to research published in the journal Nature, this very month,
our dead star will leave behind a shimmering legacy. It'll

turn into a massive crystal. Before we start talking about
supersized stellar crystals, we first need to understand how stars
like our Sun live and die. The Sun is fueled
by nuclear fusion. Its massive gravity crushes hydrogen atoms together
in its core to create helium, and the vast quantities
of energy released by these fusion processes push outward, maintaining

a happy equilibrium so long as there's plenty of hydrogen
fuel feeding this process, the core remains about the same
size and temperature around fifteen million kelvin, producing energy that
radiates throughout the Solar system, ultimately nurturing the evolution of
life on a certain habitable planet. This hydrogen burning phase
of a star's life will last for ninety percent of

the lifetime of our Sun. The period of stellar life
is known as the main sequence. We're currently about four
point five billion years into our Sun's main sequence days,
or approximately halfway through its life. So what happens when
that hydrogen is all used up? Things start to get
a little wild, to put it mildly. Without the outward

pressure of the energy created by fusing hydrogen, the Sun's
gravity overwhelms the core, crushing it into a smaller space
and boosting its temperature tenfold. That's okay, though, the heavier
helium nuclei will begin to fuse together, creating the outward
pressure once again to maintain equilibrium. It's predicted that this
will start happening in about five billion years, marked with

a sudden outrush of energy known as a helium flash.

Speaker 2 (02:18):
As the helium fuses, carbon and oxygen are formed, and
the temperature of the core rises yet again. Soon after,
even heavier elements also begin to fuse, and the Sun
on the whole will start looking a bit worse for
the wear. It will begin to swell, blasting into planetary
space with savage solar winds that will begin to strip
away its upper layers. Though our Sun isn't massive enough

to explode as a supernova, it will turn into a
red giant star, possibly expanding beyond the orbit of Earth.
Our planet will be toast. After the death of our star,
it will leave behind wispy remains of solar plasma, creating
a beautiful planetary nebula enriched with newly formed heavy elements.

Speaker 1 (03:00):
Will go on to create the next.

Speaker 2 (03:01):
Generation of stars and planets, and in its core will
be a hot stellar remnant known as a white dwarf,
a tiny, dense star shimmering brightly, a testament to the
Sun that used to be in its place. White dwarfs
can sustain themselves for billions of years before fizzing out
and dimming forever. But this isn't the end of the story.
Using observations by the European Gay Emission, which is currently

making precision measurements of stars throughout our galaxy, Researchers at
the University of Warwick in the UK have stumbled on
a white dwarf's secret that has remained hidden until now.
Soon after forming, white dwarfs are extremely hot, radiating the
intense energy that was once held in the core of
the main sequence star that came before them. Over billions

of years. After forming, white dwarfs slowly cool and at
a certain point, the oxygen and carbon they contain will
go through a phase transition akin to liquid water freezing
and turning into solid ice, only at much more extreme
temperatures and pressures, and they'll solidify to form a huge crystal.
Pierre Emmanuel Tremblay, from the University of Warwick's Department of

Physics and leader of the study, said in a press release.
All white dwarfs will crystallize at some point in their evolution,
although more massive white dwarfs go through the process sooner.
This means that billions of white dwarfs in our galaxy
have already completed the process and are essentially crystal spheres
in the sky. The sum itself will become a crystal
white dwarf in about ten billion years. Tremblay's team analyzed

the Gaya observations to measure the luminosities and colors of
fifteen thousand white dwarfs within three hundred light years of Earth.
What they found was an excess in the population of
stars of specific colors and brightness. They realized that this
group of stars represented a similar phase instellar evolution, where
the conditions are right for this phase transition to occur,

causing a delay in cooling, thus slowing down the aging process.
The researcherch found that some of these stars had extended
their lifespan by up to two billion year. Trembly said
in the statement, this is the first direct evidence that
white dwarfs crystallize or transition from liquid to solid. It
was predicted fifty years ago that we should observe a
pile up in the number of white dwarfs in certain

luminosities and colors due to crystallization, and only now has
this been observed. Crystallized white dwarfs aren't just a stellar curiosity.
Their quantum makeup is unlike anything we can recreate in
the laboratory. As the white star material crystallizes, its material
becomes ordered on a quantum level, nuclei aligning themselves in
a complex lattice with a metallic oxygen core and an

outer layer enriched with carbon. So it turns out that
after stars like our sun die, their stories aren't over All.
White dwarfs will go through this crystallization process, littering the
galaxy with massive diamond like stellar remnants. Today's episode is

based on the article After the Sun does, It'll become
a stellar crystal on HowStuffWorks.

Speaker 1 (06:02):
Dot Com, written by Ian O'Neil. Brain Stuff this production
of iHeartRadio in partnership with how Stuffworks dot Com and
it's produced by Tyler Klang. Four more podcasts my heart Radio,
visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen
to your favorite shows

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