This is an extension to my post: – Stellar Spectral Classes Explained which can be found here. As I previously explained stars can be placed into groups based on distinguishing features in their spectra. Whilst the main groups have already been discussed there are a few special ones that I think should be given special attention.
Spectral class W stars or Wolf-Rayet stars are spectacular sights to behold. These are high mass stars nearing the end of their lives, and beginning to loose the eternal struggle against gravity. As the star beings to die the nuclear reactions within begin to destabilise, this destabilisation will eventually cause the star to rip its self apart as a supernova explosion blasting all but the core into space at phenomenal speeds and extreme temperatures.
The star can stave of this end by blowing off some its outer layers into space, this is detectable as massive jets of material blasting off into space from a tiny point or shells of material drifting off from its parent star. This mass loss is at best a temporary restpite from the prospect of a supernova and only delays the inevitable the star. In a few short million years this stop gap measure fails to maintain the star’s stability and the unavoidable happens with the star going out with a bang.
As Wolf-Rayet stars are short term evolutions of the rare high mass stars lasting for just a few million years Wolf-Rayet stars are comparatively rare. An example can be found in the Crescent nebula (NGC 6888 – image above).
The nebula formed when the central supergiant began to ‘vent’ its upper atmosphere off to space. The nebula is classed as an emission nebula as it is emitting light of it’s own thanks to the bombardment of ultraviolet light from its parent allowing the nebula to fluoresce as it expands.
As the exact composition or each star is subtly different, along with the countless ways a star can disperse material into space no two Wolf-Rayet nebulae are the same. Indeed with the vast array of factors that influence the overall shape, colour and structure of nebulae radically different results are visible.
Take NGC 2359 for example. Despite being formed in the same way, differing interactions with the interstellar medium have produced a nebula that could not be more different. Its distinctive shape has given rise to its more common name – Thor’s Helmet.
The Wolf-Rayet spectral class is divided into two subgroups: WC and WN. WC stars have their spectra dominated by carbon emission and WN are dominated by Nitrogen.
While not really a spectral class on their own, there are three supergiant stars that I think are stunning enough to get a mention here. One of the most well know supergiant stars is the hypergiant Eta Carinae.
Eta Carinae is located within the small glowing clump half way up the image about three thumb widths in from the left hand side.
Another such hypergiant star is the Pistol star (G0.15-0.05). It is found near the heart of our galaxy – in the central bar rather than one of the spiral arms like Sol or Eta Carinae. It is one of the most luminous stars known to astronomers as it shines with the equivalent output of 4 million
The difference in luminosity is so great the Pistol star releases the same energy Sol does in a year in 20 seconds!!! (This figure is an approximation) It undergoes periodic blasts as it struggles to hold itself together (it is similar to the Eta Carinae system in terms of mass). These blasts have shed stellar material into space which can today be seen as the Pistol nebula (the bright blob at the centre of the image is the star itself).
White dwarfs are the remains of main sequence stars that have lost the majority of there atmosphere to space at the end of the red giant phase. A white dwarf is approximately the size of Earth but as they are the cores of dead stars they are incredibly dense – 1×109 kgm-3 or put differently, if we could extract a one cubic meter of a White dwarf it would ‘weigh’ one million kilograms. This extreme density is a result of confining potentially more than a solar mass of material into a comparatively tiny region of space, think of how large the Sun is compared to the Earth and you will get some idea of the compression required.
Neutron Stars and Pulsars.
Neutron stars are the high density remains of supernovae. They form from the remains of massive stars that have exceeded the Chandrashekar limit. They are composed of exotic degenerate matter and neutrons hence their name. The upper mass limit for a neutron star is approximately 3 solar masses, anything more massive would exceed the Tolman-Openhiemer-Volkof limit and collapse into a black hole (as neutron degeneracy pressure would be unable to support the star against gravity).
A pulsar is a neutron star that has retained enough angular momentum to spin rapidly. They release the majority of their energy in two beams that emanate from their poles. A pulsar can rotate as rapidly as 30 times a second and some rotate even faster than that! When the beams pass in the direction of the Earth the star’s luminosity appears to pulse giving the star there name.
Magnetars are neutron stars with exceptionally powerful magnetic fields. They emit large amounts of X and Gamma rays as a result of this field strength. They are also known as soft gamma repeaters (SGRs) or anomalous X-ray pulsars (AXPs) due to their tendency to emit burst of gamma or X-rays at irregular intervals.
Brown dwarfs now have their own post that goes into some detail.
You can read The Not so Hot Stars by clicking the link.
Sub Brown Dwarfs
Some astronomers feel that a category for ‘failed brown dwarfs’ is needed. This would mean stars that are below the mass limit for brown dwarfs (about 13 times the mass of Jupiter) but significantly above the normal mass of a planet. No such objects have yet been confirmed however spectral Class Y has been suggested, though their is some debate if such objects would be better classified as low mass Brown Dwarfs.
Some of the most spectacular sights in the cosmos come in the form of Planetary Nebulae. The name is a bit of a misnomer – it was first thought that planets formed from such nebulae but now we understand that they are created by the mass release of red giants as they become white dwarfs, however the name has stuck regardless. One of the most famous examples is the Ring nebula or M57.
The Ring Nebula is located in the constellation Lyra at a distance of about 2300 light years from Earth.
Another more delicate but no less beautiful nebula is the Hourglass Nebula – MYCN18.
More information about planetary nebulas and other forms of nebula including a more in depth spectral analysis will be made available through Project Nebula.
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