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Stellar Populations and the Origin of Heavy Elements

To explain why there are two distinct populations of stars, we must go back to the Big Bang, the
explosive origin of the universe that took place some 13.7 billion years ago. Where the early
universe consisted almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium, with almost no heavy elements
(metals). The first stars to form were likewise metal poor. The least massive of these stars have
survived to the present day and are now the ancient stars of Population II.

These massive original stars aged and died, they expelled their metal-enriched gases into space.
This expelled material joined the interstellar medium and was eventually incorporated into a
second generation of stars that have a higher concentration of heavy elements.

Stars like the Sun contain material that was processed through an earlier generation of stars.

The relatively high concentration of heavy elements in the Sun means that the solar nebula, from
which both the Sun and planets formed, must likewise have been metal rich.

Earths carbon and oxygen atoms, including all of those in your body, actually were produced by
helium fusion. These reactions occurred billions of years ago within an earlier generation of stars
that died and gave up their atoms to the inter- stellar mediumthe same atoms that later became
part of our solar system, our planet, and our bodies. We are literally children of the stars.

Many mature stars pulsate


Pulsating variable stars are actually evolved, postmain-sequence stars.
Mira is an example of a class of pulsating stars called long- period variables. These stars are cool
red giants that vary in brightness by a factor of 100 or more over a period of months or years.
Some, like Mira, are periodic, but others are irregular. Many eject large amounts of gas and dust
into space.
Cepheid Variables
Astronomers have a much better understanding of other pulsating stars, called Cepheid variables,
or simply Cepheids. A Cepheid variable is recognized by the characteristic way in which its light
output variesrapid brightening followed by gradual dimming.
The surface temperatures and luminosities of the Cepheid variables place them in the upper
middle of the H-R diagram.

By studying variable stars, astronomers gain insight into late stages of stellar evolution.

During these transitions across the H-R diagram, a star can become unstable and pulsate. In fact,
there is a region on the H-R diagram between the upper main sequence and the red-giant branch
called the instability strip. When an evolving star passes through this region, the star pulsates and
its brightness varies periodically. Here an example of Cephei.

Note that the light curve and velocity curve are mirror images of each other. The star is brighter
than average while it is expanding and dimmer than average while contracting.

When a Cepheid variable pulsates, the stars surface oscillates up and down like a spring. During
these cyclical expansions and contractions, the stars gases alternately heat up and cool down.
In the 1960s, the American astronomer John Cox followed up on Eddingtons idea and proved that
helium is what keeps Cepheids pulsating. Normally, when a stars helium is compressed, the gas
increases in temperature and becomes more transparent. But in certain layers near the stars
surface, compression may ionize helium (remove one of its electrons) instead of raising its
temperature. Ionized helium gas is quite opaque, so these layers effectively trap heat and make
the star expand, as Eddington suggested. This expansion cools the outer layers and makes the
helium ions recombine with electrons, which makes the gas more transparent and releases the
trapped energy. The stars surface then falls inward, recompressing the helium, and the cycle
begins all over again.
There is a direct relationship between a Cepheids period and its average luminosity: The dimmest
Cepheid variables pulsate rapidly, with periods of 1 to 2 days, while the most luminous Cepheids
pulsate with much slower periods of about 100 days.
How a Cepheid pulsates depends on the amount of heavy elements in the stars outer layers
Hence, Cepheids are classified according to their metal content. If the star is a metal-rich,
Population I star, it is called a Type I Cepheid; if it is a metal-poor, Population II star, it is called a
Type II Cepheid.

The evolutionary tracks of mature, high-mass stars pass back and forth through the upper end of
the instability strip on the H-R diagram. These stars become Cepheids when helium ionization
occurs at just the right depth to drive the pulsations. For stars on the high-temperature (left) side
of the instability strip, helium ionization occurs too close to the surface and involves only an in-
significant fraction of the stars mass. For stars on the cool (right) side of the instability strip,
convection in the stars outer layer prevents the storage of the energy needed to drive the
pulsations. Thus, Cepheids exist only in a narrow temperature range on the H-R diagram.
RR Lyrae Variables
Stars of lower mass do not become Cepheids. Some of these stars become RR Lyrae variables,
named for their prototype in the constellation Lyra (the Harp). RR Lyrae variables all have periods
shorter than one day and roughly the same average luminosity. RR Lyrae stars are all metal-poor,
Population II stars. Many have been found in globular clusters, and they have been used to
determine the distances to those clusters in the same way that Cepheids are used to find the
distances to other galaxies.

In some cases the expansion speed of a pulsating star exceeds the stars escape speed. When this
happens, the stars outer layers are ejected completely, renewing and enriching the interstellar
medium for future generations of stars.