Main Sequence - Energy Generation


Energy Generation

See also: Stellar nucleosynthesis

All main-sequence stars have a core region where energy is generated by nuclear fusion. The temperature and density of this core are at the levels necessary to sustain the energy production that will support the remainder of the star. A reduction of energy production would cause the overlaying mass to compress the core, resulting in an increase in the fusion rate because of higher temperature and pressure. Likewise an increase in energy production would cause the star to expand, lowering the pressure at the core. Thus the star forms a self-regulating system in hydrostatic equilibrium that is stable over the course of its main sequence lifetime.

Main-sequence stars employ two types of hydrogen fusion processes, and the rate of energy generation from each type depends on the temperature in the core region. Astronomers divide the main sequence into upper and lower parts, based on which of the two is the dominant fusion process. In the lower main sequence, energy is primarily generated as the result of the proton-proton chain, which directly fuses hydrogen together in a series of stages to produce helium. Stars in the upper main sequence have sufficiently high core temperatures to efficiently use the CNO cycle. (See the chart.) This process uses atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen as intermediaries in the process of fusing hydrogen into helium.

At a stellar core temperature of 18 million kelvins, the PP process and CNO cycle are equally efficient, and each type generates half of the star's net luminosity. As this is the core temperature of a star with about 1.5 solar masses, the upper main sequence consists of stars above this mass. Thus, roughly speaking, stars of spectral class F or cooler belong to the lower main sequence, while class A stars or hotter are upper main-sequence stars. The transition in primary energy production from one form to the other spans a range difference of less than a single solar mass. In the Sun, a one solar mass star, only 1.5% of the energy is generated by the CNO cycle. By contrast, stars with 1.8 solar masses or above generate almost their entire energy output through the CNO cycle.

The observed upper limit for a main-sequence star is 120–200 solar masses. The theoretical explanation for this limit is that stars above this mass can not radiate energy fast enough to remain stable, so any additional mass will be ejected in a series of pulsations until the star reaches a stable limit. The lower limit for sustained proton-proton nuclear fusion is about 0.08 solar masses. Below this threshold are sub-stellar objects that can not sustain hydrogen fusion, known as brown dwarfs.

Read more about this topic:  Main Sequence

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