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    White Dwarfs
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    White Dwarf Research and Experiments

    White Dwarf Background


    A white dwarf is a small dense star composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter. Its faint luminosity comes from the emission of stored thermal energy. White dwarfs are thought to be the final evolutionary state of all stars whose mass is not high enough to become a neutron star.


    A white dwarf is a star. The colour of a white dwarf is like most other stars, but not as bright. White Dwarfs were discovered in the 19th century, and the first ones found were white. The colour of a star is a measure of how hot it is, white stars are like the Sun, blue stars are hotter, and red stars are cooler. White dwarfs are not very bright because they are smaller than many brighter stars - not because they are cold. Some white dwarfs are blue, instead of white.

    Many white dwarfs are about the same size as the Earth, and about 100 times smaller than the Sun. They may weigh the same as the sun, which would make them very dense. The heavier the white dwarf is, then the smaller its size will be.

    A star like our Sun will become a white dwarf when it has run out of fuel. Near the end of its life, it will go through a red giant stage, and then lose most of its gas, until what is left settles down and becomes a young white dwarf.

    White dwarf stars are extremely hot; so they emit bright white light. This heat is what is left of the heat made when the star collapsed. Because white dwarfs are extremely small, it takes them a long time to cool down. Eventually, all white dwarfs will cool down into what is called a black dwarf. These are what is left of the star after all of its heat and light has gone away.

    1862. In 1862, Alvan Graham Clark in discovered a dark star near the star Sirius. The companion, called Sirius B, had a surface temperature of about 25,000 kelvin, so it was thought of as a hot star. However, Sirius B was about 10,000 times fainter than the primary, Sirius A. Scientists have discovered that the mass of Sirius B is almost the same as that of the Sun. This means that once, Sirius B may have been a star very similar to our own sun.

    1917. In 1917, Adriaan Van Maanen discovered a white dwarf which is called Van Maanen's Star. It was the second white dwarf to be discovered. It is the closest white dwarf to Earth, except for Sirius B.

    Topics of Interest

    A white dwarf, also called a degenerate dwarf, is a small star composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter. They are very dense; a white dwarf's mass is comparable to that of the Sun and its volume is comparable to that of the Earth. Its faint luminosity comes from the emission of stored thermal energy. White dwarfs comprise roughly 6% of all known stars in the solar neighborhood. The unusual faintness of white dwarfs was first recognized in 1910 by Henry Norris Russell, Edward Charles Pickering, and Williamina Fleming; the name white dwarf was coined by Willem Luyten in 1922.

    White dwarfs are thought to be the final evolutionary state of all stars whose mass is not too high—over 97% of the stars in our galaxy. After the hydrogen–fusing lifetime of a main-sequence star of low or medium mass ends, it will expand to a red giant which fuses helium to carbon and oxygen in its core by the triple-alpha process. If a red giant has insufficient mass to generate the core temperatures required to fuse carbon, an inert mass of carbon and oxygen will build up at its center. After shedding its outer layers to form a planetary nebula, it will leave behind this core, which forms the remnant white dwarf. Usually, therefore, white dwarfs are composed of carbon and oxygen. It is also possible that core temperatures suffice to fuse carbon but not neon, in which case an oxygen-neon–magnesium white dwarf may be formed. Also, some helium white dwarfs appear to have been formed by mass loss in binary systems.

    The material in a white dwarf no longer undergoes fusion reactions, so the star has no source of energy, nor is it supported against gravitational collapse by the heat generated by fusion. It is supported only by electron degeneracy pressure, causing it to be extremely dense. The physics of degeneracy yields a maximum mass for a nonrotating white dwarf, the Chandrasekhar limit—approximately 1.4 solar masses—beyond which it cannot be supported by degeneracy pressure. A carbon-oxygen white dwarf that approaches this mass limit, typically by mass transfer from a companion star, may explode as a Type Ia supernova via a process known as carbon detonation. (SN 1006 is thought to be a famous example.)

    A white dwarf is very hot when it is formed but since it has no source of energy, it will gradually radiate away its energy and cool down. This means that its radiation, which initially has a high color temperature, will lessen and redden with time. Over a very long time, a white dwarf will cool to temperatures at which it will no longer be visible, and become a cold black dwarf. However, since no white dwarf can be older than the age of the Universe (approximately 13.7 billion years), even the oldest white dwarfs still radiate at temperatures of a few thousand kelvins, and no black dwarfs are thought to exist yet.

    A pulsating white dwarf is a white dwarf star whose luminosity varies due to non-radial gravity wave pulsations within itself. Known types of pulsating white dwarfs include DAV, or ZZ Ceti, stars, with hydrogen-dominated atmospheres and the spectral type DA, pp. 891, 895; DBV, or V777 Her, stars, with helium-dominated atmospheres and the spectral type DB, p. 3525; and GW Vir stars, with atmospheres dominated by helium, carbon, and oxygen, and the spectral type PG 1159. (Some authors also include non-PG 1159 stars in the class of GW Vir stars.) GW Vir stars may be subdivided into DOV and PNNV stars; they are not, strictly speaking, white dwarfs but pre-white dwarfs which have not yet reached the white dwarf region on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. A subtype of DQV stars, with carbon-dominated atmospheres, has also been proposed.

    Cataclysmic variable stars (CV) are stars which irregularly increase in brightness by a large factor, then drop back down to a quiescent state. They were initially called novae, from the Latin 'new', since ones with an outburst brightness visible to the naked eye and a quiescent brightness invisible appeared as new stars in the sky. They consist of two component stars; a white dwarf primary, and a mass transferring secondary.

    A black dwarf is a hypothetical stellar remnant, created when a white dwarf becomes sufficiently cool to no longer emit significant heat or light. Since the time required for a white dwarf to reach this state is calculated to be longer than the current age of the universe of 13.7 billion years, no black dwarfs are expected to exist in the universe yet, and the temperature of the coolest white dwarfs is one observational limit on the age of the universe. A white dwarf is what remains of a main sequence star of low or medium mass (below approximately 9 to 10 solar masses), after it has either expelled or fused all the elements which it has sufficient temperature to fuse. What is left is then a dense ball of electron-degenerate matter which cools slowly by thermal radiation, eventually becoming a black dwarf. If black dwarfs were to exist, they would be extremely difficult to detect, since, by definition, they would emit very little radiation. One theory is that they might be detectable through their gravitational influence.

    According to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a red dwarf star is a small and relatively cool star, of the main sequence, either late K or M spectral type. They constitute the vast majority of stars and have a mass of less than one-half of that of the Sun (down to about 0.075 solar masses, which are brown dwarfs) and a surface temperature of less than 3,500 K.

    Brown dwarfs are sub-stellar objects with a mass below that necessary to maintain hydrogen-burning nuclear fusion reactions in their cores, as do stars on the main sequence, but which have fully convective surfaces and interiors, with no chemical differentiation by depth. Brown dwarfs occupy the mass range between that of large gas giant planets and the lowest mass stars; this upper limit is between 75 and 80 Jupiter masses (MJ).

    Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)

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