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Stars of the 1 percent and the 99 percenters who leach off them

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
July 30th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Humans and stars have a lot more in common than one would think. Never mind the fact that you and I are made of the same atoms that circulate through the stars, for it appears we have more in common than that. Just as every wealthy person seems to have a less wealthy and very needy companion nearby, so do stars. 

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Astronomers believe that the galaxy's 1 percent, also known as "O class" stars, are being leeched by smaller companions as much as 70 percent of the time. O class stars are the largest stars in the galaxy comprising less than 1 percent of all stars. They matter because they are literally the "wealth creators" of the universe. Nevertheless, their lives are cut short as the galactic equivalent of the 99 percent draws life from them. 

When they have companion stars, they become known as binary star systems. The two stars, or sometimes more, orbit a common center of gravity and share mass, with the smaller star taxing the larger one of its life-sustaining hydrogen. 

Large O class stars are important because all the heavy metals in the galaxy come from them.

A bit similar to the "1 percenters" on Earth, the O class stars create the material from which life evolved. For example, if you happen to be wearing gold just now, then you are wearing metal forged in the heart of a supernova explosion. In fact, that's the only place where gold can be created.  

Scientists understand the process quite well. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, by far. Stars are nothing more than great balls of hydrogen gas in space and they are so massive that the gravity of all that hydrogen pressing inwards on itself causes fusion to occur in the core. Over time, a star eventually fuses all its hydrogen into helium. The helium is subsequently fused into successive heavier elements until iron is forged. Iron is like poison to a star, once iron forms in its core, it dies in a violent explosion known as a supernova. 

The violence of that blast causes heavier elements to fuse, which is where every element heavier than iron is formed. That material is scattered across the galaxy until a supergiant star's stellar wind or gravitational influence causes the debris to coalesce into a new, smaller star, often with an attendant solar system. 

So why does this matter?

Aside from being an interesting tidbit for conversation, and drawing an amusing parallel to our economic troubles, this reality affects astronomers and their understanding of the universe in a significant way. If it turns out that the majority of O class stars have companions, then it means previous calculations regarding the ages of nearby galaxies might be incorrect. Currently, galaxies are aged by measuring the light they emit. Astronomers make assumptions about that light, chief among them is the assumption that the light has been emitted by individual stars. 

However, if the most luminous stars have companions, then astronomers might find errors in their conclusions regarding the age of galaxies and their stage of evolution. 

Correcting these assumptions in important for understanding the nature of the universe around us. 
The scientists who discovered this peculiarly common fact have submitted their findings for review.

If true, then astronomers may have some adjusting to do with their understandings of the universe. 

 

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