B2 High-Intermediate US 31 Folder Collection
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A helium flash is a very brief thermal runaway nuclear fusion of large quantities of helium
into carbon through the triple-alpha process in the core of low mass stars (between 0.8
solar masses (M☉) and 2.0 M☉) during their red giant phase (the Sun is predicted to experience
a flash 1.2 billion years after it leaves the main sequence).
A much rarer runaway helium fusion process can also occur on the surface of accreting
white dwarf stars.
Low mass stars do not produce enough gravitational pressure to initiate normal helium fusion.
As the hydrogen in the core is exhausted, some of the helium left behind is instead
compacted into degenerate matter, supported against gravitational collapse by quantum
mechanical pressure rather than thermal pressure.
This increases the density and temperature of the core until it reaches approximately
100 million kelvin, which is hot enough to cause helium fusion (or "helium burning")
in the core.
However, a fundamental quality of degenerate matter is that changes in temperature do not
produce a change of volume of the matter until the thermal pressure becomes so very high
that it exceeds degeneracy pressure.
In main sequence stars, thermal expansion regulates the core temperature, but in degenerate
cores this does not occur.
Helium fusion increases the temperature, which increases the fusion rate, which further increases
the temperature in a runaway reaction.
This produces a flash of very intense helium fusion that lasts only a few minutes, but
briefly emits energy at a rate comparable to the entire Milky Way galaxy.
In the case of normal low mass stars, the vast energy release causes much of the core
to come out of degeneracy, allowing it to thermally expand, however, consuming as much
energy as the total energy released by the helium flash, and any left-over energy is
absorbed into the star's upper layers.
Thus the helium flash is mostly undetectable to observation, and is described solely by
astrophysical models.
After the core's expansion and cooling, the star's surface rapidly cools and contracts
in as little as 10,000 years until it is roughly 2% of its former radius and luminosity.
It is estimated that the electron-degenerate helium core weighs about 40% of the star mass
and that 6% of the core is converted into carbon.
== Red giants ==
During the red giant phase of stellar evolution in stars with less than 2.0 M☉ the nuclear
fusion of hydrogen ceases in the core as it is depleted, leaving a helium-rich core.
While fusion of hydrogen continues in the star's shell causing a continuation of the
accumulation of helium ash in the core, making the core denser, the temperature still is
unable to reach the level required for helium fusion, as happens in more massive stars.
Thus the thermal pressure from fusion is no longer sufficient to counter the gravitational
collapse and create the hydrostatic equilibrium found in most stars.
This causes the star to start contracting and increasing in temperature until it eventually
becomes compressed enough for the helium core to become degenerate matter.
This degeneracy pressure is finally sufficient to stop further collapse of the most central
material but the rest of the core continues to contract and the temperature continues
to rise until it reaches a point (≈1×108 K) at which the helium can ignite and start
to fuse.The explosive nature of the helium flash arises from its taking place in degenerate
Once the temperature reaches 100 million–200 million kelvin and helium fusion begins using
the triple-alpha process, the temperature rapidly increases, further raising the helium
fusion rate and, because degenerate matter is a good conductor of heat, widening the
reaction region.
However, since degeneracy pressure (which is purely a function of density) is dominating
thermal pressure (proportional to the product of density and temperature), the total pressure
is only weakly dependent on temperature.
Thus, the dramatic increase in temperature only causes a slight increase in pressure,
so there is no stabilizing cooling expansion of the core.
This runaway reaction quickly climbs to about 100 billion times the star's normal energy
production (for a few seconds) until the temperature increases to the point that thermal pressure
again becomes dominant, eliminating the degeneracy.
The core can then expand and cool down and a stable burning of helium will continue.A
star with mass greater than about 2.25 M☉ starts to burn helium without its core becoming
degenerate, and so does not exhibit this type of helium flash.
In a very low-mass star (less than about 0.5 M☉), the core is never hot enough to ignite
The degenerate helium core will keep on contracting, and finally becomes a helium white dwarf.
The helium flash is not directly observable on the surface by electromagnetic radiation.
The flash occurs in the core deep inside the star, and the net effect will be that all
released energy is absorbed by the entire core, leaving the degenerate state to become
Earlier computations indicated that a nondisruptive mass loss would be possible in some cases,
but later star modeling taking neutrino energy loss into account indicates no such mass loss.In
a one solar mass star, the helium flash is estimated to release about 5×1041 J, or about
0.3% of the energy release of a 1.5×1044 J Type Ia supernova, which is triggered by
an analogous ignition of carbon fusion in a carbon–oxygen white dwarf.
== Binary white dwarfs == When hydrogen gas is accreted onto a white
dwarf from a binary companion star, the hydrogen can fuse to form helium for a narrow range
of accretion rates, but most systems develop a layer of hydrogen over the degenerate white
dwarf interior.
This hydrogen can build up to form a shell near the surface of the star.
When the mass of hydrogen becomes sufficiently large, runaway fusion causes a nova.
In a few binary systems where the hydrogen fuses on the surface, the mass of helium built
up can burn in an unstable helium flash.
In certain binary systems the companion star may have lost most of its hydrogen and donate
helium-rich material to the compact star.
Note that similar flashes occur on neutron stars.
== Shell helium flash == Shell helium flashes are a somewhat analogous
but much less violent, nonrunaway helium ignition event, taking place in the absence of degenerate
They occur periodically in asymptotic giant branch stars in a shell outside the core.
This is late in the life of a star in its giant phase.
The star has burnt most of the helium available in the core, which is now composed of carbon
and oxygen.
Helium fusion continues in a thin shell around this core, but then turns off as helium becomes
This allows hydrogen fusion to start in a layer above the helium layer.
After enough additional helium accumulates, helium fusion is reignited, leading to a thermal
pulse which eventually causes the star to expand and brighten temporarily (the pulse
in luminosity is delayed because it takes a number of years for the energy from restarted
helium fusion to reach the surface).
Such pulses may last a few hundred years, and are thought to occur periodically every
10,000 to 100,000 years.
After the flash, helium fusion continues at an exponentially decaying rate for about 40%
of the cycle as the helium shell is consumed.
Thermal pulses may cause a star to shed circumstellar shells of gas and dust.
== See also == Carbon detonation
== References ==
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Helium flash | Wikipedia audio article | Wikipedia audio article

31 Folder Collection
Amy.Lin published on February 1, 2020
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