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Starts With A Bang

The Sun isn’t a typical star in the Universe

Most of us have heard that the Sun is an ordinary, typical, unremarkable star. But science shows we’re actually anything but average.
This fragment of the young star-forming region NGC 2014 showcases many stars that are bluer, more massive, and much shorter lived than our Sun. However, the fainter, redder, less luminous stars are far more numerous, making us wonder just what "typical" truly is for a star.
(Credit: NASA, ESA and STScI)
Key Takeaways
  • Most of us have heard that among all the stars in the Universe, the Sun is simply typical: unremarkable in every way.
  • But when we look at the stars that actually exist within the Universe, we find that the Sun is an outlier in many, many ways.
  • How does the Sun actually compare to the “average” or “typical” star in the Universe? The answers may surprise you.

Since time immemorial, we’ve wondered, “Is the Sun just a typical star?”

planetary nebulae
From their earliest beginnings to their final extent before fading away, Sun-like stars will grow from their present size to the size of a red giant (~the Earth’s orbit) to up to ~5 light-years in diameter, typically. The largest known planetary nebulae can reach approximately double that size, up to ~10 light-years across, but none of this necessarily means that the Sun is a typical, average star.
(Credit: Ivan Bojičić, Quentin Parker, and David Frew, Laboratory for Space Research, HKU)

In the 1600s, Christiaan Huygens estimated the distance to Sirius, assuming it was a distant, Sun-like star.

This image shows Sirius A and B, a bluer and brighter star than our Sun and a white dwarf star, respectively, as imaged by the Hubble space telescope. Sirius B, like all white dwarf stars that exist at present, is composed of elements like carbon, oxygen, neon, calcium, and magnesium. But in the future, helium white dwarfs will come to exist as well: spawned from the remnants of fully convective red dwarf stars.
Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Bond (STScI) and M. Barstow (University of Leicester)

His result, 0.4 light-years, didn’t account for intrinsic stellar differences.

The (modern) Morgan–Keenan spectral classification system, with the temperature range of each star class shown above it, in kelvin. The overwhelming majority (80%) of stars today are M-class stars, with only 1-in-800 being an O-class or B-class star massive enough for a core-collapse supernova. Our Sun is a G-class star, unremarkable but brighter than all but ~5% of stars. While mass typically determines the color lifetime of a star, numerous factors can influence a star’s evolution.
Credit: LucasVB/Wikimedia Commons; Annotations: E. Siegel

Stars come with a variety of properties: mass, color, temperature, ionization, metallicity, age, etc.

This portion of the Hubble image of Arp 143 showcases the new stars (in blue) formed as a result from gas stripping, heating, and shocking in the space between the two main galaxy members. Stars have been forming throughout the Universe over the past 13.6 billion years or so, but the ones that survive today weren’t formed evenly or under the same conditions over all of cosmic history.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, Julianne Dalcanton Center for Computational Astrophysics, Flatiron Inst. / UWashington); Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI))

Although the Sun isn’t a unique cosmic outlier, it isn’t exactly typical, either.

Over the course of 50 days, with a total of over 2 million seconds of total observing time (the equivalent of 23 complete days), the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) was constructed from a portion of the prior Hubble Ultra Deep Field image. Combining light from ultraviolet through visible light and out to Hubble’s near-infrared limit, the XDF represented humanity’s deepest view of the cosmos: a record that stood until it was broken by JWST. In the red box, where no galaxies are seen by Hubble, the JWST’s JADES survey revealed the most distant galaxy to date: JADES-GS-z13-0. Extrapolating beyond what we see to what we know and expect must exist, we infer a total of ~2 sextillion stars within the observable Universe.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team; Annotations and stitching by E. Siegel)

With around two sextillion (~2 × 1021) stars within the observable Universe, how do we compare?

how many stars
The star-formation rate in the Universe as a function of redshift, which is itself a function of cosmic time. The overall rate, (left) is derived from both ultraviolet and infrared observations, and is remarkably consistent across time and space. Note that star formation, today, is only a few percent of what it was at its peak, and that the overwhelming majority of stars were formed in the first ~4-5 billion years of our cosmic history. Only about ~15% of all stars, at maximum, have formed over the past 4.6 billion years.
Credit: P. Madau & M. Dickinson, 2014, ARAA

Most stars that exist today formed long ago: ~11 billion years in the past.

This glimpse into the stars found in the densest region of the Orion Nebula, near the heart of the Trapezium Cluster, shows a modern glimpse inside a star-forming region of the Milky Way. However, star-formation properties vary over cosmic time, from galaxy to galaxy, at different radii from the galactic center, etc. All of these properties and more must be reckoned with to compare the Sun with the overall population of stars within the Universe.
(Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State/E.Feigelson & K.Getman et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/M. Robberto et al.)

Our Sun, born 4.6 billion years ago, is younger than 85% of all stars.

Galaxies comparable to the present-day Milky Way are numerous throughout cosmic time, having grown in mass and with more evolved structure at present. Younger galaxies are inherently smaller, bluer, more chaotic, richer in gas, and have lower densities of heavy elements than their modern-day counterparts, and their star-formation histories evolve over time. This was not discovered or well-known until the 1960s, when we began to see large numbers of galaxies from much earlier in our cosmic history.
Credit: NASA, ESA, P. van Dokkum (Yale U.), S. Patel (Leiden U.), and the 3-D-HST Team

The majority of stars are red dwarfs: cool, low in mass, and extremely long lived.

This image shows two bright star systems as seen from Earth: the Alpha Centauri (left) and Beta Centauri (right) systems. While both are trinary systems, Alpha Centauri is sun-like and only 4 light-years away; Beta Centauri is dominated by stars roughly 10 times the mass of the Sun and is more like 400 light-years away. The color difference is visible to the naked eye. Proxima Centauri, a member of the Alpha Centauri system, is located in the red circle.
Credit: Skatebiker at English Wikipedia

Our Sun, a G-class star, is more massive than 95% of stars.

This image shows the core of globular cluster Terzan 5, just 22,000 light-years away in our own Milky Way, with a wide variety of colors and masses inherent to the stars within. Although many of these stars will burn out in approximately the next 10-20 billion years, some will persist for far, far longer.
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Cohen

Most stars are lower than ours in metallicity: the fraction of heavy elements present.

This color-coded map shows the heavy element abundances of more than 6 million stars within the Milky Way. Stars in red, orange, and yellow are all rich enough in heavy elements that they should have planets; green and cyan-coded stars should only rarely have planets, and stars coded blue or violet should have absolutely no planets at all around them. Note that the central plane of the galactic disk, extending all the way into the galactic core, has the potential for habitable, rocky planets.
Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Our Sun has greater enrichment than ~93% of all stars.

These charts show the estimated star-formation rate density as a function of redshift and metallicity of the stars that form. Although there are substantial uncertainties, it can be safely concluded that somewhere between only about 3% and 20% of all stars have a heavy element content that’s greater than or equal to our Sun’s, with most estimates falling between just 4-10%.
(Credit: M. Chruslinska & G. Nelemans, MNRAS, 2019)

Only half of all stars are “singlets” like our Sun; the other half exist within multi-star systems.

Although exoplanets have been found in trinary systems before in recent years, most of them orbit either close in to a single star or in intermediate orbits around a central binary, with the third star much farther away. GW Orionis is the first candidate system to have a planet orbiting all three stars at once. About 35% of all stars are in binary systems and another 10% are in trinary systems; only about half of stars are singlets like our Sun.
Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

We’re not typically luminous, either.

When a star-forming region becomes so large that it extends over an entire galaxy, that galaxy becomes a starburst galaxy. Here, Henize 2-10 is shown evolving toward that state, with young stars in many locations and active stellar nurseries in numerous locations galaxy-wide. If we were to count the number of stars within the galaxy and multiply that number by the Sun’s light-to-mass ratio, we’d underestimate the total flux by about a 3-to-1 ratio.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, Zachary Schutte (XGI), Amy Reines (XGI); Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI))

The overall luminosity-to-mass ratio of stars is three times our own.

Brown dwarfs, between about 0.013-0.080 solar masses, will fuse deuterium+deuterium into helium-3 or tritium, remaining at the same approximate size as Jupiter but achieving much greater masses. Red dwarfs are only slightly larger, but even the Sun-like star shown here is not shown to scale here; it would have about 7 times the diameter of a low-mass star.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB

Normal, apparently, encompasses an enormous range.

This Wolf–Rayet star is known as WR 31a, located about 30,000 light-years away in the constellation of Carina. The outer nebula is expelled hydrogen and helium, while the central star burns at over 100,000 K. In the relatively near future, many suspect that this star will explode in a supernova much like WR 124, enriching the surrounding interstellar medium with new, heavy elements. It cannot be predicted which evolved, massive star in our galaxy will be the Milky Way’s next supernova.
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.


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