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New life for controversial stellar wind theory

April 12, 2012
Uppsala University
Astronomers have succeeded in identifying a specific kind of dust grain in the vicinity of cool giant stars. This means fresh impetus for a controversial theory about how stars die.

A giant supernova smothered in its own dust ended its life with a dust-shrouded whimper.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

An international research team has succeeded in identifying a specific kind of dust grain in the vicinity of cool giant stars. This means fresh impetus for Uppsala University researcher Susanne Höfner's theory about how stars die.

In a recent issue of Nature, she discusses the team's findings.

"It is of course gratifying that my model of stellar winds is now supported by observation," says Susanne Höfner, Professor of Astrophysics at Uppsala University. "The model previously attracted a great deal of skepticism."

Solving the riddle of the stellar winds will help us to understand how atoms present in our environment and bodies long ago escaped the stars in which these atoms were formed.

Towards the end of its life, a star typically transforms into a cool giant star with a luminosity thousands to tens of thousands times greater than that of the Sun. This developmental stage is characterized by massive gas outflows, or stellar winds, which transport newly formed elements like carbon away from the star at an increasing rate. Small solid particles, or dust grains, that form in the outer layers of giant stars likely represent the motive force behind stellar winds. By catching a portion of the radiation emitted by a star, as a sail catches the wind, dust grains are accelerated away from the star, drawing surrounding gases with them. But the radiation plausibly should cause such powerful heating of the dust grains as would vaporize most materials present in the star's vicinity.

Several years ago, Susanne Höfner proposed a model of how stellar winds might function given these conditions - a theory that until now has been regarded as controversial. The model requires the existence of dust grains that are just large enough to absorb the right amount of radiation. Thus would the greater part of a star's radiation escape absorption, with the result that the grains did not overheat, with just enough being absorbed to accelerate the dust grains and, accordingly, the gas.

Just the right sort of dust grains have now been identified around a number of cool giant stars by an Australian-European research team. The results were obtained using highly advanced methods that combine high resolution, making it possible to observe the immediate vicinity of a star, with radiation analysis that allows for the measurement of dust-grain size.

"The findings are very interesting and permit us to proceed with our research into how red giants develop into white dwarfs and the relevance of a specific type of supernova that serves as an important yardstick in connection with investigations into the evolution of the universe," Susanne Höfner says.

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Journal References:

  1. Susanne Höfner. Astrophysics: Fresh light on stardust. Nature, 2012; 484 (7393): 172 DOI: 10.1038/484172a
  2. Barnaby R. M. Norris, Peter G. Tuthill, Michael J. Ireland, Sylvestre Lacour, Albert A. Zijlstra, Foteini Lykou, Thomas M. Evans, Paul Stewart, Timothy R. Bedding. A close halo of large transparent grains around extreme red giant stars. Nature, 2012; 484 (7393): 220 DOI: 10.1038/nature10935

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Uppsala University. "New life for controversial stellar wind theory." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 April 2012. <>.
Uppsala University. (2012, April 12). New life for controversial stellar wind theory. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 26, 2017 from
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