Published: Sun, January 13, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

The Sun will become a giant crystal ball when it dies

The Sun will become a giant crystal ball when it dies

White dwarf stars are already some of the oldest star stuff in the universe. But when the Sun dies, it will turn into an enormous crystal ball, according to a new study.

The Gaia space telescope was trained by scientists on 15,000 white dwarf candidates that are around 300 light years of Earth.

Many scientists thought it was likely that white dwarf stars would form crystals as they cooled, but there was disagreement about whether the energy released from the process would be detectable, Tremblay said. Using data from the ESA's Gaia satellite, an global group of researchers claim to have found evidence that supports the theory that when massive white dwarf stars like our brilliant host (the Sun) burn out and die, they solidify into metallic crystals.

It's what happens next that fascinates Pier-Emmanuel Tremblay, a physicist at the University of Warwick in England, whose paper, published this week in the journal Nature, examines what happens to these star corpses, or "stellar embers". The information found a "pile-up", or a somewhat bigger number of white dwarfs with "specific colors and luminosities that do not correspond to any single mass or age". Dr. Trembley mentioned that no other direct evidence has ever been discovered that white dwarfs crystallize ( the process of turning solid from liquid).

When the transition occurs, the atoms in the super dense interior of the star form into an ordered structure and solidify, in a similar way to how liquid water transitions into ice. As it cools over time, the core transforms into an solid crystal.

"All white dwarfs will crystallize at some point in their evolution", Tremblay said in a media release.

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Over the next five billion years it will cool down - in the process first expanding into a "red giant" - then shrinking down to a white dwarf and gradually harden and solidify.

In addition to that, fifty years ago it was predicted that a number of white dwarfs would be observed certain luminosities and colors due to crystallization.

That, in turn, has an impact on our understanding of the stellar groupings these white dwarfs are a part of.

"We will now have to develop better crystallisation models to get more accurate estimates of the ages of these systems". The astronomers realized that this pile-up was not a distinct population of white dwarfs, but the effect of the cooling and crystallization of the originally hot matter inside the star's core. White dwarfs with lower masses, closer to the expected end stage of the Sun, cool in a slower fashion, requiring up to six billion years to turn into dead solid spheres.

White dwarfs are extremely dense stars, so the positively charged nuclei in their cores exist as a fluid, the scientists say. "The Sun itself will become a crystal white dwarf in about 10 billion years".

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