The Story of Helium and the Birth of Astrophysics (Astronomers Universe)

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Do stars have hydrogen and helium or hydrogen alone on its birth? | Socratic

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Astroquizzical Beginner's Journey Through the Cosmos. View Wishlist. To illustrate this connection, the familiar periodic table of elements—found in virtually every chemistry class—has been adapted to show how astronomers see the chemical Universe. What leaps out of this table is that the simplest elements, hydrogen and helium, are far and away the most abundant.

The Universe started out with baryonic matter in its simplest form, hydrogen.

In essence, the chemical history of the Universe can be divided into two mainphases: one lasting 20 minutes, and the rest lasting for After that initial one third of an hour, the expanding Universe cooled below the point where nuclear fusion could operate. This meant that no evolution of matter could occur again until stars were formed a few million years later. Then the buildup of elements heavier than helium could begin. Stars evolve through a sequence of stages in which nuclear fusion reactions in their central regions build up helium and other elements see illustration, far right.

The energy supplied by fusion reactions creates the pressure needed to hold the star up against gravity. Winds of gas escaping from stars distribute some of this processed matter into space in a relatively gentle manner and supernovas do it violently. As the enrichment of the interstellar and intergalactic gas has proceeded over vast stretches of space and time, the chemistry of the cosmos has become richer, too.

Subsequent generations of stars have formed from interstellar gas enriched in heavy elements. Our Sun, Solar System, and indeed the existence of life on Earth are direct results of this long chain of stellar birth, death, and rebirth. In this way, the evolution of matter, stars and galaxies are all inextricably tied together and so too are astronomy and chemistry. One of the principal scientific accomplishments of the Chandra X-ray Observatory has been to help unravel how the chemical enrichment by stellar winds and supernovas works on a galactic and intergalactic scale.

Chandra images and spectra of individual supernova remnants reveal clouds of gas rich in elements such as oxygen, silicon, sulfur, calcium and iron, and track the speed at which these elements have been ejected in the explosion. The Chandra image of the Cas A supernova remnant shows iron rich ejecta outside silicon-rich ejecta, thus indicating that turbulent mixing and an aspherical explosion turned much of the original star inside out.

Observations of Doppler-shifted emission lines for Cas A and other supernova remnants are providing three-dimensional information on the distribution and velocity of the supernova ejecta which will help to constrain models for the explosion.


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On a larger scale, observations of galaxies undergoing bursts of star formation show that vast regions of these galaxies have been enriched by the combined action of thousands of supernovas.


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