Our sun and billions of stars just like it are headed for a strange, cold destiny.
New research suggests that long after our roiling, boiling life-giving star runs out of fuel it will slowly form a cold, dead, super-dense crystal sphere about the size of the Earth that will linger like a translucent tombstone for close to eternity.
"In tens of billions of years from now the universe will be made largely of dense crystal spheres," said Pier-Emmanuel Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, who led the work published this week in Nature. "In the future, these objects will be completely dominant."
To come to this conclusion, the researchers used data collected by the European Space Agency's Gaia telescope to analyze the color and brightness of 15,000 white dwarf stars within 300 light-years of Earth.
White dwarf stars are among the oldest objects in the universe, and represent one of the final life phases of stars like the sun.
Currently, our sun is about half way through the main sequence phase, which means it creates energy by fusing hydrogen into helium in its core.
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In about 5 billion to 6 billion years it will run out of hydrogen. Then its core will shrink and the rest of the star will puff up into a relatively short-lived red giant phase which will last about 500 million to a billion years before it contracts once again.
After this contraction the star can still create energy by fusing helium to create carbon and oxygen, Tremblay said.
However, this form of energy generation burns quickly and will only last for a few billion years.
When that process comes to an end, the sun will enter the white dwarf stage, which is essentially a retired star made up primarily of oxygen and carbon gas.