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Red Dwarfs: The Most Common and Longest-Lived Stars

red dwarf CHXR 73
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captures the image of the red dwarf star CHXR 73 and its companion, thought to be a brown dwarf. CHXR 73 is one-third less massive than the sun.
Credit: NASA, ESA and K. Luhman (Penn State University).

The largest population of stars in the galaxy hide in the shadows, too dim to be seen with the naked eye from Earth. Their limited radiance helps to extend their lifetimes, which are far greater than that of the sun.

Scientists think that 20 out of the 30 stars nearest to Earth are red dwarfs; however, none of them can be seen with the naked eye. The closest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri, is a red dwarf.

Formation and characteristics

Red dwarfs form like other main-sequence stars. A cloud of dust and gas is drawn together by gravity and begins rotating. The material clumps at the center, and when it reaches the critical temperature, fusion begins.

But red dwarfs are the smallest of the stars, weighing in at 7.5 to 50 percent the mass of the sun. Their reduced size means that they burn at a lower temperature, reaching only 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit  (2,700 degrees Celsius). The sun, by comparison, can reach up to27 million F (15 million C). The low temperatures of red dwarfs means they are far, far dimmer than stars like the sun.

Their low temperature also means that they burn through their supply of hydrogen less rapidly. While other, more massive stars only burn through the hydrogen at their core before coming to the end of their lifetimes, red dwarfs consume all of their hydrogen, in and out of their core. This stretches the lifetime of red dwarfs out to trillions of years, far beyond the 10-billion-year lifetime of sun-like stars.

A host of habitable planets?

Planets form from the material left over in a disk after their star has been created. Many red dwarfs have been found with planets surrounding them, though enormous gas giants are rare.

For a long time, scientists considered red dwarfs to be unfit for habitability. Their limited light and heat meant that the habitable zone — the region where liquid water could form, and thus life would be considered most likely to evolve — of planets around them would be very close to the star, putting them in range of radiation from the tiny stars. Other planets may find themselves tidally locked to the star, with one side constantly facing the sun. [VIDEO: Earth-Like Planets Orbit Nearby Red Dwarf Stars Say Scientists]

But new models have shown that some planets could develop in ways that would potentially allow life to evolve. Because red dwarfs make up more than three-quarters of the stars in the galaxy, this significantly increased the possibilities for the evolution of life in the universe. When its discovery was announced around a red dwarf in 2010, Gliese 581g was called the "first potentially habitable" alien planet.

The end of the line

Tiny red dwarfs may have an extended lifetime, but eventually they, like all other stars, will burn through their supply of fuel. When they do, they will become white dwarfs, dead stars that no longer undergo fusion at their core. Eventually, the white dwarfs will radiate away all of their heat and become black dwarfs.

But unlike the sun, which will become a white dwarf in a few billion years, red dwarfs will take trillions of years to burn through their fuel. This is significantly longer than the age of the universe, which is less than 14 billion years old. Red dwarfs may be a bit dim, but like the tortoise, they will eventually win the survival race.

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