White dwarfs: Facts about the dense stellar remnants

White dwarfs are dense stellar corpses.
White dwarfs are dense stellar corpses. (Image credit: Future)

White dwarfs are what is left when stars like our sun have exhausted all of their fuel. They are dense, dim, stellar corpses — the last observable stage of evolution for low- and medium-mass stars.  

Whilst most massive stars will eventually go supernova, a low or medium mass star with a mass less than about 8 times the mass of the sun will eventually become a white dwarf, according to NASA. Approximately 97% of the stars in the Milky Way will eventually become white dwarfs, according to researchers.

Compared to our sun, a white dwarf has a similar carbon and oxygen mass though it is much smaller in size — similar to Earth, according to New Mexico State University (NMSU). 

White dwarf temperatures can exceed 100,000 Kelvin according to NASA (that's about 179,500 degrees Fahrenheit). Despite these sweltering temperatures, white dwarfs have a low luminosity as they're so small in size according to NMSU.

Related: Red dwarfs: The most common and longest-lived stars

White dwarf formation

Main-sequence stars, including the sun, form from clouds of dust and gas drawn together by gravity. How the stars evolve through their lifetime depends on their mass. The most massive stars, with eight times the mass of the sun or more, will never become white dwarfs. Instead, at the end of their lives, white dwarfs will explode in a violent supernova, leaving behind a neutron star or black hole.

Did you know?

According to NASA, a teaspoon of white dwarf matter would weigh 5.5 tons on Earth — about the same as an elephant!  

Smaller stars, however, will take a slightly more sedate path. Low- to medium-mass stars, such as the sun, will eventually swell up into red giants. After that, the stars shed their outer layers into a ring known as a planetary nebula (early observers thought the nebulas resembled planets such as Neptune and Uranus ). The core that is left behind will be a white dwarf, a husk of a star in which no hydrogen fusion occurs.

The cool, dim star at the center of the blue haze cloud is a white dwarf. The planetary nebula NGC 2452 is located in the southern constellation of Puppis.  (Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA. Acknowledgements: Luca Limatola, Budeanu Cosmin Mirel)

Smaller stars, such as red dwarfs, don't make it to the red giant state. They simply burn through all of their hydrogen, ending the process as a dim white dwarf. However, red dwarfs take trillions of years to consume their fuel, far longer than the 13.8-billion-year-old age of the universe, so no red dwarfs have yet become white dwarfs.

White dwarf characteristics

When a star runs out of fuel, it no longer experiences an outward push from the process of fusion and it collapses inward on itself. White dwarfs contain approximately the mass of the sun but have roughly the radius of Earth, according to Cosmos, the astronomy encyclopedia from Swinburne University in Australia. This makes them among the densest objects in space, beaten out only by neutron stars and black holes. According to NASA, the gravity on the surface of a white dwarf is 350,000 times that of gravity on Earth. That means a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person on Earth would weigh 50 million pounds (22.7 million kg) on the surface of a white dwarf.

An all-sky view of some 230,000 white dwarfs discovered with the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite.  (Image credit: Gaia Sky; S. Jordan / T. Sagristà, Astronomisches Rechen-Institut, Zentrum für Astronomie der Universität Heidelberg, Germany)

White dwarfs reach this incredible density because they are collapsed so tightly that their electrons are smashed together, forming what is called "degenerate matter." The former stars will keep collapsing until the electrons themselves provide enough of an outward-pressing force to halt the crunch. The more mass, the greater the pull inward, so a more massive white dwarf has a smaller radius than its less massive counterpart. Those conditions mean that, after shedding much of its mass during the red giant phase, no white dwarf can exceed 1.4 times the mass of the sun.

When a star swells up to become a red giant, it engulfs its closest planets. But some can still survive. NASA’s Spitzer spacecraft revealed that at least 1 to 3 percent of white dwarf stars have contaminated atmospheres that suggest rocky material has fallen into them.

"In the quest for Earth-like planets, we have now identified numerous systems which are excellent candidates to harbor them," Jay Farihi, a white dwarf researcher at the University of Leicester in England, told Space.com. "Where they persist as white dwarfs, any terrestrial planets will not be habitable, but may have been sites where life developed during a previous epoch."

In one exciting case, researchers have observed the rocky material as it falls into the white dwarf.

"It's exciting and unexpected that we can see this kind of dramatic change on human timescales," Boris Gänsicke, an astronomer at the University of Warwick in England, told Space.com.

The fate of a white dwarf

Artists illustration showing a white dwarf stealing material from nearby companion. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Many white dwarfs fade away into relative obscurity, eventually radiating away all of their energy and becoming so-called black dwarfs, but those that share a system with companion stars may suffer a different fate. 

If the white dwarf is part of a binary system, it may be able to pull material from its companion onto its surface. Increasing the white dwarf's mass can have some interesting results.

One possibility is that the added mass could cause it to collapse into a much denser neutron star.

A far more explosive result is the Type 1a supernova. As the white dwarf pulls material from a companion star, the temperature increases, eventually triggering a runaway reaction that detonates in a violent supernova that destroys the white dwarf. This process is known as a "single-degenerate model" of a Type 1a supernova. 

Related: Know Your Novas: Star Explosions Explained (Infographic) 

In 2012, researchers were able to closely observe the complex shells of gas surrounding one Type 1a supernova in fine detail.

"We really saw, for the first time, detailed evidence of the progenitor for a Type 1a supernova," Benjamin Dilday, the study's lead author and an astronomer at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network in California told SPACE.com.

If the companion is another white dwarf instead of an active star, the two stellar corpses merge together to kick off the fireworks. This process is known as a "double-degenerate model" of a Type 1a supernova.

At other times, the white dwarf may pull just enough material from its companion to briefly ignite in a nova, a far smaller explosion. Because the white dwarf remains intact, it can repeat the process several times when it reaches that critical point, breathing life back into the dying star over and over again.

"These are the brightest and most frequent stellar eruptions in the galaxy, and they're often visible to the naked eye," Przemek Mróz, an astronomer at Poland’s Warsaw University, told Space.com in a previous article.

Additional resources

You can learn more about white dwarfs with ESA and explore different types of stars with NASA. Discover the evolution of binary star systems with this free educational material from Lumen Learning. Explore the physics of the universe with white dwarfs in this informative material from The University of Texas at Austin.


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Nola Taylor Tillman
Contributing Writer

Nola Taylor Tillman is a contributing writer for Space.com. She loves all things space and astronomy-related, and enjoys the opportunity to learn more. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Astrophysics from Agnes Scott college and served as an intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. In her free time, she homeschools her four children. Follow her on Twitter at @NolaTRedd