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Space Earth Science

Astronomers Say Dying Sun Will Engulf Earth 343

iamlucky13 writes "A minor academic debate among astronomers is the final fate of the earth. As the sun ages and enters the red giant stage of its life, it will heat up, making the earth inhospitable. It will also expand, driven by helium fusion so that its outer layers reach past the earth's current orbit. Previously it had been believed that the sun would lose enough mass to allow earth to escape to a more distant orbit, lifeless but intact. However, new calculations, which take into account tidal forces and drag from mass shed by the sun, suggest that the earth will have sufficiently slowed in that time to be dragged down to its utter destruction in 7.6 billion years. "
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Astronomers Say Dying Sun Will Engulf Earth

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  • Ah well... (Score:2, Informative)

    by QJimbo ( 779370 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @12:06AM (#22569422)
    All good things...
  • This is news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Cobalt Jacket ( 611660 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @12:07AM (#22569438)
    This is the way I was taught it would happen on astronomy shows from the 1980s. I don't get the big deal.
  • Re:Interesting Note (Score:4, Informative)

    by ( 1195047 ) <philip DOT paradis AT palegray DOT net> on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @12:16AM (#22569508) Homepage Journal
    I don't know why your karma would suffer from this... there are some interesting parallels between theories concerning the technological singularity [] and the Biblical book of Revelation [] (at least in some peoples' opinions). Why not add another metaphorical spin to things?
  • Re:OS Clock (Score:2, Informative)

    by soundhack ( 179543 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @12:31AM (#22569650)
    32.823352272542484276756074858822 + 1 bits, so 5 bytes

  • Re:This is news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @12:32AM (#22569654)
    They thought for a little while that the Earth might just make it, but now it's pretty clear to everybody that's not going to happen.
  • I was looking for something to mod up but all the replies so far are about how they learned the earth would be engulfed and surprised at the debate. I think the confusion is arises because there is no debate about whether the sun will expand to the size of earth's orbit. The debate is whether the earth will have moved far enough from that current orbit to not be engulfed. Here we go, wikipedia says precisely this:

    While it is likely that the expansion of the outer layers of the Sun will reach the current position of Earth's orbit, recent research suggests that mass lost from the Sun earlier in its red giant phase will cause the Earth's orbit to move further out, preventing it from being engulfed. []

    And some of the academic references are actually a decade old: []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @01:19AM (#22569982)
    IANAAP (Astrophysicist) and I don't know if your math is right, but your general thinking is probably on. You are essentially calculating an average density (not in tehnical terms, but in lay terms anyway). So the density on the edge will be really low because most of the mass will be near the center (just as the sun is today). So the fusion is going on in the dense part which, calculated along with the sparser outer layers, combines for an average density that seems too low for fusion. I would be interested to know whether your math is really that close though...anyone?
  • by Einer2 ( 665985 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @01:25AM (#22570020)
    I doubt if this post is high enough to net any karma, but oh well. I'll chalk it up as my outreach for the day...week...year...something. The important quantity isn't the average density, but the core density (as fusion only happens near the core). As stars evolve off the main sequence, their outer layers may expand, but they also become much more centrally condensed.

    During the hydrogen burning phase, inert helium gradually builds up in the core and hydrogen becomes less common. This means the core has to contract and become hotter in order to produce enough energy to support itself and the surrounding envelope. The fusion rate depends on the square of the hydrogen density (since you need the hydrogen atoms to collide with each other), so if the hydrogen density goes down, the core has to become hotter and more generally dense in order to maintain the same energy production rate. (This is why stars gradually become more luminous over their main sequence lifetime, as the core actually has to produce more energy in order to support itself in its more compact configuration.)

    As a star finishes exhausting its hydrogen, this actually reaches a very extreme configuration where the core becomes much more compact (and much hotter) trying to squeeze out the required energy with very little hydrogen remaining. The total energy being produced by the core (in order to keep itself from collapsing) increases very rapidly at this point, and the larger luminosity will then push the envelope outward, puffing it up. This is why stars expand into red giants, and this is the stage where the Earth will probably be engulfed.

    For trivia purposes, the central core eventually runs entirely out of hydrogen and sits there as an inert clump while the upper edges of the core burn hydrogen. When the hydrogen is exhausted for a large enough fraction of the core, the center eventually becomes hot and dense enough to fuse helium into carbon. At this point, the overall luminosity drops again (because the star doesn't need to keep frantically burning just hydrogen to support itself) and the star contracts a bit. The process then starts over again, with a shell of helium fusion surround an inert carbon core that (for stars more massive than the Sun) eventually ignites to fuse into neon, oxygen, etc.

  • by AbsoluteXyro ( 1048620 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @01:25AM (#22570030)
    When speaking of planetary catastrophe the death of our Sun is but a distant worry. It has already been mentioned that in about 3 billion years the galaxy Andromeda will collide with our own Milky Way galaxy. That of course poses several dangers to Earth in itself, though none particularly likely due to the vast distances between stars within galaxies, the potential for a stellar marauder to interfere with our solar system and cause chaos for Earth does exist. More worrisome, though, is the fact that around the same time (3 billion years from now) the Earth's core will finally cool and it's magnetic field generating dynamo will shut down, causing the Earth's shielding from the solar wind to collapse and the atmosphere to be stripped away eventually leaving the planet as dry and barren as Mars. Well before that ever happens, Earth will have to deal with the solar system's bobbing and weaving in and out of the galactic plane, possibly exposing the planet to deadly cosmic rays. Even nearer to our future is the fact that a conveniently aimed gamma ray burst from an exploding star (Betelgeuse is ready to go any day now) could "sterilize" the planet. Then of course, there is the ever present threat of an Earth shattering asteroid impact, which happens every 100 million years or so on average... in which case you could consider Earth overdue for another one. So yeah... the Sun engulfing the Earth (or what's left of it) 7 billion years from now... I wouldn't sweat that one.
  • by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @01:29AM (#22570054) Homepage
    According to the professor who taught my astronomy class, the Earth's climate will be tipped into thermal runaway, like Venus, long before the Sun becomes a red giant. Solar output increases steadily as the Sun ages. It's only a matter of time, like a few billion years, before it overwhelms the Earth's ability to regulate its temperature.
  • Re:This is news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by beadfulthings ( 975812 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @01:45AM (#22570164) Journal
    Carl Sagan in his 1980 pop-astronomy series "Cosmos." He was quite poetic, talking about one "last, perfect day" for Earth as we know it as the sun begins its changes. 'Twas quite a hit in its day, that series (and book).
  • Re:Interesting Note (Score:2, Informative)

    by superslacker87 ( 998043 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @02:01AM (#22570246)

    I don't know why your karma would suffer from this... there are some interesting parallels between theories concerning the technological singularity [] and the Biblical book of Revelation [] (at least in some peoples' opinions). Why not add another metaphorical spin to things?
    Well, for one thing, it's not the Book of Revelation, it's 2 Peter 3:10 [], but I digress.
  • Re:Come on... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Cecil ( 37810 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @02:40AM (#22570428) Homepage
    Only by laypeople, as far as I know. For as long as I can remember in modern astronomy, it's been thought that the Earth (as in the big hunk of rock, not any of its fancy accessories like say, life, or water... minor but important point there) would actually survive, barely. Scientists generally believed the mass loss from the inflating, overpressured sun losing its grip on its outer atmosphere would be sufficient to allow Earth to escape destruction as its orbit would be slowly spiralling outwards while the sun lost mass. It would still ultimately end up being far too close to the inflated sun not to be burnt to a crisp, but the rocky body of the planet itself would survive. Now it turns out the drag from all that mass being lost would be enough to slow the Earth's orbit down to the point where it would indeed be consumed.
  • Re:This is news? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @02:40AM (#22570430)
    It's gone back and forth ever since they figured out the fate of the sun. Don't count these calculations as the final word, but they're more detailed than any that had been done before.
  • by hubie ( 108345 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @03:01AM (#22570554)
    The solar corona problem isn't tied to fusion per se, just to a very hot core cooling radially outward. Also, there aren't any problems with thermodynamics in this situation provided there is some mechanism that is adding energy to the plasma at the solar surface. Given the violent nature of the solar surface, particularly with respect to solar flares and coronal mass ejections, there are certainly energy generating processes going on, so it isn't too terribly surprising that the corona gets heated up. The big question is what process(es) are causing it. For what it's worth, magnetic reconnection is the main suspect.
  • by iamlucky13 ( 795185 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @03:02AM (#22570556)
    Back in the 60's or so they figured out the whole red giant phase of stellar evolution and realized the sun would expand to about the diameter of the earth's present orbit when it reached this point. It was a fascinating bit of trivia for Carl Sagan and the common folk to pass around that the sun would engulf the earth, but further investigation showed the sun would likely lose something like 30% of it's mass as heat from helium fusion blew away the outer layers (a process that looks really freaking cool [] from a distance). This would cause the earth, due to conservation of its orbital energy, to assume a much larger orbit...about as far out as Mars is today.

    Therefore the popular notion was thought by many astronomers to be wrong. But in fact, nobody had ever done a really detailed model of the process until the subject of this article. It turns out, the professionals were wrong, and the common folk were correct, if only because we were a couple decades behind the times academically.

    If you don't believe me, here's the archived wikipedia page for earth [] from last Friday. It's since been updated.
  • Re:Last post (Score:2, Informative)

    by nanogiga ( 1228344 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @04:03AM (#22570878)
    Actually, in 2 billion years the moon will have moved away from the earth far enough that it can no longer stabilize the earths rotation axis. This will cause the axis to move much more than it does today, so it may from time to time point to the sun, continually heating up one half to death and letting the other half freeze to death.

    So by then there will already be no more life on earth. Unless we can capture the moon with a lasso by that time.
  • by Xeriar ( 456730 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @04:23AM (#22570974) Homepage
    Space is big. There are only supposed to be about six stellar collisions, and most of those in the core region. Out here in the boondocks? We're probably fine.
  • by Yahweh Doesn't Exist ( 906833 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @05:51AM (#22571400)
    the core of the Sun is more like 15 million degrees.

    the coronal heating problem simply means the mechanism responsible for the increased temperature is a non-equilibrium process. the corona is also a near-vacuum so despite its high temperature there is relatively tiny amount of energy there.
  • by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @06:29AM (#22571574) Journal

    the core becomes much more compact (and much hotter) trying to squeeze out the required energy with very little hydrogen remaining.

    I really wish you wouldn't repeatedly use this terminology.

    It is decidedly un-informative to explain what an inanimate object is "trying" to do. And what's more, a much more accurate and informative explanation is really no longer or more difficult to offer.

    A quick and sloppy example:

    "As hydrogen is depleted, the [outward] pressure from hydrogen fusion can no longer [fully] counteract the force of gravity, so the star's density increases, and the core pressure rises [getting hotter] until the point that helium fusion occurs."

    See... Now people might actually understand why stars don't "try" to fuse helium, until the hydrogen supply is depleted.
  • by Latent Heat ( 558884 ) on Wednesday February 27, 2008 @09:47AM (#22573186)
    What is this business about helium fusion in the red giant phase?

    Unless there are some revisions in the laws of physics, the nuclear processes throughout stellar evolution are well known based on computer models.

    When helium "ash" accumulates in the core, helium fusion is not the next thing that happens. The core starts contracting and heating up, but that lights off H2 fusion in the shell surrounding the core. That phenomenon changes the luminosity and heat transfer rates of the star, causing the outer atmosphere to swell up into the red giant stage.

    When shell burning runs its course, again the core contracts and heats up some more, resulting in the helium flash. Based on computer models, the helium flash is a major disruptive event caused by the sudden onset of helium fusion, it does not cause the star to go nova or anything, but it causes the star to change modes as it were, becoming somewhat bluer and smaller, but still more luminous than Main Sequence. From the computer models, it is believed that the upper-righthand HR diagram stars, red giants, are H2 shell burners while the horizontal branch above the Main Sequence represents He core burners.

    For a massive enough star, exhaustion of core He will initiate shell He ignition, sending the star back into the red giant range, perhaps as a red supergiant for a massive star.

    The red giant phase is only one phase of an evolved star. Everyone just kind of assumed that a star that goes supernova would be a red giant, but it seems like the star that popped off in Supernova 1987a in the LMS was blue.

"Truth never comes into the world but like a bastard, to the ignominy of him that brought her birth." -- Milton