The theory of stellar structure applies the laws of physics to calculation of the equilibrium configurations of stars. According to this theory, the mass and chemical composition of a star determine all its other characteristics. Because most stars are more than 90% hydrogen, variations in chemical composition are small and have a small effect. Variation in mass is the main factor; a doubling in mass increases the luminosity more than 10 times. For a star to be stable, the compressive force of gravitation must be exactly balanced by the tendency of the gas to expand. Thus, the size and temperature of a star are important, interrelated factors.
Despite the tremendous pressure generated by the massive layers above it, the central region, or core, of a star remains gaseous. This is possible because the core has a temperature of millions of degrees. At this temperature, nuclear energy is released by the fusion of hydrogen to form helium; the principle is the same as that of the hydrogen bomb. By the time nuclear energy reaches the surface of the star, it has been largely converted into visible light with a spectrum characteristic of a very hot body (see blackbody). The theory of stellar evolution states that a star must change as it consumes its hydrogen in the nuclear reactions that power it. Ultimately each star must die, rarely in a supernova explosion, when its capability for nuclear reactions is exhausted. The heavy atoms created in supernovas (see nucleosynthesis) are spewed out to become part of the interstellar matter from which new stars are continuously formed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.