white dwarf

white dwarf, in astronomy, a type of star that is abnormally faint for its white-hot temperature (see mass-luminosity relation). Typically, a white dwarf star has the mass of the sun and the radius of the earth but does not emit enough light or other radiation to be easily detected. The existence of white dwarfs is intimately connected with stellar evolution. A white dwarf is the hot core of a star, left over after the star uses up its nuclear fuel and dies. It is made mostly of carbon and is coated by a thin layer of hydrogen and helium gases. The physical conditions inside the star are quite unusual; the central density is about 1 million times that of water.

Astronomers long believed this intense pressure could cause the carbon interiors of white dwarfs to crystallize. In 2004 the discovery of BPM-37093, a star that is located 50 light-years from the earth in the constellation Centaurus and is both pulsating and has sufficient mass to have a crystalline interior. By measuring the pulsations it was possible to study this white dwarf's interior and determine that it had crystallized to form an enormous diamond, some 950 mi (1,500 km) wide. Were it a diamond as we commonly know it, it would weigh some 10 billion trillion trillion carats.

The first white dwarf discovered (1844) was the faint companion in the binary star Sirius. Although invisible to the telescopes of the day, the white dwarf's mass was large enough to produce a noticeable wavy motion in its very bright partner as the two stars revolved around each other. It is believed that white dwarfs could represent as much as a third of the so-called dark matter in the universe.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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