The uncertainty of science: Using Hubble observations of the white dwarfs in two different globular clusters, astronomers have discovered that — contrary to the consensus opinion — some white dwarf stars are not slowly cooling embers of a dead star, but are still generating nuclear fusion by burning hydrogen in their outer layers.
Using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 the team observed [globular clusters] M3 and M13 at near-ultraviolet wavelengths, allowing them to compare more than 700 white dwarfs in the two clusters. They found that M3 contains standard white dwarfs, which are simply cooling stellar cores. M13, on the other hand, contains two populations of white dwarfs: standard white dwarfs and those which have managed to hold on to an outer envelope of hydrogen, allowing them to burn for longer and hence cool more slowly.
Comparing their results with computer simulations of stellar evolution in M13, the researchers were able to show that roughly 70% of the white dwarfs in M13 are burning hydrogen on their surfaces, slowing down the rate at which they are cooling.
This discovery could have consequences for how astronomers measure the ages of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The evolution of white dwarfs has previously been modeled as a predictable cooling process. This relatively straightforward relationship between age and temperature has led astronomers to use the white dwarf cooling rate as a natural clock to determine the ages of star clusters, particularly globular and open clusters. However, white dwarfs burning hydrogen could cause these age estimates to be inaccurate by as much as 1 billion years.
In other words, many past age estimates for star clusters could be very wrong, which in turn could mean the general understanding of the evolution of these objects could be very wrong as well.
These results also illustrate a fact that astronomers seem to always forget. The stars in any one category (white dwarfs, red super giants, yellow stars like the Sun, etc.) are not all identical, and thus their life and death processes will not all follow the predicted stages, like clockwork. Things are always far more complicated. Though the predictions might be broadly right, there will be many variations, so many that it will often be difficult to draw a generalized conclusion.
It seems that with white dwarfs astronomers have made this mistake, and now must rethink many of their conclusions.
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