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Life Cycles of Stars

Summarizes the life cycles of different types of stars.

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The Life Cycle of a Star

Telescope image of an exploding supernova

Credit: Courtesy of NASA
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Supernova1987A.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Rings of glowing gas encircling Supernova 1987A, about 179,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s dwarf satellite galaxies.

The Life Cycle of Stars

Space may seem empty, but actually it contains thinly spread gas and dust, called interstellar medium, that gradually collapses over immense stretches of time and collects into denser clouds of gas and dust. The atoms of gas are mostly hydrogen and are typically about a centimeter apart. The dust is mostly carbon and silicon. In some places, this interstellar medium is collected into particularly dense clouds of gas and dust known as a nebula. A nebula is the birthplace of stars. Our sun was probably born in a nebula around 5 billion years ago.

Within a nebula, there are varying regions where gravity has caused the gas and dust to clump together. The gravitational attraction of these clumps pull more atoms into the clump. As this accretion continues, the gas pressure increases and the core of the protostar gets hotter and hotter. If the protostar gets dense enough and hot enough, a fusion reaction will ignite and the star lights up. The minimum mass for the formation of a star is about 80 times the mass of Jupiter. A star is a very large, very hot ball of gas which has hydrogen fusing into helium in the core. Stars spend the majority of their life fusing hydrogen into helium. When the hydrogen is nearly used up, the star can fuse helium into heavier elements. Throughout this process, a battle goes on in the core of the star between gravity trying to collapse the star and temperature-produced gas pressure pushing the material in the star outward. During the life of a star, there is a balance between the gas pressure pushing out and gravity pushing in.

Once a star has achieved nuclear fusion in its core, it radiates energy into space. While the temperature-produced gas pressure balances gravity, the star attains a stable state and enters the main sequence phase of its life. The temperature of a main sequence star is about 15,000,000°C. For the major part of its life span, a star stays in this main sequence phase, with hydrogen being fused into helium and a balance between force pushing out and force pushing in.

How long a star lives depends on its initial size. Stars can live from many millions of years to many billions of years. The most massive stars (many times the size of our sun) become extremely dense and hot in the core and therefore, have a very high fusion rate. The largest stars use up their hydrogen fuel fastest and therefore live for the shortest time, perhaps only millions of years. Stars that are the size of our sun fuse hydrogen much more slowly and therefore live much longer. Medium sized stars live billions of years.

As a star begins to run low on hydrogen, since the initial quantity has been fused into the denser helium gas, the core will contract due to gravity. The collapsing core increases temperature to the point that the star can begin to fuse helium into carbon. When that happens, the outer portion of the star expands greatly due to the higher temperature. The star can expand to 1000 times the diameter of the sun. At this point, the star is called a red giant. If our sun became a red giant, its surface would expand out past the orbit of Mars. Red giants are red because the surface of the star is cooler than white or blue stars, but remain highly visible because of their gigantic size.

Relative size of a red giant

Credit: User:Sakurambo/Wikipedia
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Redgiants.svg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

After a star becomes a red giant, it will take one of several different paths to end its life. Which path is followed by a star after the red giant phase depends on its mass. During the fusion life of a star, its size is the result of a competition between fusion heat pushing the material out and gravity pulling the material in. At the end, gravity always wins. After the star has lived through its red giant stage, the fusion essentially ends (the star runs out of fuel) allowing gravity to collapse the star. Some of the outer layers of material will be blown away and the core becomes smaller and denser. The core will become either a neutron star, a white dwarf, a black dwarf, or a black hole.

Low-mass stars (less than 0.5 times the mass of our sun) become a red giant and then blow off some outer material which dissipates in the interstellar medium after a few hundred thousand years. The remainder of the star shrinks to a white dwarf. After a few billion years, white dwarfs cool to become black dwarfs.

Medium-mass stars (less than 3 times the mass of our sun) become a red giants and eventually become a supernova. A supernova is the massive explosion of a star accompanied by emission of light and matter so intense that it can outshine an entire galaxy. After a supernove, when all the accessible fuel in a medium-mass star is exhausted, the iron core collapses and proton-electron pairs are converted into neutrons. Such stars are called neutron stars. Neutron stars might spin rapidly giving off light and X-rays or they might emit pulses of energy regularly and be known as pulsars.

The largest-mass stars become black holes. These extremely large stars end their life in the same way as a medium-mass star in that they become a supernova. After the outer layers are blown away in the supernova, however, the core of the star shrinks down in volume but still has a huge mass. The density of this object is extremely high, even denser than neutron stars. This dense object will have a gravitational force so large that not even light can escape from the body. (A companion topic to this occurs in The General Theory of Relativity where we see than extremely strong gravitational attraction can even attract light.) These objects appear black because light cannot leave them, that is, they pull all light back to their surface. Black holes capture everything nearby due to their massive gravity and so they grow in size. Black holes are a common topic for science fiction but keep in mind, they are simply a very dense ball of matter with intense gravitational attraction.


  • A star begins its life in a nebula, struggles to balance gravitational pull and internal pressure during its main sequence period, and ends its life in an explosion to eventually become a white or black dwarf, or a neutron star, or a black hole.


  1. All stars begin as
    1. red giants
    2. nebulae
    3. supernova
    4. white dwarf
  2. The correct life cycle for a very large mass star is
    1. main sequence, red giant, white dwarf
    2. black hole, supernova, red giant, nebulae
    3. main sequence, red giant, supernova, black hole
    4. main sequence, red giant, supernova, neutron star
  3. Which of the following is the fusion occurring in our sun?
    1. lithium to beryllium
    2. helium to hydrogen
    3. hydrogen to helium
    4. helium to carbon
  4. During its main sequence life time, a star is kept from collapsing by
    1. the strong nuclear force
    2. heat that produces gas pressure
    3. the fact that stars are made up of very lightweight hydrogen gas
    4. the weak nuclear force
  5. Which type of star has the shortest life span?
    1. the smallest ones
    2. the middle sized ones
    3. the most massive ones
  6. Medium-sized stars end their life as a
    1. neutron star
    2. white dwarf
    3. black dwarf
    4. black hole

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Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Where and how is a star born?
  2. How does a star's size affect its life cycle?
  3. What causes a supernova? A black hole?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Courtesy of NASA; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Supernova1987A.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: User:Sakurambo/Wikipedia; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Redgiants.svg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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