From the January 2018 issue

If our solar system is composed of the remains of stars that used up their hydrogen and went supernova, where did our sun get the hydrogen it began with?

Alfred D'Amario Hudson, Florida
By | Published: January 31, 2018 | Last updated on May 18, 2023

When giant clouds of dust and gas condense to form stars, such as the process occurring in the Orion Nebula, only a small fraction of the hydrogen gas present actually ends up in the resulting stars. This leaves plenty of hydrogen from which future generations of stars can form.

NASA/ESA/M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
t’s true that our solar system is built from the remains of earlier generations of stars, which over their lifetimes converted hydrogen into heavier elements. However, plenty of hydrogen was left over to form subsequent generations of stars because the overall efficiency of stars — as the universe’s primary mechanism for converting hydrogen into heavier elements — is quite low.

The inefficiency crops up in a number of places. First, when an interstellar cloud of (mainly hydrogen) gas collapses under its own gravity to create a new group of stars, only a small fraction of the material in the cloud actually ends up incorporated into the stars. The remainder is swept away by strong winds from circumstellar accretion disks.

Second, winds can also develop during a star’s lifetime, either driven by the pressure of hot gas in the corona above the stellar surface, or — in the most luminous stars — by the pressure of light itself. These winds mean that stars reach the end of their lives having lost a significant fraction of their outer layers. The material in these layers rejoins the interstellar medium from whence it originally came.

Finally, the conversion of hydrogen into heavier elements occurs only in the core region of a star, where the temperature and density are sufficiently high for nuclear fusion reactions to take place. Hydrogen farther out in the star’s envelope generally remains unburned (although some exceptions can arise). As a consequence, when a massive star (with an initial mass around nine or more times the mass of the Sun) reaches the end of its life and explodes as a core-collapse supernova, there is still plenty of hydrogen in the star’s envelope; and this hydrogen is driven out by the explosion and again rejoins the interstellar medium.

Rich Townsend 
Assistant Professor, 
Department of Astronomy, 
University of Wisconsin-Madison