From the December 2010 issue

What are carbon stars? How do they form?

Carlos Ciscato, São Paulo, Brazil
By | Published: December 27, 2010
Close-up of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.
NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
Most stars contain more oxygen than carbon atoms. If their atmospheres are cool enough to form molecules, their characteristic light signatures exhibit strong bands of oxygen-containing molecules, mainly titanium oxide (TiO). But some cool stars have different spectra, dominated by carbon-containing molecules, such as CH, CN, and C2. These spectral features signal a rare condition in which carbon is more abundant than oxygen, which is why these objects are called carbon stars.

Traditionally, the carbon star label has been reserved for cool red giants, which have temperatures slightly lower than 4,000 kelvin at their surfaces. (For comparison, our Sun’s surface is about 5,800 kelvin.) Most of the coolest giants are oxygen-rich, and for historical reasons they are called M stars. The carbon-rich ones are designated C stars. A third (even more rare) category contains S stars, which have roughly an equal number of oxygen and carbon atoms.

How do carbon stars form? A star spends most of its life shining because of the energy released during the fusion of four hydrogen nuclei into one helium nucleus. Late in its life, hydrogen burning ceases; the interior regions shrink and heat while the outer layers puff out to present to the universe a red giant star. When the interior helium core reaches fusion temperatures, it will convert helium mainly into carbon. On rare occasions, this newly minted carbon can be dredged up to the stellar surface, creating a carbon star — living proof of the creation of elements inside stars. The stars are “proof” that astronomers’ stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis models must be on the right track.

— Christopher Sneden, University of Texas, Austin