Universe Sandbox 2, currently in development, is a powerful gravity simulator that invites you to learn about our amazing universe and fragile planet via an expanding realm of realistic, interconnected astronomy and climate physics systems. Read more about this upcoming version here: The New Universe Sandbox.  Or find out how to purchase the currently available version at universesandbox.com/buy/.

Q:  In Universe Sandbox 2, small stars, such as red dwarfs, stop aging when they reach 12.6 billion years old.  Why is this?

A:  Stellar evolution is incredibly complicated. We understand the basics of it quite well, and for a lot of stars, our models do a really good job of matching up to measurements of real stars. It is, however, very hard to do this right, for several reasons:

1. We don’t have perfect data.

We can’t directly measure the mass or radius of a real star. And even something like the temperature of a star isn’t always easy to measure. This means that a lot of the data are rough estimations.
One really big issue is what astronomers call ‘metallicity’. Basically, what is the relative fraction of elements in a star? How much iron is there, relative to hydrogen, etc?

2. We can’t actually observe the evolution of a single star.

We can watch it, but so far, we’ve only been watching for maybe a few decades or so, depending on when you consider our technology to have been good enough to do any of this.  In star years, that’s not even a blink of the eye.  So we have to make assumptions about the way a star will age by looking at other, older stars. It’s like looking at a whole bunch of people and guessing how you will age by seeing what older people look like right now. You can make an estimation, but it won’t be exact, because how you age depends a bit on what you eat, what happens to you, your genes, etc., and these factors are inevitably different than those of the older folks. Similarly, we can guess what the sun will do, but it has slightly different properties of the stars we think it will look like.

3.  We can’t see inside a star.

And this is where most of the action happens. So this is all based on physics calculations. We’re good at that, but not perfect.

Hertzsprung–Russell diagram in Universe Sandbox. The HR Diagram (star's temperature versus luminosity) was introduced in the early 20th century and helped pave the way for a better understanding of stellar evolution.

Hertzsprung–Russell diagram in Universe Sandbox. The HR Diagram (star’s temperature versus luminosity) was introduced in the early 20th century and helped pave the way for a better understanding of stellar evolution.

Okay, now on to how this directly relates to Universe Sandbox 2:

Since stellar evolution is so hard, we let the full-time, professional astronomers compute the models. We’ve adopted a whole suite of these stellar evolution models, or “isochrones.”  These isochrones tell us the temperature, radius, and luminosity for a range of stellar masses and ages, and we turn that data into what you see in Universe Sandbox.

Unfortunately, although these isochrones are quite good and pretty accurate, they don’t give us predictions for very low-mass stars (less than 10% of the Sun’s mass) or very high-mass stars. And they don’t give us predictions for longer timeframes, such as 12.6 billion years (recall the age of the universe is a bit less than 14 billion years).

So this is what we’re stuck with for the time being. In the future, we’re planning on incorporating some other isochrones that are focused on lower-mass stars (which call for different physics, since the stellar atmospheres are very different; at low temperatures, molecules and even clouds can form in the stellar atmosphere, requiring different models), higher mass stars, different metallicities, and longer timeframes.

This is a work in progress, but we’ll be making it better and better as we go.

Follow the links below to read more about stellar evolution and some of the terms used in this post.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stellar_evolution
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stellar_isochrone
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metallicity
http://stev.oapd.inaf.it/cgi-bin/cmd