Have you ever wanted to examine the photosphere of a white dwarf up close and personal? Now you, too, can recreate and observe the atmospheric conditions of these extreme, dense, dead stars — assuming you have access to Sandia Labs’s Z Machine.
The eye-catching planetary nebula NGC 2440 surrounds a newly formed white dwarf star. [NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)]When a low-mass star exhausts its nuclear fuel, it ends its life by puffing off its outer layers. The dense, scalding hot core of the star — a white dwarf — is then left exposed, emitting high-energy radiation as it gradually cools.
White dwarfs are of enormous astronomical use to scientists. By observing white dwarfs, we are able to learn about topics ranging across stellar evolution, mass-loss processes, distances to astronomical objects, and even the age of the universe. To make correct inferences, however, we need accurate measurements of these white dwarfs’ masses — which is easier said than done.
Confusing the Scale
There are multiple techniques that can be used to measure the masses of white dwarfs. One of the most widely used and broadly applicable is spectroscopy: by fitting the absorption lines observed from white ...