Star Stuff

The elements that make up the stars also exist here on Earth. In fact, our Earth, and indeed all the planets, were created from the dust and gas produced by previous generations of stars that existed before our Sun and solar system formed. We truly are made of stardust!

Stars are made up almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. Here is a table of the most abundant elements in our Sun.

Element% by atoms
Hydrogen92.2%
Helium7.7%
Oxygen0.0473%
Carbon0.0272%
Neon0.0130%
Nitrogen0.0065%
Magnesium0.0033%
Silicon0.0030%
Iron0.0028%
Sulfur0.0013%
Most abundant elements in the Sun

It is not a trivial matter to determine the abundance of elements in the Sun. For most elements, astronomers have to look at the strength of spectral absorption lines in the photosphere. Some elements, like fluorine, chlorine, and thallium, require looking for their spectral lines inside of sunspots, which are cooler-than-average regions of the photosphere. Other elements require that we look at spectral lines in the solar corona, or capture and analyze the solar wind. And some elements we are simply unable to detect.

The region of the photosphere that is amenable to spectral study represents only about 2% of the mass of the Sun. Since the Sun’s formation 4.6 Gyr ago, some gravitational settling of heavier elements and diffusion of hydrogen towards the surface means the Sun is not uniform in composition. Fortunately, the relative abundances of the elements heavier than helium are probably similar throughout the Sun.

Lithium, the third element in the periodic table after hydrogen and helium, is the odd element out. It has a relative abundance in the solar photosphere that is only 1/170th that found in meteorites. The Sun’s original supply of lithium has largely been destroyed by the high temperatures inside the pre-main-sequence Sun, and today at the hot bottom of the Sun’s convection zone.

Light pollution is a problem here on Earth, but on the Sun we have a problem with “line pollution”. There are so many spectral lines that the weak signatures from some elements become difficult or impossible to isolate and measure. There is much blending of overlapping lines, and some elements—most notably iron which is the ninth most abundant element in the Sun—are “superpolluters” with hundreds to thousands of spectral lines from both excited and ionized states.

Sometimes, the spectral lines of interest are in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum (ultraviolet, for example) that can only be observed from space, and that creates additional challenges.

Notably, the noble gases helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon have no photospheric absorption lines that can be observed, and we must look to coronal sources such as the solar wind, solar flares, or solar energetic particles for information about their abundances.

Helium—the second most abundant element in the Sun—requires an indirect approach combining a theoretical solar model and observational helioseismology data to tease out its abundance.

The following elements are undetectable in the Sun: arsenic, selenium, bromine, technetium, tellurium, iodine, cesium, promethium, tantalum, rhenium, mercury, bismuth, polonium, astatine, radon, francium, radium, actinium, protactinium, and all the synthetic elements above uranium on the period table.

Interestingly, helium was discovered in the Sun before it was discovered on Earth! That’s why this element is name after Helios, the Greek god of the Sun.

The energy source that allows stars to shine steadily, often for billions of years, is fusion. Fusion in a star can only occur where both the temperature and pressure are very high. Usually (but not always!), this occurs in the core of the star. When the element hydrogen fuses into helium, a huge amount of energy is released in the process. Lucky for us, fusing hydrogen into helium is difficult to do in a one-solar-mass star. On average, any particular hydrogen atom in our Sun has to “wait” about five billion years before having the “opportunity” to participate in a fusion reaction!

In order for sustained fusion to occur in the core of a star, the star must have sufficient mass so that the core temperature and pressure is high enough. Present thinking is that the lowest mass stars where sustained fusion can occur have about 75 times the mass of Jupiter, or about 7% the mass of the Sun.

References

Lodders, K. 2020 Solar Elemental Abundances, in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science, Oxford University Press
arXiv:1912.00844 [astro-ph.SR]

2 thoughts on “Star Stuff”

  1. To add an historical note:
    The relative abundance of hydrogen in the sun was first established by Cecilia Payne in her 1925 Ph.D. dissertation, “Stellar Atmospheres”. It was based on the work of Meghad Saha who suggested that with spectroscopy you could determine the physical composition of a star.

    Payne’s investigations proposed that hydrogen was a million times more abundant and helium a thousand times more abundant than what was found on earth. At the time it was thought the sun would have around the same proportional abundance of elements as both the earth and meteorites.

    However brilliant her research may have been at the time, its incongruity with current solar models prevented Henry Norris Russell from accepting this hypothesis. It was too far out there. He had her rewrite it such that it concluded these abundances were “spurious … and most certainly not real”. A few years down the road, male astronomers corroborated her results.

    Bartusiak, Marcia. “Hydrogen: The Prime Element”, Archives of the Universe, Vintage Books, 2004, (pp. 250-256)

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