HIP 56948 (HD 101364)—an 8.7 magnitude star in Draco—is more like our Sun than any other star yet discovered. It is 194 light years away and located at α2000 = 11h 40m 28s and δ2000 = +69° 00′ 31″, near Gianfar (λ Draconis) and the Draco-Ursa Major border, above the Big Dipper’s bowl.
With the exception of lithium, the elemental abundances are identical to that found in the Sun, within the observational uncertainties. As expected, lithium is severely depleted in HIP 56948, but not as much as in the Sun. This is to be expected for a solar twin about 1 Gyr younger than the Sun.
The temperature, luminosity, mass, and rotation of HIP 56948 almost exactly match that of the Sun. For example, HIP 56948 is only 17 ± 7 K hotter than the Sun, and its mass is 1.02 ± 0.02 M☉. Given all these similarities, it appears its most recently determined (1993) spectral type of G5 is incorrect. Or is it the spectral type of our Sun that is wrong (G2V)? Actually, it is quite difficult to make measurements of our Sun “as a star” because it is so incredibly close and bright.
HIP 56948 harbors no giant planets or “hot Jupiters” within or interior to its habitable zone, so there remains the enticing possibility that it may host a planetary system similar to our own, though no planets have yet been detected.
Incidentally, the next time you’ve got a good view of the Head of Draco and the “box” of Cepheus, cast your eyes toward a point halfway between the two. You’re looking towards where the rotational axis of the Sun points north. Like HIP 56948, it’s in Draco.
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.
% by atoms
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.
A brown dwarf (also known as an infrared dwarf) is, in a way, a failed star. Early in their lives, these ultra-low-mass stars (13+ MJ) fuse deuterium into helium-3, and in the highest mass brown dwarfs (65-80 MJ) lithium is depleted into helium-4, as shown below.
But the mass is too low for fusion to be sustained (the temperature and pressure in the core aren’t high enough), and soon the fusion reactions peter out. Then, only the slow process of thermal contraction provides a source of heat for the wanna-be star.
There is another, very different, path to a brown dwarf star. A cataclysmic variable usually consists of a white dwarf and a normal star in a close binary system. As material is pulled off the “donor star” (as the normal star is called) onto the white dwarf, the donor star can eventually lose so much mass that it can no longer sustain fusion in its core, and it becomes a brown dwarf star.
When we see a white dwarf / brown dwarf binary system, how do we know that the brown dwarf wasn’t always a brown dwarf? Strong X-ray and ultraviolet emission provides evidence of an accretion disk around the white dwarf, and astronomers can calculate the rate of mass transfer between the two stars. Often, this is billions of tons per second! Using other techniques to estimate the age of the binary system, we sometimes find that the donor star must have started out as a normal star with much more mass than we see today.