Watching Stars Evolve in Real Time


Sometimes slow and steady wins the race — like in the long-term, continuous monitoring of a variable star. A collection of more than 100 years of data has now given us a rare opportunity to watch, in real time, as a star evolves.

Flashes Late in Life

AGB on HR diagram

This H-R diagram for the globular cluster M5 shows where AGB stars lie: they are represented by blue markers here. The AGB is one of the final stages in a low- to intermediate-mass star’s lifetime. [Lithopsian]

Low- to intermediate-mass stars (~0.5-8.0 solar masses) live for billions of years, so stellar evolution ordinarily occurs on timescales that are far too long to observe over our brief human lifespans.

But one particular stage of stellar evolution happens on timescales where we could see something happen, if we’re patient and watch for long enough: the end of the asymptotic giant branch (AGB). This is a stage at the end of a star’s life after it’s exhausted all of the hydrogen and helium in its core.

Low- to intermediate-mass stars aren’t able to ignite fusion of heavier elements in their cores, so at this stage, fusion proceeds only in a shell of hydrogen outside of the core. As the hydrogen shell burns, it piles up a thin layer of helium below it. But that quiet helium is deceptive: when enough of it piles up, it will ignite in a sudden flash called a thermal pulse, rapidly burning until the helium is depleted and the pile-up begins anew.

Rapidly, that is, on stellar evolution timescales — a typical thermal pulse lasts maybe a few hundred years, and these pulses occur only every 10,000 or 100,000 years. Still very difficult to observe on human timescales!

thermal pulses

Example plot showing the radius change over time in a modeled star undergoing thermal pulses. Based on observational constraints of T UMi’s radius, the region of interest in this model for T UMi’s current evolutionary stage is marked in red. [Molnár, Joyce, & Kiss 2019]

But there are some clues that we might be able to spot when a thermal pulse is just getting started — and a team of scientists led by László Molnár (Konkoly Observatory, MTA CSFK, Hungary) and Meridith Joyce (Australian National University) think that the star T Ursae Minoris (T UMi) is exhibiting those signs now.

Taking the Pulse of a Star

At the start of a pulse, the flash of igniting helium causes the inner regions of the star to expand. This, in turn, causes the outer parts of the star to cool and contract — so the star rapidly shrinks in radius and decreases in luminosity. If it’s a variable star — a star with periodic oscillations in brightness — the sudden drop in radius causes the period of its variability to plummet as the oscillating stellar envelope shrinks.

T UMi light curve

More than a century of data from variable star T UMi are shown in this AAVSO visual light curve. Changes in its period and amplitude are most evident in the bottom panel. Click to enlarge. [Molnár, Joyce, & Kiss 2019]

The variable star T UMi presents a golden opportunity to spot this process. Molnár and collaborators have compiled a dataset for this star reaching all the way back to 1904. From this, we can see that T UMi’s period started plummeting roughly 40 years ago, shortening by more than 3 days per year — and at the same time, the star’s brightness started dropping.

Using evolutionary and pulsation models, Molnár and collaborators confirmed that we’re indeed watching the onset of a thermal pulse in an AGB star. From their models, the authors predict that T UMi’s period will continue to drop for another several decades before the star begins to expand again — so be sure to check back in 50 years or so, to see if predictions pan out from this unique opportunity to watch a star evolve!


“Stellar Evolution in Real Time: Models Consistent with the Direct Observation of a Thermal Pulse in T Ursae Minoris,” László Molnár et al 2019 ApJ 879 62. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/ab22a5