Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.
The General Red Dwarf
These stars are typically 0.4 solar masses or less, meaning that the pressure temperature thermostat actually has less of an effect on the star. This means that the hydrogen is fused at a drastically reduced rate, meaning the star will have a long life. Because of their size, there is no radiative zone but solely convective. This means that as gases swirl about, the helium gets spread evenly and never gets the chance to develop a core to fuse further. This star can therefore stay on the main sequence for a very long time, never getting the chance to become a giant star because of the lack of a helium core. While we don't know for sure, models seem to indicate these stars could live for over 100 billion years! (Seeds 203-4)
The M-dwarf (dM) variant of red dwarfs, also known as UV Ceti variables, are one of the smallest classes of stars out there, existing on the lower right side of the HR Diagram. They are typically 1/3 the mass of our Sun (with the usual range of 10 to 60% that of our Sun), range in temperature between 2500 and 4000 Kelvin, and have 1% the luminosity of the Sun, yet they are likely the most common type of star in the Universe. In fact, they are “probably more numerous than those of all other stellar types put together" (Nicastro 67, Templeton, Joy).
But they are extremely faint, so getting proper estimates is challenging. But something they do that is not hard to spot are their impressive flares, packed with an energy output per minute that rivals what they put out over their entire surface over one hour. But what is going on with these flares, and what do they tell us about conditions across the Universe (Ibid)?
The flares themselves are brighter than their host stars by 1-6 magnitudes of order. They usually hit their peak brightness a few seconds after the flare starts, and they slowly dwindle over a 5-10 minute period. It has the same light curve as a nova or supernova, but it has a more gradual shape as well as “no prominent initial spike in luminosity.” Flares seem to be random, with no pattern to them unlike most regular variable stars (Nicastro 69, Templeton, Joy).
But like most energetic events in the Universe, UV rays offer the best way to examine flares, especially because their host object isn’t energetic. With an average surface temperature of 3000 K, M-dwarfs put out mainly IR rays, so it a flare with a ton of energy occurs then the UV portion would be the least utilized, giving a great comparison in hunting for the flares (Ibid)?
What Else Could It Be?
But is it possible that the flare actually isn’t happening? Is there some other change to a star? Well, based on the energy released, it would require the entire surface of the star to increase in temperature by 40 to 50 K, and wholescale changes are more unlikely than a localized event like a flare, which can go past 10, 000 K. It would require such dynamic changes in such a short span of time as to render any such model ridiculous (Nicastro 69, 71; Templeton, Joy).
Besides, we have a well-known flare model right here in our solar system: The Sun. Though its flare mechanism are still mysterious, the general picture seems to be as follows Sunspots are regions where the surface of the Sun is 100 to 200 K cooler and also happen to be where magnetic field loops emerge. The fields themselves prevent convention from occurring and thus reduce the temperature at these spots (Ibid).
This cooling effect allows low energy photons through and blocks high energy ones. When magnetic field lines get twisted, eventually they break as they reduce to lower strength fields and the material travelling along them is released to space (which interacts with material around, reclaiming free elections and giving off UV rays) along with the previously trapped high energy photons (even more UV rays). So with this and our observational data of the Sun, we have a method with direct comparisons to our flare stars. Therefore, scientists are confident in their flare model (Ibid).
Now, only some dM stars do flare, but the emission M-dwarf (dMe) are the easiest to spot because of their emission spectrums and are by far the main type of flare star we know of. They also process magnetic fields up to 10, 000 Gauss in strength while dM stars hardly have any at all. This again ties into our comparison of solar flares to red dwarfs. As far as how many of each type of M-dwarf there are, about ½ of all emission lines seen from M-dwarfs are split between the dM2.5-dM5 group and dMe (Nicastro 69-71, Joy).
Using this along with current estimates of the M-dwarf population give a rough value of 5*1011 dMe stars out there. Each dMe star gives off about 2*10-13 solar masses in one year. Combine that with the solar wind these stars release and now we are up to 1.2*10-12 solar masses lost in a year. Now, taking that and the total number into account gives a yearly loss of 0.6 solar masses amongst all the dMe stars. That makes them the number one exporter of materials to the Universe. In fact, it outpaces the next three sources (M II giants, OB stars, and supernova) combined (Ibid).
This makes dMe stars great energy sources for the interstellar medium, up to 5*1041 Joules of energy per year. In terms of mass loss of the host galaxy, their dMe stars don’t impact them greatly. That is, as long as the host galaxy is a spiral or an irregular, for they have large haloes that can collect much of that lost material and are massive enough to effectively counter the escape velocity of the ejected material. But elliptical galaxies are a different story. They not only lack this halo of material but they are generally less massive than other galaxy types. The ejected material would act like a galactic wind, clearing the area of spare gas, something which does match with observational data (Nicastro 71).
Joy, Alfred H. “Stellar Flares.” Astronomical Society of the Pacific Leaflets, Vol. 10, No. 456, No. 456, p. 41-48 (1967).
Nicastro, Anthony. “Flare Stars.” Astronomy. June. 1981. Print. 67, 69-71.
Seeds, Michael A. Horizons. Tenth Edition, Thomson Brooks/Cole, Belmont, CA. 2008. Print. 203-4.
Templeton, Matthew. “UV Ceti and the flare stars.”aavso.org. AAVSO. Web. 01 Mar. 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Leonard Kelley