The 3-d Sky: Giants

The life of a star The largest stars create nearly all of the chemical elements in the universe. Stars produce light by nuclear fusion, which builds heavier elements out of lighter elements. Driven by their great weight, these giant stars burn rapidly, living only ten million years, a lifespan 400 times shorter than that of the Earth. Throughout most of their short lives, big stars burn blue, but towards the end they swell and turn red. Nuclear fusion stops with the creation of iron. Without an energy source, the star collapses, triggering violent nuclear reactions that create the heavier elements such as lead, gold, and mercury. This supernova explosion can outshine an entire galaxy for several weeks.

A prominent family The blue cluster is the Scorpius-Centarus Association, a cluster of giant stars born together in a collapsing cloud of dust and gas over the past few ten million years. The red star, Antares, is the brightest in the group and is near death. You can see the cluster in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Antares is part of Scorpius: look for the bright red star on the southern horizon (In the southern hemisphere it will be overhead). With binoculars you can see a nearly starless region north of Antares. This remnant of the cloud that formed the Scorpius-Centaurus association hasn't yet condensed to form stars.

The Model We used Freedom VR to show you the 375 brightest stars within 650 light years of the sun, the yellow star. All are at least 200 times as bright as the Sun and all are visible from places away from outdoor lights. You can turn the model by dragging it horizontally with your mouse. If you have a VRML 2 browser, fly through the VRML version.

If you'd like to see the cluster for yourself, print this out. Data provided by the Hipparcos astonomical catalog. If you're looking for more 3-d astronomy, try Stars in VRML and Galaxies in VRML. If you'd like to embed VR in web pages without plug-ins, take a look at Freedom VR.

3-d model: drag with mouse to rotate

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