The sun is our life-giving source of light, heat, and energy, and new discoveries are unraveling its epic history. Join NOVA on a spectacular voyage to discover the sun’s place in a grand cycle of birth, death and renewal that makes this the age of stars. Witness how stars of every size and color came to populate our universe; how stars stage a dramatic exit when they explode as supernovae, which can outshine an entire galaxy; and how, billions of years in the future, the age of stars will lead ultimately to an age of darkness. (Premiered October 27, 2021)
The Universe: Age of Stars
PBS Airdate: October 27, 2021
NARRATOR: In a universe that shines with innumerable stars, born from countless more stars that have come and gone before them, rages the life-giving fire of our sun.
GIBOR BASRI (University of California, Berkeley): The sun is the king of the solar system. It has, essentially, all the mass and all the energy.
NARRATOR: Familiar and yet unknown.
EMMA CHAPMAN (Imperial College London): Even though we’ve looked at it for a really long time, the sun is still full of mysteries. Why is it hotter in its atmosphere than on its surface? What drives the solar wind?
NARRATOR: Only now, we take our first steps closer to understanding our star.
KELLY KORRECK (Co-Investigator, Parker Solar Probe): It’s the first time that we’re actually going in to touch the sun.
GRANT TREMBLAY (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian): And it’s already really started to truly transform our understanding for how the sun works.
NARRATOR: Uncovering the secret power of all stars….
RANA EZZEDINE (University of Florida): As you can imagine, when you have a huge blob of flaming gas, the coreis usually the hottest, and it is where the magic is happening.
NARRATOR: …perhaps even finding clues to the stars that came before it…
PAYEL DAS (University of Surrey): If we understand where the sun comes from, we can understand a little bit moreabout where life has come from.
NARRATOR: …and, ultimately, its fate.
RAMAN PRINJA (University College London): It has about another 4.6-billion years of nuclear fusion left. And thenit will start to change. It will start to evolve.
GHINA M. HALABI (University of Cambridge): We really need to understand what will happen to our own sun,because that will impact Earth.
NARRATOR: The sun is just one among hundreds of billions of stars, in a galaxy among trillions. We live in theAge of Stars, right now, on NOVA.
Ninety-three-million miles from Earth, our nearest star: the sun, a permanent fixture for life onour planet.
KELLY KORRECK: Humans have always been fascinated by the sun, I think, because it is so constant, compared toour daily life.
NIA IMARA (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian): It’s been rising and setting since the day that wewere born. We keep time by it. We keep our calendars by it. Without it, life wouldn’t be possible,here on Earth.
NARRATOR: The sun is just one of more than a billion-trillion stars in the universe. Why is it around our starthat life has emerged?
ANJALI TRIPATHI (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian): We want to know, “Where do we comefrom?” And, “What are our cosmic origins?”
PAYEL DAS: If we understand where the sun comes from, we can understand a little bit more about where lifehas come from.
NARRATOR: But our star is an enigma.
EMMA CHAPMAN: The sun is still full of mysteries. Why is it hotter in its atmosphere than on its surface? Whatdrives the solar wind?
NARRATOR: We’ve spent millennia studying from afar, but only now are we getting close enough to trulyreveal its secrets.
RAMAN PRINJA: The sun’s not a very nice environment. It’s not easy to get up close to the sun.
GIBOR BASRI: It’s an enormous ball of hydrogen, and it’s putting out a tremendous amount of energy.
NARRATOR: Its surface is a bubbling cauldron of 10,000-degree plasma.
RAMAN PRINJA: We can actually see cells of hot gas rising and falling into incredible imagery.
GIBOR BASRI: And then, above that, you have this very thin atmosphere that’s a million degrees, super hot.
EMMA CHAPMAN: Seeing these images is like revealing something that’s been right in front of us but hidden, for solong.
RAMAN PRINJA: Occasionally, you might see this enormous coronal mass ejection erupting from the star.
NARRATOR: We now stand on the threshold of being able to survive a close encounter, with a new heat-resistant probe that’s giving us an up-close look at our sun, for the first time.
MISSION CONTROL: Status check. Do delta. Go P.S.P.
T minus 15.
KELLY KORRECK: Launch night, I was sick to my stomach.
MISSION CONTROL: Five, four, three, two, one, liftoff of the Might Delta IV Heavy rocket, with NASA’s ParkerSolar Probe. And there we go.
KELLY KORRECK: The Delta IV Heavy is a very slow rocket compared to the other launches I’ve seen. So, I justsaw fireballs and was very, very frightened for a while.
MISSION CONTROL: Twenty-five seconds into flight.
CHRIS CHEN (Queen Mary University of London): It is quite scary to think about all that power in the rocket,underneath that, you know, relatively small spacecraft sitting on top.
KELLY KORRECK: Then realizing that this was all okay, as it slowly made its way up into the sky.
MISSION CONTROL: Fifty seconds into flight.
KELLY KORRECK: And then just watched it…
MISSION CONTROL: Ejecting strap on boosters.
GRANT TREMBLAY: Parker is just an exquisite mission. It will be the closest that our species has thus far come to,literally, touching the sun, itself.
NARRATOR: The Parker Solar Probe is travelling to a place that has been completely unexplored up close, until now.
ARCHIVE: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe: a daring mission to shed light on the mysteries of our closest star.
EUGENE PARKER: This is a journey into never-never land, you might say.
NARRATOR: During its seven-year mission, the Parker Solar Probe will attempt a series of dives towards thesurface of the sun. Its goal is to understand how the sun sheds its energy. Orbiting a total of 24times, each pass taking it perilously closer, so close, it will enter the sun’s atmosphere, bravingtemperatures no spacecraft has ever endured and travelling faster than any other human-madeobject has before.
The mission is still in its early days, but in the coming years, the Parker Solar Probe will help usunlock, not only the secrets of our own sun, but all stars, including those that hold the key to thesun’s origins and our own.
EMMA CHAPMAN: We can look at the processes, look at what’s inside the sun, and understand how it had tobecome that. What were the generations of stars before that? What was its ancestry?
NARRATOR: The sun’s story can be traced back to its most distant stellar ancestors, the very first stars in theuniverse. Almost 100-million years after the Big Bang, the universe is dark and cold, not a singlestar shining. But this universe is far from empty. Something is growing in the void, stretching outtendrils.
ANJALI TRIPATHI: The early universe was largely hydrogen and helium and only small amounts of other materials.
GHINA HALABI: None of the elements we see these days, no carbon, oxygen, iron, none of that.
SOWNAK BOSE (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian): Even though the name the “Cosmic Dark Ages”suggests that there might not have been anything particularly interesting going on, it was really,kind of, laying the groundwork for the construction of the cosmic web.
GRANT TREMBLAY: The cosmic web is, literally, the structure of the universe itself.
NARRATOR: The cosmic web is unimaginable in scale. Huge clouds of gas are drawn together by the gravityof a mysterious, invisible form of matter, called “dark matter,” creating a great network offilaments, a web the size of the cosmos.
The gas in these tendrils is made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. Where these great filamentscross, are the places where the first stars will one day be born.
The cosmic web has been shaping our universe for 13.8-billion years, and it’s still doing sotoday. But it’s only recently that we’ve actually been able to see it.
PAYEL DAS: The image that we have here is absolutely amazing. It’s one of the most fundamental pictures thatwe can take in our universe. And it’s actually a direct image of some of the largest structures thatexist, the filaments of the cosmic web. Now, the bright white dots that you see over here, they’reentire galaxies. Now, if I take those away, what you can see much more clearly is the faint glowof the hydrogen and helium that exists on the tendrils of the cosmic web. And it’s on this cosmic web that the story of our sun and the stars in our night sky begins.
NARRATOR: As time passes in the early universe, the cosmic web continues to grow. Gas, rushing along thesegreat tendrils, travelling down towards the intersections…it is being pulled to these points bygravity. And as more gas joins, this force becomes ever stronger, creating great clouds,staggering in size.
They grow denser, hotter, as gas is relentlessly added, until, at last, the conditions become soextreme that there is a sudden moment of ignition: the birth of the very first star in the universe, born 17-times hotter than the sun. This star is a “blue monster.”
EMMA CHAPMAN: The first stars were unlike anything we can see around us today, which is what makes them soincredible.
COURTNEY DRESSING (University of California, Berkeley): When the very first stars formed, these stars ended upwith giant masses of 500- to 600-times the mass of the sun.
GIBOR BASRI: Stars today are perhaps as hot as 100,000 degrees, and these stars were nearly twice as hot asthat. The very hot color tends to also make them look blue.
NARRATOR: But this first star is not alone for long. At intersections across the cosmic web, it’s soon joined byothers, an entire generation of first stars, lighting up the universe.
But this isn’t all they do. These stars are forging new elements, creating the ingredients for all theplanets and, ultimately, even for life to exist.
PAYEL DAS: The birth of the first stars signaled a complete transformation in the makeup of the universe. Before they existed, all we had was hydrogen and helium, but nuclear fusion completely changedall of that.
NARRATOR: The cores of the first stars were so hot, they reached more than 100-million degrees. And thatforced hydrogen atoms to change.
PAYEL DAS: Now, under the very high temperatures and pressures that you find in the core of these stars, theywere smashed together, fusing a heavier element, helium.
NARRATOR: But the first stars didn’t stop there.
PAYEL DAS: After a few million years, the hydrogen completely runs out. So, instead, the helium atoms areforced to be smashed together, creating even heavier elements, elements such as carbon, oxygenand iron.
NARRATOR: The new elements these first stars forged are the elements that seed other types of stars, planetsand even us, in other words, the elements for life.
But the era of blue giants can’t last…
ANJALI TRIPATHI: Fusion at the center of a star eventually ends, as it runs out of fuel, so the process can’t go onforever.
EMMA CHAPMAN: When fusion stops, you lose that internal pressure which pushes against gravity. You lose a tug-of-war, and the gravity starts to push down on the star.
GRANT TREMBLAY: You know that, that saying, “Live fast, die young?” That, that really applies to stars, right?And so the most massive luminous stars have the shortest lifetimes.
NIA IMARA: Even though they have much more hydrogen fuel than an ordinary star like our sun, they burn itso quickly that they only live a few million years before they burn out. In a few million years, inastronomy time, that’s the blink of an eye.
NARRATOR: With its fuel spent, fusion reactions stop and gravity takes over. The core collapses. Gas suddenlyfalls inwards and then rebounds in a colossal explosion, called a “supernova,” a shockwave ofenergy followed by material hurtling outwards into space.
RAMAN PRINJA: Supernovae explosions rocked the universe. They are amongst the most explosive events that wenow know about. Briefly, a single supernova can outshine an entire galaxy.
RANA EZZEDDINE: This was a very important moment in the history of the universe. It allowed the universe to,kind of, start evolving.
GHINA HALABI: After the first stars exploded, the material that has been forged in their interiors was spewn outinto space.
NIA IMARA: They seeded the universe with these heavy elements and paved the way for subsequentgenerations of stars.
NARRATOR: Generations of stars that we can see in the night sky. The Hubble Space Telescope has beenstudying them for more than 30 years, showing us this epic cycle of cosmic death and renewal.
EMMA CHAPMAN: It’s not only the first stars which enriched the universe. As you go on for the second, the third,the fourth generation of stars, they’re all creating more and more heavy elements which getexpelled into the universe.
NARRATOR: Hubble reveals to us how stars have evolved, from a primitive universe dominated by blue stars, to our universe today, populated by stars of every color, size and configuration: neutron stars,violently spinning up to 700 times a second, spitting out jets of radiation; stars so huge that morethan a billion suns could fit inside them.
COURTNEY DRESSING: There are many types of stars, Wolf-Rayet stars, red giant stars, white dwarf stars. All ofthem have their own unique characteristics.
NARRATOR: And some that aren’t alone. They are kept company by systems of planets, including rocky worldsbuilt of ingredients like carbon, silicon and iron.
GRANT TREMBLAY: So, stars really are the engines of higher order complexity in the universe. They’re thefactories that make up the heavier elements that are the seeds of things like planets.
NARRATOR: Stars have changed the entirety of the universe, filling it with all manner of wondrous celestialobjects and, ultimately, paving the way for a star that has all the right conditions to make us.
RAMAN PRINJA: The sun must have relied on many, many generations of previous stars for the material that’sthere today in our solar system, probably thousands of other stars that would have had to explode.
NARRATOR: Nine-billion years after the birth of the first star, the universe has been enriched with dozens ofnew elements. Here, gravity draws one cloud together, and our own star is born.
But not all of the material is used to create the sun. Some remains in orbit. And it’s from theseleftovers that eight extraordinary planets form: our solar system.
RAMAN PRINJA: The sun has a very tight relationship with all the planets in the solar system, not just because ofits enormous gravity, but because of the light that it provides.
NARRATOR: Some of these worlds seem just too far away from the sun for complex life to take hold. Deprivedof light, they may be devoid of any life at all. These are the gas and ice giants. In contrast, othersare too close to the sun. They are relentlessly blasted, until they become scorched deserts. Butthere is a sweet spot, neither too far, nor too close to the sun. It’s in this place that the chemicallegacy of generations of long-gone stars would form something astonishing.
KELLY KORRECK: We are, on the earth, on kind of this special sweet zone. They call it the “Goldilocks” zone.
PHILIP MUIRHEAD (Boston University): This exciting distance from a star, where a planet could conceivably haveliquid water on its surface.
GHINA HALABI: Water is the medium that facilitates the biochemical reactions that are responsible for life.
EMMA CHAPMAN: Earth’s relationship with the sun is the most important relationship there is.
NARRATOR: The sun is constantly reaching out to our planet, something the Parker Solar Probe is helping usunderstand.
KELLY KORRECK: What makes Parker so great is the fact that it has a great set of instruments that work together inorder to look in all directions.
GRANT TREMBLAY: So, there’s this sun-facing part of the probe that peaks above the heat shield and, literally,looks directly at the sun.
NARRATOR: The Parker Solar Probe is spotting holes in the sun’s atmosphere, vents that release a blizzard ofcharged particles, at more than a million miles an hour, what we call the “solar wind.”
KELLY KORRECK: We can tell how the energy flows, where the wind is coming off, how much of the wind iscoming off.
NARRATOR: The solar wind travels billions of miles, bombarding the planets with radiation.
COURTNEY DRESSING: The charged particles in the solar wind can be detrimental to life. On Earth, we’reprotected by the Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects the particles.
GIBOR BASRI: So, it’s kind of like we have our shields up, and our shield is our magnetic field.
NARRATOR: Earth has defenses that protect life from our star’s violent tendencies, but the sun also providessomething essential to our planet.
RANA EZZEDDINE: At the core of the of it, the sun is forging hydrogen into helium, which is what is releasing theenergy that we see or that we get here on Earth.
GHINA HALABI: The photons, these packets of energy, when they are formed, they don’t go straight from thecenter, rushing through to the surface. They go through a very bumpy ride. They get tossed fromone atom to the other. They get absorbed and spit out, absorbed and spit out.
EMMA CHAPMAN: So, it takes a really convoluted path out of that sun, and that can take millions of years.
NARRATOR: Once these photons arrive at the surface, they’re liberated as sunshine. The light races across thesolar system. Unobstructed, it flashes past the planets at 180,000 miles per second.
GIBOR BASRI: If you could take all the energy that humans are producing and store it in batteries, the entirecivilization, for 50,000 years, you could make the sun shine for one second.
NARRATOR: It takes just over eight minutes for the sun’s light to reach Earth.
LUCIE GREEN (University College London): That stream of light is like an umbilical cord of energy, coming downto us, here on Earth. And it has been pretty much constant and unbroken for nearly five-billionyears.
And it’s this combination of the stability of light, stability of energy, over billions of years, thatmeans complex life that we see around us, here on the earth, has been able to form and has beenable to thrive.
NARRATOR: We don’t know exactly how life emerges on early Earth, but what we do know is that primitivecells, living in the ocean, begin to use the sun’s energy to power life-giving chemical reactions.
These cells are the bridge between sun and Earth, tiny machines that harness the power of ourstar. The cells use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into food in the form of sugar.
This process, “photosynthesis,” is a direct use of the sun’s power. It has driven the evolution ofcomplexity on Earth, from primitive bacteria, to plants and trees, an unbroken line of livingthings, all connected to the power source in the sky.
GHINA HALABI: Everything, from the little blade of grass to the biggest oak tree, they use the sunlight tophotosynthesize and produce the energy that we later consume to sustain ourselves. So, in a way,we have been feeding on starlight.
NARRATOR: Trillions of stars have existed since the universe began, but ours is the only one we know of thathas nurtured that wonderful thing, life, not only nourished by the sun’s light, but also grantedprotection and the time to grow and change, eventually creating complex life.
NIA IMARA: The sun is connected to our very existence. It provides the light and the energy that’s necessary tosustain life.
GRANT TREMBLAY: There would absolutely be no life on Earth if there was no sun.
NARRATOR: The sun is a creator, bringing together atoms forged in generations of ancient stars, to create us: beings capable of exploring the cosmos, and uncovering our own stellar ancestry.
GHINA HALABI: It’s a wonderful thing how we share this intimate connection with stars, because they are part ofour cosmic heritage. We are the children of these stars.
NARRATOR: There are up to 400-billion stars in our galaxy, and there are two-trillion galaxies in ouruniverse. But it wasn’t always that way. We are living in the age of stars, an era of light in theuniverse.
GHINA HALABI: Stars have always been important to us. They have helped us navigate the land and the open seasfor millennia.
SONAK BOSE: If you just think back at the countless sonnets and poems and songs, there is always some kind ofcelestial connection.
NIA IMARA: One of the reasons why looking up into the stars is so significant is because we realize that othersare doing the same exact thing. And so, in a very real way, we feel connected to, to people both,both past and present.
NARRATOR: From our fleeting human perspective, the stars seem everlasting, a constant in our night sky. Butseen across the age of the universe, the picture changes, because this era cannot last. The starswill eventually wane. And as they go, they once again change the character of the universe. Theircores, where fusion once raged, cool and eventually solidify, locking precious elements away,beneath the surface, and starving the universe of the material needed to make new stars andplanets.
GRANT TREMBLAY: The chance that a star is going to be born nowadays is, is much, much lower than it was,billions of years in the past.
RAMAN PRINJA: Just as there was a very first star in the universe, there will come a time when the era of stars willcome to an end.
NARRATOR: The age of stars is not as enduring as it might seem.
LUCIE GREEN: I have a timeline of the universe, and I’m here, at the start, when the universe formed 13.8-billion years ago, during the Big Bang. Now, it took a while for the first stars to form, in fact, afew hundred million years. Let’s call that 400-million years. So, on my scale, stars start to formhere. And those stars carried on forming, and then we reach this point, four-billion years sincethe Big Bang and a time when the most stars are forming in the universe. Our sun, though, didn’tform until nine-billion years had passed. And that’s my marker here.
And then we move forwards again, and we get to this point, here, which is the present day, 13.8-billion years since the formation of the universe.
Now, our sun won’t live forever, and, in fact, it will start to die and end its life in around five-billion years’ time. But the sun will be outlived by the least massive stars in the universe. Theyhave lifetimes of a few hundred billion years and that’s about 200 meters on my scale. But evenwhen those stars die, that doesn’t mark the end of the universe. The universe could live forever,with the timeline stretching far off into the distance. And that means that the age of starlight thatI’ve mapped out here is like the blink of an eye to the universe. It’s the age of darkness that goeson and on and on.
NARRATOR: Stars won’t suddenly disappear of course, they’ll be here for hundreds of billions, perhaps eventrillions of years to come.
But slowly, over time, the universe will become darker, emptier. As it expands, the distancesbetween these little islands of light become greater and greater, until, one day, only one type ofstar will remain: red dwarfs, the longest lived of all stars in the universe.
Trappist 1 is one of these near immortals. This ancient star is likely more than seven-billionyears old, almost twice as old as our Sun. But Trappist is tiny: a similar size to Jupiter and lessthan one percent as bright as our sun. It is a cool star, slow-burning. And that is the secret of itslongevity.
DAVID CHARBONNEAU (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian): The lifetime of a star is determined byits reservoir of hydrogen, of nuclear fuel. As long as it has something to burn, it will continue tosurvive. But, paradoxically, the stars with the least amount of hydrogen live the longest. Andthat’s because they are miserly. They spend their fuel so slowly.
GRANT TREMBLAY: And so it’s those smaller, more quiescent, less energetic stars that, ultimately, become thegreatest historians of the universe.
PHILIP MUIRHEAD: It’s especially exciting, because this particular star is going to continue fusing hydrogen intohelium in its core and continue shining for, potentially, hundreds of billions of years.
NARRATOR: Like the sun, Trappist has its own planets, seven worlds, each roughly the size of Earth. Somemay have atmospheres and even oceans, but there the similarities end, because these are strangeworlds.
Just as one side of the moon always faces Earth, these planets may be what we call “tidallylocked” in their orbits. One side permanently looking towards the red dwarf Trappist 1, soakingup what light and warmth it can from the faint star, the other side permanently frozen, facing thecold void of space.
These planets are witnesses to much of the life of the universe. They were born near the start andthey will survive to near the end of the age of stars.
They will see entire galaxies merge and eventually begin to fade in their night skies. They watchas countless stars come and go, bearing witness to the time, about five-billion years from now,when a distant star begins to fade and vanishes from the night sky as our sun finally exhausts itsfuel and disappears forever.
NIA IMARA: Ultimately, once the fusion process is over in the sun, it will begin to expand into whatastronomers call a “red giant.” And the outer envelope of the sun will expand.
RANA EZZEDDINE: It’s going to gulp up some of the planets around it. Unfortunately, Earth is one of them.
NARRATOR: And as the sun dies, so too will many others like it.
The age of stellar creation in the universe is waning.
GRANT TREMBLAY: The universe is like a slow-motion fireworks show and we’re kind of watching the end of it.
NARRATOR: It’s unlikely that Trappist 1 will be the very last star in the universe, but we do believe the laststar will be a red dwarf. As its fuel runs out, fusion comes to an end. The last star slowly coolsand fades away.
With its passing, the universe becomes cold and dark, without light, and, most likely, without life.
RAMAN PRINJA: When the last red dwarf stars die out, that will be the end of stars in the universe. And it wasstarlight that really lit up its story.
NARRATOR: A universe without light may be unfathomable to us humans. Stars made us and our planet. Theydefine the universe, as we know it, today.
GHINA HALABI: It was like a gift given to humanity that it took a cosmos to make you.
NARRATOR: A cosmos eventually defined more by darkness than by light. But for now, we exist and learn andgrow, as tiny sparks, within the bright and light-filled childhood of our universe.
We live in the Age of Stars.
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Image credit: (The Sun comes from a line of ancestral stars that stretch back to the giant blue stars that first lit up the Universe, BBC Studios/Getty Images)
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