Scientists reveal the secret life of lithium

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows stars at various stages of their lives, from young blue-hot stars to cooler red giants. (Image by NASA, ESA, and T. Brown [STScI]).

The Sun is likely to produce lithium in the future, according to a new study by scientists at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the researchers state that stars, like the Sun, create lithium throughout their lives after they have swelled to become red giants or luminous giant stars in a late phase of stellar evolution. At some point in the future, the Sun itself will reach this stage, they say.

These findings challenge the commonly held idea that these celestial objects only destroy lithium. This belief was widely accepted because the element gets extinguished very easily inside stars where it is too hot for it to survive.

These findings challenge the commonly held idea that Sun-like stars only destroy lithium

But by using data from a huge stellar spectroscopic survey based on The Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope in China and from an Australian star survey known as GALAH, the team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences was able to prove that previous assumptions were wrong.   

“By looking at starlight, we can determine what the stars are made of,” Yerra Bharat Kumar, lead author of the study, said in a media statement. “Models show that our current theories about how stars evolve do not predict this lithium production at all. Thus, the study has created a tension between observations and theory.” 

According to Kumar and his group, since the newly created lithium will end up being blown off the stars in stellar winds, it will also help researchers understand how Sun-like stars contribute to the lithium content of our Galaxy and of planets like Earth.

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