High-Mass Stellar Evolution

We’ve spent the past couple weeks discussing low-mass stellar evolution and its results, but now it’s time to move onto bigger and better things. That’s right, now we’re going to explore high-mass stellar evolution, otherwise known as “the stars that do go BANG”.

First, we should clarify that by “high-mass stars“, we mean those with masses from approximately 8 M_sun to 100+ M_sun. The upper mass limit for a star is not definitively known, but it is approximated by the Eddington Limit, where the radiation pressure outwards is so strong that it overcomes inward gravity and blows the star apart.


High-mass stars form just like low-mass stars — only with, well, more mass. Also like low mass stars, they start their lives on the Main Sequence, fusing hydrogen to helium. However, high-mass stars have much shorter Main Sequence lifetimes than low-mass stars.  This is because even though they have more mass, that additional mass results in an increased rate of fusion which burns through their fuel faster. Thus, high-mass stars quickly leave the Main Sequence and become RSGs/BSGs, LBVs, WR stars, and SNe (yes, we really do love our acronyms in astronomy).

High-mass RSG structure

The inner structure of a high-mass red supergiant (Credit: New Mexico State University)

RSG and BSG stand for “red supergiant” and “blue supergiant“, respectively. Just like low-mass stars, high-mass stars also migrate to the right side of the H-R diagram when a helium core builds up and hydrogen shell-burning starts. The increased radiation pressure from faster fusion causes the star’s outer layers to expand and cool. So, we have a RSG. When the helium core ignites (this time without an explosive flash, since the core is not degenerate), the star heads back towards the “blue” part of the H-R diagram. So, we have a BSG. Then, when the star can no longer fuse helium in its core, it will become a RSG again; when the carbon core ignites, it will revert to a BSG; and so on. A high-mass star will make many treks across the H-R diagram from “blue” to “red” and back as successively heavier elements fuse in its core, with each journey producing less energy and lasting for a shorter period of time, until it reaches an iron core…

LBV Eta Carinae

Luminous Blue Variable Eta Carinae (Credit: CXO/NASA)

LBVs are Luminous Blue Variables (also called Hubble-Sandage variables, or S Doradus variables), which are basically exactly what they sound like — they are massive, luminous stars that are blue in color and vary in luminosity over time.  They spend most of their time in a quiescent state, varying by a magnitude or two over a period of years.   But occasionally they undergo violent outbursts, which can be so bright that they have repeatedly been mistaken for supernovae. Quiescent LBVs generally appear as B-type supergiants that shed mass at high rates, but during an eruption, they become cooler, become  redder and eject huge amounts of mass. It is thought that really massive stars pass through a short LBV phase on their way to becoming WR stars, but no one knows for sure.

WR star in NGC 2359

WR star in NGC 2359 (Credit: P. Berlind and P. Challis of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

WR stars are Wolf-Rayet stars, named for astronomers Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet, who discovered these fascinating stars. These massive and incredibly luminous stars are primarily noted for their powerful stellar winds, which cause extremely high rates of mass loss. Unlike normal stars, WR stars have prominent lines of helium in their spectra, along with nitrogen (WN), carbon (WC), or rarely oxygen (WO) (there is logic here since these elements are in the CNO cycle). WN stars can be further divided into “late” classes (L) and “early” (E) – WNL stars have hydrogen emission lines in their spectra, while WNE stars do not. Like the LBV stage, high-mass stars do not spend a long time in the WR stage, so these weird stars are quite rare.

SNe of course stands for those wondrous exploding stars, supernovae! Massive stars are thought to be the causes of every type of supernovae except Type Ia (if you will recall, those are caused by exploding white dwarfs).  These include Type Ib and Ic, and all the subtypes of Type II.

The precise stages that a high-mass star will pass through depend on its mass. There is significant variability in the exact masses and stages from source to source, so we have avoided trying to compile everything into one table because it would just end up as a mess. In general, stars on the low end of the “high-mass” spectrum tend to turn into RSGs or BSGs, then going supernova. More massive high-mass stars generally evolve into LBVs, then WN stars, then WC stars (or very occasionally, WO stars), before finally exploding as supernovae.


While all these changes are taking place in the exterior of the star, the stellar interior is constantly fusing heavier and heavier elements. As we mentioned in the post about nuclear reactions, massive stars above 8 M_sun can fuse elements all the way up to iron (technically up to cobalt and nickel, but these isotopes are radioactive and decay into iron). Any fusion past the so-called “iron peak” consumes energy instead of releasing it, which undermines exactly what the star has been trying to accomplish throughout its entire life.

When the core becomes hot and dense enough to fuse iron, photodisintegration (the splitting of elements by, you guessed it, photons or light) of heavy elements into light elements consumes energy and recently-formed neutrinos carry energy away, causing the core to collapse. The core will eventually reach such a high density that it refuses to be compressed any further and “bounces”, sending a shock wave outwards into the rest of the collapsing star. The shock wave stalls, but then accelerates again due to the neutrinos that are forcing their way outwards as well (neutrinos typically don’t like to interact with regular matter, but since there are so many of them here, they have quite an appreciable effect) — this is a core-collapse supernova. The exact mechanism of collapse and rebound for a supernova is not fully known, but overall this is what’s expected to occur…and hey, we are talking about giant massive stars, give some credit that our good astronomers could even find this much.  When stars have their outer envelopes shed, they are instead called stripped core-collapse supernovae (with this massive stars encompass all the non-Type Ia SNe).

M1 Crab Nebula

The famous M1 Crab Nebula, created by a core-collapse Type II supernova (Credit: HST)

After exploding, the core either forms a giant supernova remnant (SNR), becomes a neutron star or has so much mass that it collapses further into a black hole.  We shall save these interesting objects for another post, as this post would be intolerably long if we tried to discuss those here as well. (We will also cover all the different types of supernovae in a further post, since they are so important that they deserve a post of their own.)


TL;DR — High-mass stars start off their lives very much like low-mass stars.  While low-mass stars will become a red supergiant, eject PNe, and turn into WDs,  high-mass stars cycle between red and blue supergiants or turn into Luminous Blue Variables and Wolf-Rayet stars. In the end, high-mass stars will explode in (sometimes stripped) core-collapse supernovae and produce strange stellar remnants.


Links and sources for further reading

General High-Mass Evolution:

Luminous Blue Variables:

Wolf-Rayet stars:

Type II SNe:

Carroll and Ostlie, An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics, 2nd edition, p. 518 to 534


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