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Starts With A Bang

Have any stars visible to human eyes already died?

All stars, eventually, run out of fuel and die. Given all the stars we can see and the vast distance to them, are any of them already dead?
ideal night sy conditions
Under ideal dark sky conditions, the unaided human eye can see up to 6000 stars at once, and up to 9000 stars total if they could see the full sky at once, unblocked by the Earth itself. Whether any of these stars have died or not, already, is a question that future observers will be able to answer in the millennia to come.
Credit: callisto / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • The lifetime of a star is always a finite thing, as once they run out of fuel for nuclear fusion in their core, all they can do is evolve and eventually die.
  • There are several thousand stars in the night sky visible to human eyes, ranging from just a few light-years away to more than 10,000 light-years distant.
  • Given the lifetime of stars, the number and type of the ones visible to us, and how far away they are, have any of them died, and we’re just waiting to see it? It’s a fascinating question.

When we look out across the Universe, we’re also peering back in time.

stars in the nearby solar neighborhood
In the early 21st-century, we’ve successfully mapped out practically all the stars in our neighborhood in three-dimensional space. The closest stars to us don’t always align with the stars we can see, as what’s visible is determined by a combination of distance and intrinsic brightness.
Credit: Andrew Z. Colvin

Light only travels at a finite speed across the vastness of space.

light disperse through prism frequency wavelength
Through the vacuum of space, all light, regardless of wavelength or energy, travels at the same speed: the speed of light in a vacuum. When we observe light from a distant star, we are observing light that has already completed that journey from the source to the observer.
Credit: Lucas Vieira/Wikimedia Commons

The light arriving now has already completed a multi-light-year journey.

US Air Force Lasers
When we send a light signal from Earth, it only travels at the speed of light. A star that’s located 100 light-years away will need to wait 100 years before receiving that signal. Similarly, when we look at a star 100 light-years away, we are seeing it as it was 100 years ago: when the light we’re receiving now was first emitted.
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo / Dr. Robert Q. Fugate

Meanwhile, every star only lives for a finite amount of time.

how many stars
The open star cluster NGC 290, imaged by Hubble. When new stars form, they form with a variety of masses, colors, luminosities, and other properties. The heaviest stars will be the most luminous and emit the greatest number of ionizing, ultraviolet photons, but will live the shortest; the lightest stars will be the least luminous but can persist for many trillions of years.
Credit: ESA and NASA; Acknowledgment: E. Olszewski (University of Arizona)

The shortest-lived stars may live just 1 or 2 million years total, while others survive for billions to trillions of years.

exploding star shockwave evolve from red supergiant
Many of the cataclysms that occur in space are typical supernovae: either core-collapse or Type Ia. The most massive stars of all have hundreds of times the mass of the Sun and live just 1 or 2 million years, total, before running out of fuel and dying in such a cataclysm.
Credit: NASA Ames, STScI/G. Bacon

Under ideal conditions on Earth, approximately 9,000 stars possess naked-eye visibilities.

starry night milky way la silla observatory
Although extended objects, like the plane of the Milky Way and a few distant galaxies beyond our own, are identifiable with the naked eye, there are only a few thousand stars that can be seen and resolved with the naked eye. Depending on your eyesight and the darkness conditions, most humans can see between 6000 and 9000 stars if you could see the entire sky at once.
Credit: ESO/Håkon Dahle

The closest one is Alpha Centauri: 4.3 light-years away.

Alpha Beta centauri
The stars Alpha Centauri (upper left) including A and B, are part of the same trinary star system as Proxima Centauri (circled). These are the three nearest stars to Earth, and they’re located between 4.2 and 4.4 light-years away. Alpha Centauri (at left) and its slightly fainter but far more distant neighbor, Beta Centauri (at right) are easily visible in the southern skies. Proxima Centauri, the closest, is far too intrinsically faint to be seen with the unaided eye.
Credit: Skatebiker at English Wikipedia

The farthest is V762 Cassiopeiae, some 16,000 light-years distant.

cassiopeia constellation akira fujii
The constellation of Cassiopeia is familiar to casual skywatchers as a big “W” in the sky, but in truth the constellation contains many thousands of stars that are fainter and impossible to resolve without astronomical equipment. The farthest naked-eye star of all, V762 Cassiopeiae, can be found slightly below the second “V” in the “W” shape.
Credit: A. Fujii

Overwhelmingly, most stars in existence are the lower-mass, longer-lived stars.

morgan keenan spectral classification
The classification system of stars by color and magnitude is very useful. By surveying our local region of the Universe, we find that only 5% of stars are greater or equal to our Sun in mass. It is thousands of times as luminous as the dimmest red dwarf star, but the most massive O-stars are millions of times as luminous as our Sun.
Credit: LucasVB/Wikimedia Commons; Annotations: E. Siegel

But the brightest ones are the easiest to see: the giants and supergiants.

color magnitude hertzsprung russell diagram
Although the overwhelming majority of stars in the galaxy are low-mass and low-luminosity stars, it’s the giants, supergiants, and high-mass stars that are most easily visible. The brightest red supergiant, Betelgeuse, is shown at the upper right, having evolved from the blue supergiants at the upper left of the diagram.
Credit: Richard Powell/Atlas of the Universe

Giant stars are late-stage stars, destined to die shortly in supernovae or planetary nebulae.

planetary nebula
The Egg Nebula, as imaged here by Hubble, is a preplanetary nebula, as its outer layers have not yet been heated to sufficient temperatures by the central, contracting star to become fully ionized. Many of the giant stars visible today will evolve into a nebula like this before shedding their outer layers completely and dying in a white dwarf/planetary nebula combination. As the central star loses mass, the outermost objects in that stellar system, such as the analogue of our Oort cloud and Kuiper belt, become ejected.
Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), Hubble Space Telescope/ACS

The supergiants are the shortest-lived stars, with total lifetimes under 10 million years.

Betelgeuse dust gas 2019
The nebula of expelled matter created around Betelgeuse, which, for scale, is shown in the interior red circle. This structure, resembling flames emanating from the star, forms because the behemoth is shedding its material into space. The extended emissions go beyond the equivalent of Neptune’s orbit around the Sun. Betelgeuse alone has about a 1-in-4,000 chance of having already died.
Credit: ESO/P. Kervella/M. Montargès et al.; Acknowledgement: Eric Pantin

Some compelling candidates for already dead stars are:

  1. Betelgeuse,
  2. Eta Carinae,
  3. Spica, and
  4. IK Pegasi.
carina nebula visible infrared hubble
The Carina Nebula, shown in visible (top) and near-infrared (bottom) light, has been imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope in a series of different wavelengths, allowing these two very different views to be constructed. What appears to be a single star at the nebula’s center was identified as a binary back in 2005, and it’s led some to theorize that a third companion was responsible for triggering the supernova impostor event of the 19th century. Eta Carinae is still a compelling supernova candidate today.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

But cumulative odds are slim that even one star has already died: below ~1%.

gaia ESA milky way
The European Space Agency’s space-based Gaia mission has mapped out the three-dimensional positions and locations of more than one billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy: the most of all-time. The ability to measure stellar parallax, or how the actual (rather than apparent) position of a star changes over the course of a calendar year, is greatly aided by superior instrumentation, large aperture size, Gaia’s location in space, and the development of photography and computerized identification of the relative shifting of stars.
Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

Every star we can see is almost certainly still alive, dispelling one of astronomy’s most popular myths.

ESO milky way
Behind the dome of a series of European Southern Observatory telescopes, the Milky Way towers in the southern skies, flanked by the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, at right. Although there are several thousand stars and the plane of the Milky Way all visible to human eyes, the most distant objects we can see all lie far beyond our own home galaxy.
Credit: ESO/Z. Bardon ( (

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words.

Ethan Siegel is on vacation this week. Please enjoy this article from the Starts With A Bang archives!


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