‘The universe is fascinating’: Professor explores research on dwarf stars

Dr. Barbara Castanheira Endl. Photo courtesy of Baylor University.

By Lukas Reyes | Reporter

Dr. Barbara Castanheira Endl, assistant professor of physics, is preparing to publish the results of her research on white dwarf stars.

Her focus was to understand the structure and components of the stars. Due to their very small and faint appearance and being at the final stage of star evolution, studying them is often on the fringes of telescopic capabilities.

According to EarthSky, stars that were once bright and active eventually turn into white dwarf stars and shrink to roughly the size of Earth. They are no longer able to produce energy, but they still release the remaining energy that was built up over their lifetime, allowing astronomers to observe them.

“I am particularly interested in what’s left over from the evolution,” Endl said. “I am studying the corpses of stars, like neutron stars and so on. But the final result will tell us about the previous phases.”

One method of studying these “corpses” is through a process called differential photometry. As the star cools down, photons pulsate across the surface and can be counted individually. This data is compared with others and gives researchers insight into the composition and structure of the star.

Dr. Benjamin Rose, assistant professor of physics, said he believes Endl’s research will allow other researchers to understand how materials work in these conditions.

“One of the joys of research is when you explore new things, and we really are exploring new chemistry, new atomic physics, new dynamics,” Rose said. “The way the waves work through this material is fundamentally the same as any wave, sound wave or pressure wave. Whenever you learn about an extreme system, you can take that and apply it to more organized systems.”

Rose said a good understanding of the last stage of star evolution enhances the understanding of previous stages.

“They are very useful for mapping out other things,” Rose said. “So, once you know the locations of stuff — and you’re trying to figure out, ‘How old is this structure? How old are the stars in this structure?’ — then white dwarfs can really help you determine the age of that group of stars. So these are helpful diagnostics when understanding more than just location and density, such as how things formed and how things evolve.”

Moving forward, Endl said she sees a bright future for researchers in her field. Technological advancements such as the James Webb Space Telescope will help researchers have a better idea of the planets and structures surrounding the white dwarfs. Endl said she is thankful to the university for allowing her to be creative.

“We are just here trying to understand how things work,” Endl said. “The universe is fascinating. Look at the stars, like Stephen Hawking said. Look at the stars. It’s always beautiful. There’s always something just fascinating.”