Stephen A. Naftilan, professor of physics in the Joint Science Department of the Claremont Colleges, responds:
"Astronomers usually cannot tell the age of an individual star. There are certain stars that we know are very young, and others that are very old, but for most stars we cannot tell. When we have a large group of stars, however, we can tell its age. This is possible because all of the stars in a cluster are presumed to have begun their life at approximately the same time. After a relatively brief time (in 'star time,' that is--we are talking thousands to millions of years here) stars reach the adult phase of their life, which we call the main sequence phase. The length of time a star spends in the main sequence phase depends on its mass.
"Constructing a plot, called the HR diagram, of the stars in the cluster, scientists can determine the mass of the stars that are just ending this phase and moving on to the next phase of their life, the red giant phase. Computer models allow us to predict how old a star of that mass must be to be at that juncture of its life, and hence to estimate the age of the cluster. Recently, this procedure has come under close scrutiny because that age it gives for the oldest star clusters in our Milky Way seems to be older than the age of the universe derived from the most recent Hubble Space Telescope data."
Peter B. Stetson, senior research officer at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia, provides a more detailed reply:
"It is impossible to determine the age of a single star all by itself. The only real means we have to determine stellar ages is through the study of star clusters. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are two basic types of star cluster. Clusters of the first type are called 'globular clusters' because they appear as huge, round globs containing anywhere from a few thousand to a few million stars. Globular clusters are very old, and they are scattered around (not just within) the Milky Way; these clusters seem to have originated near the time our galaxy started to form, when the universe was quite young. Clusters of the second type used to be called 'galactic clusters' because we see them inside the body of our galaxy, but now it is more common to refer to them as 'open clusters' because they are much looser and their stars more spread out on the sky than are those in globular clusters. Open clusters can contain anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand stars, and they come in a wide range of ages. Apparently our galaxy started making open clusters soon after it settled down to its present size and continues making them even today.
"The stars in either type of star cluster were all formed at the same time and out of the same material. The essential feature of a star cluster that lets us estimate its age is that each cluster contains stars with a range of masses. When a cluster is born, it will contain many stars of about the same size and mass as our sun, but there will also be numerous stars more massive than our sun and many other stars less massive than our sun. For about 90 percent of its lifetime, a star shines because nuclear reactions are converting hydrogen to helium in the star's center, releasing vast amounts of energy. This energy works its way from the center of the star to the surface and escapes the star in the form of light. The more massive a star is, the bigger the furnace in the center, and the brighter and the hotter the star is in this stable stage of its life. The most massive stars are very bright and blue-hot; a less massive star is somewhat fainter and white-hot; a star like our sun is a bit fainter still and is yellow-hot; and the least massive stars are very faint and merely red-hot. During this period of its life, a star hardly changes either in brightness or in temperature.
"The duration of the stable, or 'main sequence,' phase depends on a star's mass. A star 10 times as massive as the sun contains, clearly, 10 times as much fuel. It consumes that fuel roughly 10,000 times faster than the sun, however. As a result, it has a total lifetime 1,000 times shorter than that of our sun. When the hydrogen fuel in the center of a massive star is exhausted--'the center' representing about 10 percent of the star's total mass--it becomes increasingly unstable. The star remains bright, but it quickly switches from being comparatively small and hot to being huge and red for a while, then it briefly becomes smaller and bluer, then even larger and even redder, and finally explodes as a supernova, spewing its nuclear ashes as well as its unburned fuel back into space. Similarly, a star five times more massive than the sun has a lifetime roughly 100 times shorter than the sun before it becomes unstable and ends its active life. A star like our sun is calculated to have a total stable life-span of around 10 billion years; the sun is now a bit less than half that age (this age is very accurately determined from radioactive elements in meteorites), so we have another five billion years or so before we have to start looking for a new home.