Photonuclear Reactions in Astrophysics
Nucleosynthesis in stars and stellar explosions proceeds via nuclear reactions in thermalized plasmas. Nuclear reactions not only transmutate elements and their isotopes, and thus create all known elements from primordial hydrogen and helium, they also release energy to keep stars in hydrostatic equilibrium over astronomical timescales. A stellar plasma has to be hot enough to provide sufficient kinetic energy to the plasma components to overcome Coulomb barriers and to allow interactions between them. Plasma components in thermal equilibrium are bare atomic nuclei, free electrons, and photons (radiation). Typical temperatures of plasmas experiencing nuclear burning range from 107 K for hydrostatic hydrogen burning (mainly interactions among protons and He isotopes) to 1010 K or more in explosive events, such as supernovae or neutron star mergers. This still translates into low interaction energies by nuclear physics standards, as the most probable energy E between reaction partners in terms of temperature is derived from Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics and yields E = T9/11.6045 MeV, where T9 is the plasma temperature in GK.