Article in Science / Astronomy & Space / Astronomy
Thermonuclear fusion reactions, thought to power stars are ignited by nuclear fission, not the energy of gravitational collapse as thought since the 1930s. This means that stars are not automatically ignited during formation, but only when actinide elements are present.

Stellar ignition, or star ignition, the lighting of stars, pertains to the initiation of the nuclear fusion reactions that are thought to power the Sun and other stars.

At the beginning of the 20th century, understanding the nature of the energy source that powers the Sun and other stars was one of the most important problems in physical science. Initially, the idea was that as the dust and gas collapsed to form a star, it would heat. In other words, gravitational potential energy would be converted into heat. Soon, however, calculations were made showing that the energy released would only be sufficient to power a star for a few million years at most and certainly life has existed on Earth for a longer time. The discovery of radioactivity, especially thermonuclear fusion [1], and the developments that followed led to the idea that thermonuclear fusion reactions power the Sun and other stars [2, 3].

Thermonuclear fusion reactions are called “thermonuclear” because temperatures on the order of a million degrees Celsius are required. The principal energy released from the detonation of hydrogen bombs comes from thermonuclear fusion reactions. The high temperatures necessary to ignite H-bomb thermonuclear fusion reactions comes from their A-bomb nuclear fission triggers. Each hydrogen bomb is ignited by its own small nuclear fission A-bomb.

By 1938, the idea of thermonuclear fusion reactions as the energy source for stars had been reasonably well developed, but nuclear fission had not yet been discovered [4]. Astrophysicists assumed that the million-degree-temperatures necessary for stellar thermonuclear ignition would be produced by the in-fall of dust and gas during star formation and have continued to make that assumption to the present, although clearly there have been signs of potential trouble with the concept. Heating by the in-fall of dust and gas is takes place at the surface of the forming star. This heating is off-set by radiation from the surface, which is a function of the fourth power of temperature, in other words, T times T times T times T, which for T = 1,000,000 becomes a huge loss factor.

Generally, in numerical models of protostellar collapse, thermonuclear ignition temperatures, on the order of a million degrees Celsius, are not attained by the gravitational in-fall of matter without assumption of an additional shockwave induced sudden flare-up [5, 6] or by result-optimizing the model-parameters, such as opacity and rate of in-fall [7].

After demonstrating the feasibility for planetocentric nuclear fission reactors [8, 9], including Earth’s georeactor, J. Marvin Herndon proposed that thermonuclear fusion reactions in stars, as in hydrogen bombs, are ignited by self-sustaining, neutron induced, nuclear fission [10]. This concept is fundamentally different in that heating takes place at the proto-star center, not at the surface where heat loss occurs. Moreover, the ability of nuclear fission reactions to ignite thermonuclear fusion reactions has been experimentally verified with each successful hydrogen bomb detonation. The idea that stars are ignited by nuclear fission triggers opens the possibility of stellar non-ignition, a concept which may have fundamental implications bearing on the nature of dark matter [10] and dark galaxies [11]. Now, there is reason to think that so-called hot Jupiter exo-planets [12], which have densities less than Jupiter, may derive much of their internal heat production from interfacial thermonuclear fusion reactions ignited by nuclear fission [13].

Ideas about stellar ignition by heat produced during gravitational collapse developed before nuclear fission was discovered and no one for more than six decades, until Herndon [10] thought to question the concept.It is well to recall that science is a logical process, not a democratic process. New ideas begin with a single individual and then diffuse, sometimes slowly, throughout the scientific community. J. Marvin Herndon's idea that natural fusion reactions are ignited by natural fission reactions is a fundamentally new and revolutionary concept with profound astrophysical implications, among the most pronounced being that the luminous star distributions in galaxies are the reflection of the distributions of heavy, fissionable elements, formed in galactic centers and jetted into the sea of dark galactic stars, where they ignite and make luminous the dark stars they encounter [14].


1.Oliphant, M. L., P. Harteck, and E. Rutherford, Transmutation effects observed with heavy hydrogen. Nature, 1934. 133: p. 413.

2.Gamow, G. and E. Teller, The rate of selective thermonuclear reactions. Physical Review, 1938. 53: p. 608-609.

3.Bethe, H. A., Energy production in stars. Physical Review, 1938. 55: p. 434-456.

4.Hahn, O. and F. Strassmann, Uber den Nachweis und das Verhalten der bei der Bestrahlung des Urans mittels Neutronen entstehenden Erdalkalimetalle. Die Naturwissenschaften, 1939. 27: p. 11-15.

5.Hayashi, C. and T. Nakano, Thermal and dynamic properties of a protostar and its contraction to the stage of quasi-static equilibrium. Progress in Theoretical Physics, 1965. 35: p. 754-775.

6.Larson, R. B., Gravitational torques and star formation. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1984. 206: p. 197-207.

7.Stahler, S.W., et al., The early evolution of protostellar disks. Astrophysical Journal, 1994. 431: p. 341-358.

8.Herndon, J. M., Nuclear fission reactors as energy sources for the giant outer planets. Naturwissenschaften, 1992. 79: p. 7-14.

9.Herndon, J. M., Feasibility of a nuclear fission reactor at the center of the Earth as the energy source for the geomagnetic field. Journal of Geomagnetism and Geoelectricity, 1993. 45: p. 423-437.

10.Herndon, J. M., Planetary and protostellar nuclear fission: Implications for planetary change, stellar ignition and dark matter. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1994. A455: p. 453-461.

11.Herndon, J.M., Thermonuclear ignition of dark galaxies. 13 April 2006, 2006.

12.Charbonneau, D., et al., Precise radius estimates for the exoplanets WASP-1b and WASP-2b. 19 Oct. 2006, 2006.

13.Herndon, J. M., New concept for internal heat production in hot Jupiter exo-planets. 20 Dec. 2006, 2006.

14. Herndon, J. M., Maverick's Earth and Universe, Vancouver:Trafford Press, ISBN: 978-1-4251-4132-5, 2008.

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About the Author 

J. Marvin Herndon
President, Transdyne Corporation, Ph.D.-nuclear chemistry, post-doctoral-geochemistry and cosmochemistry, noted for: nickel silicide inner c

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