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When a proto-star becomes a main sequence star, is that something that happens in an instant when a certain threshold is met, or is it a process that takes a few thousand/million years?

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Astronomers distinguish a prototstar from a star based on whether the object is visible. A protostar is hidden by the gas cloud that surrounds it. Protostars aren't visible. At some point in their evolution (and where this occurs depends on mass and metallicity), a protostar will start clearing the surrounding cloud of gas. This process happens very quickly from an astronomical point of view. (Aside: From a human point of view, this is anything but quickly.)

In the case of very massive stars, the newly emerged star is already on the main sequence. Very massive stars are "stars" (objects with a stable mass, stable size, and fusing hydrogen into helium) well before astronomers can see them. In contrast, very small stars spend hundreds of millions of years of evolution between being a "star" (visible to astronomers) and being on the main sequence. The star is a pre-main sequence star during this long span of time.

Intermediate mass stars also spend some time as a pre-main sequence star. How much time depends on mass and metallicity. In the case of a star with a mass of ~1 solar mass and metallicity comparable to that of the Sun, the time spent as a pre-main sequence star is on the order of tens of millions of years. In contrast, the time spent as a protostar is very short, tens of thousands of years. The time taken to clear the star system of gas (the transition from protostar to PMS star) is shorter yet, hundreds to a few thousand of years.

There is no point at which one can say fusion starts. It's a probabilistic thing, with probability increasing sharply with density and temperature. What about objects at the low end of density and temperature? This is the boundary that separates red dwarfs from brown dwarfs.

There is very little difference between the smallest red dwarfs and the largest brown dwarfs. The smallest red dwarfs are quite cool. They fuse hydrogen into helium via the p-p chain, but rather infrequently. The largest brown dwarfs also fuse hydrogen into helium via the p-p chain, but here the fusion reactions are so very infrequent that the brown dwarf gets cooler and cooler. In a trillion years, we might be able to point to a marked boundary between old red dwarfs and old brown dwarfs. Right now, that boundary is rather arbitrary.

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    $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries - You're right. The core of a brown dwarf is degenerate. That's why Jupiter is about the largest non-star object. Add mass to a super-Jupiter or brown dwarf and it gets smaller. The boundary between super-Jupiter and brown dwarf? There is none. This boundary is completely arbitrary. The boundary between smallest red dwarf and largest brown dwarf? Once again, there is none. There's no way to distinguish a huge brown dwarf from a tiny red dwarf. However, the area where the distinction between brown dwarf and red dwarf is fuzzy is quite small. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Mar 4 '15 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't say there's no distinction in the sequence super-Jupiter$\to$brown dwarf$\to$red dwarf. It's observationally tricky but conceptually well-defined. Brown dwarfs are hot enough to partially fuse hydrogen in their cores, but not hot enough to finish it off by converting it into helium. Stars that can are regular (if small) stars. By this definition, brown dwarfs are roughly 13–80 Jupiter masses. More massive is a star; less massive a planet. $\endgroup$ – Warrick Mar 5 '15 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ Visibility is not (usually) the criterion for distinguishing between a protostar and a star. More usually the criterion is fusion light up, but even this is not definitive, some define it as the point where the infall of material becomes negligible (which may be correlated with fusion light up and/or visibility) $\endgroup$ – Conrad Turner Mar 6 '15 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ The comment above has terrible timescales. The sun has a life time of 10 Myr before it starts burning hydrogen $\endgroup$ – bob ryan Mar 24 '18 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ I think it's fair to say the protostar is defined by being invisibly shrouded by the cloud it is born from, though a somewhat more physical (yet equivalent) idea is that a protostar is still gaining mass. So the stages are protostar, pre-main-sequence star, and main-sequence star, where the first stage is building the mass, the second stage is contracting that mass toward fusion, and the last stage has the fusion. Strangely, only the last stage is officially counted as a "star", even though the other two use the word! That never made much sense to me, frankly, nor does it matter much. $\endgroup$ – Ken G Mar 30 '18 at 2:01

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