Last month the prestigious journal Nature published a letter led by PhD student (and friend) Louise Howes (@Lousie, ANU/RSAA, Australia). This scientific paper, with title Extremely metal-poor stars from the cosmic dawn in the bulge of the Milky Way, uses data from the 1.2m Skymapper Telescope, the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (both at Siding Spring Observatory, NSW, Australia) and the 6.5m Magellan Clay telescope (Las Campanas Observatory, Chile) to study very old stars in the Milky Way bulge.
The aim of the research was to look for signatures of really old stars: stars that old that perhaps the Milky Was was not even born when they were created! How do astronomers know that? Just studying the chemical composition of the stars via deep spectral analysis. Only hydrogen and helium (and just a bit of litium) were formed in the Big Bang: the rest of elements have been created or inside the stars (oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, iron) or because of processes happening to the stars (e.g., supernova explosions, that create heavy elements such as gold, silver, copper or uranium). As time goes by and new generations of stars are born, the amount of metals (for astronomers, metals are all elements which are not hydrogen and helium) increases. Therefore if we discover a star with very few amount of metals, we will quite sure we are observing a very old object.
Loiuse has been using the 2dF instrument at the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the MIKE spectrograph at the Magellan Clay Telescope (Chile) to get deep, high-resolution spectra of candidate old stars in the Galactic bulge. The candidate stars were identified using optical images provided by the 1.2m Skymapper Telescope. With these observations, Louise Howes and collaborators have detected 23 stars that are extremely metal-poor. These stars have surprisingly low levels of carbon, iron and other heavy elements. Indeed, they report the discovery of a star that has an abundance of iron which is 10,000 times lower than that found in the Sun! These stars were formed at redshift greater than 15, that is, we are observing in our own Milky Way stars that were formed just ~300 million years after the Big Bang!
On top of that, the study suggests that these first stars didn’t explode as normal supernova but as hypernova: poorly understood explosions of probably rapidly rotating stars producing 10 times as much energy as normal supernovae. The high-resolution spectroscopic data have been also used to study the kinematics of these very old stars, that are found on tight orbits around the Galactic centre rather that being halo stars passing through the bulge. This is also characteristic of stars that were formed at redshifts greater than 15.
Short 3 minutes video discussing the results found in this study. Credit: ANU.
I’m happy to say here that I’ve been the support astronomer for many of her nights at the AAT the last couple of years. And I’m extremely happy to see that, even because of the bad weather we have had sometimes, they managed to get these observations published in Nature! Well done, Louise!
– Scientific paper in Nature: Howes et al. 2015, Extremely metal-poor stars from the cosmic dawn in the bulge of the Milky Way, 11 November 2015.