Most Ancient Star Lurks On Our Cosmic Doorstep
X-ray (NASA/CXC/MIT/D.Dewey et al. & NASA/CXC/SAO/J.DePasquale); Optical (NASA/STScI)
Shown here is a supernova remnant in the modern universe that is rich with heavy elements, but some low-energy supernovae amongst the first stars formed just after the Big Bang went on to form very metal-poor stars, one of which persists to this day.
Andrew Cooper/W. M. Keck Observatory
March 13, 2013, marks 20 years since the W. M. Keck Observatory began taking observations of the cosmos. Located in arguably one of the most extreme and beautiful places on the planet -- atop Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, 13,803 ft (4,207 m) above sea level -- the twin Keck domes have observed everything from asteroids, planets, exoplanets to dying stars, distant galaxies and nebulae. Seen in this photograph, the Keck I and Keck II telescopes dazzle the skies with their adaptive optics lasers -- a system that helps cancel out the turbulence of the Earth's atmosphere, bringing science some of the clearest views attainable by a ground-based observatory.
To celebrate the last two decades of incredible science, Discovery News has assembled some of the most impressive imagery to come from Keck.
William Merline, SWRI / W.M. Keck Observatory
Starting very close to home, the Keck II captured this infrared image of asteroid 2005 YU55 as it flew past Earth on Nov. 8, 2011.
Larry Sromovsky (University of Wisconsin)
Deeper into the solar system, the Keck NIRC2 near-infrared camera captured this beautiful observation of the oddball Uranus on July 11-12, 2004. The planet's north pole is at 4 o'clock.
W.M Keck Observatory/NASA/JPL-G.Orton
This is a mosaic false-color image of thermal heat emission from Saturn and its rings on Feb. 4, 2004, captured by the Keck I telescope at 17.65 micron wavelengths.
Antonin Bouchez (W. M. Keck Observatory)
A nice image of Saturn with Keck I telescope with the near infrared camera (NIRC) on Nov. 6, 1998. This is a composite of images taken in Z and J bands (1.05 and 1.3 microns), with the color scaling adjusted so it looks like Saturn is supposed to look to the naked eye.
Antonin Bouchez, W.M. Keck Observatory
This is Saturn's giant moon Titan -- a composite of three infrared bands captured by the Near Infrared Camera-2 on the 10-meter Keck II telescope. It was taken by astronomer Antonin Bouchez on June 7, 2011.
W. M. Keck Observatory/SRI/New Mexico State University
Another multicolored look at Titan -- a near-infrared color composite image taken with the Keck II adaptive optics system. Titan's surface appears red, while haze layers at progressively higher altitudes in the atmosphere appear green and blue.
Mike Brown, Caltech / W.M. Keck Observatory
This image of Neptune and its largest Tritan was captured by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown in September 2011. It shows the wind-whipped clouds, thought to exceed 1,200 miles per hour along the equator.
A color composite image of Jupiter in the near infrared and its moon Io. The callout at right shows a closeup of the two red spots through a filter which looks deep in the cloud layer to see thermal radiation.
Christian Marois, NRC and Bruce Macintosh, LLNL/W. M. Keck Observatory
HR 8799: Three exoplanets orbiting a young star 140 light years away are captured using Keck Observatory's near-infrared adaptive optics. This was the first direct observation by a ground-based observatory of worlds orbiting another star (2008).
Bob Goodrich, Mike Bolte, and the ESI team
Now to the extremes -- an image of Stephan's Quintet, a small compact group of galaxies.
W.M. Keck Observatory
The Egg Nebula: This Protoplanetary nebula is reflecting light from a dying star that is shedding its outer layers in the final stages of its life.
W. M. Keck Observatory
This is WR 104, a dying star. Known as a Wolf Rayet star, this massive stellar object will end its life in the most dramatic way -- possibly as a gamma-ray burst. The spiral is caused by gases blasting from the star as it orbits with another massive star.
W. M. Keck Observatory/UCLA
Narrow-field image of the center of the Milky Way. The arrow marks the location of radio source Sge A*, a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Dr. Mark Morris (UCLA) Keck II, Mirlen instrument
A high resolution mid-infrared picture taken of the center of our Milky Way reveals details about dust swirling into the black hole that dominates the region.
Mansi Kasliwal, Caltech and Iair Arcavi, Weizmann Institute of Science/W. M. Keck Observatory
A false-color image of a spiral galaxy in the constellation Camelopardalis.
A scintillating square-shaped nebula nestled in the vast sea of stars. Combining infrared data from the Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory and the Keck II telescope, researchers characterized the remarkably symmetrical “Red Square” nebula.
ESA, NASA, J.-P. Kneib (Caltech/Observatoire Midi-Pyrenees) and R. Ellis (Caltech)/W. M. Keck Observatory
Galaxy cluster Abell 2218 is acting as a powerful lens, magnifying all galaxies lying behind the cluster's core. The lensed galaxies are all stretched along the shear direction, and some of them are multiply imaged.
UC Berkeley/NASA/W. M. Keck Observatory
The central starburst region of the dwarf galaxy IC 10. In this composite color image, near infrared images obtained with the Keck II telescope have been combined with visible-light images taken with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
Records for furthest, biggest and brightest are always being broken in astronomy, but one of the more intriguing records has just been smashed. Australian astronomers have found a Methuselah star that likely formed 13.6 billion years ago. As the Universe is 13.75 billion years old, this object is a rare cosmic jewel that truly stood the test of time.
But the best thing about this star is that it lurks inside our galaxy, a mere 6,000 light-years away, providing us with a close-up view into a time capsule from the dawn of our cosmos.
The star was discovered by astronomers at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Australia who analyzed spectral data of millions of stars collected by SkyMapper at the Siding Spring Observatory, New South Wales. SkyMapper is an automated telescope that surveys Southern Hemisphere skies for planets, stars and asteroids. A few ‘low metallicity’ candidates were then studied using high-resolution spectral observations by the Magellan Telescopes in Chile. When they focused on the ancient star, called SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, Stefan Keller (of the Australian National University in Canberra) and his team noticed something strange.
“The telltale sign that the star is so ancient is the complete absence of any detectable level of iron in the spectrum of light emerging from the star,” Keller told AFP.
The theory is that the star’s extremely low metallicity is because it’s a “second generation” star, one that formed only a couple of hundred million years after the Big Bang. Second generation stars formed from the material cast off from the “first generation” of stars after they went supernova. Recent research suggests that not all of the first stars — formed from a primordial soup of gases, primarily hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium — exploded energetically, however, adding a twist to our understanding about how the earliest stars formed. This means that heavier elements (heavier than helium) formed inside the fusion cores of some of these first stars were not ejected throughout interstellar space.
In the case of SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, it appears that it formed primarily from the hydrogen and helium from the post-supernova material — leaving it extremely anemic. What’s more, the researchers think that this particular object formed from the remnants of only one first generation star.
Usually when astronomers analyze the spectra of stars, the chemical fingerprint of iron can be spotted. The more iron in the star, the younger it is. Each subsequent generation of star fuses more and more iron in their cores. As each generation of star reaches the end of its life and explodes as a supernova, the iron (and other heavy elements) from its interior is blasted throughout space. This iron intermingles with other interstellar gases that clump together, collapse and ignite to create the next generation of stars.
The iron fingerprint can therefore be used to “age” any stellar object, much like the rings in a log can be used to age a tree.
“We can use the iron abundance of a star as a qualitative ‘clock’ telling us when the star was formed,” said Keller.
SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, however, has no detectable sign of iron. Even within the margins for error, and astronomers assume an upper limit on the quantity of iron it contains, the star is still dated 13.6 billion years old. Previous “oldest star” record breakers have been dated to 13.2 billion years old.
“In the case of the star we have announced, the amount of iron present is less than one millionth that of the sun and a factor of at least 60 times less than any other known star. This indicates that our star is the most ancient yet found,” he added. This research as been published in the journal Nature.
Interestingly, the star is also rich in carbon. This factor provides us with a unique insight into stellar formation in the earliest epochs of our universe.
In computational models by co-author Anna Frebel, assistant professor of physics and a member of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, carbon formation was simulated inside a first generation star. The carbon was then transported to the upper layers of stellar material. As the star (thought to be around 60 times the mass of our sun) went supernova in a low-energy explosion, the outer layers (light elements, laced with an abundance in carbon) were blown away, leaving the iron-rich core behind. The iron-rich core was then likely swallowed by a black hole that formed in the supernova’s wake. It was the carbon-rich material that went on to form SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 13.6 billion years ago.
“By zooming in on an early star and finding something slightly unusual that goes a bit against the mainstream view, we’ve sort of rattled theory a little in a good way to say, ‘Maybe we have to rethink how the first stars formed,’” Frebel said in a news release.