An ancient star casts new light on the birth of the universe

  

Category:  News & Politics

Via:  perrie-halpern  •  4 weeks ago  •  52 comments

By:   Tom Metcalfe

An ancient star casts new light on the birth of the universe
Astronomers have discovered an exceedingly old star at the edge of our galaxy that seems to have formed only a few million years after the Big Bang.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



Astronomers have discovered an exceedingly old star at the edge of our galaxy that seems to have formed only a few million years after the Big Bang - and what they are learning from it could affect their understanding of the birth of the universe.

In a study published last week, researchers found the star during an astronomical survey of the southern sky with a technique called narrowband photometry, which measures the brightness of distant stars in different wavelengths of light and can reveal stars that have low levels of heavy elements.

They then studied the star - known by its survey number as SPLUS J210428.01−004934.2, or SPLUS J2104−0049 for short - with high-resolution spectroscopy to determine its chemical makeup.

They've now determined it is one of a very few "ultra metal-poor" stars, or UMP, signifying that it is one of the oldest stars ever seen.

"They are very rare - we only know of about 35 of them after looking for decades," said astronomer Vinicius Placco of the National Science Foundation's astronomical research laboratory NOIRLab in Tucson, Arizona.

He said SPLUS J2104−0049 - a red giant star with about 80 percent of the mass of the sun - is at least 10 billion years old and possibly just a few million years younger than the universe itself, which astronomers estimate is 13.8 billion years old.

Placco is the lead author of the study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters about the distant star.

The researchers used data from an astronomical survey conducted by a telescope at Cerro Tololo in northern Chile. It revealed the star in the halo of our galaxy, far beyond the main disk of the Milky Way and about 16,000 light years from Earth - much too far away to be seen with the eye.

Placco said the initial survey covered about 20 million stars, from which he selected about 200 to be investigated with medium-resolution spectroscopy using NOIRLab's Gemini South telescope, a few miles away on Cerro Pachon in the Chilean Andes.

SPLUS J2104−0049 stood out as particularly interesting, and so was investigated further with high-resolution spectroscopy using the U.S.-operated Magellan telescopes in Chile's Atacama desert, about 100 miles further north, he said.

The observations show that SPLUS J2104−0049 is extremely poor in heavy elements and that it has one of the lowest levels of carbon recorded. That implies that it is a very early "Population II'' star that formed from the remnants of exploded "Population III" stars - the very first population of pristine stars, containing only hydrogen and helium, that formed only a few million years after matter was created in the Big Bang.

So far, no one has found a Population III star. The larger a star's mass, the more quickly it burns out, and it's thought most Population III stars were extremely large and burned out long ago.

Most stars, such as the sun, are third-generation "Population I" stars that contain relatively heavy elements such as iron, nickel, carbon and oxygen. Those heavy elements were created by fusion within Population II stars that exploded as supernovas and seeded them into interstellar clouds.

Our sun, which contains around 2 percent of its mass in the form of heavier elements, is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old. Astronomers think it has another 5 billion years to go before it swells into a red giant star that will engulf the Earth and then shrink into a white dwarf star.

Placco said modeling of the conditions that SPLUS J2104−0049 formed under suggest it coalesced from an interstellar cloud polluted by the supernova of a single Population III star with about 30 times the mass of our sun.

The models also suggest that the Population III star that it formed from had a different fusion process than expected, which could lead to a greater understanding of interstellar conditions in the early universe.

The discovery shows the value of the narrowband photometry surveys for identifying ultra metal-poor stars and suggests that even more could be found, he said.

It's even possible that searching in this way could lead to the discovery of a genuine Population III star that formed soon after the Big Bang, although it would need to have the mass of the sun or smaller to have survived so long without burning up all its fuel, Placco said.

Astronomer Howard Bond of Pennsylvania State University said the new method is a development of an early technique for identifying metal-poor stars.

The Methuselah Star is the oldest known star in our galaxy.NASA

Bond has led studies of the oldest-known Population II star - dubbed HD 140283, or the "Methuselah Star," after an extremely long-lived patriarch in the Bible - which is about 200 light years from Earth and estimated to be more than 13.5 billion years old.

He noted that while a star's composition can be determined by spectroscopy, determining a star's age requires knowing its distance from Earth with very high precision.

SPLUS J2104−0049 was likely to be very old indeed, and might even be older than HD 140283, but "it will be very difficult to actually determine its age because it is at a relatively large distance," he said.

Meanwhile, the search for the original Population III stars continues: "Nobody has found a truly pristine star made only of hydrogen and helium," he said.


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Gordy327
Professor Principal
1  Gordy327    4 weeks ago

Quite a fascinating discovery. The universe never ceases to amaze.

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Masters Quiet
1.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Gordy327 @1    4 weeks ago

A most excellent and informative article. I for one am always thrilled to hear about news like this because for every discovery like this that is made, it just reinforces how little we know about our planet, our galaxy, and the universe as a whole. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is never a bad thing.

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
1.1.1  Gordy327  replied to  Ed-NavDoc @1.1    4 weeks ago
A most excellent and informative article.

It's Perrie's article. But I agree with your assessment of it.

 I for one am always thrilled to hear about news like this because for every discovery like this that is made, it just reinforces how little we know about our planet, our galaxy, and the universe as a whole.

And equally thrilling is that this means there is just that much more to learn and discover.

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is never a bad thing.

Absolutely agreed. There's no such thing as too much knowledge.

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
Professor Principal
2  Bob Nelson    4 weeks ago

Fascinating. Thanks.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3  JohnRussell    4 weeks ago
Astronomers have discovered an exceedingly old star at the edge of our galaxy that seems to have formed only a few million years after the Big Bang - and what they are learning from it could affect their understanding of the birth of the universe.

And? 

After you "understand" the "birth of the universe" what exactly have you accomplished?

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.1  JohnRussell  replied to  JohnRussell @3    4 weeks ago

I would put it like this, if "the birth of the universe" were to involve a Creator it would have a meaning. 

If the "birth of the universe" does not involve a Creator I think it is in and of itself meaningless. Of course meaning unfolded as the universe continued on its merry way and life evolved on earth, and perhaps other places. 

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
3.2  Gordy327  replied to  JohnRussell @3    4 weeks ago
After you "understand" the "birth of the universe" what exactly have you accomplished?

Perhaps understanding the birth of the universe is the accomplishment.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.2.1  JohnRussell  replied to  Gordy327 @3.2    4 weeks ago

I don't think physical processes in and of themselves have any meaning. Even the "birth of the universe". 

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
3.2.2  Gordy327  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.1    4 weeks ago

I guess some have a greater appreciation for the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.2.3  JohnRussell  replied to  Gordy327 @3.2.2    4 weeks ago

Understanding something for understanding's sake may be overrated. Where is meaning? 

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
3.2.4  sandy-2021492  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.3    4 weeks ago
Where is meaning? 

Why must there be meaning beyond the possession of that knowledge?

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
3.2.5  sandy-2021492  replied to  Gordy327 @3.2.2    4 weeks ago

Well, every discovery of this sort makes the gap occupied by the "god of the gaps" smaller.

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
3.2.6  Gordy327  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.3    4 weeks ago
Understanding something for understanding's sake may be overrated. 

How can knowledge and understanding be overrated? 

Where is meaning?

Knowledge and understanding is meaningful in itself.

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
3.2.7  Gordy327  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.2.5    4 weeks ago
Well, every discovery of this sort makes the gap occupied by the "god of the gaps" smaller.

That seems like a very good "meaning" to me. jrSmiley_9_smiley_image.gif

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
3.2.8  sandy-2021492  replied to  Gordy327 @3.2.7    4 weeks ago

Yes, but it's anxiety-inducing for some.

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
3.2.9  Gordy327  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.2.8    4 weeks ago
Yes, but it's anxiety-inducing for some.

I don't know why? I would think it more intellectually liberating to have actual knowledge than relying on superstition. But maybe that's just me.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.2.10  JohnRussell  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3.2.8    4 weeks ago

It doesnt induce anxiety in me it induces boredom. 

These "birth of the universe" discoveries explain nothing. 

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
3.2.11  Gordy327  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.10    4 weeks ago
It doesnt induce anxiety in me it induces boredom. 

Personally, I find new discoveries and knowledge exciting. It doesn't matter if it does not explain anything. It's simply cool to learn something new.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
3.2.12  sandy-2021492  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.10    4 weeks ago
These "birth of the universe" discoveries explain nothing. 

Except the birth of the universe.  If that bores you, why comment?

 
 
 
Freefaller
PhD Guide
3.2.13  Freefaller  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.3    4 weeks ago
Where is meaning? 

While not everyone is the same for some of us the gaining of knowledge (in any form) is the meaning

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
3.3  TᵢG  replied to  JohnRussell @3    4 weeks ago
After you "understand" the "birth of the universe" what exactly have you accomplished?

We gain a deeper understanding of reality.   Is that not an accomplishment of value?    Is learning not in and of itself worthwhile?

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.3.1  JohnRussell  replied to  TᵢG @3.3    4 weeks ago

It is worthwhile but it is not momentous. Discovering a Creator would be momentous. 

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
3.3.2  TᵢG  replied to  JohnRussell @3.3.1    4 weeks ago

Discovering a creator would be the greatest discovery of all time; it would be the pinnacle of discoveries and thus all other discoveries would pale in comparison.

But these 'pale' discoveries include:

  • making and using fire
  • making and using tools
  • use of the wheel
  • the arch
  • Pythagorean theorem and other basic mathematics used to construct structures such as the Parthenon, aquaducts, great wall of China, ...
  • heliocentrism
  • ...
  • 'big bang'
  • evolution
  • semiconductors
  • electromagnetism
  • general relativity
  • quantum physics
  • black holes
  • plastic
  • dark energy / matter
  • ...

I have a hard time yielding a giant yawn to all discoveries that are not at the level of finding a creator.

 
 
 
Hallux
Freshman Principal
3.3.3  Hallux  replied to  JohnRussell @3.3.1    4 weeks ago

This 'Creator' may well have been a one trick pony.

 
 
 
Freefaller
PhD Guide
3.3.4  Freefaller  replied to  JohnRussell @3.3.1    4 weeks ago
Discovering a Creator would be momentous

Lol I've already discovered a Creator, he retired to Florida after a long career and raising me and my brother.  Good luck with yours.

 
 
 
Perrie Halpern R.A.
Professor Principal
3.4  seeder  Perrie Halpern R.A.  replied to  JohnRussell @3    4 weeks ago
After you "understand" the "birth of the universe" what exactly have you accomplished?

So many fields benefit, from astronomy to physics. Even as general knowledge. I don't understand what you don't understand.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.4.1  JohnRussell  replied to  Perrie Halpern R.A. @3.4    4 weeks ago
I don't understand what you don't understand.

?

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.4.2  JohnRussell  replied to  Perrie Halpern R.A. @3.4    4 weeks ago

Don't get me wrong. I don't object to any general knowledge that may come from understanding the birth of the universe, or even specifically useful knowledge, but for many decades we have heard from time to time announcements of some breakthrough in understanding the "birth of the universe" in specific.  And ? 

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
4  Kathleen    4 weeks ago

Interesting article.  It sounds like in the very beginning of the universe there were only a few elements and then it expanded into more from other stars.

You really wonder where these very first elements came from that formed everything to begin with. Where did this singularity come from? Why all this? Does it really need a reason or maybe it doesn’t. 

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
4.1  TᵢG  replied to  Kathleen @4    4 weeks ago

At the 'beginning' (best that science knows at this point) there were only quantum particles, 'energy' and a single force.   The single force split into the four fundamental forces.   The quantum particles ultimately formed the hydrogen atom which, with gravity (one of the four fundamental forces), ultimately formed the first stars which then formed the higher elements such as helium, carbon, etc. through fusion.

Where the quantum particles came from is definitely a mystery.   But one thing that is certain is that they did not emerge from pure nothingness (impossible by definition).   That strongly suggests there is something 'outside' of our universe.  

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
4.1.1  Kathleen  replied to  TᵢG @4.1    4 weeks ago

Makes you really think wondering what could be outside of our universe.. You are absolutely right, you can’t make something from nothing. There had to be something that made that something in order to make all this.  It makes your head spin.

Thanks for explaining like you did.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
4.1.2  JohnRussell  replied to  TᵢG @4.1    4 weeks ago
That strongly suggests there is something 'outside' of our universe.  

Anything that exists outside of this existence (nature) is by definition super-natural. 

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
4.1.3  TᵢG  replied to  JohnRussell @4.1.2    4 weeks ago
Anything that exists outside of this existence (nature) is by definition super-natural. 

Correct.   And when we understand what is currently supernatural, it becomes natural.

Supernatural is essentially a synonym for 'not currently explainable based on our understanding of physics'.   Dark energy is thus supernatural.

 
 
 
Greg Jones
Masters Expert
4.1.4  Greg Jones  replied to  TᵢG @4.1.3    4 weeks ago
Dark energy is thus supernatural.

No it's not, it's a force whose effects can be measured.

We just don't know how it works

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
4.1.5  Gordy327  replied to  Greg Jones @4.1.4    4 weeks ago
No it's not, it's a force whose effects can be measured.

That's not what TiG said. We know dark energy exerts some effect. But we are unable to explain it based on current physics or understanding.

 
 
 
Greg Jones
Masters Expert
4.1.6  Greg Jones  replied to  Gordy327 @4.1.5    4 weeks ago
We just don't know how it works
That's what I said.

 
 
 
Dig
Senior Guide
4.1.7  Dig  replied to  JohnRussell @4.1.2    4 weeks ago
Anything that exists outside of this existence (nature) is by definition super-natural. 

Nope. The proper prefix would be extra, as in extra-natural. 

Extra means outside of, super means above or superior to.

Also, supernatural is often used in a way synonymous with magic. Not exactly a scientific thing.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
4.1.8  TᵢG  replied to  Greg Jones @4.1.4    4 weeks ago
No it's not, it's a force whose effects can be measured.

Yes dark energy effects can be measured.   That does not change anything in what I wrote.   Did you read my full comment or just cherry-pick?  

The  "we just don't know how it works" is precisely why it is supernatural.   We (science) cannot explain dark energy, we simply know that there is something (that we label dark energy) there that causes the effects we have observed.   'Dark energy' is a placeholder label for something we cannot explain.   It is a name without content.

Or, as I actually wrote in my comment:

TiG @4.1.3Supernatural is essentially a synonym for 'not currently explainable based on our understanding of physics'.   Dark energy is thus supernatural.

This is twice now that you have made a reply to me attempting to gotcha and instead falling flat on your face.   I recommend you read more carefully before pulling the trigger on your third attempt.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
4.1.9  TᵢG  replied to  Dig @4.1.7    4 weeks ago

Supernatural works too.

Oxford :   (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.

Weather events were considered supernatural until they were not.

 
 
 
Dig
Senior Guide
4.1.10  Dig  replied to  TᵢG @4.1.9    4 weeks ago
some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.

Always used in a spooky ghost-story or religious way. Magic.

The prefix for "outside of" is extra.

Weather events were considered supernatural until they were not.

Yes. Controlled by imaginary magical beings.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
4.1.11  TᵢG  replied to  Dig @4.1.10    4 weeks ago

Well I am not going to deem John wrong when his usage is corroborated by Oxford.

Supernatural is commonly used in a spooky sense but, as is true for many words, there are other accepted usages.

 
 
 
Dig
Senior Guide
4.1.12  Dig  replied to  TᵢG @4.1.11    4 weeks ago
as is true for many words, there are other accepted usages.

Maybe accepted, but not proper.

The word "meme" for example. Totally misused.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
4.1.13  TᵢG  replied to  Dig @4.1.12    4 weeks ago

The key is that what might be deemed as supernatural or extranatural becomes merely natural when it is formally explained based on science.   And that means that one should not attribute any significance to something that cannot (yet) be explained.   It simply falls in the category of "we do not (yet) know".

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
Professor Principal
4.2  Bob Nelson  replied to  Kathleen @4    4 weeks ago

The creation of elements heavier than hydrogen is a fairly well-known process called "the Bethe cycle", or more anonymously, the CNO cycle.

Gravity draws hydrogen (created in the Big Bang) into a dense ball. Compression raises the temperature. First, electrons become so energetic that they leave their nucleus/proton. Then the freed protons smash into each other, creating helium (still without electrons - just a nucleus of two protons and two neutrons... or sometimes just one neutron... jrSmiley_19_smiley_image.gif )

And lots of heat - starshine!! - that keeps the atoms moving, and thus keeps the star from collapsing under that monstrous gravity.

Those nuclei continue to smash into each other, creating heavier and heavier atoms (and vastly inflating the star) until... iron.

Iron is the most stable of all the elements, so the process cannot continue. And the star collapses in on itself. Now there are two possibilities:

  • smaller stars (like the Sun) become "brown dwarf" cinders,
  • larger stars have such great gravity that their collapse creates conditions in which even iron is transmuted, into even heavier elements. This is the origin of uranium, for example.

Our Sun will meet its whimpering end in about five billion years... after swallowing all the planets out through Jupiter.

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
4.2.1  Kathleen  replied to  Bob Nelson @4.2    4 weeks ago

Our sun is still young so we don’t have to worry about that, thank goidness. One thing I read about was the ‘smell’ of the universe. Some astronauts have said their suits smell like burnt steak. Also raspberries as well. There is a perfume made by NASA that is suppose to smell like the universe. jrSmiley_26_smiley_image.gif

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
4.2.2  Gordy327  replied to  Kathleen @4.2.1    4 weeks ago
One thing I read about was the ‘smell’ of the universe. Some astronauts have said their suits smell like burnt steak. Also raspberries as well.

NASA needs to build a smelloscope

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
4.2.3  Kathleen  replied to  Gordy327 @4.2.2    4 weeks ago

Didn’t you ever wonder what the universe actually smells like?

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
4.2.4  Gordy327  replied to  Kathleen @4.2.3    4 weeks ago
Didn’t you ever wonder what the universe actually smells like?

I'm sure it's a veritable cacophony of olfactory stimulations. Just don't as me to smell Uranus. jrSmiley_18_smiley_image.gif

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
4.2.5  Kathleen  replied to  Gordy327 @4.2.4    4 weeks ago

Hey... I am serious here... but okay...

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
4.2.6  Gordy327  replied to  Kathleen @4.2.5    4 weeks ago
Hey... I am serious here... but okay

I know. Sorry, I just couldn't resist a little juvenile snarkiness. But you did kind of set me up for that one.

 
 
 
Kathleen
PhD Principal
4.2.7  Kathleen  replied to  Gordy327 @4.2.6    4 weeks ago

jrSmiley_82_smiley_image.gif

 
 
 
Dig
Senior Guide
4.3  Dig  replied to  Kathleen @4    4 weeks ago
You really wonder where these very first elements came from that formed everything to begin with.

If you've ever snapped two magnets together, then you've basically simulated how the first hydrogen atoms formed.

As the universe expanded and cooled, initial energies came down low enough for various quarks to combine and form charged subatomic particles, specifically protons and electrons (as far as hydrogen is concerned), with some of the protons having been combined with neutrons to form basic nuclei as a result of Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Further expansion and cooling allowed for the positively-charged protons (whether free or part of a nucleon) and negatively-charged electrons to grab onto each other like little magnets in the still relatively dense expanse, and voila... the universe was suddenly full of the first hydrogen atoms, the primordial hydrogen (along with lesser amounts of helium and trace amounts of lithium). Continued expansion and cooling brought energies low enough for the comparatively weak force of gravity to come into play, allowing the hydrogen to fall in on itself in places to form the first generation of absolutely huge, quick-burning, and short-lived stars. Nuclear processes in those initial pop III stars began filling out the periodic table, and here we all are, roughly 13.7 billion years later.

Apparently (from observational evidence), hydrogen + physics + time = humans (or at least the possibility of humans).

Like Sagan said, we are all star stuff. :)

 
 
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