Sky & Telescope - June 2020 - 59

Stellar
Archaeology
Astronomers are illuminating the
universe's early days by studying
chemical patterns in the oldest stars.

T

he first stars must have been a magnificent sight. Far
brighter, hotter, and more massive than most stars
that currently light the sky, they emerged after a
period of relative darkness - about 100 million years after
the Big Bang, aided by the gravitation of countless halos of
dark matter. No large galaxies existed yet, nor did elements
heavier than helium, save for a trace of lithium. But when
the first stars ended their lives as immense supernova explosions a few million years later, they released heavier elements
that helped form the next generation of stars.
These heavy elements, such as carbon, calcium, and iron,
astronomers collectively call metals. Metals helped radiate
away heat from collapsing clouds of hydrogen and helium
gas, fostering the creation of less massive and longer-lived
stars. The smallest of these second-generation Population II
(Pop II) stars still exist in the Milky Way and in nearby dwarf
galaxies. Their outer layers harbor traces of metals produced
in the first stars, called (counterintuitively from a chronologist's view) Population III.
This presents astronomers with an opportunity to do
archaeology - stellar archaeology. No current telescopes can
look back more than 13 billion years to directly study the
first stars. But astronomers can study the abundances and
relative proportions of metals left behind by the first stars in
the outer layers of the oldest surviving Pop II stars, much as
earthbound archaeologists learn about ancient cultures by
studying the artifacts they left behind. Using this approach,
astronomers hope to increase our understanding of how
the first stars evolved, how they generated the first elements
heavier than lithium, and how the first galaxies formed.

Population II stars are not hard to find. A peek through a
telescope at a bright globular cluster such as M13 presents
the combined light of hundreds of thousands of these ancient
stars. Many stars in the Milky Way's central bulge and
immense but sparsely populated halo are also Pop II stars that
formed some 10 billion to 13 billion years ago. Only a fraction
of them formed immediately after the demise of the first stars.
Much younger Population I stars, by contrast, lie in the
Milky Way's disk. They are relatively rich in elements such as
iron and carbon, because they formed from interstellar matesk yandtelescope.org * JUNE 2 02 0

LE AH TISCIONE / S&T

Finding the Oldest Stars

59


http://www.skyandtelescope.org

Sky & Telescope - June 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - June 2020

Contents
Sky & Telescope - June 2020 - Cover1
Sky & Telescope - June 2020 - Cover2
Sky & Telescope - June 2020 - 1
Sky & Telescope - June 2020 - Contents
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