Sky & Telescope - June 2020 - 60

The First Stars

60

JUNE 2 02 0 * SK Y & TELESCOPE

p M13 Astronomers estimate that 20% of the stars in the globular cluster M13 are primordial Population II stars.

Sun. "Finding these stars is like searching for a needle in a
haystack," says Anna Frebel (MIT) who discovered the low
metallicity of HE 1327-2326 and other metal-poor stars. "An
automated survey like SkyMapper gives us a bigger magnifying glass to look for these stars, but it's still hard work."

Iron-Poor Stars and the First Supernovae
As SkyMapper was commissioned, Frebel and her collaborators
in 2014 discovered SMSS 0313-6708, a 15th-magnitude red
giant with no detectable iron absorption. The missing signal

Understanding
Stellar Populations
Astronomers, like most scientists, love to classify things.
It was in this spirit that Walter Baade introduced the
idea of stellar populations in the 1940s. He noticed bluer
stars, which he called Population I, congregate in the
spiral arms of the Milky Way and other galaxies, while
redder Population II stars were found in and around the
bulge of the galaxy, in the halo, and in globular clusters.
Population I stars stay in the disk as they orbit the galactic center along fairly circular paths, while Population
II stars in the bulge and halo can in some cases follow
highly elliptical orbits around the center of the Milky Way
and can shoot through the disk as well.
In the early 1950s, astronomers found Population I
stars had much larger abundances of elements heavier
than helium compared to Population II stars. That's

N ASA / ESA / HUBBLE HERITAG E TE A M (STSCI / AUR A)

rial seeded by many generations of earlier stars. Our Sun is a
Pop I star. It formed about 9 billion years after the Big Bang,
time enough for heavy elements to enrich its natal cloud.
Today about 1.5% to 2% of the Sun's mass comprises elements
heavier than helium.
This fraction may sound low, but it's high compared with
Pop II stars: Metals are less than a tenth as abundant in
Pop II stars as they are in the Sun. The oldest Pop II stars have
the lowest levels. This is the key assumption of stellar archaeology: The abundances of metals in the atmosphere of a star
are a proxy for its age. The lower the abundance of metals
such as carbon, iron, and calcium, the more likely it is that
the very first stars produced these trace metals. Pop III stars,
if they are ever observed, would have virtually no elements
heavier than helium.
The first metal-poor stars were found by chance. In 1951,
Joseph Chamberlain and Lawrence Aller (both University of
Michigan) found the stars HD 140283 and HD 19445 had
surprisingly low iron and calcium abundances. Astronomers
often use a star's iron abundance as a gauge for its overall
metal content. Subsequent studies of HD 140283 revealed an
iron abundance about 1/300 that of the Sun. Sometimes called
the Methuselah Star, this 7th-magnitude star is easily visible
in the constellation Libra with a pair of binoculars.
Later sky surveys revealed hundreds of metal-poor stars.
The HK and Hamburg/European Southern Observatory projects in the 1980s and 1990s recorded low-resolution spectra
directly onto photographic plates, which astronomers then
analyzed to find two absorption lines from calcium - the H
and K lines at 397 nm and 393 nm.
The HK survey detected the first star with an iron abundance 1/10,000 solar, while astronomers found another star,
HE 1327-2326 - until recently the most iron-poor star
known - with the Hamburg/ESO survey. It has an iron abundance 500,000 times lower than the Sun's, which suggests it
is one of the oldest stars yet discovered.
The more recent Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the SkyMapper survey of the southern sky have resulted in the discovery of many more metal-poor stars. Based at Siding Spring
Observatory, SkyMapper uses a fully automated 1.35-meter
modified Cassegrain telescope with six photometric filters to
estimate the color and brightness of millions of stars. One of
the filters overlaps with the Ca H and K lines to make a rough
estimate of overall metallicity. Less absorption at these violet
wavelengths suggests a metal-poor star, and astronomers
measure higher-resolution spectra of such stars using larger
telescopes. Detailed numerical models render the abundance
of a particular metal from the measured strength of the
absorption line, along with an estimate of the star's effective temperature and surface gravity. Screening excludes stars
cooler than 4000K, because they have evolved to a stage in
which convection dredges up metals from the core and contaminates the outer layers of the star.
Despite extensive searching, results to date show only
about 30 stars with iron content less than 1/10,000 that of the



Sky & Telescope - June 2020

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

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