Chemical composition of stars in clusters can tell history of our galaxy

March 22, 2007

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope, an international team of astronomers has shown how to use the chemical composition of stars in clusters to shed light on the formation of our Milky Way. This discovery is a fundamental test for the development of a new chemical tagging technique uncovering the birth and growth of our Galactic cradle.

The formation and evolution of galaxies, and in particular of the Milky Way - the 'island universe' in which we live, is one of the major puzzles of astrophysics: indeed, a detailed physical scenario is still missing and its understanding requires the joint effort of observations, theories and complex numerical simulations. ESO astronomer Gayandhi De Silva and her colleagues used the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) on ESO's VLT to find new ways to address this fundamental riddle.

"We have analysed in great detail the chemical composition of stars in three star-clusters and shown that each cluster presents a high level of homogeneity and a very distinctive chemical signature," says De Silva, who started this research while working at the Mount Stromlo Observatory, Australia. "This paves the way to chemically tagging stars in our Galaxy to common formation sites and thus unravelling the history of the Milky Way," she adds.

"Galactic star clusters are witnesses of the formation history of the Galactic disc," says Kenneth Freeman, also from Mount Stromlo and another member of the team. "The analysis of their composition is like studying ancient fossils. We are chasing pieces of galactic DNA!"

Open star clusters are among the most important tools for the study of stellar and galactic evolution. They are composed of a few tens up to a few thousands of stars that are gravitationally bound, and they span a wide range of ages. The youngest date from a few million years ago, while the oldest (and more rare) can have ages up to ten billion years. The well-known Pleiades, also called the Seven Sisters, is a young bright open cluster. Conversely, Collinder 261, which was the target of the present team of astronomers, is among the oldest. It can therefore provide useful information on the early days in the existence of our Galaxy.

The astronomers used UVES to observe a dozen red giants in the open cluster Collinder 261, located about 25,000 light years from the Galactic Centre. Giants are more luminous, hence they are well suited for high-precision measurements. From these observations, the abundances of a large set of chemical elements could be determined for each star, demonstrating convincingly that all stars in the cluster share the same chemical signature.

"This high level of homogeneity indicates that the chemical information survived through several billion years," explains De Silva. "Thus all the stars in the cluster can be associated to the same prehistoric cloud. This corroborates what we had found for two other groups of stars."

But this is not all. A comparison with the open cluster called the Hyades, and the group of stars moving with the bright star HR 1614, shows that each of them contains the same elements in different proportions. This indicates that each star cluster formed in a different primordial region, from a different cloud with a different chemical composition.

"The consequences of these observations are thrilling," says Freeman. "The ages of open clusters cover the entire life of the Galaxy and each of them is expected to originate from a different patch of 'dough'. Seeing how much sodium, magnesium, calcium, iron and many other elements are present in each star cluster, we are like accurate cooks who can tell the amount of salt, sugar, eggs and flour used in different cookies. Each of them has a unique chemical signature."

The astronomers will now aim to measure the chemical abundances in a larger sample of open clusters. Once the "DNA" of each star cluster is inferred, it will be possible to trace the genealogic tree of the Milky Way. This chemical mapping through time and space will be a way to test theoretical models.

"The path to an extensive use of chemical tagging is still long," cautions De Silva, "but our study shows that it is possible. When the technique is tested and proven we will be able to get a detailed picture of the way our Galactic cradle formed."

The research presented here is discussed in a paper in the Astronomical Journal, volume 133, pages 1161-1175 ("Chemical homogeneity in Collinder 261 and implications for chemical tagging", by G.M. De Silva et al.).

Source: European Southern Observatory

Explore further: 'Golden' silver nanoparticle looks and behaves like gold

Related Stories

'Golden' silver nanoparticle looks and behaves like gold

September 22, 2015

(—In an act of "nano-alchemy," scientists have synthesized a silver (Ag) nanocluster that is virtually identical to a gold (Au) nanocluster. On the outside, the silver nanocluster has a golden yellow color, and ...

Jupiter's moon Europa

September 30, 2015

Jupiter's four largest moons – aka. the Galilean moons, consisting of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are nothing if not fascinating. Ever since their discovery over four centuries ago, these moons have been a source ...

Fossil star clusters reveal their age

July 27, 2015

Using a new age-dating method, an international team of astronomers has determined that ancient star clusters formed in two distinct epochs – the first 12.5 billion years ago and the second 11.5 billion years ago.

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

'Oddball' star cluster is a hybrid, astronomer finds

June 1, 2011

( -- Scientists will tell you that the romantic idea is factually true: we are made of the same stuff as stars. In fact, all chemical elements heavier than helium are made in the stars, and research into how the ...

First planets found around sun-like stars in a cluster

September 14, 2012

(—NASA-funded astronomers have, for the first time, spotted planets orbiting sun-like stars in a crowded cluster of stars. The findings offer the best evidence yet planets can sprout up in dense stellar environments. ...

Recommended for you

What happens when your brain can't tell which way is up?

October 13, 2015

In space, there is no "up" or "down." That can mess with the human brain and affect the way people move and think in space. An investigation on the International Space Station seeks to understand how the brain changes in ...

Hubble sees an aging star wave goodbye

October 12, 2015

This planetary nebula is called PK 329-02.2 and is located in the constellation of Norma in the southern sky. It is also sometimes referred to as Menzel 2, or Mz 2, named after the astronomer Donald Menzel who discovered ...

What are white holes?

October 9, 2015

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.