Stars shrouded in glittering zirconium light up the sky

Dec 08, 2010 By Mark Thompson
Artist’s impression of LS IV - 14 116. The white clouds are rich in zirconium and lie above the blue surface of the star. Image: Natalie Behara

Its been said that the Universe isn’t stranger than you can imagine, its stranger than you can’t imagine. Nowhere is this more true than the study of stars. Recently, a team of scientists from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland have discovered a star that is enveloped by clouds of glittering zirconium! Its a metal you might be more familiar with in jewelry to make false diamonds but it now looks like stars are getting in on the act and becoming more sparkly than they are already.

The research team, led by graduate student N. Naslim and her supervisor Dr. Simon Jeffrey, were looking for clues to the lack of hydrogen on the surface of helium rich hot subdwarf , when compared to other similar stars. Using the 3.9m Anglo-Australian telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, the study focused on a star called LS IV-14 116 which lies at an incredible distance of 2000 light years.

By using a spectroscope attached to the telescope, the team was able to split the incoming starlight into its component parts (much like water droplets in the atmosphere do to sunlight to make a rainbow). Along with the expected patterns which showed the presence of certain elements, they were surprised to find lines in the spectrum which were not so easily identified. A careful study showed the lines were due to the presence of a form of that should only exist in temperatures in excess of 20,000 degrees. This was a first, no zirconium of this type had ever been found in a stellar spectrum before.

Team member Prof. Alan Hibbert built a computer model that enabled them to deduce that the zirconium existing on LS IV-14 116 was some ten thousand times more than the concentration found in the Sun. This highly unexpected result led the team to conclude that the abundance of zirconium is caused by the formation of cloud layers in the star’s atmosphere.

“The star doesn’t have a corona like the Sun. Our model shows the huge excess of zirconium that we discovered is on the photosphere (the visible ‘surface’ of the star), where it forms cloud layers much like stratus clouds on Earth.” Naslim told Universe Today. It seems that other elements, chiefly metals heavier than calcium, seem to form in high concentrations too but seem scarce in layers above and below. This could have a dramatic effect according to Dr. Natalie Behara from the Université Libre de Bruxelles appearing as many thin cloud layers in the atmosphere, each due to a different metal.

Further work from the team suggests that the star is shrinking from a bright cool giant to a faint hot subdwarf and as it does, different elements sink or float up in the atmosphere making the current composition very specific to the star’s recent history.

Naslim explains that “The huge excess of zirconium was a complete surprise. We had no reason to think this star was more peculiar than any other faint blue star discovered so far.” Its great to see that whilst we know so much about the Universe now, there are still discoveries that come along and surprise us. This latest discovery of zirconium rich stars has yet again shown us that we mustn’t become complacent and think we know everything, it keeps science interesting, it keeps it alive.

Explore further: Astronomer confirms a new "Super-Earth" planet

More information: Source: From the Royal Astronomical Society.

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User comments : 12

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that_guy
3 / 5 (2) Dec 08, 2010
I imagine that they have sparkling sunsets there.
Quantum_Conundrum
1.6 / 5 (7) Dec 08, 2010
Can't anyone else see that stuff like this blatantly contradicts the "standard model" of how stars and star systems supposedly form?

Just one more real world fact that shoots holes in the big bang and nebula theories regarding the universe and things in it.
Ronan
4.2 / 5 (5) Dec 08, 2010
No, I don't see, Quantum Conundrum. There're no rules against stars forming from the wispy corpses of other stars, as long as there's some hydrogen still there for them to feed on--so the presence of the elements needed to make zirconium isn't too strange. Would you mind explaining the contradiction?
Quantum_Conundrum
1.7 / 5 (7) Dec 08, 2010
No, I don't see, Quantum Conundrum. There're no rules against stars forming from the wispy corpses of other stars, as long as there's some hydrogen still there for them to feed on--so the presence of the elements needed to make zirconium isn't too strange. Would you mind explaining the contradiction?


How about the fact that Zirconium is a relatively heavy element (atomic mass 91, vs 1 for hydrogen and 4 for helium,) and therefore belongs in the CORE of any second generation star, not concentrated in clouds it's atmosphere.

Next, if this were a second generation star and the Zirconium originated in a super nova eons ago, then you should detect similar concentrations of Zirconium in all neighbouring stars, decreasing proportionately according to the inverse square law as you go out from this star.

IN any case, no explaination was given why the Zirconium hasn't sunk to the core since it's 23 times denser than helium...
that_guy
3 / 5 (4) Dec 08, 2010
Can't anyone else see that stuff like this blatantly contradicts the "standard model" of how stars and star systems supposedly form?

Just one more real world fact that shoots holes in the big bang and nebula theories regarding the universe and things in it.


It's not that I don't agree that there are holes in some of the biggest cosmological theories, but, I gave you one star because you spouted off with absolutely no reasoning to back up your claim.

In fact, this particular star seems to back up the establishment as a young star formed in a metal rich region.
that_guy
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 08, 2010

How about the fact that Zirconium is a relatively heavy element (atomic mass 91, vs 1 for hydrogen and 4 for helium,) and therefore belongs in the CORE of any second generation star, not concentrated in clouds it's atmosphere.

Next, if this were a second generation star and the Zirconium originated in a super nova eons ago, then you should detect similar concentrations of Zirconium in all neighbouring stars, decreasing proportionately according to the inverse square law as you go out from this star.

IN any case, no explaination was given why the Zirconium hasn't sunk to the core since it's 23 times denser than helium...


Because of course, the density, phase, and chemical properties of these elements would be exactly the same as they are on earth at sea level.

On that note, tell me, is water denser or less dense than the atmosphere here on earth, lighter or heavier. I see water in the clouds AND in the ocean. I'm so confused....
Shootist
3 / 5 (6) Dec 08, 2010
Can't anyone else see that stuff like this blatantly contradicts the "standard model" of how stars and star systems supposedly form?


No. Obviously the stellar nursery this star formed in was rich in metals.

Your "only belongs in core" theory stands next to Dr. Manual's "neutron star in every stellar core" model.
jmcanoy1860
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2010
It's the gay star!!!

(No offense mean't to gays of course)
jmcanoy1860
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2010

How about the fact that Zirconium is a relatively heavy element (atomic mass 91, vs 1 for hydrogen and 4 for helium,) and therefore belongs in the CORE of any second generation star, not concentrated in clouds it's atmosphere.

Next, if this were a second generation star and the Zirconium originated in a super nova eons ago, then you should detect similar concentrations of Zirconium in all neighbouring stars, decreasing proportionately according to the inverse square law as you go out from this star.

IN any case, no explaination was given why the Zirconium hasn't sunk to the core since it's 23 times denser than helium...


1. One star got there first.
2. Centrifugal force and solar winds.

Fun!!
Graeme
not rated yet Dec 12, 2010
It is interesting that S type stars have ZrO prominent in their spectrum, presumably because this is an extremely stable molecule. The star however was a He-sdB type star, also enriched in Strontium and Yttrium. These elements are consecutive on the periodic table. How could a cloud condense at 34000 degrees?
eachus
not rated yet Dec 15, 2010
I think that if the tools were available, we would find that the heliopause (asteropause?) is pushed very near the star on one side by the interstellar environment. This could cause heavier elements to separate out and fall back into the star's upper atmosphere. (Think of it as a giant still.)

Since the heliopause would contain atoms both from the solar wind and the interstellar medium, either could be the source of the zirconium.

But this is definitely a case of the universe being stranger than we can imagine. No one predicted this.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Dec 15, 2010
It is interesting that S type stars have ZrO prominent in their spectrum, presumably because this is an extremely stable molecule. The star however was a He-sdB type star, also enriched in Strontium and Yttrium. These elements are consecutive on the periodic table. How could a cloud condense at 34000 degrees?

The same way hydrogen becomes metallic in the presence of extreme pressure. Just because it isn't a state that we're familiar with doesn't mean it can't or doesn't happen. It's a huge universe.

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