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

Mar 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: A new approach in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence: targeting alien polluters

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Awarded a Pell Grant? Better double-check

5 minutes ago

(AP)—Potentially tens of thousands of students awarded a Pell Grant or other need-based federal aid for the coming school year could find it taken away because of a mistake in filling out the form.

Facebook shares profit growth story

5 minutes ago

Facebook on Wednesday reported that is quarterly profit more than doubled amid big gains in ad revenues and a jump in users.

Six charged in global e-ticket hacking scheme

34 minutes ago

Criminal charges were filed Wednesday against six people in what authorities said was a global cyber-crime ring that created fraudulent e-tickets for major concerts and sporting events.

EU sets new energy savings target at 30%

44 minutes ago

After months of tough negotiations, the European Commission recommended Wednesday a new energy savings target of 30 percent so as to combat climate change and ensure self-sufficiency.

IHEP in China has ambitions for Higgs factory

44 minutes ago

Who will lay claim to having the world's largest particle smasher?. Could China become the collider capital of the world? Questions tease answers, following a news story in Nature on Tuesday. Proposals for ...

Recommended for you

Satellite galaxies put astronomers in a spin

2 hours ago

An international team of researchers, led by astronomers at the Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg (CNRS/Université de Strasbourg), has studied 380 galaxies and shown that their small satellite galaxies almost always ...

Video: The diversity of habitable zones and the planets

3 hours ago

The field of exoplanets has rapidly expanded from the exclusivity of exoplanet detection to include exoplanet characterization. A key step towards this characterization is the determination of which planets occupy the Habitable ...

Ultra-deep astrophoto of the Antenna Galaxies

3 hours ago

You might think the image above of the famous Antenna Galaxies was taken by a large ground-based or even a space telescope. Think again. Amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen from New Zealand compiled a total ...

The most precise measurement of an alien world's size

4 hours ago

Thanks to NASA's Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the radius of a planet outside our solar system. The size of the exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-93b, ...

User comments : 0