Oldest Stars in the Universe Discovered by MIT Researchers in the Milky Way

By Lydia Amazouz Published on May 16, 2024 10:28
Oldest Stars in the Universe Discovered by MIT Researchers in the Milky Way

MIT researchers have identified three of the universe's oldest stars, located within the Milky Way's halo. These ancient stars, formed between 12 and 13 billion years ago, offer insights into the early stages of galaxy formation.

Oldest Stars Discovered In The Milky Way

The discovery of these stars, termed Small Accreted Stellar System (SASS) stars, was made by MIT astronomers, who found them circling the Milky Way's halo. This region is a cloud of stars enveloping the main galactic disk.

The three stars are remnants of small, primitive galaxies absorbed by the Milky Way billions of years ago. These stars now serve as valuable relics from the universe's formative years.

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Their identification not only adds to our knowledge of early star formation but also provides a new method to study the processes involved in the formation of galaxies in the early universe.

Classroom Concept Leads To Discovery

The findings emerged from a classroom project during the Fall 2022 semester at MIT, where students in the “Observational Stellar Archaeology” course analyzed ancient stars. Led by MIT professor Anna Frebel, the course allowed students to use real observational data to identify stars with low chemical abundances, characteristic of early star formation periods.

This hands-on approach provided students with an opportunity to engage directly with cutting-edge research. The project exemplifies the practical application of classroom learning in making significant scientific discoveries. The collaborative effort not only enriched the educational experience of the students but also led to a breakthrough in astrophysics.

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Method Of Analysis

Students combed through data collected by the Magellan-Clay telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory, focusing on stars with low levels of elements like strontium and barium.

They identified three stars with significantly low abundances of these elements, suggesting their formation occurred 12 to 13 billion years ago.

This low chemical signature aligns with the conditions shortly after the Big Bang when the universe was primarily composed of hydrogen and helium. The detailed analysis involved characterizing each star's chemical composition, which was determined using various stellar models.

The intensity of specific features in the stellar spectra indicated the abundances of particular elements, providing crucial information about the stars' origins and histories.

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Implications For Understanding Dwarf Galaxies

The discovery of SASS stars in the Milky Way provides a closer and more accessible means to study the evolution of ultrafaint dwarf galaxies, which are some of the universe's first surviving galaxies.

These dwarf galaxies are too distant and faint to study in detail, but their analogs, like the SASS stars, offer a proxy for understanding their chemical evolution. By studying these nearby ancient stars, astronomers can gain insights into the processes that governed the formation and evolution of the earliest galaxies.

This research has the potential to shed light on the broader context of galaxy formation and the role of dwarf galaxies in the early universe. The continued search for similar ancient stars will enhance our understanding of the universe's formative years and the intricate processes that have shaped it over billions of years.

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The Broader Impact Of The Discovery

The identification of these ancient stars not only advances our understanding of the early universe but also showcases the potential of educational initiatives in contributing to scientific research. The success of the classroom project at MIT highlights the importance of integrating hands-on research experiences into academic curricula.

This approach not only inspires students but also generates valuable scientific data that can lead to significant discoveries. By fostering a collaborative learning environment and providing students with access to real-world data, educational institutions can play a crucial role in advancing our knowledge of the cosmos.

The discovery of the SASS stars is a testament to the power of education and the contributions that students can make to the field of astronomy.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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