Dating a Cluster – A New Trick

by Jon Voisey on December 7, 2009

The hundreds of thousands of stars orbiting inside the globular cluster M13 (HST/NASA)

The hundreds of thousands of stars orbiting inside the globular cluster M13 (HST/NASA)

Finding the ages of things in astronomy is hard. While it is undoubted that the properties of objects change as they age, the difficulty lies in that the initial parameters are often so varied that, for most cases, finding reliable ages is challenging. There’s some tricks to do it though. One of the best ones, taught conceptually in introductory astronomy courses, is to use the “main sequence turn-off” of a cluster. Of course, applying any of these methods is easier said than done, but a new method may help alleviate some of the challenges and allow for smaller errors.

The largest difficulty in the main sequence turn-off method lies in the inherent scatter caused by numerous sources that must be accounted for. Stars that lie along the same line of sight as the cluster being observed can add extraneous data points. Any interstellar reddening caused by gas may make stars appear more red than they should be. Close binary stars that cannot be spatially resolved appear brighter than they should be as an individual star. The amount of heavy elements in the star will also effect the fitting of the model. All of these factors and more contribute to an uncertainty in any calculation that requires an accurate Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram. Tricks to correct for some of these factors exist. Others cannot (yet) be accounted for.

Thanks to all these problems, fitting the data can often be challenging. Finding the point where the cluster “peels away” from the main sequence is difficult, so one of the tricks is to look for other points that should have significant numbers of stars to provide extra reference points for fitting. Examples of this include the horizontal branch and the red clump.

The new technique, developed by a large team of international astronomers, uses “a well defined knee located along the lower main sequence” which they refer to as the Main Sequence Knee (MSK). This “knee” appears in H-R diagrams of the clusters taken in the near-infrared and is largely independent of the age of the cluster. As such, it provides a stable reference point to improve corrections for the general main sequence turn-off method. Additionally, since this system uses infrared wavelengths, it is less prone to contamination between gas and dust.

To test this new method, the group selected a globular cluster (NGC 3201) as a test case. When their method was applied, they found that their derived age for the cluster was consistent with ages derived by other methods.

However, the new method is not without difficulties of its own. Since the knee is at the faint end of the main sequence, this requires that exposure times for target clusters be sufficiently long to bring out such faint stars. Fortunately, with new telescopes like the the James Webb Space Telescope, these faint stars should be in reach.

About 

Jon is a science educator currently living in Missouri. He is a high school teacher and does outreach with the St. Louis Astronomical society as well as presenting talks on science and related topics at regional conventions. He graduated from the University of Kansas with his BS in Astronomy in 2008 and has maintained the Angry Astronomer blog since 2006.
For more of his work, you can find his website here.

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