The Oldest Stars Help Tell us how big the Universe is

Artist’s impression of the star in its multi-million year long and previously unobservable phase as a large, red supergiant. Credit: CAASTRO / Mats Björklund (Magipics)

Astronomers are struggling to understand the discrepancies when measuring the expansion rate of the universe with different methods, and are desperate for any creative idea to break the tension. A new method involving some of the oldest stars in the universe could just do the trick.

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NGC 2419: Wayward Globular or the Milky Way’s Own?

NGC 2419 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/STScl

Turns out, we may not know our extragalactic neighbors as well as we thought.

One of the promises held forth with the purchase of our first GoTo telescope way back in the late 1990s was the ability to quickly and easily hunt down ever fainter deep sky fuzzies. No more juggling star charts and red headlamps, no more star-hopping. Heck, it was fun to just aim the scope at a favorable target field, hit ‘identify,’ and see what it turned up.

One of our more interesting ‘discoveries’ on these expeditions was NGC 2419, a globular cluster that my AstroMaster GoTo controller (featuring a 10K memory database!) triumphantly announced was an ‘Intergalactic Wanderer…’

Or is it? The case for NGC 2419 as a lonely globular wandering the cosmic void between the galaxies is a romantic and intriguing notion, and one you see repeated around the echo chamber that is the modern web. First observed by Sir William Herschel in 1788 and re-observed by his son John in 1833, the debate has swung back and forth as to whether NGC 2419 is a true globular or—as has been also suggested of the magnificent southern sky cluster Omega Centauri—the remnant of a dwarf spheroidal galaxy torn apart by our Milky Way. Lord Rosse also observed NGC 2419 with the 72-inch Leviathan of Parsonstown, and Harlow Shapley made a distance estimate of about 163,000 light years to NGC 2419 in 1922.

Created by author
The relative distances of NGC 2419, the LMC, SMC and M31.  Created by author using NASA graphics.

Today, we know that NGC 2419 is about 270,000 light years from the Sun, and about 300,000 light years from the core of our galaxy.  Think of this: we actually see NGC 2419 as it appeared back in the middle of the Pleistocene Epoch, a time when modern homo sapiens were still the new hipsters on the evolutionary scene of life on Earth.  What’s more, photometric studies over the past decade suggest there is a true gravitational link between NGC 2419 and the Milky Way. This would mean at its current distance, NGC 2419 would orbit our galaxy once every 3 billion years, about 75% the age of the Earth itself.

Image credit:
NGC 2419 and the nearby +7 magnitude star HIP 37133. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe

This hands down makes NGC 2419 the distant of the more than 150 globular clusters known to orbit our galaxy.

At an apparent magnitude of +9 and 6 arc minutes in size, NGC 2419 occupies an area of the sky otherwise devoid of globulars. Most tend to lie towards the galactic core as seen from our solar vantage point, and in fact, there are no bright globulars within 60 degrees of NGC 2419. The cluster sits 7 degrees north of the bright star Castor just across the border of Gemini in the constellation of the Lynx at Right Ascension 7 Hours, 38 minutes and 9 seconds and declination +38 degrees, 52 minutes and 55 seconds.  Mid-January is the best time to spy NGC 2419 when it sits roughly opposite to the Sun , though June still sees the cluster 20 degrees above the western horizon at dusk before solar conjunction in mid-July.

Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The location of NGC 2419 in the night sky. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

We know globular clusters (say ‘globe’ -ular, not “glob’ -ular)  are some of the most ancient structures in the universe due to their abundance of metal poor, first generation stars. In fact, it was a major mystery up until about a decade ago as to just how these clusters could appear to be older than the universe they inhabit. Today, we know that NGC 2419 is about 12.3 billion years old, and we’ve refined the age of the Universe as per data from the Planck spacecraft down to 13.73 (+/-0.12) billion years.

What would the skies look like from a planet inside NGC 2419? Well, in addition to the swarm of hundreds of thousands of nearby stars, the Milky Way galaxy itself would be a conspicuous object extending about 30 degrees across and shining at magnitude -2. Move NGC 2419 up to 10 parsecs distant, and it would rival the brightness of our First Quarter Moon and be visible in the daytime shining at magnitude -9.5.

Image Credit; Starry Night Education Software
The view of the Milky Way galaxy as seen from NGC 2419. Image Credit; Starry Night Education Software

And ironically, another 2007 study has suggested that the relative velocity of Large and Small Magellanic Clouds suggest that they may not be bound to our galaxy, but are instead first time visitors passing by.

And speaking of passing by, yet another study suggests that the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy set on a collision course billions of years hence may be in contact… now.

Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The view of the Andromeda galaxy as seen from NGC 2419. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Mind not blown yet?

A 2014 study looking at extragalactic background light during a mission known as CIBER suggests that there may actually be more stars wandering the universe than are bound to galaxies…

But that’s enough paradigm-shifting for one day. Be sure to check out NGC 2419 and friends and remember, everything you learned about the universe as a kid, is likely to be false.

Nearby Ancient Star is Almost as Old as the Universe

A billion years after the big bang, hydrogen atoms were mysteriously torn apart into a soup of ions. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Felid (STScI)).

A metal-poor star located merely 190 light-years from the Sun is 14.46+-0.80 billion years old, which implies that the star is nearly as old as the Universe!  Those results emerged from a new study led by Howard Bond.  Such metal-poor stars are (super) important to astronomers because they set an independent lower limit for the age of the Universe, which can be used to corroborate age estimates inferred by other means.

In the past, analyses of globular clusters and the Hubble constant (expansion rate of the Universe) yielded vastly different ages for the Universe, and were offset by billions of years! Hence the importance of the star (designated HD 140283) studied by Bond and his coauthors.

“Within the errors, the age of HD 140283 does not conflict with the age of the Universe, 13.77 ± 0.06 billion years, based on the microwave background and Hubble constant, but it must have formed soon after the big bang.” the team noted.

Metal-poor stars can be used to constrain the age of the Universe because metal-content is typically a proxy for age. Heavier metals are generally formed in supernova explosions, which pollute the surrounding interstellar medium. Stars subsequently born from that medium are more enriched with metals than their predecessors, with each successive generation becoming increasingly enriched.  Indeed, HD 140283 exhibits less than 1% the iron content of the Sun, which provides an indication of its sizable age.

HD 140283 had been used previously to constrain the age of the Universe, but uncertainties tied to its estimated distance (at that time) made the age determination somewhat imprecise.  The team therefore decided to obtain a new and improved distance for HD 140283 using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), namely via the trigonometric parallax approach. The distance uncertainty for HD 140283 was significantly reduced by comparison to existing estimates, thus resulting in a more precise age estimate for the star.

Age estimate for HD 140283 is 14.46+-0.80 Gyr.  On the y-axis is the star's pseudo-luminosity, on the x-axis its temperature.  An evolutionary track was applied to infer the age (credit: adapted by D. Majaess from Fig 1 in Bond et al. 2013, arXiv).
HD 140283 is estimated to be 14.46+-0.80 billion years old. On the y-axis is the star’s pseudo-luminosity, on the x-axis its temperature. Computed evolutionary tracks (solid lines ranging from 13.4 to 14.4 billion years) were applied to infer the age (image credit: adapted from Fig 1 in Bond et al. 2013 by D. Majaess, arXiv).

The team applied the latest evolutionary tracks (basically, computer models that trace a star’s luminosity and temperature evolution as a function of time) to HD 140283 and derived an age of 14.46+-0.80 billion years (see figure above).  Yet the associated uncertainty could be further mitigated by increasing the sample size of (very) metal-poor stars with precise distances, in concert with the unending task of improving computer models employed to delineate a star’s evolutionary track.  An average computed from that sample would provide a firm lower-limit for the age of the Universe.  The reliability of the age determined is likewise contingent on accurately determining the sample’s metal content.  However, we may not have to wait long, as Don VandenBerg (UVic) kindly relayed to Universe Today to expect, “an expanded article on HD 140283, and the other [similar] targets for which we have improved parallaxes [distances].”

As noted at the outset, analyses of globular clusters and the Hubble constant yielded vastly different ages for the Universe.  Hence the motivation for the Bond et al. 2013 study, which aimed to determine an age for the metal-poor star HD 140283 that could be compared with existing age estimates for the Universe.  The discrepant ages stemmed partly from uncertainties in the cosmic distance scale, as the determination of the Hubble constant relied on establishing (accurate) distances to galaxies.  Historical estimates for the Hubble constant ranged from 50-100 km/s/Mpc, which defines an age spread for the Universe of ~10 billion years.

Age estimates for globular clusters were previously larger than that inferred for the Age of the Universe from the Hubble constant (NASA, R. Gilliland (STScI), D. Malin (AAO))
Age estimates for the Universe as inferred from globular clusters and the Hubble constant were previously in significant disagreement (image credit: NASA, R. Gilliland (STScI), D. Malin (AAO)).

The aforementioned spread in Hubble constant estimates was certainly unsatisfactory, and astronomers recognized that reliable results were needed.  One of the key objectives envisioned for HST was to reduce uncertainties associated with the Hubble constant to <10%, thus providing an improved estimate for the age of the Universe. Present estimates for the Hubble constant, as tied to HST data, appear to span a smaller range (64-75 km/s/Mpc), with the mean implying an age near ~14 billion years.

Determining a reliable age for stars in globular clusters is likewise contingent on the availability of a reliable distance, and the team notes that “it is still unclear whether or not globular cluster ages are compatible with the age of the Universe [predicted from the Hubble constant and other means].” Globular clusters set a lower limit to the age of the Universe, and their age should be smaller than that inferred from the Hubble constant (& cosmological parameters).

In sum, the study reaffirms that there are old stars roaming the solar neighborhood which can be used to constrain the age of the Universe (~14 billion years). The Sun, by comparison, is ~4.5 billion years old.

The team’s findings will appear in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and a preprint is available on arXiv.  The coauthors on the study are E. Nelan, D. VandenBerg, G. Schaefer, and D. Harmer.  The interested reader desiring complete information will find the following works pertinent: Pont et al. 1998, VandenBerg 2000, Freedman & Madore (2010), Tammann & Reindl 2012.