Globular Clusters and the Age-Metallicity Relation

Globular Cluster

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Globular Clusters have a story to tell. These dense clumps of thousands of stars are relics of the early history of our galaxy, preserving information of the galaxy’s properties from their formation. Knowing this, astronomers have used globular clusters for nearly 30 years to probe how our galaxy has evolved. New observations from Hubble, add surprising new insight to this picture.

One of the advantages to studying clusters, is that the large number of stars allows astronomers to accurately determine some properties of the constituent stars far better than they could if the stars were isolated. In particular, since clusters all form in a short span of time, all stars will have the same age. More massive stars will die off first, peeling away from the main sequence before their lower mass brothers. How far this point, where stars leave the main sequence, has progressed is indicative of the age of the cluster. Since globular clusters have such a rich population of stars, their H-R diagrams are well detailed and the turn-off becomes readily apparent.

Using ages found in this manner, astronomers can use these clusters to get a snapshot of what the conditions of the galaxy were like when it formed. In particular, astronomers have studied the amount of elements heavier than helium, called “metals”, as the galaxy has aged. One of the first findings using globular clusters to probe this age-metallicity relationship was that there was a notable difference in the way the inner portion and the outer portion of the galaxy has evolved. Globular clusters revealed that the inner 15 kpc evolved heavier elements faster than the outer portions. Such findings allow for astronomers to test models of galactic formation and evolution and have helped to support models involving halos of dark matter.

While these results have been confirmed by numerous follow-up studies, the sampling of globular clusters is still somewhat skewed. Many of the globular clusters studied were part of the Galactic Globular Cluster Treasury project conducted using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (HST/ACS). In order to minimize the time spent using the much demanded telescope, the team was only able to target relatively nearby globular clusters. As such, the most distant cluster they could observe was NGC 4147 which is ~21 kpc from the galactic center. Other studies have made use of Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and pushed the radius back to over 50 kpc from the galactic center. However, currently only 6 globular clusters with distances over 50 kpc have been included in this larger study. Interestingly, there has been a notable absence of clusters between 15 and 50 kpc, leaving a gap in the fuller knowledge.

This gap is the target of a recent study by a team of astronomers led by Aaron Dotter from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. In the new study, the team examines 6 globular clusters. Three of them (IC 4499, NGC 6426, and Ruprecht 106) are towards the inner edge of this range, lying between 15 and 20 kpc from the galactic center while the other three (NGC 7006, Palomar 15, and Pyxis) each lie around 40 kpc.

Again making use of the HST/ACS, the team found that all of the clusters were younger than globular clusters from the inner portions of the galaxy with similar metalicities. But three of the clusters, IC 4499, Ruprecht 106, and Pyxis were significantly younger to the tune of 1-2 billion years younger again supporting the picture that inner clusters had evolved faster. Additionally, this finding of a sharp difference helps to support the picture that the outer clusters underwent a different evolutionary process, aside from the rapid enrichment in the inner halo. One suggestion is that many of the outer halo clusters were originally formed in dwarf galaxies and later accreted into the Milky Way due to the timescales on which clusters in such smaller galaxies are thought to evolve.

Poor in one, Rich in another

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Just over three years ago, I wrote a blog post commemorating the 50th anniversary of one of the most notable papers in the history of astronomy. In this paper, Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, and Hoyle laid out the groundwork for our understanding of how the universe builds up heavy elements.

The short version of the story is that there are two main processes identified: The slow (s) process and the rapid (r) process. The s-process is the one we often think about in which atoms are slowly bombarded with protons and neutrons, building up their atomic mass. But as the paper pointed out, this often happens too slowly to pass roadblocks to this process posed by unstable isotopes which don’t last long enough to catch another one before falling back down to lower atomic number. In this case, the r-process is needed in which the flux of nucleons is much higher in order to overcome the barrier.

The combination of these two processes has done remarkably well in matching observations of what we see in the universe at large. But astronomers can never rest easily. The universe always has its oddities. One example is stars with very odd relative amounts of the elements built up by these processes. Since the s-process is far more common, they’re what we should see primarily, but in some stars, such as SDSS J2357-0052, there exists an exceptionally high concentration of the rare r-process elements. A recent paper explores this elemental enigma.

As the designation implies, SDSS J2357-0052’s uniqueness was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). The survey uses several filters to image fields of stars at different wavelengths. Some of the filters are chosen to lie in wavelength ranges in which there are well known absorption lines for elements known to be tracers of overall metallicity. This photometric system allowed an international team of astronomers, led by Wako Aoki of the National Astronomical Observatory in Tokyo, to get a quick and dirty view of the metal content of the stars and choose interesting ones for followup study.

These followup observations were done with high resolution spectroscopy and showed that the star had less than one one-thousandth the amount of iron that the Sun does ([Fe/H] = -3.4), placing it among the most metal poor stars ever discovered. However, iron is the end of the elements produced by the s-process. When going beyond that atomic number, the relative abundances drop off very quickly. While the drop off in SDSS J2357-0052 was still steep, it wasn’t near as dramatic as in most other stars. This star had a dramatic enhancement of the r-process elements.

Yet this wasn’t exceptional in and of itself. Several metal poor stars have been discovered with such r-process enhancements. But none coupled with such an extreme deficiency of iron. The implication of this combination is that this star was very close to a supernova. The authors suggest two scenarios that can explain the observations. In the first, the supernova occurred before the star formed, and SDSS J2357-0052 was formed in the immediate vicinity before the enhanced material would be able to disperse and mix into the interstellar medium. The second is that SDSS J2357-0052 was an already formed star in a binary orbit with a star that became a supernova. If the latter case is true, it would likely give the smaller star a large “kick” as the mass holding the system would change dramatically. Although no exceptional radial velocity was detected for SDSS J2357-0052, the motion (if it exists) could be in the plane of the sky requiring proper motion studies to either confirm or refute this possibility.

The authors also note that the first star with somewhat similar characteristics (although not as extreme), was discovered first in the outer halo where the likelihood of the necessary supernova occurring is low. As such, it is more likely that that star was ejected in such a process establishing some credibility for the scenario in general, even if not the case for SDSS J2357-0052.