Low sodium ‘diet’ key to stars’ long life
MONASH U. (AUS) — Stars with a high sodium content die before reaching their final, spectacular stages of life, according to a new study.
Researchers used the European Southern Observatory’s “Very Large Telescope” (VLT) to observe NGC 6752, a globular cluster of stars in our galaxy, 13,000 light years from Earth.
They found that 70 percent of stars in the tightly bound group fail to reach the final red giant phase—the last stage of nuclear burning before stars form a planetary nebula, where the gas and dust emitted through stellar winds are illuminated by radiation from the star’s naked core.
“Although, at this stage, we don’t know the causes, this finding affects our understanding of some of the oldest stars in the universe—stars that we routinely use to compare with our computer models to test how accurate they are,” says study co-author John Lattanzio. (Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA)
Scientists say the findings are startling because they had previously thought that all low-mass stars, including our Sun, would progress to this final red giant phase.
“We, and other groups in the world, have modeled the entire life-time of these stars and all the models indicate that they pass through this phase. It turns out that the models are not accurately predicting what we have observed here,” says Simon Campbell of the Center for Astrophysics at Monash University.
“If it were just a small number of stars not making it to this stage, we could put it down to uncertainties in the observations or in the models, but it is a huge proportion of stars—70 percent, all those with high sodium content—that are following this newly observed pattern. It cannot be ignored.”
As reported in the journal Nature, globular clusters, which contain about a million stars, are some of the oldest structures in the universe, having formed shortly after the big bang around 14 billion years ago.
These very old stars are highly homogenous in mass and age, and so are widely used as natural laboratories for constraining the computer modelling of stars.
Sodium was a marker and unlikely to be the cause of the early death of the stars, says co-author John Lattanzio, professor in the school of mathematical sciences.
“Although, at this stage, we don’t know the causes, this finding affects our understanding of some of the oldest stars in the universe—stars that we routinely use to compare with our computer models to test how accurate they are.”
The scientists say the next step is to observe some of the other 157 globular clusters in the Milky Way to confirm that the pattern holds. They are also working on new theoretical models to try and understand what is causing so many stars to fail to reach a stellar old age.
Source: Monash University
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