A Swarm of Ancient Stars - GPN-2000-000930

The globular cluster M80. Stars in globular clusters are mainly older metal-poor members of Population II.

In astronomy and physical cosmology, the metallicity of an object is the proportion of its matter made up of chemical elements other than hydrogen and helium. (This terminology is in disaccord what chemistry regards as metals). Since on the grandest of scales the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium, astronomers label all the heavier elements "metal".[1] For example, a nebula rich in carbon compounds would be called "metal-rich", even though carbon is not considered a metal in other contexts.

The metallicity of an astronomical object may provide an indication of its age. When the universe first formed, according to the Big Bang theory, it consisted almost entirely of hydrogen which, through primordial nucleosynthesis, created a sizeable proportion of helium and only trace amounts of lithium. The first stars, referred to as Population III, had virtually no metals at all. These stars were incredibly massive and, during their lives, created the elements up to iron in the Periodic Table via nucleosynthesis. They subsequently died in spectacular supernovae which dispersed those elements throughout the universe. As of 2006, no Population III stars have been found; rather, their existence is inferred in current models of the origin of the universe. The next generation of stars was born out of those materials left by the death of the first. The oldest observed stars, known as Population II, have very low metallicities;[2] as subsequent generations of stars were born they became more metal-enriched, as the gaseous clouds from which they formed received the metal-rich dust manufactured by previous generations. As those stars died, they returned metal-enriched material to the interstellar medium via planetary nebulae and supernovae, enriching the nebulae out of which the newer stars formed ever further. These youngest stars, including the Sun, therefore have the highest metal content, and are known as Population I stars.

Across the Milky Way, metallicity is higher in the galactic centre and decreases as one moves outwards. The gradient in metallicity is attributed to the density of stars in the galactic-centre: there are more stars in the centre of the galaxy and so, over time, more metals have been returned to the interstellar medium and incorporated into new stars. By a similar mechanism, larger galaxies tend to have a higher metallicity than their smaller counterparts. In the case of the Magellanic Clouds, two small irregular galaxies orbiting the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud has a metallicity of about forty per cent of the Milky Way, while the Small Magellanic Cloud has a metallicity of about ten per cent of the Milky Way.


The metallicity of the Sun is approximately 1.6 percent by mass. For other stars, the metallicity is often expressed as "[Fe/H]", which represents the logarithm of the ratio of a star's iron abundance compared to that of the Sun. The formula for the logarithm is expressed thus:

 [Fe/H] = \log{\left(\frac{N_{Fe}}{N_H}\right)_{star}} - \log{\left(\frac{N_{Fe}}{N_H}\right)_{sun}}

Here N_{Fe} and N_{H} is the number of iron and hydrogen atoms per unit of volume respectively. By this formulation therefore, stars with a higher metallicity than the Sun have a positive logarithmic value, while those with a lower metallicity than the Sun have a negative value. The logarithm is based on powers of ten; stars with a value of +1 have ten times the metallicity of the Sun (101), while those with +2 have a hundred (10²) and those with +3 have a thousand (10³). Conversely, those with a value of -1 have one tenth (10 -1), while those with -2 have a hundredth (10-2) and so on.[3] Young Population I stars have significantly higher iron-to-hydrogen ratios than older Population II stars. Primordial Population III stars are estimated to have a metallicity of less than −6.0, that is, less than a millionth of the abundance of iron which is found in the Sun.

Population I stars


Populations I and II

Population I or metal-rich stars are those young stars whose metallicity is highest. The Earth's Sun is an example of a metal-rich star. These are common in the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy.

Generally, the youngest stars, the extreme Population I, are found further in and intermediate Population I stars are further out, etc. The Sun is considered an intermediate Population I star. Population I stars have regular elliptical orbits of the galactic centre, with a low relative velocity. The high metallicity of Population I stars makes them more likely to possess planetary systems than the other two populations, since planets, particularly terrestrial planets, are formed by the accretion of metals.[4]

Between the intermediate populations I and II comes the intermediary disc population.

Population II stars

Population II or metal-poor stars are those with relatively little metal. The idea of a relatively small amount must be kept in perspective as even metal-rich astronomical objects contain low quantities of any element other than hydrogen or helium; metals constitute only a tiny percentage of the overall chemical make up of the universe, even 13.7 billion years after the Big Bang. However, metal-poor objects are even more primitive. These objects formed during an earlier time of the universe. They are common in the bulge near to the centre of the galaxy, the intermediate Population II and also, in the galactic halo, the halo Population II, which is older and thus more metal-poor. Globular clusters also contain high numbers of Population II stars.[5] It is believed that Population II stars created all the other elements in the Periodic Table, excepting the more unstable ones.
Scientists have targeted these oldest stars in several different surveys, including the HK objective-prism survey of Timothy C. Beers et al. and the Hamburg-ESO survey of Norbert Christlieb et al., originally started for faint quasars. Thus far, they have uncovered and studied in detail about ten very metal-poor stars (as CS22892-052, CS31082-001, BD +17° 3248) and two of the oldest stars known to date: HE0107-5240 and HE1327- 2326.

Other low metallicity Population II stars include:

Population III stars


Probable glow of Population III Stars from NASA's Spitzer telescope.

Population III or metal-less stars are a hypothetical population of extremely massive and hot stars with virtually no metal content which are believed to have been formed in the early universe. They have not yet been observed directly, but indirect evidence for their existence has been found in a gravitationally lensed galaxy in the very distant universe.[6] They are also thought to be components of faint blue galaxies. Their existence is necessary to account for the fact that heavy elements, which could not have been created in the Big Bang, are observed in quasar emission spectra, as well as the existence of faint blue galaxies.[7] It is believed that these stars triggered a period of reionization.

Current theory is divided on whether the first stars were very massive or not. One theory, which seems to be borne out by computer models of star formation, is that with no heavy elements from the Big Bang, it was easy to form stars with much more total mass than the ones visible today. Typical masses for Population III stars would be expected to be about several hundred solar masses, which is much larger than the current stars. Analysis of data on low-metallicity Population II stars, which are thought to contain the metals produced by Population III stars, suggest that these metal-free stars had masses of 10 to 100 solar masses instead. This also explains why there have been no low-mass stars with zero metallicity observed. Confirmation of these theories awaits the launch of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. New spectroscopic surveys, such as SEGUE or SDSS-II, may also locate Population III stars.


Simulated image of the first stars, 400 Ma after Big Bang. Acknowledgement: NASA/WMAP Science Team.

The most massive star that can form today is about 110 solar masses; a more massive protostar would blow itself apart during the initial ignition of nuclear reactions. Without enough carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen in the core, however, the CNO cycle could not begin and the star would not go nuclear with such enthusiasm. Direct fusion through the proton-proton chain does not proceed quickly enough to produce the copious amounts of energy such a star would need to support its immense bulk. The end result would be the star collapsing into a black hole without ever actually shining properly. This is why astronomers consider Population III to be something of a mystery – by all rights they should not exist, yet they are necessary for an explaination of the quasar observations.

If these stars were able to form properly, their lifespan would be extremely short, certainly less than one million years. As they can no longer form today, viewing one would require us to look to the very edges of the observable universe, since the time it takes light to reach Earth from great distances is extremely great, it is possible to see "back in time" by looking farther away. Seeing to this distance while still being able to resolve a star could prove difficult, even for the James Webb Space Telescope.

See also


Page 593-In Quest of the Universe Fourth Edition Karl Kuhn Theo Koupelis. Jones and Bartlett Publishers Canada. 2004. ISBN 0-7637-0810-0

Volker Bromm, Richard B. Larson (2004), THE FIRST STARS, Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 42, pp. 79–118.

  1. John C. Martin. What we learn from a star's metal content. New Analysis RR Lyrae Kinematics in the Solar Neighborhood. Retrieved on September 7, 2005.
  2. Lauren J. Bryant. What Makes Stars Tick. Indiana University Research & Creative Activity. Retrieved on September 7, 2005.
  3. John C. Martin: What we learn from a star's metal content.
  4. Charles H. Lineweaver (2000). An Estimate of the Age Distribution of Terrestrial Planets in the Universe: Quantifying Metallicity as a Selection Effect. University of New South Wales. Retrieved on 2006-07-23.
  5. T. S. van Albada, Norman Baker (1973). "On the Two Oosterhoff Groups of Globular Clusters". Astrophysical Journal 185: 477–498.
  6. R. A. E. Fosbury et al. (2003). "Massive Star Formation in a Gravitationally Lensed H II Galaxy at z = 3.357". Astrophysical Journal 596 (1): 797-809.
  7. A. Heger, S. E. Woosley (2002). "The Nucleosynthetic Signature of Population III". Astrophysical Journal 567 (1): 532-543.

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