Scientists examining the second-most-distant observed quasar believe it is actually the remains of one of the universe’s first stars – the so-called Population III stars that seeded the early universe with material that eventually formed life.
Working with the National Science Foundation’s Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii, the team found evidence using a new method for estimating the various elements detected in near-infrared spectrographs. The trace gases surrounding quasar ULAS J1342+0928 have a strange magnesium to iron ratio, the team says, which could only be the result of one of the first stars in the universe going supernova, according to current theory.
If the methodology is correct, the team appears to have discovered a better way to search for distant first-generation stars and their remnants, as well as providing clues that could help “explain how matter in the universe evolved into what it is today, including humans,” the NSF said.
In the beginning there was no heavy metal
According to the cosmological theory of the Big Bang, there was not much in the moments after the creation of the universe – only hydrogen, helium and lithium emerged immediately after the origin of everything .
Elements heavier than helium were probably not created until stars were formed about 100 million years after the Big Bang. Then even more waiting, because it wasn’t until those stars collapsed and went supernova that the heavy elements created in their cores were ejected into the void to further complicate the universe.
Thus, the first stars – known as Population III – were probably composed of only hydrogen and helium. And they were gigantic – some of them hundreds of times bigger than our Sun. However, they also turn off much faster.
But Pop III stars are purely theoretical, having never been observed – their mass means they would have collapsed into black holes and quasars a long time ago. Quasars like ULAS J1342.
Recent advances in cosmological simulations have led to attempts to predict the observability of Pop III star remnants, and ULAS J1342 is seen as a strong contender, the research team explained in their paper.
Because the Pop IIIs had to create the heavy metals they eject, the gas clouds surrounding their remains would have to let distinct wavelengths of light through. Based on their observations, the team believe that the second most distantly observed quasar has been a Pop III star that once had a mass 280 times that of the Sun and probably formed just around 100 million years ago. years after the Big Bang – or roughly 13.6 billion years ago.
It’s not a definitive verdict on the existence of the Pop III stars, however – the team even included the word “potential” in the newspaper’s title. To see if the data holds up, the NSF said many more observations will be needed to see if similar features exist in other stellar objects.
Still, said Timothy Beers, the paper’s co-author and a University of Notre Dame astronomer, “we now know what to look for.” The team’s research paves the way, Beers said, toward a better understanding of where our star products come from. ®
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