Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How To Look Young When You're Not: Stars Reveal The Secret Of Aging Well


This video shows the movement of blue straggler stars in globular clusters over time. Blue straggler stars are blue, bright stars, with a higher mass than the average for a cluster, and they are expected to sink towards the centre of a star cluster over time. Those closest to the cluster core are the first to migrate inwards, with more distant blue stragglers progressively moving inwards over time.

A new study using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory has shown that not all globular clusters evolve at the same rate. While all globular clusters are old (over 10 billion years), the stellar distribution within some remains youthful, with the blue straggler stars spread throughout the cluster. Others have aged prematurely, with the stars all located in the centre.

Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Calçada, F. Ferraro (University of Bologna)

Some people are in great shape at the age of 90, while others are decrepit before they’re 50. We know that how fast people age is only loosely linked to how old they actually are — and may have more to do with their lifestyle. A new study with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals that the same is true of star clusters.
Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

Globular clusters are spherical collections of stars, tightly bound to each other by their mutual gravity. Relics of the early years of the Universe, with ages of typically 12-13 billion years (the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago), there are roughly 150 globular clusters in the Milky Way and they contain many of our galaxy’s oldest stars.

But while the stars are old and the clusters formed in the distant past, astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory have found that some of these clusters are still young at heart. The research is presented in the 20 December 2012 issue of the journal Nature.

The globular cluster NGC 6388, observed by Hubble
The globular cluster NGC 6388, observed by Hubble
Credit: NASA, ESA, F. Ferraro (University of Bologna)

“Although these clusters all formed billions of years ago,” says Francesco Ferraro (University of Bologna), the leader of the team that made the discovery, “we wondered whether some might be aging faster or slower than others. By studying the distribution of a type of blue star that exists in the clusters, we found that some clusters had indeed evolved much faster over their lifetimes, and we developed a way to measure the rate of aging.”

Star clusters form in a short period of time, meaning that all the stars within them tend to have roughly the same age. Because bright, high-mass stars burn up their fuel quite quickly, and globular clusters are very old, there should only be low-mass stars still shining within them.

The globular cluster NGC 6388 observed by the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope: This image from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory shows NGC 6388, a dynamically middle-aged globular cluster in the Milky Way. While the cluster formed in the distant past (like all globular clusters, it is over ten billion years old), a study of the distribution of bright blue stars within the cluster shows that it has aged at a moderate speed, and its heaviest stars are in the process of migrating to the centre.
The globular cluster NGC 6388 observed by the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope
Credit: ESO, F. Ferraro (University of Bologna)

This, however, turns out not to be the case: in certain circumstances, stars can be given a new burst of life, receiving extra fuel that bulks them up and substantially brightens them. This can happen if one star pulls matter off a neighbour, or if they collide. The re-invigorated stars are called blue stragglers [1], and their high mass and brightness are properties that lie at the heart of this study.

Heavier stars sink towards the centre of a cluster as the cluster ages, in a process similar to sedimentation. Blue stragglers’ high masses mean they are strongly affected by this process, while their brightness makes them relatively easy to observe [2].

To better understand cluster aging, the team mapped the location of blue straggler stars in 21 globular clusters, as seen in images from Hubble and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory, among other observatories [3]. Hubble provided high resolution imagery of the crowded centres of 20 of the clusters, while the ground-based imagery gave a wider view of their less busy outer regions.

NGC 6388 seen by Hubble and ESO: This image shows Hubble and ESO observations of globular cluster NGC 6388. Hubble provides a more detailed image which allows scientists to resolve stars right to the centre of the cluster, while the image from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope gives a wider view which encompasses the cluster’s outer regions.
NGC 6388 seen by Hubble and ESO
Credit: NASA, ESA, ESO, F. Ferraro (University of Bologna)

Analysing the observational data, the team found that a few clusters appeared young, with blue straggler stars distributed throughout, while a larger group appeared old, with the blue stragglers clumped in the centre. A third group was in the process of aging, with the stars closest to the core migrating inwards first, then stars ever further out progressively sinking towards the centre.

“Since these clusters all formed at roughly the same time, this reveals big differences in the speed of evolution from cluster to cluster,” said Barbara Lanzoni (University of Bologna, Italy), a co-author of the study. “In the case of fast-aging clusters, we think that the sedimentation process can be complete within a few hundred million years, while for the slowest it would take several times the current age of the Universe.”

Globular clusters seen by Hubble and ESO: This collage shows a range of globular clusters, which were studied using Hubble and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope. The data show that, despite all forming at roughly the same time, the clusters have aged at dramatically different rates, with heavier stars sinking to the centres of the clusters in a process similar to sedimentation. Top row: M 4 (ESO), Omega Cen (ESO), M 80 (Hubble), Middle row: M 53 (Hubble), NGC 6752 (Hubble), M 13 (Hubble), Bottom row: M 4 (Hubble), NGC 288 (Hubble), 47 Tuc (Hubble)
Globular clusters seen by Hubble and ESO
Credit:  M 4: ESO. Omega Cen: ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM.
M 80: The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA).
M 53: ESA/Hubble & NASA.
NGC 6752: ESA/Hubble & NASA.
M 13: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
M 4: ESA/Hubble & NASA.
NGC 288: ESA/Hubble & NASA.
47 Tuc: NASA, ESA, and G. Meylan (École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne).

As a cluster’s heaviest stars sink towards the centre, the cluster eventually experiences a phenomenon called core collapse, where the centre of the cluster bunches together extremely densely.

The processes leading towards core collapse are quite well understood, and revolve around the number, density and speed of movement of the stars [4]. However, the rate at which they happened was not known until now. This study provides the first empirical way of investigating these different rates of aging.

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