You are here

Stellar Metals

July 15, 2015

Every “normal” star is a ball of hydrogen and helium, the simplest of all chemical elements. All of the hydrogen and most of the helium were forged in the Big Bang.

Stars also contain smatterings of heavier elements, which are known as metals. These elements were forged by the stars themselves. As the stars die, they expel some of these elements into space, where they can be incorporated into new stars. So each generation of stars contains a higher proportion of metals — everything from carbon and oxygen to iron and lead.

Based on the amount of metals, astronomers divide stars into two broad categories — Population I and Population II.

The Sun belongs to Population I. These stars contain fairly high percentages of metals — about two percent in the case of the Sun. These stars formed fairly recently — after earlier generations had pumped the heavy elements into space.

The earliest generations yet seen form Population II. These stars have a much smaller percentage of metals, which means they formed when there were fewer metals around — perhaps less than a billion years after the Big Bang.

In our home galaxy, the Milky Way, many of these stars are found in globular clusters — tightly packed balls of hundreds of thousands of stars on the galactic outskirts. The levels of metals indicate that some of these stars are up to 13 billion years old.

The very first stars shouldn’t contain any metals at all. More about that tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

Get Premium Audio

Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.