New clues to the Milky Way’s age

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  Last updated December 9, 2019 at 11:49 am


By studying star-quake vibrations, scientists have a new estimate for the age of the Milky Way’s ‘thick disc’.

Milky Way at European Southern Observatory ESO

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescopes beneath the Milky Way. Credit: P. Horalek/ESO

Why This Matters: We’re one step closer to unravelling the history of our galaxy.

The Milky Way’s “thick disc” is about 10 billion years old, according to an international team of scientists.

They used data from NASA’s now-defunct Kepler space telescope to study star-quake vibrations – and appear to have cleared up a long-standing mystery.

“Earlier data about the age distribution of stars in the disc didn’t agree with the models constructed to describe it, but no one knew where the error lay – in the data or the models,” says Sanjib Sharma from the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in Three Dimensions (ASTRO-3D).

“Now we’re pretty sure we’ve found it.”

Teach This: Education Resource – New clues to the Milky Way’s age

Sharma led the research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. He worked with 37 other researchers from around the world incuding researchers ANU and ICRAR from Australia, as well as the US, Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden.

The Milky Way’s two disc-like structures

The Milky Way – like many spiral galaxies – consists of two disc-like structures.

The thick disc contains only about 20% of the galaxy’s stars and, based on its vertical puffiness and composition, is thought to be the older.

Also: Stars formed ‘soon’ after the Big Bang

To find out just how much older, Sharma and colleagues used asteroseismology – a way of identifying the internal structures of stars by measuring their oscillations from star-quakes.

An artist impression of the Milky Way, showing the thick and thin discs. Credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/R.Hurt/SSC

“The frequencies produced tell us things about the stars’ internal properties, including their age,” says ASTRO-3D’s Dennis Stello. “It’s a bit like identifying a violin as a Stradivarius by listening to the sound it makes.”

The researchers don’t “hear” the sound generated by star-quakes. Instead, they look for how the internal movement is reflected in changes to brightness.

“Stars are just spherical instruments full of gas,” says Sharma, “but their vibrations are tiny, so we have to look very carefully.

“The exquisite brightness measurements made by Kepler were ideal for that. The telescope was so sensitive it would have been able to detect the dimming of a car headlight as a flea walked across it.”

The discovery wasn’t without problems

The data delivered by the telescope during the four years after it launched in 2009 presented a problem. It suggested there were more younger stars in the thick disc than models predicted.

Also: Young stars push back to keep the universe ‘vibrant’

The question confronting astronomers was stark: were the models wrong, or was the data incomplete?

In 2013, however, Kepler broke down, and NASA reprogrammed it to continue working on a reduced capacity – a period that became known as the K2 mission. The project involved observing many different parts of the sky for 80 days at a time.

This allowed for a fresh spectroscopic analysis. This revealed that the chemical composition incorporated in the existing models for stars in the thick disc was wrong, which affected the prediction of their ages.

Taking this into account, the researchers found that the observed asteroseismic data now fell into “excellent agreement” with model predictions.

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