From Georgia Institute of Technology via Science Alert (AU): “Simulation Gives a Peek Into The Cosmic ‘Dark Age’ of Star Formation”

From Georgia Institute of Technology



Science Alert (AU)


Credit: NASA/ESA/UCSC/Leiden University/HUDF09 Team.

For astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists, the ability to spot the first stars that formed in our Universe has always been just beyond reach. On the one hand, there are the limits of our current telescopes and observatories, which can only see so far.

The farthest object ever observed was MACS 1149-JD, a galaxy located 13.2 billion light-years from Earth that was spotted in the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) image.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field NASA/ESA Hubble.

Early Galaxy Found from the Cosmic ‘Dark Ages’
In the big image at left, the many galaxies of a massive cluster called MACS J1149+2223 dominate the scene. Gravitational lensing by the giant cluster brightened the light from the newfound galaxy, known as MACS 1149-JD, some 15 times. At upper right, a partial zoom-in shows MACS 1149-JD in more detail, and a deeper zoom appears to the lower right. Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/JHU via Universe Today.

The Distant Galaxy MACS 1149-JD – NASA Spitzer Space Telescope
Creator: Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/W. Zheng (JHU), and the CLASH team.

On the other, up until about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe was experiencing what cosmologists refer to as the “Dark Ages” when the Universe was filled with gas clouds that obscured visible and infrared light.

ALMA Schematic diagram of the history of the Universe. The Universe is in a neutral state at 400 thousand years after the Big Bang, until light from the first generation of stars starts to ionise the hydrogen. After several hundred million years, the gas in the Universe is completely ionised. Credit. NAOJ.

Luckily, a team of researchers from Georgia Tech’s Center for Relativistic Astrophysics recently conducted simulations that show what the formation of the first stars looked like.

The study that describes their findings, published in the MNRAS, was led by Gen Chiaki and John Wise – a post-doctoral researcher and associate professor from the CfRA (respectively).

They were joined by researchers from the Sapienza Università di Roma (IT), the Astronomical Observatory of Rome (IT), the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) (IT), and the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) (IT).

Based on the life and death cycles of stars, astrophysicists theorize that the first stars in the Universe were very metal-poor. Having formed about 100 million years after the Big Bang, these stars formed from a primordial soup of hydrogen gas, helium, and trace amounts of light metals.

These gases would collapse to form stars that were up to 1,000 times more massive than our Sun.

Because of their size, these stars were short-lived and probably only existed for a few million years. In that time, the new and heavier elements in their nuclear furnaces, which were then dispersed once the stars collapsed and exploded in supernovae.

As a result, the next generation of stars with heavier elements would contain carbon, leading to the designation of Carbon-Enhanced Metal-Poor (CEMP) stars.

The composition of these stars, which may be visible to astronomers today, is the result of the nucleosynthesis (fusion) of heavier elements from the first generation of stars.

By studying the mechanism behind the formation of these metal-poor stars, scientists can infer what was happening during the cosmic ‘Dark Ages’ when the first stars formed. As Wise said in a Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC) press release:

“We can’t see the very first generations of stars. Therefore, it’s important to actually look at these living fossils from the early universe, because they have the fingerprints of the first stars all over them through the chemicals that were produced in the supernova from the first stars.

That’s where our simulations come into play to see this happening. After you run the simulation, you can watch a short movie of it to see where the metals come from and how the first stars and their supernovae actually affect these fossils that live until the present day.”

Density, temperature, and carbon abundance (top) and the formation cycle of Pop III stars (bottom). Credit: Chiaki, et al.

For the sake of their simulations, the team relied predominantly on the Georgia Tech PACE cluster.

Georgia Tech Hive Pace HPC supercomputer cluster.

Additional time was allocated by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), the Stampede2 supercomputer at TACC and NSF-funded Frontera system (the fastest academic supercomputer in the world), and the Comet cluster at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC).

TACC DELL EMC Stampede2 supercomputer.

TACC Frontera Dell EMC supercomputer fastest at any university.

SDSC Dell Comet supercomputer at San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC).

With the massive amounts of processing power and data storage these clusters provided, the team was able to model the faint supernova of the first stars in the Universe.

What this revealed was that the metal-poor stars that formed after the first stars in the Universe became carbon-enhanced through the mixing and fallback of bits ejected from the first supernovae.

Their simulations also showed the gas clouds produced by the first supernovae were seeding with carbonaceous grains, leading to the formation of low-mass ‘giga-metal-poor’ stars that likely still exist today (and could be studied by future surveys). Said Chiaki of these stars:

“We find that these stars have very low iron content compared to the observed carbon-enhanced stars with billionths of the solar abundance of iron. However, we can see the fragmentation of the clouds of gas. This indicates that the low mass stars form in a low iron abundance regime. Such stars have never been observed yet. Our study gives us theoretical insight of the formation of first stars.”

A new study looked at 52 submillimeter galaxies to help us understand the early ages of our Universe. Credit:U Nottingham/Omar Almaini.

With the massive amounts of processing power and data storage these clusters provided, the team was able to model the faint supernova of the first stars in the Universe.

These investigations are part of a growing field known as “galactic archaeology.”

Much like how archaeologists rely on fossilized remains and artifacts to learn more about societies that disappeared centuries or millennia ago, astronomers look for ancient stars to study in order to learn more about those that have long since died.

According to Chiaki, the next step is to branch out beyond the carbon features of ancient stars and incorporate other heavier elements into larger simulations. In so doing, galactic archaeologists hope to learn more about the origins and distribution of life in our Universe. Said Chiaki:

“The aim of this study is to know the origin of elements, such as carbon, oxygen, and calcium. These elements are concentrated through the repetitive matter cycles between the interstellar medium and stars. Our bodies and our planet are made of carbon and oxygen, nitrogen, and calcium. Our study is very important to help understand the origin of these elements that we human beings are made of.”

See the full article here .


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The Georgia Institute of Technology, commonly referred to as Georgia Tech, is a public research university and institute of technology located in the Midtown neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. It is a part of the University System of Georgia and has satellite campuses in Savannah, Georgia; Metz, France; Athlone, Ireland; Shenzhen, China; and Singapore.

The school was founded in 1885 as the Georgia School of Technology as part of Reconstruction plans to build an industrial economy in the post-Civil War Southern United States. Initially, it offered only a degree in mechanical engineering. By 1901, its curriculum had expanded to include electrical, civil, and chemical engineering. In 1948, the school changed its name to reflect its evolution from a trade school to a larger and more capable technical institute and research university.

Today, Georgia Tech is organized into six colleges and contains about 31 departments/units, with emphasis on science and technology. It is well recognized for its degree programs in engineering, computing, industrial administration, the sciences and design. Georgia Tech is ranked 8th among all public national universities in the United States, 35th among all colleges and universities in the United States by U.S. News & World Report rankings, and 34th among global universities in the world by Times Higher Education rankings. Georgia Tech has been ranked as the “smartest” public college in America (based on average standardized test scores).

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