Small blue galaxy could shed new light on Big Bang
Astronomers at Indiana University recently found that a galaxy nicknamed Leoncino, or "little lion," contains the lowest level of heavy chemical elements, or "metals," ever observed in a gravitationally bound system of stars.
The lead author on the paper is Alec S. Hirschauer, a graduate student in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Astronomy. Other IU authors on the paper are professor John J. Salzer and associate professor Katherine L. Rhode in the Department of Astronomy.
"Finding the most metal-poor galaxy ever is exciting since it could help contribute to a quantitative test of the Big Bang," Salzer said. "There are relatively few ways to explore conditions at the birth of the universe, but low-metal galaxies are among the most promising."
This is because the current accepted model of the start of the universe makes clear predictions about the amount of helium and hydrogen present during the Big Bang, and the ratio of these atoms in metal-poor galaxies provides a direct test of the model.
In astronomy, any element other than hydrogen or helium is referred to as a metal. The elemental make-up of metal-poor galaxies is very close to that of the early universe.
To find these low-metal galaxies, however, astronomers must look far from home. Our own Milky Way galaxy is a poor source of data due to the high level of heavier elements created over time by "stellar processing," in which stars churn out heavier elements through nucleosynthesis and then distribute these atoms back into the galaxy when they explode as supernovae.
"Low metal abundance is essentially a sign that very little stellar activity has taken place compared to most galaxies," Hirschauer said.
Leoncino is considered a member of the "local universe," a region of space within about 1 billion light years from Earth and estimated to contain several million galaxies, of which only a small portion have been cataloged.
A galaxy previously recognized to possess the lowest metal abundance was identified in 2005; however, Leoncino has an estimated 29 percent lower metal abundance.
The abundance of elements in a galaxy is estimated based upon spectroscopic observations, which capture the light waves emitted by these systems. These observations allow astronomers to view the light emitted by galaxies like a rainbow created when a prism disperses sunlight.
Regions of space that form stars, for example, emit light that contains specific types of bright lines, each indicating the atoms from various gases: hydrogen, helium, oxygen, nitrogen and more.
In the light of the star-forming region in Leoncino, IU scientists detected lines from these elements, after which they used the laws of atomic physics to calculate the abundance of specific elements.
"A picture is worth a thousand words, but a spectrum is worth a thousand pictures," Salzer said. "It's astonishing the amount of information we can gather about places millions of light years away."
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