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'Messenger' star formed right after Big Bang discovered by UVic researchers

A group of researchers, including astronomers from the University of Victoria, is one step closer to understanding what the early universe was like, with the discovery of one of its oldest-known stars.

Discovery sheds light on what universe was like directly following the Big Bang

A star recently discovered by the Pristine survey may have formed in the early universe. An artist impression of the early universe during a period of rapid star formation. (Adolf Schaller/Space Telescope Science Institute)

A group of researchers, including astronomers from the University of Victoria, is one step closer to understanding what the early universe was like, with the discovery of one of its oldest-known stars.

"A 13 billion-year-old star. Isn't that amazing?" Kim Venn, director of the University of Victoria's Astronomy Research Centre, told CBC's All Points West host Robyn Burns on Monday.

"It would be like kicking just a random rock and turning it over and finding out it's a dinosaur bone."

The finding, which will be published by the Royal Astronomical Society in December, is significant because it provides a window into the period right after the Big Bang — before the Earth, our solar system and even our galaxy were formed.

"We think the first stars formed before the galaxies," said Venn. "So, it's really the first thing forming in our galaxy and really setting up the initial conditions for understanding the rest of the evolution of galaxies, groups of galaxies, stars, and, ultimately, planets."

'Messenger' from the early universe

Found in the Milky Way, the star is characterized by a "pristine atmosphere," meaning it is almost entirely lacking heavy elements, such as metals. Venn said most "metal-poor" stars have high levels of carbon, but this star was also devoid of that element.

"This combination of having both an ultra metal-poor atmosphere and low levels of carbon make it the second-known star of its kind," said former University of Victoria postdoctoral fellow Else Starkenburg in a statement. Starkenburg  co-led the study from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam in Germany,

"These qualities mark it as an important messenger from the early universe."

The Pristine survey collaboration used the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, a 3.6-metre telescope sitting atop the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, in the discovery of the star. (CFHT)

The discovery resulted from a five-year international research collaboration that includes professors, researchers and students at the University of Victoria called the Pristine Survey, a galactic archeological project searching for ancient stars.

The team used the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Hawaii with a special colour filter to analyze the light spectrum of stars, which scientists can use to determine what chemicals stars are made from.

"It really doesn't matter if the star is next door to us like Alpha Centauri or if it's on the other side of our galaxy … once we can get the spectrum of the star — as long as the star is bright enough — we can analyze its composition," Venn said.

The search continues

Venn hopes to survey even more of the sky in their search for ancient stars over the next few years. They plan to use telescopes in the Canary Islands, Chile and, eventually, the Thirty Meter Telescope currently proposed for Hawaii.

"It would be really fun to find a few more of these objects," said Venn.

"Having more of these, so we can really see what kinds of supernovi, what kinds of events happened in the early universe, will tell us more about the very first stars and that's a really exciting time in our universe."

Listen to the full story:

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West


  • A previous version of this story included a rendering of a planned new dome for the CFHT telescope with a caption that incorrectly identified it as the current dome. That image has been replaced.
    Oct 18, 2018 10:34 AM PT


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