ESA Gaia finds parts of the Milky Way much older than expected

Using data from ESA’s Gaia mission, astronomers have shown that a part of the Milky Way known as the ‘thick disc’ began forming 13 billion years ago, around 2 billion years earlier than expected, and just 0.8 billion years after the Big Bang.


This surprising result comes from an analysis performed by Maosheng Xiang and Hans-Walter Rix, from the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany. They took brightness and positional data from Gaia’s Early Data Release 3 (EDR3) dataset and combined it with measurements of the stars’ chemical compositions, as given by data from China’s Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) for roughly 250 000 stars to derive their ages.


They chose to look at sub giant stars. In these stars, energy has stopped being generated in the star’s core and has moved into a shell around the core. The star itself is transforming into a red giant star. Because the sub giant phase is a relatively brief evolutionary phase in a star’s life, it permits its age to be determined with great accuracy, but it’s still a tricky calculation.


How old are the stars?

The age of a star is one of the most difficult parameters to determine. It cannot be measured directly but must be inferred by comparing a star’s characteristics with computer models of stellar evolution. The compositional data helps with this. The Universe was born with almost exclusively hydrogen and helium. The other chemical elements, known collectively as metals to astronomers, are made inside stars, and exploded back into space at the end of a star’s life, where they can be incorporated into the next generation of stars. So, older stars have fewer metals and are said to have lower metallicity.


The LAMOST data gives the metallicity. Together, the brightness and metallicity allow astronomers to extract the star’s age from the computer models. Before Gaia, astronomers were routinely working with uncertainties of 20-40 percent, which could result in the determined ages being imprecise by a billion years or more.

Gaia’s EDR3 data release changes this. “With Gaia’s brightness data, we are able to determine the age of a sub giant star to a few percent,” says Maosheng. Armed with precise ages for a quarter of a million sub giant stars spread throughout the galaxy, Maosheng and Hans-Walter began the analysis.

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