Astronomers in Australia have found the oldest known star in the universe, a discovery that may re-write our understanding of the universe directly following the Big Bang.
The team from Australian National University (ANU) say that the star, located around 6,000 light years away from Earth, is roughly 13.6 billion years old. This means it was formed just a few million years after the Big Bang, thought to have occurred some 13.8 billion years ago.
The discovery of the star, which is located within our own Galaxy, was described by lead researcher Dr Stefan Keller as a “one in a 60 million chance.”
“It's giving us insight into our fundamental place in the universe. What we're seeing is the origin of where all the material around us that we need to survive came from,” Keller told Reuters.
“This is the first time we've unambiguously been able to say we've got material from the first generation of stars,” said Keller. “We're now going to be able to put that piece of the jigsaw puzzle in its right place."
The star, which has been given the unwieldy catalogue reference of SMSS J 031300.36-670839.3, is thought to have been formed in the wake of a primordial supernova. Key to determining its age was an analysis of its iron content.
Although the Big Bang created a universe filled with hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium, all the other elements we see today (including iron) were forged in stars and supernovae. 'Modern' stars are created from the ejecta of multiple star explosions and so contain many different elements; older stars are much more simplistic in their composition.
NASA: Space in pictures
NASA: Space in pictures
A false colour image of Cassiopeia A comprised with data from the Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes and the Chandra X-Ray observatory
The Barred Spiral Galaxy (NGC 6217) in the Ursa Minor constellation is pictured in Space
A team of astrophysicists has detected so-called gravitational waves – predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago – which are the first tremors of the Big Bang when time and space began about 13.7 billion years ago
Rex Features/Mood Board
The barred spiral galaxy M83, also known as the Southern Pinwheel. The Hubble photograph captures thousands of star clusters, hundreds of thousands of individual stars, and 'ghosts' of dead stars called supernova remnants
Acosmic creepy-crawly known as the Tarantula Nebula in infrared light
A spiral galaxy ESO 373-8 - together with at least seven of its galactic neighbours, this galaxy is a member of the NGC 2997 group
A massive galaxy cluster Abell 2744, according to NASA these are some of the faintest and youngest galaxies ever detected in space
A giant cloud of solar particles, a coronal mass ejection, explodes off the sun, lower right, captured by the European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory
Current conditions of the quiet corona and upper transition region of the Sun
First color image of the Earth taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968
Fog forming over the the US Great Lakes area and streaming southeast with the wind. A swirling mass of Arctic air moved south into the continental United States
Astronaut Mike Hopkins, Expedition 38 Flight Engineer, is shown in the second of two spacewalks designed to allow the crew to change out a faulty water pump on the exterior of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station
"The iron level of the Universe increases with time as successive generations of stars form and die," Keller told AFP. "We can use the iron abundance of a star as a qualitative 'clock' telling us when the star was formed."
"In the case of the star we have announced, the amount of iron present is less than one millionth that of the Sun and a factor of at least 60 times less than any other known star. This indicates that our star is the most ancient yet found."
The extremely low iron content of ‘J’ (to give it a more manageable pseudonym) suggests that the explosion that formed it was relatively low energy; an unexpected finding that means early supernovae were much more varied in their energy than previously thought.
This low-energy supernova might help scientists explain one of the discrepancies between our current model of the Big Bang and observations of the Universe - specifically the scarcity of the element lithium.
Speaking to The Register, Dr Keller explained that lithium was created during the Big Bang but is removed over time by the nuclear reactions occuring in stars. However, there is not enough lithium present in the Universe as models suggest there should be.
This latest evidence of low-energy supernovae offers an explanation, with Keller saying that the low-iron content of the new discovery suggests that early stars were particularly massive and as such would have burned more lithium than previously thought.
"They burn the lithium, then they blow up, and don't emit much iron," said Keller. "This helps us bring the lithium abundance into line with what the Big Bang theory predicts."
The study was poublished in the latest edition of the journal Nature.