Using observations of ancient stars with W. M. Keck Observatory’s 10-meter telescope and state-of-the-art models of their atmospheres has shown that there is no conflict between their lithium-6 and lithium-7 content and predictions of the standard theory of Big Bang nucleosynthesis, restoring thus the order in our theory of the early universe. The team, led by Karin Lind of the University of Cambridge, has proven the decades-old inventory relied on lower quality observational data with analysis using several simplifications that resulted in spurious detections of lithium isotopes. The fundamental observations that corroborate the Big Bang 13.8 billion years agoare the cosmic microwave radiation and the chemical abundances of the light elements described in the Big Bang nucleosynthesis theory.
Taking accurate measurements of lithium-6 and lithium-7 in old stars is extremely challenging, both from a theoretical and observational perspective, in particular for lithium-6, because being the less abundant isotope of lithium, its signature is very weak. The required data can only be obtained with the largest telescopes on Earth such as the Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii equipped with the powerful High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) spectrograph to disperse the stellar light into its constituent colors and absorption features.
“Back in 2004 HIRES was upgraded with CCDs having smaller pixels, allowing to see finer details in the spectrum,” University of Sao Paulo’s Jorge Meléndez said. “A high spectral resolution provided by HIRES is needed to study with exquisite detail the line profile and to estimate the presence of Lithium-6. The large light-collecting power of Keck Observatory allowed us to observe stars with a more ‘pristine’ composition than any previous study.”
Even with the mighty Keck I telescope, a single star must be observed for several hours to gather enough photons for a detailed observation. The modeling of such data is also very demanding, as different processes in the atmospheres of such metal-deficient old stars may mimic the presence of lithium-6. The data must be analyzed using sophisticated model atmospheres created by the team in 3D and included complex calculations that run for weeks on powerful super computers.
“We simultaneously relaxed two key physical assumptions in the modeling of stellar atmospheres; one-dimensional hydrostatic and local thermodynamic equilibrium,” Lind said. “Using more sophisticated physics and powerful super-computers, we managed to remove the systematic biases that plague traditional modeling and have previously led to false identifications of the 6Li/7Li isotopic signature.”
The synergy of high quality Keck observations and detailed theoretical modeling has solved cosmological problems that haunted particle physicists and astrophysicists during the last two decades.
“Understanding the birth of our Universe is pivotal for the understanding of the later formation of all its constituents, ourselves included,” Lind said. “The Big Bang model sets the initial conditions for structure formation and explains our presence in an expanding universe dominated by dark matter and energy.”
The Hubble image at top of page shows some of the most ancient stars observable in the Milky Way. These objects are what remains of old galaxies that once collided with our own, helping it grow to its current size.
The Daily Galaxy via Keck Observatory