The universe’s very first stars —- one of astronomy’s observational holy grails —- arguably remain as elusive today as they were a quarter century ago. But astronomers are closing in on these first points of light. While it’s true that these so-called Population III (Pop III) stars have yet to be detected, theorists are making progress in understanding just how they evolved, turned on and perhaps even died.
We owe these first stars everything in our field of view. Neither the few thousand points of light that we can see with the naked eye, nor the planets of our solar system would exist if not for these long sought-after stellar progenitors. Even without detecting them, researchers are placing better constraints on their initial masses and their lifetimes. A forthcoming paper in The Astrophysical Journal presents new evolutionary models that predict that these earliest stars would have had initial masses ranging from 100 to 1000 times that of our Sun. Our models compute Pop III stars with masses as much as a thousand times the Sun, but we don’t know if stars that massive really existed, Guglielmo Volpato, a doctoral student in astronomy at Italy’s University of Padova and the paper’s lead author, told me. There are good arguments that, in the absence of metals, the fragments of gas clouds which collapse to form stars can be much heavier than in the presence of metals, he says. These arguments inspired us to explore these highest mass ranges, he says. When did these stars first form? Following the “standard model” of Pop III star formation, it’s predicted that they started forming at a redshift of roughly 20 to 30, says Volpato. This corresponds to some 100 to 200 million years after the big bang, he says. In contrast, the earliest known galaxies recently detected by the Webb Space Telescope lie at a redshift of only 13. MORE FROMFORBES ADVISORBest Travel Insurance CompaniesByAmy DaniseEditorBest Covid-19 Travel Insurance PlansByAmy DaniseEditor How did they end their lives? For massive and very massive stars, if the star gets through all the main core burning phases, then it has an iron core surrounded by a so-called onion-skin structure, says Volpato. These kinds of stars could end their lives either by exploding as a supernova or by collapsing and forming a black hole, he says. Understanding how these Pop III stars evolve and die is not just a matter of mere curiosity. Such research has implications for understanding how primordial stellar black holes may provide the seeds for the assembly of supermassive black holes, the authors note. How long did they remain on the hydrogen-burning main sequence? In our paper, we considered stars with an initial mass between of between 100 and 1000 times the mass of our Sun, says Volpato. For these stars, their hydrogen-burning lifetimes range between 1.6 to 2.6 million years; increasing as the initial mass of the star decreases, he says. That’s about half the main sequence life of the largest stars in our solar neighborhood. And it’s only a fraction of the hydrogen-burning lifetime of our Sun which will remain on the main sequence for an estimated 10 billion years. In contrast to our Sun, which will end its life as an expanding red giant, Volpato says that Pop III stars roughly 300 times the mass of the Sun or more should end their lives by directly collapsing into very massive black holes. *These so-called collapsars (short for collapsed star) have rotating stellar cores that collapse into massive black holes. The collapsar scenario is the most accepted model for long-period GRB progenitors, says Volpato. After the collapse of the stellar core and the formation of a black hole with an accretion disk, a great amount of energy is deposited along the polar directions which emits the GRBs, he says.The Milky Way over the south Indian Ocean. The nucleus of our home galaxy is directly at the … [+] terrestrial horizon, to the left of the faint Comet Lovejoy. Mosaic composite photograph. ISS 030 crew, December 29, 2011getty The emission spectrum of the afterglow produced by a Pop III GRB should be detectable by current space-based gamma-ray observatories, says Volpato. This afterglow comes from the interaction of the gamma-ray radiation with the medium surrounding the progenitor star, he says, As for detecting Pop III stars in the optical spectrum? “These stars are very challenging to observe mainly due to the enormous distance and their very faint luminosity,” said Volpato. Volpato says that future data from next-generation, ground-based gravitational-wave detectors, such as the Einstein telescope and the Cosmic Explorer may be able to detect gravity waves from heretofore undetected black holes created by Pop III stars. As for observing Pop III stars with the Webb Space Telescope? Even with the Webb telescope, observing a single star would require gravitational lensing with a magnification factor comparable with those inferred for the most distant objects known, says Volpato. If the target were a cluster or a galaxy of Pop III stars, then it might be possible to use Webb without the need for a gravitational lensing effect, he says. *An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that collapsars can collapse into white dwarfs and neutron stars and failed to mention that these massive Pop III stellar cores must rotate to generate gamma-ray bursts (GRBs).