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News Release Archive:

News Release 115 of 955

May 30, 2012 01:00 PM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2012-25

Stellar Archaeology Traces Milky Way's History

May 30, 2012: Unfortunately, stars don't have birth certificates. So, astronomers have a tough time figuring out their ages. Knowing a star's age is critical for understanding how our Milky Way galaxy built itself up over billions of years from smaller galaxies. But Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins University's Center for Astrophysical Sciences, both in Baltimore, Md., has found the next best thing to a star's birth certificate.

Using a new technique, Kalirai probed the burned-out relics of Sun-like stars, called white dwarfs, in the inner region of our Milky Way galaxy's halo. The halo is a spherical cloud of stars surrounding our galaxy's disk. Those stars, his study reveals, are 11.5 billion years old, younger than the first generation of Milky Way stars. They formed more than 2 billion years after the birth of the universe 13.7 billion years ago. Previous age estimates, based on analyzing normal stars in the inner halo, ranged from 10 billion to 14 billion years. Kalirai's study reinforces the emerging view that our galaxy's halo is composed of a layer-cake structure that formed in stages over billions of years.

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Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Feild (STScI)

Science Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Kalirai (STScI)