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Newfound Star May Be Oldest in the Universe

Credit: Australian National University/ Stefen Keller
The oldest known star was born 13.6 billion years ago. Credit: Australian National University/Stefen Keller

The ultimate age barrier has been broken. The oldest living star in the entire universe may have been discovered—one formed only one or two hundred million years after the Big Bang itself.

The ancient star, born some 13.6 billion years ago, bests the previous record handily, by 400 million years, and offers a unique view into what the universe looked like soon after its birth.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to unambiguously say that we’ve found the chemical fingerprint of a first star,” said the lead author of the new study, astronomer Stefan Keller of the Australian National University Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“What this star has enabled us to do is record the fingerprint of those first stars.”

The record-breaker was first spotted as part of a million-star survey using the SkyMapper Telescope at the Australian National University’s Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. In high-resolution follow-up observations by the Magellan Telescopes in Chile, astronomers next noticed that one faint star, called SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, possessed unusually low levels of heavy metals such as iron.

According to current theories, astronomers can estimate the age of stars by the amount of iron that they contain. The unexpected lack of metal in the aged star indicates it was born out of the remnants of a very short-lived, primordial supernovae that had a mass 60 times that of our sun’s.

Remnant of a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia, about 11,000 light-years away.  (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Steward/O.Krause et al.)
Remnant of a supernova known as Cassiopeia A in its namesake constellation, located about 11,000 light-years from Earth. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Steward/O. Krause et al.

“What happened was that one first star dies in a supernova and then the gas that was thrown out mixed in with the surrounding pristine gas. Then later that gas cooled and formed a star. And so this is the star we are observing now,” said Keller.

What is puzzling researchers is that these first-generation supernovae blasts were thought to pollute their surroundings with a lot of iron.

But these new findings show that this ancient star shows no sign of these pollutants.

“This indicates the primordial star’s supernova explosion was of surprisingly low energy. Although sufficient to disintegrate the primordial star, almost all of the heavy elements, such as iron, were consumed by a black hole that formed at the heart of the explosion,” said Keller.

Galaxy Building Block

The new stellar old-timer calls our own Milky Way galaxy home, and it is located just 6,000 light-years away in the far southern constellation Dorado. But it is thought to be even older than the galaxy.

Keller and his team believe that the stellar old-timer may have formed in an isolated gas blob in the early universe. Later on, it was incorporated into our galaxy.

“Stars are like time capsules; they lock away a chunk of the universe as it was when the star formed,” he says. “This is an important time in the evolution of the universe—our Milky Way is formative, the first stars have switched on, and the first heavier elements, which we need for life, are starting to disperse.”

Even with the largest telescopes, we have not yet been able to study the light directly from this time, he adds.

See for Yourself

Despite its age, the ancient star can still be spotted from the Southern Hemisphere with a large backyard telescope.

Because the star glows at a feeble 14.7 magnitude, Keller estimates that to see it visually a sky-watcher will need to peer skyward under dark skies through an instrument at least 16 to 20 inches. However, much more modest scopes outfitted with digital cameras should have an easier time capturing the star’s subtle glimmer.

Credit: Starry Night Software / A.Fazekas
The faint star is visible all night in the Dorado constellation at sky coordinates RA: 03h 13m 00.36s and Dec: -67:08:39.3, sandwiched between the two Magellanic Clouds. Credit: Starry Night Software/A. Fazekas
This close-up starfield withthe oldest star pointed out will help in identifying it through a telescope using high magnification eyepiece. Credit: AFP PHOTO / SPACE TELESCOPE SCIENCE INSTITUTE
This close-up starfield withthe oldest star pointed out will help in identifying it through a telescope using high magnification eyepiece. Credit: AFP PHOTO / SPACE TELESCOPE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

Even if you don’t have the astro-gear to hunt this cosmic old-timer down for yourself, it’s amazing to just look up at this one spot in the sky and ponder that this intriguing record-breaker lies in our own galactic backyard.

The discovery study was released by the journal Nature.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter,  Facebook, and his website.

Comments

  1. Jesse
    September 19, 3:19 pm

    Mr. White was not the only person to get it wrong, but yet everyone through the entire feed continuously bombarded him. He is wrong but you all who are so intelligent and advanced could easily have educated him on his misunderstanding, perhaps then you would have not have perpetuated the ignorance introduced by Mr. White, but sadly, like in life you all feel a need to fight some bigger battle by insecurely attacking those who question you instead of using that same brain power, that allows you to retain scientific knowledge, to see this as an opportunity to educate your fellow man. But I supposed your reasoning for hostility is deeply seated in the days of your childhood where you weren’t cool like other kids and were “bullied” because of your pocket protector etc…

  2. Michael weeks
    February 12, 7:39 pm

    Firstly, can I say how appalled I am how quickly the comments have degenerated into a religious discussion about life and the age of the universe? Can we just keep religious beliefs, whether they are theistic or atheistic, out of the discussion? Either you believe there is enough probability in multiple universes or multiple dimensions to explain life and other things or you believe that all information was pre-existing in the form of God and we are just catching up with it. Either way it is not particularly relevant to this discovery.
    Secondly, is it just me or is this a badly written piece or what but I am missing something. I have read it three times and I still can’t understand. We use iron content normally to determine the age of a star but this star has little iron so what is the chemical signature we are talking about? Apparently the data indicate a different sort of star life cycle to what we knew previously but the article does not seem to explain this. The gasses thrown out from a supernova (that was different to the normal supernova) mixed with gasses that were hanging about and this formed a new star prior to the formation of the Milky Way? Is that it? I am sorry to be obtuse but can we have an article that explains this better?
    Thirdly, I think terms like “may” or “primordial” are not very useful. Anything “may” have happened and” primordial?” Isn’t that a bit of a relative term when you are talking about the universe?

  3. Bugg Utley
    Ohio
    February 12, 3:09 pm

    I don’t doubt the (relative) accuracy of the dating of this star, nor do I doubt the good science that results in that dating. But to suggest that a star that is only 6,000 LY away from (and visible to) us – in a universe with hundreds of billions of GALAXIES – might be THE OLDEST … well, come on people. Does that claim really pass the smell test? More likely, it is among many, MANY of this class. If this one star of this composition (which coincidentally found its way into our galaxy) can exist, there must be billions more (at least), and certainly others that are older. The finding reported here is interesting, relevant and provocative – the illogical conclusion reached by all the headline writers claiming it might be the OLDEST STAR IN THE UNIVERSE does no good service.

  4. Martin Visser
    February 12, 10:29 am

    @Mr White This star is a small orange star that is only 6000 light-years away, practically a neighbor, The low iron content is not because of decay (most Iron is stable and not decaying) but because when this star was formed there was little to no Iron in the universe, and this star is to small to make it.

    @Scott Wilcox
    Due to the lack of heavy elements I think planet formation around this particular star is unlikely and life might be difficult. Still my mind would boggle at even a 1 million year old civilization let alone a billion year old one.

  5. ZC
    February 12, 9:24 am

    Mr. White,

    They believe the star to have Formed roughly 13.6 billion years ago and Its at a Distance of 6k light years.

    Look up Astronomical spectroscopy, it will explain how that “rubbish” is true. Also they aren’t carbon dating so nothing is decaying here, they are merely analyzing the Iron content of the star and drawing assumptions based on going theories.

  6. Jordon Haguewood
    United States
    February 12, 7:44 am

    Scott, the light from that star that’s arriving here now left that star 13.6 billion years ago. It could have gone super nova 7 billion years ago and we wouldn’t see it for another 6 and a half billion years.

  7. RedSquid
    February 12, 7:08 am

    “a very short-lived, primordial supernovae”

    *supernova. “Supernovae” is plural. C’mon, NatGeo — you’re supposed to be the SMART publication!

    Also, Mr White, I suggest you enroll in a basic astronomy class to find your answers, rather than relying on the stripped-down Cliff’s Notes versions of astronomy that’s shown on the Discovery networks.

  8. Chongo
    Kitwe, Zambia
    February 12, 7:03 am

    @Mr White: The article states that “the new stellar old-timer calls our own Milky Way galaxy home, and it is located just 6,000 light-years away in the far southern constellation Dorado.” So, it is not 13.6 Bn light years away. I want to surmise that the relatively low iron content is what is leading to the conclusion that it is 13.6 Bn years old.

  9. Michael Johnson
    February 12, 6:40 am

    Mr. White is either a poe or a complete moron.

    #1. The star is not 13.6 billion light years away. It’s 13.6 billion years old. If someone is 30 years old, I guess Mr. White assumes that they’re 30 light years away from him.

    #2. There’s no assumption that the decay of iron is linear. I think Mr. White has unthinkingly imported a creationist talking point from some other form of dating. The assumption is that stars formed early would have less iron in them, because according to the best current model of the universe, heavy elements like iron only formed later. This has nothing to do with measuring iron decay.

    #3. Yes they can tell whether it has iron in it. They analyze its color. If Mr. White weren’t so proudly ignorant, he could even read about how that works. Too bad though, I don’t think he will.

  10. bob
    Ohio
    February 12, 6:25 am

    I find it incredibly amusing that you read the article, yet you think it said that the star was 13.6 billion light years from Earth. Read and comprehend much? I suppose we should all give up on trying to understand our universe and how it came to be.

  11. vaibhav
    usa
    February 12, 6:16 am

    in 9 billion years they would have been gods beyond the imagination of the human mind.

  12. science lover
    Illinois
    February 12, 6:00 am

    Mr. White the star is 6000 light years away, and is 13.6 billion years old. Read the article, You probably do not have the intelligence to read, much less what scientists can discern from observation, education and knowledge from prior studies of other scientists.

  13. Mr Black
    Definitely not the same universe as Mr White
    February 12, 5:45 am

    @ Mr White.. The star is not 13.6 Billion light years away, but 6 000. It is 13.6 billion years old..
    To answer your assumption, iron doesn’t “decay”, it accumulates in the core of massive stars with time, for the reason that creation of heavier elements through nuclear fusion consumes energy. Iron then disseminates when the stars explodes or is combined to form heavier elements during a supernova
    I do have the similar question as you have though. How can you write that amount of rubbish in only one paragraph?

  14. Joe McMall
    San Franicsco
    February 12, 5:32 am

    Mr. White,
    Sounds like you, Mr. White, are not a believer in Science. I suspect you think the oldest star is 5000 years old based on the fairy tale theory.

  15. Will S
    USA
    February 12, 5:09 am

    “a star 13.6 billion light years away”

    Why not read the whole article before commenting. The star is 6000 light years away, not 13.6 billion.

    “I find it incredibly amusing that astronomers can tell that a star … has Iron in it”

    It is very easy to do so, because each different element in a star emits light a particular wavelengths, making a sort of fingerprint of that element in the light coming from the star.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emission_spectrum
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomical_spectroscopy#Stars_and_their_properties

    “Another assumption is that this decay of Iron is linear”

    The article says nothing about “decay of iron”. There are some radioactive isotopes of iron, but they have very short half-lives. The iron content of stars is composed of stable isotopes that don’t decay.

  16. Fred
    London
    February 12, 5:02 am

    Dear Mr White,
    It is not called rubbish, it’s called Spectroscopy… Get a little documented and you’ll find out that the light coming from these stars contains a lot of information.
    Light can be separated in its different wavelengths (colors of the rainbow) and very well documented absorption or emission lines can appear depending on the source and what the light goes through. These lines appear at wavelength specific of chemical elements. Astronomers probably saw a big line (absorption or emission, I don’t know the details…) at the wavelength of iron, therefore there’s iron in the star. Distance doesn’t matter as long as you gather enough light to do spectroscopy.
    The ignorance and arrogance of some people will never stop to gobsmacked me!…

  17. Joe Gunner
    Boulder, CO
    February 12, 4:42 am

    Mr. White: Your comment perfectly illustrates what kind of ignorant, uneducated mind you have up there that may be full of rubbish. Study before you open your mouth and talk.

  18. Hank
    out space
    February 12, 4:24 am

    @MrWhite: Read again, the star is only 6000 light years away…

  19. Mike
    February 12, 4:21 am

    Pardon me…make that 6000 light years away.

  20. Mike
    Kaiserslautern, Germany
    February 12, 4:17 am

    Mr. White, what I find amusing is your reading comprehension. The star is 13.6 billion years old and 11,000 light years away. Not 13.6 billion light years away! And the science behind the determination as regards iron content is well regarded and solid. The scientific methods used are well documented and universally accepted.

  21. omar espinosa to Mr White, its called Spectral lines !!
    north alabama
    February 12, 3:53 am

    well after adjusting for red and blue shift

    SPECTROSCOPY dose not lie !!

    As long as they are not getting interference and their equipment and computers are all 100 percent.

    Iron is either in the signal or not !

  22. Bob
    Earth
    February 12, 3:50 am

    Mr White, If these boffins discover they are incorrect, then they will change thier understanding of how the universe works.More importantly perhaps is the fact that they will tell you they were wrong and then go on to figure out the correct answer. Thus is the nature of understanding and science.

  23. omar espinosa to scott wilcox curb your enthusiasm
    north alabama
    February 12, 3:49 am

    Scott, your looking at the situation given the facts and propensity of density to increase during the evolution of the universe quite wrongly.

    IF the star recently found is in fact 13.6 billion or so years old, AND these “seed” stars were the first ones to transmutate hydrogen into other matter and energy they would be QUITE free of many heavier elements.

    THUS making life IMPOSSIBLE at this stage of the universe.

    Hydrogen helium life forms would be impossible, carbon is almost a prerequisite and oxygen to.

    SOO it would have taken BILLIONS of years to get enough waste in the form of denser atomic matter to form planets and thus life.

    13.6 billion years ago the universe was HOTTER and filled with more radiation per unit of volume, and more than likely MUCH higher levels of HARD UV which would destroy MANY molecules and ionize many things.

    As the universe cooled and denser elements were wrought into existence life became more likely and eventually more common.

    As long as the age of the universe is not doubled, i can with a great deal of certainty assure you that life in nearly any form imaginable wasnt possible anywhere near 12 or 13 billion years ago.

    Reasons. TOO much radiation, not enough matter, stars too close together, early stars were TOO big.

    Bigger young stars tend to have less planets even today, if you are a real big heavy star you tend to prevent planet formation!

  24. Mr Wheeler
    Oklahoma
    February 12, 3:36 am

    @Mr White:

    The star in question is NOT 13.6 billion light years away, but 6,000 light years away, in “our cosmic backyard”, in our own Milky Way Galaxy, a point which was made a bit much of in the article. The 13.6 billion figure referred to it’s age, not its distance. Being relatively close, we can see it with rather ordinary telescopes many of us have in our homes.

  25. TP
    Australia
    February 12, 3:34 am

    Mr White should re-read the article about the distance to this star. Then having learnt to read, he can start on the clever stuff like red shift and light spectra. Somehow I doubt he will.

  26. Andy Lee Robinson
    February 12, 3:24 am

    Think.
    One can’t really know if a star is the oldest in the Universe, *unless* it is close to us.
    The oldest place in the Universe, (and the 4D edge), is right here, because every direction points back to the Big Bang.

  27. mike peters
    USA
    February 12, 3:13 am

    Science nerds coming up with “new” data and theories. I suggest we get beyond stars and their planets and start looking for the real reason the universe exists. We know what stars and planets are–we see our own sun everyday and we’re sitting right here on a planet. –Hey, there’s nothing new to discover! Anybody got any new ideas, new concepts? We need a new science. I”m sick and tired of being told what to believe. These scientists once told us that the world was flat.

  28. MARK ST DENIS
    LAS VEGAS NEVADA
    February 12, 2:49 am

    I am no expert. Light from 13 billion years ago? This does not mean the star still exists as a real object. How long ago did the star burn out into scatted parts of mass and energy?
    Just because the light exists as traveling through space, does not mean there is still a physical object transmitting said light. An expert could probably explain to me, if there is or is not a physical object in 2014 that emits the light. Did not the star already red dwarf or otherwise annihilate itself?

  29. Mr. Irvan
    Dallas, TX
    February 12, 2:48 am

    The same people that read it correctly I assume Mr. White.

  30. Brendan Doyle
    February 12, 2:36 am

    Mr. White: Reread the article more carefully. The star is not 13.6 billion light years away; it is 13.6 billion years old. It is only 6,000 light years away, right in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. That’s less than 1/2,000,000 the distance you cite. Astronomers can tell a whole lot about stars that are only 6,000 light years away.

  31. Mr Pink
    February 12, 2:21 am

    @ Mr White – This is done through the process of spectroscopy which is the measurement of individual atomic wavelengths and the varying frequencies they have at different states. It also states that this star is 6,000 ly away in our own galaxy. Using the hubble telescope we can barely see galaxies at the distance you described. Finally you have it backwards, it’s not a ‘decay’ of iron. It has to with the creation of iron through the process of fusion in the heart of a star’s core. Since its been deduced that the early universe was mostly hydrogen and most heavier elements were yet to be created this is why the star is considered old.

  32. Gary West
    San Antonio tx
    February 12, 2:21 am

    Mr. White has the same problem as so many science article commenters. They do a quick read, see something they think they can object to, and put up their comment. In this case the star is not 13.6 billlion light years away. It is 6000 light years away and 13.6 billiion years old.

  33. stottle
    BNE
    February 12, 2:04 am

    Re the 9.1 billion year old civilisation – would these highly evolved peoples have a half eaten jar of dill pickles in the back of their fridge? That remain edible?

  34. Andrew E
    Melbourne
    February 12, 12:47 am

    You’ve gotta love all the assumptions that made in all this. Ie. This sun is 13.6 billion years old. Oh really?

  35. mark
    February 12, 12:40 am

    Cool that they found a star so close yet so old. My first thought that it was old because it was far away.

    @Mr White.. Sounds like a basic course in astronomy would help you understand from whence this rubbish comes.. I’ll give you a hint ‎absorption/transmission spectroscopy. As to the iron decay.. there is no mention of it in the article so I don’t know what you are referencing but I bet the decay is exponential, not linear.

  36. JR
    United States
    February 12, 12:33 am

    @Mr White:
    Mostly astrophysicists whose theories are in line with the best data available, as mandated by the peer review process. It’s observational science, backed up by practically countless data from experimental science (atom smashers and the like). An anecdotal explanation, however: (1) The speed of light is and probably must be constant in a vacuum. (2) we can use trigonometry to accurately measure the distance between us and any visible star. (3) this means we can know how long ago the light we see left a star. (4) we can use spectrometers to identify the elemental composition of a star from the wavelengths of light it emits. (5) the light from further (older) stars tends to indicate lighter elements than the light from closer (younger) stars.
    There’s a lot more to it than that, with more detailed explanations of how and why we can deduce all of that, but those are the basics.
    @ Scott Wilcox, life as we know it only seems to work if we’re made up of a few generations of dead stars, our source of heavy elements. Any planet orbiting ‘SMSS J031300.36-670839.3′ would have been close to 100% Hydrogen, which is a poor recipe for self-replicating molecules prone to mutation.

  37. Lucky Starr
    The living room
    February 12, 12:18 am

    This may be the oldest _observed_ star, but if this star was formed from the remnants of a supernova, then the star that went supernova would be the oldest, not this one.

  38. Michael
    February 12, 12:01 am

    @White – It’s in our galaxy, as they take some pains to point out. It’s not 13.6 billion light years away. It’s 13.6 billion years old. That said, I wonder what the error is on that kind of estimation.

  39. WhoMe2
    February 11, 11:32 pm

    Just as a point Mr White, actually they said it’s 13.6 billion years old, not away. They said it’s 6,000 light years away.

  40. Andy from West Michigan
    West Michigan
    February 11, 11:13 pm

    meant to say “Hydrogen and helium can NOT form complex molecules for building life unless they combine with the heavier elements.”

  41. Andy from West Michigan
    West Michigan
    February 11, 11:10 pm

    No intelligent life around this star, since the star is devoid of the heavier elements that means the planets around the star should also be devoid of iron, carbon, silicon and all other elements theorized to be possible building blocks of life.

    Hydrogen and helium can form complex molecules that could be the basis for life.

  42. Mr White
    February 11, 10:38 pm

    I find it incredibly amusing that astronomers can tell that a star 13.6 billion light years away( Based on an estimate/Assumption I might add) has Iron in it. Another assumption is that this decay of Iron is linear. Who comes up with this rubbish?

  43. Scott Wilcox
    Tomah, WI
    February 11, 9:41 pm

    Let’s do the Math. This sun is 13.6 billion years old. Our sun is 4.5 billion years old. Let’s just assume it takes roughly 4.5 billion years for an intelligent life form to evolve to a point where they can reach space. If this sun has a planet around it with intelligent life on it, it already has a 9.1 billion year headstart on us. I wonder what kind of technology a society could create in 9.1 billion years if it some how managed not to destroy itself. Wow! mind boggling.