May 29, 2008

Astronomers map the metals in millions of Milky Way stars:
Solving mysteries about the birth and growth of the galaxy

+ enlarge
Examining stars as far as 30,000 light years away from the Sun, researchers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-II) measured the metal content of millions of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Accurate measurements of the metal content and motions for an unprecedented number of stars allow astronomers to decipher how our galaxy formed and how it evolved over the 13 billion years since its formation.

The position and size of the mapped region, relative to the rest of the Milky Way, is illustrated in the top right corner. This new map is overlaid on an image of the Andromeda galaxy, the closest galaxy that looks like our own.

Most of the stars in the Milky Way are found in a disk-like feature, whose vertical cross-section is shown by the gray scale background; brighter shade means more stars.

The new metallicity map, shown as the colored inset, indicates that the disk is composed of high-metallicity stars that are typically just a few billion years old (red and yellow shades). The disk is embedded in a low-density stellar halo composed of lower metallicity stars with ages over 10 billion years (blue shades).

The Milky Way is still growing by cannibalizing other nearby galaxies. A good example of a victimized galaxy is the Monoceros stream, marked by the arrow. The fact that the Monoceros stream stars have somewhat different metal content than other nearby stars (green shade instead of blue) helps to delineate its extent and reveal its origins.

(Credit - SDSS Collaboration, Zeljko Ivezic, University of Washington)

An international team of astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-II) unveiled the most complete and detailed map yet of the chemical composition of more than 2.5 million stars in the Milky Way.

Previous chemical composition maps were based on much smaller samples of stars and didn't go as far as the distances surveyed by SDSS-II — a region extending from near the Sun to about 30,000 light years away. "Older sky surveys that did include a lot of stars were not accurate enough to measure their chemical composition," explained study leader Zeljko Ivezic, a University of Washington astronomer.

"With the new SDSS map, astronomers can begin to tackle many unsolved mysteries about the birth and growth of the Milky Way," Ivezic said.

The construction and first implications of the map are described in a paper titled "The Milky Way Tomography with SDSS: II. Stellar Metallicity," slated to appear in the August 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. A preprint version is available from

< Astronomers use the term "metals" to describe all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, including the oxygen we breathe, the calcium in our bones, and the iron in our blood. Although hydrogen, helium and traces of lithium were created at the beginning of the Universe in the Big Bang, all other elements (such as iron and carbon) were forged in the cores of stars or during the explosive deaths of massive stars.

As a result, stars that formed early in the history of the galaxy (some 13 billion years ago) were made of gas that had few metals created by the generations of stars that came before. These "metal-poor stars" provide astronomers with a chemical fingerprint of the origin and evolution of the elements. As subsequent generations of stars formed and died, they returned some of their metal-enriched material to the interstellar medium, the birthplace of later generations of stars, including our sun.

"By mapping how the metal content of stars varies throughout the Milky Way, astronomers can decipher star formation and evolution, just as archaeologists reveal ancient history by studying human artifacts," explained University of Washington graduate student Branimir Sesar, another member of the research team.

To make this new map of the Galaxy, the SDSS-II team used the colors of millions of stars to infer their metal content — often referred to as metallicity. To estimate the metallicity of so many stars at once, the team compared the star colors with spectroscopic observations for many tens of thousands of these stars. A group led by SDSS-II collaborator Timothy Beers of Michigan State University devised methods to estimate the metallicities of these stars based on their spectra. The color of a star is slightly influenced by the presence of absorption lines, where particular chemical elements absorb light at specific wavelengths. When the metals are depleted in the star, such as occurs for metal-poor stars, the amount of blue light emitted by the star is slightly increased.

"When we began the study of the metallicity of stars with the SDSS-II, we expected that we would just measure chemical compositions of the stars with spectra," said Beers. "Spectra are time consuming to acquire, so we could only obtain estimates of metallicity for several hundred thousand stars -- already a huge advance in the state of the art — using that technique. This new approach allows us to multiply our efforts by another factor of ten, a significant improvement with impressive results."

"The map of the distribution of metallicity for several million stars reveals the differing content of chemical elements in the stellar populations of our galaxy," explained Ivezic. "By using two-dimensional images in different colors, we build up a three-dimensional `tomographic' map that clearly delineates the disk and halo components of the Milky Way."

The metal map also shows that galaxies cannibalized by the Milky Way — including shards of one known as the Monoceros Stream — possess stars with different metal content than expected at the stream's position.

Many features of the map confirm standard views of the structure of the Milky Way. But, Ivezic noted, the projected motions measured for metal-poor stars appear to contradict a long-standing hypothesis of galaxy construction: that an ancient act of galactic cannibalism gave rise to the "thick disk" of stars enveloping the thin disk in which our star — the sun — resides.

The SDSS-II results also provide a road map for future, still larger surveys, such as those planned for the 8.4m Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). LSST maps could extend ten times further, to the very edge of the Milky Way, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of million stars using the technique pioneered here by the SDSS-II team.


  • Zeljko Ivezi, University of Washington
  • Branimir Sesar, University of Washington
  • Mario Juri, Institute for Advanced Study
  • Nicholas Bond, Princeton University Observatory
  • Julianne Dalcanton, University of Washington
  • Constance M. Rockosi, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Brian Yanny, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Heidi J. Newberg, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Timothy C. Beers, Michigan State University
  • Carlos Allende Prieto, University of Texas, Austin
  • Ron Wilhelm, Texas Tech University
  • Young Sun Lee, JINA: Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics
  • Thirupathi Sivarani, JINA: Joint Institute for Nuclear Astro physics
  • John E. Norris, The Australian National University
  • Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy
  • Paola Re Fiorentin, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy
  • David Schlegel, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Alan Uomoto, The John Hopkins University
  • Robert H. Lupton, Princeton University Observatory
  • Gillian R. Knapp, Princeton University Observatory
  • James E. Gunn, Princeton University Observatory
  • Kevin R. Covey, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
  • J. Allyn Smith, Austin Peay State University
  • Gajus Miknaitis, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Mamoru Doi, University of Tokyo
  • Masayuki Tanaka, University of Tokyo
  • Masataka Fukugita,University of Tokyo,
  • Steve Kent, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Douglas Finkbeiner, Harvard University
  • Jeffrey A. Munn, U.S. Naval Observatory
  • Jeffrey R. Pier, U.S. Naval Observatory
  • Tom Quinn, University of Washington
  • Suzanne Hawley, University of Washington
  • Scott Anderson, University of Washington
  • Furea Kiuchi, University of Washington
  • Alex Chen, University of Washington
  • James Bushong, University of Washington
  • Harkirat Sohi, University of Washington
  • Daryl Haggard, University of Washington
  • Amy Kimball, University of Washington
  • John Barentine, Apache Point Observatory
  • Howard Brewington, Apache Point Observatory
  • Mike Harvanek, Apache Point Observatory
  • Scott Kleinman, Apache Point Observatory
  • Jurek Krzesinski, Apache Point Observatory
  • Dan Long, Apache Point Observatory
  • Atsuko Nitta, Apache Point Observatory
  • Stephanie Snedden, Apache Point Observatory
  • Brian Lee, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Hugh Harris, U.S. Naval Observatory
  • Jonathan Brinkmann, Apache Point Observatory
  • Donald P. Schneider, Pennsylvania State University
  • Donald G. York, University of Chicago


  • Zeljko Ivezic, University of Washington, 206-543-9375,
  • Timothy Beers, Michigan State University, 517-884-5616, 517-256-7996 (cell),
  • David Weinberg, Scientific Spokesperson, Sloan Digital Sky Survey, 614-292-6543,
  • Gary S. Ruderman, Public Information Officer, Sloan Digital Sky Survey, 312-320-4794,