hip 102152

The life cycle of a Sun-like star

This image tracks the life of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant star on the right. On the left the star is seen as a protostar, embedded within a dusty disc of material as it forms. It later becomes a star like our Sun. After spending the majority of its life in this stage, the star’s core begins to gradually heat up, the star expands and becomes redder until it transforms into a red giant.

Following this stage, the star will push its outer layers into the surrounding space to form an object known as a planetary nebula, while the core of the star itself will cool into a small, dense remnant called a white dwarf star.

Marked on the lower timeline are where our Sun and solar twins 18 Sco and HIP 102152 are in this life cycle. The Sun is 4.6 billion years old and 18 Sco is 2.9 billion years old, while the oldest solar twin is some 8.2 billion years old —  the oldest solar twin ever identified. By studying HIP 102152, we can get a glimpse of what the future holds for our Sun.

Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser

Oldest solar twin identified

An international team led by astronomers in Brazil has used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to identify and study the oldest solar twin known to date. Located 250 light-years from Earth, the star HIP 102152 is more like the Sun than any other solar twin — except that it is nearly four billion years older. This older, but almost identical, twin gives us an unprecedented chance to see how the Sun will look when it ages. The new observations also provide an important first clear link between a star’s age and its lithium content, and in addition suggest that HIP 102152 may be host to rocky terrestrial planets.

Astronomers have only been observing the Sun with telescopes for 400 years — a tiny fraction of the Sun’s age of 4.6 billion years. It is very hard to study the history and future evolution of our star, but we can do this by hunting for rare stars that are almost exactly like our own, but at different stages of their lives.

The team studied two solar twins — one that was thought to be younger than the Sun (18 Scorpii) and one that was expected to be older (HIP 102152). They found that HIP 102152 in the constellation of Capricornus (The Sea Goat) is the oldest solar twin known to date. It is estimated to be 8.2 billion years old, compared to 4.6 billion years for our own Sun. On the other hand 18 Scorpii was confirmed to be younger than the Sun — about 2.9 billion years old.

Studying the ancient solar twin HIP 102152 allows scientists to predict what may happen to our own Sun when it reaches that age, and they have already made one significant discovery. “One issue we wanted to address is whether or not the Sun is typical in composition,” says Melendez. “Most importantly, why does it have such a strangely low lithium content?

Lithium, the third element in the periodic table, was created in the Big Bang along with hydrogen and helium. Astronomers have pondered for years over why some stars appear to have less lithium than others. With the new observations of HIP 102152, astronomers have taken a big step towards solving this mystery by pinning down a strong correlation between a Sun-like star’s age and its lithium content.

A final twist in the story is that HIP 102152 has an unusual chemical composition pattern that is subtly different to most other solar twins, but similar to the Sun. They both show a deficiency of the elements that are abundant in meteorites and on Earth. This is a strong hint that HIP 102152 may host terrestrial rocky planets.

Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser