by Dr. Tony Phillips
News flash: The Census Bureau has found a way to save time and money. Just count the biggest people. For every NBA star like Shaquille O’Neal or Yao Ming, there are about a million ordinary citizens far below the rim. So count the Shaqs, multiply by a million, and the census is done.
Could the Bureau really get away with a scheme like that? Not likely. Yet this is just what astronomers have been doing for decades.
Astronomers are census-takers, too. They often have to estimate the number and type of stars in a distant galaxy. The problem is, when you look into the distant reaches of the cosmos, the only stars you can see are the biggest and brightest. There’s no alternative. To figure out the total population, you count the supermassive Shaqs and multiply by some correction factor to estimate the number of little guys.
The correction factor astronomers use comes from a function called the “IMF”—short for “initial mass function.” The initial mass function tells us the relative number of stars of different masses. For example, for every 20-solar-mass giant born in an interstellar cloud, there ought to be about 100 ordinary sun-like stars. This kind of ratio allows astronomers to conduct a census of all stars even when they can see only the behemoths.
Now for the real news flash: The initial mass function astronomers have been using for years might be wrong.
NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer, an ultraviolet space telescope dedicated to the study of galaxies, has found proof that small stars are more numerous than previously believed.
“Some of the standard assumptions that we’ve had—that the brightest stars tell you about the whole population—don’t seem to work, at least not in a constant way,” says Gerhardt R. Meurer who led the study as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. (Meurer is now at the University of Western Australia.)
Meurer says that the discrepancy could be as high as a factor of four. In other words, the total mass of small stars in some galaxies could be four times greater than astronomers thought. Take that, Shaq!
The study relied on data from Galaxy Evolution Explorer to sense UV radiation from the smaller stars in distant galaxies, and data from telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory to sense the “H-alpha” (red light) signature of larger stars. Results apply mainly to galaxies where stars are newly forming, cautions Meurer.
“I think this is one of the more important results to come out of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission,” he says. Indeed, astronomers might never count stars the same way again.
Find out about some of the other important discoveries of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer at http://www.galex.caltech.edu/. For an easy-to-understand answer for kids to “How many solar systems are in our galaxy?” go to The Space Place at: http://tiny.cc/I2KMa
This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Astronomers have recently found that some galaxies have as many as 2000 small stars for every 1 massive star. They used to think all galaxies had only about 500 small stars for every 1 massive star.