It was a striking discovery, suggesting that the relatively young Milky Way is growing by conquest — “cannibalizing” nearby older dwarf galaxies. And it underscored the importance of a new way of learning how the universe evolved from the Big Bang to the modern cosmos.
Traditionally, astronomers study the early universe by looking back in time — peering deeper and deeper into space for vestiges of light from billions of years ago. But in the last decade, Dr. Frebel and others have used powerful telescopes and high-resolution spectroscopes to study the chemical composition of very old stars closer to home, in the Milky Way’s halo, producing a wealth of information about the creation of elements and the formation of the first stars and galaxies.
These astronomers are like Egyptologists combing the desert for relics of bygone civilizations, and call themselves stellar archaeologists. Their work relies on the fact that the rare, primordial stars they are looking for have very few atoms heavier than hydrogen and helium, the gases from which they came together. By contrast, our sun and other relatively young stars are rich in other elements, which astronomers collectively refer to as metals.