No, it’s not the name of a rock band. Astronomers (unlike everybody else) consider all elements besides hydrogen and helium to be metals. For example, our Sun has a metallicity of at least 2% by mass (Vagnozzi 2016). That means as much as 98% of the mass of the Sun is hydrogen (~73%) and helium (~25%), with 2% being everything else.

Traditionally, elemental abundances in the Sun have been measured using spectroscopy of the Sun’s photosphere.  In principle, stronger spectral lines (usually absorption) of an element indicate a greater abundance of that element, but deriving the correct proportions from the cacophony of spectral lines is challenging.

A more direct approach to measuring the Sun’s elemental abundances is analyzing the composition of the solar wind, though the material blown away from the surface of the Sun that we measure near Earth’s orbit may be somewhat different from the actual photospheric composition.  The solar wind appears to best reflect the composition of the Sun’s photosphere in the solar polar regions near solar minimum.  The Ulysses spacecraft made solar wind measurements above both the Sun’s north and south polar regions during the 1994-1995 solar minimum.  Analysis of these Ulysses data indicate the most abundant elements are (after hydrogen and helium, in order of abundance): oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, silicon, neon, iron, and sulfur—though one analysis of the data shows that neon is the third most abundant element (after carbon).

The elephant in the room is, of course, are the photospheric abundances we measure using spectroscopy or the collection of solar wind particles indicative of the Sun’s composition as a whole?  As it turns out, we do have ways to probe the interior of the Sun.  Both helioseismology and the flux of neutrinos emanating from the Sun are sensitive to metal abundances within the Sun.  Helioseismology is the study of the propagation of acoustic pressure waves (p-waves) within the Sun.  Neutrino flux is devilishly hard to measure since neutrinos so seldom interact with the matter in our instruments.  Our studies of the interior of the Sun (except for sophisticated computer models) are still in their infancy.

You might imagine that if measuring the metallicity of the Sun in our own front yard is this difficult, then measuring it for other stars presents an even more formidable challenge.

In practice, metallicity is usually expressed as the abundance of iron relative to hydrogen.  Even though iron is only the seventh most abundant metal (in the Sun, at least), it has 26 electrons, leading to the formation of many spectral lines corresponding to the various ionization states within a wide range of temperature and pressure regimes.  Of the metals having a higher abundance than iron, silicon has the largest number of electrons, only 14, and it does not form nearly as many spectral lines in the visible part of the spectrum as does iron.  Thus defined, the metallicity of the Sun [Fe/H] = 0.00 by definition.  It is a logarithmic scale: [Fe/H] = -1.0 indicates an abundance of iron relative to hydrogen just 1/10 that of the Sun.  [Fe/H] = +1.0 indicates an abundance of iron relative to hydrogen 10 times that of the Sun.

The relationship between stellar metallicity and the existence and nature of exoplanets is an active topic of research.  It is complicated by the fact that we can never say for certain that a star does not have planets, since our observational techniques are strongly biased towards detecting planets with an orbital plane near our line of sight to the star.

Vagnozzi, S. 2016, 51st Recontres de Moriond, Cosmology, At La Thuile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *