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Step Right Up and Guess the Star's Age

A database of stars with known ages and spin rates could let astronomers gauge more stars' ages and find the ones old enough to support planets that could have complex life. John Matson reports

Stars of the sky, like stars of the silver screen, hide their age well. An ancient star can often pass for a much younger one. And the question of age becomes pretty important as astronomers seek out potentially habitable planets orbiting distant stars.

“Because we know from studying our own planet that if the star and the planet is about one billion years old, only the most primitive microbial life might exist.” Søren Meibom of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston. [Meibom et al., "The Kepler Cluster Study: Stellar Rotation in NGC 6811," in Astrophysical Journal Letters.]

“Is it perhaps 4.6 billion years old? Well all of a sudden we know we could have a planet teeming with complex and intelligent life.” But a star's age is not always obvious. “Well, stars do not have birth certificates.”

One feature does change with time. Older stars tend to rotate more slowly. “And so we can use the spin rate, the rotation rate of a star, as a clock to measure its age.” But someone has to calibrate that clock. So Meibom and his colleagues are measuring the rotation of stars whose ages they already know. If they can pin down the relationship between age and rotation, a star's age will be much easier to measure. No birth certificate required.

—John Matson

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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