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NMSU Tombaugh Scholar contributes to first-generation star research

New Mexico State University researcher Young Sun Lee is a member of an international team of researchers that has discovered a star that may have formed just after the very first generation of stars in the universe. The work was published in the Aug. 22 issue of the prestigious research periodical, ?Science.?

NMSU Tombaugh Scholar Young Sun Lee is part of an international team that may have discovered may have discovered a star formed shortly after the very first stars in the universe exploded.

The star, dubbed SDSS J0018-0939, is a low mass star.

?Stars with masses slightly less than the sun have very long lifetimes, long enough to still be shining even if they were formed early in the history of the universe,? Lee explained.

Using data obtained by the Subaru telescope, an 8m telescope in Hawaii, the researchers determined that this star has an unusual pattern of chemical abundances. This pattern matches what is expected to be synthesized in the very first generation of stars in the universe. These stars exploded in gigantic supernova explosions, enriching the gas from which the next generation of stars formed.

The discovery of SDSS J0018-0939 helps astronomers to understand the evolution of the earliest stars and the nucleosynthesis that occurred during their explosions.

In addition to Lee, collaborators include Wako Aoki of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Nozomu Tominaga of Konan University, Timothy C. Beers of the University of Notre Dame and Satoshi Hondo of the University of Hyogo.

SDSS J0018-0939 was first identified by a project undertaken as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which uses a 2.5m telescope in the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico at the Apache Point Observatory that is operated by New Mexico State University.

Lee, who grew up in South Korea, completed his doctorate at Michigan State University and has spent the last two years as the Tombaugh Scholar at NMSU.

?In high school I was fascinated by the solar system and the universe, how it works and how large it is. It is like a world beyond our imagination,? he said. ?I lived in the countryside and at night I?d look up at the sky and see a lot of twinkling bright stars and beautiful constellations. Who isn?t captivated by the sea of the universe? That was the motivation for me to be an astronomer.?

The Tombaugh Scholars program was started in 1986 to honor NMSU astronomy professor Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. Initially funded through a grassroots effort to obtain many small private donations, the endowment now sits at $1.4 million.

?The program funds research for postdoctoral researchers who are at the beginning of their astronomical career,? said Bernie McNamara, a Regents Professor in the astronomy department in the College of Arts and Sciences. ?It allows them to come and be supported, to help to get that important foothold that they need to jumpstart their career. It also allows NMSU to bring world-class talent to our institution.

?Clyde would be extremely happy with the progress the program has made. When he and his wife were engaged in a two-year international speaking campaign, he donated every penny of that to the endowment.?

Lee is the fifth scholar to receive funding through the program. He is now back in South Korea where he has been hired as a tenure track faculty member at Chungnam National University in Daejeon, where he will teach and continue his research.