Astronomers from Lund University in Sweden believe that they have solved a mystery discovered at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy last spring.
The conundrum was the apparent finding of high levels of the chemicals scandium, vanadium and yttrium near the galaxy's giant black hole - and scientists didn't know where it had come from.
They even went and published a study about the apparent presence of the dramatically high levels of three different elements in red giant stars, located less than three light years away from the big black hole at the centre of our galaxy.
At the time, various possible explanations were presented. For example, that the high levels were a result of earlier stars being disrupted as they fall into the black hole or a result of debris from the collisions of neutron stars.
However, the researchers revealed in a recent study that the so-called spectral lines (used to find out what elements a star contains) were actually an optical illusion.
"These giant red stars have used up most of their hydrogen fuel and their temperatures are therefore only half of the sun's," said Brian Thorsbro, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in astronomy at Lund University.
According to the report, the lower temperatures of the giant stars helped to create the optical illusion that appeared in the measurements of spectral lines. This means that the electrons in the elements behave differently at different temperatures, which in turn can be misleading when measuring the spectral lines of elements in different stars.
The conclusion is the result of a close collaboration between astronomers and atomic physicists. The findings were uncovered thanks to the use of the world's largest telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
Using this telescope, the research team is now conducting a comprehensive mapping of the central areas of the Milky Way, exploring the spectral lines in the light from different stars to find out which elements they contain.
The purpose, they say, is not just to gain an understanding of the events that have occurred in the history of the Milky Way, but also to understand how galaxies, in general, have formed.
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