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A single low-energy, iron-poor supernova as the source of metals in the star SMSS J031300.36−670839.3



The element abundance ratios of four low-mass stars with extremely low metallicities (abundances of elements heavier than helium) indicate that the gas out of which the stars formed was enriched in each case by at most a few—and potentially only one—low-energy supernova1,2,3,4. Such supernovae yield large quantities of light elements such as carbon but very little iron. The dominance of low-energy supernovae seems surprising, because it had been expected that the first stars were extremely massive, and that they disintegrated in pair-instability explosions that would rapidly enrich galaxies in iron5. What has remained unclear is the yield of iron from the first supernovae, because hitherto no star has been unambiguously interpreted as encapsulating the yield of a single supernova. Here we report the optical spectrum of SMSS J031300.36−670839.3, which shows no evidence of iron (with an upper limit of 10−7.1 times solar abundance). Based on a comparison of its abundance pattern with those of models, we conclude that the star was seeded with material from a single supernova with an original mass about 60 times that of the Sun (and that the supernova left behind a black hole). Taken together with the four previously mentioned low-metallicity stars, we conclude that low-energy supernovae were common in the early Universe, and that such supernovae yielded light-element enrichment with insignificant iron. Reduced stellar feedback both chemically and mechanically from low-energy supernovae would have enabled first-generation stars to form over an extended period. We speculate that such stars may perhaps have had an important role in the epoch of cosmic reionization and the chemical evolution of early galaxies.

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Figure 1: A comparison of the spectrum of SMSS 0313−6708 to that of other extremely metal-poor stars.
Figure 2: A comparison of the element abundance ratios observed in SMSS 0313–6708 with those of other extremely metal-poor stars.
Figure 3: The element abundance pattern for SMSS 0313−6708 compared to model values.

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Australian access to the Magellan Telescopes was supported through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy of the Australian Federal Government. M.A., M.S.B., A.R.C., G.D.C., S.K., J.E.N. and D.Y. acknowledge the support of Australian Research Council (grants DP120101237, DP0984924, DP0878137 and LF0992131). A.F. acknowledges support from NSF grant AST-1255160. A.R.C. acknowledges support from the Australian Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award Research Fellowship. K.L. acknowledges support from the European Union FP7 programme through ERC grant number 320360.

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The SkyMapper telescope was developed by B.P.S., G.S.D., M.S.B., P.T. and S.C.K. The SkyMapper data reduction procedure required to provide calibrated photometry from which the star was drawn was developed by S.C.K. M.S.B. obtained the intermediate-resolution spectrum and drew the target to the team’s attention. H.R.J., A.R.C., A.F. and S.C.K. obtained the high-resolution spectrum of the target, reduced the data and performed the chemical abundance analysis using the spectral analysis package developed by A.R.C. The MCMC calculations to provide the upper limit to [Fe/H] were performed by A.R.C. K.L. performed NLTE calculations, Z.M. and M.A. constructed the <3D> atmosphere models, and A.H. the supernova models. B.P.S., A.H. and D.Y. contributed to supernova yields and MDF analysis. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to S. C. Keller.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 The summary of spectrophotometric analysis of SMSS 0313−6708.

In the top frame, the blue line shows the observed spectrum and the green line is the best-fitting model spectrum. The red line beneath shows the residual spectrum. In the lower frame, the cross-hair marks the location of the best-fitting Teff and log g and the r.m.s. values of the fit are represented in colour for a subgrid. Halo isochrones are shown to assist in the selection of the most likely parameters. The interstellar reddening is found to be E(B − V) = 0.04.

Extended Data Figure 2 The comparison of the Hβ Balmer line profile of SMSS 0313−6708 to stars of bracketing stellar parameters reported in the literature.

We use this comparison as a qualitative verification of the stellar parameters for SMSS 0313−6708 determined from spectrophotometric analysis. Literature values for Teff and log g respectively are stated in the top panel adjacent to the star identifier. The top panel shows a comparison of the intensity in the vicinity of the Hβ Balmer line for SMSS 0313−6708 (black line), HE 0057−5959 (red line) and CS 30336−049 (blue line). The bottom panel is an enhanced zoom to show the line profile wings.

Extended Data Figure 3 Determination of upper limits to the iron abundance.

The black line with associated uncertainties (error bars, s.d.) is the observed spectrum stacked in the vicinity of the strongest iron lines. The coloured lines show 67.8% (blue), 95% (magenta) and 99.7% (red) confidence upper limits for [Fe/H]1D,NLTE. The vertical axis is the normalized spectral intensity formed from the addition of regions of spectrum centred on strong iron lines (2 Å wide). The horizontal axis is the wavelength shifted such that each iron line lies at the origin.

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Keller, S., Bessell, M., Frebel, A. et al. A single low-energy, iron-poor supernova as the source of metals in the star SMSS J031300.36−670839.3. Nature 506, 463–466 (2014).

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