During 1944, Walter Baade categorized groups of stars within the Milky Way into stellar populations. In the abstract of the article by Baade, he recognizes that Jan Oort originally conceived this type of classification in 1926: "[...] The two types of stellar populations had been recognized among the stars of our own galaxy by Oort as early as 1926".[1] Baade noticed that bluer stars were strongly associated with the spiral arms and yellow stars dominated near the central galactic bulge and within globular star clusters.[2] Two main divisions were defined as Population I and Population II, with another newer division called Population III added in 1978, which are often simply abbreviated as Pop I, II or III.

Between the population types, significant differences were found with their individual observed stellar spectra. These were later shown to be very important, and were possibly related to star formation, observed kinematics,[3] stellar age, and even galaxy evolution in both spiral or elliptical galaxies. These three simple population classes usefully divided stars by their chemical composition or metallicity.[4][3]

By definition, each population group shows the trend where decreasing metal content indicates increasing age of stars. Hence, the first stars in the universe (very low metal content) were deemed Population III, old stars (low metallicity) as Population II, and recent stars (high metallicity) as Population I.[5] The Sun is considered population I, a recent star with a relatively high 1.4 percent metallicity. Note that astrophysics nomenclature considers any element heavier than helium to be a "metal", including chemical non-metals such as oxygen.

Stellar development

Observation of stellar spectra has revealed that stars older than the Sun have fewer heavy elements compared to the Sun.[3] This immediately suggests that metallicity has evolved through the generations of stars by the process of Stellar nucleosynthesis.
Formation of the first stars

Under current cosmological models, all matter created in the Big Bang was mostly hydrogen (75%) and helium (25%), with only a very tiny fraction consisting of other light elements. e.g. lithium and beryllium.[6] When the universe had cooled sufficiently, the first stars were born as Population III stars without any contaminating heavier metals. This is postulated to have affected their structure so that their stellar masses became hundreds of times more than that of the Sun. In turn, these massive stars also evolved very quickly, and their nucleosynthetic processes created the first 26 elements (up to iron in the periodic table).[7]

Many theoretical stellar models show that most high-mass Population III stars rapidly exhausted their fuel and likely exploded in extremely energetic pair-instability supernovae. Those explosions would have thoroughly dispersed their material, ejecting metals into the interstellar medium (ISM), to be incorporated into the later generations of stars. Their destruction suggests that no galactic high-mass Population III stars should be observable.[8] However, some Population III stars might be seen in high-redshift galaxies whose light originated during the earlier history of the universe.[9] None have been discovered, however, scientists have found evidence of an extremely small ultra metal-poor star, slightly smaller than the Sun, found in a binary system of the spiral arms in the Milky Way. The discovery opens up the possibility of observing even older stars.[10]

Stars too massive to produce pair-instability supernovae would have likely collapsed into black holes through a process known as photodisintegration. Here some matter may have escaped during this process in the form of relativistic jets, and this could have distributed the first metals into the universe.[11][12][a]
Formation of the observable stars

The oldest observed stars,[8] known as Population II, have very low metallicities;[5][14] as subsequent generations of stars were born they became more metal-enriched, as the gaseous clouds from which they formed received the metal-rich dust manufactured by previous generations. As those stars died, they returned metal-enriched material to the interstellar medium via planetary nebulae and supernovae, enriching further the nebulae out of which the newer stars formed. These youngest stars, including the Sun, therefore have the highest metal content, and are known as Population I stars.
Chemical classification by Baade
Population I stars
Population I star Rigel with reflection nebula IC 2118

Population I, or metal-rich, stars are young stars with the highest metallicity out of all three populations, and are more commonly found in the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy. The Earth's Sun is an example of a metal-rich star and is considered as an intermediate Population I star, while the solar-like Mu Arae is much richer in metals.[15]

Population I stars usually have regular elliptical orbits of the galactic centre, with a low relative velocity. It was earlier hypothesized that the high metallicity of Population I stars makes them more likely to possess planetary systems than the other two populations, because planets, particularly terrestrial planets, are thought to be formed by the accretion of metals.[16] However, observations of the Kepler data-set have found smaller planets around stars with a range of metallicities, while only larger, potential gas giant planets are concentrated around stars with relatively higher metallicity — a finding that has implications for theories of gas giant formation.[17] Between the intermediate Population I and the Population II stars comes the intermediary disc population.
Population II stars
Schematic profile of the Milky Way. Population II stars appear in the galactic bulge and within the globular clusters

Population II, or metal-poor, stars are those with relatively little of the elements heavier than helium. These objects were formed during an earlier time of the universe. Intermediate Population II stars are common in the bulge near the centre of the Milky Way, whereas Population II stars found in the galactic halo are older and thus more metal-poor. Globular clusters also contain high numbers of population II stars.[18]

A characteristic of Population II stars is that despite their lower overall metallicity, they often have a higher ratio of alpha elements (O, Si, Ne, etc.) relative to Fe as compared to Population I stars; current theory suggests this is the result of Type II supernovae being more important contributors to the interstellar medium at the time of their formation, whereas Type Ia supernova metal enrichment came later in the universe's evolution.[19]

Scientists have targeted these oldest stars in several different surveys, including the HK objective-prism survey of Timothy C. Beers et al. and the Hamburg-ESO survey of Norbert Christlieb et al., originally started for faint quasars. Thus far, they have uncovered and studied in detail about ten ultra metal poor (UMP) stars (such as Sneden's Star, Cayrel's Star, BD +17° 3248) and three of the oldest stars known to date: HE0107-5240, HE1327-2326 and HE 1523-0901. Caffau's star was identified as the most metal-poor star yet when it was found in 2012 using Sloan Digital Sky Survey data. However, in February 2014 the discovery of an even lower metallicity star was announced, SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 located with the aid of SkyMapper astronomical survey data. Less extreme in their metal deficiency, but nearer and brighter and hence longer known, are HD 122563 (a red giant) and HD 140283 (a subgiant).
Population III stars
Possible glow of Population III stars imaged by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope

Population III stars[20] are a hypothetical population of extremely massive, luminous and hot stars with virtually no metals, except possibly for intermixing ejecta from other nearby Population III supernovae. Such stars are likely to have existed in the very early universe (i.e., at high redshift), and may have started the production of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen that are needed for the later formation of planets and life as we know it.[21][22]

The existence of Population III stars is inferred from physical cosmology, but they have not yet been observed directly. Indirect evidence for their existence has been found in a gravitationally lensed galaxy in a very distant part of the universe.[23] Their existence may account for the fact that heavy elements – which could not have been created in the Big Bang – are observed in quasar emission spectra.[7] They are also thought to be components of faint blue galaxies. These stars likely triggered the universe's period of reionization, a major phase transition of gases leading to the lack of opacity observed today. Observations of the galaxy UDFy-38135539 suggest it may have played a role in this reionization process. The European Southern Observatory discovered a bright pocket of early population stars in the very bright galaxy Cosmos Redshift 7 from the reionization period around 800 million years after the Big Bang. The rest of the galaxy has some later redder Population II stars.[24][21] Some theories hold that there were two generations of Population III stars.[25]
Artist's impression of the first stars, 400 million years after the Big Bang

Current theory is divided on whether the first stars were very massive or not; theories proposed in 2009 and 2011 suggest the first star groups might have consisted of a massive star surrounded by several smaller stars.[26][27][28] The smaller stars, if they remained in the birth cluster, would accumulate more gas and could not survive to the present day, but a 2017 study concluded that if a star of 0.8 solar masses or less was ejected from its birth cluster before it accumulated more mass, it could survive to the present day, possibly even in our Milky Way galaxy.[29]

One proposal, developed by computer models of star formation, is that with no heavy elements and a much warmer interstellar medium from the Big Bang, it was easy to form stars with much greater total mass than the stars commonly visible today. Typical masses for Population III stars are expected to be about several hundred solar masses, which is much larger than that of current stars. Models place the maximum mass of a Population III star to ~1000 solar masses. Analysis of data of extremely low-metallicity Population II stars such as HE0107-5240, which are thought to contain the metals produced by Population III stars, suggest that these metal-free stars had masses of 20 to 130 solar masses.[30] On the other hand, analysis of globular clusters associated with elliptical galaxies suggests pair-instability supernovae, which are typically associated with very massive stars, were responsible for their metallic composition.[31] This also explains why there have been no low-mass stars with zero metallicity observed, although models have been constructed for smaller Population III stars.[32] Clusters containing zero-metallicity red dwarfs or brown dwarfs (possibly created by pair-instability supernovae[14]) have been proposed as dark matter candidates,[33][34] but searches for these types of MACHOs through gravitational microlensing have produced negative results .

Detection of Population III stars is a goal of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.[35] New spectroscopic surveys, such as SEGUE or SDSS-II, may also locate Population III stars. Stars observed in the Cosmos Redshift 7 galaxy at z = 6.60 may be Population III stars.
Further reading

Gibson, B.K.; et al. (2013). "Review: Galactic Chemical Evolution" (PDF). Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
Ferris, Timothy (1988). Coming of Age in the Milky Way. William Morrow & Co. p. 512. ISBN 978-0-688-05889-0.
Rudolf Kippenhahn (1993). 100 Billion Suns: The Birth, Life, and Death of the Stars. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-08781-8.


It has been proposed that recent supernovae SN 2006gy and SN 2007bi may have been pair-instability supernovae where such super-massive Population III stars exploded. It has been speculated that these stars could have formed relatively recently in dwarf galaxies containing primordial metal-free interstellar matter; past supernovae in these galaxies could have ejected their metal-rich contents at speeds high enough for them to escape the galaxy, keeping the metal content of the galaxy very low.[13]


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Accretion Molecular cloud Bok globule Young stellar object
Protostar Pre-main-sequence Herbig Ae/Be T Tauri FU Orionis Herbig–Haro object Hayashi track Henyey track


Main sequence Red-giant branch Horizontal branch
Red clump Asymptotic giant branch
super-AGB Blue loop Protoplanetary nebula Planetary nebula PG1159 Dredge-up OH/IR Instability strip Luminous blue variable Blue straggler Stellar population Supernova Superluminous supernova / Hypernova

Spectral classification

Early Late Main sequence
O B A F G K M Brown dwarf WR OB Subdwarf
O B Subgiant Giant
Blue Red Yellow Bright giant Supergiant
Blue Red Yellow Hypergiant
Yellow Carbon
S CN CH White dwarf Chemically peculiar
Am Ap/Bp HgMn Helium-weak Barium Extreme helium Lambda Boötis Lead Technetium Be
Shell B[e]


White dwarf
Helium planet Black dwarf Neutron
Radio-quiet Pulsar
Binary X-ray Magnetar Stellar black hole X-ray binary


Blue dwarf Green Black dwarf Exotic
Boson Electroweak Strange Preon Planck Dark Dark-energy Quark Q Black Gravastar Frozen Quasi-star Thorne–Żytkow object Iron Blitzar

Stellar nucleosynthesis

Deuterium burning Lithium burning Proton–proton chain CNO cycle Helium flash Triple-alpha process Alpha process Carbon burning Neon burning Oxygen burning Silicon burning S-process R-process Fusor Nova
Symbiotic Remnant Luminous red nova


Core Convection zone
Microturbulence Oscillations Radiation zone Atmosphere
Photosphere Starspot Chromosphere Stellar corona Stellar wind
Bubble Bipolar outflow Accretion disk Asteroseismology
Helioseismology Eddington luminosity Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism


Designation Dynamics Effective temperature Luminosity Kinematics Magnetic field Absolute magnitude Mass Metallicity Rotation Starlight Variable Photometric system Color index Hertzsprung–Russell diagram Color–color diagram

Star systems

Contact Common envelope Eclipsing Symbiotic Multiple Cluster
Open Globular Super Planetary system


Solar System Sunlight Pole star Circumpolar Constellation Asterism Magnitude
Apparent Extinction Photographic Radial velocity Proper motion Parallax Photometric-standard


Proper names
Arabic Chinese Extremes Most massive Highest temperature Lowest temperature Largest volume Smallest volume Brightest
Historical Most luminous Nearest
Nearest bright With exoplanets Brown dwarfs White dwarfs Milky Way novae Supernovae
Candidates Remnants Planetary nebulae Timeline of stellar astronomy

Related articles

Substellar object
Brown dwarf Sub-brown dwarf Planet Galactic year Galaxy Guest Gravity Intergalactic Planet-hosting stars Tidal disruption event

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