High-precision stellar abundances of the elements: methods and applications

  • Poul Erik NissenEmail author
  • Bengt Gustafsson
Review Article


Efficient spectrographs at large telescopes have made it possible to obtain high-resolution spectra of stars with high signal-to-noise ratio and advances in model atmosphere analyses have enabled estimates of high-precision differential abundances of the elements from these spectra, i.e. with errors in the range 0.01–0.03 dex for F, G, and K stars. Methods to determine such high-precision abundances together with precise values of effective temperatures and surface gravities from equivalent widths of spectral lines or by spectrum synthesis techniques are outlined, and effects on abundance determinations from using a 3D non-LTE analysis instead of a classical 1D LTE analysis are considered. The determination of high-precision stellar abundances of the elements has led to the discovery of unexpected phenomena and relations with important bearings on the astrophysics of galaxies, stars, and planets, i.e. (i) Existence of discrete stellar populations within each of the main Galactic components (disk, halo, and bulge) providing new constraints on models for the formation of the Milky Way. (ii) Differences in the relation between abundances and elemental condensation temperature for the Sun and solar twins suggesting dust-cleansing effects in proto-planetary disks and/or engulfment of planets by stars; (iii) Differences in chemical composition between binary star components and between members of open or globular clusters showing that star- and cluster-formation processes are more complicated than previously thought; (iv) Tight relations between some abundance ratios and age for solar-like stars providing new constraints on nucleosynthesis and Galactic chemical evolution models as well as the composition of terrestrial exoplanets. We conclude that if stellar abundances with precisions of 0.01–0.03 dex can be achieved in studies of more distant stars and stars on the giant and supergiant branches, many more interesting future applications, of great relevance to stellar and galaxy evolution, are probable. Hence, in planning abundance surveys, it is important to carefully balance the need for large samples of stars against the spectral resolution and signal-to-noise ratio needed to obtain high-precision abundances. Furthermore, it is an advantage to work differentially on stars with similar atmospheric parameters, because then a simple 1D LTE analysis of stellar spectra may be sufficient. However, when determining high-precision absolute abundances or differential abundance between stars having more widely different parameters, e.g. metal-poor stars compared to the Sun or giants to dwarfs, then 3D non-LTE effects must be taken into account.


Techniques: spectroscopic Stars: abundances Stars: fundamental parameters Planet–star interactions Galaxy: disk Galaxy: halo Galaxy: bulge Galaxy: evolution 



The anonymous referee as well as Anish Amarsi, Paula Jofré, Karin Lind, Jorge Meléndez, and Nils Ryde are thanked for critical reading of a first version of the manuscript and for many helpful suggestions for improvements. Funding for the Stellar Astrophysics Centre is provided by the Danish National Research Foundation (Grant DNRF106).


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physics and Astronomy, Stellar Astrophysics CentreAarhus UniversityAarhus CDenmark
  2. 2.Department of Physics and AstronomyUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden
  3. 3.Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (Nordita)StockholmSweden

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