We have investigated the poorly-understood origin of nitrogen in the early Galaxy by determining N abundances from the NH band at 336 nm in 35 extremely metal-poor halo giants, with carbon and oxygen abundances from Cayrel et al. (2004, A&A, 416, 1117), using high-quality ESO VLT/UVES spectra (30 of our 35 stars are in the range -4.1 <[Fe/H] < -2.7 and 22 stars have [Fe/H] < -3.0). N abundances derived both from the NH band and from the CN band at 389 nm for 10 stars correlate well, but show a systematic difference of 0.4 dex, which we attribute to uncertainties in the physical parameters of the NH band (line positions, gf values, dissociation energy, etc.). Because any dredge-up of CNO processed material to the surface may complicate the interpretation of CNO abundances in giants, we have also measured the surface abundance of lithium in our stars as a diagnostic of such mixing. Our sample shows a clear dichotomy between two groups of stars. The first group shows evidence of C to N conversion through CN cycling and strong Li dilution, a signature of mixing; these stars are generally more evolved and located on the upper Red Giant Branch (RGB) or Horizontal Branch (HB). The second group has [N/Fe] < 0.5, shows no evidence for C to N conversion, and Li is only moderately diluted; these stars belong to the lower RGB and we conclude that their C and N abundances are very close to those of the gas from which they formed in the early Galaxy, they are called "unmixed stars". The [O/Fe] and [(C+N)/Fe] ratios are the same in the two groups, confirming that the differences between them are caused by dredge-up of CN-processed material in the first group, with negligible contributions from the O-N cycle. The "unmixed" stars reflect the abundances in the early Galaxy: the [C/Fe] ratio is constant (about + 0.2 dex) and the [C/Mg] ratio is close to solar at low metallicity, favouring a high C production by massive zero-metal supernovae. The [N/Fe] and [N/Mg] ratios scatter widely. Their mean values in each metallicity bin decrease with increasing metallicity, but this trend could be a statistical effect. The larger values of these ratios define a flat upper plateau ([N/Mg] = 0.0, [N/Fe] = + 0.1), which could reflect higher values within a wide range of yields of zero-metal SNe II. Alternatively, by analogy with the DLAs, the lower abundances ([N/Mg] = -1.1, [N/Fe] = -0.7) could reflect generally low yields from the first SNe II, the other stars being N enhanced by winds of massive Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stars. Since all the stars show clear [alpha/Fe] enhancements, they were formed before any significant enrichment of the Galactic gas by SNe Ia, and their composition should reflect the yields of the first SNe II. However, if massive AGB stars or AGB supernovae evolved more rapidly than SNe Ia and contaminated the ISM, our stars would also reflect the yields of these AGB stars. At present it cannot be decided whether primary N is produced primarily in SNe II or in massive AGB stars, or in both. The stellar N abundances and [N/O] ratios are compatible with those found in Damped Lyman-alpha (DLA) systems. They extend the well-known DLA "plateau" at [N/O] approximate to -0.8 to lower metallicities, albeit with more scatter; no star is found below the putative "low [N/alpha] plateau" at [N/O] approximate to -1.55 in DLAs.
- Astronomi, astrofysik och kosmologi