Context. A subclass of the upper main-sequence chemically peculiar stars, mercury-manganese (HgMn) stars were traditionally considered to be non-magnetic, showing no evidence of variability in their spectral line profiles. However, discoveries of chemical inhomogeneities on their surfaces imply that this assumption should be investigated. In particular, spectroscopic time-series of AR Aur, ensuremathα And, and five other HgMn stars indicate the presence of chemical spots. At the same time, no signatures of global magnetic fields have been detected.
Aims: We attempt to understand the physical mechanism that causes the formation of chemical spots in HgMn stars and gain insight into the potential magnetic field properties at their surfaces; we performed a highly sensitive search for magnetic fields for a large set of HgMn stars.
Methods: With the aid of a new polarimeter attached to the HARPS spectrometer at the ESO 3.6 m-telescope, we obtained high-quality circular polarization spectra of 41 single and double HgMn stars. Using a multi-line analysis technique on each star, we co-added information from hundreds of spectral lines to ensure significantly greater sensitivity to the presence of magnetic fields, including very weak fields.
Results: For the 47 individual objects studied, including six components of SB2 systems, we do not detect any magnetic fields at greater than the 3σ level. The lack of detection in the circular polarization profiles indicates that if strong fields are present on these stars, they must have complex surface topologies. For simple global fields, our detection limits imply upper limits to the fields present of 2-10 Gauss in the best cases.
Conclusions: We conclude that HgMn stars lack large-scale magnetic fields, which is typical of spotted magnetic Ap stars, of sufficient strength to form and sustain the chemical spots observed on HgMn stars. Our study confirms that in addition to magnetically altered atomic diffusion, there exists another differentiation mechanism operating in the atmospheres of late-B main sequence stars that can produce compositional inhomogeneities on their surfaces.