We present the first detailed study of the properties (temperatures, gravities, and masses) of the NGC 6791 white dwarf population. This unique stellar system is both one of the oldest (8 Gyr) and most metal-rich ([Fe/H]~+0.4) open clusters in our Galaxy and has a color-magnitude diagram (CMD) that exhibits both a red giant clump and a much hotter extreme horizontal branch. Fitting the Balmer lines of the white dwarfs in the cluster using Keck/LRIS spectra suggests that most of these stars are undermassive, <M≥0.43±0.06 M☉, and therefore could not have formed from canonical stellar evolution involving the helium flash at the tip of the red giant branch. We show that at least 40% of NGC 6791's evolved stars must have lost enough mass on the red giant branch to avoid the flash and therefore did not convert helium into carbon-oxygen in their core. Such increased mass loss in the evolution of the progenitors of these stars is consistent with the presence of the extreme horizontal branch in the CMD. This unique stellar evolutionary channel also naturally explains the recent finding of a very young age (2.4 Gyr) for NGC 6791 from white dwarf cooling theory; helium-core white dwarfs in this cluster will cool ∼3 times slower than carbon-oxygen-core stars, and therefore the corrected white dwarf cooling age is in fact ≳7 Gyr, consistent with the well-measured main-sequence turnoff age. These results provide direct empirical evidence that mass loss is much more efficient in high-metallicity environments and therefore may be critical in interpreting the ultraviolet upturn in elliptical galaxies.
Galaxy: Open Clusters and Associations: Individual: NGC Number: NGC 6791 - Stars: Evolution - Stars: Mass Loss - Techniques: Photometric - Techniques: Spectroscopic - Stars: White Dwarfs