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Friday, November 30, 2007

An X-Ray Santa Claus in Orion

(The images show the Orion nebula with its hot gas cloud)
Credits: Panel A: XMM-Newton EPIC (Guedel et al.),
Panel B: AAAS/Science
(ESA XMM-Newton and NASA Spitzer data)

Right in time for the festive season, ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray observatory has discovered a huge cloud of high-temperature gas resting in a spectacular nearby star-forming region, shaped somewhat like the silhouette of Santa Claus.

An early present for astronomers, the cloud suggests that hot gas from many star-forming regions leaks into the interstellar medium.

The Orion nebula is the nearest dense star-forming region to Earth that contains stars much more massive than the Sun. XMM-Newton’s newly-discovered gas cloud is composed of winds blowing from these high-mass stars that are heated to millions of degrees as they slam into the surrounding gas.

“There is one star in particular that dominates the nebula,” says Manuel Güdel, Paul Scherrer Institut, Switzerland, who led the team that discovered the gas. The star in question is theta1 Orionis C, a giant star around 40 times mass of the Sun, with a surface temperature of 40,000°C. Güdel and his colleagues think that the violent collision between the wind from this star and the surrounding dense gas is largely responsible for the newly-discovered hot gas cloud.

(This is a Spitzer image of the Orion nebula in the infrared overlaid with XMM-Newton X-ray data in blue)
Credits: AAAS/Science (ESA XMM-Newton and NASA Spitzer data)

The high-temperature gas fills a region of the nebula that appears to be a huge cavity in optical and infrared images. The new observations, taken with XMM-Newton’s European Photon Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera, suggest that astronomers are seeing only a particular portion of the gas. The X-rays from this portion escape absorption by patches of cold gas covering much of the front of the Orion nebula.

The surrounding pattern of absorbing clouds gives the detected gas its Santa Claus shape, with his prominent hat outlined by the northern gas bubble. In its entirety, the hot gas probably fills the whole nebula.

The team discovered it whilst conducting a survey of the young stars in the region. In the background of many of those images was a faint glow of X-rays. “The diffuse signal came up time and time again. Finally, we realized that it was something real,” says Güdel.

(This is a multi-wavelength image of the Orion nebula)
Panel A: AAAS/Science (ESA XMM-Newton and NASA Spitzer data)
B: NASA/ Spitzer,
C: © Anglo-Australian Observatory/David Malin Images,
D: © Anglo-Australian Observatory/David Malin Images, VLA

The presence of the hot gas in a fairly common nebula like Orion is surprising. Although theory has predicted such hot gas clouds, previous observations suggested that a large number of massive stars shedding winds, or supernova explosions are required. These are found in some regions of vigorous high-mass star formation, which are scattered only rarely throughout the galaxy. The new observations show that much smaller collections of high mass stars can produce hot gas as well.
There are many star-forming regions similar to the Orion nebula throughout the galaxy, so there should be a network of channels and bubbles being filled up by the hot gas leaking from these various regions. “This is another possible way to enrich the interstellar medium. You don’t have to wait for a sudden supernova to explode. You can do it with just one or two massive stars over millions of years,” says Güdel.

Credits: © Anglo-Australian Observatory/David Malin Images

The team now plans to obtain new observations to determine how the gas flows out of the Orion nebula. In particular, they want to see whether it connects with a giant bubble created by supernova explosions from previous generations of massive stars.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Baby Picture of our Solar System

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UIUC & Caltech/AURA

A rare, infrared view of a developing star and its flaring jets taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows us what our own solar system might have looked like billions of years ago. In visible light, this star and its surrounding regions are completely hidden in darkness.

Stars form out of spinning clouds, or envelopes, of gas and dust. As the envelopes flatten and collapse, jets of gas stream outward and a swirling disk of planet-forming material takes shape around the forming star. Eventually, the envelope and jets disappear, leaving a newborn star with a suite of planets. This process takes millions of years.

The Spitzer image shows a developing sun-like star, called L1157, that is only thousands of years old (for comparison, our solar system is around 4.5 billion years old). Why is the young system only visible in infrared light? The answer has to do with the fact that stars are born in the darkest and dustiest corners of space, where little visible light can escape. But the heat, or infrared light, of an object can be detected through the dust.

In Spitzer's infrared view of L1157, the star itself is hidden but its envelope is visible in silhouette as a thick black bar. While Spitzer can peer through this region's dust, it cannot penetrate the envelope itself. Hence, the envelope appears black. The thickest part of the envelope can be seen as the black line crossing the giant jets. This L1157 portrait provides the first clear look at stellar envelope that has begun to flatten.

The color white shows the hottest parts of the jets, with temperatures around 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). Most of the material in the jets, seen in orange, is roughly zero degrees on the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales.

The reddish haze all around the picture is dust. The white dots are other stars, mostly in the background.

L1157 is located 800 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus.

This image was taken by Spitzer's infrared array camera. Infrared light of 8 microns is colored red; 4.5-micron infrared light is green; and 3.6-micron infrared light is blue.

Youthful Star Sprouts Planets Early

An artist concept of UX Tau A
NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

A stellar prodigy has been spotted about 450 light-years away in a system called UX Tau A by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers suspect this system's central Sun-like star, which is just one million years old, may already be surrounded by young planets. Scientists hope the finding will provide insight into when planets began to form in our own solar system.

"This result is exciting because we see a gap, potentially carved out by planets, around a dusty Sun-like star. In almost all other star systems of this age, we typically see a primordial disk -- a thick disk of dust, without any clearings," said Catherine Espaillat, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Prior to the Spitzer observations, Espaillat and her teammates knew that a Sun-like star sat at the center of UX Tau A. Now, using the telescope's infrared spectrometer instrument, they have discerned details about the dusty disk swirling around the central star.

Such dusty disks are where planets are thought to be born. Dust grains clump together like snowballs to form larger rocks, and then the bigger rocks collide to form the cores of planets. When rocks revolve around their central star, they act like cosmic vacuum cleaners, picking up all the gas and dust in their path and creating gaps.

Spitzer saw a gap in UX Tau A's disk that extends from 0.2 to 56 astronomical units (an astronomical unit is the distance between the sun and Earth). In our solar system, this gap would occupy the space between Mercury and Saturn. Espaillat notes that the formation of one or more planets could be responsible for carving out the gap.

Although gaps have been detected in disks swirling around young stars before, Espaillat notes that UX Tau A is special because the gap is sandwiched between two thick disks of dust. An inner thick dusty disk hugs the central star, then, moving outward, there is a gap, followed by another thick doughnut-shaped disk. Other systems with gaps contain very little to no dust near the central star. In other words, those gaps are more like big holes in the centers of disks.

Some scientists suspect that the holes could have been carved out by a process called photoevaporation. Photoevaporation occurs when radiation from the central star heats up the gas and dust around it to the point where it evaporates away. The fact that there is thick disk swirling extremely close to UX Tau A's central star rules out the photoevaporation scenario. If photoevaporation from the star played a role, then large amounts of dust would not be floating so close to the star.

"This finding definitely affects the way astronomers look at planet formation. Spitzer's infrared spectrometer was able to see a gap in this system, but future, more sensitive telescopes maybe able to search for Earth-like planets in UX Tau A," said Espaillat.

Her paper will be published in the December 2007 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters. Other authors on the paper include Nuria Calvet, Jesus Hernández and Lee Hartmann, also from the University of Michigan; Paola D'Alessio of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Michoacán; Chunhua Qi of the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.; Elise Furlan of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles; and Dan Watson of the University of Rochester, N.Y.

Written by Linda Vu, Spitzer Science Center
November 28, 2007

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chandra Discovers Cosmic Cannonball

Credit: Chandra: NASA/CXC/Middlebury College/F.Winkler et al.
ROSAT: NASA/GSFC/S.Snowden et al.
Optical: NOAO/CTIO/Middlebury College/F.Winkler et al.


Astronomers used Chandra to observe a neutron star, known as RX J0822-4300, over a period of about five years. During that span, three Chandra observations clearly show the neutron star moving away from the center of the Puppis A supernova remnant. This remnant is the stellar debris field created during the same explosion in which the neutron star was created about 3700 years ago.

By combining how far it has moved across the sky with its distance from Earth, astronomers determined the neutron star is moving at over 3 million miles per hour. At this rate, RX J0822-4300 is destined to escape from the Milky Way after millions of years, even though it has only traveled about 20 light years so far.

"This star is moving at 3 million miles an hour, but it's so far away that the apparent motion we see in five years is less than the height of the numerals in the date on a penny, seen from the length of a football field," said Frank Winkler of Middlebury College in Vermont. "It's remarkable, and a real testament to the power of Chandra, that such a tiny motion can be measured."

"Just after it was born, this neutron star got a one-way ticket out of the Galaxy," said co-author Robert Petre of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Astronomers have seen other stars being flung out of the Milky Way, but few as fast as this."

So-called hypervelocity stars have been previously discovered shooting out of the Milky Way with speeds around one million miles per hour. One key difference between RX J0822-4300 and these other reported galactic escapees is the source of their speed. The hypervelocity stars are thought to have been ejected by interactions with the supermassive black hole in the Galaxy's center.

This neutron star, by contrast, was flung into motion by the supernova that created Puppis A. The data suggest the explosion was lop-sided, kicking the neutron star in one direction and the debris from the explosion in the other.

The supernova was precipitated when the core of a massive star imploded to form a neutron star. Computer simulations show that the infall of the outer layers of the star onto a neutron star releases an enormous amount of energy. As this energy propagates outward, it can reverse the infall and eject the outer layers of the star at speeds of millions of miles per hour. Due to the complexity of the flow, the ejection is not symmetric, leading to a rocket effect that propels the neutron star in the opposite direction.

The breakneck speed of the Puppis A neutron star, plus an apparent lack of pulsations from it, is not easily explained by even the most sophisticated supernova explosion models.

"The problem with discovering this cosmic cannonball is we aren't sure how to make the cannon powerful enough." said Winkler. "The high speed might be explained by an unusually energetic explosion, but the models are complicated and hard to apply to real explosions."

Other recent work on RX J0822-4300 was published by C.Y. Hui and Wolfgang Becker, both from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich, in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics in late 2006. Using two of the three Chandra observations reported in the Winkler paper and a different analysis technique, the Hui group found a speed for RX J0822-4300 that is about two-thirds as fast, but with larger reported margins of error.

The research by Winkler and Petre was published in the November 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls science and flight operations from the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Evaporating Planet

Image Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, Alfred Vidal-Madjar
(Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS)

Planet HD 209458b is evaporating. It is so close to its parent star that its heated atmosphere is simply expanding away into space. Some astronomers studying this distant planetary system now believe they have detected water vapor among the gases being liberated.

This controversial claim, if true, would mark the first instance of planetary water beyond our solar system, and indicate anew that life might be sustainable elsewhere in the universe. Although spectroscopic observations from the Hubble Space Telescope are the basis for the water detection claim, the planetary system is too small and faint to image. The image is an artist's concept of the HD 209458b system.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Planets Found Forming in Pleiades Star Cluster

UCLA NEWS RELEASE
Posted: November 15, 2007

Rocky terrestrial planets, perhaps like Earth, Mars or Venus, appear to be forming or to have recently formed around a star in the Pleiades ("seven sisters") star cluster, the result of "monster collisions" of planets or planetary embryos.

Astronomers using the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and the Spitzer Space Telescope report their findings in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal, the premier journal in astronomy.
Color composite image of the Pleiades star cluster produced by Inseok Song of the Spitzer Science Center, using montage software developed by IPAC/California Institute of Technology. An artist's rendering of a collision in the Pleiades (inset), by Lynette R. Cook, for Gemini Observatory.

"This is the first clear evidence for planet formation in the Pleiades, and the results we are presenting may well be the first observational evidence that terrestrial planets like those in our solar system are quite common," said Joseph Rhee, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in astronomy and lead author of the research.

The Pleiades star cluster, in the constellation Taurus, is well-known in many cultures. It is named for the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione, who were placed by Zeus among the stars in Greek mythology and is cited in the Bible - "Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?" (Job 38:31). The automaker Subaru's name is the Japanese word for the Pleiades, Rhee said.

The Pleiades is probably the best known star cluster and the most striking to the naked eye. "You've seen it many times, and it's now easily visible in the evening sky," said research co-author Benjamin Zuckerman, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.

Although referred to as the "seven sisters," "the cluster actually contains some 1,400 stars," said co-author Inseok Song, a staff scientist at NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology and a former astronomer with the Gemini Observatory.

Located about 400 light-years away, the Pleiades is one of the closest star clusters to Earth. One of the cluster's stars, known as HD 23514, which has a mass and luminosity a bit greater than those of the sun, is surrounded by an extraordinary number of hot dust particles - "hundreds of thousands of times as much dust as around our sun," Zuckerman said. "The dust must be the debris from a monster collision, a cosmic catastrophe."

The astronomers analyzed emissions from countless microscopic dust particles and concluded that the most likely explanation is that the particles are debris from the violent collision of planets or planetary embryos.

Song calls the dust particles the "building blocks of planets," which can accumulate into comets and small asteroid-size bodies and then clump together to form planetary embryos, eventually becoming full-fledged planets.

"In the process of creating rocky, terrestrial planets, some objects collide and grow into planets, while others shatter into dust," Song said. "We are seeing that dust."

HD 23514 is the second star around which Song and Zuckerman recently have found evidence of terrestrial planet formation. They and their colleagues reported in the journal Nature in July 2005 that a sun-like star known as BD +20 307, located 300 light-years from Earth in the constellation Aries, is surrounded by one million times more dust than is orbiting our sun.

In an effort to uncover comparably dusty stars after their 2005 research, Rhee, Song and Zuckerman began looking through thousands of publicly accessible, deep-infrared images obtained by the Spitzer Space Telescope and soon discovered HD 23514. The astronomers then used the Gemini North telescope, located on Hawaii's dormant volcano Mauna Kea, to measure the heat radiation coming from the dust; the heat emerges at infrared wavelengths, just as the heat from our bodies does, Song said.

"The Gemini and Spitzer data were crucial in identifying and establishing the amount and location of dust around the star," Song said.

While our sun is 4.5 billion years old, the Pleiades Aries stars are "adolescents," about 100 million and 400 million years old, respectively, Rhee said. Based on the age of the two stars and the dynamics of the orbiting dust particles, the astronomers deduce that most adolescent sun-like stars are likely to be building terrestrial-like planets through recurring violent collisions of massive objects. The cosmic debris from only a small percentage of such collisions can be seen at any one time - currently, only HD 23514 and BD +20 307 have visible debris.

"Our observations indicate that terrestrial planets similar to those in our solar system are probably quite common," Zuckerman said.

The astronomers calculate that terrestrial planets or planetary embryos in the Pleiades collided within the last few hundred thousand years - or perhaps much more recently - but they cannot rule out the possibility that multiple, somewhat smaller collisions occurred.

Many astronomers believe our moon was formed through the collision of two planetary embryos - the young Earth and a body about the size of Mars. That crash created tremendous debris, some of which condensed to form the moon and some of which went into orbit around the young sun, Zuckerman said.

By contrast, the collision of an asteroid with Earth 65 million years ago, the most favored explanation for the final demise of the dinosaurs, was a mere pipsqueak, he said.

"Collisions between comets or asteroids wouldn't produce anywhere near the amount of dust we are seeing," Song said.

HD 23514 and BD +20 307 are by far the dustiest not-so-young stars in the sky. "Nothing else is even close," Song said.

Very young stars - those 10 million years old or younger - may have a similar amount of dust around them as a result of the star-formation process. However, by the time a star is 100 million years old, this "primordial" dust has dissipated because the dust particles get blown away or dragged onto the star, or the particles clump together to form much larger objects.

"Unusually massive amounts of dust, as seen at the Pleiades and Aries stars, cannot be primordial but rather must be the second-generation debris generated by collisions of large objects," Song said.

The Pleiades have been considered important by many cultures throughout history.

"To the Vikings, the Pleiades was Freyja's hens," Rhee said. In Bronze Age Europe, the Celts and others associated the Pleiades with mourning and funerals because the cluster rose in the eastern night sky between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, which was a festival devoted to the remembrance of the dead. The ancient Aztecs of Mexico and Central America based their calendar on the Pleiades.

The astronomers' research results are based on mid- and far- infrared observations made with the Gemini 8-meter Frederick C. Gillett Telescope at Gemini North and the space-based infrared observatories Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration utilizing two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located at Mauna Kea, Hawaii (Gemini North); the other is at Cerro Pach�n in central Chile (Gemini South). Together they provide full coverage of both hemispheres of the sky. Both telescopes incorporate new technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors under active control to collect and focus both optical and infrared radiation from space.

UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 37,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 300 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Four alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hubble Zooms In on Heart of Mystery Comet

Credit for Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, and H. Weaver
(The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has probed the bright core of Comet 17P/Holmes, which, to the delight of sky watchers, mysteriously brightened by nearly a millionfold in a 24-hour period beginning Oct. 23, 2007.

Astronomers used Hubble's powerful resolution to study Comet Holmes' core for clues about how the comet brightened. The orbiting observatory's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) monitored the comet for several days, snapping images on Oct. 29, Oct. 31, and Nov. 4. Hubble's crisp "eye" can see objects as small as 33 miles (54 kilometers) across, providing the sharpest view yet of the source of the spectacular brightening.

The Hubble image at right, taken Nov. 4, shows the heart of the comet. The central portion of the image has been specially processed to highlight variations in the dust distribution near the nucleus. About twice as much dust lies along the east-west direction (the horizontal direction) as along the north-south direction (the vertical direction), giving the comet a "bow tie" appearance.

The composite color image at left, taken Nov. 1 by an amateur astronomer, shows the complex structure of the entire coma, consisting of concentric shells of dust and a faint tail emanating from the comet's right side.

The nucleus-the small solid body that is the ultimate source of all the comet's activity- is still swaddled in bright dust, even 12 days after the spectacular outburst. "Most of what Hubble sees is sunlight scattered from microscopic particles," explained Hal Weaver of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who led the Hubble investigation. "But we may finally be starting to detect the emergence of the nucleus itself in this final Hubble image."

Hubble first observed Comet 17P/Holmes on June 15, 1999, when there was virtually no dusty shroud around the nucleus. Although Hubble cannot resolve the nucleus, astronomers inferred its size by measuring its brightness. Astronomers deduced that the nucleus' diameter was approximately 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers), about the length of New York City's Central Park. They hope to use the new Hubble images to determine the size of the comet's nucleus to see how much of it was blasted away during the outburst.

Hubble's two earlier snapshots of Comet Holmes also showed some interesting features. On Oct. 29, the telescope spied three "spurs" of dust emanating from the nucleus, while the Hubble images taken on Oct. 31 revealed an outburst of dust just west of the nucleus.

The Hubble images, however, do not show any large fragments near the nucleus of Comet Holmes, unlike the case of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3). In the spring of 2006 Hubble observations revealed a multitude of "mini-comets" ejected by SW3 after the comet increased dramatically in brightness.

Ground-based images of Comet Holmes show a large, spherically symmetrical cloud of dust that is offset from the nucleus, suggesting that a large fragment broke off and subsequently disintegrated into tiny dust particles after moving away from the main nucleus.

Unfortunately, the huge amount of dust near the comet's nucleus and the comet's relatively large distance from Earth (149 million miles, or 1.6 astronomical units, for Holmes versus 9 million, or 0.1 astronomical unit for SW3), make detecting fragments near Holmes nearly impossible right now, unless the fragments are nearly as large as the nucleus itself.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Watching Galaxies Grow Old Gracefully

In the early 1900s, Edwin Hubble made the startling discovery that our Milky Way galaxy is not alone. It is just one of many galaxies, or "island universes," as Hubble dubbed them, swimming in the sea of space.

Now, a century later, NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer is helping piece together the evolution of these cosmic species. Since its launch in 2003, the mission has surveyed tens of thousands of galaxies in ultraviolet light across nine billion years of time. The results provide new, comprehensive evidence for the "nurture" theory of galaxy evolution, which holds that the galaxies first described by Hubble – the elegant spirals and blob-like ellipticals -- are evolutionarily linked.

According to this "nurture" theory, a typical young galaxy begins life as a spiral that is actively churning out stars. Over time, the spiral might merge with another spiral or perhaps an irregular-shaped galaxy, before kicking out a few more bursts of newly minted stars. Eventually, the galaxy slows down its production of stars and settles into later life as an elliptical.

"Our data confirm that all galaxies begin life forming stars," said Chris Martin, the principal investigator for the Galaxy Evolution Explorer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Then through a combination of mergers, fuel exhaustion and perhaps suppression by black holes, the galaxies eventually stop producing stars."

When astronomers talk about galaxies today, they tend to refer to them by their color, either blue or red, instead of by their shape. Most blue galaxies are smaller spirals or irregulars, and most red galaxies are larger ellipticals, though there are some exceptions.

Why color-code the galaxies? Their color indicates how actively they are making new stars. Younger stars shine in ultraviolet or blue light, so galaxies that appear blue are busily producing stars. Older stars emit infrared or red light, so galaxies that look red have shut down their star-making factories. Roughly half of all galaxies are blue and half are red.

Scientists have long postulated that blue galaxies grow up to become red. They proposed that something happens to the blue galaxies to cause them to run out of star-making material, or gas, and mature into the passive red ones. For this "nurture" theory to be true, there should be a population of "teenage" galaxies in the process of transitioning from blue to red, or young to old. But such a cosmic metamorphosis should take billions of years. How can astronomers, with a significantly shorter lifespan, study a process that takes that long?

One solution is to look at lots and lots of galaxies. Imagine a hypothetical alien trying to figure out how and if humans age from only a handful of snapshots showing people of different ages. The aliens might assume that little people grow into big ones, but they could better piece together the life of a typical human if they could look through boxes and boxes of photographs.

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer was designed to provide astronomers with just such a massive portfolio of galaxies. Its troves of data have allowed scientists to find a significant number of teenage galaxies – and thus proof that youthful spiral, or blue, galaxies will eventually grow up to become the elderly elliptical, or red, galaxies.

"The nurture theory of galaxy evolution predicted that there would be galaxies in transition," said Martin. "Finding these galaxies required ultraviolet light, because they really stand out at this wavelength. And because they are rare, we had to look at many. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer allowed us to do this."

Visible-light data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey also helped to establish the age of the teenage galaxies and the rates at which they are running out of star-making fuel. These findings suggest that some of the young galaxies are ripening into old age quickly, while others are leisurely strolling into their golden years.

Evidence for the "nurture" theory of galaxy evolution can be found in a report in the Astrophysical Journal. Martin is the lead author.

New evidence from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer supports the long-held notion that many galaxies begin life as smaller spirals before transforming into larger, elliptical-shaped galaxies.

Examples of young, teenage and adult galaxies are shown here from left to right. The data making up these photos come from both the Galaxy Evolution Explorer and visible-light telescopes. Long-wavelength ultraviolet light is blue; short-wavelength ultraviolet light is green; and visible red light is red.

The galaxy on the left is NGC 300, a spiral located about seven million light-years away in the constellation Sculptor. Younger galaxies like this one tend to form more stars, and since new stars give off more ultraviolet and blue light, the galaxies appear blue.

The galaxy on the right is NGC 1316, located about 62 million light-years away in the constellation Fornax. It is an older elliptical. Older stars emit more red light, so this galaxy appears red.

The galaxies in the middle of the diagram represent the teenagers, which are on their way from becoming blue to red. The relatively small patches of ultraviolet light in these transitional galaxies indicate that star formation is winding down. The galaxy at center left is NGC 4569, located about four million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. The galaxy at center right is NGC 1291, located about 33 million light-years away in the constellation Eradinus.

Before the Galaxy Evolution Explorer launched more than four years ago, there weren't a lot of examples of transitional galaxies, which made it difficult to demonstrate that galaxies mature from blue to red. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer allowed astronomers to find good examples of these elusive teenagers through its extensive catalogue of tens of thousands of galaxies photographed in ultraviolet light.

NGC 300 image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Las Campanas Observatory
NGC 4569 image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar 1.5m
NGC 1291 image credit: NASA/JPL/CTIO
NGC 1316 image credit: NASA/JPL-CTIO

Monday, November 12, 2007

Cosmic Rays from Galactic Centers

Illustration Credit: Pierre Auger Observatory Team

Where do cosmic rays come from? A major step toward answering this century old question may have just come in from the Auger Observatory project, the world's premier cosmic ray observatory. That high energy fundamental particles are barreling through the universe has been known for about a century.

Because ultra high energy cosmic rays are so rare and because their extrapolated directions are so imprecise, no progenitor objects have ever been unambiguously implied. New results from Auger, however, indicate that 12 of 15 ultra high energy cosmic rays have sky directions statistically consistent with the positions of nearby active galactic nuclei.

These galactic centers are already known to emit great amounts of light and are likely powered by large black holes.

The Auger results also indicate that the highest energy cosmic rays are protons, since the electric charge of higher energy nuclei would force the Milky Way Galaxy's magnetic field to deflect and effectively erase progenitor source direction. Pictured above, an artist illustrates a cosmic ray striking the Earth's atmosphere and creating a shower of secondary particles detectable on the surface. The image of Centaurus A digitally superposed near the top signifies one such active galaxy from which cosmic rays might originate.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Beautiful Blue Ion Tail - Comet Holmes

Credit & Copyright: Ivan Eder and (inset) Paolo Berardi

A beautiful blue ion tail has become visible in deep telescopic images of Comet Holmes. Pointing generally away from the Sun and also planet Earth, the comet's ion tail is seriously foreshortened by our extreme viewing angle. Still, enthusiastic comet watchers have remarked that on the whole, the compact but tentacled appearance suggests a jellyfish or even a cosmic calamari.

This stunning view of the comet's greenish coma and blue tail was recorded on November 4 in clear skies near Budapest, Hungary.

The colors are caused by molecules in the tenuous gas, like C2 (green) and CO+ (blue), fluorescing in sunlight. In a more recent development, the dramatic inset is a deep image from L'Aquila, Italy on November 8, showing the ion tail disconnecting from the comet.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Spitzer Spies a Stellar Bubble Blower

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Velusamy (Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

In this processed Spitzer Space Telescope image, baby star HH 46/47 can be seen blowing two massive "bubbles." The star is 1,140 light-years away from Earth.

The infant star can be seen as a white spot toward the center of the Spitzer image. The two bubbles are shown as hollow elliptical shells of bluish-green material extending from the star. Wisps of green in the image reveal warm molecular hydrogen gas, while the bluish tints are formed by starlight scattered by surrounding dust.

These bubbles formed when powerful jets of gas, traveling at 200 to 300 kilometers per second, or about 120 to 190 miles per second, smashed into the cosmic cloud of gas and dust that surrounds HH 46/47. The red specks at the end of each bubble show the presence of hot sulfur and iron gas where the star's narrow jets are currently crashing head-on into the cosmic cloud's gas and dust material.

Whenever astronomers observe a star, or snap a stellar portrait, through the lens of any telescope, they know that what they are seeing is slightly blurred. To clear up the blurring in Spitzer images, astronomers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed an image processing technique for Spitzer called Hi-Res deconvolution.

This process reduces blurring and makes the image sharper and cleaner, enabling astronomers to see the emissions around forming stars in greater detail. When scientists applied this image processing technique to the Spitzer image of HH 46/47, they were able to see winds from the star and jets of gas that are carving the celestial bubbles.

This infrared image is a three-color composite, with data at 3.6 microns represented in blue, 4.5 and 5.8 microns shown in green, and 24 microns represented as red.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Comet Holmes Grows a Tail

Credit & Copyright: Vicent Peris and José Luis Lamadrid (astrofoto.es)

Comet Holmes continues to be an impressive sight to the unaided eye. The comet has diminished in brightness only slightly, and now clearly appears to have a larger angular extent than stars and planets. Astrophotographers have also noted a distinctly green appearance to the comet's coma over the past week.

Pictured above over Spain in three digitally combined exposures, Comet 17P/Holmes now clearly sports a tail. The blue ion tail is created by the solar wind impacting ions in the coma of Comet Holmes and pushing them away from the Sun.

Comet Holmes underwent an unexpected and dramatic increase in brightness starting only two weeks ago. The detail visible in Comet Holmes' tail indicates that the explosion of dust and gas that created this dramatic brightness increase is in an ongoing and complex event. Comet Holmes will move only slightly on the sky over during the next month.