Astronomy Cmarchesin

Releases from NASA, NASA Galex, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Hubble, Hinode, Spitzer, Cassini, ESO, ESA, Chandra, HiRISE, Royal Astronomical Society, NRAO, Astronomy Picture of the Day, Harvard-Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics, etc.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scientists Determine Massive Planet is Being Torn Apart by Its Own Tides, Providing Opportunity to Watch a Planetary “Death March”

Illustration of WASP-12b in orbit about its host star
(Credit: ESA/C Carreau)

An international group of astrophysicists has determined that a massive planet outside our Solar System is being distorted and destroyed by its host star – a finding that helps explain the unexpectedly large size of the planet, WASP-12b.

It’s a discovery that not only explains what’s happening to WASP-12b; it also means scientists have a one-of-a-kind opportunity to observe how a planet enters this final stage of its life. “This is the first time that astronomers are witnessing the ongoing disruption and death march of a planet,” says UC Santa Cruz professor Douglas N.C. Lin,. Lin is a co-author of the new study and the founding director of the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) at Peking University, which was deeply involved with the research.

The findings are being published in the February 25 issue of Nature.

The research was led by Shu-lin Li of the National Astronomical Observatories of China. A graduate of KIAA, Li and a research team analyzed observational data on the planet to show how the gravity of its parent star is both inflating its size and spurring its rapid dissolution.

WASP 12-b, discovered in 2008, is one of the most enigmatic of 400-plus planets that have been found outside our Solar System over the past 15 years. It orbits a star, in the constellation Auriga, roughly similar in mass to our Sun. Like most known extra-solar planets, it is large and gaseous, resembling Jupiter and Saturn in this respect. But unlike Jupiter, Saturn or most other extra-solar planets, it orbits its parent star at extremely close range – 75 times closer than the Earth is to the Sun, or just over 1 million miles. It is also larger than astrophysical models would predict. Its mass is estimated to be almost 50% larger than Jupiter’s and its 80% larger, giving it six times Jupiter’s volume. It is also unusually hot, with a daytime temperature of more than 2500°C.

Some mechanism must be responsible for expanding this planet to such an unexpected size, say the researchers. They have focused their analysis on tidal forces, which they say are strong enough to produce the effects observed on WASP 12b.

The WASP-12 system. The massive gas giant WASP-12b is shown in purple with the transparent region representing its atmosphere. The gas giant planet's orbit is somewhat non-circular. This indicates that there is probably an unseen lower mass planet in the system, shown in brown, that is perturbing the larger planet's orbit. Mass from the gas giant's atmosphere is pulled off and forms a disk around the star, shown in red. (Courtesy: KIAA/Graphic: Neil Miller)

On Earth, tidal forces between the Earth and the Moon cause local sea levels rise and fall modestly ll twice a day. WASP-12b, however, is so close to its host star that the gravitational forces are enormous. The tremendous tidal forces acting on the planet completely change the shape of the planet into something similar to that of a rugby or American football.

These tides not only distort the shape of WASP 12-b. By continuously deforming the planet, they also create friction in the its interior. The friction produces heat, which causes the planet to expand. “This is the first time that there is direct evidence that internal heating (or ‘tidal heating’) is responsible for puffing up the planet to its current size,” says Lin.

Huge as it is, WASP 12-b faces an early demise, say the researchers. In fact, its size is part of its problem. It has ballooned to such a point that it cannot retain its mass against the pull of its parent star’s gravity. As the study’s lead author Li explains, ““WASP-12b is losing its mass to the host star at a tremendous rate of six billion metric tons each second. At this rate, the planet will be completely destroyed by its host star in about ten million years. This may sound like a long time, but for astronomers it's nothing. This planet will live less than 500 times less than the current age of the Earth.”

The material that is stripped off WASP-12b does not directly fall onto the parent star. Instead, it forms a disk around the star and slowly spirals inwards. A careful analysis of the orbital motion of WASP-12b suggests circumstantial evidence of the gravitational force of a second, lower-mass planet in the disk. This planet is most likely a massive version of the Earth -- a so-called “super-Earth.”

The disk of planetary material and the embedded super-Earth are detectable with currently available telescope facilities. Their properties can be used to further constrain the history and fate of the mysterious planet WASP-12b.

In addition to KIAA, support for the WASP 12-b research came from NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Science Foundation. Along with Li and Lin, co-authors include UC Santa Cruz professor Jonathan Fortney and Neil Miller, a graduate student at the university.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Light, Wind and Fire

Star-forming region NGC 346

Around NGC 346

Zoom in on the star-forming region NGC 346

Close-up zoom on the star-forming region NGC 346

Beautiful Image of a Cosmic Sculpture

Today ESO has released a dramatic new image of NGC 346, the brightest star-forming region in our neighbouring galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud, 210 000 light-years away towards the constellation of Tucana (the Toucan). The light, wind and heat given off by massive stars have dispersed the glowing gas within and around this star cluster, forming a surrounding wispy nebular structure that looks like a cobweb. NGC 346, like other beautiful astronomical scenes, is a work in progress, and changes as the aeons pass. As yet more stars form from loose matter in the area, they will ignite, scattering leftover dust and gas, carving out great ripples and altering the face of this lustrous object.

NGC 346 spans approximately 200 light-years, a region of space about fifty times the distance between the Sun and its nearest stellar neighbours. Astronomers classify NGC 346 as an open cluster of stars, indicating that this stellar brood all originated from the same collapsed cloud of matter. The associated nebula containing this clutch of bright stars is known as an emission nebula, meaning that gas within it has been heated up by stars until the gas emits its own light, just like the neon gas used in electric store signs.

Many stars in NGC 346 are relatively young in cosmic terms with their births dating back only a few million years or so (eso0834). Powerful winds thrown off by a massive star set off this recent round of star birth by compressing large amounts of matter, the first critical step towards igniting new stars. This cloud of material then collapses under its own gravity, until some regions become dense and hot enough to roar forth as a brilliantly shining, nuclear fusion-powered furnace — a star, illuminating the residual debris of gas and dust. In sufficiently congested regions like NGC 346, with high levels of recent star birth, the result is a glorious, glowing vista for our telescopes to capture.

NGC 346 is in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy some 210 000 light-years away from Earth and in close proximity to our home, the much larger Milky Way Galaxy. Like its sister the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Small Magellanic Cloud is visible with the unaided eye from the southern hemisphere and has served as an extragalactic laboratory for astronomers studying the dynamics of star formation.

This particular image was obtained using the Wide Field Imager (WFI) instrument at the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. Images like this help astronomers chronicle star birth and evolution, while offering glimpses of how stellar development influences the appearance of the cosmic environment over time.

More information

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory, and VISTA the largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


Henri Boffin
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6222

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Alien invaders pack the Milky Way

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the typical globular cluster Messier 80, an object made up of hundreds of thousands of stars and located in the direction of the constellation of Scorpius. The Milky Way galaxy has an estimated 160 globular clusters of which one quarter are thought to be ‘alien’. Image: NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team / STScI / AURA. JPEG (524 kb)

Around a quarter of the star clusters in our Milky Way galaxy are invaders from other galaxies, according to a team of scientists from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. In a paper accepted for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Swinburne astronomer Professor Duncan Forbes has shown that many of our galaxy’s globular star clusters are actually foreigners - having been born elsewhere and then migrated to our Milky Way.

“It turns out that many of the stars and globular star clusters we see when we look into the night sky are not natives, but aliens from other galaxies,” said Forbes. “They have made their way into our galaxy over the last few billion years.”

Previously astronomers had suspected that some globular star clusters, which each contain between 10000 and several million stars were foreign to our galaxy, but it was difficult to positively identify which ones.

Using Hubble Space Telescope data, Forbes, along with his Canadian colleague Professor Terry Bridges, examined globular star clusters within the Milky Way galaxy.

They then compiled the largest ever high-quality database to record the age and chemical properties of each of these clusters.

“Using this database we were able to identify key signatures in many of the globular star clusters that gave us tell-tale clues as to their external origin,” Forbes said.

“We determined that these foreign-born globular star clusters actually make up about one quarter of our Milky Way globular star cluster system. That implies tens of millions of accreted stars – those that have joined and grown our galaxy – from globular star clusters alone.”

The researchers’ work also suggests that the Milky Way may have swallowed up more dwarf galaxies than was previously thought.

“We found that many of the foreign clusters originally existed within dwarf galaxies - that is ‘mini’ galaxies of up to 100 million stars that sit within our larger Milky Way.

“Our work shows that there are more of these accreted dwarf galaxies in our Milky Way than was thought. Astronomers had been able to confirm the existence of two accreted dwarf galaxies in our Milky Way – but our research suggests that there might be as many as six yet to be discovered.

"Although the dwarf galaxies are broken-up and their stars assimilated into the Milky Way, the globular star clusters of the dwarf galaxy remain intact and survive the accretion process."

“This will have to be explored further, but it is a very exciting prospect that will help us to better understand the history of our own galaxy.”

Forbes’ research was carried out in Canada as part of an Australian Research Council International Fellowship.

The research paper can be accessed at:


Crystal Ladiges
Press Office
Swinburne University of Technology
Tel: +61 3 9214 5064
Mob: +61 416 174 880

Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 / 4582
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035



The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS:, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognises outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

XMM-Newton traces dark matter in faint, distant galaxy groups

X-ray emission in the COSMOS field. Credit: ESA

X-ray emission from a COSMOS group of galaxies. Credit: ESA

Observations of faint and distant galaxy groups made with the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory have been used to probe the evolution of dark matter. The results of the study are reported in the 20 January issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Dark matter is a mysterious, invisible constituent of the Universe which only reveals itself through its gravitational influence. Understanding its nature is one of the key open questions in modern cosmology. In one of the approaches used to address this question astronomers use the relationship between mass and luminosity that has been found for clusters of galaxies which links their X-ray emissions, an indication of the mass of the ordinary (baryonic) matter alone, and their total masses (baryonic plus dark matter) as determined by gravitational lensing.

To date the relationship could only be established for nearby clusters. New work by an international collaboration, including the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Marseilles (LAM), and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), has made major progress in extending the relationship to more distant and smaller structures than was previously possible.

To establish the link between X-ray emission and underlying dark matter, the team used one of the largest samples of X-ray-selected groups and clusters of galaxies, produced by the ESA's X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton.

Groups and clusters of galaxies can be effectively found using their extended X-ray emission on sub-arcminute scales. As a result of its large effective area, XMM-Newton is the only X-ray telescope that can detect the faint level of emission from distant groups and clusters of galaxies.

"The ability of XMM-Newton to provide large catalogues of galaxy groups in deep fields is astonishing," said Alexis Finoguenov of the MPE and the University of Maryland, a co-author of the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) paper.

Since X-rays are the best way to find and characterise clusters, most follow-up studies have until now been limited to relatively nearby groups and clusters of galaxies.

"Given the unprecedented catalogues provided by XMM-Newton, we have been able to extend measurements of mass to much smaller structures, which existed much earlier in the history of the Universe," says Alexie Leauthaud of Berkeley Lab's Physics Division, the first author of the ApJ study.

Mass as a lens

Gravitational lensing occurs because mass curves the space around it, bending the paths along which rays of light travel: the more mass (and the closer it is to the centre of mass), the more space bends, and the more the image of a distant object is displaced and distorted. Thus measuring distortion, or 'shear', is key to measuring the mass of the lensing object.

In the case of weak gravitational lensing (as used in this study) the shear is too subtle to be seen directly, but faint additional distortions in a collection of distant galaxies can be calculated statistically, and the average shear due to the lensing of some massive object in front of them can be computed. However, in order to calculate the lens's mass from average shear, one needs to know its centre.

"The problem with high-redshift (i.e. very distant) clusters is that it is difficult to determine exactly which galaxy lies at the centre of the cluster," says Leauthaud. "That's where X-rays help. The X-ray luminosity from a galaxy cluster can be used to find its centre very accurately."

Knowing the centres of mass from the analysis of X-ray emission, Leauthaud and colleagues could then use weak lensing to estimate the total mass of the distant groups and clusters with greater accuracy than ever before.

The final step was to determine the X-ray luminosity of each galaxy cluster and plot it against the mass determined from the weak lensing, with the resulting mass-luminosity relation for the new collection of groups and clusters extending previous studies to lower masses and higher redshifts. Within calculable uncertainty, the relation follows the same straight slope from nearby galaxy clusters to distant ones; a simple consistent scaling factor relates the total mass (baryonic plus dark) of a group or cluster to its X-ray brightness, the latter measuring the baryonic mass alone.

"By confirming the mass-luminosity relation and extending it to high redshifts, we have taken a small step in the right direction toward using weak lensing as a powerful tool to measure the evolution of structure," says Jean-Paul Kneib a co-author of the ApJ paper from LAM and France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

In the beginning

The origin of galaxies can be traced back to slight differences in the density of the hot, early Universe; traces of these differences can still be seen as minute temperature differences in the cosmic microwave background (CMB).

"The variations we observe in the ancient microwave sky represent the imprints that developed over time into the cosmic dark-matter scaffolding for the galaxies we see today," says George Smoot, director of the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics (BCCP), a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a member of Berkeley Lab's Physics Division. Smoot shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for measuring anisotropies in the CMB and is one of the authors of the ApJ paper. "It is very exciting that we can actually measure with gravitational lensing how the dark matter has collapsed and evolved since the beginning."

One goal in studying the evolution of structure is to understand dark matter itself, and how it interacts with the ordinary matter we can see. Another goal is to learn more about dark energy, the mysterious phenomenon that is pushing matter apart and causing the Universe to expand at an accelerating rate. Many questions remain unanswered: Is dark energy constant, or is it dynamic? Or is it merely an illusion caused by a limitation in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity?

The tools provided by the extended mass-luminosity relationship will do much to answer these questions about the opposing roles of gravity and dark energy in shaping the Universe, now and in the future.

Reference publication

Leauthaud, A., Finoguenov, A., Kneib, J.-P., et al., A Weak Lensing Study of X-Ray Groups in the COSMOS Survey: Form and Evolution of the Mass-Luminosity Relation, The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 709, Number 1, 2010 January 20, pp. 97-114 DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/709/1/97


Alexie Leauthaud
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics, U.S.A.

Alexis Finoguenov
Max-Planck-Institut fur extraterrestriche Physik, Germany and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, U.S.A

Jean-Paul Kneib
Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, France

Norbert Schartel, ESA XMM-Newton Project Scientist
Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration, European Space Agency

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Youngest Extra-Solar Planet Discovered

Artist's impression of BD+20 1790b, the youngest exoplanet yet discovered.
Credit: M. Hernon Obispo

University of Hertfordshire astronomers, Dr Maria Cruz Gálvez-Ortiz and Dr John Barnes, are part of an international collaboration that has discovered the youngest extra-solar planet around a solar-type star, named BD+20 1790b.

The giant planet, six-times the mass of Jupiter, is only 35 million years old. It orbits a young active central star at a distance closer than Mercury orbits the Sun. Young stars are usually excluded from planet searches because they have intense magnetic fields that generate a range of phenomena known collectively as stellar activity, including flares and spots. This activity can mimic the presence of a companion and so can make extremely difficult to disentangle the signals of planets and activity.

Dr Maria Cruz Gálvez-Ortiz describing how the planet was discovered said: “The planet was detected by searching for very small variations in the velocity of the host star, caused by the gravitational tug of the planet as it orbits – the so-called “Doppler wobble technique”. Overcoming the interference caused by the activity was a major challenge for the team, but with enough data from an array of large telescopes the planet’s signature was revealed.”

There is currently a severe lack of knowledge about early stages of planet evolution. Most planet-search surveys tend to target much older stars, with ages in excess of a billion years. Only one young planet, with an age of 100 million years, was previously known. However, at only 35 million years, BD+20 1790b is approximately three times younger. The detection of young planets will allow the testing of formation scenarios and to investigate the early stages of planetary evolution.

BD+20 1790b was discovered using observations made at different telescopes, including the Observatorio de Calar Alto (Almería, Spain) and the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (La Palma, Spain) over the last five years. The discovery team is an international collaboration including: M.M. Hernán Obispo, E. De Castro and M. Cornide (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain), M.C. Gálvez-Ortiz and J.R. Barnes, (University of Hertfordshire, U.K.), G. Anglada-Escudé (Carnegie Institution of Washington, USA) and S.R. Kane (NASA Exoplanet Institute, Caltech, USA). The discovery has just been published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

NASA's Stardust Burns for Comet, Less Than a Year Away

NASA Stardust logo. Image credit: NASA/JPL

PASADENA, Calif. - Just three days shy of one year before its planned flyby of comet Tempel 1, NASA's Stardust spacecraft has successfully performed a maneuver to adjust the time of its encounter by eight hours and 20 minutes. The delay maximizes the probability of the spacecraft capturing high-resolution images of the desired surface features of the 2.99-kilometer-wide (1.86 mile) potato-shaped mass of ice and dust.

With the spacecraft on the opposite side of the solar system and beyond the orbit of Mars, the trajectory correction maneuver began at 5:21 p.m. EST (2:21 p.m. PST) on Feb. 17. Stardust's rockets fired for 22 minutes and 53 seconds, changing the spacecraft's speed by 24 meters per second (54 miles per hour).

Stardust's maneuver placed the spacecraft on a course to fly by the comet just before 8:42 p.m. PST (11:42 p.m. EST) on Feb. 14, 2011 - Valentine's Day. Time of closest approach to Tempel 1 is important because the comet rotates, allowing different regions of the comet to be illuminated by the sun's rays at different times. Mission scientists want to maximize the probability that areas of interest previously imaged by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005 will also be bathed in the sun's rays and visible to Stardust's camera when it passes by.

"We could not have asked for a better result from a burn with even a brand-new spacecraft," said Tim Larson, project manager for the Stardust-NExT at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This bird has already logged one comet flyby, one Earth return of the first samples ever collected from deep space, over 4,000 days of flight and approximately 5.4 billion kilometers (3.4 billion miles) since launch."

Launched on Feb. 7, 1999, Stardust became the first spacecraft in history to collect samples from a comet and return them to Earth for study. While its sample return capsule parachuted to Earth in January 2006, mission controllers were placing the still viable spacecraft on a trajectory that would allow NASA the opportunity to re-use the already-proven flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself. In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission "Stardust-NExT" (New Exploration of Tempel), and the Stardust team began a four-and-a-half year journey to comet Tempel 1. This will be humanity's second exploration of the comet - and the first time a comet has been "re-visited."

"Stardust-NExT will provide scientists the first opportunity to see the surface changes on a comet between successive visits into the inner solar system," said Joe Veverka, principal investigator of Stardust-NExT from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "We have theories galore on how each close pass to the sun causes changes to a comet. Stardust-NExT should give some teeth to some of these theories, and take a bite out of others."

Along with the high-resolution images of the comet's surface, Stardust-NExT will also measure the composition, size distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma, and provide important new information on how Jupiter family comets evolve and how they formed 4.6 billion years ago.

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that will expand the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages Stardust-NExT for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Joe Veverka of Cornell University is the mission's principal investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver Colo., built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

For more information about Stardust-NExT, please visit:


Jurassic Space: Ancient Galaxies Come Together After Billions of Years

Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Gallagher (The University of Western Ontario),
and J. English (University of Manitoba)

Imagine finding a living dinosaur in your backyard. Astronomers have found the astronomical equivalent of prehistoric life in our intergalactic backyard: a group of small, ancient galaxies that has waited 10 billion years to come together. These "late bloomers" are on their way to building a large elliptical galaxy.

Such encounters between dwarf galaxies are normally seen billions of light-years away and therefore occurred billions of years ago. But these galaxies, members of Hickson Compact Group 31, are relatively nearby, only 166 million light-years away.

New images of this foursome by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope offer a window into the universe's formative years when the buildup of large galaxies from smaller building blocks was common.

Astronomers have known for decades that these dwarf galaxies are gravitationally tugging on each other. Their classical spiral shapes have been stretched like taffy, pulling out long streamers of gas and dust. The brightest object in the Hubble image is actually two colliding galaxies. The entire system is aglow with a firestorm of star birth, triggered when hydrogen gas is compressed by the close encounters between the galaxies and collapses to form stars.

The Hubble observations have added important clues to the story of this interacting group, allowing astronomers to determine when the encounter began and to predict a future merger.

"We found the oldest stars in a few ancient globular star clusters that date back to about 10 billion years ago. Therefore, we know the system has been around for a while," says astronomer Sarah Gallagher of The University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, leader of the Hubble study. "Most other dwarf galaxies like these interacted billions of years ago, but these galaxies are just coming together for the first time. This encounter has been going on for at most a few hundred million years, the blink of an eye in cosmic history. It is an extremely rare local example of what we think was a quite common event in the distant universe."

Everywhere the astronomers looked in this group they found batches of infant star clusters and regions brimming with star birth. The entire system is rich in hydrogen gas, the stuff of which stars are made. Gallagher and her team used Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to resolve the youngest and brightest of those clusters, which allowed them to calculate the clusters' ages, trace the star-formation history, and determine that the galaxies are undergoing the final stages of galaxy assembly.

The analysis was bolstered by infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and ultraviolet observations from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and NASA's Swift satellite. Those data helped the astronomers measure the total amount of star formation in the system. "Hubble has the sharpness to resolve individual star clusters, which allowed us to age-date the clusters," Gallagher adds.

Hubble reveals that the brightest clusters, hefty groups each holding at least 100,000 stars, are less than 10 million years old. The stars are feeding off of plenty of gas. A measurement of the gas content shows that very little has been used up — further proof that the "galactic fireworks" seen in the images are a recent event. The group has about five times as much hydrogen gas as our Milky Way Galaxy.

"This is a clear example of a group of galaxies on their way toward a merger because there is so much gas that is going to mix everything up," Gallagher says. "The galaxies are relatively small, comparable in size to the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. Their velocities, measured from previous studies, show that they are moving very slowly relative to each other, just 134,000 miles an hour (60 kilometers a second). So it's hard to imagine how this system wouldn't wind up as a single elliptical galaxy in another billion years."

Adds team member Pat Durrell of Youngstown State University: "The four small galaxies are extremely close together, within 75,000 light-years of each other — we could fit them all within our Milky Way."

Why did the galaxies wait so long to interact? Perhaps, says Gallagher, because the system resides in a lower-density region of the universe, the equivalent of a rural village. Getting together took billions of years longer than it did for galaxies in denser areas.

Hickson Compact Group 31 is one of 100 compact galaxy groups catalogued by Canadian astronomer Paul Hickson.

Gallagher's results appear in the February issue of The Astronomical Journal.

Her science team consists of Pat Durrell (Youngstown State University), Debra Elmegreen (Vassar College), Rupali Chandar (University of Toledo), Jayanne English (University of Manitoba), Jane Charlton, Caryl Gronwal, and Jason Young (Penn State), Panayiotis Tzanavaris (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center), Kelsey Johnson (University of Virginia), Claudia Mendes de Oliveira (University of São Paulo), Brad Whitmore (STScI), Ann Hornschemeier (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center), Aparna Maybhate (STScI), and Ann Zabludoff (University of Arizona).


Donna Weaver
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Sarah Gallagher
The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada
519-661-2111 (x86707)

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Massive stars’ magnetically controlled diets

Artist impression of the young massive star Cepheus A HW2. The narrow collimated jet originates from the embryonic star which is surrounded by a dust disc as well as a larger disc of gas. The wite lines show the 3-dimensional magnetic field structure along which material falls onto the slowly rotating discs. (Image credit: Tobias Maercker). JPG version (550 kB)

A team of astronomers, led by Dr. Wouter Vlemmings at Bonn University, has used the MERLIN radio telescope network centred on the Jodrell Bank Observatory to show that magnetic fields play an important role during the birth of massive stars. Magnetic fields are already known to strongly influence the formation of lower-mass stars like our Sun. This new study reveals that the way in which high-mass and low-mass stars form may be more similar than previously suspected. The scientists report their work in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Massive stars, more than 8 times the mass of the Sun, are crucial to the formation of other stars, planets and even life. Though rare, they dominate the content and evolution of the interstellar material in the Galaxy and are responsible for the production of heavy elements such as iron. However, the question of how massive stars are formed has proved extremely difficult to answer. The role of magnetic fields in particular has been a topic of great debate. Many scientists thought that radiation and turbulence would be the more dominant factors, and hence their formation process would be significantly different from that of less massive stars such as our Sun.

"While magnetic fields have been observed in the clouds of molecular hydrogen from which stars form, observations close to massive stars have up to now been in short supply," says Vlemmings. “If the formation of massive stars is similar to their lighter counterparts, we should be able to detect the strong magnetic fields needed to both produce the jets and stabilize the disks associated with them.”

For the first time, Wouter Vlemmings and his collaborators have managed to observe the 3-dimensional magnetic field structure around the disk of the massive newly forming star (or protostar) Cepheus A HW2. At a distance of 2300 light years from the Sun, Cepheus A is one of the nearest regions where massive stars form and earlier observations of this region revealed the presence of a disk from which the gas falls on to HW2. In their new observations, the astronomers have found that the magnetic field is surprisingly regular and strong, implying that it is controlling how the matter is transferred through the disk to feed the growing embryonic star.

"Our new technique allows us for the first time to measure the 3D structure of the magnetic field around a massive protostar. We can see that its structure is surprisingly similar to how we think the field looks when much smaller stars form," adds co-author Huib Jan van Langevelde, director of the Joint Institute for Very Long BaseIine Interferometry in Europe (JIVE).

To determine the magnetic field structure, the researchers used the MERLIN telescope array to observe radio waves (with a wavelength of approximately 5 cm) that are amplified by methanol molecules. These methanol molecules, the simplest of the alcohol compounds, are found in regions surrounding the massive disk around HW2, which extend over a region 10 times the size of our Solar System. Such regions are called masers, because they amplify microwave radiation in the same way a laser amplifies light radiation. Even though a strong magnetic field produces only a very weak signature in the signal from the methanol molecules, this amplification is strong enough to make the new work possible.

These new observations will be a cornerstone of one of the first major scientific legacy projects to be carried out with the new e-MERLIN radio telescope network. e-MERLIN is a major upgrade to the MERLIN network that made it 10 times more sensitive. The legacy project, of which Dr. Vlemmings is one of the lead scientists, will use the unique capabilities of the upgraded network to reveal both the magnetic field and the immediate surroundings of many massive protostars of different ages.


A preprint of the paper is available from


Dr. Wouter Vlemmings
Argelander-Institut für Astronomie, Universität Bonn, Germany
Tel: +49 228 733670 / 733658

Dr. Huib Jan van Langevelde
Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe, Dwingeloo, The Netherlands
Tel: +31 521 596524

Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035


An image, a movie and the relevant scientific papers are available from



The Multi-Linked Radio Interferometer Network (MERLIN:, operated from Jodrell Bank Observatory, is an array of seven radio telescopes distributed around the United Kingdom, with separations of up to 217km. MERLIN is operated by the University of Manchester as a National Facility of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council.


The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS:, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NASA's WISE Mission Releases Medley of First Images

Visitor from Deep Space

At the Heart of Stellar Chaos

Our Neighbor Andromeda

Warped Andromeda

The Dirt on Andromeda

Fornax Galaxy Cluster

Ablaze with Infrared Light

WASHINGTON -- A diverse cast of cosmic characters is showcased in the first survey images NASA released Wednesday from its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

Since WISE began its scan of the entire sky in infrared light on Jan. 14, the space telescope has beamed back more than a quarter of a million raw, infrared images. Four new, processed pictures illustrate a sampling of the mission's targets -- a wispy comet, a bursting star-forming cloud, the grand Andromeda galaxy and a faraway cluster of hundreds of galaxies. The images are online at:

"WISE has worked superbly," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These first images are proving the spacecraft's secondary mission of helping to track asteroids, comets and other stellar objects will be just as critically important as its primary mission of surveying the entire sky in infrared."

One image shows the beauty of a comet called Siding Spring. As the comet parades toward the sun, it sheds dust that glows in infrared light visible to WISE. The comet's tail, which stretches about 10 million miles, looks like a streak of red paint. A bright star appears below it in blue.

"We've got a candy store of images coming down from space," said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, the principal investigator for WISE. "Everyone has their favorite flavors, and we've got them all."

During its survey, the mission is expected to find perhaps dozens of comets, including some that ride along in orbits that take them somewhat close to Earth's path around the sun. WISE will help unravel clues locked inside comets about how our solar system came to be.

Another image shows a bright and choppy star-forming region called NGC 3603, lying 20,000 light-years away in the Carina spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy. This star-forming factory is churning out batches of new stars, some of which are monstrously massive and hotter than the sun. The hot stars warm the surrounding dust clouds, causing them to glow at infrared wavelengths.

WISE will see hundreds of similar star-making regions in our galaxy, helping astronomers piece together a picture of how stars are born. The observations also provide an important link to understanding violent episodes of star formation in distant galaxies. Because NGC 3603 is much closer, astronomers use it as a lab to probe the same type of action that is taking place billions of light-years away.

Traveling farther out from our Milky Way, the third new image shows our nearest large neighbor, the Andromeda spiral galaxy. Andromeda is a bit bigger than our Milky Way and about 2.5 million light-years away. The new picture highlights WISE's wide field of view -- it covers an area larger than 100 full moons and even shows other smaller galaxies near Andromeda, all belonging to our "local group" of more than about 50 galaxies. WISE will capture the entire local group.

The fourth WISE picture is even farther out, in a region of hundreds of galaxies all bound together into one family. Called the Fornax cluster, these galaxies are 60 million light-years from Earth. The mission's infrared views reveal both stagnant and active galaxies, providing a census of data on an entire galactic community.

"All these pictures tell a story about our dusty origins and destiny," said Peter Eisenhardt, the WISE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "WISE sees dusty comets and rocky asteroids tracing the formation and evolution of our solar system. We can map thousands of forming and dying solar systems across our entire galaxy. We can see patterns of star formation across other galaxies, and waves of star-bursting galaxies in clusters millions of light years away."

Other mission targets include comets, asteroids and cool stars called brown dwarfs. WISE discovered its first near-Earth asteroid on Jan. 12 and first comet on Jan. 22. The mission will scan the sky one-and-a-half times by October. At that point, the frozen coolant needed to chill its instruments will be depleted.

JPL manages WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program, which NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages. The Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, built the science instrument, and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., built the spacecraft. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information about WISE, visit:

To read about the near-Earth asteroid WISE discovered Jan. 12, visit:

J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington

Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


M31: NASA's Chandra Reveals Origin of Key Cosmic Explosions

Credit X-ray (NASA/CXC/MPA/M.Gilfanov & A.Bogdan),
Infrared (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC), Optical (DSS)

(Runtime: 00:20)

This composite image of M31 (also known as the Andromeda galaxy) shows X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory in gold, optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey in light blue and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope in red. The Chandra data covers only the central region of M31 as shown in the inset box for the image (roll your mouse over the image above).

New results show that the Chandra image would be about 40 times brighter than observed if Type Ia supernova in the bulge of this galaxy were triggered by material from a normal star falling onto a white dwarf star. This implies that the merger of two white dwarfs is the main trigger for Type Ia supernovas for the area observed by Chandra. Similar results for five elliptical galaxies were found.

These findings represent a major advance in understanding the origin of Type Ia supernovas, explosions that are used as cosmic mile markers to measure the accelerated expansion of the universe and study dark energy. Most scientists agree that a Type Ia supernova occurs when a white dwarf star -- a collapsed remnant of an elderly star -- exceeds its weight limit, becomes unstable and explodes. However, there is uncertainty about what pushes the white dwarf over the edge, either accretion onto the white dwarf or a merger between two white dwarfs.

A Type Ia supernova caused by accreting material produces significant X-ray emission prior to the explosion. A supernova from a merger of two white dwarfs (view animation above), on the other hand, would create significantly less. The scientists used the difference to decide between these two scenarios by examining the new Chandra data.

A third, less likely possibility is that the supernova explosion is triggered, in the accretion scenario, before the white dwarf reaches the expected mass limit. In this case, the detectable X-ray emission could be much lower than assumed for the accretion scenario. However, simulations of such explosions do not show agreement with the observed properties of Type Ia supernovas.

Fast Facts for M31:

Scale: Image is 60 arcmin across, (about 50,000 light years across)
Category: Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies Supernovas & Supernova Remnants
Coordinates: (J2000) RA 00h 42m 44.40s | Dec +41° 16' 08.30
Constellation: Andromeda
Observation Date: 23 pointings between Oct 1999 and Jun 2007
Observation Time: 40 hours
Obs. ID: 303, 305-308, 311-312, 1575, 1577, 1583, 1585, 2895-2898, 4360, 4678-4682, 7064, 7068
Color Code: X-ray (gold); Infrared (red); Optical (blue)
Instrument: ACIS
Also Known As: Andromeda
References: M.Gilfanov and A.Bogdan, 2010, Nature, in press. A.Bogdan and M.Gilfanov, 2010, A&A, in press.
Distance Estimate:
About 2.9 million light years

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NASA's Fermi Closes on Source of Cosmic Rays

New images from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope show where supernova remnants emit radiation a billion times more energetic than visible light. The images bring astronomers a step closer to understanding the source of some of the universe’s most energetic particles — cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays consist mainly of protons that move through space at nearly the speed of light. In their journey across the galaxy, the particles are deflected by magnetic fields. This scrambles their paths and masks their origins.

Fermi's Large Area Telescope resolved GeV gamma rays from supernova remnants of different ages and in different environments. W51C, W44 and IC 443 are middle-aged remnants between 4,000 and 30,000 years old. Cassiopeia A, which is only 330 years old, appears as a point source. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

“Understanding the sources of cosmic rays is one of Fermi’s key goals,” said Stefan Funk, an astrophysicist at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), jointly located at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University, Calif.

When cosmic rays collide with interstellar gas, they produce gamma rays.

“Fermi now allows us to compare emission from remnants of different ages and in different environments,” Funk added. He presented the findings Monday at the American Physical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.

Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) mapped billion-electron-volt (GeV) gamma-rays from three middle-aged supernova remnants — known as W51C, W44 and IC 443 — that were never before resolved at these energies. (The energy of visible light is between 2 and 3 electron volts.) Each remnant is the expanding debris of a massive star that blew up between 4,000 and 30,000 years ago.

In addition, Fermi’s LAT also spied GeV gamma rays from Cassiopeia A (Cas A), a supernova remnant only 330 years old. Ground-based observatories, which detect gamma rays thousands of times more energetic than the LAT was designed to see, have previously detected Cas A.

“Older remnants are extremely bright in GeV gamma rays, but relatively faint at higher energies. Younger remnants show a different behavior,” explained Yasunobu Uchiyama, a Panofsky Fellow at SLAC. “Perhaps the highest-energy cosmic rays have left older remnants, and Fermi sees emission from trapped particles at lower energies.”

In 1949, the Fermi telescope’s namesake, physicist Enrico Fermi, suggested that the highest-energy cosmic rays were accelerated in the magnetic fields of gas clouds. In the decades that followed, astronomers showed that supernova remnants are the galaxy’s best candidate sites for this process.

This composite shows the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant across the spectrum: Gamma rays (magenta) from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope; X-rays (blue, green) from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory; visible light (yellow) from the Hubble Space Telescope; infrared (red) from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope; and radio (orange) from the Very Large Array near Socorro, N.M. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration, CXC/SAO/JPL-Caltech/Steward/O. Krause et al., and NRAO/AUI

Young supernova remnants seem to possess both stronger magnetic fields and the highest-energy cosmic rays. Stronger fields can keep the highest-energy particles in the remnant’s shock wave long enough to speed them to the energies observed.

The Fermi observations show GeV gamma rays coming from places where the remnants are known to be interacting with cold, dense gas clouds.

“We think that protons accelerated in the remnant are colliding with gas atoms, causing the gamma-ray emission,” Funk said. An alternative explanation is that fast-moving electrons emit gamma rays as they fly past the nuclei of gas atoms. “For now, we can’t distinguish between these possibilities, but we expect that further observations with Fermi will help us to do so,” he added.

Either way, these observations validate the notion that supernova remnants act as enormous accelerators for cosmic particles.

“How fitting it is that Fermi seems to be confirming the bold idea advanced over 60 years ago by the scientist after whom it was named,” noted Roger Blandford, director of KIPAC.

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The Fornax dwarf galaxy

The Sculptor dwarf galaxy

After years of successful concealment, the most primitive stars outside our Milky Way galaxy have finally been unmasked. New observations using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have been used to solve an important astrophysical puzzle concerning the oldest stars in our galactic neighbourhood — which is crucial for our understanding of the earliest stars in the Universe.

“We have, in effect, found a flaw in the forensic methods used until now,” says Else Starkenburg, lead author of the paper reporting the study. “Our improved approach allows us to uncover the primitive stars hidden among all the other, more common stars.”

Primitive stars are thought to have formed from material forged shortly after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. They typically have less than one thousandth the amount of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium found in the Sun and are called “extremely metal-poor stars” [1]. They belong to one of the first generations of stars in the nearby Universe. Such stars are extremely rare and mainly observed in the Milky Way.

Cosmologists think that larger galaxies like the Milky Way formed from the merger of smaller galaxies. Our Milky Way’s population of extremely metal-poor or “primitive” stars should already have been present in the dwarf galaxies from which it formed, and similar populations should be present in other dwarf galaxies. “So far, evidence for them has been scarce,” says co-author Giuseppina Battaglia. “Large surveys conducted in the last few years kept showing that the most ancient populations of stars in the Milky Way and dwarf galaxies did not match, which was not at all expected from cosmological models.”

Element abundances are measured from spectra, which provide the chemical fingerprints of stars [2]. The Dwarf galaxies Abundances and Radial-velocities Team [3] used the FLAMES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to measure the spectra of over 2000 individual giant stars in four of our galactic neighbours, the Fornax, Sculptor, Sextans and Carina dwarf galaxies. Since the dwarf galaxies are typically 300 000 light years away — which is about three times the size of our Milky Way — only strong features in the spectrum could be measured, like a vague, smeared fingerprint. The team found that none of their large collection of spectral fingerprints actually seemed to belong to the class of stars they were after, the rare, extremely metal-poor stars found in the Milky Way.

The team of astronomers around Starkenburg has now shed new light on the problem through careful comparison of spectra to computer-based models. They found that only subtle differences distinguish the chemical fingerprint of a normal metal-poor star from that of an extremely metal-poor star, explaining why previous methods did not succeed in making the identification.

The astronomers also confirmed the almost pristine status of several extremely metal-poor stars thanks to much more detailed spectra obtained with the UVES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. “Compared to the vague fingerprints we had before, this would be as if we looked at the fingerprint through a microscope,” explains team member Vanessa Hill. “Unfortunately, just a small number of stars can be observed this way because it is very time consuming.”

“Among the new extremely metal-poor stars discovered in these dwarf galaxies, three have a relative amount of heavy chemical elements between only 1/3000 and 1/10 000 of what is observed in our Sun, including the current record holder of the most primitive star found outside the Milky Way,” says team member Martin Tafelmeyer.

“Not only has our work revealed some of the very interesting, first stars in these galaxies, but it also provides a new, powerful technique to uncover more such stars,” concludes Starkenburg. “From now on there is no place left to hide!”


[1] According to the definition used in astronomy, “metals” are all the elements other than hydrogen and helium. Such metals, except for a very few minor light chemical elements, have all been created by the various generations of stars.

[2] As every rainbow demonstrates, white light can be split up into different colours. Astronomers artificially split up the light they receive from distant objects into its different colours (or wavelengths). However, where we distinguish seven rainbow colours, astronomers map hundreds of finely nuanced colours, producing a spectrum — a record of the different amounts of light the object emits in each narrow colour band. The details of the spectrum — more light emitted at some colours, less light at others — provide tell-tale signs about the chemical composition of the matter producing the light.

[3] The Dwarf galaxies Abundances and Radial-velocities Team (DART) has members from institutes in nine different countries.
More information

This research was presented in a paper to appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics (“The NIR Ca II triplet at low metallicity”, E. Starkenburg et al.). Another paper is also in preparation (Tafelmeyer et al.) that presents the UVES measurements of several primitive stars.

The team is composed of Else Starkenburg, Eline Tolstoy, Amina Helmi, and Thomas de Boer (Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, University of Groningen, the Netherlands), Vanessa Hill (Laboratoire Cassiopée, Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, CNRS, France), Jonay I. González Hernández (Observatoire de Paris, CNRS, Meudon, France and Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain), Mike Irwin (University of Cambridge, UK), Giuseppina Battaglia (ESO), Pascale Jablonka and Martin Tafelmeyer (Université de Genève, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland), Matthew Shetrone (University of Texas, McDonald Observatory, USA), and Kim Venn (University of Victoria, Canada).

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and VISTA, the world’s largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


Science paper


Else Starkenburg
Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, University of Groningen
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 50 363 8447

Giuseppina Battaglia
Tel: +49 89 3200 6362

Lars Lindberg Christensen
Head of the ESO education and Public Outreach Department
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 320 06 761
Cell: +49 173 38 72 621

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Young galaxies gorge on gas

Fig. 1: The Plateau de Bure millimetre interferometer in the southern French Alps.
Copyright: IRAM

Fig. 2: Spatially resolved optical and millimetre images of a typical massive galaxy at redshift z=1.1 (5.5 billion years after the Big Bang). The left image was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in the V- and I-optical bands, as part of the AEGIS survey of distant galaxies. The right image is an overlay of the CO 3-2 emission observed with the PdBI (red/yellow colours) superposed on the I-image (grey). For the first time these observations clearly show that the molecular line emission and the optical light from massive stars trace a massive, rotating disk of diameter ~60,000 light years. This disk is similar in size and structure as seen in z~0 disk galaxies, such as the Milky Way. However, the mass of cold gas is in this disk is about an order of magnitude larger than in typical z~0 disk galaxies. This explains why high-z galaxies can form continuously at about ten times the rate of typical z~0 galaxies. Copyright: MPE/IRAM

Scientists find explanation for higher star formation rate in young galaxies

Stars form from giant gas clouds in galaxies - the star formation rate however has changed over cosmic timescales. In the young universe many more stars were born. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for extraterrestrial Physics, together with an international team of astronomers have found a plausible explanation: a few billion years after the Big Bang, normal star forming galaxies contained five to ten times more cold gas than today, providing more "food" to fuel the star formation process.

"We have been able, for the first time, to detect and image the cold molecular gas in normal star forming galaxies, which are representative of the typical massive galaxy populations shortly after the Big Bang" said Linda Tacconi from the Max Planck Institute for extraterrestrial Physics, who is the lead author of a paper in this week's issue of Nature.

The challenging observations yield the first glimpse how galaxies, or more precisely the cold gas in these galaxies, looked a mere 3 to 5 billion years after the Big Bang (equivalent to a cosmological redshift z~2 to z~1). At this epoch, galaxies seem to have formed stars more or less continuously with at least ten times the rate seen in similar mass systems in the local Universe.

The fundamental question is whether these large star formation rates were caused by larger reservoirs of cold molecular gas (which represents the 'food' for newly formed stars), or whether star formation in the young Universe was much more efficient than it is today.

Over the past decade astronomers have established a global framework of how galaxies formed and evolved when the Universe was only a few billion years old. Gas cooled and collected in concentrations of the mysterious 'dark' matter (so called dark matter halos). Over cosmological timescales, gas accreting from these halos onto the proto-galaxies, and collisions and mergers of galaxies subsequently led to the hierarchical build-up of galaxy mass.

Detailed observations of the cold gas and its distribution and dynamics hold a key role in disentangling the complex mechanisms responsible for turning the first proto-galaxies into modern galaxies, such as the Milky-Way.

A major study of distant, luminous star forming galaxies at the Plateau de Bure millimetre interferometer (Figure 1) has now resulted in a break-through by having a direct look at the star formation "food". The study took advantage of major recent advances in the sensitivity of the radiometers at the observatory to make the first systematic survey of cold gas properties (traced by a rotational line of the carbon monoxide molecule) of normal massive galaxies when the Universe was 40% (z=1.2) and 24% (z=2.3) of its current age. Previous observations were largely restricted to rare, very luminous objects, including galaxy mergers and quasars. The new study instead traces massive star forming galaxies representative of the 'normal', average galaxy population in this mass and redshift range.

"When we started the programme about a year ago", says Dr. Tacconi, "we could not be sure that we would even detect anything. But the observations were successful beyond our most optimistic hopes. We have been able to demonstrate that massive normal galaxies at z~1.2 and z~2.3 had five to ten times more gas than what we see in the local Universe. Given that these galaxies were forming gas at a high rate over long periods of time, this means that gas must have been continuously replenished by accretion from the dark matter halos, in excellent agreement with recent theoretical work."

Another important result of these observations is the first spatially resolved images of the cold gas distribution and motions in several of the galaxies (Figure 2). "This survey has opened the door for an entirely new avenue of studying the evolution of galaxies," says Pierre Cox, the director of IRAM. "This is really exciting and there is much more to come."

"These fascinating findings provide us with important clues and constraints for next-generation theoretical models that we will use to study the early phases of galaxy development in more detail," says Andreas Burkert, specialist for star formation and the evolution of galaxies at the Excellence Cluster Universe. "Eventually these results will help to understand the origin and the development of our Milky Way."


[1] The scientists involved in the study are:
N. Bouché, N.M. Förster Schreiber, R. Genzel, J.Gracia-Carpio, D. Lutz, L.J. Tacconi (all Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany), P.Cox, R.Neri (IRAM, France), M.C.Cooper, B.Weiner (University of Arizona, USA), K.Shapiro, J.Comerford, M.Davis (University of California, Berkeley, USA), A.Bolatto (University of Maryland, USA), F.Bournaud (CEA, Gif-sur-Yvette, France), A.Burkert, T.Naab (University of Munich (LMU) and Excellence Cluster, Munich, Germany), F.Combes (Observatoire de Paris, France), S.Garcia-Burillo (Madrid Observatory (OAN), Madrid, Spain), A.Omont (Instiute d'Astrophysique, Paris, France), A.E. Shapley (University of California, Los Angeles, USA), A. Sternberg (Tel Aviv University, Israel). R.Genzel is also associated with the Physics Department at the University of California, Berkeley (USA).

[2] The Plateau de Bure millimetre interferometer of the Institute for Radio Astronomy in the Millimetre Range (IRAM) is located at 2600m in the southern French Alps near Gap. The PdBI is currently the most powerful millimetre interferometer in the world, and the only one capable of detecting the faint line emission of CO molecules from very distant galaxies, which are the best tracer for cold gas (mainly molecular hydrogen). The interferometer consists of 6 telescopes of 15m diameter, each equipped with superbly sensitive heterodyne radiometers to detect mm-radiation. IRAM is funded by a partnership of INSU/CNRS (France), MPG (Germany) and IGN (Spain).

For more information on IRAM and the PdBI : external link

Original paper:

L.J.Tacconi et al.
High molecular gas fractions in normal massive star forming galaxies in the young Universe
Nature 463, 781-784 (11 February 2010)

Press release:

MPG press release on February 10, 2010 (in German)


Dr. Hannelore Hämmerle
Press Officer
Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics
and Max Planck Institute for extraterrestrial Physics
Phone: +49 89 30000-3980

Reinhard Genzel internal link Prof. Dr. Reinhard Genzel
Infrared/Submillimeter Astronomy Group
Max Planck Institute for extraterrestrial Physics
Phone: +49 89 30000-3280

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