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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

AKARI produces two new infrared all-sky catalogues

AKARI's view of the infrared sky: sources found at 9 micrometres are represented in blue, at 18 micrometres in green, and at 90 micrometres in red. Credit: JAXA - Hi-Res [jpg] 3,523.43 kb

AKARI, the first Japanese infrared astronomical satellite, was launched in February 2006 and surveyed the entire sky between May 2006 and August 2007. The two catalogues that are released publicly today contain the positions and flux values (at 6 wavelengths) for more than 1.3 million celestial sources detected by two instruments carried by AKARI: the Infrared Camera (IRC) detected ~870,000 objects in two bands (9 and 18 micrometres), and the Far-Infrared Surveyor (FIS, sensitive to 65, 90, 140, and 160 micrometres) detected ~430,000 celestial sources.

These new catalogues, the AKARI-IRC Point Source Catalogue and the AKARI-FIS Bright Source Catalogue, are a significant improvement upon the previous all-sky infrared survey that was produced with IRAS. AKARI can pinpoint the location of a star to an accuracy of arcseconds (compared to arcminutes with IRAS), and it is about 10 times more sensitive (at 18 micrometres) than IRAS. These improvements will have a significant impact on the science that can be performed with these all-sky surveys.

"The release of the catalogues is very timely", notes Alberto Salama, Project Scientist for AKARI at ESA. "Many of the objects detected by AKARI and contained in these catalogues will be prime candidates for future investigation at far-infrared and submillimetre wavelengths with Herschel. These catalogues will be very useful for astronomers preparing for the next opportunity, in May, to propose observations with Herschel."

Some preliminary scientific studies using these new AKARI catalogues have been carried out by AKARI team members. These touch on: studies of the star formation history in the Universe, properties of star-forming galaxies, and searches for evidence of dust associated with planet formation in the debris disks around stars other than the Sun. These early studies, described in the accompanying article "Selected highlights from early studies with the AKARI all-sky catalogues" (see link in right-hand menu)demonstrate the role and importance of infrared observations in exploring a wide variety of astronomical topics.

The AKARI catalogues cover the wavelengths 9, 18, 65, 90, 140 and 160 micrometres. These different wavelengths can be used to separate the various generic classes of objects, such as stars (blue) and galaxies (red), in what is called colour-colour space. This allows astronomers to select samples of the various classes of objects that they wish to study. Credit:From Pollo et al.



Most of the star formation in the Universe is hidden from our view at optical wavelengths. AKARI observations are used to peer through the dust that obscures local galaxies, revealing the star formation activity that is hidden at optical wavelengths. Credit: JAXA

Most of the star formation in the Universe is hidden from our view at optical wavelengths. AKARI observations are used to peer through the dust that obscures local galaxies, revealing the star formation activity that is hidden at optical wavelengths. Credit: JAXA

The presence of dusty material around stars is shown by higher than expected fluxes from stars at infrared wavelengths. On the left hand side the expected intensity from the visible surface (photosphere) of a star declines throughout the infrared spectral region. However, the dust grains radiate strongly at wavelengths longer than about 20 micrometres, giving rise to a prominent 'infrared excess'. Credit: JAXA

Editors notes:

AKARI, the first Japanese infrared astronomical satellite, was launched in February 2006, surveying the entire sky during its 16 month cryogenic mission lifetime between May 2006 and August 2007. The 68.5 cm diameter telescope was specially designed for infrared observations with its two instruments: the Infrared Camera (IRC), and the Far-Infrared Surveyor (FIS) instrument. In addition to the all-sky survey, AKARI performed more than 5000 pointed observations over the wavelength range 2-180 micrometres in 13 bands, providing comprehensive multi-wavelength photometric and spectroscopic coverage of a wide variety of astronomical sources: nearby solar system objects, zodiacal light, brown dwarfs, young stars, debris disks and evolved stars in our Galaxy and in other galaxies of the Local Group.

AKARI achieved its planned 'cold' lifetime of 550 days, during which it conducted the all-sky survey. AKARI also carried out more than five thousand individual pointed observations in this phase.

Its on-board supply of liquid helium ran out on 26 August 2007, and the spacecraft entered a new mission phase. The liquid helium was required to keep AKARI cold enough to observe in the far-infrared. The warm phase now uses the surviving instrument, the near-infrared mode of the infrared camera, which can operate under the warmer conditions provided by the on-board mechanical cooler, for near-infrared observations.

AKARI is a JAXA project with the participation of ESA. Development of the satellite and instruments, operation, and data reduction have been carried out in collaboration with the following institutes; Nagoya University, The University of Tokyo, National Astronomical Observatory Japan, Imperial College London, University of Sussex, The Open University (UK), University of Groningen / SRON (The Netherlands), and Seoul National University (Korea). The far-infrared detectors were developed under collaboration with The National Institute of Information and Communications Technology.

ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, provided the mission with ground support through its ground station in Kiruna, Sweden, for several passes per day in the cold phase of the mission.

ESA's European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) near Madrid, Spain, provided support for the sky-survey data processing through the pointing reconstruction - this allows the determination of accurate astronomical positions for each of the sources detected. ESAC also contributed to the issue of the AKARI-IRC Point Source catalogue. The AKARI survey catalogues are an important legacy for Herschel and Planck.

ESAC also provides user support for European astronomers who have been granted observing opportunities. The 10% of observing time obtained from this collaboration resulted in 400 observations in the cold phase and 844 in the warm phase, covering various fields of astronomy, from comets to cosmology.

The two catalogues that are publicly released are the AKARI-FIS Bright Source Catalogue Version 1 containing far-infrared (65, 90, 140, 160 micrometres) fluxes of 427,071 sources, and the AKARI-IRC Point Source Catalogue Version 1 containing mid-infrared (9 and 18 micrometres) fluxes of 870,973 sources. The data are provided as files (FITS/Text) as well as via the AKARI Catalogue Archive Server (AKARI-CAS) web search interface from the following websites:

For further details please contact:

Alberto Salama, ESA AKARI Project Scientist
Science Operations Department,
European Space Astronomy Centre,
Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration
European Space Agency
Email:
Alberto.Salama@esa.int

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The Light and Dark Face of a Star-Forming Nebula

Star-forming region Gum 19

Around Gum 19

Zoom-in onto Gum 19

Today, ESO is unveiling an image of the little known Gum 19, a faint nebula that, in the infrared, appears dark on one half and bright on the other. On one side hot hydrogen gas is illuminated by a supergiant blue star called V391 Velorum. New star formation is taking place within the ribbon of luminous and dark material that brackets V391 Velorum’s left in this perspective. After many millennia, these fledgling stars, coupled with the explosive demise of V391 Velorum as a supernova, will likely alter Gum 19’s present Janus-like appearance.

Gum 19 is located in the direction of the constellation Vela (the Sail) at a distance of approximately 22 000 light years. The Gum 19 moniker derives from a 1955 publication by the Australian astrophysicist Colin S. Gum that served as the first significant survey of so-called HII (read “H-two”) regions in the southern sky. HII refers to hydrogen gas that is ionised, or energised to the extent that the hydrogen atoms lose their electrons. Such regions emit light at well-defined wavelengths (or colours), thereby giving these cosmic clouds their characteristic glow. And indeed, much like terrestrial clouds, the shapes and textures of these HII regions change as time passes, though over the course of eons rather than before our eyes. For now, Gum 19 has somewhat of a science fiction-esque, “rip in spacetime” look to it in this image, with a narrow, near-vertical bright region slashing across the nebula. Looking at it, you could possibly see a resemblance to a two-toned angelfish or an arrow with a darkened point.

This new image of the evocative Gum 19 object was captured by an infrared instrument called SOFI, mounted on ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) that operates at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. SOFI stands for Son of ISAAC, after the “father” instrument, ISAAC, that is located at ESO’s Very Large Telescope observatory at Paranal to the north of La Silla. Observing this nebula in the infrared allows astronomers to see through at least parts of the dust.

The furnace that fuels Gum 19’s luminosity is a gigantic, superhot star called V391 Velorum. Shining brightest in the scorching blue range of visible light, V391 Velorum boasts a surface temperature in the vicinity of 30 000 degrees Celsius. This massive star has a temperamental nature, however, and is categorised as a variable star accordingly. V391 Velorum’s brightness can fluctuate suddenly as a result of strong activity that can include ejections of shells of matter, which contribute to Gum 19’s composition and light emissions.

Stars on the grand scale of V391 Velorum do not burn bright for long, and after a relatively short lifetime of about ten million years these titans blow up as supernovae. These explosions, which temporarily rival whole galaxies in their light intensity, blast heated matter in surrounding space, an event that can radically change the colour and shape of its enclosing nebula. As such, V391 Velorum’s death throes may well leave Gum 19 unrecognisable.

Within the neighbourhood of this fitful supergiant, new stars nonetheless continue to grow. HII regions denote sites of active star formation wherein great quantities of gas and dust have begun to collapse under their own gravity. In several million years — a blink of an eye in cosmic time — these shrinking knots of matter will eventually reach the high density at their centres necessary to ignite nuclear fusion. The fresh outpouring of energy and stellar winds from these newborn stars will also modify the gaseous landscape of Gum 19.

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 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”.

Contacts

Henri Boffin
ESO ePOD
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6222
Cell: +49 174 515 43 24
Email:
hboffin@eso.org

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Monday, March 29, 2010

shes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: Chandra/Spitzer Image

A composite image from NASA's Chandra (blue) and Spitzer (green and red-yellow) space telescopes shows the dusty remains of a collapsed star, a supernova remnant called G54.1+0.3. Image credit: NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

PASADENA, Calif. -- A new image from NASA's Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes shows the dusty remains of a collapsed star. The dust is flying past and engulfing a nearby family of stars.

"Scientists think the stars in the image are part of a stellar cluster in which a supernova exploded," said Tea Temin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass., who led the study. "The material ejected in the explosion is now blowing past these stars at high velocities."

The composite image of G54.1+0.3 is online at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/?IDNumber=pia12982 . It shows the Chandra X-ray Observatory data in blue, and data from the Spitzer Space Telescope in green (shorter wavelength) and red-yellow (longer). The white source near the center of the image is a dense, rapidly rotating neutron star, or pulsar, left behind after a core-collapse supernova explosion. The pulsar generates a wind of high-energy particles -- seen in the Chandra data -- that expands into the surrounding environment, illuminating the material ejected in the supernova explosion.

The infrared shell that surrounds the pulsar wind is made up of gas and dust that condensed out of debris from the supernova. As the cold dust expands into the surroundings, it is heated and lit up by the stars in the cluster so that it is observable in infrared. The dust closest to the stars is the hottest and is seen glowing in yellow in the image. Some of the dust is also being heated by the expanding pulsar wind as it overtakes the material in the shell.

The unique environment into which this supernova exploded makes it possible for astronomers to observe the condensed dust from the supernova that is usually too cold to emit in infrared. Without the presence of the stellar cluster, it would not be possible to observe this dust until it becomes energized and heated by a shock wave from the supernova. However, the very action of such shock heating would destroy many of the smaller dust particles. In G54.1+0.3, astronomers are observing pristine dust before any such destruction.

G54.1+0.3 provides an exciting opportunity for astronomers to study the freshly formed supernova dust before it becomes altered and destroyed by shocks. The nature and quantity of dust produced in supernova explosions is a long-standing mystery, and G54.1+0.3 supplies an important piece to the puzzle.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

The Spitzer observations were made before the telescope ran out of its coolant in May 2009 and began its "warm" mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages Spitzer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information on the Spitzer Space Telescope is online at: http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/spitzer and http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer .
More information on the Chandra X-ray Observatory is at: http://chandra.harvard.edu and http://chandra.nasa.gov

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

Megan Watzke 617-496-7998
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.

mwatzke@cfa.harvard.edu

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hubble confirms cosmic acceleration with weak lensing

Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Simon (University of Bonn)
and T. Schrabback (Leiden Observatory)

Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hartlap (University of Bonn),
P. Simon (University of Bonn) and T. Schrabback (Leiden Observatory)

Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Simon (University of Bonn)
and T. Schrabback (Leiden Observatory)

Credit: ESA/Hubble & Digitized Sky Survey 2.
Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin (ESA/Hubble)

A new study led by European scientists presents the most comprehensive analysis of data from the most ambitious survey ever undertaken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. These researchers have, for the first time ever, used Hubble data to probe the effects of the natural gravitational "weak lenses" in space and characterise the expansion of the Universe.

A group of astronomers [1], led by Tim Schrabback of the Leiden Observatory, conducted an intensive study of over 446 000 galaxies within the COSMOS field, the result of the largest survey ever conducted with Hubble. In making the COSMOS survey, Hubble photographed 575 slightly overlapping views of the same part of the Universe using the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) onboard Hubble. It took nearly 1000 hours of observations.

In addition to the Hubble data, researchers used redshift [2] data from ground-based telescopes to assign distances to 194 000 of the galaxies surveyed (out to a redshift of 5). "The sheer number of galaxies included in this type of analysis is unprecedented, but more important is the wealth of information we could obtain about the invisible structures in the Universe from this exceptional dataset," says co-author Patrick Simon from Edinburgh University.

In particular, the astronomers could "weigh" the large-scale matter distribution in space over large distances. To do this, they made use of the fact that this information is encoded in the distorted shapes of distant galaxies, a phenomenon referred to as weak gravitational lensing [3]. Using complex algorithms, the team led by Schrabback has improved the standard method and obtained galaxy shape measurements to an unprecedented precision. The results of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The meticulousness and scale of this study enables an independent confirmation that the expansion of the Universe is accelerated by an additional, mysterious component named dark energy. A handful of other such independent confirmations exist. Scientists need to know how the formation of clumps of matter evolved in the history of the Universe to determine how the gravitational force, which holds matter together, and dark energy, which pulls it apart by accelerating the expansion of the Universe, have affected them. "Dark energy affects our measurements for two reasons. First, when it is present, galaxy clusters grow more slowly, and secondly, it changes the way the Universe expands, leading to more distant — and more efficiently lensed — galaxies. Our analysis is sensitive to both effects," says co-author Benjamin Joachimi from the University of Bonn. "Our study also provides an additional confirmation for Einstein's theory of general relativity, which predicts how the lensing signal depends on redshift," adds co-investigator Martin Kilbinger from the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris and the Excellence Cluster Universe.

The large number of galaxies included in this study, along with information on their redshifts is leading to a clearer map of how, exactly, part of the Universe is laid out; it helps us see its galactic inhabitants and how they are distributed. "With more accurate information about the distances to the galaxies, we can measure the distribution of the matter between them and us more accurately," notes co-investigator Jan Hartlap from the University of Bonn. "Before, most of the studies were done in 2D, like taking a chest X-ray. Our study is more like a 3D reconstruction of the skeleton from a CT scan. On top of that, we are able to watch the skeleton of dark matter mature from the Universe's youth to the present," comments William High from Harvard University, another co-author.

The astronomers specifically chose the COSMOS survey because it is thought to be a representative sample of the Universe. With thorough studies such as the one led by Schrabback, astronomers will one day be able to apply their technique to wider areas of the sky, forming a clearer picture of what is truly out there.

Notes for editors:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

[1] The international team of astronomers in this study was led by Tim Schrabback of the Leiden University. Other collaborators included: J. Hartlap (University of Bonn), B. Joachimi (University of Bonn), M. Kilbinger (IAP), P. Simon (University of Edinburgh), K. Benabed (IAP), M. Bradac (UCDavis), T. Eifler (University of Bonn), T. Erben (University of Bonn), C. Fassnacht (University of California, Davis), F. W. High(Harvard), S. Hilbert (MPA), H. Hildebrandt (Leiden Observatory), H. Hoekstra (Leiden Observatory), K. Kuijken (Leiden Observatory), P. Marshall (KIPAC), Y. Mellier (IAP), E. Morganson (KIPAC), P. Schneider (University of Bonn), E. Semboloni (University of Bonn), L. Van Waerbeke (UBC) and M. Velander (Leiden Observatory).

[2] In astronomy, the redshift denotes the fraction by which the lines in the spectrum of an object are shifted towards longer wavelengths due to the expansion of the Universe. The observed redshift of a remote galaxy provides an estimate of its distance. In this study the researchers used redshift information computed by the COSMOS team (http://ukads.nottingham.ac.uk/abs/2009ApJ...690.1236I) using data from the SUBARU, CFHT, UKIRT, Spitzer, GALEX, NOAO, VLT, and Keck telescopes.

[3] Weak gravitational lensing: The phenomenon of gravitational lensing is the warping of spacetime by the gravitational field of a concentration of matter, such as a galaxy cluster. When light rays from distant background galaxies pass this matter concentration, their path is bent and the galaxy images are distorted. In the case of weak lensing, these distortions are small, and must be measured statistically. This analysis provides a direct estimate for the strength of the gravitational field, and therefore the mass of the matter concentration. When determining precise shapes of galaxies, astronomers have to deal with three main factors: the intrinsic shape of the galaxy (which is unknown), the gravitational lensing effect they want to measure, and systematic effects caused by the telescope and camera, as well as the atmosphere, in case of ground-based observations.

Links:

Image of the COSMOS field
Science paper
News Release heic0701 - First 3D map of the Universe's Dark Matter scaffolding

Contacts:

Tim Schrabback
Leiden Observatory
Universiteit Leiden
Tel: +31 71 527 5877
E-mail:
schrabback@strw.leidenuniv.nl

Colleen Sharkey
Hubble/ESA, Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6306
Cell: +49 151 153 73591
E-mail:
csharkey@eso.org

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Explained: Why many surveys of distant galaxies miss 90% of their targets

PR Image eso1013a
The GOODS-South field

PR Video eso1013a
The GOODS-South field

Astronomers have long known that in many surveys of the very distant Universe, a large fraction of the total intrinsic light was not being observed. Now, thanks to an extremely deep survey using two of the four giant 8.2-metre telescopes that make up ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and a unique custom-built filter, astronomers have determined that a large fraction of galaxies whose light took 10 billion years to reach us have gone undiscovered. The survey also helped uncover some of the faintest galaxies ever found at this early stage of the Universe.

Astronomers frequently use the strong, characteristic “fingerprint” of light emitted by hydrogen known as the Lyman-alpha line, to probe the amount of stars formed in the very distant Universe [1]. Yet there have long been suspicions that many distant galaxies go unnoticed in these surveys. A new VLT survey demonstrates for the first time that this is exactly what is happening. Most of the Lyman-alpha light is trapped within the galaxy that emits it, and 90% of galaxies do not show up in Lyman-alpha surveys.

“Astronomers always knew they were missing some fraction of the galaxies in Lyman-alpha surveys,” explains Matthew Hayes, the lead author of the paper, published this week in Nature, “but for the first time we now have a measurement. The number of missed galaxies is substantial.”

To figure out how much of the total luminosity was missed, Hayes and his team used the FORS camera at the VLT and a custom-built narrowband filter [2] to measure this Lyman-alpha light, following the methodology of standard Lyman-alpha surveys. Then, using the new HAWK-I camera, attached to another VLT Unit Telescope, they surveyed the same area of space for light emitted at a different wavelength, also by glowing hydrogen, and known as the H-alpha line. They specifically looked at galaxies whose light has been travelling for 10 billion years (redshift 2.2 [3]), in a well-studied area of the sky, known as the GOODS-South field.

“This is the first time we have observed a patch of the sky so deeply in light coming from hydrogen at these two very specific wavelengths, and this proved crucial,” says team member Göran Östlin. The survey was extremely deep, and uncovered some of the faintest galaxies known at this early epoch in the life of the Universe. The astronomers could thereby conclude that traditional surveys done using Lyman-alpha only see a tiny part of the total light that is produced, since most of the Lyman-alpha photons are destroyed by interaction with the interstellar clouds of gas and dust. This effect is dramatically more significant for Lyman-alpha than for H-alpha light. As a result, many galaxies, a proportion as high as 90%, go unseen by these surveys. “If there are ten galaxies seen, there could be a hundred there,” Hayes says.

Different observational methods, targeting the light emitted at different wavelengths, will always lead to a view of the Universe that is only partially complete. The results of this survey issue a stark warning for cosmologists, as the strong Lyman-alpha signature becomes increasingly relied upon in examining the very first galaxies to form in the history of the Universe. “Now that we know how much light we’ve been missing, we can start to create far more accurate representations of the cosmos, understanding better how quickly stars have formed at different times in the life of the Universe,” says co-author Miguel Mas-Hesse.

The breakthrough was made possible thanks to the unique camera used. HAWK-I, which saw first light in 2007, is a state-of-the-art instrument. “There are only a few other cameras with a wider field of view than HAWK-I, and they are on telescopes less than half the size of the VLT. So only VLT/HAWK-I, really, is capable of efficiently finding galaxies this faint at these distances,” says team member Daniel Schaerer.

Notes

[1] Lyman-alpha light corresponds to light emitted by excited hydrogen (more specifically, when the electron around the nucleus jumps from the first excited level to the fundamental, or ground, level). This light is emitted in the ultraviolet, at 121.6 nm. The Lyman-alpha line is the first in the so-called Lyman series, named after its discoverer, Theodore Lyman.

The Balmer series, named after Johann Balmer, also corresponds to light emitted by excited hydrogen. In this case, the electron falls into the first excited level. The first line in this series is the H-alpha line, emitted at 656.3 nm.

As most hydrogen atoms present in a galaxy are in the ground level, Lyman-alpha light is more efficiently absorbed than H-alpha light, which requires atoms having an electron in the second level. As this is very uncommon in the cold interstellar hydrogen permeating galaxies, the gas is almost perfectly transparent to H-alpha light.

[2] A narrowband filter is an optical filter designed to let pass only a narrow bandwidth of light, centred on a specific wavelength. Traditional narrowband filters include those centred on the lines of the Balmer series, such as H-alpha.

[3] Because the Universe expands, the light of a distant object is redshifted by an amount depending on its distance. This means its light is moved towards longer wavelengths. A redshift of 2.2 — corresponding to galaxies whose light has taken approximately 10 billion years to reach us — means that the light is stretched by a factor 3.2. Thus the Lyman–alpha light is now seen at about 390 nm, near the visible domain, and can be observed with the FORS instrument on ESO’s VLT, while the H-alpha line is moved towards 2.1 microns, in the near-infrared. It can thus be observed with the HAWK-I instrument on the VLT.

More information

This research was presented in a paper to appear in Nature (“Escape of about five per cent of Lyman-a photons from high-redshift star-forming galaxies”, by M. Hayes et al.).

The team is composed of Matthew Hayes, Daniel Schaerer, and Stéphane de Barros (Observatoire Astronomique de l'Université de Genève, Switzerland), Göran Östlin and Jens Melinder (Stockholm University, Sweden), J. Miguel Mas-Hesse (CSIC-INTA, Madrid, Spain), Claus Leitherer (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, USA), Hakim Atek and Daniel Kunth (Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, France), and Anne Verhamme (Oxford Astrophysics, U.K.).

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”.

Links

Research Paper

Contacts

Matt Hayes
Observatory of Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 379 24 32
Cell: +41 76 243 13 55
Email: matthew.hayes@unige.ch

Miguel Mas-Hesse
Centro de Astrobiologia (CSIC-INTA), Spain
Tel: +34 91 813 1196/1161
Cell: +34 615145651
Email: mm@cab.inta-csic.es

Göran Östlin
Department of Astronomy
Stockholm University, Sweden
Tel: +46 8 55 37 85 13
Email: ostlin@astro.su.se

Henri Boffin
VLT Press Officer
ESO, Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6222
Cell: +49 174 515 43 24
Email: hboffin@eso.org

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Dying Star Puffs a Cosmic Dragon

NGC 5189
Credit: Eso

NGC 5189 is a planetary nebula with an oriental twist. Similar in appearance to a Chinese dragon, these red and green cosmic fireworks are the last swansong of a dying star.

At the end of its life, a star with a mass less than eight times that of the Sun will blow its outer layers away, giving rise to a planetary nebula. Some of these stellar puffballs are almost round, resembling huge soap bubbles or giant planets (hence the name), but others, such as NGC 5189 are more intricate.

In particular, this planetary nebula exhibits a curious “S”-shaped profile, with a central bar that is most likely the projection of an inner ring of gas discharged by the star, seen edge on. The details of the physical processes producing such a complex symmetry from a simple, spherical star are still the object of astronomical controversy. One possibility is that the star has a very close (but unseen) companion. Over time the orbits drift due to precession and this could result in the complex curves on the opposite sides of the star visible in this image.

This image has been taken with the New Technology Telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, using the now decommissioned EMMI instrument. It is a combination of exposures taken through different narrowband filters, each designed to catch only the light coming from the glow of a given chemical element, namely hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

Source: ESO
 

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Supermassive black holes: hinting at the nature of dark matter?

Artist’s schematic impression of the distortion of spacetime by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The black hole will swallow dark matter at a rate which depends on its mass and on the amount of dark matter around it. Image: Felipe Esquivel Reed.

About 23% of the Universe is made up of mysterious ‘dark matter’, invisible material only detected through its gravitational influence on its surroundings. Now two astronomers based at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) have found a hint of the way it behaves near black holes. Their results appear in a letter in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

In the early Universe clumps of dark matter are thought to have attracted gas, which then coalesced into stars that eventually assembled the galaxies we see today. In their efforts to understand galaxy formation and evolution, astronomers have spent a good deal of time attempting to simulate the build up of dark matter in these objects.

The UNAM astronomers, Dr. Xavier Hernandez and Dr. William Lee, calculated the way in which the black holes found at the centre of galaxies absorb dark matter. These black holes have anything between millions and billions of times the mass of the Sun and draw in material at a high rate.

The researchers modelled the way in which the dark matter is absorbed by black holes and found that the rate at which this happens is very sensitive to the amount of dark matter found in the black holes’ vicinity. If this concentration were larger than a critical density of 7 Suns of matter spread over each cubic light year of space, the black hole mass would increase so rapidly, hence engulfing such large amounts of dark matter, that soon the entire galaxy would be altered beyond recognition.

Dr. Hernandez explains, “Over the billions of years since galaxies formed, such runaway absorption of dark matter in black holes would have altered the population of galaxies away from what we actually observe.”

Their work therefore suggests that the density of dark matter in the centres of galaxies tends to a constant value. By comparing their observations to what current models of the evolution of the Universe predict, Hernandez and Lee conclude that it is probably necessary to change some of the assumptions that underpin these models – dark matter may not behave in the way scientists thought it did.

CONTACTS

Dr. Xavier Hernandez
Institute of Astronomy
National Autonomous University of Mexico
Tel: +52 55 5622 3906
E-mail: xavier@astroscu.unam.mx

Dr. William H. Lee
National Autonomous University of Mexico
Tel: +52 55 5622 3906
E-mail: wlee@astroscu.unam.mx

Dr. Robert Massey
RAS Press and Policy Officer
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: rm@ras.org.uk

IMAGE AND CAPTION

Image can be downloaded from http://www.astroscu.unam.mx/~wlee/FigurePR.pdf

FURTHER INFORMATION

A preprint of the paper can be seen at http://arxiv.org/abs/1002.0553

NOTES FOR EDITORS

The Royal Astronomical Society

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. www.ras.org.uk

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APEX Snaps First Close-up of Star Factories in Distant Universe

PR Image eso1012a
Star factories in the distant Universe (artist’s impression)

PR Image eso1012b
Star factories in the distant Universe (artist’s impression)

Chance discovery reveals star factories in the distant Universe

The region around SMM J2135-0102 and the galaxy cluster MACS J2135-010217

PR Image eso1012e
The galaxy cluster MACS J2135-010217 lensing SMM J2135-0102

PR Video eso1012a
Chance discovery reveals star factories in the distant Universe

For the first time, astronomers have made direct measurements of the size and brightness of regions of star-birth in a very distant galaxy, thanks to a chance discovery with the APEX telescope. The galaxy is so distant, and its light has taken so long to reach us, that we see it as it was 10 billion years ago. A cosmic “gravitational lens” is magnifying the galaxy, giving us a close-up view that would otherwise be impossible. This lucky break reveals a hectic and vigorous star-forming life for galaxies in the early Universe, with stellar nurseries forming one hundred times faster than in more recent galaxies. The research is published online today in the journal Nature.

Astronomers were observing a massive galaxy cluster [1] with the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope, using submillimetre wavelengths of light, when they found a new and uniquely bright galaxy, more distant than the cluster and the brightest very distant galaxy ever seen at submillimetre wavelengths. It is so bright because the cosmic dust grains in the galaxy are glowing after being heated by starlight. The new galaxy has been given the name SMM J2135-0102.

“We were stunned to find a surprisingly bright object that wasn’t at the expected position. We soon realised it was a previously unknown and more distant galaxy being magnified by the closer galaxy cluster,” says Carlos De Breuck from ESO, a member of the team. De Breuck was making the observations at the APEX telescope on the plateau of Chajnantor at an altitude of 5000 m in the Chilean Andes.

The new galaxy SMM J2135-0102 is so bright because of the massive galaxy cluster that lies in the foreground. The vast mass of this cluster bends the light of the more distant galaxy, acting as a gravitational lens [2]. As with a telescope, it magnifies and brightens our view of the distant galaxy. Thanks to a fortuitous alignment between the cluster and the distant galaxy, the latter is strongly magnified by a factor of 32.

“The magnification reveals the galaxy in unprecedented detail, even though it is so distant that its light has taken about 10 billion years to reach us,” explains Mark Swinbank from Durham University, lead author of the paper reporting the discovery. “In follow-up observations with the Submillimeter Array telescope, we’ve been able to study the clouds where stars are forming in the galaxy with great precision.”

The magnification means that the star-forming clouds can be picked out in the galaxy, down to a scale of only a few hundred light-years — almost down to the size of giant clouds in our own Milky Way. To see this level of detail without the help of the gravitational lens would need future telescopes such as ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), which is currently under construction on the same plateau as APEX. This lucky discovery has therefore given astronomers a unique preview of the science that will be possible in a few years time.

These “star factories” are similar in size to those in the Milky Way, but one hundred times more luminous, suggesting that star formation in the early life of these galaxies is a much more vigorous process than typically found in galaxies that lie nearer to us in time and space. In many ways, the clouds look more similar to the densest cores of star-forming clouds in the nearby Universe.

“We estimate that SMM J2135-0102 is producing stars at a rate that is equivalent to about 250 Suns per year,” says de Breuck. “The star formation in its large dust clouds is unlike that in the nearby Universe, but our observations also suggest that we should be able to use similar underlying physics from the densest stellar nurseries in nearby galaxies to understand star birth in these more distant galaxies.”

Notes

[1] Galaxy clusters are among the most massive objects in the Universe kept together by gravity. They are composed of hundreds to thousands of galaxies, which make up to only about a tenth of their total mass. The bulk of their mass, which amounts to up to a million billion [1015] times the mass of our Sun, is composed of hot gas and dark matter. In this case, the cluster being observed has the designation MACS J2135-010217 (or MACS J213512.10-010258.5), and is at a distance of about four billion light-years.

[2] Gravitational lensing is an effect forecast by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Due to their gigantic mass and their intermediate position between us and very distant galaxies, galaxy clusters act as extremely efficient gravitational lenses, bending the light coming from background galaxies. Depending on the cluster mass distribution a host of interesting effects are produced, such as magnification, shape distortions, giant arcs, and multiple images of the same source.

More information

This research was presented in a paper, “Intense star formation within resolved compact regions in a galaxy at z=2.3” (A. M. Swinbank et al., DOI 10.1038/nature08880) to appear online in Nature today.

The team is composed of A. M. Swinbank, I. Smail, J. Richard, A. C. Edge, and K. E. K. Coppin (Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham University, UK), S. Longmore, R. Blundell, M. Gurwell, and D. Wilner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics, USA), A. I. Harris and L. J. Hainline (Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland, USA), A.J. Baker (Department of Physics and Astronomy, Rutgers, University of New Jersey, USA), C. De Breuck, A. Lundgren and G. Siringo (ESO), R. J. Ivison (UKATC and Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, UK), P. Cox, M. Krips and R. Neri (Institut de Radio Astronomie Millimétrique, France), B. Siana (California Institute of Technology, USA), D. P. Stark (Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK), and J. D. Younger (Institute for Advanced Study, USA).

The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope is a 12-metre telescope, located at 5100 m altitude on the arid plateau of Chajnantor in the Chilean Andes. APEX operates at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths. This wavelength range is a relatively unexplored frontier in astronomy, requiring advanced detectors and an extremely high and dry observatory site, such as Chajnantor. APEX, the largest submillimetre-wave telescope operating in the southern hemisphere, is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, the Onsala Space Observatory and ESO. Operation of APEX at Chajnantor is entrusted to ESO. APEX is a “pathfinder” for ALMA — it is based on a prototype antenna constructed for the ALMA project, it is located on the same plateau and will find many targets that ALMA will be able to study in extreme detail.

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”.

Links

Research paper (preprint)
More information about APEX: http://www.eso.org/public/teles-instr/apex/

Contacts

Mark Swinbank
Durham University
Durham, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 191 334 3786
Email: a.m.swinbank@durham.ac.uk

Carlos de Breuck
ESO
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6613 (until 23 March available on +1 626 272 8473, time zone PDT, USA)
Email: cdebreuc@eso.org

Douglas Pierce-Price
ESO
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6759
Email: dpiercep@eso.org

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Experience Hubble's Universe in 3-D

Watch the Video

Credit: NASA, G. Bacon, L. Frattare, Z. Levay,
and F. Summers (STScI/AURA)

Take an exhilarating ride through the Orion Nebula, a vast star-making factory 1,500 light-years away. Swoop through Orion's giant canyon of gas and dust. Fly past behemoth stars whose brilliant light illuminates and energizes the entire cloudy region. Zoom by dusty tadpole-shaped objects that are fledgling solar systems.

This virtual space journey isn't the latest video game but one of several groundbreaking astronomy visualizations created by specialists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, the science operations center for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The cinematic space odysseys are part of the new Imax film "Hubble 3D," which opens today at select Imax theaters worldwide.

The 43-minute movie chronicles the 20-year life of Hubble and includes highlights from the May 2009 servicing mission to the Earth-orbiting observatory, with footage taken by the astronauts.

The giant-screen film showcases some of Hubble's breathtaking iconic pictures, such as the Eagle Nebula's "Pillars of Creation," as well as stunning views taken by the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3.

While Hubble pictures of celestial objects are awe-inspiring, they are flat 2-D photographs. For this film, those 2-D images have been converted into 3-D environments, giving the audience the impression they are space travelers taking a tour of Hubble's most popular targets.

"A large-format movie is a truly immersive experience," says Frank Summers, an STScI astronomer and science visualization specialist who led the team that developed the movie visualizations. The team labored for nine months, working on four visualization sequences that comprise about 12 minutes of the movie.

"Seeing these Hubble images in 3-D, you feel like you are flying through space and not just looking at picture postcards," Summers continued. "The spacescapes are all based on Hubble images and data, though some artistic license is necessary to produce the full depth of field needed for 3-D."

The most ambitious sequence is a four-minute voyage through the Orion Nebula's gas-and-dust canyon, about 15 light-years across. During the ride, viewers will see bright and dark, gaseous clouds; thousands of stars, including a grouping of bright, hefty stars called the Trapezium; and embryonic planetary systems. The tour ends with a detailed look at a young circumstellar disk, which is much like the structure from which our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Based on a Hubble image of Orion released in 2006, the visualization was a collaborative effort between science visualization specialists at STScI, including Greg Bacon, who sculpted the Orion Nebula digital model, with input from STScI astronomer Massimo Roberto; the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For some of the sequences, STScI imaging specialists developed new techniques for transforming the 2-D Hubble images into 3-D. STScI image processing specialists Lisa Frattare and Zolt Levay, for example, created methods of splitting a giant gaseous pillar in the Carina Nebula into multiple layers to produce a 3-D effect, giving the structure depth. The Carina Nebula is a nursery for baby stars.

Frattare painstakingly removed the thousands of stars in the image so that Levay could separate the gaseous layers on the isolated Carina pillar. Frattare then replaced the stars into both foreground and background layers to complete the 3-D model. For added effect, the same separation was done for both visible and infrared Hubble images, allowing the film to cross-fade between wavelength views in 3-D.

In another sequence viewers fly into a field of 170,000 stars in the giant star cluster Omega Centauri. STScI astronomer Jay Anderson used his stellar database to create a synthetic star field in 3-D that matches recent razor-sharp Hubble photos.

The film's final four-minute sequence takes viewers on a voyage from our Milky Way Galaxy past many of Hubble's best galaxy shots and deep into space. Some 15,000 galaxies from Hubble's deepest surveys stretch billions of light-years across the universe in a 3-D sequence created by STScI astronomers and visualizers. The view dissolves into a cobweb that traces the universe's large-scale structure, the backbone from which galaxies were born.

In addition to creating visualizations, STScI's education group also provided guidance on the "Hubble 3D" Educator Guide, which includes standards-based lesson plans and activities about Hubble and its mission. Students will use the guide before or after seeing the movie.

"The guide will enhance the movie experience for students and extend the movie into classrooms," says Bonnie Eisenhamer, STScI's Hubble Formal Education manager.

CONTACT

Donna Weaver
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
410-338-4493

dweaver@stsci.edu

Frank Summers
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
410-338-4749

summers@stsci.edu

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

First Temperate Exoplanet Sized Up

Artist’s impression of Corot-9b

Artist’s impression of Corot-9b
Artist’s impression of Corot-9b (orbit)

Artist’s impression of Corot-9b (transit)

Combining observations from the CoRoT satellite and the ESO HARPS instrument, astronomers have discovered the first “normal” exoplanet that can be studied in great detail. Designated Corot-9b, the planet regularly passes in front of a star similar to the Sun located 1500 light-years away from Earth towards the constellation of Serpens (the Snake).

“This is a normal, temperate exoplanet just like dozens we already know, but this is the first whose properties we can study in depth,” says Claire Moutou, who is part of the international team of 60 astronomers that made the discovery. “It is bound to become a Rosetta stone in exoplanet research.”

“Corot-9b is the first exoplanet that really does resemble planets in our solar system,” adds lead author Hans Deeg. “It has the size of Jupiter and an orbit similar to that of Mercury.”

“Like our own giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, the planet is mostly made of hydrogen and helium,” says team member Tristan Guillot, “and it may contain up to 20 Earth masses of other elements, including water and rock at high temperatures and pressures.”

Corot-9b passes in front of its host star every 95 days, as seen from Earth [1]. This “transit” lasts for about 8 hours, and provides astronomers with much additional information on the planet. This is fortunate as the gas giant shares many features with the majority of exoplanets discovered so far [2].

“Our analysis has provided more information on Corot-9b than for other exoplanets of the same type,” says co-author Didier Queloz. “It may open up a new field of research to understand the atmospheres of moderate- and low-temperature planets, and in particular a completely new window in our understanding of low-temperature chemistry.”

More than 400 exoplanets have been discovered so far, 70 of them through the transit method. Corot-9b is special in that its distance from its host star is about ten times larger than that of any planet previously discovered by this method. And unlike all such exoplanets, the planet has a temperate climate. The temperature of its gaseous surface is expected to be between 160 degrees and minus twenty degrees Celsius, with minimal variations between day and night. The exact value depends on the possible presence of a layer of highly reflective clouds.

The CoRoT satellite, operated by the French space agency CNES [3], identified the planet after 145 days of observations during the summer of 2008. Observations with the very successful ESO exoplanet hunter — the HARPS instrument attached to the 3.6-metre ESO telescope at La Silla in Chile — allowed the astronomers to measure its mass, confirming that Corot-9b is indeed an exoplanet, with a mass about 80% the mass of Jupiter.

This finding is being published in this week’s edition of the journal Nature.
Notes

[1] A planetary transit occurs when a celestial body passes in front of its host star and blocks some of the star’s light. This type of eclipse causes changes in the apparent brightness of the star and enables the planet’s diameter to be measured. Combined with radial velocity measurements made by the HARPS spectrograph, it is also possible to deduce the mass and, hence, the density of the planet. It is this combination that allows astronomers to study this object in great detail. The fact that it is transiting — but nevertheless not so close to its star to be a “hot Jupiter” — is what makes this object uniquely well suited for further studies.

[2] Temperate gas giants are, so far, the largest known group of exoplanets discovered.

[3] The CoRoT (Convection, Rotation and Transits) space telescope was constructed by CNES, with contributions from Austria, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Brazil and the European Space Agency (ESA). It was specifically designed to detect transiting exoplanets and carry out seismological studies of stars. Its results are supplemented by observations with several ground-based telescopes, among them the IAC-80 (Teide Observatory), the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (Hawaii), the Isaac Newton Telescope (Roque de los Muchachos Observatory), Wise Observatory (Israel), the Faulkes North Telescope of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (Hawaii) and the ESO 3.6-metre telescope (Chile).

More information

This research was presented in a paper published this week in Nature (“A transiting giant planet with a temperature between 250 K and 430 K”), by H. J. Deeg et al.

The team is composed of H.J. Deeg, B. Tingley, J.M. Almenara, and M. Rabus (Instituto de Astrofısica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain), C. Moutou, P. Barge, A. S. Bonomo, M. Deleuil, J.-C. Gazzano, L. Jorda, and A. Llebaria (Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Université de Provence, CNRS, OAMP, France), A. Erikson, Sz. Csizmadia, J. Cabrera, P. Kabath, H. Rauer (Institute of Planetary Research, German Aerospace Center, Berlin, Germany), H. Bruntt, M. Auvergne, A. Baglin, D. Rouan, and J. Schneider (Observatoire de Paris-Meudon, France), S. Aigrain and F. Pont (University of Exeter, UK), R. Alonso, C. Lovis, M. Mayor, F. Pepe, D. Queloz, and S. Udry (Observatoire de l'Université de Genève, Switzerland), M. Barbieri (Università di Padova, Italia), W. Benz (Universität Bern, Switzerland), P. Bordé, A. Léger, M. Ollivier, and B. Samuel (Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Université Paris XI, Orsay, France), F. Bouchy and G. Hébrard (IAP, Paris, France), L. Carone and M. Pätzold (Rheinisches Institut für Umweltforschung an der Universität zu Köln, Germany), S. Carpano, M. Fridlund, P. Gondoin, and R. den Hartog (ESTEC/ESA, Noordwijk, The Netherlands), D. Ciardi (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute/Caltech, USA), R. Dvorak (University of Vienna, Austria), S. Ferraz-Mello (Universidade de São Paulo, Brasil), D. Gandolfi, E. Guenther, A. Hatzes, G. Wuchterl, B. Stecklum (Thüringer Landessternwarte, Tautenburg, Germany), M. Gillon (University of Liège, Belgium), T. Guillot and M. Havel (Observatoire de la Côte d’ Azur, Nice, France), M. Hidas, T. Lister, and R. Street (Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, Santa Barbara, USA), H. Lammer and J. Weingrill (Space Research Institute, Austrian Academy of Science), and T. Mazeh and A. Shporer (Tel Aviv University, Israel).

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”.

Links

Research paper
More info: exoplanet media kit

Contacts

Didier Queloz
Geneva Observatory, University of Geneva
Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 379 2477
Email:
didier.queloz@unige.ch

Hans J. Deeg
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias
Tenerife, Spain
Tel: +34 922 605 244
Cell: +34 619 360 054
Email:
hdeeg@iac.es

Claire Moutou
Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille
Marseille, France
Tel: +33 4 91 05 59 66
Email:
claire.moutou@oamp.fr

Henri Boffin
ESO La Silla-Paranal/E-ELT Press Officer
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6222
Cell: +49 174 515 43 24
Email:
hboffin@eso.org

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NASA's Spitzer Unearths Primitive Black Holes


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)

Astronomers have come across what appear to be two of the earliest and most primitive supermassive black holes known. The discovery, based largely on observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, will provide a better understanding of the roots of our universe, and how the very first black holes, galaxies and stars came to be.

"We have found what are likely first-generation quasars, born in a dust-free medium and at the earliest stages of evolution," said Linhua Jiang of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Jiang is the lead author of a paper announcing the findings in the March 18 issue of Nature.

Black holes are beastly distortions of space and time. The most massive and active ones lurk at the cores of galaxies, and are usually surrounded by doughnut-shaped structures of dust and gas that feed and sustain the growing black holes. These hungry, supermassive black holes are called quasars.

As grimy and unkempt as our present-day universe is today, scientists believe the very early universe didn't have any dust -- which tells them that the most primitive quasars should also be dust-free. But nobody had seen such immaculate quasars -- until now. Spitzer has identified two -- the smallest on record -- about 13 billion light-years away from Earth.

The quasars, called J0005-0006 and J0303-0019, were first unveiled in visible light using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. That discovery team, which included Jiang, was led by Xiaohui Fan, a coauthor of the recent paper at the University of Arizona. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory had also observed X-rays from one of the objects. X-rays, ultraviolet and optical light stream out from quasars as the gas surrounding them is swallowed.

"Quasars emit an enormous amount of light, making them detectable literally at the edge of the observable universe," said Fan.

When Jiang and his colleagues set out to observe J0005-0006 and J0303-0019 with Spitzer between 2006 and 2009, their targets didn't stand out much from the usual quasar bunch. Spitzer measured infrared light from the objects along with 19 others, all belonging to a class of the most distant quasars known. Each quasar is anchored by a supermassive black hole weighing more than 100 million suns.

Of the 21 quasars, J0005-0006 and J0303-0019 lacked characteristic signatures of hot dust, the Spitzer data showed. Spitzer's infrared sight makes the space telescope ideally suited to detect the warm glow of dust that has been heated by feeding black holes.

"We think these early black holes are forming around the time when the dust was first forming in the universe, less than one billion years after the Big Bang," said Fan. "The primordial universe did not contain any molecules that could coagulate to form dust. The elements necessary for this process were produced and pumped into the universe later by stars."

The astronomers also observed that the amount of hot dust in a quasar goes up with the mass of its black hole. As a black hole grows, dust has more time to materialize around it. The black holes at the cores of J0005-0006 and J0303-0019 have the smallest measured masses known in the early universe, indicating they are particularly young, and at a stage when dust has not yet formed around them.

Other authors include W.N. Brandt of Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Chris L. Carilli of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Socorro, N.M.; Eiichi Egami of the University of Arizona; Dean C. Hines of the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.; Jaron D. Kurk of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany; Gordon T. Richards of Drexel University, Philadephia, Pa.; Yue Shen of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.; Michael A. Strauss of Princeton, N.J.; Marianne Vestergaard of the University of Arizona and Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark; and Fabian Walter of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany. Fan and Kurk were based in part at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy when this research was conducted.

The Spitzer observations were made before the telescope ran out of its liquid coolant in May 2009, beginning its "warm" mission.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif
.
whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

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