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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Keck Telescope Images Super-Luminous Supernova

Images of SN 2008am obtained with the Keck I telescope's Low Resolution Imaging Spectrograph (LRIS). Credit: D. Perley & J. Bloom / W.M. Keck Observatory

Austin, Texas - The Keck I Telescope has played a key role in unraveling the mysteries of one of the brightest supernovas ever discovered.

The supernova, called Supernova 2008am, is 3.7 billion light-years away from Earth. At its peak luminosity, it was over 100 billion times brighter than the Sun. It emitted enough energy in one second to satisfy the power needs of the United States for one million times longer than the universe has existed. In-depth studies of this supernova, including images from the Keck I Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer, are helping a team of astronomers to understand the science behind this new class of exploding stars.

Supernova 2008am was discovered by astronomers led by graduate student Emmanouil “Manos” Chatzopoulos and Dr. J. Craig Wheeler of The University of Texas at Austin. It is the latest addition to a new class of exploding stars that astronomers identified a few years ago. Supernova 2008am is one of the most intrinsically bright exploding stars ever observed. The team’s research reveals that this supernova is the brightest “self-interacting” supernova yet discovered. In this type of stellar explosion, the extreme brightness is caused by interaction between the explosion shockwave and a shell of material previously expelled from the star. This research is published in the current issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The supernova was discovered by the ROTSE Supernova Verification Project (RSVP, formerly called the Texas Supernova Search), which uses the 18-inch robotic ROTSE IIIb Telescope at The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory. It was followed up by astronomers using some of the world’s largest ground-based telescopes, as well as telescopes in space, in a variety of wavelengths. These include the Keck I Telescope, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, PAIRITEL, the Very Large Array, and the Swift satellite.

Chatzopoulos’ detailed analysis of the light from SN 2008am revealed that it is not a pair-instability supernova, the explosion of a massive star the light from which is powered by radioactive decay.
Rather, this supernova’s extraordinary luminosity most likely comes from interaction between the debris from the star’s explosion running into an envelope of gas around the star that the star had previously ejected. This model is called “circumstellar interaction.”

The researchers suspect that the progenitor star for this supernova might have been of the type known as a “luminous blue variable.” These massive stars puff off layers of material in episodes. The most famous example is Eta Carinae.

Prior to this discovery, the Texas Supernova Search found the first two “brightest supernovae ever” in SN 2005ap and 2006gy. The group has found five of the dozen published examples of this new class of stars, which it has dubbed “super-luminous supernovae,” or SLSNe.

SLSNe are about 100 times brighter than standard core-collapse supernovae, but extremely rare. Normal supernovae go off at a rate of about one per century in a galaxy; SLSNe may be more than a thousand times more rare.

“We’re now in the process of converting our discoveries into real science rather than just a new thing,” Wheeler said. “That makes it a little bit less flashy, but of course that’s where the science really is, digging deeply into the nature of these very bright events. This new supernova has given us important new clues to their behavior.”

Studies of SLSNe have led to new insights, Chatzopoulos said. “For the first time, we’re probing high-mass stellar death. The traditional ideas we have about how supernovae are powered, why they are so bright, do not seem to apply for the case of these super-luminous supernovae. There are other mechanisms involved.”

Not all SLSNe are the same. “There’s a variety of progenitor stars that can give different outcomes,” Chatztopoulos said. “It’s a zoo.”
The common factor is their luminosity.

The fate of different stars depends on their mass, Wheeler said. He defines three categories of high-mass stars that explode as

In the least massive case, around 10 to 20 solar masses, a star collapses in on itself because its iron core cannot hold out against the crushing gravity of the star’s weight. This is the classic “core-collapse supernova” with normal brightness.

The second progenitor category consists of more massive stars, perhaps up to 100 solar masses. This type of star puffs off layers of material before it dies. The interaction between the supernova ejecta and the previously puffed-off material can cause the supernova to brighten to the super-luminous range.

The final category includes the most massive progenitor stars, those more than 100 solar masses. In this case, “the current state of the art predicts that they make matter and antimatter, electron-positron pairs, because they are so hot,” Wheeler said. “That process destabilizes the whole star and it contracts, ignites the thermonuclear fuel, and then explodes, blowing the whole star up.”
These are called “pair-instability” supernovae.

Of the three types of explosions Wheeler describes, the first two would leave behind a stellar remnant in the form of a neutron star or black hole. The third and most massive, though, would explode completely, leaving no remnant.

Though they set a record, the team isn’t finished studying super-luminous supernovae. Their work on understanding SN 2008am might explain the origins of half of the known examples, but as Wheeler said, “to a scientist, the interesting thing is, what’s the other half? ... We want to understand them all before we’re done.”

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. The twin telescopes feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectroscopy and a world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics system which cancels out much of the interference caused by Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. The Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.

This press release was adapted from

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Rose-red Glow of Star Formation

PR Image eso1111a
The star cluster and nebula NGC 371

The star cluster and nebula NGC 371 in the constellation of Tucana

PR Video eso1111a
Zooming in on the cluster and nebula NGC 371

The vivid red cloud in this new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope is a region of glowing hydrogen surrounding the star cluster NGC 371. This stellar nursery lies in our neighbouring galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud.

The object dominating this image may resemble a pool of spilled blood, but rather than being associated with death, such regions of ionised hydrogen — known as HII regions — are sites of creation with high rates of recent star birth. NGC 371 is an example of this; it is an open cluster surrounded by a nebula. The stars in open clusters all originate from the same diffuse HII region, and over time the majority of the hydrogen is used up by star formation, leaving behind a shell of hydrogen such as the one in this image, along with a cluster of hot young stars.

The host galaxy to NGC 371, the Small Magellanic Cloud, is a dwarf galaxy a mere 200 000 light-years away, which makes it one of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way. In addition, the Small Magellanic Cloud contains stars at all stages of their evolution; from the highly luminous young stars found in NGC 371 to supernova remnants of dead stars. These energetic youngsters emit copious amounts of ultraviolet radiation causing surrounding gas, such as leftover hydrogen from their parent nebula, to light up with a colourful glow that extends for hundreds of light-years in every direction. The phenomenon is depicted beautifully in this image, taken using the FORS1 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Open clusters are by no means rare; there are numerous fine examples in our own Milky Way. However, NGC 371 is of particular interest due to the unexpectedly large number of variable stars it contains. These are stars that change in brightness over time. A particularly interesting type of variable star, known as slowly pulsating B stars, can also be used to study the interior of stars through asteroseismology [1], and several of these have been confirmed in this cluster. Variable stars play a pivotal role in astronomy: some types are invaluable for determining distances to far-off galaxies and the age of the Universe.

The data for this image were selected from the ESO archive by Manu Mejias as part of the Hidden Treasures competition [2]. Three of Manu’s images made the top twenty; his picture of NGC 371 was ranked sixth in the competition.


[1] Asteroseismology is the study of the internal structure of pulsating stars by looking at the different frequencies at which they oscillate. This is a similar approach to the study of the structure of the Earth by looking at earthquakes and how their oscillations travel through the interior of the planet.

[2] ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 competition gave amateur astronomers the opportunity to search through ESO’s vast archives of astronomical data, hoping to find a well-hidden gem that needed polishing by the entrants. Participants submitted nearly 100 entries and ten skilled people were awarded some extremely attractive prizes, including an all expenses paid trip for the overall winner to ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, in Chile, the world’s most advanced optical telescope. The ten winners submitted a total of 20 images that were ranked as the highest entries in the competition out of the near 100 images.
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 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, 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”.


Richard Hook
ESO, La Silla, Paranal, E-ELT and Survey Telescopes Press Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655

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Australian Students Capture Dancing Galaxies

Figure 1: Image of NGC 6872 (left) and companion galaxy IC 4970 (right) locked in a tango as the two galaxies gravitationally interact. The galaxies lie about 200 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Pavo (the Peacock). Image credit: Sydney Girls High School Astronomy Club, Travis Rector (University of Alaska, Anchorage), Ángel López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory/Macquarie University), and the Australian Gemini Office. Download JPG 160 KB | TIFF 13.3 MB

Figure 2: Members of the SGHS Astronomy Club Executive Council receiving the Gemini image on behalf of the entire club.

L-R: Julia Picone-Murray, Katerina Papadakis, Mr Jeff Stanger (the teacher who led the Astronomy Club in 2010), Isabel Colman (Club president), Dr Christopher Onken (Deputy Australian Gemini Scientist), Dr Angel Lopez-Sanchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory), Vivian Yean, Juliet Schilling. Photo credit: Australian Gemini Office.

For the second consecutive year, high school students from across Australia joined in a competition to obtain scientifically useful (and aesthetically pleasing) images using the Gemini Observatory. The spectacular result of this contest, organized by the Australian Gemini Office (AusGO), is revealed here. As the 2010 winning student team suggested, Gemini targeted an interacting galaxy pair which, they assured, “would be more than just a pretty picture.”

The team, made up of students from the Sydney Girls High School (SGHS) Astronomy Club in central Sydney, proposed that Gemini investigate the galaxy pair NGC 6872 and IC 4970 (see Figure 1). The two galaxies are embraced in a graceful galactic dance that, as the team described in the essay to support their entry, “…will also serve to illustrate the situation faced by the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy in millions of years.”

The Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS), in its imaging mode on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, collected the photons for the stunning new image. At an event held at SGHS on March 22, 2011 (see Figure 2), the winning team and teachers viewed the image for the first time and filled the room with “oohs” and “aahs” when Christopher Onken (Australian National University/AusGO) unveiled it. Assisting Onken, Angel López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory/Macquarie University) highlighted many features of the image and explained galaxy interactions using computer animations and simulations.

The primary galaxy in the image (NGC 6872) exemplifies what happens when galaxies interact and their original structure and form is distorted. When galaxies like these grapple with each other, gravity tugs at their structures, catapulting spiral arms out to enormous distances. In NGC 6872, the arms have been stretched out to span hundreds of thousands of light-years—many times further than the spiral arms of our own Milky Way galaxy. Over hundreds of millions of years, NGC 6872’s arms will fall back toward the central part of the galaxy, and the companion galaxy (IC 4970) will eventually be merged into NGC 6872. The coalescence of galaxies often leads to a burst of new star formation. Already, the blue light of recently created star clusters dot the outer reaches of NGC 6872’s elongated arms. Dark fingers of dust and gas along the arms soak up the visible light. That dust and gas is the raw material out of which future generations of stars could be born.

Searching for these dynamics was a key feature in the essay written by the winning team. To justify the scientific merit of obtaining this image, the team suggested that, “If enough colour data is obtained in the image it may reveal easily accessible information about the different populations of stars, star formation, relative rate of star formation due to the interaction, and the extent of dust and gas present in these galaxies.” The team also presented a more emotional perspective by looking at the impact this image might have on people trying to understand our place in the universe. When viewers consider this image “in contrast to their daily life,” the team explained, “there is a significant possibility of a new awareness or perception of the age and scale of the universe, and their part in it.”

Once the student essays from across Australia were submitted, a volunteer committee (representing science, education, journalism and art) carefully reviewed the submissions to determine a winner. Once the winning team emerged, work began to collect the data. Travis Rector (University of Alaska, Anchorage) planned the details of the observations and selected filters that would bring out the beautiful features of the colliding galaxies when the image was obtained later in 2010.

All three of the top entries earned their classes a “Live from Gemini” event, using a video link between the students and the Gemini control room, for an interactive introduction to the observatory by members of Gemini’s Public Information and Outreach Office. Each of the classes came prepared with probing questions about black holes, galaxies, and exoplanets, which were answered by staff at Gemini's base facility in Hilo Hawai‘i.

Ian Lightbody, who advised the Runner-Up school of Forest Lake College, comments, “The students had a great time and learned a lot. I know I did!”

A new contest is underway for Australian students in 2011, and more details can be found at:

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When is an Asteroid Not an Asteroid?

This image shows a model of the protoplanet Vesta, using scientists' best guess to date of what the surface of the protoplanet might look like. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/PSI. Full image and caption

On March 29, 1807, German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers spotted Vesta as a pinprick of light in the sky. Two hundred and four years later, as NASA's Dawn spacecraft prepares to begin orbiting this intriguing world, scientists now know how special this world is, even if there has been some debate on how to classify it.

Vesta is most commonly called an asteroid because it lies in the orbiting rubble patch known as the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But the vast majority of objects in the main belt are lightweights, 100-kilometers-wide (about 60-miles wide) or smaller, compared with Vesta, which is about 530 kilometers (330 miles) across on average. In fact, numerous bits of Vesta ejected by collisions with other objects have been identified in the main belt.

"I don't think Vesta should be called an asteroid," said Tom McCord, a Dawn co-investigator based at the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Wash. "Not only is Vesta so much larger, but it's an evolved object, unlike most things we call asteroids."

The layered structure of Vesta (core, mantle and crust) is the key trait that makes Vesta more like planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars than the other asteroids, McCord said. Like the planets, Vesta had sufficient radioactive material inside when it coalesced, releasing heat that melted rock and enabled lighter layers to float to the outside. Scientists call this process differentiation.

McCord and colleagues were the first to discover that Vesta was likely differentiated when special detectors on their telescopes in 1972 picked up the signature of basalt. That meant that the body had to have melted at one time.

Officially, Vesta is a "minor planet" -- a body that orbits the sun but is not a proper planet or comet. But there are more than 540,000 minor planets in our solar system, so the label doesn't give Vesta much distinction. Dwarf planets – which include Dawn's second destination, Ceres -- are another category, but Vesta doesn't qualify as one of those. For one thing, Vesta isn't quite large enough.

Dawn scientists prefer to think of Vesta as a protoplanet because it is a dense, layered body that orbits the sun and began in the same fashion as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, but somehow never fully developed. In the swinging early history of the solar system, objects became planets by merging with other Vesta-sized objects. But Vesta never found a partner during the big dance, and the critical time passed. It may have had to do with the nearby presence of Jupiter, the neighborhood's gravitational superpower, disturbing the orbits of objects and hogging the dance partners.

Other space rocks have collided with Vesta and knocked off bits of it. Those became debris in the asteroid belt known as Vestoids, and even hundreds of meteorites that have ended up on Earth. But Vesta never collided with something of sufficient size to disrupt it, and it remained intact. As a result, Vesta is a time capsule from that earlier era.

"This gritty little protoplanet has survived bombardment in the asteroid belt for over 4.5 billion years, making its surface possibly the oldest planetary surface in the solar system," said Christopher Russell, Dawn's principal investigator, based at UCLA. "Studying Vesta will enable us to write a much better history of the solar system's turbulent youth."

Dawn's scientists and engineers have designed a master plan to investigate these special features of Vesta. When Dawn arrives at Vesta in July, the south pole will be in full sunlight, giving scientists a clear view of a huge crater at the south pole. That crater may reveal the layer cake of materials inside Vesta that will tell us how the body evolved after formation. The orbit design allows Dawn to map new terrain as the seasons progress over its 12-month visit. The spacecraft will make many measurements, including high-resolution data on surface composition, topography and texture. The spacecraft will also measure the tug of Vesta's gravity to learn more about its internal structure.

"Dawn's ion thrusters are gently carrying us toward Vesta, and the spacecraft is getting ready for its big year of exploration," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We have designed our mission to get the most out of this opportunity to reveal the exciting secrets of this uncharted, exotic world."

The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Dawn mission is part of the Discovery Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., designed and built the Dawn spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Society, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission team.

For more information about Dawn, visit and .

Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

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Cluster’s Deceptive Serenity Hides Violent Past

Messier 12 Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Click to Enlarge

The high concentration of stars within globular clusters, like Messier 12, shown here in an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, makes them beautiful photographic targets. But the cramped living quarters in these clusters also makes them home to exotic binary star systems where two stars are locked in tight orbits around each other and matter from one is gobbled up by its companion, releasing X-rays. It is thought that such X-ray binaries form from very close encounters between stars in crowded regions, such as globular clusters, and even though Messier 12 is fairly diffuse by globular cluster standards, such X-ray sources have been spotted there.

Astronomers have also discovered that Messier 12 is home to far fewer low-mass stars than was previously expected (eso0604). In a recent study, astronomers used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal, Chile, to measure the brightness and colours of more than 16 000 of the globular’s 200 000 stars. They speculate that nearly one million low-mass stars have been ripped away from Messier 12 as the globular has passed through the densest regions of the Milky Way during its orbit around the galactic centre.

It seems that the serenity of this view of Messier 12 is misleading and the object has had a violent and disturbed past.

Messier 12 lies about 23 000 light-years away in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). This image was taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The colour image was created from exposures through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue), a red filter (F625W, coloured green) and a filter that passes near-infrared light (F814W coloured red). The total exposure times were 1360 s, 200 s and 364 s, respectively. The field of view is about 3.2 x 3.1 arcminutes .

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Suzaku Shows Clearest Picture Yet of Perseus Galaxy Cluster

X-ray observations made by the Suzaku observatory provide the clearest picture to date of the size, mass and chemical content of a nearby cluster of galaxies. The study also provides the first direct evidence that million-degree gas clouds are tightly gathered in the cluster's outskirts.

Suzaku explored faint X-ray emission of hot gas across two swaths of the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. The images, which record X-rays with energies between 700 and 7,000 electron volts in a combined exposure of three days, are shown in two false-color strips. Bluer colors indicate less intense X-ray emission. The dashed circle is 11.6 million light-years across and marks the so-called virial radius, where cold gas is now entering the cluster. Red circles indicate X-ray sources not associated with the cluster. Inset: An image of the cluster's bright central region taken by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown to scale. (Credits: NASA/ISAS/DSS/A. Simionescu et al.; inset: NASA/CXC/A. Fabian et al.) › Larger image. › Larger image (unlabeled)

Suzaku is sponsored by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) with contributions from NASA and participation by the international scientific community. The findings will appear in the March 25 issue of the journal Science.

Galaxy clusters are millions of light-years across, and most of their normal matter comes in the form of hot X-ray-emitting gas that fills the space between the galaxies.

"Understanding the content of normal matter in galaxy clusters is a key element for using these objects to study the evolution of the universe," explained Adam Mantz, a co-author of the paper at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Clusters provide independent checks on cosmological values established by other means, such as galaxy surveys, exploding stars and the cosmic microwave background, which is the remnant glow of the Big Bang. The cluster data and the other values didn't agree.

NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) explored the cosmic microwave background and established that baryons -- what physicists call normal matter -- make up only about 4.6 percent of the universe. Yet previous studies showed that galaxy clusters seemed to hold even fewer baryons than this amount.

Suzaku images of faint gas at the fringes of a nearby galaxy cluster have allowed astronomers to resolve this discrepancy for the first time.

The satellite's ideal target for this study was the Perseus Galaxy Cluster, which is located about 250 million light-years away and named for the constellation in which it resides. It is the brightest extended X-ray source beyond our own galaxy, and also the brightest and closest cluster in which Suzaku has attempted to map outlying gas.

"Before Suzaku, our knowledge of the properties of this gas was limited to the innermost parts of clusters, where the X-ray emission is brightest, but this left a huge volume essentially unexplored," said Aurora Simionescu, the study's lead researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University.

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows NGC 1275, the galaxy located in the center of the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. The red threadlike filaments are composed of cool gas suspended by a magnetic field. (Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration). › Larger image

In late 2009, Suzaku's X-ray telescopes repeatedly observed the cluster by progressively imaging areas farther east and northwest of the center. Each set of images probed sky regions two degrees across -- equivalent to four times the apparent width of the full moon or about 9 million light-years at the cluster's distance. Staring at the cluster for about three days, the satellite mapped X-rays with energies hundreds of times greater than that of visible light.

From the data, researchers measured the density and temperature of the faint X-ray gas, which let them infer many other important quantities. One is the so-called virial radius, which essentially marks the edge of the cluster. Based on this measurement, the cluster is 11.6 million light-years across and contains more than 660 trillion times the mass of the sun. That's nearly a thousand times the mass of our Milky Way galaxy.

The researchers also determined the ratio of the cluster's gas mass to its total mass, including dark matter -- the mysterious substance that makes up about 23 percent of the universe, according to WMAP. By virtue of their enormous size, galaxy clusters should contain a representative sample of cosmic matter, with normal-to-dark-matter ratios similar to WMAP's. Yet the outer parts of the Perseus cluster seemed to contain too many baryons, the opposite of earlier studies, but still in conflict with WMAP.

To solve the problem, researchers had to understand the distribution of hot gas in the cluster, the researchers say. In the central regions, the gas is repeatedly whipped up and smoothed out by passing galaxies. But computer simulations show that fresh infalling gas at the cluster edge tends to form irregular clumps.

Not accounting for the clumping overestimates the density of the gas. This is what led to the apparent disagreement with the fraction of normal matter found in the cosmic microwave background.

"The distribution of these clumps and the fact that they are not immediately destroyed as they enter the cluster are important clues in understanding the physical processes that take place in these previously unexplored regions," said Steve Allen at KIPAC, the principal investigator of the Suzaku observations.

Goddard supplied Suzaku's X-ray telescopes and data-processing software, and it continues to operate a facility that supports U.S. astronomers who use the spacecraft.

Suzaku ( Japanese for "red bird of the south") is the fifth Japanese X-ray astronomy satellite. It was launched as Astro-E2 on July 10, 2005, and renamed in orbit. The observatory was developed at JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in collaboration with NASA and other Japanese and U.S. institutions.

Text issued as NASA Headquarters Release No. 11-087

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Tycho's Supernova Remnant: Exploding Stars and Stripes

Tycho supernova remnant

This image comes from a very deep Chandra observation of the Tycho supernova remnant, produced by the explosion of a white dwarf star in our Galaxy.
Low-energy X-rays (red) in the image show expanding debris from the supernova explosion and high energy X-rays (blue) show the blast wave, a shell of extremely energetic electrons . These high-energy X-rays show a pattern of X-ray "stripes" never previously seen in a supernova remnant. By rolling the mouse over the color image above, two regions containing stripes in the high energy image can be seen superimposed on the full color version. Some of the brightest stripes can also directly be seen in the full color image, on the right side of the remnant pointing from the outer rim to the interior. The stellar background is from the Digitized Sky Survey and only shows stars outside the remnant.

These stripes may provide the first direct evidence that supernova remnants can accelerate particles to energies a hundred times higher than achieved by the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth, the Large Hadron Collider. The results could explain how some of the extremely energetic particles bombarding the Earth, called cosmic rays, are produced, and they provide support for a theory about how magnetic fields can be dramatically amplified in such blast waves.

The X-ray stripes are thought to be regions where the turbulence is greater and the magnetic fields more tangled than surrounding areas . Electrons become trapped in these regions and emit X-rays as they spiral around the magnetic field lines. Regions with enhanced turbulence and magnetic fields were expected in supernova remnants, but the motion of the most energetic particles -- mostly protons -- was predicted to leave a messy network of holes and dense walls corresponding to weak and strong regions of magnetic fields, respectively. Therefore, the detection of stripes was a surprise.

The size of the holes was expected to correspond to the radius of the spiraling motion of the highest energy protons in the supernova remnant. These energies equal the highest energies of cosmic rays thought to be produced in our Galaxy. The spacing between the stripes corresponds to this size, providing evidence for the existence of these extremely energetic protons.

The Tycho supernova remnant is named for the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who reported observing the supernova in 1572. It is located in the Milky Way, about 13,000 light years from Earth. Because of its proximity and intrinsic brightness, the supernova was so bright that it could be seen during the daytime with the naked eye.

Fast Facts for Tycho's Supernova Remnant:

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al.; Optical: DSS
Scale: Image is 19 arcmin across (about 55 light years)
Category: Supernovas & Supernova Remnants
Coordinates: (J2000) RA 00h 25m 17s | Dec +64° 08' 37"
Constellation: Cassiopeia
Observation Date: 9 pointings between April 13 and May 3, 2009
Observation Time: 207 hours 15 min (8 days 15 hours 15 min)
Obs. ID: 10093-10097; 10902-10904; 10906
Color Code: Energy: Red 1.6-2.15 keV, Green 7.15-9.3 keV, Blue 4-6 keV
Instrument: ACIS
Also Known As: G120.1+01.4, SN 1572
References: K.Eriksen et al. 2011, ApJL, 728:L28; arXiv:1101.1454
Distance Estimate: About 13,000 light years

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Integral Spots Matter a Millisecond from Doom

An artist's impression of the Cygnus X-1 black hole system. Gas from a nearby supergiant star spirals down into the black hole but a small fraction is diverted by magnetic fields into jets that shoot back into space. Credits: ESA

ESA’s Integral gamma-ray observatory has spotted extremely hot matter just a millisecond before it plunges into the oblivion of a black hole. But is it really doomed? These unique observations suggest that some of the matter may be making a great escape.

No one would want to be so close to a black hole. Just a few hundred kilometres away from its deadly surface, space is a maelstrom of particles and radiation. Vast storms of particles are falling to their doom at close to the speed of light, raising the temperature to millions of degrees.

Ordinarily, it takes just a millisecond for the particles to cross this final distance but hope may be at hand for a small fraction of them.

Thanks to the new Integral observations, astronomers now know that this chaotic region is threaded by magnetic fields.

This is the first time that magnetic fields have been identified so close to a black hole. Most importantly, Integral shows they are highly structured magnetic fields that are forming an escape tunnel for some of the doomed particles.

The Imager on Board the Integral Satellite (IBIS) was first activated and put through its paces in November 2002. It captured this image during that test phase and shows not only Cygnus X-1 (centre) but also Cygnus X-3 (upper left). High-energy sources are shown with an 'X' followed by a number according to their strength. Cygnus X-3 is the third brightest high-energy emitter in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. Instead of a black hole, Cygnus X-3 is thought to be a neutron star (a tiny dead stellar core) pulling its companion star to pieces. Taken on 16 November 2002, the new IBIS observations support this theory. Cygnus X-1 is about 10 000 light years from Earth and one of the brightest high-energy emitters in the sky. It was discovered in 1966 and is thought to be a black hole, ripping its companion star to pieces. The companion star, HDE 226868, is a blue supergiant with a surface temperature of around 31 000 K. It orbits the black hole once every 5.6 days. Credits: ESA. Original image by the Integral IBIS team. Image processing by ESA/ECF.

Philippe Laurent, CEA Saclay, France, and colleagues made the discovery by studying the nearby black hole, Cygnus X-1, which is ripping a companion star to pieces and feeding on its gas.

Their evidence points to the magnetic field being strong enough to tear away particles from the black hole’s gravitational clutches and funnel them outwards, creating jets of matter that shoot into space. The particles in these jets are being drawn into spiral trajectories as they climb the magnetic field to freedom and this is affecting a property of their gamma-ray light known as polarisation.

A gamma ray, like ordinary light, is a kind of wave and the orientation of the wave is known as its polarisation. When a fast particle spirals in a magnetic field it produces a kind of light, known as synchrotron emission, which displays a characteristic pattern of polarisation. It is this polarisation that the team have found in the gamma rays. It was a difficult observation to make.

“We had to use almost every observation Integral has ever made of Cygnus X-1 to make this detection,” says Laurent.

This is an artist’s impression of ESA’s orbiting gamma-ray observatory, Integral.
Credits: ESA

Amassed over seven years, these repeated observations of the black hole now total over five million seconds of observing time, the equivalent of taking a single image with an exposure time of more than two months. Laurent’s team added them all together to create just such an exposure.

“We still do not know exactly how the infalling matter is turned into the jets. There is a big debate among theoreticians; these observations will help them decide,” says Laurent.

Jets around black holes have been seen before by radio telescopes but such observations cannot see the black hole in sufficient detail to know exactly how close to the black hole the jets originate. That makes these new observations invaluable.

"This discovery of polarized emission from a black hole jet is a unique result demonstrating that Integral, which is covering the high-energy band in ESA's wide spectrum of scientific missions, continues to produce key results more than eight years after its launch," says Christoph Winkler, ESA Integral Project Scientist.

Contact for further information

Markus Bauer
ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Communication Officer
Tel: +31 71 565 6799
Mob: +31 61 594 3 954

Philippe Laurent
Integral/IBIS Instrument Scientist
IRFU / Service d'Astrophysique, CEA Saclay
Laboratoire APC
Tel: +33 1 69 08 80 66 / +33 1 57 27 60 72

Christoph Winkler
ESA Integral Project Scientist
Tel: +31 71 565 3591

Notes for editors

Polarized Gamma-ray Emission from the Galactic Black Hole Cygnus X-1 by P. Laurent et al. is published online by Science today and will appear in a future issue of the printed journal.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Very Cool Pair of Brown Dwarfs

The coolest pair of brown dwarfs

PR Image eso1110b
The brown dwarf binary CFBDSIR 1458+10

PR Image eso1110c
Wide-field view of the sky around the brown dwarf binary CFBDSIR 1458+10

PR Video eso1110a
Zooming in on the brown dwarf binary CFBDSIR 1458+10

Observations with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, along with two other telescopes, have shown that there is a new candidate for the coldest known star: a brown dwarf in a double system with about the same temperature as a freshly made cup of tea — hot in human terms, but extraordinarily cold for the surface of a star. This object is cool enough to begin crossing the blurred line dividing small cold stars from big hot planets.

Brown dwarfs are essentially failed stars: they lack enough mass for gravity to trigger the nuclear reactions that make stars shine. The newly discovered brown dwarf, identified as CFBDSIR 1458+10B, is the dimmer member of a binary brown dwarf system located just 75 light-years from Earth [1].

The powerful X-shooter spectrograph on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) was used to show that the composite object was very cool by brown dwarf standards. "We were very excited to see that this object had such a low temperature, but we couldn’t have guessed that it would turn out to be a double system and have an even more interesting, even colder component," said Philippe Delorme of the Institut de planétologie et d’astrophysique de Grenoble (CNRS/Université Joseph Fourier), a co-author of the paper. CFBDSIR 1458+10 is the coolest brown dwarf binary found to date.

The dimmer of the two dwarfs has now been found to have a temperature of about 100 degrees Celsius — the boiling point of water, and not much different from the temperature inside a sauna [2]. “At such temperatures we expect the brown dwarf to have properties that are different from previously known brown dwarfs and much closer to those of giant exoplanets — it could even have water clouds in its atmosphere," said Michael Liu of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, who is lead author of the paper describing this new work. "In fact, once we start taking images of gas-giant planets around Sun-like stars in the near future, I expect that many of them will look like CFBDSIR 1458+10B."

Unravelling the secrets of this unique object involved exploiting the power of three different telescopes. CFBDSIR 1458+10 was first found to be a binary using the Laser Guide Star (LGS) Adaptive Optics system on the Keck II Telescope in Hawaii [3]. Liu and his colleagues then employed the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope, also in Hawaii, to determine the distance to the brown dwarf duo using an infrared camera [4]. Finally the ESO VLT was used to study the object’s infrared spectrum and measure its temperature.

The hunt for cool objects is a very active astronomical hot topic. The Spitzer Space Telescope has recently identified two other very faint objects as other possible contenders for the coolest known brown dwarfs, although their temperatures have not been measured so precisely. Future observations will better determine how these objects compare to CFBDSIR 1458+10B. Liu and his colleagues are planning to observe CFBDSIR 1458+10B again to better determine its properties and to begin mapping the binary's orbit, which, after about a decade of monitoring, should allow astronomers to determine the binary’s mass.

[1] CFBDSIR 1458+10 is the name of the binary system. The two components are known as CFBDSIR 1458+10A and CFBDSIR 1458+10B, with the latter the fainter and cooler of the two. They seem to be orbiting each other at a separation of about three times the distance between the Earth and the Sun in a period of about thirty years.

[2] By comparison the temperature of the surface of the Sun is about 5500 degrees Celsius.

[3] Adaptive optics cancels out much of Earth’s atmospheric interference, improving the image sharpness by a factor of ten and enabling the very small separation binary to be resolved.

[4] The astronomers measured the apparent motion of the brown dwarfs against the background of more distant stars caused by Earth's changing position in its orbit around the Sun. The effect, known as parallax, allowed them to determine the distance to the brown dwarfs.
More information

This research was presented in a paper, “CFBDSIR J1458+1013B: A Very Cold (>T10) Brown Dwarf in a Binary System”, Liu et al. to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team is composed of Michael C. Liu (Institute for Astronomy [IfA], University of Hawaii, USA), Philippe Delorme (Institut de planétologie et d’astrophysique de Grenoble, CNRS/Université Joseph Fourier, France [IPAG]), Trent J. Dupuy (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, USA), Brendan P. Bowler (IfA), Loic Albert (Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation, Hawaii, USA), Etienne Artigau (Université de Montréal, Canada), Celine Reylé (Observatoire de Besançon, France), Thierry Forveille (IPAG) and Xavier Delfosse (IPAG).

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 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, 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”.


Research paper
Photos of the VLT


Michael Liu
Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii
Tel: +1 808 956 6666

Philippe Delorme
Institut de planétologie et d’astrophysique de Grenoble
Tel: +33 4 76 63 58 30

Christian Veillet
Executive Director, CFHT, Hawaii
Tel: +1 808 885 7944

Richard Hook
ESO, La Silla, Paranal, E-ELT and Survey Telescopes Press Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cassini Finds Saturn Sends Mixed Signals

This unique image from NASA/ESA's Hubble Space Telescope from early 2009 features Saturn with the rings edge-on and both poles in view, offering a stunning double view of its fluttering auroras. Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/University of Leicester. Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/University of Leicester. Full image and caption

Mixed Signals from Saturn
Play video

Like a petulant adolescent, Saturn is sending out mixed signals.

Recent data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show that the variation in radio waves controlled by the planet's rotation is different in the northern and southern hemispheres. Moreover, the northern and southern rotational variations also appear to change with the Saturnian seasons, and the hemispheres have actually swapped rates. These two radio waves, converted to the human audio range, can be heard in a new video available online at:

"These data just go to show how weird Saturn is," said Don Gurnett, Cassini's radio and plasma wave science instrument team lead and professor of physics at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. "We thought we understood these radio wave patterns at gas giants, since Jupiter was so straightforward. Without Cassini's long stay, scientists wouldn't have understood that the radio emissions from Saturn are so different."

Saturn emits radio waves known as Saturn Kilometric Radiation, or SKR for short. To Cassini, they sound a bit like bursts of a spinning air raid siren, since the radio waves vary with each rotation of the planet. This kind of radio wave pattern had been previously used at Jupiter to measure the planet's rotation rate, but at Saturn, as is the case with teenagers, the situation turned out to be much more complicated.

When NASA's Voyager spacecraft visited Saturn in the early 1980s, the radiation emissions indicated the length of Saturn's day was about 10.66 hours. But as its clocking continued by a flyby of the joint ESA-NASA Ulysses spacecraft and Cassini, the radio burst varied by seconds to minutes. A paper in Geophysical Research Letters in 2009 analyzing Cassini data showed that the Saturn Kilometric Radiation was not even a solo, but a duet, with two singers out of sync. Radio waves emanating from near the north pole had a period of around 10.6 hours; radio waves near the south pole had a period of around 10.8 hours.

A new paper led by Gurnett that was published in Geophysical Research Letters in December 2010 shows that, in recent Cassini data, the southern and northern SKR periods crossed over around March 2010, about seven months after equinox, when the sun shines directly over a planet's equator. The southern SKR period decreased from about 10.8 hours on Jan. 1, 2008 and crossed with the northern SKR period around March 1, 2010, at around 10.67 hours. The northern period increased from about 10.58 hours to that convergence point.

Seeing this kind of crossover led the Cassini scientists to go back into data from previous Saturnian visits. With a new eye, they saw that NASA's Voyager data taken in 1980, about a year after Saturn's 1979 equinox, showed different warbles from Saturn's northern and southern poles. They also saw a similar kind of effect in the Ulysses radio data between 1993 and 2000. The northern and southern periods detected by Ulysses converged and crossed over around August 1996, about nine months after the previous Saturnian equinox.

Cassini scientists don't think the differences in the radio wave periods had to do with hemispheres actually rotating at different rates, but more likely came from variations in high-altitude winds in the northern and southern hemispheres. Two other papers involving Cassini investigators were published in December, with results complementary to the radio and plasma wave science instrument -- one by Jon Nichols, University of Leicester, U.K., in the same issue of Geophysical Research Letters, and the other led by David Andrews, also of University of Leicester, in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

In the Nichols paper, data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope showed the northern and southern auroras on Saturn wobbled back and forth in latitude in a pattern matching the radio wave variations, from January to March 2009, just before equinox. The radio signal and aurora data are complementary because they are both related to the behavior of the magnetic bubble around Saturn, known as the magnetosphere. The paper by Andrews, a Cassini magnetometer team associate, showed that from mid-2004 to mid-2009, Saturn's magnetic field over the two poles wobbled at the same separate periods as the radio waves and the aurora.

"The rain of electrons into the atmosphere that produces the auroras also produces the radio emissions and affects the magnetic field, so scientists think that all these variations we see are related to the sun's changing influence on the planet," said Stanley Cowley, a co-author on both papers, co-investigator on Cassini's magnetometer instrument, and professor at the University of Leicester.

As the sun continues to climb towards the north pole of Saturn, Gurnett's group has continued to see the crossover trend in radio signals through Jan. 1, 2011. The period of the southern radio signals continued to decrease to about 10.54 hours, while the period of the northern radio signals increased to 10.71 hours.

"These papers are important in helping to explain the complicated dance between the sun and Saturn's magnetic bubble, something normally invisible to the human eye and imperceptible to the human ear," said Marcia Burton, a Cassini fields and particles scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who was not involved in the work. "Cassini will continue to keep an eye on these changes."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radio and plasma wave science team is based at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, where the instrument was built. The magnetometer team is based at Imperial College, London, U.K.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

Jia-Rui Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

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Enriching the Intracluster Medium

A Chandra X-ray Observatory and multi-wavelength image of a cluster of galaxies containing a massive bright elliptical galaxy (large blue glow) that is ejecting jets of material into the cluster. Blue is the X-ray, yellow is the optical, and red is the radio wavelength image. New results from Chandra find that the ejected material significantly enriches the cluster with iron and other elements. Credit: NASA, Chandra, SDSS, and GMRT

Galaxies are sometimes found in large clusters with many hundreds of members. Typically there is a giant elliptical galaxy near the center; most of these ellipticals are very bright emitters of radio radiation as a result of activity around supermassive black holes at their nuclei. The environment of a black hole can also eject tremendous jets of charged particles into the rest of the cluster. How the intracluster medium is enriched by these jets, and how the energy input might affect the future development of the cluster, its galaxies and their stars, are important unsolved problems.

SAO astronomers Ewan O'Sullivan, Simona Giacintucci, Laurence David, and Jan Vrtilek have used the Chandra X-ray Observatory to examine the hot X-ray gas in the intracluster medium around the galaxy NGC 6051, a member of a large cluster of galaxies. Jets extend out from this object about one hundred thousand light-years. The scientists find from their analysis of the X-ray data that the total of ejected material has deposited over a million solar masses of iron atoms into the cluster, among other elements, as well as energy roughly equivalent to the radiant output of the Milky Way over a million years. The astronomers conclude that the supermassive black hole at the nucleus can readily produce these impressive consequences. The results imply that the intracluster gas and presumably the galaxies in the cluster are enriched with iron and other atoms that play a key role in the chemistry, energetics, and subsequent evolution and star-formation activity of the system.

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The Rich Chemistry Around an Evolved Star

A deep optical image of the carbon star IRC+10216, showing traces of its surrounding envelope. New SMA observations study the rich chemistry of the envelope, and find 442 spectral lines from over fifty molecules. Credit: Izan Leao; the Very Large Telescope

Over 170 molecules have been detected in space, from simple diatomic molecules like CO to complex organic molecules with over 70 atoms, like fullerene. These molecules play a critical role in the development of molecular clouds as they form new stars and planetary systems, and of course in the chemistry that later develops on the surfaces of planets. One of the major issues in modern astronomy is figuring out exactly where all these molecules and associated dust grains came from.

The variable star CW Leo, also known as IRC+10216, is one of the brightest objects in the sky as seen from Earth; it is about 450 light-years away. It shines mostly in the infrared (not optical) because the central star is surrounded by a dense cloud of dust and gas that it ejected in a late stage of its evolution; that dust blocks the optical light. The material is known to be rich in carbon-bearing molecules. CfA astronomers Nimesh Patel, Ken Young, Carl Gottlieb, Pat Thaddeus, Bob Wilson, Mark Reid, Mike McCarthy, and Eric Keto, together with five colleagues, used the Submillimeter Array (SMA) to study the spectrum of IRC+10216 across a wavelength band, in an effort to detect and characterize as many molecules in the star's envelope as possible.

The scientists report finding an amazing 442 spectral lines in their survey, more than 200 of them detected for the first time in any astronomical source. All but 149 can be identified as arising from specific molecules. In addition to measuring the strengths of the lines and the motions of the molecules responsible, the SMA survey also obtained images of the nebula around in the star in the light of each of these species. The unidentified features, for example, tend to arise from compact regions around the star and probably correspond to hotter states of the known molecules; future work is needed to confirm this conclusion. The new results provide a remarkable view of the rich chemistry around this nearby star, and help to strengthen the conclusion that many complex molecules trace their origin to the envelopes of evolved stars.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Stars Gather in 'Downtown' Milky Way

A view from the bustling center of our galactic metropolis. Spitzer Space Telescope offers us a fresh, infrared view of the frenzied scene at the center of our Milky Way, revealing what lies behind the dust. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Full image and caption | Download wallpaper

The region around the center of our Milky Way galaxy glows colorfully in this new version of an image taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

The data were previously released as part of a long, 120-degree view of the plane our galaxy (see Now, data from the very center of that picture are being presented at a different contrast to better highlight this jam-packed region. In visible-light pictures, it is all but impossible to see the heart of our galaxy, but infrared light penetrates the shroud of dust giving us this unprecedented view.

In this Spitzer image, the myriad of stars crowding the center of our galaxy creates the blue haze that brightens towards the center of the image. The green features are from carbon-rich dust molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are illuminated by the surrounding starlight as they swirl around the galaxy's core. The yellow-red patches are the thermal glow from warm dust. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dust are associated with bustling hubs of young stars. These materials, mixed with gas, are required for making new stars.

The brightest white feature at the center of the image is the central star cluster in our galaxy. At a distance of 26,000 light years away from Earth, it is so distant that, to Spitzer's view, most of the light from the thousands of individual stars is blurred into a single glowing blotch. Astronomers have determined that these stars are orbiting a massive black hole that lies at the very center of the galaxy.

The region pictured here is immense, with a horizontal span of 2,400 light-years (5.3 degrees) and a vertical span of 1,360 light-years (3 degrees). Though most of the objects seen in this image are located near the galactic center, the features above and below the galactic plane tend to lie closer to Earth.

The image is a three-color composite, showing infrared observations from two of Spitzer instruments. Blue represents 3.6-micron light and green shows 8-micron light, both captured by Spitzer's infrared array camera. Red is 24-micron light detected by Spitzer's multiband imaging photometer. The data is a combination of observations from the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) project, and the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic survey (MIPSGAL).

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

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Super Full Moon

Mark your calendar. On March 19th, a full Moon of rare size and beauty will rise in the east at sunset. It's a super "perigee moon"--the biggest in almost 20 years.

"The last full Moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993," says Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC. "I'd say it's worth a look."

Full Moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon's orbit. It is an ellipse with one side (perigee) about 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other (apogee): diagram. Nearby perigee moons are about 14% bigger and 30% brighter than lesser moons that occur on the apogee side of the Moon's orbit.

Above: Perigee moons are as much as 14% wider and 30% brighter than lesser full Moons. [video]

"The full Moon of March 19th occurs less than one hour away from perigee--a near-perfect coincidence1 that happens only 18 years or so," adds Chester.

A perigee full Moon brings with it extra-high "perigean tides," but this is nothing to worry about, according to NOAA. In most places, lunar gravity at perigee pulls tide waters only a few centimeters (an inch or so) higher than usual. Local geography can amplify the effect to about 15 centimeters (six inches)--not exactly a great flood.

Indeed, contrary to some reports circulating the Internet, perigee Moons do not trigger natural disasters. The "super moon" of March 1983, for instance, passed without incident. And an almost-super Moon in Dec. 2008 also proved harmless.

Okay, the Moon is 14% bigger than usual, but can you really tell the difference? It's tricky. There are no rulers floating in the sky to measure lunar diameters. Hanging high overhead with no reference points to provide a sense of scale, one full Moon can seem much like any other.

The best time to look is when the Moon is near the horizon. That is when illusion mixes with reality to produce a truly stunning view. For reasons not fully understood by astronomers or psychologists, low-hanging Moons look unnaturally large when they beam through trees, buildings and other foreground objects. On March 19th, why not let the "Moon illusion" amplify a full Moon that's extra-big to begin with? The swollen orb rising in the east at sunset may seem so nearby, you can almost reach out and touch it.

Don't bother. Even a super perigee Moon is still 356,577 km away. That is, it turns out, a distance of rare beauty.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More Information

1Footnote: Less-perfect perigee moons occur more often. In 2008, for instance, there was a full Moon four hours from perigee. Many observers thought that one looked great, so the one-hour perigee moon of 2011 should be a real crowd pleaser.

Lunar Perigee and Apogee Calculator

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Family of Stars Breaking Up

NGC 288
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Most of the rich globular star clusters that orbit the Milky Way have cores that are tightly packed with stars, but NGC 288 is one of a minority of low-concentration globulars, with its stars more loosely bound together. This new image from the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope completely resolves the old stars at the core of the cluster.

The colours and brightnesses of the stars in the picture tell the story of how the stars have evolved in the cluster. The many fainter points of light are normal low-mass stars that are still fusing hydrogen in the same way as the Sun. The brighter stars fall into two classes: the yellow ones are red giant stars that are at a later phase in their careers and are now bigger, cooler and brighter. The bright blue stars are even more massive stars that have left the red giant phase and are being powered by helium fusion in their cores.

The stars within globular clusters form at about the same time from the same cloud of gas, making these close families of stars. However, astronomers think that the stellar siblings in low-concentration globular clusters such as NGC 288, which are not so tightly bound together by gravity as richer and denser clusters, may eventually disperse and go their separate ways.

NGC 288 is found within the rather obscure southern constellation of Sculptor, at a distance of about 30 000 light-years. This constellation also contains NGC 253, more commonly called the Sculptor Galaxy due to its location, and these two deep sky objects are close enough together on the sky to be observed in the same binocular field of view. William Herschel first spotted NGC 288 in 1785 and also recognised that it was a globular cluster that could be resolved into stars in his telescope.

This picture was created from Hubble images taken using the Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys through four different filters. Light recorded through a blue filter (F435W) is coloured blue, light through an orange filter (F606W) appears as green, light coming through a near-infrared filter (F814W) is red and finally the light from glowing hydrogen (F658N) is orange. The exposure times were 740 s, 530 s, 610 s and 1760 s respectively and the field of view is 3.2 arcminutes across.

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The Drama of Starbirth

PR Image eso1109a
Close-up of the drama of star formation

PR Image eso1109b
Star formation in the constellation of Corona Australis

PR Image eso1109c
Close-up of the drama of star formation (annotated)

Zooming in on a stellar nursery in Corona Australis

A new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope gives a close-up view of the dramatic effects new-born stars have on the gas and dust from which they formed. Although the stars themselves are not visible, material they have ejected is colliding with the surrounding gas and dust clouds and creating a surreal landscape of glowing arcs, blobs and streaks.

The star-forming region NGC 6729 is part of one of the closest stellar nurseries to the Earth and hence one of the best studied. This new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope gives a close-up view of a section of this strange and fascinating region (a wide-field view is available here: eso1027). The data were selected from the ESO archive by Sergey Stepanenko as part of the Hidden Treasures competition [1]. Sergey’s picture of NGC 6729 was ranked third in the competition.

Stars form deep within molecular clouds and the earliest stages of their development cannot be seen in visible-light telescopes because of obscuration by dust. In this image there are very young stars at the upper left of the picture. Although they cannot be seen directly, the havoc that they have wreaked on their surroundings dominates the picture. High-speed jets of material that travel away from the baby stars at velocities as high as one million kilometres per hour are slamming into the surrounding gas and creating shock waves. These shocks cause the gas to shine and create the strangely coloured glowing arcs and blobs known as Herbig–Haro objects [2].

In this view the Herbig–Haro objects form two lines marking out the probable directions of ejected material. One stretches from the upper left to the lower centre, ending in the bright, circular group of glowing blobs and arcs at the lower centre. The other starts near the left upper edge of the picture and extends towards the centre right. The peculiar scimitar-shaped bright feature at the upper left is probably mostly due to starlight being reflected from dust and is not a Herbig–Haro object.

This enhanced-colour picture [3] was created from images taken using the FORS1 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Images were taken through two different filters that isolate the light coming from glowing hydrogen (shown as orange) and glowing ionised sulphur (shown as blue). The different colours in different parts of this violent star formation region reflect different conditions — for example where ionised sulphur is glowing brightly (blue features) the velocities of the colliding material are relatively low — and help astronomers to unravel what is going on in this dramatic scene.


[1] ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 competition gave amateur astronomers the opportunity to search through ESO’s vast archives of astronomical data, hoping to find a well-hidden gem that needed polishing by the entrants. Participants submitted nearly 100 entries and ten skilled people were awarded some extremely attractive prizes, including an all expenses paid trip for the overall winner to ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, in Chile, the world’s most advanced optical telescope. The ten winners submitted a total of 20 images that were ranked as the highest entries in the competition out of the near 100 images.

[2] The astronomers George Herbig and Guillermo Haro were not the first to see one of the objects that now bear their names, but they were the first to study the spectra of these strange objects in detail. They realised that they were not just clumps of gas and dust that reflected light, or glowed under the influence of the ultraviolet light from young stars, but were a new class of objects associated with ejected material in star formation regions.

[3] Both the ionised sulphur and hydrogen atoms in this nebula emit red light. To differentiate between them in this image the sulphur emission has been coloured blue.

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 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, 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 (Wang et al.)
Photos of the VLT


Richard Hook
ESO, La Silla, Paranal, E-ELT and Survey Telescopes Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Cell: +49 151 1537 3591

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