Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NOAO: New Planet Kepler-21b discovery a partnership of both space and ground-based observations

Figure 1: The Kepler field as seen in the sky over Kitt Peak National Observatory. The approximate position of HD 179070 is indicated by the circle (sky imaged using a diffraction grating to show spectra of brighter stars, credit J. Glaspey; telescopes imaged separately and combined, credit P. Marenfeld)

Figure 2: Kepler light curve of HD 179070 showing the eclipse of Kepler-21b. The data cover 15 months. The figure shows the binned, and phase folded-data based on 164 individual transits over-plotted by the model fit (red line).

The NASA Kepler Mission is designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way Galaxy to discover Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist, and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets. It now has another planet to add to its growing list. A research team led by Steve Howell, NASA Ames Research Center, has shown that one of the brightest stars in the Kepler star field has a planet with a radius only 1.6 that of the earth’s radius and a mass no greater that 10 earth masses, circling its parent star with a 2.8 day period. With such a short period, and such a bright star, the team of over 65 astronomers (that included David Silva, Ken Mighell and Mark Everett of NOAO) needed multiple telescopes on the ground to support and confirm their Kepler observations. These included the 4 meter Mayall telescope and the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The accompanying figure shows the size of the Kepler field, seen over Kitt Peak.

With a period of only 2.8 days, this planet, designated Kepler-21b, is only about 6 million km away from its parent star. By comparison Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, has a period of 88 days and a distance from the sun almost ten times greater, or 57 million km. So Kepler 21b is far hotter than any place humans could venture. The team calculates that the temperature at the surface of the planet is about 1900 K, or 2960 F. While this temperature is nowhere near the habitable zone in which liquid water might be found, the planet’s size is approaching that of the earth.

The parent star, HD 179070, is quite similar to our sun: its mass is 1.3 solar masses, its radius is 1.9 solar radii, and its age, based on stellar models, is 2.84 billion years (or a bit younger than the sun’s 4.6 billion years). HD 179070 is spectral type F6 IV, a little hotter and brighter than the sun. By astronomical standards, HD 179070 is fairly close, at a distance from the sun of 352 light years. While it cannot be seen by the unaided eye, a small telescope can easily pick it out.

Part of the difficulty in detecting this planet is the realization, from the Kepler mission, that many stars show short period brightness oscillations. The effect of these must be removed from the stellar light in order to uncover the regular, but very small, dimming caused by the planet passing in front of the star. The Kepler mission observed this field for over 15 months, and the team combined the observations to enable them to detect this tiny, periodic signal. They also relied on spectroscopic and imaging data from a number of ground based telescopes. The attached figure 2 shows a light curve: a plot of the brightness of HD 179070 over time as the planet passes in front of it. This curve was built up over the many months of observing.

The results of this work have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

NOAO is operated by Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

Science Contact

Dr. Steve Howell
NASA Ames Research Center
PO Box 1
M/S 244-30
Moffett Field, CA 94035

Monday, November 28, 2011

In The Heart Of Cygnus, NASA's Fermi Reveals A Cosmic-ray Cocoon

Tour the Cygnus X star factory. This video opens with wide optical and infrared images of the constellation Cygnus, then zooms into the Cygnus X region using radio, infrared and gamma-ray images. Fermi LAT shows that gamma rays fill cavities in the star-forming clouds. The emission occurs when fast-moving cosmic rays strike hot gas and starlight. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Download this video and related content from NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio.

Gamma-ray emission detected by Fermi LAT fills bubbles of hot gas created by the most massive stars in Cygnus X. The turbulence and shock waves produced by these stars make it more difficult for high-energy cosmic rays to traverse the region. When the particles strike gas nuclei or photons of starlight, gamma rays result. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration/I. A. Grenier and L. Tibaldo . Larger image

Cygnus X hosts many young stellar groupings, including the OB2 and OB9 associations and the cluster NGC 6910. The combined outflows and ultraviolet radiation from the region's numerous massive stars have heated and pushed gas away from the clusters, producing cavities of hot, lower-density gas. In this 8-micron infrared image, ridges of denser gas mark the boundaries of the cavities. Bright spots within these ridges show where stars are forming today. Credit: NASA/IPAC/MSX . Larger Image - Labeled image

The constellation Cygnus, now visible in the western sky as twilight deepens after sunset, hosts one of our galaxy's richest-known stellar construction zones. Astronomers viewing the region at visible wavelengths see only hints of this spectacular activity thanks to a veil of nearby dust clouds forming the Great Rift, a dark lane that splits the Milky Way, a faint band of light marking our galaxy's central plane.

Located in the vicinity of the second-magnitude star Gamma Cygni, the star-forming region was named Cygnus X when it was discovered as a diffuse radio source by surveys in the 1950s. Now, a study using data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope finds that the tumult of star birth and death in Cygnus X has managed to corral fast-moving particles called cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays are subatomic particles -- mainly protons -- that move through space at nearly the speed of light. In their journey across the galaxy, the particles are deflected by magnetic fields, which scramble their paths and make it impossible to backtrack the particles to their sources.

Yet when cosmic rays collide with interstellar gas, they produce gamma rays -- the most energetic and penetrating form of light -- that travel to us straight from the source. By tracing gamma-ray signals throughout the galaxy, Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) is helping astronomers understand the sources of cosmic rays and how they're accelerated to such high speeds. In fact, this is one of the mission's key goals.

The galaxy's best candidate sites for cosmic-ray acceleration are the rapidly expanding shells of ionized gas and magnetic field associated with supernova explosions. For stars, mass is destiny, and the most massive ones -- known as types O and B -- live fast and die young.

They're also relatively rare because such extreme stars, with masses more than 40 times that of our sun and surface temperatures eight times hotter, exert tremendous influence on their surroundings. With intense ultraviolet radiation and powerful outflows known as stellar winds, the most massive stars rapidly disperse their natal gas clouds, naturally limiting the number of massive stars in any given region.

Which brings us back to Cygnus X. Located about 4,500 light-years away, this star factory is believed to contain enough raw material to make two million stars like our sun. Within it are many young star clusters and several sprawling groups of related O- and B-type stars, called OB associations. One, called Cygnus OB2, contains 65 O stars -- the most massive, luminous and hottest type -- and nearly 500 B stars.

Astronomers estimate that the association's total stellar mass is 30,000 times that of our sun, making Cygnus OB2 the largest object of its type within 6,500 light-years. And with ages of less than 5 million years, few of its most massive stars have lived long enough to exhaust their fuel and explode as supernovae.

Intense light and outflows from the monster stars in Cygnus OB2 and from several other nearby associations and star clusters have excavated vast amounts of gas from their vicinities. The stars reside within cavities filled with hot, thin gas surrounded by ridges of cool, dense gas where stars are now forming. It's within the hollowed-out zones that Fermi's LAT detects intense gamma-ray emission, according to a paper describing the findings that was published in the Nov. 25 edition of the journal Science.

"We are seeing young cosmic rays, with energies comparable to those produced by the most powerful particle accelerators on Earth. They have just started their galactic voyage, zig-zagging away from their accelerator and producing gamma rays when striking gas or starlight in the cavities," said co-author Luigi Tibaldo, a physicist at Padova University and the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics.

The energy of the gamma-ray emission, which is measured up to 100 billion electron volts by the LAT and even higher by ground-based gamma-ray detectors, indicates the extreme nature of the accelerated particles. (For comparison, the energy of visible light is between 2 and 3 electron volts.) The environment holds onto its cosmic rays despite their high energies by entangling them in turbulent magnetic fields created by the combined outflows of the region's numerous high-mass stars.

"These shockwaves stir the gas and twist and tangle the magnetic field in a cosmic-scale jacuzzi so the young cosmic rays, freshly ejected from their accelerators, remain trapped in this turmoil until they can leak into quieter interstellar regions, where they can stream more freely," said co-author Isabelle Grenier, an astrophysicist at Paris Diderot University and the Atomic Energy Commission in Saclay, France.

The well known Gamma Cygni supernova remnant – so named for its proximity to the star -- also lies within this region; astronomers estimate its age at about 7,000 years. The Fermi team considers it possible that the supernova remnant spawned the cosmic rays trapped in the Cygnus X "cocoon," but they also suggest an alternative scenario where the particles became accelerated through repeated interaction with shockwaves produced inside the cocoon by powerful stellar winds.

"Whether the particles further gain or lose energy inside this cocoon needs to be investigated, but its existence shows that cosmic-ray history is much more eventful than a random walk away from their sources," Tibaldo added.

Fermi is providing a never-before-seen glimpse of the early life of cosmic rays, long before they diffuse into the galaxy at large. Astronomers know of a dozen stellar clusters at least as young and rich as Cygnus OB2, including the Arches and Quintuplet clusters near the galaxy's center. Energetic gamma rays are detected in the vicinity of several of them, so perhaps they also corral cosmic rays in their own high-energy cocoons.

NASA's Fermi is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

Related Links:

Nursery of Giants Captured in New Spitzer Image

NASA's Fermi Telescope Detects Gamma-Rays From 'Star Factories' in Other Galaxies

What is Cygnus X?

Francis Reddy
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

A Galaxy Full of Surprises — NGC 3621 is bulgeless but has three central black holes

NGC 3621
Credit: ESO

This image, from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows a truly remarkable galaxy known as NGC 3621. To begin with, it is a pure-disc galaxy. Like other spirals, it has a flat disc permeated by dark lanes of material and with prominent spiral arms where young stars are forming in clusters (the blue dots seen in the image). But while most spiral galaxies have a central bulge — a large group of old stars packed in a compact, spheroidal region — NGC 3621 doesn’t. In this image, it is clear that there is simply a brightening to the centre, but no actual bulge like the one in NGC 6744 (eso1118), for example.

NGC 3621 is also interesting as it is believed to have an active supermassive black hole at its centre that is engulfing matter and producing radiation. This is somewhat unusual because most of these so-called active galactic nuclei exist in galaxies with prominent bulges. In this particular case, the supermassive black hole is thought to have a relatively small mass, of around 20 000 times that of the Sun.

Another interesting feature is that there are also thought to be two smaller black holes, with masses of a few thousand times that of the Sun, near the nucleus of the galaxy. Therefore, NGC 3621 is an extremely interesting object which, despite not having a central bulge, has a system of three black holes in its central region.

This galaxy is located in the constellation of Hydra (The Sea Snake) and can be seen with a moderate-sized telescope. This image, taken using B, V, and I filters with the FORS1 instrument on the powerful VLT, shows striking detail in this odd object and also reveals a multitude of background galaxies. A number of bright foreground stars that belong to our own Milky Way are also visible.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Quadruply Lensed Dwarf Galaxy 12.8 Billion Light Years Away

Galaxy Cluster MACS J0329.6-0211 lenses several background galaxies including a distant dwarf galaxy. CREDIT: A. Zitrin, et al.

Gravitational lensing is a powerful tool for astronomers that allows them to explore distant galaxies in far more detail than would otherwise be allowed. Without this technique, galaxies at the edge of the visible universe are little more than tiny blobs of light, but when magnified dozens of times by foreground clusters, astronomers are able to explore the internal structural properties more directly.

Recently, astronomers at the University of Heidelberg discovered a gravitational lensed galaxy that ranked among the most distant ever seen. Although there’s a few that beat this one out in distance, this one is remarkable for being a rare quadruple lens.

The images for this remarkable discovery were taken using the Hubble Space Telescope in August and October of this year, using a total of 16 different colored filters as well as additional data from the Spitzer infrared telescope. The foreground cluster, MACS J0329.6-0211, is some 4.6 billion light years distant. In the above image, the background galaxy has been split into four images, labelled by the red ovals and marked as 1.1 – 1.4. They are enlarged in the upper right.

Assuming that the mass of the foreground cluster is concentrated around the galaxies that were visible, the team attempted to reverse the effects the cluster would have on the distant galaxy, which would reverse the distortions. The restored image, also corrected for redshift, is shown in the lower box in the upper right corner.

After correcting for these distortions, the team estimated that the total mass of the distant galaxy is only a few billion times the mass of the Sun. In comparison, the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf satellite to our own galaxy, is roughly ten billion solar masses. The overall size of the galaxy was determined to be small as well. These conclusions fit well with expectations of galaxies in the early universe which predict that the large galaxies in today’s universe were built from the combination of many smaller galaxies like this one in the distant past.

The galaxy also conforms to expectations regarding the amount of heavy elements which is significantly lower than stars like the Sun. This lack of heavy elements means that there should be little in the way of dust grains. Such dust tends to be a strong block of shorter wavelengths of light such as ultraviolet and blue. Its absence helps give the galaxy its blue tint.

Star formation is also high in the galaxy. The rate at which they predict new stars are being born is somewhat higher than in other galaxies discovered around the same distance, but the presence of brighter clumps in the restored image suggest the galaxy may be undergoing some interactions, driving the formation of new stars.

Jon is a science educator currently living in Missouri. He is a high school teacher and does outreach with the St. Louis Astronomical society as well as presenting talks on science and related topics at regional conventions. He graduated from the University of Kansas with his BS in Astronomy in 2008 and has maintained the Angry Astronomer blog since 2006. For more of his work, you can find his website here.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The protoplanetary disc around Beta Pictoris

Beta Pictoris b
In the image the dashed line indicates the true disc plane
Credit: Amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen

This image shows the famous protoplanetary disc of debris and dust orbiting the star Beta Pictoris 63.4 light years away. This is a very young system thought to be only around 12 million years old and is essentially similar to how our own Solar System must have formed some 4.5 billion years ago. The disc is seen edge-on from our perspective and appears in professional images as thin wedges or lines protruding radially from the central star in opposite directions.

For the last couple of years I have been wondering if it was possible for amateurs to capture this special target but have never come across any such images. The main difficulty is the overwhelming glare from Beta Pictoris itself which completely drowns out the dust disc that is circling very close to the star. Images of the disc taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and from big observatories, are usually made by physically blocking out the glare of Beta Pictoris itself within the optical path.

But recently I then found this 1993 paper 'Observation of the central part of the beta Pictoris disk with an anti-blooming CCD' (Lecavelier des etangs, A., Perrin, G., Ferlet, R., Vidal-Madjar, A., Colas, F., et al., 1993, A&A, 274, 877) .

Full article available here:

I then realised that it might not be entirely impossible to also record this object with my own equipment. I followed the technique described in the paper above, which basically consists of imaging Beta and then taking another image of a similar reference star under the same conditions. The two images are subtracted from each other to eliminate the stellar glare, and the dust disc should then hopefully reveal itself.

First I collected 55 images of Beta Pictoris at 30 seconds each. The dust disc is most prominent in IR so ideally a better result would be expected with the use of an IR pass filter. Since I only have a traditional IR/UV block filter I just imaged without any filter, to at least get as much IR light through as possible.

Next step was to capture a similar image of a reference star under the same conditions. For this purpose I used Alpha Pictoris as the paper suggested. This star is of nearly the same spectral type (A7IV compared to Beta's A6V) and is also close enough to Beta in the sky so that the slight change in telescope orientation should not affect the diffaction pattern. However, since the two stars have different magnitudes I needed to calculate how long to expose Alpha for in order to get a similar image which I could subtract from the Beta image.

The magnitude difference between the stars is 3.86(Beta) - 3.30(Alpha) = 0.56
Due to the logarithmic nature of the magnitude scale we know that a difference of 1 magnitude equals a brightness ratio of 2.512. Therefore 2.512 to the power of the numerical magnitude difference then equals the variation in brightness.
2.512^0.56 = 1.67, so it appears Alpha is 1.67 times brighter than Beta. This means that exposure for Alpha should be 1/1.67 = 0.597x that of Beta. I took the liberty of using 0.6x for simplicity's sake...
So I collected 55 images of 18 seconds (30 x 0.6) for Alpha.

Both sets of images were stacked separately in Registax and I then imported these into Photoshop, layered Alpha in 'Difference' mode on top of Beta and flattened the result. This produces a very dark image (which it should!) apart from the different background stars. But after some curves adjustment I was able to see clear signs of the actual dust disc protruding on both sides from the glare of the star. I was very happy to conclude that the position angle with regards to the background stars matched the official images exactly.
This raw Difference image looked rather horrible though, so to produce a more natural looking result I took the original stacked Beta image and then blended in the central parts from the Difference image that showed the dust disc. I decided to also keep the black spot of the central glare from the Difference image since the contrast with the protruding disc seems better this way.

And the result is, I believe, the first amateur image of another solar system: The protoplanetary disc around Beta Pictoris. I must say it feels really special to have actually captured this.

Copyright Rolf Wahl Olsen 2010

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New system would assess odds of life on other worlds

Earth-like? Habitable?

PULLMAN, Wash. – Within the next few years, the number of planets discovered in orbits around distant stars will likely reach several thousand or more. But even as our list of these newly discovered "exoplanets” grows ever-longer, the search for life beyond our solar system will likely focus much more narrowly on the relatively few of these new worlds which exhibit the most Earth-like of conditions.

For much of the scientific community, thesearch for alien life has long been dominated by the notion that our own planet serves as the best model of conditions best suited to the emergence of life on other worlds. And while there’s anundeniable logic to seeking life in the same sort of conditions in which you already know it to be successful, there are scientists like Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist with the Washington State University School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Abel Mendez, a modeling expert from the University of Puerto Rico at Aricebo, who also see such a model as the product of a potentially limiting form of earthling-biased thinking.

To Schulze-Makuch and his nine fellow authors – an international working group representing, NASA, SETI,the German Aerospace Center, and four universities– the search for life on other worlds is really driven by two questions.

"The first question is whether Earth-like conditions can be found on other worlds, since we know empirically that those conditions could harbor life,” Schulze-Makuch said. "The second question is whether conditions exist on exoplanets that suggest the possibility of other forms of life, whether known to us or not.”

In a paper to be published in the December issue of the journal Astrobiology, Schulze-Makuch and his co-authors propose a new system for classifying exoplanets using two different indices – an Earth Similarity Index (ESI) for categorizing a planet’s more earth-like features and a Planetary Habitability Index (PHI) for describing a variety of chemical and physical parameters that are theoretically conducive to life in more extreme, less-earthlike conditions.

Similarity indices provide a powerful tool for categorizing and extracting patterns from large and complex data sets. They are relatively quick and easy to calculate and provide a simple quantitative measure of departure from a reference state, usually on a scale from zero to one. They are used in mathematics, computer imaging, chemistry and many other fields.

The two indices proposed by the group mark the first attempt by scientists to categorize the many exoplanets and exomoons that are expected to be discovered in the near future in accordance with their potential to harbor some form of life.

"As a practical matter, interest in exoplanets is going to focus initially on the search for terrestrial, Earth-like planets,” said Schulze-Makuch. "With that in mind, we propose an Earth Similarity Index which provides a quick screening tool with which to detect exoplanets most similar to Earth.”

But the authors believe that focusing exclusively on earth-based assumptions about habitability may well be too restrictive an approach for capturing the potential variety of life forms that, at least in principle, may also exist on other worlds.

"Habitability in a wider sense is not necessarily restricted to water as a solvent or to a planet circling a star,” the paper’s authors write. "For example, the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan could host a different form of life. Analog studies in hydrocarbon environments on Earth, in fact, clearly indicate that these environments are habitable in principle. Orphan planets wandering free of any central star could likewise conceivably feature conditions suitable for some form of life.”

The paper’s authors concede that attempting to rate the probability that life of some unknown form could exist on any given world is an intrinsically more speculative endeavor. But the alternative, they argue, is to risk overlookingpotentially habitable worlds by using overly restrictive assumptions.

"Our proposed PHI is informed by chemical and physical parameters that are conducive to life in general,” they write. "It relies on factors that, in principle, could be detected at the distance of exoplanets from Earth, given currently planned future (space) instrumentation.”

The paper, entitled A Two-Tiered Approach to Assessing the Habitability of Exoplanets, was written by Alfonso Davila, of SETI; Alberto Fairen, of NASA; Abel Mendez of the University of Puerto Rico at Aricebo; Philip von Paris, of the German Aerospace Center; David Catling, of the University of Washington; Louis N. Irwin, of the University of Texas-El Paso, and Marina Resendes de Sousa Antonia, Carol Turse, Grayson Boyer and Dirk Schulze-Makuch, all of Washington State University.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch,

WSU School of Earth & Environmental Science,


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

NASA’S SOFIA Airborne Observatory Views Star Forming Region W40

This mid-infrared image of the W40 star-forming region of the Milky Way galaxy was captured recently by the FORCAST instrument on the 100-inch telescope aboard the SOFIA flying observatory. (NASA / FORCAST image)

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – A new image from NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, provides the highest resolution mid-infrared image taken to date of the massive star formation region in our galaxy known as W40.

The W40 image was taken by the Faint Object infraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument mounted in the airborne observatory – a highly modified 747SP airliner carrying a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches (2.5 meters). The image of W40 is a composite of data captured by the FORCAST camera at infrared wavelengths of 5.4, 24.2, and 34.8 microns, all of which are partially or completely blocked by water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere and inaccessible to observatories even on high mountain tops.

W40 is difficult to view with optical telescopes because it lies on the far side of a very dense cloud of gas and dust. Infrared observations of the region peer through the dust to reveal a bright nebula and dozens of young stars with at least six massive stars, six to 20 times the mass of the sun, forming at the center.

At least 50 percent of the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy formed in massive clusters of thousands of stars similar to W40. Evidence suggests that the solar system developed in such a cluster almost 5 billion years ago. Because stars are relatively dim at the wavelengths measured by FORCAST, the observed emission in the images is due to dust surrounding the stars that is heated to a few hundred degrees.

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), headquartered in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart.

Beth Hagenauer
Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.

Nicholas A. Veronico
SOFIA Science Center
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

For more information about SOFIA, visit:
SOFIA Image Gallery

For information about SOFIA's science mission, visit: and

NASA's Hubble Finds Stellar Life and Death in a Globular Cluster

Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Acknowledgment: P. Goudfrooij (STScI)

A new NASA Hubble Space Telescope image shows globular cluster NGC 1846, a spherical collection of hundreds of thousands of stars in the outer halo of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring dwarf galaxy of the Milky Way that can be seen from the southern hemisphere.

Aging bright stars in the cluster glow in intense shades of red and blue. The majority of middle-aged stars, several billions of years old, are whitish in color. A myriad of far distant background galaxies of varying shapes and structure are scattered around the image.

The most intriguing object, however, doesn't seem to belong in the cluster. It is a faint green bubble in the white box near the bottom center of the image. This so-called "planetary nebula" is the aftermath of the death of a star. The burned-out central star can be seen inside the bubble. It is uncertain whether the planetary nebula is a member of NGC 1846, or simply lies along the line of sight to the cluster. Measurements of the motion of the cluster stars and the planetary nebula's central star suggest it might be a cluster member.

This Hubble image was taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys in January of 2006. The cluster was observed in filters that isolate blue, green, and infrared starlight. As a member of the Large Magellanic Cloud, NGC 1846 is located roughly 160,000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Doradus.

For more information, contact:

Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Brad Whitmore
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Paul Goudfrooij
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Probing a super-giant shell of gas and stars

Large Magellanic Cloud
Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA and D. A. Gouliermis

In one of the largest known star formation regions in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, lie young and bright stellar groupings known as OB associations. One of these associations, called LH 72, was captured in this dramatic NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. It consists of a few high-mass, young stars embedded in a beautiful and dense nebula of hydrogen gas.

Much of the star formation in the LMC occurs in super-giant shells. These regions of interstellar gas are thought to have formed due to strong stellar winds and supernova explosions that cleared away much of the material around the stars creating wind-blown shells. The swept-up gas eventually cools down and fragments into smaller clouds that dot the edges of these regions and eventually collapse to form new stars.

The biggest of these shells, home to LH 72, is designated LMC4. With a diameter of about 6000 light-years, it is the largest in the Local Group of galaxies that is home to both the Milky Way and LMC. Studying gas-embedded young associations of stars like LH 72 is a way of probing the super-giant shells to understand how they formed and evolved.

This image was taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 using five different filters in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. The field of view is approximately 1.8 by 1.8 arcminutes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cassini Chronicles the Life and Times of Saturn's Giant Storm

This false-color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the tail of Saturn's huge northern storm. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This series of images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the development of the largest storm seen on the planet since 1990. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. Full image and caption

These two false-color views from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show detailed patterns that change during one Saturn day within the huge storm in the planet's northern hemisphere.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The largest storm to ravage Saturn in decades started as a small spot seen in this image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Dec. 5, 2010. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. Full image and caption

New images and animated movies from NASA's Cassini spacecraft chronicle the birth and evolution of the colossal storm that ravaged the northern face of Saturn for nearly a year.

These new full-color mosaics and animations show the storm from its emergence as a tiny spot in a single image almost one year ago, on Dec. 5, 2010, through its subsequent growth into a storm so large it completely encircled the planet by late January 2011.

The monster tempest, which extended north-south approximately 9,000 miles (15,000 kilometers), is the largest seen on Saturn in the past two decades and is the largest by far ever observed on the planet from an interplanetary spacecraft. On the same day that Cassini's high-resolution cameras captured the first images of the storm, Cassini's radio and plasma wave instrument detected the storm's electrical activity, revealing it to be a convective thunderstorm. The storm's active convecting phase ended in late June, but the turbulent clouds it created linger in the atmosphere today.

The storm's 200-day active period also makes it the longest-lasting planet-encircling storm ever seen on Saturn. The previous record holder was an outburst sighted in 1903, which lingered for 150 days. The large disturbance imaged 21 years ago by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and comparable in size to the current storm lasted for only 55 days.

The collected images and movies from Cassini's imaging team can be seen at and and . They include mosaics of dozens of images stitched together and presented in true and false colors.

"The Saturn storm is more like a volcano than a terrestrial weather system," said Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "The pressure builds up for many years before the storm erupts. The mystery is that there's no rock to resist the pressure – to delay the eruption for so many years."

Cassini has taken hundreds of images of this storm as part of the imaging team's "Saturn Storm Watch" campaign. During this effort, Cassini takes quick looks at the storm in between other scheduled observations of either Saturn or its rings and moons. The new images, together with other high-quality images collected by Cassini since 2004, allow scientists to trace back the subtle changes on the planet that preceded the storm's formation and have revealed insights into the storm's development, its wind speeds and the altitudes at which its changes occur.

The storm first appeared at approximately 35 degrees north latitude on Saturn and eventually wrapped itself around the entire planet to cover approximately 2 billion square miles (5 billion square kilometers). The biggest disturbance Cassini had previously witnessed on Saturn occurred in a latitude band in the southern hemisphere called "Storm Alley" because of the prevalence of thunderstorms in this region. That storm lasted several months, from 2009 into 2010. That disturbance was actually a cluster of thunderstorms, each of which lasted up to five days or so and affected only the local weather. The recent northern disturbance is a single thunderstorm that raged continuously for more than 200 days and impacted almost one-fifth of the entire northern hemisphere.

"This new storm is a completely different kind of beast compared to anything we saw on Saturn previously with Cassini," said Kunio Sayanagi, a Cassini imaging team associate and planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The fact that such outbursts are episodic and keep happening on Saturn every 20 to 30 years or so is telling us something about deep inside the planet, but we have yet to figure out what it is."

Current plans to continue the mission through 2017 will provide opportunities for Cassini to witness further changes in the planet's atmosphere as the seasons progress to northern summer.

"It is the capability of being in orbit and able to turn a scrutinizing eye wherever it is needed that has allowed us to monitor this extraordinary phenomenon," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. "Seven years of taking advantage of such opportunities have already made Cassini one of the most scientifically productive planetary missions ever flown."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations team is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. JPL is a division of Caltech.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit and .

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cygnus X-1: NASA's Chandra Adds to Black Hole Birth Announcement

Credit: Optical: DSS; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows
Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box. Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist's illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. The black hole pulls material from a massive, blue companion star toward it. This material forms a disk (shown in red and orange) that rotates around the black hole before falling into it or being redirected away from the black hole in the form of powerful jets.

A trio of papers with data from radio, optical and X-ray telescopes, including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, has revealed new details about the birth of this famous black hole that took place millions of years ago. Using X-ray data from Chandra, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, and the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics, scientists were able to determine the spin of Cygnus X-1 with unprecedented accuracy, showing that the black hole is spinning at very close to its maximum rate. Its event horizon -- the point of no return for material falling towards a black hole -- is spinning around more than 800 times a second.

Chandra X-ray Image of Cygnus X-1
Over three decades ago, Stephen Hawking placed -- and eventually lost - a bet against the existence of a black hole in Cygnus X-1. Today, astronomers are confident the Cygnus X-1 system contains a black hole. In fact, a team of scientists has combined data from radio, optical, and X-ray telescopes including Chandra to determine the black hole's spin, mass, and distance more precisely than ever before. With these key pieces of information, the history of the black hole has been reconstructed. This new information gives astronomers strong clues about how the black hole was born, how much it weighed, and how fast it was spinning. This is important because scientists still would like to know much more about the birth of black holes. (Credit: NASA/CXC)

Using optical observations of the companion star and its motion around its unseen companion, the team also made the most precise determination ever for the mass of Cygnus X-1, of 14.8 times the mass of the Sun. It was likely to have been almost this massive at birth, because of lack of time for it to grow appreciably.

The researchers also announced that they have made the most accurate distance estimate yet of Cygnus X-1 using the National Radio Observatory's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). The new distance is about 6,070 light years from Earth. This accurate distance was a crucial ingredient for making the precise mass and spin determinations.

Fast Facts for Cygnus X-1:

Scale: Wide field optical image is 4x5 degrees (560x700 light years)
Category: Black Holes
Coordinates (J2000): RA 19h 58m 21.70s | Dec +35° 12' 05.80"
Constellation: Cygnus
Color Code: Intensity Map
Distance Estimate : About 8,000 light years

NASA's Hubble Confirms that Galaxies Are the Ultimate Recyclers

Distant quasars serve as distant lighthouse beacons that shine through the gas-rich "fog" of hot plasma encircling galaxies. At ultraviolet wavelengths, Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) is sensitive to absorption from many ionized heavy elements, such as nitrogen, oxygen, and neon. COS's high sensitivity allows many galaxies that happen to lie in front of the much more distant quasars to be studied. The ionized heavy elements serve as proxies for estimating how much mass is in a galaxy's halo. Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI). Science Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Lehner (University of Notre Dame), T. Tripp (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), and J. Tumlinson (STScI)

The color and shape of a galaxy is largely controlled by gas flowing through an extended halo around it. All modern simulations of galaxy formation find that they cannot explain the observed properties of galaxies without modeling the complex accretion and "feedback" processes by which galaxies acquire gas and then later expel it after chemical processing by stars. Hubble spectroscopic observations show that galaxies like our Milky Way recycle gas while galaxies undergoing a rapid starburst of activity will lose gas into intergalactic space and become "red and dead." Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI). Science Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Lehner (University of Notre Dame), T. Tripp (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), and J. Tumlinson (STScI)

Galaxies learned to "go green" early in the history of the universe, continuously recycling immense volumes of hydrogen gas and heavy elements to build successive generations of stars stretching over billions of years.

This ongoing recycling keeps galaxies from emptying their "fuel tanks" and therefore stretches out their star-forming epoch to over 10 billion years. However, galaxies that ignite a rapid firestorm of star birth can blow away their remaining fuel, essentially turning off further star-birth activity.

This conclusion is based on a series of Hubble Space Telescope observations that flexed the special capabilities of its comparatively new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) to detect otherwise invisible mass in the halo of our Milky Way and a sample of more than 40 other galaxies. Data from large ground-based telescopes in Hawaii, Arizona, and Chile also contributed to the studies by measuring the properties of the galaxies.

This invisible mass is made up of normal matter — hydrogen, helium, and heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and neon — as opposed to dark matter that is an unknown exotic particle pervading space.

The results are being published in three papers in the November 18 issue of Science magazine. The leaders of the three studies are Nicolas Lehner of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.; Jason Tumlinson of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.; and Todd Tripp of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The Key Findings

The color and shape of a galaxy is largely controlled by gas flowing through an extended halo around it. All modern simulations of galaxy formation find that they cannot explain the observed properties of galaxies without modeling the complex accretion and "feedback" processes by which galaxies acquire gas and then later expel it after processing by stars. The three studies investigated different aspects of the gas-recycling phenomenon.

"Our results confirm a theoretical suspicion that galaxies expel and can recycle their gas, but they also present a fresh challenge to theoretical models to understand these gas flows and integrate them with the overall picture of galaxy formation," Tumlinson says.

The team used COS observations of distant stars to demonstrate that a large mass of clouds is falling through the giant corona halo of our Milky Way, fueling its ongoing star formation. These clouds of ionized hydrogen reside within 20,000 light-years of the Milky Way disk and contain enough material to make 100 million suns. Some of this gas is recycled material that is continually being replenished by star formation and the explosive energy of novae and supernovae, which kicks chemically enriched gas back into the halo; the remainder is gas being accreted for the first time. The infalling gas from this vast reservoir fuels the Milky Way with the equivalent of about a solar mass per year, which is comparable to the rate at which our galaxy makes stars. At this rate the Milky Way will continue making stars for another billion years by recycling gas into the halo and back onto the galaxy. "We now know where is the missing fuel for galactic star formation," Lehner concludes. "We now have to find out its birthplace."

One goal of the studies was to study how other galaxies like our Milky Way accrete mass for star making. But instead of widespread accretion, the team found nearly ubiquitous halos of hot gas surrounding vigorous star-forming galaxies. These galaxy halos, rich in heavy elements, extend as much as 450,000 light-years beyond the visible portions of their galactic disks. The surprise was discovering how much mass in heavy elements is far outside a galaxy. COS measured 10 million solar masses of oxygen in a galaxy's halo, which corresponds to about 1 billion solar masses of gas — as much as in the entire interstellar medium between stars in a galaxy's disk. They also found that this gas is nearly absent from galaxies that have stopped forming stars. This is evidence that widespread outflows, rather than accretion, determine a galaxy's fate. "We didn't know how much mass was there in these gas halos, because we couldn't do these observations until we had COS," Tumlinson says. "This stuff is a huge component of galaxies but can't be seen in any images."

He points out that because so much of the heavy elements has been ejected into the halos instead of sticking around in the galaxies, the formation of planets, life, and other things requiring heavy elements could have been delayed in these galaxies.

The COS data also demonstrate that those galaxies forming stars at a very rapid rate, perhaps a hundred solar masses per year, can drive 2-million-degree gas very far out into intergalactic space at speeds of up to 2 million miles per hour. That's fast enough for the gas to escape forever and never refuel the parent galaxy. While hot plasma "winds" from galaxies have been known for some time, the new COS observations reveal that hot outflows extend to much greater distances than previously thought and can carry a tremendous amount of mass out of a galaxy. Some of the hot gas is moving more slowly and could eventually be recycled. The Hubble observations show how gas-rich star-forming spiral galaxies can evolve to quiescent elliptical galaxies that no longer have star formation. "So not only have we found that star-forming galaxies are pervasively surrounded by large halos of hot gas," says Tripp, "we have also observed that hot gas in transit — we have caught the stuff in the process of moving out of a galaxy and into intergalactic space."

The light emitted by this hot plasma is invisible, so the researchers used COS to detect the presence of the gas by the way it absorbs certain colors of light from background quasars. The brightest objects in the universe, quasars are the brilliant cores of active galaxies that contain rapidly accreting supermassive black holes. The quasars serve as distant lighthouse beacons that shine through the gas-rich "fog" of hot plasma encircling galaxies. At ultraviolet wavelengths, COS is sensitive to absorption from many ionized heavy elements, such as nitrogen, oxygen, and neon. COS's high sensitivity allows many galaxies that happen to lie in front of the much more distant quasars to be studied. The ionized heavy elements serve as proxies for estimating how much mass is in a galaxy's halo.

"Only with COS can we now address some of the most crucial questions that are at the forefront of extragalactic astrophysics," Tumlinson says.


Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Jason Tumlinson
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NASA Probe Data Show Liquid Water Evidence on Europa

Europa's "Great Lake." Researchers predict many more such lakes are scattered throughout the moon's icy shell. Image credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel VFX/Univ. of Texas at Austin. Larger image

PASADENA, Calif. -- Data from a NASA planetary mission have provided scientists evidence of what appears to be a body of liquid water, equal in volume to the North American Great Lakes, beneath the icy surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

The data suggest there is significant exchange between Europa's icy shell and the ocean beneath. This information could bolster arguments that Europa's global subsurface ocean represents a potential habitat for life elsewhere in our solar system. The findings are published in the scientific journal Nature.

"The data open up some compelling possibilities," said Mary Voytek, director of NASA's Astrobiology Program at agency headquarters in Washington. "However, scientists worldwide will want to take a close look at this analysis and review the data before we can fully appreciate the implication of these results."

NASA's Galileo spacecraft, launched by the space shuttle Atlantis in 1989 to Jupiter, produced numerous discoveries and provided scientists decades of data to analyze. Galileo studied Jupiter, which is the most massive planet in our solar system, and some of its many moons.

One of the most significant discoveries was the inference of a global saltwater ocean below the surface of Europa. This ocean is deep enough to cover the whole surface of Europa and contains more liquid water than all of Earth's oceans combined. However, being far from the sun, the ocean surface is completely frozen. Most scientists think this ice crust is tens of miles thick.

"One opinion in the scientific community has been if the ice shell is thick, that's bad for biology. That might mean the surface isn't communicating with the underlying ocean," said Britney Schmidt, lead author of the paper and postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas at Austin. "Now, we see evidence that it's a thick ice shell that can mix vigorously and new evidence for giant shallow lakes. That could make Europa and its ocean more habitable."

Schmidt and her team focused on Galileo images of two roughly circular, bumpy features on Europa's surface called chaos terrains. Based on similar processes seen on Earth -- on ice shelves and under glaciers overlying volcanoes -- they developed a four-step model to explain how the features form. The model resolves several conflicting observations. Some seemed to suggest the ice shell is thick. Others suggest it is thin.

This recent analysis shows the chaos features on Europa's surface may be formed by mechanisms that involve significant exchange between the icy shell and the underlying lake. This provides a mechanism or model for transferring nutrients and energy between the surface and the vast global ocean already inferred to exist below the thick ice shell. This is thought to increase the potential for life there.

The study authors have good reason to believe their model is correct, based on observations of Europa from Galileo and of Earth. Still, because the inferred lakes are several miles below the surface, the only true confirmation of their presence would come from a future spacecraft mission designed to probe the ice shell. Such a mission was rated as the second highest priority flagship mission by the National Research Council's recent Planetary Science Decadal Survey and is being studied by NASA.

"This new understanding of processes on Europa would not have been possible without the foundation of the last 20 years of observations over Earth's ice sheets and floating ice shelves," said Don Blankenship, a co-author and senior research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics, where he leads airborne radar studies of the planet's ice sheets.

Galileo was the first spacecraft to directly measure Jupiter's atmosphere with a probe and conduct long-term observations of the Jovian system. The probe was the first to fly by an asteroid and discover the moon of an asteroid. NASA extended the mission three times to take advantage of Galileo's unique science capabilities, and the spacecraft was put on a collision course into Jupiter's atmosphere in September 2003 to eliminate any chance of impacting Europa.

The Galileo mission was managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For images and a video animation of the findings, visit:

For more information about the Galileo mission, visit:

Jia-Rui Cook/Priscilla Vega 818-354-0850/354-1357
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. /

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington

The Cool Clouds of Carina

The Cool Clouds of Carina

Digitized Sky Survey Image of Eta Carinae Nebula

PR Image eso1145c
The Carina Nebula in the constellation of Carina

PR Video eso1145a
The Cool Clouds of Carina

APEX gives us a new view of star formation in the Carina Nebula

Observations made with the APEX telescope in submillimetre-wavelength light reveal the cold dusty clouds from which stars form in the Carina Nebula. This site of violent star formation, which plays host to some of the highest-mass stars in our galaxy, is an ideal arena in which to study the interactions between these young stars and their parent molecular clouds.

Using the LABOCA camera on the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope on the plateau of Chajnantor in the Chilean Andes, a team of astronomers led by Thomas Preibisch (Universitäts–Sternwarte München, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Germany), in close cooperation with Karl Menten and Frederic Schuller (Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany), imaged the region in submillimetre light. At this wavelength, most of the light seen is the weak heat glow from cosmic dust grains. The image therefore reveals the clouds of dust and molecular gas — mostly hydrogen — from which stars may form. At -250ºC, the dust grains are very cold, and the faint glow emanating from them can only be seen at submillimetre wavelengths, significantly longer than those of visible light. Submillimetre light is, therefore, key to studying how stars form and how they interact with their parent clouds.

The APEX LABOCA observations are shown here in orange tones, combined with a visible light image from the Curtis Schmidt telescope at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory. The result is a dramatic, wide-field picture that provides a spectacular view of Carina’s star formation sites. The nebula contains stars with a total mass equivalent to over 25 000 Suns, while the mass of the gas and dust clouds is that of about 140 000 Suns.

However, only a fraction of the gas in the Carina Nebula is in sufficiently dense clouds to collapse and form new stars in the immediate future (in astronomical terms, meaning within the next million years). In the longer term, the dramatic effects of the massive stars already in the region on their surrounding clouds may accelerate the star formation rate.

High-mass stars live for only a few million years at most (a very short lifespan compared to the ten billion years of the Sun), but they profoundly influence their environments throughout their lives. As youngsters, these stars emit strong winds and radiation that shape the clouds around them, perhaps compressing them enough to form new stars. At the ends of their lives, they are highly unstable, being prone to outbursts of stellar material until their deaths in violent supernova explosions.

A prime example of these violent stars is Eta Carinae, the bright yellowish star just to the upper left of the centre of the image. It has over 100 times the mass of our Sun, and is among the most luminous stars known. Within the next million years or so, Eta Carinae will explode as a supernova, followed by yet more supernovae from other massive stars in the region.

These violent explosions rip through the molecular gas clouds in their immediate surroundings, but after the shockwaves have travelled more than about ten light-years they are weaker, and may instead compress clouds that are a little further away, triggering the formation of new generations of stars. The supernovae may also produce short-lived radioactive atoms that are picked up by the collapsing clouds. There is strong evidence that similar radioactive atoms were incorporated into the cloud that collapsed to form our Sun and planets, so the Carina Nebula may provide additional insights into the creation of our own Solar System.

The Carina Nebula is some 7500 light-years distant in the constellation of the same name (Carina, or The Keel). It is among the brightest nebulae in the sky because of its large population of high-mass stars. At about 150 light-years across, it is several times larger than the well-known Orion Nebula. Even though it is several times further away than the Orion Nebula, its apparent size on the sky is therefore about the same, making it also one of the largest nebulae in the sky.

The 12-metre-diameter APEX telescope is a pathfinder for ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a revolutionary new telescope that ESO, together with its international partners, is building and operating, also on the Chajnantor plateau. APEX is itself based on a single prototype antenna constructed for the ALMA project, while ALMA will be an array of 54 antennas with 12-metre diameters, and an additional 12 antennas with 7-metre diameters. While ALMA will have far higher angular resolution than APEX, its field of view will be much smaller. The two telescopes are complementary: for example, APEX will find many targets across wide areas of sky, which ALMA will be able to study in great detail.

APEX is a collaboration between the Max-Planck-Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) and ESO. The operation of APEX is entrusted to ESO.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

More information

These LABOCA observations are described in the paper “A deep wide-field sub-mm survey of the Carina Nebula complex” by Preibisch et al., A&A, 525, A92 (2011):

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 two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

More information about the work of Thomas Preibisch’s team on the Carina Nebula: A panchromatic view of massive star feedback and triggered star formation in the Carina Nebula


Thomas Preibisch
Universitäts-Sternwarte München, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
Munich, Germany
Tel: +49 89 2180 6016

Douglas Pierce-Price
ESO ALMA/APEX Public Information Officer
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6759

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Belly of the Cosmic Whale

NGC 4631
Credit: NASA & ESA

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep into NGC 4631, better known as the Whale Galaxy. Here, a profusion of starbirth lights up the galactic centre, revealing bands of dark material between us and the starburst. The galaxy’s activity tapers off in its outer regions where there are fewer stars and less dust, but these are still punctuated by pockets of star formation.

The Whale Galaxy is about 30 million light-years away from us in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs) and is a spiral galaxy much like the Milky Way. From our vantage point, however, we see the Whale Galaxy edge-on, seeing its glowing centre through dusty spiral arms. The galaxy's central bulge and asymmetric tapering disc have suggested the shape of a whale or a herring to past observers.

Many supernovae — the explosions of hot, blue, short-lived stars at least eight times the mass of the Sun — have gone off in the core of the Whale Galaxy. The stellar pyrotechnics have bathed the galaxy in hot gas, visible to X-ray telescopes like ESA’s XMM–Newton. Comparing the optical and near-infrared observations from Hubble with other telescopes sensitive to different wavelengths of light helps astronomers gather the full story behind celestial phenomena.

From such work, the triggers of the starburst in the Whale Galaxy and others can be elucidated. The gravitational "feeding" on intergalactic material, as well as clumping caused by the gravitational interactions with its galactic neighbours, creates the areas of greater density where stars start to coalesce. Just as blue whales, the biggest creatures on Earth, can gorge themselves on comparatively tiny bits of plankton, so the Whale Galaxy has become filled with the gas and dust that powers a high rate of star formation.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Giant planet ejected from the solar system

Artist's impression of a planet ejected from the early solar system
Image courtesy of Southwest Research Institute.

Download image

This animation shows the evolution of giant planets from 20 million years before the instability to 30 million years after the instability (the actual simulation covered a much longer time span). Five initial planets are shown by red circles, small bodies are in green. The fifth planet is ejected at the instability causing a general disorder. The system of the remaining four planets stabilizes after a while, and looks like the outer solar system in the end, with giant planets at 5, 10, 20 and 30 astronomical units. This is just one of more than 6,000 simulations performed to study the likelihood of planet ejection. Animation courtesy of Southwest Research Institute.

Boulder, Colo. — Nov. 10, 2011 — Just as an expert chess player sacrifices a piece to protect the queen, the solar system may have given up a giant planet and spared the Earth, according to an article recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"We have all sorts of clues about the early evolution of the solar system," says author Dr. David Nesvorny of the Southwest Research Institute. "They come from the analysis of the trans-Neptunian population of small bodies known as the Kuiper Belt, and from the lunar cratering record."

These clues suggest that the orbits of giant planets were affected by a dynamical instability when the solar system was only about 600 million years old. As a result, the giant planets and smaller bodies scattered away from each other.

Some small bodies moved into the Kuiper Belt and others traveled inward, producing impacts on the terrestrial planets and the Moon. The giant planets moved as well. Jupiter, for example, scattered most small bodies outward and moved inward.

This scenario presents a problem, however. Slow changes in Jupiter's orbit, such as the ones expected from interaction with small bodies, would have conveyed too much momentum to the orbits of the terrestrial planets, stirring up or disrupting the inner solar system and possibly causing the Earth to collide with Mars or Venus.

"Colleagues suggested a clever way around this problem," says Nesvorny. "They proposed that Jupiter's orbit quickly changed when Jupiter scattered off of Uranus or Neptune during the dynamical instability in the outer solar system." The "jumping-Jupiter" theory, as it is known, is less harmful to the inner solar system, because the orbital coupling between the terrestrial planets and Jupiter is weak if Jupiter jumps.

Nesvorny conducted thousands of computer simulations of the early solar system to test the jumping-Jupiter theory. He found that, as hoped for, Jupiter did in fact jump by scattering from Uranus or Neptune. When it jumped, however, Uranus or Neptune was knocked out of the solar system. "Something was clearly wrong," he says.

Motivated by these results, Nesvorny wondered whether the early solar system could have had five giant planets instead of four. By running the simulations with an additional giant planet with mass similar to that of Uranus or Neptune, things suddenly fell in place. One planet was ejected from the solar system by Jupiter, leaving four giant planets behind, and Jupiter jumped, leaving the terrestrial planets undisturbed.

"The possibility that the solar system had more than four giant planets initially, and ejected some, appears to be conceivable in view of the recent discovery of a large number of free-floating planets in interstellar space, indicating the planet ejection process could be a common occurrence," says Nesvorny.

This research was funded by the National Lunar Science Institute and the National Science Foundation. The paper, "Young Solar System's Fifth Giant Planet?" by Dr. David Nesvorny was published online by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Editors: An image and animation to accompany this release are available at:

For more information, contact Maria Martinez, (210) 522-3305, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.

Lutetia: a Rare Survivor from the Birth of the Earth

An image of the strange asteroid Lutetia from the ESA Rosetta probe

Artist's impression of the asteroid Lutetia making a close approach to a planet in the early Solar System

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Artist's impression of the development of the Solar System

PR Video eso1144a
The unusual history of the asteroid Lutetia

New observations indicate that the asteroid Lutetia is a leftover fragment of the same original material that formed the Earth, Venus and Mercury. Astronomers have combined data from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, ESO’s New Technology Telescope, and NASA telescopes. They found that the properties of the asteroid closely match those of a rare kind of meteorites found on Earth and thought to have formed in the inner parts of the Solar System. Lutetia must, at some point, have moved out to its current location in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

A team of astronomers from French and North American universities have studied the unusual asteroid Lutetia in detail at a very wide range of wavelengths [1] to deduce its composition. Data from the OSIRIS camera on ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft [2], ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii and Spitzer Space Telescope were combined to create the most complete spectrum of an asteroid ever assembled [3].

This spectrum of Lutetia was then compared with that of meteorites found on Earth that have been extensively studied in the laboratory. Only one type of meteorite — enstatite chondrites— was found to have properties that matched Lutetia over the full range of colours.

Enstatite chondrites are known to be material that dates from the early Solar System. They are thought to have formed close to the young Sun and to have been a major building block in the formation of the rocky planets [4], in particular the Earth, Venus and Mercury [5]. Lutetia seems to have originated not in the main belt of asteroids, where it is now, but much closer to the Sun.

“But how did Lutetia escape from the inner Solar System and reach the main asteroid belt?” asks Pierre Vernazza (ESO), the lead author of the paper.

Astronomers have estimated that less than 2% of the bodies located in the region where Earth formed, ended up in the main asteroid belt. Most of the bodies of the inner Solar System disappeared after a few million years as they were incorporated into the young planets that were forming. However, some of the largest, with diameters of about 100 kilometres or more, were ejected to safer orbits further from the Sun.

Lutetia, which is about 100 kilometres across, may have been tossed out from the inner parts of the young Solar System if it passed close to one of the rocky planets and thus had its orbit dramatically altered [6]. An encounter with the young Jupiter during its migration to its current orbit could also account for the huge change in Lutetia’s orbit [7].

“We think that such an ejection must have happened to Lutetia. It ended up as an interloper in the main asteroid belt and it has been preserved there for four billion years,” continues Pierre Vernazza.

Earlier studies of its colour and surface properties showed that Lutetia is a very unusual and rather mysterious member of the asteroid main belt. Previous surveys have shown that similar asteroids are very rare and represent less than 1% of the asteroid population of the main belt. The new findings explain why Lutetia is different — it is a very rare survivor of the original material that formed the rocky planets.

“Lutetia seems to be the largest, and one of the very few, remnants of such material in the main asteroid belt. For this reason, asteroids like Lutetia represent ideal targets for future sample return missions. We could then study in detail the origin of the rocky planets, including our Earth,” concludes Pierre Vernazza.


[1] The electromagnetic spectrum represents the complete range of wavelengths covered by the different types of electromagnetic radiation. Visible light is the most familiar form, but many others exist. Many of these types of radiation are used in everyday life, such as radio waves, microwaves, infrared and ultraviolet light and X-rays.

[2] The Rosetta spacecraft, on its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, flew past Lutetia on 10 July 2010.

[3] Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera provided data in the ultraviolet, ESO’s NTT provided data in visible light, while NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii and Spitzer Space Telescope provided data in the near-infrared and mid-infrared respectively.

[4] The enstatite chondrites (E chondrites) are a unique class of meteorites that account for only about 2% of the recovered meteorite falls. The unusual mineralogy and chemistry of E chondrites is consistent with formation relatively close to the Sun. This is further supported by isotope measurements (verified for oxygen, nitrogen, ruthenium, chromium and titanium): E chondrites are the only groups of chondrites that have the same isotopic composition as the Earth and Moon system. This strongly suggests that the Earth formed from enstatite chondrite-type materials and also that E chondrites formed at about the same distance from the Sun as the Earth.

In addition it has been recently shown that formation from enstatite chondrite bodies can explain Mercury's unusual and previously inexplicable composition. This suggests that Mercury — like the Earth — largely accreted from enstatite chondrite-like materials.

[5] Although they all formed from similar material, it remains a mystery why the inner three planets are so different.

[6] This process is very much like the gravitational assist methods used to change the direction and speed of space probes by arranging for them to fly close to a planet.

[7] Some astronomers think that the gaseous giant may have been closer to the Sun in the early days of the Solar System, before moving outwards to its current position. This would have caused havoc in the orbits of other objects of the inner Solar System due to the huge gravitational pull of Jupiter.

More information

This research was presented in a paper, “Asteroid (21) Lutetia as a remnant of Earth’s precursor planetesimals”, to appear in the journal Icarus.

The team is composed of P. Vernazza (Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM), France; European Southern Observatory, Germany), P. Lamy (LAM, France), O. Groussin (LAM, France), T. Hiroi (Department of Geological Sciences, Brown University, USA), L. Jorda(LAM, France), P.L. King (Institute for Meteoritics, University of New Mexico, USA), M.R.M. Izawa (Department of Earth Sciences, University of Western Ontario, Canada), F. Marchis (Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, USA; IMCCE, Observatoire de Paris (OBSPM), France), M. Birlan (IMCCE, OBSPM, France), R. Brunetto (Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale, CNRS, France).

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 two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Photos of La Silla
More information about Rosetta


Pierre Vernazza
ESO, Astronomer
Garching bei München,, Germany

Philippe Lamy
Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Directeur de Recherche
Marseille, France
Tel: +33 49 105 5932

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