Saturday, April 30, 2016

Possible Extragalactic Source of High-Energy Neutrinos

Coincidence of a highly energetic outburst of an active galactic nucleus with a neutrino event at PeV energy

Nearly 10 billion years ago in a galaxy known as PKS B1424-418, a dramatic explosion occurred. Light from this blast began arriving at Earth in 2012. Now, an international team of astronomers, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, have shown that a record-breaking neutrino seen around the same time likely was born in the same event. The results are published in "Nature Physics".

Fermi LAT images showing the gamma-ray sky around the blazar PKS B1424-418. Brighter colors indicate greater numbers of gamma rays. The dashed arc marks part of the source region established by IceCube for the Big Bird neutrino (50-percent confidence level). Left: An average of LAT data centered on July 8, 2011 covering 300 days when the blazar was inactive. Right: An average of 300 active days centered on Feb. 27, 2013, when PKS B1424-418 was the brightest blazar in this part of the sky. © NASA/DOE/LAT-Kollaboration

Neutrinos are the fastest, lightest and most unsociable understood fundamental particles, and scientists are just now capable of detecting high-energy ones arriving from deep space. The present work provides the first plausible association between a single extragalactic object and one of these cosmic neutrinos.

Although neutrinos far outnumber all the atoms in the universe, they rarely interact with matter, which makes detecting them quite a challenge. But this same property lets neutrinos make a fast exit from places where light cannot easily escape -- such as the core of a collapsing star -- and zip across the universe almost completely unimpeded. Neutrinos can provide information about processes and environments that simply aren't available through a study of light alone.

Recently, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole found first evidence for a flux of extraterrestrial neutrinos, which was named the Physics World breakthrough of the year 2013. To date, the science team of IceCube Neutrino has announced about a hundred very high-energy neutrinos and nicknamed the most extreme events after characters on the children's TV series "Sesame Street." On Dec. 4, 2012, IceCube detected an event known as Big Bird, a neutrino with an energy exceeding 2 quadrillion electron volts (PeV). To put that in perspective, it's more than a million million times greater than the energy of a dental X-ray packed into a single particle thought to possess less than a millionth the mass of an electron. Big Bird was the highest-energy neutrino ever detected at the time and still ranks second.

Where did it come from? The best IceCube position only narrowed the source to a patch of the southern sky about 32 degrees across, equivalent to the apparent size of 64 full moons. “It’s like a crime scene investigation”, says lead author Matthias Kadler, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Würzburg in Germany, “The case involves an explosion, a suspect, and various pieces of circumstantial evidence.”

Starting in the summer of 2012, NASA’s Fermi satellite witnessed a dramatic brightening of PKS B1424-418, an active galaxy classified as a gamma-ray blazar. An active galaxy is an otherwise typical galaxy with a compact and unusually bright core. The excess luminosity of the central region is produced by matter falling toward a supermassive black hole weighing millions of times the mass of our sun. As it approaches the black hole, some of the material becomes channeled into particle jets moving outward in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. In blazars one of these jets happens to point almost directly toward Earth.

During the year-long outburst, PKS B1424-418 shone between 15 and 30 times brighter in gamma rays than its average before the eruption. The blazar is located within the Big Bird source region, but then so are many other active galaxies detected by Fermi.

These radio images from the TANAMI project reveal the 2012-2013 eruption of PKS B1424-418 at a radio frequency of 8.4 GHz. The core of the blazar’s jet brightened by four times, producing the most dramatic blazar outburst TANAMI has observed to date. © TANAMI Collaboration

The scientists searching for the neutrino source then turned to data from a long-term observing program named TANAMI. Since 2007, TANAMI has routinely monitored nearly 100 active galaxies in the southern sky, including many flaring sources detected by Fermi. Three radio observations between 2011 and 2013 cover the period of the Fermi outburst. They reveal that the core of the galaxy's jet had been brightening by about four times. “No other of our galaxies observed by TANAMI over the life of the program has exhibited such a dramatic change”, explains Eduardo Ros, from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany.

Within their jets, blazars are capable of accelerating protons to relativistic energies. Interactions of these protons with light in the central regions of the blazar can create pions. When these pions decay, both gamma rays and neutrinos are produced. "We combed through the field where Big Bird must have originated looking for astrophysical objects capable of producing high-energy particles and light," says coauthor Felicia Krauß, a doctoral student at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. "There was a moment of wonder and awe when we realized that the most dramatic outburst we had ever seen in a blazar happened in just the right place at just the right time."

In a paper published Monday, April 18, in Nature Physics, the team suggests the PKS B1424-418 outburst and Big Bird are linked, calculating only a 5-percent probability the two events occurred by chance alone. Using data from Fermi, NASA’s Swift and WISE satellites, the LBA and other facilities, the researchers determined how the energy of the eruption was distributed across the electromagnetic spectrum and showed that it was sufficiently powerful to produce a neutrino at PeV energies.

"Taking into account all of the observations, the blazar seems to have had means, motive and opportunity to fire off the Big Bird neutrino, which makes it our prime suspect," explains Matthias Kadler.

Francis Halzen, the principal investigator of IceCube at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and not involved in this study, thinks the result is an exciting hint of things to come. "IceCube is about to send out real-time alerts when it records a neutrino that can be localized to an area a little more than half a degree across, or slightly larger than the apparent size of a full moon," he says. "We're slowly opening a neutrino window onto the cosmos." "This study demonstrates the vital importance of classical astronomical observations in an era when new detection methods like neutrino observatories and gravitational-wave detectors open new but unknown skies", concludes Anton Zensus, director at MPIfR and head of its Radio Astronomy/VLBI research department, also a coauthor of the study.

Source: Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy

Local Contacts

Prof. Dr. Eduardo Ros
Phone:+49 228 525-125
Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn

Prof. Dr. J. Anton Zensus
Director and Head of "Radio Astronomy/VLBI" Research Dept.
Phone: +49 228 525-298 (secretary)
Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn

Dr. Norbert Junkes
Press and Public Outreach Phone:+49 228 525-399
Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn

Original Paper 


TANAMI is a multiwavelength monitoring program of active galaxies in the Southern sky. It includes regular radio observations using the Australian Long Baseline Array (LBA) and associated telescopes in Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Antarctica. When networked together, they operate as a single radio telescope more than 6,000 miles across and provide a unique high-resolution look into the jets of active galaxies.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory, built into a cubic kilometer of clear glacial ice at the South Pole, detects neutrinos when they interact with atoms in the ice. This triggers a cascade of fast-moving charged particles that emit a faint glow, called Cerenkov light, as they travel, which is picked up by thousands of optical sensors strung throughout IceCube. Scientists determine the energy of an incoming neutrino by the amount of light its particle cascade emits.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

MPIfR scientists involved in the project are Eduardo Ros and J. Anton Zensus.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Elegance conceals an eventful past

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

The elegant simplicity of NGC 4111, seen here in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, hides a more violent history than you might think. NGC 4111 is a lenticular, or lens-shaped, galaxy, lying about 50 million light-years from us in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs).

Lenticular galaxies are an intermediate type of galaxy between an elliptical and a spiral. They host aged stars like ellipticals and have a disk like a spiral. However, that’s where the similarities end: they differ from ellipticals because they have a bulge and a thin disk, but are different from spirals because lenticular discs contain very little gas and dust, and do not feature the many-armed structure that is characteristic of spiral galaxies. In this image we see the disc of NGC 4111 edge-on, so it appears as a thin sliver of light on the sky.

At first sight, NGC 4111 looks like a fairly uneventful galaxy, but there are unusual features that suggest it is not such a peaceful place. Running through its centre, at right angles to the thin disc, is a series of filaments, silhouetted against the bright core of the galaxy. These are made of dust, and astronomers think they are associated with a ring of material encircling the galaxy’s core. Since it is not aligned with the galaxy’s main disc, it is possible that this polar ring of gas and dust is actually the remains of a smaller galaxy that was swallowed up by NGC 4111 long ago.

Probing Dark Energy with Clusters: "Russian Doll" Galaxy Clusters Reveal Information About Dark Energy

Abell 1835, MS 1455.0+2232, RXJ1347.5-1145, ZWCL 3146
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alabama/A. Morandi et al; Optical: SDSS, NASA/STScI

JPEG (385.8 kb) - Large JPEG (4.4 MB) - Tiff (12.6 MB) - More Images


These four galaxy clusters were part of a large survey of over 300 clusters used to investigate dark energy, the mysterious energy that is currently driving the accelerating expansion of the Universe, as described in our latest press release. In these composite images, X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (purple) have been combined with optical light from the Hubble Space Telescope and Sloan Digital Sky Survey (red, green, and blue).

Researchers used a novel technique that takes advantage of the observation that the outer reaches of galaxy clusters, the largest structures in the universe held together by gravity, show similarity in their X-ray emission profiles and sizes. That is, more massive clusters are simply scaled up versions of less massive ones, similar to Russian dolls that nest inside one another.

The amount of matter in the Universe, which is dominated by the unseen substance called dark matter, and the properties of dark energy (what astronomers call cosmological parameters) affect the rate of expansion of the Universe and, therefore, how the distances to objects change with time. If the cosmological parameters used are incorrect and a cluster is inferred to be traveling away faster than the correct value, then a cluster will appear to be larger and fainter due to this "Russian doll" property. If the cluster is inferred to be traveling away more slowly than the correct value, the cluster will be smaller and brighter than a cluster according to theory.

These latest results confirm earlier studies that the amount of dark energy has not changed over billions of years. They also support the idea that dark energy is best explained by the "cosmological constant," which Einstein first proposed and is equivalent to the energy of empty space.

The galaxy clusters in this large sample ranged in distance from about 760 million to 8.7 billion light years from Earth, providing astronomers with information about the era where dark energy caused the once-decelerating expansion of the Universe to accelerate.

The X-ray emission in the outer parts of galaxy clusters is faint because the gas is diffuse there. To deal with this issue in this study, the X-ray signal from different clusters was added together. Regions near the centers of the clusters are excluded from the analysis because of large differences between the properties of different clusters caused by supermassive black hole outbursts, the cooling of gas and the formation of stars.

A paper describing these results by Andrea Morandi and Ming Sun (University of Alabama at Huntsville) appeared in the April 11th, 2016 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal and is available online. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

Fast Facts for Abell 1835:

Scale: Image is 3.0 arcmin across. (about 2.3 million light years)
Category: Groups & Clusters of Galaxies, Cosmology/Deep Fields/X-ray Background
Coordinates (J2000): RA 14h 01m 02.30s | Dec +02° 52' 48.00"
Constellation: Virgo
Observation Dates: 7 Dec 2005, 24 Jul and 25 Aug 2006
Observation Time: 192 ks
Obs. IDs: 6880, 6881, 7370
Instrument: ACIS
References: Morandi, A. et al, 2016, MNRAS, 457, 3266; arXiv:1601.03741
Color Code: X-ray (Purple); Optical (Red, Green, Blue)
Distance Estimate: About 3.1 billion light years (z=0.259)

Fast Facts for MS 1455.0+2232:

Scale: Image is 3.3 arcmin across. (about 2.6 million light years)
Category: Groups & Clusters of Galaxies, Cosmology/Deep Fields/X-ray Background
Coordinates (J2000): RA 14h 57m 15.10s | Dec +22° 20' 34.01"
Constellation: Boötes
Observation Dates: 19 May 2000, 05 Sep 2003, 23 Mar 2007
Observation Time: 108 ks
Obs. IDs: 543, 4192, 7709
Instrument: ACIS
References: Morandi, A. et al, 2016, MNRAS, 457, 3266; arXiv:1601.03741
Color Code: X-ray (Purple); Optical (Red, Green, Blue)
Distance Estimate: About 3.1 billion light years (z=0.259)

Fast Facts for RXJ 1347.5-1145:

Scale: Image is 2.2 arcmin across. (about 2.5 million light years)
Category: Groups & Clusters of Galaxies, Cosmology/Deep Fields/X-ray Background
Coordinates (J2000): RA 13h 47m 33.53s | Dec -11° 45' 42.12"
Constellation: Virgo
Observation Dates: 3 Sep 2003, 16 Mar, 14 May and 11 Dec 2012
Observation Time: 214 ks
Obs. IDs: 3592, 13516, 13999, 14407
Instrument: ACIS
References: Morandi, A. et al, 2016, MNRAS, 457, 3266; arXiv:1601.03741
Color Code: X-ray (Purple): Optical (Red, Green, Blue)
Distance Estimate: About 4.7 billion light years (z=0.451)

Fast Facts for ZWCL 3146:

Scale: Image is 2.5 arcmin across. (about 2.1 million light years)
Category: Groups & Clusters of Galaxies, Cosmology/Deep Fields/X-ray Background
Coordinates (J2000): RA 10h 23m 39.63s | Dec +04° 11' 10.36"
Constellation: Sextans
Observation Dates: 10 May 2000, 18 Jan 2008
Observation Time: 82 ks
Obs. IDs: 909, 9371
Instrument: ACIS
References: Morandi, A. et al, 2016, MNRAS, 457, 3266; arXiv:1601.03741
Color Code: X-ray (Purple); Optical (Red, Green, Blue)
Distance Estimate: About 3.3 billion light years (z=0.290)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Powerful winds spotted from mysterious X-ray binaries

Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

Credit: NASA, ESA & A. Pellerin (STScI)

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA. Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt (Geckzilla)

At X-ray wavelengths, the celestial sky is dominated by two types of astronomical objects: supermassive black holes, sitting at the centres of large galaxies and ferociously devouring the material around them, and binary systems, consisting of a stellar remnant – a white dwarf, neutron star or black hole – feeding on gas from a companion star.

In both cases, the gas forms a swirling disc around the compact and very dense central object: friction in the disc causes the gas to heat up and emit light at many wavelengths, with a peak in X-rays.

Not all of the gas is swallowed by the central object though, and some of it might even be pushed away by powerful winds and jets.

But an intermediate class of objects was discovered in the 1980s and is still not well understood. Ten to a hundred times brighter than ordinary X-ray binaries, these sources are nevertheless too faint to be linked to accreting supermassive black holes, and in any case, are usually found far from the centre of their host galaxy.

"We think these 'ultra-luminous X-ray sources' are somewhat special binary systems, sucking up gas at a much higher rate than an ordinary X-ray binary," explains Ciro Pinto from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, UK.

"Some host highly magnetised neutron stars, while others might conceal the long-sought-after intermediate-mass black holes, which have masses around 1000 times the mass of the Sun. But in the majority of cases, the reason for their extreme behaviour is still unclear."

Ciro is the lead author of a new study, based on observations from ESA's XMM-Newton, revealing for the first time strong winds gusting at very high speed from two of these exotic objects. The discovery, published in this week's issue of the journal Nature, confirms that these sources conceal a compact object accreting matter at extraordinarily high rates.

Ciro and his colleagues delved into the XMM-Newton archives and collected several days' worth of observations of three ultra-luminous X-ray sources, all hosted in nearby galaxies located less than 22 million light-years from our Milky Way.

The data were obtained over several years with the Reflection Grating Spectrometer, a highly sensitive instrument that allowed them to spot very subtle features in the spectrum of the X-rays from the sources.

In all three sources, the scientists were able to identify X-ray emission from gas in the outer portions of the disc surrounding the central compact object, slowly flowing towards it.

But two of the three sources – known as NGC 1313 X-1 and NGC 5408 X-1 – also show clear signs of X-rays being absorbed by gas that is streaming away from the central source at an extremely rapid 70 000 km/s – almost a quarter of the speed of light.

"This is the first time we've seen winds streaming away from ultra-luminous X-ray sources," says Ciro.

And there's more, since the very high speed of these outflows is telling us something about the nature of the compact objects in these sources, which are frantically devouring matter."

While the hot gas is pulled inwards by the central object's gravity, it also shines brightly, and the pressure exerted by the radiation pushes it outwards. This is a balancing act: the greater the mass, the faster it draws the surrounding gas. But this also causes the gas to heat up faster, emitting more light and increasing the pressure that blows the gas away.

There is a theoretical limit to how much matter can be accreted by an object of a given mass, called the 'Eddington luminosity'. It was first calculated for stars by astronomer Arthur Eddington, but it can also be applied to compact objects like black holes and neutron stars.
Eddington's calculation refers to an ideal case in which both the matter being accreted onto the central object and the radiation being emitted by it do so equally in all directions.

But the sources studied by Ciro and his collaborators are being fed through an accretion disc that is likely being puffed up by internal pressure of the gas flowing at a fast pace towards the central object.

In such a configuration, the material in the disc can shine 10 times or more above the Eddington limit and, as part of the gas eludes the gravitational grasp from the central object, very high-speed winds can arise like the ones observed by XMM-Newton.

"By observing X-ray sources that are radiating beyond the Eddington limit, it is possible to study their accretion process in great detail, investigating by how much the limit can be exceeded and what exactly triggers the outflow of such powerful winds," says Norbert Schartel, ESA XMM-Newton Project Scientist.

The nature of the compact objects hosted at the core of the sources observed in this study is, however, still uncertain, although the scientists suspect it might be stellar-mass black holes, with masses of several to a few dozen times that of the Sun.

To investigate further, the team is still scrutinising the data archive of XMM-Newton, searching for more sources of this type, and are also planning future observations, in X-rays as well as at optical and radio wavelengths.

"With a broader sample of sources and multi-wavelength observations, we hope to finally uncover the physical nature of these powerful, peculiar objects," concludes Ciro.

Notes for Editors

"Resolved atomic lines reveal outflows in two ultraluminous X-ray sources, by C. Pinto et al., is published in the journal Nature, doi: 10.1038/nature17417.

For further information, please contact:

Ciro Pinto
Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge United Kingdom 
Tel: +44 1223 339281 

Norbert Schartel
ESA XMM-Newton Project Scientist

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Light Echoes Give Clues to Protoplanetary Disk

This illustration shows a star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. 
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.  › Full image and caption

Astronomers can use light echoes to measure the distance from a star to its surrounding protoplanetary disk. This diagram illustrates how the time delay of the light echo is proportional to the distance between the star and the inner edge of the disk. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. › Larger image

Imagine you want to measure the size of a room, but it's completely dark. If you shout, you can tell if the space you're in is relatively big or small, depending on how long it takes to hear the echo after it bounces off the wall.

Astronomers use this principle to study objects so distant they can't be seen as more than points. In particular, researchers are interested in calculating how far young stars are from the inner edge of their surrounding protoplanetary disks. These disks of gas and dust are sites where planets form over the course of millions of years.

"Understanding protoplanetary disks can help us understand some of the mysteries about exoplanets, the planets in solar systems outside our own," said Huan Meng, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "We want to know how planets form and why we find large planets called 'hot Jupiters' close to their stars."

Meng is the first author on a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and four ground-based telescopes to determine the distance from a star to the inner rim of its surrounding protoplanetary disk.

Making the measurement wasn't as simple as laying a ruler on top of a photograph. Doing so would be as impossible as using a satellite photo of your computer screen to measure the width of the period at the end of this sentence.

Instead, researchers used a method called "photo-reverberation," also known as "light echoes." When the central star brightens, some of the light hits the surrounding disk, causing a delayed "echo." Scientists measured the time it took for light coming directly from the star to reach Earth, then waited for its echo to arrive.

Thanks to Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, we know that light travels at a constant speed. To determine a given distance, astronomers can multiply the speed of light by the time light takes to get from one point to another.

To take advantage of this formula, scientists needed to find a star with variable emission -- that is, a star that emits radiation in an unpredictable, uneven manner. Our own sun has a fairly stable emission, but a variable star would have unique, detectable changes in radiation that could be used for picking up corresponding light echoes. Young stars, which have variable emission, are the best candidates.

The star used in this study is called YLW 16B and lies about 400 light-years from Earth. YLW 16B has about the same mass as our sun, but at one million years old, it's just a baby compared to our 4.6-billion-year-old home star.

Astronomers combined Spitzer data with observations from ground-based telescopes: the Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona; the SOAR and SMARTS telescopes in Chile; and the Harold L. Johnson telescope in Mexico. During two nights of observation, researchers saw consistent time lags between the stellar emissions and their echoes in the surrounding disk. The ground-based observatories detected the shorter-wavelength infrared light emitted directly from the star, and Spitzer observed the longer-wavelength infrared light from the disk's echo. Because of thick interstellar clouds that block the view from Earth, astronomers could not use visible light to monitor the star.

Researchers then calculated how far this light must have traveled during that time lag: about 0.08 astronomical units, which is approximately 8 percent of the distance between Earth and its sun, or one-quarter the diameter of Mercury's orbit. This was slightly smaller than previous estimates with indirect techniques, but consistent with theoretical expectations.

Although this method did not directly measure the height of the disk, researchers were able to determine that the inner edge is relatively thick.

Previously, astronomers had used the light echo technique to measure the size of accretion disks of material around supermassive black holes. Since no light escapes from a black hole, researchers compare light from the inner edge of the accretion disk to light from the outer edge to determine the disk size. This technique is also used to measure the distance to other features near the accretion disk, such as dust and the surrounding fast-moving gas.

While light echoes from supermassive black holes represent delays of days to weeks, scientists measured the light echo from the protoplanetary disk in this study to be a mere 74 seconds.

The Spitzer study marks the first time the light echo method was used in the context of protoplanetary disks.

"This new approach can be used for other young stars with planets in the process of forming in a disk around them," said Peter Plavchan, co-author of the study and assistant professor at Missouri State University in Springfield.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Meng was a visiting researcher at Caltech during this research. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:

News Media Contact

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA

Source: JPL-Caltech

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hubble Discovers Moon Orbiting the Dwarf Planet Makemake

Makemake and Its Moon
Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Parker and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute), 
W. Grundy (Lowell Observatory), and K. Noll (NASA GSFC)

Makemake and Its Newly Discovered Moon (Artist's Concept)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Parker (Southwest Research Institute)

Peering to the outskirts of our solar system, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a small, dark moon orbiting Makemake, the second brightest icy dwarf planet — after Pluto — in the Kuiper Belt.

The moon — provisionally designated S/2015 (136472) 1 and nicknamed MK 2 — is more than 1,300 times fainter than Makemake. MK 2 was seen approximately 13,000 miles from the dwarf planet, and its diameter is estimated to be 100 miles across. Makemake is 870 miles wide. The dwarf planet, discovered in 2005, is named for a creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast reservoir of leftover frozen material from the construction of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago and home to several dwarf planets. Some of these worlds have known satellites, but this is the first discovery of a companion object to Makemake. Makemake is one of five dwarf planets recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

The observations were made in April 2015 with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Hubble's unique ability to see faint objects near bright ones, together with its sharp resolution, allowed astronomers to pluck out the moon from Makemake's glare. The discovery was announced today in a Minor Planet Electronic Circular.

The observing team used the same Hubble technique to observe the moon as they did for finding the small satellites of Pluto in 2005, 2011, and 2012. Several previous searches around Makemake had turned up empty. "Our preliminary estimates show that the moon's orbit seems to be edge-on, and that means that often when you look at the system you are going to miss the moon because it gets lost in the bright glare of Makemake," said Alex Parker of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, who led the image analysis for the observations.

A moon's discovery can provide valuable information on the dwarf-planet system. By measuring the moon's orbit, astronomers can calculate a mass for the system and gain insight into its evolution.

Uncovering the moon also reinforces the idea that most dwarf planets have satellites.
"Makemake is in the class of rare Pluto-like objects, so finding a companion is important," Parker said. "The discovery of this moon has given us an opportunity to study Makemake in far greater detail than we ever would have been able to without the companion."

Finding this moon only increases the parallels between Pluto and Makemake. Both objects are already known to be covered in frozen methane. As was done with Pluto, further study of the satellite will easily reveal the density of Makemake, a key result that will indicate if the bulk compositions of Pluto and Makemake are also similar. "This new discovery opens a new chapter in comparative planetology in the outer solar system," said team leader Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

The researchers will need more Hubble observations to make accurate measurements to determine if the moon's orbit is elliptical or circular. Preliminary estimates indicate that if the moon is in a circular orbit, it completes a circuit around Makemake in 12 days or longer.

Determining the shape of the moon's orbit will help settle the question of its origin. A tight circular orbit means that MK 2 is probably the product of a collision between Makemake and another Kuiper Belt Object. If the moon is in a wide, elongated orbit, it is more likely to be a captured object from the Kuiper Belt. Either event would have likely occurred several billion years ago, when the solar system was young.

The discovery may have solved one mystery about Makemake. Previous infrared studies of the dwarf planet revealed that while Makemake's surface is almost entirely bright and very cold, some areas appear warmer than other areas. Astronomers had suggested that this discrepancy may be due to the sun warming discrete dark patches on Makemake's surface. However, unless Makemake is in a special orientation, these dark patches should make the dwarf planet's brightness vary substantially as it rotates. But this amount of variability has never been observed.

These previous infrared data did not have sufficient resolution to separate Makemake from MK 2. 

The team's reanalysis, based on the new Hubble observations, suggests that much of the warmer surface detected previously in infrared light may, in reality, simply have been the dark surface of the companion MK 2.

There are several possibilities that could explain why the moon would have charcoal-black surface, even though it is orbiting a dwarf planet that is as bright as fresh snow. One idea is that, unlike larger objects such as Makemake, MK 2 is small enough that it cannot gravitationally hold onto a bright, icy crust, which sublimates, changing from solid to gas, under sunlight. This would make the moon similar to comets and other Kuiper Belt Objects, many of which are covered with very dark material.

When Pluto's moon Charon was discovered in 1978, astronomers quickly calculated the mass of the system. Pluto's mass was hundreds of times smaller than the mass originally estimated when it was found in 1930. With Charon's discovery, astronomers suddenly knew something was fundamentally different about Pluto. "That's the kind of transformative measurement that having a satellite can enable," Parker said.


Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514 /

Alex Parker
Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado

Source: HubbleSite

Monday, April 25, 2016

New Herschel maps and catalogues reveal stellar nurseries across the Galactic Plane

Herschel's view of the Galactic Plane. 
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/Hi-GAL Project

Herschel's view of RCW 120
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/Hi-GAL Project

Herschel's view of the Galactic Centre
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/Hi-GAL Project

ESA's Herschel mission releases today a series of unprecedented maps of star-forming hubs in the plane of our Milky Way galaxy. This is accompanied by a set of catalogues of hundreds of thousands of compact sources that span all phases leading to the birth of stars in our Galaxy. These maps and catalogues will be very valuable resources for astronomers, to exploit scientifically and for planning follow-up studies of particularly interesting regions in the Galactic Plane.

During its four years of operations (2009-2013), the Herschel space observatory scanned the sky at far-infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths. Observations in this portion of the electromagnetic spectrum are sensitive to some of the coldest objects in the Universe, including cosmic dust, a minor but crucial component of the interstellar material from which stars are born.

The Herschel infrared Galactic Plane Survey (Hi-GAL) is the largest of all observing programmes carried out with Herschel, in terms of both observing time – over 900 hours of total observations, equivalent to almost 40 days – and sky coverage – about 800 square degrees, or two percent of the entire sky. Its aim was to map the entire disc of the Milky Way, where most of its stars form and reside, in five of Herschel's wavelength channels: 70, 160, 250, 350 and 500 μm.

Over the past two years, the Hi-GAL team has processed the data to obtain a series of calibrated maps of extraordinary quality and resolution. With a dynamical range of at least two orders of magnitude, these maps reveal the emission by diffuse material as well as huge filamentary structures and individual, point-like sources scattered across the images.

Herschel's view of the Eagle Nebula
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/Hi-GAL Project 

The images provide an unprecedented view of the Galactic Plane, ranging from diffuse interstellar material to denser filamentary structures of gas and dust that fragment into clumps where star formation sets in. They include pre-stellar clumps, protostars in various evolutionary stages and compact cores on the verge of turning into stars, as well as fully-fledged stars and the bubbles carved by their highly energetic radiation.

Today, the team releases the first part of this data set, consisting of 70 maps, each measuring two times two degrees, and provided in the five surveyed wavelengths.

"These maps are not only stunning from an aesthetic point of view, but they represent a rich data set for astronomers to investigate the different phases of star formation in our Galaxy," explains Sergio Molinari from IAPS/INAF, Italy, Principal Investigator for the Hi-GAL Project.

Astronomers have been able to avail of data from Hi-GAL from the very beginning of the observing programme since the team agreed to waive their right to a proprietary period. The observations have been made available through the ESA Herschel Science Archive, including raw data as well as data products generated by systematic pipeline processing. The data has regularly been reprocessed to gradually higher quality and fidelity products.

The present release represents an extra step in the data processing. The newly released maps are accompanied by source catalogues in each of the five bands, which can be directly used by the community to study a variety of subjects, including the distribution of diffuse dust and of star-forming regions across the Galactic Plane.

The maps cover the inner part of the Milky Way, towards the Galactic Centre as seen from the Sun, with Galactic longitudes between +68° and -70°. A second release, with the remaining part of the survey, is foreseen for the end of 2016.

Herschel's view of the War and Peace and Cat's Paw nebulas
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/Hi-GAL Project

"It is not straightforward to extract compact sources from far-infrared images, where pre-stellar clumps and other proto-stellar objects are embedded in the diffuse interstellar medium that also shines brightly at the same wavelengths," explains Molinari.

"For this reason, we developed a special technique to extract individual sources from the maps, maximising the contrast in order to amplify the compact objects with respect to the background."

result is a set of five catalogues, one for each of the surveyed wavelengths, listing the source position, flux, size, signal-to-noise ratio and other parameters related to their emission. The largest catalogue is the one compiled from the 160-μm maps, with over 300 000 sources.

"The Hi-GAL maps and catalogues provide a complete census of stellar nurseries in the inner Galaxy," says Göran Pilbratt, Herschel Project Scientist at ESA.

"These will be an extremely useful resource for studies of star formation across the Milky Way, helping astronomers to delve into the Galactic Plane and also to identify targets for follow-up observations with other facilities."

Related publication

S. Molinari, et al., "Hi-GAL, the Herschel infrared Galactic Plane Survey: photometric maps and compact source catalogues. First data release for Inner Milky Way: +68°≥ l ≥ −70°", 2016, Astronomy & Astrophysics.  

More information

Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led Principal Investigator consortia and with important participation from NASA.

Herschel was launched on 14 May 2009 and completed science observations on 29 April 2013.

The Herschel infrared Galactic Plane Survey (Hi-GAL) started out as one of the 21 Open Time Key Programmes carried out with the observatory, and later gained additional time in subsequent calls for observing proposals.


Sergio Molinari
Roma, Italy
Phone: +39-06-4993-4396

Göran Pilbratt
Herschel Project Scientist
ESA, The Netherlands
Phone: +31-71-565-3621

Source:  ESA/Herschel

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Microscopic "Timers" Reveal Likely Source of Galactic Space Radiation

A cluster of massive stars seen with the Hubble Space Telescope. The cluster is surrounded by clouds of interstellar gas and dust called a nebula. The nebula, located 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina, contains the central cluster of huge, hot stars, called NGC 3603. Credits: NASA/U. Virginia/INAF, Bologna, Italy/USRA/Ames/STScI/AURA.  Full caption

Most of the cosmic rays that we detect at Earth originated relatively recently in nearby clusters of massive stars, according to new results from NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft. ACE allowed the research team to determine the source of these cosmic rays by making the first observations of a very rare type of cosmic ray that acts like a tiny timer, limiting the distance the source can be from Earth.

"Before the ACE observations, we didn't know if this radiation was created a long time ago and far, far away, or relatively recently and nearby," said Eric Christian of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Christian is co-author of a paper on this research published April 21 in Science.

Cosmic rays are high-speed atomic nuclei with a wide range of energy -- the most powerful race at almost the speed of light. Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field shield us from less-energetic cosmic rays, which are the most common. However, cosmic rays will present a hazard to unprotected astronauts traveling beyond Earth's magnetic field because they can act like microscopic bullets, damaging structures and breaking apart molecules in living cells. NASA is currently researching ways to reduce or mitigate the effects of cosmic radiation to protect astronauts traveling to Mars.

Cosmic rays are produced by a variety of violent events in space. Most cosmic rays originating within our solar system have relatively low energy and come from explosive events on the Sun, like flares and coronal mass ejections. The highest-energy cosmic rays are extremely rare and are thought to be powered by massive black holes gorging on matter at the center of other galaxies. The cosmic rays that are the subject of this study come from outside our solar system but within our Galaxy and are called galactic cosmic rays. They are thought to be generated by shock waves from exploding stars called supernovae.

The galactic cosmic rays detected by ACE that allowed the team to estimate the age of the cosmic rays, and the distance to their source, contain a radioactive form of iron called Iron-60 (60Fe). It is created inside massive stars when they explode and then blasted into space by the shock waves from the supernova. Some 60Fe in the debris from the destroyed star is accelerated to cosmic-ray speed when another nearby massive star in the cluster explodes and its shock wave collides with the remnants of the earlier stellar explosion.

60Fe galactic cosmic rays zip through space at half the speed of light or more, about 90,000 miles per second. This seems very fast, but the 60Fe cosmic rays won't travel far on a galactic scale for two reasons. First, they can't travel in straight lines because they are electrically charged and respond to magnetic forces. Therefore they are forced to take convoluted paths along the tangled magnetic fields in our Galaxy. Second, 60Fe is radioactive and over a period of about 2.6 million years, half of it will self-destruct, decaying into other elements (Cobalt-60 and then Nickel-60). If the 60Fe cosmic rays were created hundreds of millions of years or more ago, or very far away, eventually there would be too little left for the ACE spacecraft to detect.

"Our detection of radioactive cosmic-ray iron nuclei is a smoking gun indicating that there has likely been more than one supernova in the last few million years in our neighborhood of the Galaxy," said Robert Binns of Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, lead author of the paper.

"In 17 years of observing, ACE detected about 300,000 galactic cosmic rays of ordinary iron, but just 15 of the radioactive Iron-60," said Christian. "The fact that we see any Iron-60 at all means these cosmic ray nuclei must have been created fairly recently (within the last few million years) and that the source must be relatively nearby, within about 3,000 light years, or approximately the width of the local spiral arm in our Galaxy." A light year is the distance light travels in a year, almost six trillion miles. A few thousand light years is relatively nearby because the vast swarm of hundreds of billions of stars that make up our Galaxy is about 100,000 light years wide.

There are more than 20 clusters of massive stars within a few thousand light years, including Upper Scorpius (83 stars), Upper Centaurus Lupus (134 stars), and Lower Centaurus Crux (97 stars). These are very likely major contributors to the 60Fe that ACE detected, owing to their size and proximity, according to the research team.

ACE was launched on August 25, 1997 to a point 900,000 miles away between Earth and the Sun where it has acted as a sentinel, detecting space radiation from solar storms, the Galaxy, and beyond. This research was funded by NASA's ACE program.

Additional co-authors on this paper were: Martin Israel and Kelly Lave at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri; Alan Cummings, Rick Leske, Richard Mewaldt and Ed Stone at Caltech in Pasadena, California; Georgia de Nolfo and Tycho von Rosenvinge at Goddard; and Mark Wiedenbeck at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Karen C. Fox
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

 Source: NASA/Supernova

Friday, April 22, 2016

Elegance conceals an eventful past

 Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

The elegant simplicity of NGC 4111, seen here in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, hides a more violent history than you might think. NGC 4111 is a lenticular, or lens-shaped, galaxy, lying about 50 million light-years from us in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs).

Lenticular galaxies are an intermediate type of galaxy between an elliptical and a spiral. They host aged stars like ellipticals and have a disk like a spiral. However, that’s where the similarities end: they differ from ellipticals because they have a bulge and a thin disk, but are different from spirals because lenticular discs contain very little gas and dust, and do not feature the many-armed structure that is characteristic of spiral galaxies. In this image we see the disc of NGC 4111 edge-on, so it appears as a thin sliver of light on the sky.

At first sight, NGC 4111 looks like a fairly uneventful galaxy, but there are unusual features that suggest it is not such a peaceful place. Running through its centre, at right angles to the thin disc, is a series of filaments, silhouetted against the bright core of the galaxy. These are made of dust, and astronomers think they are associated with a ring of material encircling the galaxy’s core. Since it is not aligned with the galaxy’s main disc, it is possible that this polar ring of gas and dust is actually the remains of a smaller galaxy that was swallowed up by NGC 4111 long ago.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hubble Sees a Star 'Inflating' a Giant Bubble

Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Ground-based Field of View and Location of the Bubble Nebula
This graphic shows the wider context of the Bubble Nebula. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) image (left) by Travis Rector has been rotated and cropped to be north-up and closer to the orientation of the Hubble Space Telescope image (right). In addition to the inner bubble seen in the Hubble image, the wider view shows a large cloud complex, including two larger shells surrounding the massive star near the center.  Credit: T. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF, NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Twenty-six candles grace NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's birthday cake this year, and now one giant space "balloon" will add to the festivities. Just in time for the 26th anniversary of Hubble's launch on April 24, 1990, the telescope has photographed an enormous, balloon-like bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. Astronomers trained the iconic telescope on this colorful feature, called the Bubble Nebula, or NGC 7635. The bubble is 7 light-years across — about one-and-a-half times the distance from our sun to its nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. The Bubble Nebula lies 7,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia.

For the 26th birthday of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers are highlighting a Hubble image of an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. The Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula, or NGC 7635, was chosen to mark the 26th anniversary of the launch of Hubble into Earth orbit by the STS-31 space shuttle crew on April 24, 1990.

"As Hubble makes its 26th revolution around our home star, the sun, we celebrate the event with a spectacular image of a dynamic and exciting interaction of a young star with its environment. The view of the Bubble Nebula, crafted from Wide Field Camera 3 images, reminds us that Hubble gives us a front-row seat to the awe-inspiring universe we live in,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, D.C.

The Bubble Nebula is 7 light-years across — about one-and-a-half times the distance from our sun to its nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri — and resides 7,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia.

The seething star forming this nebula is 45 times more massive than our sun. Gas on the star gets so hot that it escapes away into space as a "stellar wind" moving at over 4 million miles per hour. This outflow sweeps up the cold, interstellar gas in front of it, forming the outer edge of the bubble much like a snowplow piles up snow in front of it as it moves forward.

As the surface of the bubble's shell expands outward, it slams into dense regions of cold gas on one side of the bubble. This asymmetry makes the star appear dramatically off-center from the bubble, with its location in the 10 o'clock position in the Hubble view.

Dense pillars of cool hydrogen gas laced with dust appear at the upper left of the picture, and more "fingers" can be seen nearly face-on, behind the translucent bubble.

The gases heated to varying temperatures emit different colors: oxygen is hot enough to emit blue light in the bubble near the star, while the cooler pillars are yellow from the combined light of hydrogen and nitrogen. The pillars are similar to the iconic columns in the "Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebula. As seen with the structures in the Eagle Nebula, the Bubble Nebula pillars are being illuminated by the strong ultraviolet radiation from the brilliant star inside the bubble.

The Bubble Nebula was discovered in 1787 by William Herschel, a prominent British astronomer. It is being formed by a prototypical Wolf-Rayet star, BD +60°2522, an extremely bright, massive, and short-lived star that has lost most of its outer hydrogen and is now fusing helium into heavier elements. The star is about 4 million years old, and in 10 million to 20 million years, it will likely detonate as a supernova.

Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 imaged the nebula in visible light with unprecedented clarity in February 2016. The colors correspond to blue for oxygen, green for hydrogen, and red for nitrogen. This information will help astronomers understand the geometry and dynamics of this complex system.

The Bubble Nebula is one of only a handful of astronomical objects that have been observed with several different instruments onboard Hubble. Hubble also imaged it with the Wide Field Planetary Camera (WFPC) in September of 1992, and with Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) in April of 1999.

For more information, contact:

Felicia Chou
NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Ann Jenkins / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
410-338-4488 / 410-338-4514 /

Zolt Levay
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland

Source: HubbleSite

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Comets ISON & PanSTARRS: Comets in the "X"-Treme

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON), Comet C/2011 S4 (Pan-STARRS)
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of CT/B.Snios et al, Optical: DSS, Damian Peach (

For millennia, people on Earth have watched comets in the sky. Many ancient cultures saw comets as the harbingers of doom, but today scientists know that comets are really frozen balls of dust, gas, and rock and may have been responsible for delivering water to planets like Earth billions of years ago.

While comets are inherently interesting, they can also provide information about other aspects of our Solar System. More specifically, comets can be used as laboratories to study the behavior of the stream of particles flowing away from the Sun, known as the solar wind.

Recently, astronomers announced the results of a study using data collected with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory of two comets -- C/2012 S1 (also known as "Comet ISON") and C/2011 S4 ("Comet PanSTARRS").

Chandra observed these two comets in 2013 when both were relatively close to Earth, about 90 million and 130 million miles for Comets ISON and PanSTARRS respectively. These comets arrived in the inner Solar System after a long journey from the Oort cloud, an enormous cloud of icy bodies that extends far beyond Pluto's orbit.

The graphics show the two comets in optical images taken by an astrophotographer, Damian Peach, from the ground during the comets' close approach to the sun that have been combined with data from the Digitized Sky Survey to give a larger field of view. (The greenish hue of Comet ISON is attributed to particular gases such as cyanogen, a gas containing carbon and nitrogen, escaping from the comet's nucleus.)

The insets show the X-rays detected by Chandra from each comet. The different shapes of the X-ray emission (purple) from the two comets indicate differences in the solar wind at the times of observation and the atmospheres of each comet. Comet ISON, on one hand, shows a well-developed, parabolic shape, which indicates that the comet had a dense gaseous atmosphere. On the other hand, Comet PanSTARRS has a more diffuse X-ray haze, revealing an atmosphere with less gas and more dust.

Scientists have determined that comets produce X-ray emission when particles in the solar wind strike the atmosphere of the comet. Although most of the particles in the solar wind are hydrogen and helium atoms, the observed X-ray emission is from "heavy" atoms (that is, elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, such as carbon and oxygen). These atoms, which have had most of their electrons stripped away, collide with neutral atoms in the comet's atmosphere. In a process called "charge exchange," an electron is exchanged between one of these neutral atoms, usually hydrogen, and a heavy atom in the solar wind. After such a collision, an X-ray is emitted as the captured electron moves into a tighter orbit.

The Chandra data allowed scientists to estimate the amount of carbon and nitrogen in the solar wind, finding values that agree with those derived independently using other instruments such as NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). New measurements of the amount of neon in the solar wind were also obtained.

The detailed model developed to analyze the Chandra data on comets ISON and PanSTARRS demonstrates the value of X-ray observations for deriving the composition of the solar wind. The same techniques can be used, together with Chandra data, to investigate interactions of the solar wind with other comets, planets, and the interstellar gas.

A paper describing these results appeared in the February 20th, 2016 issue of The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. The authors are Bradford Snios and Vasili Kharchenko (University of Connecticut), Carey Lisse (Johns Hopkins University), Scott Wolk (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Konrad Dennerl (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) and Michael Combi (University of Michigan).

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

Fast Facts for ISON:

Scale: Main image is about 40 arcmin across. (X-ray image: 3.7 arcmin)
Category: Solar System
Observation Dates: 13 Oct - 6 Nov 2013
Observation Time: 10 hours
Obs. IDs: 15673-15675, 16493-16495
Instrument: ACIS
References: Snios, B. et al, 2016, ApJ, 818, 199; arXiv:1601.06622
Color Code: X-ray (Purple); Optical (Red, Green, Blue)
Distance Estimate: 0.95 Astronomical Units (AU)