Chandrasekhar Limit

When a human puts on too much weight, there is an increased risk of heart attack; when a white dwarf star puts on too much weight (i.e. adds mass), there is the mother of all fatal heart attacks, a supernova explosion. The greatest mass a white dwarf star can have before it goes supernova is called the Chandrasekhar limit, after astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who worked it out in the 1930s. Its value is approx 1.4 sols, or 1.4 times the mass of our Sun (the exact value depends somewhat on the white dwarf’s composition how fast it’s spinning, etc).

White dwarfs are the end of the road for most stars; once they have used up all their available hydrogen ‘fuel’, low mass stars shed their outermost shells to form planetary nebulae, leaving a high density core of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen (that’s a summary, it’s actually a bit more complicated). The star can’t collapse further because of electron degeneracy pressure, a quantum effect that comes from the fact that electrons are fermions (technically, only two fermions can occupy a given energy state, one spin up and one spin down).

So what happens in the core of a massive star, one whose core weighs in at more than 1.4 sols? As long as the star is still ‘burning’ nuclear fuel – helium, then carbon etc, then neon, then … – the core will not collapse because it is very hot (electron degeneracy pressure won’t hold it up ’cause it’s too massive). But once the core gets to iron, no more burning is possible, and the core will collapse, spectacularly, producing a core collapse supernova.

There is a way a white dwarf can go out with a bang rather than a whimper; by getting a little help from a friend. If the white dwarf has a close binary companion, and if that companion is a giant star, some of the hydrogen in its outer shell may end up on the white dwarf’s surface (there are several ways this can happen). The white dwarf thus adds mass, and every so often the thin hydrogen envelope blows up, and we see a nova. One day, though, the extra mass may put it over the limit, the Chandrasekhar limit … the temperature in its center gets high enough that the carbon ‘ignites’, the ‘flame’ spreads throughout the star, and it becomes a special kind of supernova, a Ia supernova.

For more technical details of the Chandrasekhar limit, Richard Fitzpatrick of the University of Texas at Austin has an online Thermodynamics & Statistical Mechanics course, which includes a page on the Chandrasekhar limit.

Supernovae are very important to astronomy, so you won’t be surprised to learn that there are lots of Universe Today stories on the Chandrasekhar limit! Some examples: White Dwarf Theories Get More Proof, White Dwarf “Close” to Exploding as Supernova, and Colliding White Dwarfs Caused a Powerful Supernova.

Astronomy Cast Episode 90 (The Scientific Method) includes a look at how Chandrasekhar worked out the limit that now bears his name, and Where Do Stars Go When They Die? also covers this topic.


Arecibo Observatory

Named after the nearby city in Puerto Rico, the Arecibo Observatory (or Arecibo Radio Telescope) is the largest single-aperture (radio) telescope ever built, 305 m in diameter.

Taking advantage of a karst sinkhole, Cornell University built a spherical reflector out of wire mesh, with receivers at the focus suspended by 18 steel cables strung from three concrete towers on the rim. It took three years to build, and was completed in 1963. Since then it has been upgraded several times; for example, in 1974 perforated aluminum panels replaced the wire mesh, and a Gregorian reflector system added to the receiver mechanism in 1997. Among other things, these upgrades have extended the range of radio wavelengths Arecibo can operate at, both as a radio telescope and for radar astronomy.

Such a visually interesting piece of scientific hi-tech has lead to Arecibo playing a role in many movies and TV shows, from James Bond’s Golden Eye to Contact to X-Files.

Everyone knows about [email protected], right? Well, it’s receivers on Arecibo that supply the data which the millions of PCs crunch!

Arecibo has played a key role in many astronomical discoveries, from the rotation period of Mercury (a radar astronomy application, in 1964), to the pulses of the Crab Nebula (1968), to studies of pulsars by Hulse and Taylor (1974) that lead to their Nobel Prize (1993), and to direct imaging of asteroids (another radar astronomy application, first done in 1989).

Due to budget cutbacks and changes in research priorities, the future of Arecibo is uncertain (most of its funding comes from the National Science Foundation); maybe you can find a way to save it?

Here’s the official Arecibo Observatory website; ALFA is a current large-scale astronomical survey being done at Arecibo, in case you don’t already know about [email protected], and click here to read more about planetary radar.

Calling All Amateur Astronomers: Help Comb Through Arecibo Data for Gems, Arecibo Spots Triple Asteroid, Arecibo Gets an Upgrade: just three of the many Universe Today stories featuring the Arecibo Observatory!

Some of the ways Arecibo contributes to astronomy are covered in Astronomy Casts The Rise of Supertelescopes, and Across the Electromagnetic Spectrum.

Source: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center: Arecibo Observatory

What is Cherenkov Radiation?

Cherenkov radiation is named after the Russian physicist who first worked it out in detail, in 1934, Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov (he got a Nobel for his work, in 1958; because he’s Russian, it’s also sometimes called Cerenkov radiation).

Nothing’s faster than c, the speed of light … in a vacuum. In the air or water (or glass), the speed of light is slower than c. So what happens when something like a cosmic ray proton – which is moving way faster than the speed of light in air or water – hits the Earth’s atmosphere? It emits a cone of light, like the sonic boom of a supersonic plane; that light is Cherenkov radiation.

The Cherenkov radiation spectrum is continuous, and its intensity increases with frequency (up to a cutoff); that’s what gives it the eerie blue color you see in pictures of ‘swimming pool’ reactors.

Perhaps the best known astronomical use of Cherenkov radiation is in ICATs such CANGAROO (you guessed it, it’s in Australia!), H.E.S.S. (astronomers love this sort of thing, that’s a ‘tribute’ to Victor Hess, pioneer of cosmic rays studies), and VERITAS (see if you can explain the pun in that!). As a high energy gamma ray, above a few GeV, enters the atmosphere, it creates electron-positron pairs, which initiate an air shower. The shower creates a burst of Cherenkov radiation lasting a few nanoseconds, which the ICAT detects. Because Cherenkov radiation is well-understood, the bursts caused by gamma rays can be distinguished from those caused by protons; and by using several telescopes, the source ‘on the sky’ can be pinned down much better (that’s what one of the Ss in H.E.S.S. stands for, stereoscopic).

The more energetic a cosmic ray particle, the bigger the air shower it creates … so to study really energetic cosmic rays – those with energies above 10^18 ev (which is 100 million times as energetic as what the LHC will produce), which are called UHECRs (see if you can guess) – you need cosmic ray detectors spread over a huge area. That’s just what the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory is; and its workhorse detectors are tanks of water with photomultiplier tubes in the dark (to detect the Cherenkov radiation of air shower particles).

However I think the coolest use of Cherenkov radiation in astronomy is IceCube, which detects the Cherenkov radiation produced by muons in Antarctic ice … traveling upward. These muons are produced by rare interactions of muon neutrinos with hydrogen or oxygen nuclei (in the ice), after they have traveled through the whole Earth, from the Artic (and before that perhaps a few hundred megaparsecs from some distant blazer).

ICAT: imaging Cherenkov Air Telescope
CANGAROO: Collaboration of Australia and Nippon (Japan) for a Gamma Ray Observatory in the Outback
H.E.S.S.: High Energy Stereoscopic System
VERITAS: Very Energetic Imaging Telescope Array System
UHECR: ultra-high-energy cosmic ray

This NASA webpage gives more details of how ICATs work.

Quite a few Universe Today stories are about Cherenkov radiation; for example Astronomers Observe Bizarre Blazar with Battery of Telescopes, and High Energy Gamma Rays Go Slower Than the Speed of Light?.

Examples of Astronomy Casts which include this topic: Cosmic Rays, and Gamma Ray Astronomy.


Barred Spiral Galaxy

As its name implies, a barred spiral galaxy is a spiral galaxy with a bar through the center.

Hubble introduced the ‘tuning fork’ scheme for describing the shapes of galaxies (“morphologies” in astronomer-speak) in 1936. In this, the two arms of the fork are barred spirals (from SBa to SBc) and spirals without bars (from Sa to Sc); the S stands for spiral, B for ‘it’s got a bar’, and a/b/c for how tightly wound the spiral arms are. This was later extended to a fourth type, SBm and Sm, for irregular barred spiral galaxies which have no bulge.

In 1959, Gérard de Vaucouleurs extended the scheme to the one perhaps the most commonly used by astronomers today (though there’ve been some mods since). In this scheme spirals without bars are SA, and those which have really weak bars are SAB; barred spirals remain SB. He also added a ‘d’ (SAd, SBd), and a few other things, like rings.

About half of spiral galaxies are barred; examples include M58 (SBc), M61 (SABbc), the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC, Sm), … and our own Milky Way galaxy!

The bars are mostly stars (usually), unlike spiral arms (which have lots of gas and dust besides stars). The formation and evolution of bars is an active area of research in astronomy today; they seem to form from close encounters of the galaxy kind (galaxy near-collisions), funnel gas into the central bulge (where the super-massive black holes there snack on it), and are sustained by the same density waves which keep the arms alive.

Why not join the Galaxy Zoo project, and have some fun classifying spiral galaxies into whether they have bars or not (and getting to see some amazing sights too)?

Hubble Early Release Observation of Barred Spiral NGC 6217, Two Galaxies Walk Into a Bar…, and The Milky Way Has Only Two Spiral Arms; just some of the Universe Today stories on barred spiral galaxies.

Astronomy Casts featuring barred spiral galaxies include The Story of Galaxy Evolution, and Galaxies.

Hubble’s Law

“The distance to objects beyond the Local Group is closely related to how fast they seem to be receding from us,” that’s Hubble’s law in a nutshell.

Edwin Hubble, the astronomer the Hubble Space Telescope is named after, first described the relationship which later bore his name in a paper in 1929; here is one of the ways he described it, in that paper: “The data in the table [of “nebulae”, i.e. galaxies] indicate a linear correlation between distances and velocities“; in numerical form, v = Hd (v is the speed at which a distant object is receding from us, d is its distance, and H is the Hubble constant).

Today the Hubble law is usually expressed as a relationship between redshift and distance, partly because redshift is what astronomers can measure directly.

Hubble’s Law, which is an empirical relationship, was the first concrete evidence that Einstein’s theory of General Relativity applied to the universe as a whole, as proposed only two years earlier by Georges Lemaître (interestingly, Lemaître’s paper also includes an estimate of the Hubble constant!); the universal applicability of General Relativity is the heart of the Big Bang theory, and the way we see the predicted expansion of space is as the speed at which things seem to be receding being proportional to their distance, i.e. Hubble’s Law.

Although other astronomers, such as Vesto Silpher, did much of the work needed to measure the galaxy redshifts, Hubble was the one who developed techniques for estimating the distance to the galaxies, and who pulled it all together to show how distance and speed were related.

Hubble’s Law is not exact; the measured redshift of some galaxies is different from what Hubble’s Law says it should be, given their distances. This is particularly noticeable for galaxy clusters, and is explained as the motion of galaxies within their local groups or clusters, due to their mutual gravitation.

Because the exact value of the Hubble constant, H, is so important in extragalactic astronomy and cosmology – it leads to an estimate of the age of the universe, helps test theories of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and much more – a great deal of effort has gone into working it out. Today it is estimated to be 71 kilometers per second per megaparsec, plus or minus 7; this is about 21 km/sec per million light-years. What does this mean? An object a million light-years away would be receding from us at 21 km/sec; an object 10 million light-years away, 210 km/sec, etc.

Perhaps the most dramatic revision to the Hubble Law came in 1998, when two teams independently announced that they’d discovered that the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating; the shorthand name for this observation is Dark Energy.

Harvard University’s Professor of Cosmology John Huchra maintains a webpage on the history of the Hubble constant, and this page from Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial explains how the Hubble law and cosmology are related.

There are several Universe Today stories about the Hubble relationship and the Hubble constant; for example Astronomers Closing in on Dark Energy with Refined Hubble Constant, and Cosmologists Improve on Standard Candles Measurement.

And we have done some Astronomy Casts on it too, How Old is the Universe? and, How Big is the Universe?

Cornell Astronomy