Two “b”‘s in the Beehive

Praesepe (aka. the Beehive Cluster)

As astronomers near the 800 mark for confirmed extra solar planets, it seems that notable milestones are becoming fewer and further between. Multi-planet systems aren’t even worth mentioning. Planets less massive than Earth? Already heard about it. Detecting atmospheres? Old news.

But a recent paper manages to sneak in one new first: The first detection of hot Jupiters in an open cluster. This discovery is not simply notable due to the novelty, but clusters have special characteristics that can help astronomers determine more of the history of the system.

The discovery was made by astronomers at Georgia State University using the “wobble” method in which they looked for the spectroscopic wiggle of spectral lines as planets tugged their parent stars around in orbit. The Beehive Cluster was chosen because it is a nearby cluster with over 1,000 member stars, many of which are similar in mass to the Sun. Additionally, the cluster is known to have an above average metallicity which is known to be correlated with planetary systems.

Searches of other open clusters have largely come up empty. Only two stars in open clusters have so far been found to have planets and both of those are around giant stars and as such, the planets are in wide orbits. This paucity is odd since stars are expected to form in clusters, and as such, the frequency of planets in clusters should be nearly the same as isolated stars.

The team used the 1.5-m Tillinghast Reflector at the Fred L. Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona observing a total of 53 stars in the cluster. Their results uncovered two new hot Jupiter planets in tight orbits around the parent, main-sequence stars. The first has an estimated mass of 0.54 times that of Jupiter while the second weighs in at 1.8 Jupiter masses.

The discovery helps to place constraints on how planets form and migrate in fledgling systems. Since massive planets such as these would need to form further out in colder parts of the circumstellar cloud, such planets would have to move inwards. The time period in which this happens has been a difficult question for astronomers to pin down. But since the Beehive cluster is only 600 million years old and these new planets are already in tight orbits, this helps to demonstrate that such migration is possible on short timescales.

While these are the first of their kind discovered in open clusters, this discovery puts the number of hot Jupiters in open clusters in rough agreement with expectations based on the number of such systems of stars that are no longer bound in clusters. This finding bridges the gap between formation and isolated stars that previous searches of open clusters had left open.

Earth Threatened By Glowing Green Asteroid?

Killer asteroid coming for the Earth?

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The Daily Mail is reporting that a youtube user has found a strange object while poking around in Google Sky. It looks suspiciously like a glowing green asteroid and he claims it’s heading right for us. But before we call in the experts, let’s do a little bit of critical analysis on our own.

First off, the image raises alarm bells because of the apparent size of the object. Without knowing how far away it may be, it’s hard to say how large it would actually be, but we can put some limits on it. I looked up the region on Aladin and the angular distance between the two stars just to the upper right of the object is 1 arc minute. The object seems to be about that size, so we can use that as a baseline.

Assuming that the object was somewhere in the vicinity of Pluto (roughly 6 billion km), doing a bit of quick geometry means the object would be somewhere around 580,000 km. To put that in context, that’s about 40% the diameter of the Sun. If that were the case, this wouldn’t be an asteroid, it would be a small star. The funny thing about stars is that they tend to be somewhat bright and a lot more round. So that rules out that extreme.

But what if it were very close? At the distance of the moon, that would mean the object would be about 300 km in diameter which would make this thing slightly smaller than the largest asteroid, Ceres. However, this raises another issue: With that much mass, the object should still be pretty round. Additionally, with such a size and distance, it would be very bright. And it’s not.

2011 MD on Monday, June 27, 2011 at 09:30 UTC with RGB filter. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Giovanni Sostero at the Faulkes Telescope South.
Even closer we run into additional issues. Astronomical images aren’t taken as a single color image. Images like this are taken in 3 filters (RGB) and then combined to make a color image. If the object is nearby, it moves from image to image, showing up in the final image in 3 places, each as a different color. For example, here’s an image of 2011 MD illustrating the effect. Given the object in question doesn’t have this tri-color separation going on, it can’t be nearby.

So this has pretty much ruled out anything anywhere in our solar system. If it’s close, it should have color issues and be bright. If it’s far, it’s too massive to have been missed. Outside of our solar system and it wouldn’t have any apparent motion and should be visible in other images. And it’s not.

In fact, searching the various databases from which Google Sky draws its data (SDSS, DSS, HST, IRAS, and WMAP), the killer asteroid doesn’t appear at all. Thus, it would seem that this object is nothing more than a technical glitch introduced by Google’s stitching together of images. Sorry conspiracy theorists. No Planet X or Nibiru out there this time!

A Planetary System That Never Was Teaches About Those That May Be

While Kepler and similar missions are turning up planets by the fist full, there’s long been many places that astronomers haven’t expected to find planetary systems. The main places include regions where gravitational forces conspire to make the region around potential host stars too unstable to form into planets. And there’s no place in the galaxy with a larger gravitational force than the galactic center where a black hole four and a half million times more massive than the Sun, lurks. But a new study shows evidence that a disk, potentially far enough along to begin forming planets, is in the process of being disrupted.

The new study investigates an ionized cloud of gas discovered earlier this year, plummeting in towards the black hole. The cloud has been formed into an elliptical ring with a maximum distance of 0.04 parsecs (1 parsec 3.24 light years) which is coincident with a ring of young stars that orbit the black hole. At such distances from us, astronomers have been unable to learn much about the population of stars that may exist since only the brightest, most massive stars are visible.

However, such massive stars are able to determine an age limit for the group, which has been set somewhere between 4-8 million years. This age is crucial since most low-mass stars retain gas disks and are held to form planets at an age around 3 million years young. But by an age of 5 million years, the stars have begun clearing out that disk system halting planetary formation and only one fifth of stars less than 1 solar mass retain their disks.

This entire process is even more precarious because the gravitational perturbations from the nearby black hole would begin eating away at the edge of a potential disk. Astronomers predict that this should limit the size to 12 AU in radius. For even less massive stars, this could be as small as 8 AU. Still, theory predicts that these truncated disks could form in the vicinity of the Milky Way’s black hole. But such small disks would be impossible to observe directly with present technology.

The new research suggests that one of these stars was knocked from its stable orbit in the ring in much the same way that comets in the Oort cloud are occasionally jostled into falling towards the inner solar system. There, the tidal forces from the black hole as well as heavily ionizing UV radiation created by the black hole’s accretion disk would strip the gas and dust from the parent star, which is too faint to see directly, leaving it in an elliptical orbit.

If this theory is correct, it would provide the first indirect evidence of the presence of planet forming disks near the galactic center. This comes on top of evidence from earlier this year suggesting stars may be able to form in situ near the galactic center making this region a far more dynamic place than previously expected.

Yet, even if planets do form, living near a supermassive black hole is still not a hospitable place for life. The extreme amounts of UV radiation emitted as the black hole devours gas and dust is likely to sterilize the region.

Searching for Exoplanet Oceans More Challenging Than First Thought

Earth Observation of sun-glinted ocean and clouds

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As astronomers continue to discover more exoplanets, the focus has slowly shifted from what sizes such planets are, to what they’re made of. First attempts have been made at determining atmospheric composition but one of the most desirable finds wouldn’t be the gasses in the atmosphere, but the detection of liquid water which is a key ingredient for the formation of life as we know it. While this is a monumental challenge, various methods have been proposed, but a new study suggests that these methods may be overly optimistic.

One of the most promising methods was proposed in 2008 and considered the reflective properties of water oceans. In particular when the angle between a light source (a parent star) and an observer is small, the light is not reflected well and ends up being scattered into the ocean. However, if the angle is large, the light is reflected. This effect can be easily seen during sunset over the ocean when the angle is nearly 180° and the ocean waves are tipped with bright reflections and is known as specular reflection. This effect is illustrated in orbit around our own planet above and such effects were used on Saturn’s moon Titan to reveal the presence of lakes.

Translating this to exoplanets, this would imply that planets with oceans should reflect more light during their crescent phases than their gibbous phase. Thus, they proposed, we might detect oceans on extrasolar planets by the “glint” on their oceans. Even better, light reflecting off a smoother surface like water tends to be more polarized than it might be otherwise.

The first criticisms of this hypothesis came in 2010 when other astronomers pointed out that similar effects may be produced on planets with a thick cloud layer could mimic this glinting effect. Thus, the method would likely be invalid unless astronomers were able to accurately model the atmosphere to take its contribution into consideration.

The new paper brings additional challenges by further considering the way material would likely be distributed. Specifically, it is quite likely that planets in the habitable zones without oceans may have polar ice caps (like Mars) which are more reflective all around. Since the polar regions make up a larger percentage of the illuminated body in the crescent phase than during the gibbous, this would naturally lead to a relative diminishing in overall reflectivity and could give false positives for a glint.

This would be especially true for planets that are more oblique (are “tilted”). In this case, the poles receive more sunlight which makes the reflections from any ice caps even more pronounced and mask the effect further. The authors of the new study conclude that this as well as the other difficulties “severely limits the utility of specular reflection for detecting oceans on exoplanets.”

New Evidence For Fomalhaut Planets

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The planetary system of the star Fomalhaut has been one of intense debate over the past few years. In 2008, it was announced that a large, Saturn mass planet shepherd a large dust ring and was spotted in visual images from Hubble. But in late 2011 infrared observations called the previous detections into question. Now joining the discussion is the recently completed Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA). This radio observatory suggests that there may be more planets than previously detected.

ALMA sits in the high Atacama desert in northern Chile. This dry location is ideal for linking together the 66 radio dishes (although only 15 were used in the new observations) to give unprecedented resolution. With this new set of eyes, astronomers from the University of Florida and Bryant Space Science Center were able to study the fine details in the dust ring. These details were then compared to various models of how rings should function in different conditions.

The dust ring has several characteristics that any explanation would have to reproduce. The first was that the ring is slightly oval shaped. It must be exceptionally thin and have a sharp cutoff both on the interior and exterior edges. If the previously claimed planet, Fomalhaut b, were the only one present, it could not account for the outer edge of the disk being sharply truncated as well as the inner edge. Another possibility is that the ring is simply newly formed as the result of a collision between two planets and has not yet had time to dissipate giving it the sharp appearance. However, the authors note that planets at such a distance from the parent star shouldn’t have high enough relative velocities to crush them so finely.

Since neither of these explanations are sufficient, the team proposes that there are two planets that shepherd the ring: One interior and one exterior to it. Within our own solar system, we see similar effects in Uranus’ ε ring which is constrained by the moons Cordelia and Ophelia. Similarly, Saturn’s F ring is shepherded by Prometheus and Pandora. By varying the mass of hypothetical planets in the models, the authors could create a ring similar to that seen around Fomalhaut. However, the best fit was created by a pair of planets that were less than three times the mass of the Earth which would mean that the proposed mass for Fomalhaut b was significantly too high, further casting doubt on its existence. Additionally, the proposed orbit of Fomalhaut bwas 10 AU off from the orbit of the hypothetical interior shepherd planet.

Ultimately, these two planets are only hypothetical. Detecting them in a more direct fashion will prove challenging. The fact that their orbits wouldn’t be very close to line of sight as well as their distance from the star would make radial velocity detection impossible. Given the low proposed mass and the distance, they would reflect too little light to be able to be directly observed with current telescopes.

“Proplyd-like” Objects Discovered in Cygnus OB2

Hubble image of a Proplyd-like object in Cygnus OB2. Credit: Z. Levay and L. Frattare, STScI

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The well known Orion Nebula is perhaps the most well known star forming regions in the sky. The four massive stars known as the trapezium illuminate the massive cloud of gas and dust busily forming into new stars providing astronomers a stunning vista to explore stellar formation and young systems. In the region are numerous “protoplanetary disks” or proplyds for short which are regions of dense gas around a newly formed star. Such disks are common around young stars and have recently been discovered in an even more massive, but less well known star forming region within our own galaxy: Cygnus OB2.

Ten times more massive than its more famous counterpart in Orion, Cygnus OB2 is a star forming region that is a portion of a larger collection of gas known as Cygnus X. The OB2 region is notable because, like the Orion nebula, it contains several exceptionally massive stars including OB2-12 which is one of the most massive and luminous stars within our own galaxy. In total the region has more than 65 O class stars, the most massive category in astronomers classification system. Yet for as bright as these stars are, Cygnus OB2 is not a popular target for amateur astronomers due to its position behind a dark obscuring cloud which blocks the majority of visible light.

But like many objects obscured in this manner, infrared and radio telescopes have been used to pierce the veil and study the region. The new study, led by Nicholas Wright at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, combines infrared and visual observations from the Hubble Space telescope. The observations revealed 10 objects similar in appearance to the Orion proplyds. The objects had long tails being blown away from the central mass due to the strong stellar winds from the central cluster similar to how proplyds in Orion point away from the trapezium. On the closer end, the objects were brightly ionized.

Yet despite the similarities, the objects may not be true proplyds. Instead, they may be regions known as “evaporating gaseous globules” or EGGs for short. The key difference between the two is whether or not a star has formed. EGGs are overdense regions within a larger nebula. Their size and density makes them resistant to the ionization and stripping that blows away the rest of the nebula. Because the interior regions are shielded from these dispersive forces, the center may collapse to form a star which is the requirement for a proplyd. So which are these?

In general, the newly discovered objects are far larger than those typically found in Orion. While Orion proplyds are nearly symmetric across an axis directed towards the central cluster, the OB2 objects have twisted tails with complex shapes. The objects are 18-113 thousand AU (1 AU = the distance between the Earth and Sun = 93 million miles = 150 million km) across making them significantly larger than the Orion proplyds and even larger than the largest known proplyds in NGC 6303.

Yet as different as they are, the current theoretical understanding of how proplyds work doesn’t put them beyond the plausible range. In particular, the size for a true proplyd is limited by how much stripping it feels from the central stars. Since these objects are further away from OB2-12 and the other massive stars than the Orion proplyds are from the trapezium, they should feel less dispersive forces and should be able to grow as large as is seen. Attempting to pierce the thick dust the objects contain and discover if central stars were present, the team examined the objects in the infrared and radio. Of the ten objects, seven had strong candidates central stellar sources.

Still, the stark differences make conclusively identifying the objects as either EGGs or proplyds difficult. Instead, the authors suggest that these objects may be the first discovery of an inbetween stage: old, highly evolved EGGs which have nearly formed stars making them more akin to young proplyds. If further evidence supports this, this finding would help fill in the scant observational details surrounding stellar formation. This would allow astronomers to more thoroughly test theories which are also tied to the understanding of how planetary systems form.

The Contributor to SN 2011fe

Astrophoto: Supernova PTF11kly in M101 by Rick Johnson

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When discovered on August 24, 2011, supernova 2011fe was the closest supernova since the famous SN 1987A. Located in the relatively nearby Pinwheel galaxy (M101), it was a prime target for scientists to study since the host galaxy has been well studied and many high resolution images exist from before the explosion, allowing astronomers to search them for information on the star that led to the eruption. But when astronomers, led by Weidong Li, at the University of California, Berkeley searched, what they found defied the typically accepted explanations for supernovae of the same type as 2011fe.

SN 2011fe was a type 1a supernova. This class of supernova is expected to be caused by a white dwarf which accumulates mass contributed by a companion star. The general expectation is that the companion star is a star evolving off the main sequence. As it does, it swells up, and matter spills onto the white dwarf. If this pushes the dwarf’s mass over the limit of 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, the star can no longer support the weight and it undergoes a runaway collapse and rebound, resulting in a supernova.

Fortunately, the swollen up stars, known as red giants, become exceptionally bright due to their large surface area. The eighth brightest star in our own sky, Betelgeuse, is one of these red giants. This high brightness means that these objects are visible from large distances, potentially even in galaxies as distant as the Pinwheel. If so, the astronomers from Berkeley would be able to search archival images and detect the brighter red giant to study the system prior to the explosion.

But when the team searched the images from the Hubble Space Telescope which had snapped pictures through eight different filters, no star was visible at the location of the supernova. This finding follows a quick report from September which announced the same results, but with a much lower threshold for detection. The team followed up by searching images from the Spitzer infrared telescope which also failed to find any source at the proper location.

While this doesn’t rule out the presence of the contributing star, it does place constraints on its properties. The limit on brightness means that the contributor star could not have been a luminous red giant. Instead, the result favors another model of mass donation known as a double-degenerate model

In this scenario, two white dwarfs (both supported by degenerate electrons) orbit one another in a tight orbit. Due to relativistic effects, the system will slowly lose energy and eventually the two stars will become close enough that one will become disrupted enough to spill mass onto the other. If this mass transfer pushes the primary over the 1.4 solar mass limit, it would trigger the same sort of explosion.

This double degenerate model does not exclusively rule out the possibility of red giants contributing to type Ia supernovae, but recently other evidence has revealed missing red giants in other cases.

Exomoons? Kepler‘s On The Hunt

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Recently, I posted an article on the feasibility of detecting moons around extrasolar planets. It was determined that exceptionally large moons (roughly Earth mass moons or more), may well be detectable with current technology. Taking up that challenge, a team of astronomers led by David Kipping from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has announced they will search publicly available Kepler data to determine if the planet-finding mission may have detected such objects.

The team has titled the project “The Hunt of Exomoons with Kepler” or HEK for short. This project searches for moons through two main methods: the transits such moons may cause and the subtle tugs they may have on previously detected planets.

Of course, the possibility of finding such a large moon requires that one be present in the first place. Within our own solar system, there are no examples of moons of the necessary size for detection with present equipment. The only objects we could detect of that size exist independently as planets. But should such objects exist as moons?

Astronomers best simulations of how solar systems form and develop don’t rule it out. Earth sized objects may migrate within forming solar systems only to be captured by a gas giant. If that happens, some of the new “moons” would not survive; their orbits would be unstable, crashing them into the planet or would be ejected again after a short time. But estimates suggest that around 50% of captured moons would survive, and their orbits circularized due to tidal forces. Thus, the potential for such large moons does exist.

The transit method is the most direct for detecting the exomoons. Just as Kepler detects planets passing in front of the disc of the parent star, causing a temporary drop in brightness, so too could it spot a transit of a sufficiently large moon.

The trickier method is finding the more subtle effect of the moon tugging the planet, changing when the transit begins and ends. This method is often known as Timing Transit Variation (TTV) and has also been used to infer the presence of other planets in the system creating similar tugs. Additionally, the same tugs exerted while the planet is crossing the disk of the star will change the duration of the transit. This effect is known as Timing Duration Variations (TDV). The combination of these two variations has the potential to give a great deal of information about potential moons including the moon’s mass, the distance from the planet, and potentially the direction the moon orbits.

Currently, the team is working on coming up with a list of planet systems that Kepler has discovered that they wish to search first. Their criteria are that the systems have sufficient data taken, that it be of high quality, and that the planets be sufficiently large to capture such large moons.

As the team notes

As the HEK project progresses, we hope to answer the question as to whether large moons, possibly even Earth-like habitable moons, are common in the Galaxy or not. Enabled by the equisite photometry of Kepler, exomoons may soon move from theoretical musings to objects of empirical investigation.

Echoes From η Carinae’s Great Eruption

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During the mid 1800’s, the well known star η Carinae underwent an enormous eruption becoming for a time, the second brightest star in the sky. Although astronomers at the time did not yet have the technology to study one of the largest eruptions in recent history in depth, astronomers from the Space Telescope Science Institute recently discovered that light echoes are just now reaching us. This discovery allows astronomers to use modern instruments to study η Carinae as it was between 1838 and 1858 when it underwent its Great Eruption.

V838 Mon (Credit: NASA, European Space Agency and Howard Bond (STScI))
Light echoes have been made famous in recent years by the dramatic example of V838 Monocerotis. While V838 Mon looks like an expanding shell of gas, what is actually depicted is light reflecting off shells of gas and dust that was thrown off earlier in the star’s life. The extra distance the light had to travel to strike the shell, before being reflected towards observers on Earth, means that the light arrives later. In the case of η Carinae, nearly 170 years later!

The reflected light has its properties changed by the motion of the material off which it reflects. In particular, the light shows a notable blueshift, telling astronomers that the material itself is traveling 210 km/sec. This observation fits with theoretical predictions of eruptions similar to the type η Carinae is thought to have undergone. However, the light echo has also highlighted some discrepancies between expectation and observation.

Typically, η Carinae’s eruption is classified as a “supernova impostor”. This title is fitting since the eruptions create a large change in the overall brightness. However, although these events may release 10% of the total energy of a typical supernova or more, the star remains intact. The main model to explain such eruptions is that a sudden increase in the star’s energy output causes some of the outer layers to be blown off in an opaque wind. This shell of material is so thick, that it gives a large increase in the effective surface area from which light is emitted, thereby increasing the overall brightness.

However, for this to happen, models predict that the temperature of the star prior to the eruption needs to be at least 7,000 K. Analyzing the reflected light from the eruption places the temperature of η Carinae at the time of the eruption at a much lower 5,000 K. This would suggest that the favored model for such events is incorrect and that another model, involving an energetic blast was (a mini-supernova), may be the true culprit, at least in η Carinae’s case.

Yet this observation is somewhat at odds with observations made in the years following the eruption. As spectrography came into use, astronomers in 1870 visually noticed emission lines in the star’s spectrum which is more typical in hotter stars. In 1890, η Carinae had a smaller eruption and a photographic spectrum put the temperature around 6,000 K. While this may not accurately reflect the case of the Great Eruption, it is still puzzling how the star’s temperature could change so quickly and may also indicate that the favored model of the opaque-wind model is a better fit for later times or the smaller eruption, which would suggest two different mechanisms causing similar results in the same object on short timescales.

Either way, η Carinae is a marvelous object. The team has also identified several other areas in the shell surrounding the star which appear to be brightening and undergoing their own echoes which the team promises to continue to observe which would allow them to verify their findings.

How Can Growing Galaxies Stay Silent?

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Beginning around 2005, astronomers began discovering the presence of very large galaxies at a distance of around 10 billion lightyears. But while these galaxies were large, they didn’t appear to have a similarly large number of formed stars. Given that astronomers expect galaxies to grow through mergers and mergers tend to trigger star formation, the presence of such large, undeveloped galaxies seemed odd. How could galaxies grow so much, yet have so few stars?

One of the leading propositions is that the galaxies have undergone frequent mergers, but each one was very small and didn’t encourage large scale star formation. In other words, instead of mergers between galaxies of similar size, large galaxies developed quickly and early in the universe, and then tended to accumulate through the integration of minor, dwarf galaxies. While this solution is straightforward, testing it is difficult since the galaxies in question are at vast distances and detecting the minor galaxies as they are devoured would require exceptional observations.

Seeking to test this hypothesis, a team of astronomers led by Andrew Newman from the California Institute of Technology combined observations from Hubble and the United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT), to search for these diminutive companions. The team examined over 400 galaxies that didn’t display signs of active star formation (called “quiet” galaxies) in search of possible companion galaxies from distances of 10 billion light years to a relatively close 2 billion lightyears in order to determine how this minor merger rate has evolved over time.

From their study, they determined that around 15% of quiet galaxies had a nearby counterpart that had at least 10% the mass of the larger galaxy. This took into account the possibility that some galaxies may have been more distant but along the line of sight by ensuring that both galaxies had similar redshifts. Over time, the partner galaxies became rarer suggesting that they were becoming rarer as more were consumed by the larger brethren. Using this as a rate at which mergers must occur, the team was able to answer the question of whether or not these minor mergers could account for the galaxy growth discovered six years earlier.

For galaxies closer than a distance of roughly 8 billion light years, the rate of minor mergers was able to completely explain the overall growth of galaxies. However, for the growth rate of galaxies at times earlier than this, such minor mergers could only account for around half of the apparent growth.

The team proposes several reasons this may be the case. Firstly, many of the basic assumptions could be flawed. Teams may have overestimated the sizes of the massive galaxies, or underestimated the rate of star formation. These key properties were often derived from photometric surveys which are not as reliable as spectroscopic observations. In the future, if better observations can be made, these values may be revised and the problem may resolve itself. The other option is that there are simply additional processes at work that astronomers have yet to understand. Either way, the question of how growing galaxies avoid advertising their growth is unanswered.