Learning How Planets Form

Astronomers are hoping NASA’s new Space Infrared Telescope Facility will answer more questions about how disks of gas and dust turn into a planetary system. The problem is that the disk seems to get obscured by material during the middle stages of its formation. SIRTF should be able to peer through the obscuring material to reveal this missing link of planetary formation. At some point in the system’s evolution, mass is eaten up by the star, ejected into space or transformed into planets – SIRTF may help to solve this riddle.

Just as anthropologists sought “the missing link” between apes and humans, astronomers are embarking on a quest for a missing link in planetary evolution. Only instead of dusty fields and worn shovels, their laboratory is the universe, and their tool of choice is NASA?s new Space Infrared Telescope Facility.

Launched on Aug.25, NASA’s fourth and final Great Observatory will soon set its high-tech infrared eyes on, among other celestial objects, the dusty discs surrounding stars where planets are born.

While other ground- and space-based telescopes have spied these swirling “circumstellar” discs, both young and old, they have missed middle-aged discs for various reasons. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility’s unprecedented sensitivity and resolution will allow it to fill in this gap ? and in the process answer fundamental questions regarding how planets, including those resembling Earth, may form.

“With the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, we anticipate seeing many planetary discs at all stages of development,” says Dr. Karl Stapelfeldt of JPL, a scientist with the mission. “By studying how they change over time, we may be able to determine what conditions favor planet formation.”

Circumstellar discs are a natural step in the evolution of stars. Stars begin life as dense cocoons of gas and dust, then as pressure and gravity kick in, they begin to coalesce, and a flat ring of gas and dust takes shape around them. As stars continue to age, they suck material from this disc into their core. Eventually, a state of equilibrium is reached, leaving a more mature star encircled by a stable disc of debris.

It is around this time, about 10 million years into the lifetime of the star, that astronomers believe planets arise. Dust particles in the discs are thought to collide to form larger bodies, which ultimately sweep out gaps in the discs, much like those lying between the rings of Saturn.

“You can think of planets as wrecking balls that either clear away debris or gather it up as if it were mud,” says Dr. George Rieke, principal investigator on one of the three science instruments onboard the observatory.

Infrared telescopes can sense the glow of the cosmic dust that makes up these discs; however, they cannot detect planets directly. Planets have less surface area than their equivalent in dust grains and thus give off less infrared light. This is the same reason coffee is ground up before brewing: the larger combined surface area of the coffee grains results in a more robust pot of coffee.

Past observations of circumstellar discs generally fall into two categories: young, opaque discs (called protoplanetary discs) with more than enough mass to match our own solar system’s planetary bodies; or older, transparent discs (called debris discs) with masses equal to a few moons, and doughnut-like holes at their center. Middle-aged discs linking these two developmental stages have gone undetected.

One of the questions astronomers hope to address with the Space Infrared Telescope Facility is: What happened to all the mass observed in the younger discs? Somewhere in their evolution, mass is either eaten up by the star, ejected by the star ? or transformed into planets that lie in the doughnut holes of the discs. By analyzing the composition and structure of the “missing link” discs, astronomers hope to solve this riddle, and better understand how planetary systems like our own evolved.

Original Source: NASA News Release

SIRTF Successfully Focused

Image credit: NASA

NASA?s recently launched Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) passed an important milestone this week when it was successfully focused. The fourth, and last, of NASA?s great observatory has been in space since it was launched on August 25, and since then, it?s been slowly cooling down. The telescope is now only five degrees above Absolute Zero ? this will let it pick up the faint infrared emissions from distant objects in space without seeing its own heat. The observatory will eventually reveal previously unseen objects obscured by gas and dust.

The Space Infrared Telescope Facility, NASA’s fourth and final Great Observatory, has been successfully focused. This crucial milestone ? which will enable the observatory’s infrared eyes to see the cosmos in clear detail ? was achieved after a series of delicate adjustments were made to the telescope’s secondary mirror.

Since launch on Aug. 25, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility has performed as expected, proceeding through in-orbit checkout activities on schedule. In addition to achieving final focus, the telescope has cooled to an operating temperature of approximately 5 Kelvin (-268 Celsius or -451 Fahrenheit). This cold temperature will allow the observatory to detect the infrared radiation, or heat, from celestial objects without picking up its own infrared signature.

“The science community now has an outstanding observatory with which to study the universe,” said Dr. Michael Werner, project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We are eager to complete the fine-tuning of the observatory and begin the science program.”

In-orbit checkout activities are scheduled to continue for 11 more days, after which a one-month science verification phase will occur. Following this, the science program will begin.

From its innovative Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility will pierce the dusty darkness enshrouding much of the universe, revealing galaxies billions of light years away; brown dwarfs, or failed stars; and planet-forming discs around stars.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Space Infrared Telescope Facility for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Further information about the Space Infrared Telescope Facility is available at http://sirtf.caltech.edu/.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Twin Telescopes Peer at Distant Galaxy

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Two linked telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea took a good look at galaxy NGC 4151 in the infrared spectrum. Located 40 million light years from Earth, NGC 4151 has been well studied by telescopes in various wavelengths, but this is the most detailed infrared image produced. The Keck interferometer works by combining the light from two 10-metre telescopes to create a virtual telescope that’s the equivalent of an 85-metre telescope.

A galaxy far beyond our own Milky Way, with a monstrous, churning black hole in its center, has been observed by two optical telescopes working in unison as an interferometer. These observations reveal the finest level of detail in a galaxy ever produced at infrared wavelengths.

Two linked telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, observed the inner regions of the galaxy NGC 4151. The Keck Interferometer combines the world’s two largest optical telescopes. A paper on the findings will appear in the October 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

NGC 4151 is 40 million light years from Earth, far beyond the most distant object previously detected by this type of telescope system, which was about 3,000 light years from Earth. These observations marked the first time an optical/infrared interferometer detected any object outside our galaxy and were followed a few weeks later by observations of a second galaxy with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer.

“This opens a whole new area of research on galaxies other than our own,” said Dr. Rachel Akeson, an astronomer at the Michelson Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Keck Interferometer, with its 10-meter (33-foot) telescopes, has the sensitivity needed to detect objects outside our galaxy.

The Keck Interferometer gathers light waves with two telescopes, then combines the waves so they interact, or “interfere” with each other. The system transports the light to a laboratory located between them, where a beam combiner and infrared camera combine and process the light. This technique simulates a much larger, more powerful telescope. In this respect, the Keck Interferometer is equivalent to an 85-meter (279-foot) telescope.

“Interferometry provides the angular resolution, or ability to resolve fine details, to make these kinds of observations,” said the interferometer system architect, Dr. Mark Colavita of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

“We couldn’t observe objects as faint as this galaxy before with an interferometer.” Adaptive optics on 10-meter telescopes provides the sensitivity to make this observation,” said Dr. Peter Wizinowich, interferometer team lead for the W.M. Keck Observatory at the California Association for Research in Astronomy, Kamuela, Hawaii.

NGC 4151, well studied with telescopes and instruments at many wavelengths, is believed to have a black hole at its center surrounded by a doughnut-shaped ring of dust.”The black hole is estimated to be 10 million times as massive as our Sun, and 10 times more massive than the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Like all black holes, its gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape. However, as it gobbles up nearby material, a fraction of the material is spit out in a jet.

“We’re interested in studying galaxies with massive black holes,” said Dr. Mark Swain, a JPL astronomer and lead author of the paper. “We found that emission in NGC 4151 was unexpectedly compact. This indicates the light we saw is likely coming from a disc of material falling into the massive black hole.”

The observations were made on May 19 and 20, 2003, by a team of scientists from JPL, the California Association for Research in Astronomy, and the Michelson Science Center. Akeson, Colavita, Swain and Wizinowich are part of the team.

The Keck Interferometer is part of NASA’s Origins Program, which seeks to answer the questions: Where did we come from? Are we alone? The development of the Keck Interferometer is managed by JPL for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology. The W.M. Keck Observatory is funded by Caltech, the University of California and NASA, and is managed by the California Association for Research in Astronomy, Kamuela, Hawaii.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

New Map of Debris Around the Milky Way

Image credit: University of Virginia

A new survey of the stars surrounding the Milky Way has produced a detailed map of how streams of stars and debris are being added to our galaxy. Researchers from the University of Virginia used data from the 2MASS sky survey to map out the Sagittarius galaxy which wraps around the Milky Way in a long stream of stars. They were able to distinguish between galaxies because a certain class of stars, called M giants, are much more common in Sagittarius – when they tuned their search to just look for these stars, Sagittarius “popped into view”.

Thousands of stars stripped from the nearby Sagittarius dwarf galaxy are streaming through our vicinity of the Milky Way galaxy, according to a new view of the local universe constructed by a team of astronomers from the University of Virginia and the University of Massachusetts.

Using volumes of data from the Two-Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a major project to survey the sky in infrared light led by the University of Massachusetts, the astronomers are answering questions that have baffled scientists for decades and proving that our own Milky Way is consuming one of its neighbors in a dramatic display of ongoing galactic cannibalism. The study, to be published in the Dec. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, is the first to map the full extent of the Sagittarius galaxy and show in visually vivid detail how its debris wraps around and passes through our Milky Way. Sagittarius is 10,000 times smaller in mass than the Milky Way, so it is getting stretched out, torn apart and gobbled up by the bigger Milky Way.

“It’s clear who’s the bully in the interaction,” said Steven Majewski, U.Va. professor of astronomy and lead author on the paper describing the results.

In model images made to show the interaction in 3-D, available at http://www.astro.virginia.edu/~mfs4n/sgr/, the Milky Way appears as a flattened disk with spiral arms, while Sagittarius is visible as a long flourish of stars swirling first under and then over and onto the Milky Way disk.

“If people had infrared-sensitive eyes, the entrails of Sagittarius would be a prominent fixture sweeping across our sky,” Majewski said. “But at human, visual wavelengths, they become buried among countless intervening stars and obscuring dust. The great expanse of the Sagittarius system has been hidden from view.”

Not any more. By using infrared maps, the astronomers filtered away millions of foreground stars to focus on a type of star called an M giant. These large, infrared-bright stars are populous in the Sagittarius galaxy but uncommon in the outer Milky Way. The 2MASS infrared map of M giant stars analyzed by Majewski and collaborators is the first to give a complete view of our galaxy’s meal of Sagittarius stars, now wrapping like a spaghetti noodle around the Milky Way. Prior to this work, astronomers had detected only a few scattered pieces of the disrupted Sagittarius dwarf. Even the existence of Sagittarius was unknown until the heart of this nearest satellite galaxy of the Milky Way was discovered by a British team of astronomers in 1994.

“We sifted several thousand interesting stars from a catalog of half a billion,” said co-author Michael Skrutskie, U.Va. professor of astronomy and principal investigator for the 2MASS project. “By tuning our maps of the sky to the ‘right’ kind of star, the Sagittarius system jumped into view.”

“This first full-sky map of Sagittarius shows its extensive interaction with the Milky Way,” Majewski said. “Both stars and star clusters now in the outer parts of the Milky Way have been ‘stolen’ from Sagittarius as the gravitational forces of the Milky Way nibbled away at its dwarf companion. This one vivid example shows that the Milky Way grows by eating its smaller neighbors.”

“Astronomers used to view galaxy formation as an event that happened in the distant past,” noted David Spergel, a professor of astrophysics at Princeton University after viewing the new finding. “These observations reinforce the idea that galaxy formation is not an event, but an ongoing process.”

The study’s map of M giants depicts 2 billion years of Sagittarius stripping by the Milky Way, and suggests that Sagittarius has reached a critical phase in what had been a slow dance of death.

“After slow, continuous gnawing by the Milky Way, Sagittarius has been whittled down to the point that it cannot hold itself together much longer,” said 2MASS Science Team member and study co-author Martin Weinberg of the University of Massachusetts. “We are seeing Sagittarius at the very end of its life as an intact system.”

Does this mean we are at a unique moment in the life of our galaxy? Yes and no.

“Whenever possible, astronomers appeal to the principle that we are not at a special time or place in the universe,” Majewski said. “Because over the 14 billion-year history of the Milky Way it is unlikely that we would just happen to catch a brief event like the death of Sagittarius, we infer that such events must be common in the life of big spiral galaxies like our own. The Milky Way probably dined on a number of dwarf galaxy snacks in the past.”

On the other hand, Majewski and his colleagues have been surprised by the Earth’s proximity to a portion of the Sagittarius debris.

“For only a few percent of its 240 million-year orbit around the Milky Way galaxy does our Solar System pass through the path of Sagittarius debris,” Majewski said. “Remarkably, stars from Sagittarius are now raining down onto our present position in the Milky Way. Stars from an alien galaxy are relatively near us. We have to re-think our assumptions about the Milky Way galaxy to account for this contamination.”

The new findings will help astronomers measure the total mass of the Milky Way and Sagittarius galaxies, and probe the quantity and distribution of the invisible dark matter in these systems.

“The shape of the Sagittarius debris trail shows us that the Milky Way’s unseen dark matter is in a spherical distribution, a result that is quite unexpected,” Weinberg said.

“The observations provide new insights into the nature of the mysterious dark matter,” said Princeton’s Spergel. “Either our galaxy is unusual or the dark matter has richer properties than postulated by conventional models.”

2MASS was a joint project of the University of Massachusetts and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/California Institute of Technology. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation funded the project. Additional funding for the Sagittarius study with 2MASS came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Research Corporation.

Original Source: University of Virginia News Release

Small Telescope Helps Make Observations on Titan

Image credit: NASA

Sarah Horst, a planetary sciences major at Caltech, helped astronomers track cloud formations on Saturn’s moon Titan using only a fourteen inch telescope – in Los Angeles. Researchers needed a way to track Titan night after night for several months, but no large observatory could provide this much time to carry out detailed observations. Horst set up an old teaching telescope to track the intensity of light coming from Titan. Whenever something unusual happened, her associates would contact Keck for detailed photographs.

Meet Sarah Horst, throwback. The planetary science major, a senior at the California Institute of Technology, spent six months engaged in a bit of old-time telescope observing. The work led to some breakthrough research about Saturn’s moon Titan, and indirectly led to funding for a new telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory.

Horst, 21, was looking for a part-time job in the summer of her sophomore year, and was hired by Mike Brown, an associate professor of planetary astronomy. Brown and graduate student Antonin Bouchez knew there had been previous evidence of “weather” on Titan in the form of clouds. But that evidence was elusive. “Someone would look one year and think they saw a cloud, then look the next year and not see a cloud,” explains Brown. “What we were after was a way to look at Titan, night after night after night.”

The problem, of course, is that all of the large telescopes like Keck are incredibly busy, booked by astronomers from around the world who use the precious time for their own line of research. So Brown and Bouchez knew that obtaining large amounts of time for a single project like this was not going to happen.

The solution: Use an old teaching telescope–the hoary 14-inch Celestron telescope located on top of Caltech’s Robinson Lab–to do cutting edge science that couldn’t be done at the largest telescopes in the world, in Hawaii.

Though the power of the Robinson telescope is weak, and light pollution from Pasadena strong, which prevents imaging the actual clouds, the light reflecting from clouds could be imaged (the more clouds, the more light that’s reflected). All that was needed was someone who could come night after night and take multiple images.

Enter Horst, the self-described “lowly undergraduate.” For months, Horst spent her evenings in Robinson. “I did the setup, which involved a wheel that contained four light filters,” she explains. Each filter would capture a different wavelength of light. Software switched the filters; all she had to do, says Horst, was to orientate and focus the telescope.

Now, modern-day astronomers have it relatively easy when using their telescope time. Sure they’re up all night, but they sit on a comfortable chair in a warm room, hot coffee close at hand, and do their observing through a computer monitor that’s connected to a telescope.

Not Horst. She did it the old way, in discomfort. “A lot of times in December or January I’d go in late at night, and it would be freezing,” says Horst, who runs the 800-meter for the Caltech track team. “I’d wrap myself up in blankets.” Horst spent hours in the dark, since the old dome itself had to be dark. “I couldn’t even study,” she says, “although sometimes I tried to read by the light of the moon.”

A software program written by Bouchez plotted the light intensity from each image on a graph. When a particular image looked promising, Bouchez contacted Brown. As a frequent user of the Keck Observatory, which is powerful enough to take an image of the actual clouds, Brown was able to call colleagues who were using the Keck that night and quickly convince them that something exciting was going on. “It only took about ten minutes to get a quick image of Titan,” says Brown. “The funny part was having to explain to them that we knew there were clouds because we had seen the evidence in our 14-inch telescope in the middle of the L.A. basin.”

The result was “Direct Detection of Variable Tropospheric Clouds Near Titan’s South Pole,” which appeared in the December 19 journal Nature. It included this acknowledgement: “We thank . . . S. Horst for many nights of monitoring Titan in the cold.”

The paper has helped Brown obtain the funding to build a new 24-inch custom-built telescope. It will be placed in its own building atop Palomar Mountain, on the grounds of Caltech’s existing observatory. It’s also roboticized; Brown will control the scope from Pasadena via a computer program he has written.

He’ll use it for further observation of Titan and for other imaging, as well, such as fast-moving comets. “Most astronomy is big,” notes Brown; “big scopes looking at big, unchanging things, like galaxies. I like to look at changing things, which led to this telescope.”

What really made this project unique, though, according to Brown, is the Robinson scope. “Sarah was able to do something with this little telescope in Pasadena that no one in the world, on any of their larger professional telescopes on high, dark mountaintops, had been able to do,” he says. “Sometimes a good idea and stubbornness are better than the largest telescope in town.”

For Horst, while the work wasn’t intellectually challenging–“a trained monkey could have done it,” she says with a laugh–it was, nonetheless, “a cool project. Everything here is so theoretical and tedious, and so classroom orientated. So in that way it was a nice experience and reminded me what real science was about.”

Original Source: Caltech News Release

Brown Dwarf is Actually a Binary System

Image credit: Gemini

Astronomers were searching for planets around nearby star Epsilon Indi when they discovered something unusual. A previously-known brown dwarf star orbiting Epsilon Indi has a companion of its own. This new companion, known as Epsilon Indi Bb, orbits the larger brown dwarf (Epsilon Indi Ba) at a distance of only 2.2 astronomical units. Both objects are part of a new class of stars called T-dwarfs; they have diameters similar to Jupiter but have significantly more mass.

While searching for planet-sized bodies that might accompany the nearby star system Epsilon Indi, astronomers using the Gemini South telescope in Chile made a related but unexpected detection.

Widely observed by telescopes on the ground and in space, Epsilon Indi was known to host an orbiting companion, called Epsilon Indi B, which was discovered last year and is the nearest known specimen of a brown dwarf. Brown dwarfs are very small, cool stars thirty to forty times more massive than Jupiter but of similar size. Despite all the observing, it took the combination of Gemini’s powerful infrared capabilities and the extremely sensitive spectrograph/imager called PHOENIX (without adaptive optics) to reveal the more elusive body.

“Epsilon Indi Ba is the closest confirmed brown dwarf to our solar system,” says Dr. Gordon Walker (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada), who led the research team that includes Dr. Suzie Ramsay Howat (UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh, UK). Dr. Walker explains, “With the detection of Epsilon Indi Bb, we now know that Epsilon Indi Ba has a close companion that appears to be another, even cooler brown dwarf. One certainty is that the Epsilon Indi system is even more interesting than we previously thought.”

The team of scientists who detected Epsilon Indi Bb using the Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pach?n, Chile, were the first to report this finding, which was published in the IAU Circular Volume 8818. Subsequently, the VLT (Very Large Telescope) announced that scientists had actually observed the object five days earlier (using adaptive optics), and their finding is reported at http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/astro-ph?0309256.

“When the target was acquired and we saw that there were clearly two objects close together, we initially thought it must be the wrong object. Epsilon Indi Ba, formerly called Epsilon Indi B, had been observed before and in those observations, no one noticed the companion object. It was a tremendous surprise for us,” says Dr. Kevin Volk (Gemini Observatory, La Serena, Chile) who was actually making the observation at the Gemini South telescope along with Dr. Robert Blum (CTIO, La Serena, Chile).

The serendipitous nature of the detection took the science team–whose members are from Canada, the U.K., the U.S. and Chile–by surprise. Dr. Blum elaborates, “We then found that the companion, named Epsilon Indi Bb, is invisible in the methane band where previous Gemini observations had been taken. The coolest brown dwarfs are very faint and hard to detect, but there may be vast numbers of them–which makes this detection important.”

Epsilon Indi is the fifth brightest star in the southern constellation of Indus and is located about 11.8 light years away from our solar system. The star is similar to but cooler than our sun. The projected separation as seen on the sky between Epsilon Indi and Indi Ba is approximately 1500 AUs (one AU or Astronomical Unit is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun or about 93 million miles/150 million kilometers), and the distance between Epsilon Indi Ba and the newly discovered Epsilon Indi Bb is at least 2.2 AUs.

“Because this system is so close to us, it appears to move quite rapidly in the sky,” says Dr. Volk. “We were able to confirm our detection–and rule out a more distant background object–within a few weeks since we could detect the motion of the system relative to the background stars relatively quickly.”

As the facts surrounding the detection become clearer with additional spectroscopic data, the research team expects that important details about Epsilon Indi Bb will be revealed. “Unfortunately, the window for observing this system is nearly closed for this year, so we will have to wait until early next year when we can see this system again in the morning sky,” says Dr. David Balam (University of Victoria, Canada).

The data recently obtained from Gemini show that Epsilon Indi Bb is cooler and less massive than Epsilon Indi Ba as demonstrated by its significantly lower brightness and deep methane absorption. Methane absorption is a key indicator for low mass objects since gaseous methane can only exist in the lower temperature environments of the atmospheres of brown dwarfs and planets where the gas can exist.

“Methane absorption was the key to the detection,” says Dr. Walker, “because Dr. Volk happened to catch sight of Epsilon Indi Bb through one of the ‘windows’ between the methane absorption bands. Because the absorption bands block longer wavelength infrared light, Epsilon Indi Bb was visible when viewed at shorter infrared wavelengths.”

Epsilon Indi Ba and Bb are members of a recently discovered type of astronomical object–the “T” class brown dwarfs. These T-dwarfs have diameters approximately equal to Jupiter but with more mass. Spectra of Epsilon Indi Ba, taken with PHOENIX by Dr. Verne Smith (University of Texas, El Paso) and collaborators, show the Epsilon Indi Ba has 32 times the mass of Jupiter and a 1500-degree surface temperature. It is spinning about three times faster than Jupiter. Epsilon Indi Bb has less mass, is cooler, but is still much more massive and hotter than Jupiter. Like Jupiter, the T-dwarfs do not have enough mass to make energy the way the sun does from nuclear fusion. Epsilon Indi Ba and Bb are glowing from heat resulting from the mass pushing down on the interior.

PHOENIX, the instrument that is responsible for producing the data, is a near-infrared, high-resolution spectrometer that was built by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Arizona, and was commissioned on Gemini South in 2001. Dr. Ken Hinkle (NOAO, Tucson, Arizona) said, “PHOENIX was designed for exactly this type of research. It is the first high-resolution infrared spectrograph on a Gemini telescope, and the first high-resolution infrared spectrograph on any southern hemisphere telescope.”

Dr. Phil Puxley, Associate Director of Gemini South, adds, “Gemini’s infrared optimization makes the 8-meter twin telescopes ideal for capturing such serendipitous discoveries. Finds like this are exactly what Gemini is designed to do and this sort of exciting work demonstrates the potential of Gemini’s science.”

Epsilon Indi is visible with the naked eye from June to December in the southern hemisphere. It can be detected with the locator map available at http://www.gemini.edu/science/epsilonindi-images.html, which also contains other images and illustrations.

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration that has built two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located at Mauna Kea, Hawai`i (Gemini North) and the other telescope at Cerro Pach?n in central Chile (Gemini South), and hence provide full coverage of both hemispheres of the sky. Both telescopes incorporate new technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors under active control to collect and focus both optical and infrared radiation from space.

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in each partner country with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country’s contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisi?n Nacional de Investigaci?n Cientifica y Tecnol?gica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cient?ficas y T?cnicas (CONICET) and the Brazilian Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Cient?fico e Tecnol?gico (CNPq). The Observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.

Original Source: Gemini News Release

Early Supernovae Seeded the Universe With Elements

Image source: CfA

According to cosmologists, the early Universe only had a mixture of hydrogen, helium and other lighter elements, but none of the heaver elements required for life – like carbon. From the original gasses, giant stars formed – some were 200 times larger than our Sun – lived for a brief time, often just a few million years. These giant stars converted up to 50% of their material into heaver elements, mostly iron, before exploding violently as supernovae. The James Webb telescope, due for launch after 2011 will be so sensitive it should be able to look back to watch these supernovae happening.

The early universe was a barren wasteland of hydrogen, helium, and a touch of lithium, containing none of the elements necessary for life as we know it. From those primordial gases were born giant stars 200 times as massive as the Sun, burning their fuel at such a prodigious rate that they lived for only about 3 million years before exploding. Those explosions spewed elements like carbon, oxygen and iron into the void at tremendous speeds. New simulations by astrophysicists Volker Bromm (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Naoki Yoshida (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) and Lars Hernquist (CfA) show that the first, “greatest generation” of stars spread incredible amounts of such heavy elements across thousands of light-years of space, thereby seeding the cosmos with the stuff of life.

This research is posted online at http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0305333 and will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“We were surprised by how violent the first supernova explosions were,” says Bromm. “A universe that was in a pristine state of tranquility was rapidly and irreversibly transformed by a colossal input of energy and heavy elements, setting the stage for the long cosmic evolution that eventually led to life and intelligent beings like us.”

Approximately 200 million years after the Big Bang, the universe underwent a dramatic burst of star formation. Those first stars were massive and fast-burning, quickly fusing their hydrogen fuel into heavier elements like carbon and oxygen. Nearing the end of their lives, desperate for energy, those stars burned carbon and oxygen to form heavier and heavier elements until reaching the end of the line with iron. Since iron cannot be fused to create energy, the first stars then exploded as supernovae, blasting the elements that they had formed into space.

Each of those first giant stars converted about half of its mass into heavy elements, much of it iron. As a result, each supernova hurled up to 100 solar masses of iron into the interstellar medium. The death throes of each star added to the interstellar bounty. Hence, by the remarkably young age of 275 million years, the universe was substantially seeded with metals.

That seeding process was aided by the structure of the infant universe, where small protogalaxies less than one-millionth the mass of the Milky Way crammed together like people on a crowded subway car. The small sizes of and distances between those protogalaxies allowed an individual supernova to rapidly seed a significant volume of space.

Supercomputer simulations by Bromm, Yoshida, and Hernquist showed that the most energetic supernova explosions sent out shock waves that flung heavy elements up to 3,000 light-years away. Those shock waves swept huge amounts of gas into intergalactic space, leaving behind hot “bubbles,” and triggered new rounds of star formation.

Supernova expert Robert Kirshner (CfA) says, “Today this is a fascinating theory, based on our best understanding of how the first stars worked. In a few years, when we build the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, we should be able to see these first supernovae and test Volker’s ideas. Stay tuned!”

Lars Hernquist notes that the second generation of stars contained heavy elements from the first generation – seeds from which rocky planets like Earth could grow. “Without that first, ‘greatest generation’ of stars, our world would not exist.”

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

Original Source: CfA News Release

Astronomers Find a Transparent Galaxy

Image credit: Hubble

It turns out that a collection of stars orbiting the Andromeda galaxy are actually the remnants of another galaxy being torn apart and consumed, according to new research from astronomers at Case University. They only realized it was a separate galaxy after charting the velocities of several of its stars. Astronomers failed to detect it before now because much of the galaxy is located in front of Andromeda’s bright galactic disk. The discovery will give astronomers further evidence to support the theory that smaller galaxies merge together to form larger, more complex galaxies.

Case Western Reserve University astronomers have announced the discovery of a new galaxy, termed Andromeda VIII. The new galaxy is so widespread and transparent that astronomers did not suspect its existence until they mapped the velocity of stars thought to belong to the well-known and nearby large Andromeda spiral galaxy and found them to move independently of Andromeda.

Heather Morrison, Paul Harding and Denise Hurley-Keller of Case’s department of astronomy and George Jacoby of the WIYN Observatory, will report their discovery in an upcoming article in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“This is particularly exciting because it allows us to watch the ongoing growth of the nearby Andromeda galaxy from smaller galaxies,” says Morrison.

The astronomers used Case’s Burrell Schmidt telescope and the 3.5m WIYN telescope to identify the galaxy. Both telescopes are located at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz. NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

The newly found galaxy is being torn apart into streams of stars, which leaves a trail of stars that are strung out along the new galaxy’s orbit around the Andromeda galaxy in the way a jet’s contrail shows its route. Andromeda is the nearest large spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy two million light years away. It is visible as a hazy glowing object to the naked eye in a dark sky in the northern hemisphere and is found in the constellation of Andromeda.

Discovered over 1,000 years ago by the Persian astronomer Azophi Al-Sufi, Andromeda is a member of the Local Group of approximately 30 galaxies in the Milky Way’s celestial backyard.

In early August, Morrison finished analyzing the data of these stars from the Andromeda celestial neighborhood. “I was amazed to find a new dwarf galaxy orbiting Andromeda. It is a ‘see-thru’ galaxy, which was only discovered once we obtained velocity measurements for some of its stars, said Morrison.

She adds that the reason Andromeda VIII escaped detection was the fact that it is located in front of the bright regions of Andromeda’s galaxy disk.

Andromeda VIII’s total brightness is comparable to that of Andromeda’s well-known companion M32, a small nearby galaxy, but Andromeda VIII is spread over an area of the sky as much as ten times or more larger than M32. Its elongated shape is caused by Andromeda’s gravitational pull,
which has stretched it out due to the stronger gravity on the side nearest Andromeda.

Morrison and her collaborators also suggested that a very faint stream of stars, detected near the large Andromeda galaxy in 2001 by the Italian Astronmer R. A. Ibata and colleagues, was pulled off Andromeda VIII in an earlier passage around the parent galaxy. “Future research in this area should provide rich and fruitful results,” stated Morrison.

Theory has predicted for decades that galaxies are assembled in a “bottom-up” process, forming first as small galaxies that later merge to form large ones.

“Since 1994, when Ibata and colleagues announced the discovery of a new satellite in the process of being swallowed by the Milky Way, we have been able to see the process taking place in our own galaxy,” stated Morrison. “Now we find the same process in our nearest large neighbor.”

She adds that now it looks like Andromeda is even more inundated by small galaxies than the Milky Way. Ibata and colleagues have taken deep images of Andromeda which show a rich collection of star streams wreathed about the galaxy. Morrison and her colleagues have now identified the source of one of these star streams. They plan future observations to connect the different star streams with their progenitors, and thus learn more about the properties of the companion galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy and its elusive dark matter halo, the unseen matter that is suspected to be present in the universe.

The galaxy research was supported by a five-year National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award.

The Burrell Schmidt telescope is part of Case’s Warner and Swasey Observatory. The WIYN 3.5-meter telescope is a partnership of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

Original Source: NSF News Release

More Evidence for Dark Energy

Image credit: Hubble

Astronomers have studied the light from 11 new supernovae to help validate the evidence that some kind of “dark energy” is accelerating the Universe apart. The supernovae are a special type called Ia, which are known to be roughly the same brightness. By measuring their relative brightness, they can calculate how distant the Type Ia supernovae are. This latest data was gathered by an international team of astronomers using ground telescopes to provide followup targets for the Hubble Space Telescope. A new satellite is planned, called the SuperNova/Acceleration Probe, which will be able to discover thousands of supernova and track their explosions precisely.

A unique set of 11 distant Type Ia supernovae studied with the Hubble Space Telescope sheds new light on dark energy, according to the latest findings of the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP), recently posted at http://www.arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0309368 and soon to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

Light curves and spectra from the 11 distant supernovae constitute “a strikingly beautiful data set, the largest such set collected solely from space,” says Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and leader of the SCP. The SCP is an international collaboration of researchers from the United States, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, Chile, Japan, and Spain.

Type Ia supernovae are among astronomy’s best “standard candles,” so similar that their brightness provides a dependable gauge of their distance, and so bright they are visible billions of light years away.

The new study reinforces the remarkable discovery, announced by the Supernova Cosmology Project early in 1998, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating due to a mysterious energy that pervades all space. That finding was based on data from over three dozen Type Ia supernovae, all but one of them observed from the ground. A competing group, the High-Z Supernova Search Team, independently announced strikingly consistent results, based on an additional 14 supernovae, also predominantly observed from the ground.

Because the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is unaffected by the atmosphere, its images of supernovae are much sharper and stronger and provide much better measurements of brightness than are possible from the ground. Robert A. Knop, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., led the Supernova Cosmology Project’s data analysis of the 11 supernovae studied with the HST and coauthored the Astrophysical Journal report with the 47 other members of the SCP.

“The HST data also provide a strong test of host-galaxy extinction,” Knop says, referring to concerns that measurements of the true brightness of supernovae could be thrown off by dust in distant galaxies, which might absorb and scatter their light. But dust would also make a supernova’s light redder, much as our sun looks redder at sunset because of dust in the atmosphere. Because the data from space show no anomalous reddening with distance, Knop says, the supernovae “pass the test with flying colors.”

“Limiting such uncertainties is crucial for using supernovae ? or any other astronomical observations ? to explore the nature of the universe,” says Ariel Goobar, a member of SCP and a professor of particle astrophysics at Stockholm University in Sweden. The extinction test, says Goobar, “eliminates any concern that ordinary host-galaxy dust could be a source of bias for these cosmological results at high-redshifts.” (See What is Host-Galaxy Extinction?)

The term for the mysterious “repulsive gravity” that drives the universe to expand ever faster is dark energy. The new data are able to provide much tighter estimates of the relative density of matter and dark energy in the universe: under straightforward assumptions, 25 percent of the composition of the universe is matter of all types, and 75 percent is dark energy. Moreover, the new data provide a more precise measure of the “springiness” of the dark energy, the pressure that it applies to the universe’s expansion per unit of density.

Among the numerous attempts to explain the nature of dark energy, some are allowed by these new measurements ? including the cosmological constant originally proposed by Albert Einstein ? but others are ruled out, including some of the simplest models of the theories known as quintessence. (See What is Dark Energy?)

High-redshift supernovae are the best single tool for measuring the properties of dark energy ? and eventually determining what dark energy is. As supernova studies with the HST demonstrate, the best place to study high-redshift supernovae is with a telescope in space, unaffected by the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, “to make the best use of a telescope in space, it’s essential to make the best use of the finest telescopes on the ground,” says SCP member Chris Lidman of the European Southern Observatory.

For the supernovae in the present study, the SCP team invented a strategy whereby the Hubble Space Telescope could quickly respond to discoveries made from the ground, despite the need to schedule HST time long in advance. Working together, the SCP and the Space Telescope Science Institute implemented the strategy to superb effect.

The current study, based on HST observations of 11 supernovae, points the way to the next generation of supernova research: in the future, the SuperNova/Acceleration Probe, or SNAP satellite, will discover thousands of Type Ia supernovae and measure their spectra and their light curves from the earliest moments, through maximum brightness, until their light has died away.

SCP’s Perlmutter is now leading an international group of collaborators based at Berkeley Lab who are developing SNAP with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. It may be that the best candidate for a correct theory of dark energy will be identified soon after SNAP begins operating. A world of new physics will open as a result.

“New constraints on omega-m, omega-lambda, and w from an independent set of eleven high-redshift supernovae observed with the HST,” by Robert A. Knop and 47 others (the Supernova Cosmology Project), will appear in the Astrophysical Journal and is currently available online at http://www.arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0309368.

Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California.

Original Source: Berkeley News Release

Are We Safe from Gamma Ray Bursts?

Image credit: ESA

Gamma ray bursts (or GRBs) are the most powerful known explosions in the Universe. Although astronomers aren’t exactly sure what causes them, they’re somehow linked to supernovae explosions – it could be the formation of a black hole after the supernova explodes. When a GRB goes off, it funnels a tremendous amount of energy into two lighthouse-like beams that would probably vaporize anything out to 200 light-years away. Fortunately there aren’t any stars in our galactic neighborhood that has the potential to explode as a supernova, so we’re probably safe from such an event, but astronomers will keep looking? just to be sure.

For a few seconds every day, Earth is bombarded by gamma rays created by cataclysmic explosions in distant galaxies. Such explosions, similar to supernovae, are known as ?gamma-ray bursts? or GRBs.

Astronomers using ESA?s X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton, are trying to understand the cause of these extraordinary explosions from the X-rays given out for a day or two after the initial burst.

Danger to life?
However, the violence of the process begs the question, what happens to the space surrounding a GRB? A few years ago, some astronomers thought that a GRB might wipe out all life in its host galaxy.

That now seems to be a pessimistic view because the latest evidence shows that GRBs focus their energy along two narrow beams, like a lighthouse might do on Earth, rather than exploding in all directions like a bomb.

That does not mean that GRBs are not dangerous. Some theories suggest that anything caught in the beam, out to a distance of around 200 light years, will be vaporised.

Have there been GRBs in our own galaxy?
Although none of the recently detected GRBs seem powerful enough, events in the distant past are another question. ?There are a lot of supernova remnants in our galaxy, so I suspect that most probably there have been several GRBs as well,? says ESA astronomer Norbert Schartel.

While astronomers have yet to detect a really close GRB, they may already have picked up the most distant ones. ESA?s gamma-ray observatory, Integral, continues to collect invaluable data about GRBs on a daily basis, but last year XMM-Newton recorded the fading afterglow of X-rays that accompanied one GRB.

When Schartel and collaborators analysed the results, they found that the X-rays contained the ?fingerprints? of gas that was glowing like the X-ray equivalent of a ?neon? strip light.

Link between GRBs and exploding stars
This was the first piece of hard evidence that GRBs were linked to exploding stars, similar to supernovae. Now, XMM-Newton has captured another X-ray afterglow that shows similar features, strengthening the link.

Using these data and the discovery of visible explosions of some GRBs by NASA/ESA?s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have pieced together a picture of what happens.

It seems that the explosion of the star is just the first stage. The GRB itself is generated sometime later but whether that is hours, days or even weeks afterwards, no one yet knows. The GRB occurs when the centre of the exploding star turns into a ?black hole? and the X-rays are released as the GRB shock wave collides with the gas thrown off in the star?s original explosion.

Are we at risk from GRBs?
Another question still remains: could we be vaporised by a nearby GRB? The answer is no, even though there are GRBs detected almost everyday, scattered randomly throughout the Universe, it is highly unlikely. There are no stars within 200 light years of our Solar System that are of the type destined to explode as a GRB, so we do not expect to witness such an event at close range!

However, we do know that ESA?s scientific study of these fascinating ? and frightening ? cosmic events will continue for many years to come.

Original Source: ESA News Release