Neutron Star Binaries are More Common in Clusters

Image credit: Chandra

Many of the stars that we see in globular star clusters are actually binary stars, formed when two stars get caught in each other’s gravity. But new research from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory shows that there are many more binary objects which are stars orbiting a neutron star or white dwarf. Chandra can detect the unique x-ray signature that a neutron star gives off, which is invisible in an optical telescope. The research seems to indicate that these neutron star binaries form much more commonly found in globular clusters than in other parts of a galaxy.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has confirmed that close encounters between stars form X-ray emitting, double-star systems in dense globular star clusters. These X-ray binaries have a different birth process than their cousins outside globular clusters, and should have a profound influence on the cluster’s evolution.

A team of scientists led by David Pooley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge took advantage of Chandra’s unique ability to precisely locate and resolve individual sources to determine the number of X-ray sources in 12 globular clusters in our Galaxy. Most of the sources are binary systems containing a collapsed star such as a neutron star or a white dwarf star that is pulling matter off a normal, Sun-like companion star.

“We found that the number of X-ray binaries is closely correlated with the rate of encounters between stars in the clusters,” said Pooley. “Our conclusion is that the binaries are formed as a consequence of these encounters. It is a case of nurture not nature.”

A similar study led by Craig Heinke of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. confirmed this conclusion, and showed that roughly 10 percent of these X-ray binary systems contain neutron stars. Most of these neutron stars are usually quiet, spending less than 10% of their time actively feeding from their companion.

A globular cluster is a spherical collection of hundreds of thousands or even millions of stars buzzing around each other in a gravitationally-bound stellar beehive that is about a hundred light years in diameter. The stars in a globular cluster are often only about a tenth of a light year apart. For comparison, the nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away.

With so many stars moving so close together, interactions between stars occur frequently in globular clusters. The stars, while rarely colliding, do get close enough to form binary star systems or cause binary stars to exchange partners in intricate dances. The data suggest that X-ray binary systems are formed in dense clusters known as globular clusters about once a day somewhere in the universe.

Observations by NASA’s Uhuru X-ray satellite in the 1970’s showed that globular clusters seemed to contain a disproportionately large number of X-ray binary sources compared to the Galaxy as a whole. Normally only one in a billion stars is a member of an X-ray binary system containing a neutron star, whereas in globular clusters, the fraction is more like one in a million.

The present research confirms earlier suggestions that the chance of forming an X-ray binary system is dramatically increased by the congestion in a globular cluster. Under these conditions two processes, known as three-star exchange collisions, and tidal captures, can lead to a thousandfold increase in the number of X-ray sources in globular clusters.

In an exchange collision, a lone neutron star encounters a pair of ordinary stars. The intense gravity of the neutron star can induce the most massive ordinary star to “change partners,” and pair up with the neutron star while ejecting the lighter star.

A neutron star could also make a grazing collision with a single normal star, and the intense gravity of the neutron star could distort the gravity of the normal star in the process. The energy lost in the distortion, could prevent the normal star from escaping from the neutron star, leading to what is called tidal capture.

“In addition to solving a long-standing mystery, Chandra data offer an opportunity for a deeper understanding of globular cluster evolution,” said Heinke. “For example, the energy released in the formation of close binary systems could keep the central parts of the cluster from collapsing to form a massive black hole.”

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the Office of Space Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington. Northrop Grumman of Redondo Beach, Calif., formerly TRW, Inc., was the prime development contractor for the observatory. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls science and flight operations from the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Original Source: Chandra News Release

Neutron Star Has Twin Tails

Image credit: ESA

Astronomers using the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory have discovered a neutron star with two mysterious x-ray tails, stretching out almost a third of a light year. The neutron star is named Geminga, and it’s one of the closest known neutron stars, at a distance of only 500 light-years away. Unlike most neutron stars, Geminga is strangely quiet in the radio spectrum, but pulsates huge quantities of gamma radiation.

Astronomers using ESA?s X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton, have discovered a pair of X-ray tails, stretching 3 million million kilometres across the sky. They emanate from the mysterious neutron star known as Geminga. The discovery gives astronomers new insight into the extraordinary conditions around the neutron star.

A neutron star measures only 20-30 kilometres across and is the dense remnant of an exploded star. Geminga is one of the closest to Earth, at a distance of about 500 light-years. Most neutron stars emit radio emissions, appearing to pulsate like a lighthouse, but Geminga is ‘radio-quiet’. It does, however, emit huge quantities of pulsating gamma rays making it one of the brightest gamma-ray sources in the sky. Geminga is the only example of a successfully identified gamma-ray source from which astronomers have gained significant knowledge.

It is 350 000 years old and ploughs through space at 120 kilometres per second. Its route creates a shockwave that compresses the gas of the interstellar medium and its naturally embedded magnetic field by a factor of four.

Patrizia Caraveo, Instituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica, Milano, Italy, and her colleagues (at CESR, France, ESO and MPE, Germany) have calculated that the tails are produced because highly energetic electrons become trapped in this enhanced magnetic field. As the electrons spiral inside the magnetic field, they emit the X-rays seen by XMM-Newton.

The electrons themselves are created close to the neutron star. Geminga?s breathless rotation rate ? once every quarter of a second ? creates an extraordinary environment in which electrons and positrons, their antimatter counterparts, can be accelerated to extraordinarily high energies. At such energies, they become powerful high-energy gamma-ray producers. Astronomers had assumed that all the electrons would be converted into gamma rays. However, the discovery of the tails proves that some do find escape routes from the maelstrom.

?It is astonishing that such energetic electrons succeed in escaping to create these tails,? says Caraveo, ?The tail electrons have an energy very near to the maximum energy achievable in the environment of Geminga.?

The tails themselves are the bright edges of the three-dimensional shockwave sculpted by Geminga. Such shockwaves are a bit like the wake of a ship travelling across the ocean. Using a computer model, the team has estimated that Geminga is travelling almost directly across our line of sight.

Studies of Geminga could not be more important. The majority of known gamma-ray sources in the Universe have yet to be identified with known classes of celestial objects. Some astronomers believe that a sizeable fraction of them may be Geminga-like radio-quiet neutron stars. Certainly, the family of radio-quiet neutron stars, discovered through their X-ray emission, is continuously growing. Currently, about a dozen objects are known but only Geminga has a pair of tails!

Original Source: ESA News Release

Galaxy Evolution Explorer Delivers First Images

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Launched in April, 2003, NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer has sent back its first images of star formation in hundreds of galaxies. The goal of the mission is to map the sky in the ultraviolet spectrum and help determine the evolution of star formation over the last 10 billion years – this singles out galaxies that contain young, hot stars which produce a lot of energy in the ultraviolet spectrum. The mission is expected to last 28 months.

NASA?s Galaxy Evolution Explorer has beamed back revealing images of hundreds of galaxies to expectant astronomers, providing the first batch of data on star formation that they had hoped for.

The recent ultraviolet color images from the orbiting space telescope were taken between June 7 and June 23, 2003 and are available online at and

“The images clearly show active star formation in nearby galaxies, and large numbers of distant ultraviolet galaxies undergoing starbursts,” said Dr. Christopher Martin, the mission’s principal investigator and an astrophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which leads the mission. “This demonstrates that the Galaxy Evolution Explorer will be a powerful tool for studying star formation in galaxies near and far.”

“These stunning images provide us with valuable information needed to advance our knowledge of how galaxies, like our own Milky Way, evolve and transform,” said Dr. James Fanson, Galaxy Evolution Explorer project manager at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Pictures of the ultraviolet sky reveal objects we could never have seen with visible light alone.”

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer launched on April 28, 2003. Its goal is to map the celestial sky in the ultraviolet and determine the history of star formation in the universe over the last 10 billion years.

From its orbit high above Earth, the spacecraft will sweep the skies for up to 28 months using state-of-the-art ultraviolet detectors. Looking in the ultraviolet singles out galaxies dominated by young, hot, short-lived stars that give off a great deal energy at that wavelength. These galaxies are actively creating stars, therefore providing a window into the history and causes of galactic star formation.

In addition to leading the mission, Caltech is also responsible for science operations and data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of Caltech, manages the mission and led the science instrument development. The mission is part of NASA’s Explorers Program, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The mission’s international partners are France and South Korea.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Astronomers Map Dark Matter Halo

Image credit: Hubble

Two Canadian and a US astronomer have created a detailed map of the halo of dark matter that seems to surround all galaxies. The mass of dark matter accounts for 50 times the mass and five times the size of the light-producing material in a galaxy. This flattened sphere-shaped halo was seen by measuring how the gravity from a closer galaxy bends the light from a distant object that passes behind it; a technique called gravity lensing.

Two U of T astronomers and a U.S. colleague have made the first-ever measurements of the size and shape of massive dark matter halos that surround galaxies.

“Our findings give us the clearest picture yet of a very mysterious part of our universe,” says principal investigator Henk Hoekstra, a
post-doctoral fellow at U of T’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. “Using relatively simple physics, we can get our first direct glimpse of the size and shape of these halos which are more than fifty times more massive than the light-producing part of galaxies that we can see.” He and his team presented their findings July 25 at the 25th general assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Sydney, Australia.

Their research indicates that dark matter halos extend more than five times further than the visible stars in a galaxy, says Hoekstra. In the case of our Milky Way galaxy, he says, the halo extends to more than 500,000 light-years away and weighs approximately 880 billion times more than the sun. The findings also provide strong support for the popular “cold dark matter” model of the universe.

Dark matter emits no light and, therefore, cannot be seen directly,
Hoekstra explains. The only evidence for its existence comes from its gravitational pull on stars, gas and light rays. Dark matter is believed to account for approximately 25 per cent of the total mass in the universe, with the rest of the universe composed of normal matter (five per cent) and dark energy (70 per cent).

To date, most information about dark matter has come from measurements of the motion of gas and stars in the inner regions of galaxies. Other important data have come from computer simulations of the formation of the universe’s structure. However, scientists can explain their findings about dark matter only if it is true that galaxies are surrounded by massive, three-dimensional halos.

The majority of astronomers believe in the so-called cold dark matter theory of the universe, which suggests these halos are slightly flattened. Hoekstra’s findings corroborate this. Using the relatively new technique of weak gravitational lensing which allows astronomers to study the size and shape of dark matter, the team measured the shapes of more than 1.5 million distant galaxies using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii. “The small changes in the shapes of the galaxies offered a strong indication to us that the halos are flattened, like a rubber ball compressed to half its size,” Hoekstra says.

Their findings can also be applied to a larger scientific debate about the nature of the universe. Some scientists have developed theories about the universe using the assumption that dark matter does not exist and, as a result, they have proposed changes to the law of gravity. However, Hoekstra is confident that his team’s findings will refute these theories.

The research was conducted with Professor Howard Yee of U of T’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Michael Gladders, a former U of T graduate student now at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena, Calif. It was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and U of T.

Original Source: University of Toronto News Release

Unlocking the Secrets of Dwarf Galaxies

Image credit: UCSC

A team of astronomers from the University of Cambridge have been researching a rare group of galaxies, known as dwarf spheroidal galaxies, which seem to have few stars but massive amounts of “dark matter”. The team analyzed one such galaxy and found that the stars in the outer edges were moving so quickly that the galaxy could only stay together if it had 100 times more dark matter than the mass of the stars alone. This research will help astronomers understand how galaxies are formed and how dark matter plays into their composition.

New research on dwarf spheroidal galaxies by a team of astronomers at the University of Cambridge promises a real astronomical first: detection, for the first time, of the true outer limits of a galaxy.

The team is presenting today (23 July 2003) at the 25th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAUXXV) in Sydney, Australia. The research could provide the key to understanding how larger galaxies were formed, including our own Milky Way galaxy.

The rare dwarf spheroidal galaxies display few stars but contain massive amounts of ‘dark matter’ or matter that does not emit radiation that can be observed by astronomers. The team studied these galaxies in detail using some of the largest optical telescopes on earth in order to probe their dark secrets. Dwarf spheroidal galaxies are widely believed to be the building blocks from which galaxies were formed.

By studying the motion of many stars the scientists have created a picture of how the mass of the galaxy is arranged. Surprisingly, when the Cambridge team looked at the stars at the edge of one such galaxy, Draco, they found that the outer stars were moving so quickly that the galaxy could only stay together if it contained 100 times more dark matter than the mass of the stars alone. Using detailed models of the motions of stars in a galaxy containing large quantities of dark matter, the group was able to demonstrate their observations could only be understood if the galaxy was surrounded by a large halo of dark matter.

Observations of the Ursa Minor dwarf spheroidal galaxy presented a new complication in the study. The team found an unexpected clump of slow-moving stars interpreted as the dead remains of one of the pure star systems, a globular cluster. The cluster should have been scattered across the galaxy, but it was still held together. The team realised this was only possible if the dark matter were arranged in a manner very differently from standard galaxies.

In May 2003, further research into Ursa Minor showed the stars in the very outermost parts are not moving quickly like the stars at the edge of Draco. Several theories are being investigated including dark matter from edge of Ursa Minor has been snatched away from the galaxy by its massive parent, the Milky Way, allowing some stars to wander gently away from their parent. Or they could be stars which wandered too close to other stars in the centre of the galaxy and were slung out to the edge of the galaxy as a result.

Whatever the explanation, the findings promise a real astronomical first: detection, for the first time, of the true outer limits of a galaxy.

Gerry Gilmore, Professor of Experimental Philosophy at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, said:

“This research, utilising some of the largest optical telescopes on earth, has provided us with insight to the makeup of these rare dwarf galaxies. This research helps astronomers better understand how galaxies were formed, and help take into account dark matter in all galaxies.”

Original Source: Cambridge University News Release

Further Evidence Found for Dark Energy

Image credit: SDSS

Since the discovery several years ago of a mysterious force, called dark energy, which seems to be accelerating the Universe, astronomers have been searching for additional evidence to either support or discount this theory. Astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have found fluctuations in cosmic background radiation that match the repulsive influence of dark energy.

Scientists from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey announced the discovery of independent physical evidence for the existence of dark energy.

The researchers found an imprint of dark energy by correlating millions of galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and cosmic microwave background temperature maps from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). The researchers found dark energy’s “shadow” on the ancient cosmic radiation, a relic of cooled radiation from the Big Bang.

With the combination of results from these two large sky surveys, this discovery provides physical evidence for the existence of dark energy; a result that complements earlier work on the acceleration of the universe as measured from distant supernovae. Observations from the Balloon Observations of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics (BOOMERANG) of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) were also part of the earlier findings.

Dark energy, a major component of the universe and one of the greatest conundrums in science, is gravitationally repulsive rather than attractive. This causes the universe’s expansion to accelerate, in contrast to the attraction of ordinary (and dark) matter, which would make it decelerate.

“In a flat universe the effect we’re observing only occurs if you have a universe with dark energy,” explained lead researcher Dr. Ryan Scranton of the University of Pittsburgh’s Physics and Astronomy department. “If the universe was just composed of matter and still flat, this effect wouldn’t exist.”

“As photons from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) travel to us from 380,000 years after the Big Bang, they can experience a number of physical processes, including the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect. This effect is an imprint or shadow of dark energy on microwaves. The effect also measures the changes in temperature of cosmic microwave background due to the effects of gravity on the energy of photons”, added Scranton.

The discovery is “a physical detection of dark energy, and highly complementary to other detections of dark energy” added Dr. Bob Nichol, an SDSS collaborator and associate professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Nichol likened the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect to looking at a person standing in front of a sunny window: “You just see their outline and can recognize them from just this information. Likewise the signal we see has the right outline (or shadow) that we’d expect for dark energy,” said Nichol.

“In particular the color of the signal is the same as the color of the cosmic microwave background, proving it is cosmological in origin and not some annoying contamination,” added Nichol.

“This work provides physical confirmation that one needs dark energy to simultaneously explain both the CMB and SDSS data, independent of the supernovae work. Such cross-checks are vital in science,” added Jim Gunn, Project Scientist of the SDSS and Professor of Astronomy at Princeton University.

Dr. Andrew Connolly of the University of Pittsburgh explained that photons streaming from the cosmic microwave background pass through many concentrations of galaxies and dark matter. As they fall into a gravitational well they gain energy (just like a ball rolling down a hill). As they come out they lose energy (again like a ball rolling up a hill). Photographic images of the microwaves become more blue (i.e. more energetic) as they fall in toward these supercluster concentrations and then become more red (i.e. less energetic) as they climb away from them.

“In a universe consisting mostly of normal matter one would expect that the net effect of the red and blue shifts would cancel. However in recent years we are finding that most of the stuff in our universe is abnormal in that it is gravitationally repulsive rather than gravitationally attractive,” explained Albert Stebbins, a scientist at the NASA/Fermilab Astrophysics Center Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, an SDSS collaborating institution. “This abnormal stuff we call dark energy.”

SDSS collaborator Connolly said if the depth of the gravitational well decreases while the photon travels through it then the photon would exit with slightly more energy. “If this were true then we would expect to see that the cosmic microwave background temperature is slightly hotter in regions with more galaxies. This is exactly what we found.”

Stebbins added that the net energy change expected from a single concentration of mass is less than one part in a million and researchers had to look at a large number of galaxies before they could expect to see the effect. He said that the results confirm that dark energy exists in relatively small mass concentrations: only 100 million light years across where the previously observed effects dark energy were on a scale of 10 billion light years across. A unique aspect of the SDSS data is its ability to accurately measure the distances to all galaxies from photographic analysis of their photometric redshifts. “Therefore, we can watch the imprint of this effect on the CMB grow as a function of the age of the universe,” Connolly said. “Eventually we might be able to determine the nature of the dark energy from measurements like these, though that is a bit in the future.”

“To make the conclusion that dark energy exists we only have to assume that the universe is not curved. After the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe results came in (in February, 2003), that’s a well-accepted assumption,” Scranton explained. “This is extremely exciting. We didn’t know if we could get a signal so we spent a lot of time testing the data against contamination from our galaxy or other sources. Having the results come out as strongly as they did was extremely satisfying.”

The discoveries were made in 3,400 square degrees of the sky surveyed by the SDSS.

“This combination of space-based microwave and ground-based optical data gave us this new window into the properties of dark energy,” said David Spergel, a Princeton University cosmologist and a member of the WMAP science team. “By combining WMAP and SDSS data, Scranton and his collaborators have shown that dark energy, whatever it is, is something that is not attracted by gravity even on the large scales probed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

“This is an important hint for physicists trying to understand the mysterious dark energy,” Spergel added.

In addition to principal investigators Scranton, Connolly, Nichol and Stebbins, Istavan Szapudi of the University of Hawaii contributed to the research. Others involved in the analysis include Niayesh Afshordi of Princeton University, Max Tegmark of the University of Pennsylvania and Daniel Eisenstein of the University of Arizona.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey ( will map in detail one-quarter of the entire sky, determining the positions and absolute brightness of 100 million celestial objects. It will also measure the distances to more than a million galaxies and quasars. The Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC) operates Apache Point Observatory, site of the SDSS telescopes.

SDSS is a joint project of The University of Chicago, Fermilab, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Japan Participation Group, The Johns Hopkins University, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), the Max-Planck-Institute for Astrophysics (MPA), New Mexico State University, University of Pittsburgh, Princeton University, the United States Naval Observatory, and the University of Washington.

Funding for the project has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Participating Institutions, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Japanese Monbukagakusho and the Max Planck Society.

The WILKINSON MICROWAVE ANISOTROPY PROBE (WMAP) is a NASA mission built in partnership with Princeton University and the Goddard Space Flight Center to measure the temperature of the cosmic background radiation, the remnant heat from the Big Bang. The WMAP mission reveals conditions as they existed in the early universe by measuring the properties of the cosmic microwave background radiation over the full sky. (

Original Source: SDSS News Release

Stellar Clusters Found in Milky Way

Image credit: ESO

Astronomers from the European Southern Observatory have found a whole new population of massive newborn stars inside a giant molecular cloud near the centre of the Milky Way. Inside the cloud are four massive stellar clusters with young stars as large as 120 times the mass of our Sun. This region, called W49, is one of the most energetic star forming regions of the Milky Way, and the recent observations help astronomers better understand how these regions form.

Peering into a giant molecular cloud in the Milky Way galaxy – known as W49 – astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have discovered a whole new population of very massive newborn stars. This research is being presented today at the International Astronomical Union’s 25th General Assembly held in Sydney, Australia, by ESO-scientist Jo?o Alves.

With the help of infrared images obtained during a period of excellent observing conditions with the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory (Chile), the astronomers looked deep into this molecular cloud and discovered four massive stellar clusters, with hot and energetic stars as massive as 120 solar masses. The exceedingly strong radiation from the stars in the largest of these clusters is “powering” a 20 light-year diameter region of mostly ionized hydrogen gas (a “giant HII region”).

W49 is one of the most energetic regions of star formation in the Milky Way. With the present discovery, the true sources of the enormous energy have now been revealed for the first time, finally bringing to an end some decades of astronomical speculations and hypotheses.

Giant molecular clouds
Stars form predominantly inside Giant Molecular Clouds which populate our Galaxy, the Milky Way. One of the most prominent of these is W49, which has a mass of a million solar masses. It is located some 37,000 light-years away and is the most luminous star-forming region known in our home galaxy: its luminosity is several million times the luminosity of our Sun. A smaller region within this cloud is denoted W49A – this is one of the strongest radio-emitting areas known in the Galaxy.

Massive stars are excessive in all ways. Compared to their smaller and ligther brethren, they form at an Olympic speed and have a frantic and relatively short life. Formation sites of massive stars are quite rare and, accordingly, most are many thousands of light-years away. For that reason alone, it is in general much more difficult to observe details of massive-star formation.

Moreover, as massive stars are generally formed in the main plane of the Galaxy, in the disc where a lot of dust is present, the first stages of such stars are normally hidden behind very thick curtains. In the case of W49A, less than one millionth of the visible light emitted by a star in this region will find its way through the heavy intervening layers of galactic dust and reach the telescopes on Earth.

And finally, because massive stars just formed are still very deeply embedded in their natal clouds, they are anyway not detectable at optical wavelengths. Observations of this early phase of the lives of heavy stars must therefore be done at longer wavelengths (where the dust is more transparent), but even so, such natal dusty clouds still absorb a large proportion of the light emitted by the young stars.

Because of this observational obstacle, nobody had ever looked deep enough into the central most dense regions of the W49A molecular cloud – and nobody really knew what was in there. That is, until Jo?o Alves and his colleague, Nicole Homeier decided to obtain “deep” and penetrating observations of this mysterious area with the SofI near-infrared camera on the 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the ESO La Silla Observatory (Chile).

A series of infrared images was secured during a spell of good weather and very good atmospheric conditions (seeing about 0.5 arcsec). They clearly show the presence of a cluster of stars at the centre of a region of ionized hydrogen gas (an “HII-region”) measuring 20 light-years across. In addition, three other smaller clusters of stars were detected in the image.

Altogether, the ESO astronomers were able to identify more than one hundred heavy-weight stars inside W49A, with masses greater than 15 to 20 times the mass of our Sun. Among these, about thirty are located within the 20 light-year central region and about ten in each of the three other clusters.

The discovery of these hot and massive stars solves a long-standing problem concerning W49A: the exceptional brightness (in astronomical terminology: “luminosity”) of the entire region requires the energetic output from about one hundred massive stars, and nobody had ever seen them. But here they are on the deep and sharp SofI images!
Formation scenarios

The presence of such a large number of very massive stars spread over the entire region suggests that star formation in the various regions of W49A must have happened rather simultaneously from different seeds and not, as some theories propose, by a “domino-type” chain effect where stellar winds of fast particles and the emitted radiation of newly formed massive stars trigger another burst of star formation in the immediate neighbourhood.

The present research results also imply that star formation in W49A began earlier and extends over a larger area than previously thought.

Jo?o Alves is sure that this news will be received with interest by his colleagues: “W49A has long been known to radio astronomers as one of the most powerful star-forming region in the Galaxy with 30 or so massive baby-stars of the O-type, very deeply embedded in their parental cloud. What we have found is in fact quite amazing: this stellar maternity ward is much bigger than we first thought and it has not stopped forming stars yet. We now have evidence for no less than more than one hundred such stars in this region, way beyond the few dozen known until now”.

Nicole Homeier adds: “Above all, we uncovered four massive clusters in there, with stars as massive as 120 times the mass of our Sun – real ‘beasts’ that bombard their surroundings with incredibly intense stellar winds and strong ultraviolet light. This is not a nice place to live – and imagine, this is all inside our so-called ‘quiet Galaxy’!”

Original Source: ESO News Release

Warped Disk Formed Around Galaxy Centre

Image credit: CfA

Astronomers have found a distant galaxy with a core shaped like a warped pancake around its central supermassive black hole. The disk contains 400,000 times the mass of the Sun, and got its strange shape because the black hole is spewing material in two broad cones. This is different from most black holes, which channel the outflow into a thin, fast-moving jet.

While a person’s shape can be affected by pancakes, especially if you eat too many, you may not expect the same to be true on a cosmic scale. As it turns out, at least for the Circinus spiral galaxy, a pancake can shape an entire galactic nucleus. Astronomer Lincoln Greenhill (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and colleagues have found direct evidence for a “pancake” of gas and dust at the center of Circinus — a thin, warped disk surrounding the galaxy’s central, supermassive black hole.

That disk shapes the galaxy’s nucleus. It shadows different regions from the “glare” of the black hole, a glare created by the glow of accreting gas. And when some of this material is blown away from the black hole, as by radiation, the disk channels it, leaving shadowed regions in relative peace. This idea stands in contrast to the prevailing wisdom that shadows and outflows are caused by vast, thick “doughnuts” of dust and gas.

“We caught the Circinus galaxy and its black hole red-handed,” said Greenhill. “Most astronomers think that the center of an active galaxy has an outflow directed and channeled by a doughnut-shaped torus of dust and gas. Our detailed radio images show that the culprit is a warped disk. And if that’s true for the Circinus galaxy, then the same may be true for other active galaxies.”

Greenhill and his fellow astronomers identified the disk using the Australia Telescope Long Baseline Array, which is a network of radio telescopes 600 miles across. Only radio imaging can reveal directly such tiny structures inside galactic nuclei. The Circinus disk in particular is so deeply buried in a jumble of stars, gas, and dust that no optical telescope can detect it. They estimate the disk contains enough mass to form perhaps as many as 400,000 stars like our Sun, were it given a chance.

The Australian array picked up microwave signals from clouds rich in water vapor within both the warped edge-on disk and the outflow. The locations and velocities of the clouds provide strong evidence that the disk is channeling ejected material into two broad cones extending above and below the galactic plane.

“Water masers have been observed in broad, wide-angle outflows in star formation regions within our Galaxy, but this is the first time they have been observed associated with the nuclear region of an active galaxy,” said Simon Ellingsen (University of Tasmania), a co-author of the study. “These observations also are the first to show that this wide-angle outflow originates within about a third of a light-year from the galactic nucleus.”

A black hole is a massive object so compact and with such a powerful gravitational field that nothing can escape its pull once past the black hole’s event horizon. However, material can and does escape from regions near the black hole due to radiation pressure and inefficiencies of the accretion flow, among other things. The escaping material carries away angular momentum, allowing the remaining matter to fall into the black hole. The black hole in Circinus presents a stark contrast to other supermassive black holes whose outflows are channeled into long, narrow jets of material that blast out from the galactic nucleus.

“In the center of the Circinus galaxy, we see a black hole that spews out gas and dust in a broad spray like clouds of vapor from a steam locomotive. This presents us with a paradox. X-ray radiation from the nucleus of Circinus — radiation driven by the black hole — is as intense as for black holes in other active galaxies. In that way, the Circinus black hole appears to be typical. However, while other black holes drive narrow relativistic jets of plasma, the Circinus black hole drives a comparatively meek wind — one that can support the formation of delicate molecules and dust,” said Greenhill.

Greenhill and his colleagues plan to continue studying the nucleus of the Circinus galaxy to investigate the mechanism responsible for generating the outflow.

Original Source: CfA News Release

Metallic Stars Yield Planets

Image credit: NASA

A survey of stars in our neighbourhood has revealed those rich in metals, such as iron and titanium, are five times more likely to have planets orbiting them. The survey of 61 stars with planets and 693 stars without, revealed a distinct difference in the ‘metalicity’ of stars. Debra Fisher from the University of California, Berkley, says, “If you look at the metal-rich stars, 20 percent have planets. That’s stunning.” (contributed by Darren Osborne)

A comparison of 754 nearby stars like our sun – some with planets and some without – shows definitively that the more iron and other metals there are in a star, the greater the chance it has a companion planet.

“Astronomers have been saying that only 5 percent of stars have planets, but that’s not a very precise assessment,” said Debra Fischer, a research astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. “We now know that stars which are abundant in heavy metals are five times more likely to harbor orbiting planets than are stars deficient in metals. If you look at the metal-rich stars, 20 percent have planets. That’s stunning.”

“The metals are the seeds from which planets form,” added colleague Jeff Valenti, an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md.

Fischer will present details of the analysis by her and Valenti at 1:30 p.m. Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) on Monday, July 21, at the International Astronomical Union meeting in Sydney, Australia.

Iron and other elements heavier than helium – what astronomers lump together as “metals” – are created by fusion reactions inside stars and sown into the interstellar medium by spectacular supernova explosions. Thus, while metals were extremely rare in the early history of the Milky Way galaxy, over time, each successive generation of stars became richer in these elements, increasing the chances of forming a planet.

“Stars forming today are much more likely to have planets than early generations of stars,” Valenti said. “It’s a planetary baby boom.”

As the number of extrasolar planets has grown – about 100 stars are now known to have planets – astronomers have noticed that stars rich in metals are more likely to harbor planets. A correlation between a star’s “metalicity” – a measure of iron abundance in a star’s outer layer that is indicative of the abundance of many other elements, from nickel to silicon – had been suggested previously by astronomers Guillermo Gonzalez and Nuno Santos based on surveys of a few dozen planet-bearing stars.

The new survey of metal abundances by Fischer and Valenti is the first to cover a statistically large sample of 61 stars with planets and 693 stars without planets. Their analysis provides the numbers that prove a correlation between metal abundance and planet formation.

“People have looked already in fair detail at most of the stars with known planets, but they have basically ignored the hundreds of stars that don’t seem to have planets. These under-appreciated stars provide the context for understanding why planets form,” said Valenti, who is an expert at determining the chemical composition of stars.

The data show that stars like the sun, whose metal content is considered typical of stars in our neighborhood, have a 5 to 10 percent chance of having planets. Stars with three times more metal than the sun have a 20 percent chance of harboring planets, while those with 1/3 the metal content of the sun have about a 3 percent chance of having planets. The 29 most metal-poor stars in the sample, all with less than 1/3 the sun’s metal abundance, had no planets.

“These data suggest that there is a threshold metalicity, and thus not all stars in our galaxy have the same chance of forming planetary systems,” Fischer said. “Whether a star has planetary companions or not is a condition of its birth. Those with a larger initial allotment of metals have an advantage over those without, a trend we’re now able to see clearly with this new data.”

The two astronomers determined metal composition by analyzing 1,600 spectra from more than 1,000 stars before narrowing the analysis to 754 stars that had been observed long enough to rule a gas giant planet in or out. Some of these stars have been observed for 15 years by Fischer, Geoffrey Marcy, professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, and colleague Paul Butler, now at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in their systematic search for extrasolar planets around nearby stars. All 754 stars were surveyed for more than two years, enough time to determine whether a close-in, Jupiter-size planet is present or not.

Though the surfaces of stars contain many metals, the astronomers focused on five – iron, nickel, titanium, silicon and sodium. After four years of analysis, the astronomers were able to group the stars by metal composition and determine the likelihood that stars of a certain composition have planets. With iron, for example, the stars were ranked relative to the iron content of the sun, which is 0.0032%.

“This is the most unbiased survey of its kind,” Fischer emphasized. “It is unique because all of the metal abundances were determined with the same technique and we analyzed all of the stars on our project with more than two years of data.”
Fischer said the new data suggest why metal-rich stars are likely to develop planetary systems as they form. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that heavier elements stick together easier, allowing dust, rocks and eventually planetary cores to form around newly ignited stars. Since the young star and the surrounding disk of dust and gas would have the same composition, the metal composition observed from the star reflects the abundance of raw materials, including heavy metals, available in the disk to build planets. The data indicate a nearly linear relationship between amount of metals and the chance of harboring planets.

“These results tell us why some of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy have planets while others do not,” said Marcy. “The heavy metals must clump together to form rocks which themselves clump into the solid cores of planets.”

The research by Fischer and Valenti is supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) in the United Kingdom, the Anglo-Australian Observatory, Sun Microsystems, the Keck Observatory and the University of California’s Lick Observatories.

Original Source: Berkeley News Release

Clusters without a Home

Image credit: Hubble

Thousands of globular star clusters wander aimlessly between galaxies, in what was once thought to be ’empty space’. This is the finding of a joint US-UK project announced today at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Sydney. The group, lead by Dr. Michael West of the University of Hawaii, believes these clusters were ‘torn’ away from their parent galaxies and now drift as orphans. (contributed by Darren Osborne)

US and UK astronomers have discovered a population of previously unknown star clusters in what was thought to be the empty space between galaxies. The research is being presented today at the International Astronomical Union?s 25th General Assembly being held in Sydney, Australia, by Dr. Michael West of the University of Hawaii.

Most galaxies are surrounded by tens, hundreds or even thousands of ancient star clusters, which swarm around them like bees around a hive. Our own Milky Way galaxy has about 150 of these ?globular clusters?, as they are called. Globular clusters are systems of up to a million stars compacted together by gravity into dense sphere-shaped groupings. Studies of globular clusters have provided many important insights over the years into the formation of their parent galaxies.

The discovery of this new type of star cluster was made using images obtained last year with the Hubble Space Telescope and the giant 10-meter Keck Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. ?We found a large number of ?orphaned? globular clusters,? said Dr West. ?These clusters are no longer held within the gravitational grip of galaxies, and seem to be wandering freely through intergalactic space like cosmic vagabonds.?

Although the lonely existence of such star clusters had been predicted for half a century, it is only now that astronomers have finally been able to confirm their existence. Dr West?s team published preliminary findings about its discovery in April this year, and is today presenting new results at the International Astronomical Union?s 25th General Assembly, being held in Sydney, Australia.

?The new data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Telescope confirm our discovery, and are providing new insights to the origin of these objects,? said Dr West.

According to West, these globular star clusters probably once resided in galaxies just like most of the normal globular clusters that we see in nearby galaxies today. However, the pull of gravity from a passing galaxy can rip stars and star clusters loose — in some cases entire galaxies can be damaged or destroyed by violent collisions or by the collective gravitational pull from their galactic neighbors.

It is thought that the partial or complete destruction of their parent galaxies spilled the globular star clusters into intergalactic space.

Finding these globular clusters hasn?t been easy. With only one exception, all of the intergalactic globular clusters the teams have detected are so far away (millions of light-years) that they just look like tiny points of light in a vast sea of blackness.

?Because they’re so far away these objects are very faint, almost a billion times fainter than the unaided human eye can see,? said Dr West. ?Detecting such faint objects pushes the limits of even what the Hubble Space Telescope can do.?

?By studying these intergalactic vagabonds in greater detail we hope to learn more about the numbers and types of galaxies that may have been destroyed so far during the life of the universe,? said Dr West. ?Some of these star clusters might also eventually be ?adopted? by other galaxies if they stray close enough to be captured by their gravity.?

The researchers are currently analyzing new Hubble Space Telescope images they recently obtained, and are planning to obtain more at the end of this year.

Original Source: University of Hawaii News Release