Powerful Flare Seen on a Distant Star

Image credit: ESA
For years, astronomers have wondered whether stars similar to the Sun go through periodic cycles of enhanced X-ray activity, like those often causing troubles to telephone and power lines here on Earth.

ESA’s X-ray observatory XMM-Newton has now revealed for the first time a cyclic behaviour in the X-ray radiation emitted by a star similar to the Sun. This discovery may help scientists to understand how stars affect the development of life on their planets.

Since the time Galileo discovered sunspots, in 1610, astronomers have measured their number, size and location on the disc of the Sun. Sunspots are relatively cooler areas on the Sun that are observed as dark patches. Their number rises and falls with the level of activity of the Sun in a cycle of about 11 years.

When the Sun is very active, large-scale phenomena take place, such as the flares and coronal mass ejections observed by the ESA/NASA solar observatory SOHO. These events release a large amount of energy and charged particles that hit the Earth and can cause powerful magnetic storms, affecting radio communications, power distribution lines and even our weather and climate.

During the solar cycle, the X-ray emission from the Sun varies by a large amount (about a factor of 100) and is strongest when the cycle is at its peak and the surface of the Sun is covered by the largest number of spots.

ESA’s X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton, has now shown for the first time that this cyclic X-ray behaviour is common to other stars as well. A team of astronomers, led by Fabio Favata, from ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre, The Netherlands, has monitored a small number of solar-type stars since the beginning of the XMM-Newton mission in 2000. The X-ray brightness of HD 81809, a star located 90 light years away in the constellation Hydra (the water snake), has varied by more than 10 times over the past two and a half years, reaching a well defined peak in mid 2002.

The star has shown the characteristic X-ray modulation (brightening and dimming) typical of the solar cycle. “This is the first clear sign of a cyclic pattern in the X-ray emission of stars other than the Sun,” said Favata. Furthermore, the data show that these variations are synchronised with the starspot cycle. If HD 81809 behaves like the Sun, its X-ray brightness can vary by a factor of one hundred over a few years. “We might well have caught HD 81809 at the beginning of an X-ray activity cycle,” added Favata.

The existence of starspot cycles on other stars had already been established long ago, thanks to observations that began in the 1950s. However, scientists did not know whether the X-ray radiation would also vary with the number of starspots. ESA’s XMM-Newton has now shown that this is indeed the case and that this cyclic X-ray pattern is not typical of the Sun alone. “This suggests that our Sun’s behaviour is probably nothing exceptional,” said Favata.

Besides its interest for scientists, the Sun’s cyclical behaviour can have an influence on everyone on Earth. Our climate is known to be significantly affected by the high-energy radiation emitted by the Sun. For instance, a temporary disappearance of the solar cycle in the 18th century corresponded with an exceptionally cold period on Earth. Similarly, in the early phases of the lifetime of a planet, this high-energy radiation has a strong influence on the conditions of the atmosphere, and thus potentially on the development of life.

Finding out whether the Sun’s X-ray cycle is common among other solar-type stars, and in particular among those hosting potential rocky planets, can give scientists much needed clues on whether and where other forms of life might exist outside the Solar System. At the same time, understanding how typical and long-lasting is the solar behaviour will tell us more about the evolution of the climate on Earth.

Further observations of HD 81809 and other similar stars are already planned with XMM-Newton. They will allow astronomers to study whether the large modulations in X-ray brightness observed in the Sun are indeed the norm for stars of its type. Understanding how other solar-like stars behave in general will give scientists better insight into the past and future of our own Sun.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Chandra Sees Violent M87 Galaxy

Image credit: Chandra
Two observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory of the giant elliptical galaxy M87 were combined to make this long-exposure image. A central jet is surrounded by nearby bright arcs and dark cavities in the multimillion degree Celsius atmosphere of M87. Much further out, at a distance of about fifty thousand light years from the galaxy’s center, faint rings can be seen and two spectacular plumes extend beyond the rings. These features, together with radio observations, are dramatic evidence that repetitive outbursts from the central supermassive black hole have been affecting the entire galaxy for a hundred million years or more. The faint horizontal streaks are instrumental artifacts that occur for bright sources.

The accompanying close-up shows the region surrounding the jet of high-energy particles in more detail. The jet is thought to be pointed at a small angle to the line of sight, out of the plane of the image. This jet may be only the latest in a series of jets that have been produced as magnetized gas spirals in a disk toward the supermassive black hole.

When a jet plows into the surrounding gas, a buoyant, magnetized bubble of high-energy particles is created, and an intense sound wave rushes ahead of the expanding bubble. These bubbles, which rise like hot air from a fire or explosion in the atmosphere, show up as bright regions in radio images and dark cavities in X-ray images. Bright X-ray arcs surrounding the cavities appear to be gas that has been swept up on rising, buoyant bubbles. An alternative interpretation is that the arcs are shock waves that surround the jet and are seen in projection.

A version of this long-exposure image that has been specially processed to bring out faint features in the outer region of the galaxy reveals two circular rings with radii of 45 thousand and 55 thousand light years, respectively. These features are likely sound waves produced by earlier explosions about 10 million and 14 million years ago, respectively in M87-time. M87 is 50 million light years from Earth.

The spectacular, curved X-ray plumes extending from the upper left to the lower right are thought to be gas carried out from the center of the galaxy on buoyant bubbles created by previous outbursts. A very faint arc at an even larger distance at the bottom of the image has a probable age of 100 million years.

X-ray features similar to those seen in M87 have been observed in other large galaxies in the centers of galaxy clusters (see, e.g., Perseus A). This suggests that episodic outbursts from supermassive black holes in giant galaxies may be common phenomena that determine how fast giant galaxies and their central black holes grow. As gas in the galaxy cools, it would flow inward to feed the black hole, producing an outburst which shuts down the inflow for a few million years, at which point the cycle would begin again. (NASA/CXC)

Original Source: Chandra News Release

On the Edge of a Supermassive Black Hole

Image credit: ESO
Fulfilling an old dream of astronomers, observations with the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile) have now made it possible to obtain a clear picture of the immediate surroundings of the black hole at the centre of an active galaxy. The new results concern the spiral galaxy NGC 1068, located at a distance of about 50 million light-years.

They show a configuration of comparatively warm dust (about 50?C) measuring 11 light-years across and 7 light-years thick, with an inner, hotter zone (500?C), about 2 light-years wide.

These imaging and spectral observations confirm the current theory that black holes at the centres of active galaxies are enshrouded in a thick doughnut-shaped structure of gas and dust called a “torus”.

For this trailblazing study, the first of its kind of an extragalactic object by means of long-baseline infrared interferometry, an international team of astronomers [2] used the new MIDI instrument in the VLTI Laboratory. It was designed and constructed in a collaboration between German, Dutch and French research institutes [3].

Combining the light from two 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes during two observing runs in June and November 2003, respectively, a maximum resolution of 0.013 arcsec was achieved, corresponding to about 3 light-years at the distance of NGC 1068. Infrared spectra of the central region of this galaxy were obtained that indicate that the heated dust is probably of alumino-silicate composition.

The new results are published in a research paper appearing in the May 6, 2004, issue of the international research journal Nature.

NGC 1068 – a typical active galaxy
Active galaxies are among the most spectacular objects in the sky. Their compact nuclei (AGN = Active Galaxy Nuclei) are so luminous that they can outshine the entire galaxy; “quasars” constitute extreme cases of this phenomenon. These cosmic objects show many interesting observational characteristics over the whole electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from radio to X-ray emission.

There is now much evidence that the ultimate power station of these activities originate in supermassive black holes with masses up to thousands of millions times the mass of our Sun, cf. e.g., ESO PR 04/01. The one in the Milky Way galaxy has only about 3 million solar masses, cf. ESO PR 17/02. The black hole is believed to be fed from a tightly wound accretion disc of gas and dust encircling it. Material that falls towards such black holes will be compressed and heated up to tremendous temperatures. This hot gas radiates an enormous amount of light, causing the active galaxy nucleus to shine so brightly.

NGC 1068 (also known as Messier 77) is among the brightest and most nearby active galaxies. Located in the constellation Cetus (The Whale) at a distance of about 50 million light-years, it looks like a rather normal, barred spiral galaxy. The core of this galaxy, however, is very luminous, not only in optical, but also in ultraviolet and X-ray light. A black hole with a mass equivalent to about 100 million times the mass of our Sun is required to account for the nuclear activity in NGC 1068.

The VLTI observations
On the nights of June 14 to 16, 2003, a team of European astronomers [2] conducted a first series of observations to verify the scientific potential of the newly installed MIDI instrument on the VLTI. They also studied the active galaxy NGC 1068. Already at this first attempt, it was possible to see details near the centre of this object, cf. ESO PR 17/03.

MIDI is sensitive to light of a wavelength near 10 ?m, i.e. in the mid-infrared spectral region (“thermal infrared”). With distances between the contributing telescopes (“baselines”) of up to 200 m, MIDI can reach a maximum angular resolution (image sharpness) of about 0.01 arcsec. Equally important, by combining the light beams from two 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes, MIDI now allows, for the first time, to perform infrared interferometry of comparatively faint objects outside our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

With its high sensitivity to thermal radiation, MIDI is ideally suited to study material in the highly obscured regions near a central black hole and heated by its ultraviolet and optical radiation. The energy absorbed by the dust grains is then re-radiated at longer wavelengths in the thermal infrared spectral region between 5 and 100 ?m.
The central region in NGC 1068

Additional interferometric observations were secured in November 2003 at a baseline of 42 m. Following a careful analysis of all data, the achieved spatial resolution (image sharpness) and the detailed spectra have allowed the astronomers to study the structure of the central region of NGC 1068.

They detect the presence of an innermost, comparatively “hot” cloud of dust, heated to about 500?C and with a diameter equal to or smaller than the achieved image sharpness, i.e. about 3 light-years. It is surrounded by a cooler, dusty region, with a temperature of about 50?C, measuring 11 light-years across and about 7 light-years thick. This is most likely the predicted central, disc-shaped cloud that rotates around the black hole.

The comparative thickness of the observed structure (the thickness is ~ 65% of the diameter) is of particular relevance in that it can only remain stable if subjected to a continuous injection of motion (“kinetic”) energy. However, none of the current models of central regions in active galaxies provide a convincing explanation of this.

The MIDI spectra, covering the wavelength interval from 8 – 13.5 ?m, also provide information about the possible composition of the dust grains. The most likely constituent is calcium aluminum-silicate (Ca2Al2SiO7), a high-temperature species that is also found in the outer atmospheres of some super-giant stars. Still, these pilot observations cannot conclusively rule out other types of non-olivine dust.

Original Source: ESO News Release

Astronomers Peer Into Our Universe’s Dark Age

Image credit: NASA
Astronomers who want to study the early universe face a fundamental problem. How do you observe what existed during the “dark ages,” before the first stars formed to light it up? Theorists Abraham Loeb and Matias Zaldarriaga (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) have found a solution. They calculated that astronomers can detect the first atoms in the early universe by looking for the shadows they cast.

To see the shadows, an observer must study the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – radiation left over from the era of recombination. When the universe was about 370,000 years old, it cooled enough for electrons and protons to unite, recombining into neutral hydrogen atoms and allowing the relic CMB radiation from the Big Bang to travel almost unimpeded across the cosmos for the past 13 billion years.

Over time, some of the CMB photons encountered clumps of hydrogen gas and were absorbed. By looking for regions with fewer photons – regions that are shadowed by hydrogen – astronomers can determine the distribution of matter in the very early universe.

“There is an enormous amount of information imprinted on the microwave sky that could teach us about the initial conditions of the universe with exquisite precision,” said Loeb.

Inflation and Dark Matter
To absorb CMB photons, the hydrogen temperature (specifically its excitation temperature) must be lower than the temperature of the CMB radiation – conditions that existed only when the universe was between 20 and 100 million years old (age of Universe: 13.7 billion years). Coincidentally, this is also well before the formation of any stars or galaxies, opening a unique window into the so-called “dark ages.”

Studying CMB shadows also allows astronomers to observe much smaller structures than was possible previously using instruments like the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite. The shadow technique can detect hydrogen clumps as small as 30,000 light-years across in the present-day universe, or the equivalent of only 300 light-years across in the primordial universe. (The scale has grown larger as the universe expanded.) Such resolution is a factor of 1000 times better than the resolution of WMAP.

“This method offers a window into the physics of the very early universe, namely the epoch of inflation during which fluctuations in the distribution of matter are believed to have been produced. Moreover, we could determine whether neutrinos or some unknown type of particle contribute substantially to the amount of ‘dark matter’ in the universe. These questions – what happened during the epoch of inflation and what is dark matter – are key problems in modern cosmology whose answers will yield fundamental insights into the nature of the universe,” said Loeb.

An Observational Challenge
Hydrogen atoms absorb CMB photons at a specific wavelength of 21 centimeters (8 inches). The expansion of the universe stretches the wavelength in a phenomenon called redshifting (because a longer wavelength is redder). Therefore, to observe 21-cm absorption from the early universe, astronomers must look at longer wavelengths of 6 to 21 meters (20 to 70 feet), in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Observing CMB shadows at radio wavelengths will be difficult due to interference by foreground sky sources. To gather accurate data, astronomers will have to use the next generation of radio telescopes, such as the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). Although the observations will be a challenge, the potential payoff is great.

“There’s a gold mine of information out there waiting to be extracted. While its full detection may be experimentally challenging, it’s rewarding to know that it exists and that we can attempt to measure it in the near future,” said Loeb.

This research will be published in an upcoming issue of Physical Review Letters, and currently is available online at http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0312134.

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: Harvard CfA News Release

Probing for Dark Matter Underground

Image credit: Fermilab
With the first data from their underground observatory in Northern Minnesota, scientists of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search have peered with greater sensitivity than ever before into the suspected realm of the WIMPS. The sighting of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles could solve the double mystery of dark matter on the cosmic scale and of supersymmetry on the subatomic scale.

The CDMS II result, described in a paper submitted to Physical Review Letters, shows with 90 percent certainty that the interaction rate of a WIMP with mass 60 GeV must be less than 4 x 10-43 cm2 or about one interaction every 25 days per kilogram of germanium, the material in the experiment’s detector. This result tells researchers more than they have ever known before about WIMPS, if they exist. The measurements from the CDMS II detectors are at least four times more sensitive than the best previous measurement offered by the EDELWEISS experiment, an underground European experiment near Grenoble, France.

“Think of this improved sensitivity like a new telescope with twice the diameter and thus four times the light collection of any that came before it,” said CDMS II cospokesperson Blas Cabrera of Stanford University. “We are now able to look for a signal that is just one-fourth as bright as any we have seen before. Over the next few years, we expect to improve our sensitivity by a factor of 20 or more.”

The results are being presented at the April Meeting of the American Physical Society on May 3 and 4 in Denver by Harry Nelson and graduate student Joel Sanders, both of the University of California-Santa Barbara, and by Gensheng Wang and Sharmila Kamat of Case Western Reserve University.

“We know that neither our Standard Model of particle physics nor our model of the cosmos is complete,” said CDMS II spokesperson Bernard Sadoulet of the University of California at Berkeley. “This particular missing piece seems to fit both puzzles. We are seeing the same shape from two different directions.”

WIMPs, which carry no charge, are a study in contradictions. While physicists expect them to have about 100 times the mass of protons, their ghostly nature allows them to slip through ordinary matter leaving barely a trace. The term “weakly interacting” refers not to the amount of energy deposited when they interact with normal matter, but rather to the fact that they interact extremely infrequently. In fact, as many as a hundred billion WIMPs may have streamed through your body as you read these first few sentences.

With 48 scientists from 13 institutions, plus another 28 engineering, technical and administrative staffers, CDMS II operates with funding from the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy, from the Astronomy and Physics Divisions of the National Science Foundation and from member institutions. The DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory provides the project management for CDMS II.

“The nature of dark matter is fundamental to our understanding of the formation and evolution of the universe,” said Dr. Raymond L. Orbach, Director of DOE’s Office of Science. “This experiment could not have succeeded without the active collaboration of the DOE’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation.”

Michael Turner, Assistant Director for Math and Physical Sciences at NSF, described identifying the constituent of the dark matter as one of the great challenges in both astrophysics and particle physics.

“Dark matter holds together all structures in the universe-including our own Milky Way-and we still do not know what the dark matter is made of,” Turner said. “The working hypothesis is that it is a new form of matter-which, if correct will shed light on the inner workings of the elementary forces and particles. In pursuing the solution to this important puzzle, CDMS is now at the head of the pack, with another factor of 20 in sensitivity still to come.”

Dark matter in the universe is detected through its gravitational effects on all cosmic scales, from the growth of structure in the early universe to the stability of galaxies today. Cosmological data from many sources confirm that this unseen dark matter totals more than seven times the amount of ordinary visible matter forming the stars, planets and other objects in the universe.

“Something out there formed the galaxies and holds them together today, and it neither emits nor absorbs light,” said Cabrera. “The mass of the stars in a galaxy is only 10 percent of the mass of the entire galaxy, so the stars are like Christmas tree lights decorating the living room of a large dark house.”

Physicists also believe WIMPs could be the as-yet unobserved subatomic particles called neutralinos. These would be evidence for the theory of supersymmetry, introducing intriguing new physics beyond today’s Standard Model of fundamental particles and forces.

Supersymmetry predicts that every known particle has a supersymmetric partner with complementary properties, although none of these partners has yet been observed. However, many models of supersymmetry predict that the lightest supersymmetric particle, called the neutralino, has a mass about 100 times that of the proton.

“Theorists came up with all of these so-called ‘supersymmetric partners’ of the known particles to explain problems on the tiniest distance scales,” said Dan Akerib of Case Western Reserve University. “In one of those fascinating connections of the very large and the very small, the lightest of these superpartners could be the missing piece of the puzzle for explaining what we observe on the very largest distance scales.”

The CDMS II team practices “underground astronomy,” with particle detectors located nearly a half-mile below the earth’s surface in a former iron mine in Soudan, Minnesota. The 2,341 feet of the earth’s crust shields out cosmic rays and the background particles they produce. The detectors are made of germanium and silicon, semiconductor crystals with similar properties. The detectors are chilled to within one-tenth of a degree of absolute zero, so cold that molecular motion becomes negligible. The detectors simultaneously measure the charge and vibration produced by particle interactions within the crystals. WIMPS will signal their presence by releasing less charge than other particles for the same amount of vibration.

“Our detectors act like a telescope equipped with filters that allow astronomers to distinguish one color of light from another,” said CDMS II project manager Dan Bauer of Fermilab. “Only, in our case, we are trying to filter out conventional particles in favor of dark matter WIMPS.”

Physicist Earl Peterson of the University Minnesota oversees the Soudan Underground Laboratory, also home to Fermilab’s long-baseline neutrino experiment, the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search.

“I’m excited about the significant new result from CDMS II, and I congratulate the collaboration,” Peterson said. “I’m pleased that the facilities of the Soudan Laboratory contributed to the success of CDMS II. And I’m especially pleased that the work of Fermilab and the University of Minnesota in expanding the Soudan Laboratory has resulted in superb new physics.”

As CDSMII searches for WIMPs over the next few years, either the dark matter of our universe will be discovered, or a large range of supersymmetric models will be excluded from possibility. Either way, the CDMS II experiment will play a major role in advancing our understanding of particle physics and of the cosmos.

The CDMS II collaborating institutions include Brown University, Case Western Reserve University, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, Princeton University, Santa Clara University, Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the University of Colorado at Denver, the University of Florida, and the University of Minnesota.

Fermilab is a DOE Office of Science national laboratory operated under contract by Universities Research Association, Inc.

Original Source: Fermilab News Release

New Explaination for Cosmic Rays

Image credit: Hubble
University of California scientists working at Los Alamos National Laboratory have proposed a new theory to explain the movement of vast energy fields in giant radio galaxies (GRGs). The theory could be the basis for a whole new understanding of the ways in which cosmic rays — and their signature radio waves — propagate and travel through intergalactic space.

In a paper published this month in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists explain how magnetic field reconnection may be responsible for the acceleration of relativistic electrons within large intergalactic volumes. That is, the movement of charged particles in space that are originally energized by massive black holes.

“If our understanding of this process is correct,” says Los Alamos astrophysicist Philipp Kronberg, “it could be a paradigm shift in current thinking about the nature of GRGs and cosmic rays.”

Researchers still do not fully understand why magnetic field reconnection occurs, but this much is known: a deeper understanding of the mechanism could have important applications here on Earth, such as the creation of a system of magnetic confinement for fusion energy reactors.

If the Los Alamos scientists’ theory is correct, the discovery also has wide-ranging astrophysical consequences. It implies that magnetic field reconnection or some other highly efficient field-to-particle energy conversion process could be a principal source of all extragalactic radio sources, and possibly also the mysterious “Ultra High Energy Cosmic Ray particles”.

Giant radio galaxies are vast celestial objects that emit a continuum of radio wavelengths detectable with radio telescopes like those at the Very Large Array in Socorro, N.M. Using comprehensive data on seven of the largest radio galaxies in the Universe gathered over the past two decades, the researchers were able to study cosmic ray energy fields that are expelled from the GRGs centers — which are almost certain to contain supermassive black holes — outward as much as a few millions of light years into intergalactic space (1 light year = 5,900,000,000,000 miles).

What the Los Alamos researchers concluded was that the high energy content of these giant radio galaxies, their large ordered magnetic field structures, the absence of strong large-scale shocks and very low internal gas densities point to a direct and efficient conversion of the magnetic field to particle energy in a process that astrophysicists call magnetic field reconnection. Magnetic field reconnection is a process where the lines of a magnetic field connect and vanish, converting the field’s energy into particle energy. Reconnection is considered a key process in the sun’s corona for the production of solar flares and in fusion experiment devices called tokamaks. It also occurs in the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field and is considered a principal cause of magnetospheric storms.

The research determined that the measurement of the total energy content of at least one of these giant radio galaxies — which is believed to have at its center a black hole with a mass equal to 100 million times that of our sun — was 10 61 ergs. Ergs are a measure of energy where one erg is the amount of energy needed to lift one gram of weight a distance of one centimeter. This energy level of 10 61 ergs is several times more than the thermonuclear energy that could be released by all the stars in a galaxy, offering substantial proof to the researchers that the source of the measured energy could not be typical solar fusion or even supernovae.

In addition to the high energy content, the large, orderly structure of the magnetic field and the absence of strong large-scale shocks — like those that might be present from a supernova explosion — led the scientists to believe that the process of magnetic field reconnection is at work.

In addition to Kronberg, the theory is the result of work by Los Alamos scientists Stirling Colgate, Hui Li and Quentin Dufton. The research was funded by Los Alamos Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funding. LDRD funds basic and applied research and development focusing on creative concepts selected at the discretion of the Laboratory Director.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy and works in partnership with NNSA’s Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories to support NNSA in its mission.

Los Alamos enhances global security by ensuring safety and confidence in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction and improving the environmental and nuclear materials legacy of the cold war. Los Alamos’ capabilities assist the nation in addressing energy, environment, infrastructure and biological security problems.

Original Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory News Release

Computer to Simulate Exploding Star

Image credit: University of Chicago
University scientists are preparing to run the most advanced supercomputer simulation of an exploding star ever attempted.

Tomasz Plewa, Senior Research Associate in the Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes and Astronomy & Astrophysics, expects the simulation to reveal the mechanics of exploding stars, called supernovae, in unprecedented detail.

The simulation is made possible by the U.S. Department of Energy?s special allocation of an extraordinary 2.7 million hours of supercomputing time to the Flash Center, which typically uses less than 500,000 hours of supercomputer time annually.

?This is beyond imagination,? said Plewa, who submitted the Flash Center proposal on behalf of a research team at the University and Argonne National Laboratory.

The Flash Center project was one of three selected to receive supercomputer time allocations under a new competitive program announced last July by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.

The other two winning proposals came from the Georgia Institute of Technology, which received 1.2 million processor hours, and the DOE?s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which received one million processor hours.

The supercomputer time will help the Flash Center more accurately simulate the explosion of a white dwarf star, one that has burned most or all of its nuclear fuel. These supernovae shine so brightly that astronomers use them to measure distance in the universe. Nevertheless, many details about what happens during a supernova remain unknown.

Simulating a supernova is computationally intensive because it involves vast scales of time and space. White dwarf stars gravitationally accumulate material from a companion star for millions of years, but ignite in less than a second. Simulations must also account for physical processes that occur on a scale that ranges from a few hundredths of an inch to the entire surface of the star, which is comparable in size to Earth.

Similar computational problems vex the DOE?s nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. In the wake of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which President Clinton signed in 1996, the reliability of the nation?s nuclear arsenal must now be tested via computer simulations rather than in the field.

?The questions ultimately are how is the nuclear arsenal aging with time, and is your code predicting that aging process correctly?? Plewa said.

Flash Center scientists verify the accuracy of their supernovae code by comparing the results of their simulations both to laboratory experiments and to telescopic observations. Spectral observations of supernovae, for example, provide a sort of bar code that reveals which chemical elements are produced in the explosions. Those observations currently conflict with simulations.

?You want to reconcile current simulations with observations regarding chemical composition and the production of elements,? Plewa said.

Scientists also wish to see more clearly the sequence of events that occurs immediately before a star goes supernova. It appears that a supernova begins in the core of a white dwarf star and expands toward the surface like an inflating balloon.

According to one theory, the flame front initially expands at a relatively ?slow? subsonic speed of 60 miles per second. Then, at some unknown point, the flame front detonates and accelerates to supersonic speeds. In the ultra-dense material of a white dwarf, supersonic speeds exceed 3,100 miles per second.

Another possibility: the initial subsonic wave fizzles when it reaches the outer part of the star, leading to a collapse of the white dwarf, the mixing of unburned nuclear fuel and then detonation.

?It will be very nice if in the simulations we could observe this transition to detonation,? Plewa said.

Flash Center scientists already are on the verge of recreating this moment in their simulations. The extra computer time from the DOE should push them across the threshold.

The center will increase the resolution of its simulations to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) for a whole-star simulation. Previously, the center could achieve a resolution of five kilometers (3.1 miles) for a whole-star simulation, or 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) for a simulation encompassing only one-eighth of a star.

The latter simulations fail to capture perturbations that may take place in other sections of the star, Plewa said. But they may soon become scientific relics.

?I hope by summer we?ll have all the simulations done and we?ll move on to analyze the data,? he said.

Original Source: University of Chicago News Release

Binary Pulsar System Confirmed

Image credit: NASA/JPL
The only known gravitationally bound pair of pulsars — extremely dense, spinning stars that beam radio waves — may be pirouetting around each other in an intricate dance.

“Pulsars are intriguing and puzzling objects. They pack as much mass as the Sun crammed into an object with a cross-sectional area about as large as Boston,” said Fredrick Jenet of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Jenet and Scott Ransom of McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, have developed a theoretical model to explain the behavior of this one-of-a-kind set of pulsars.

“The physics of radio pulsar emission has eluded researchers for more than three decades,” Jenet said. “This system may be the ‘Rosetta stone’ of radio pulsars, and this model is one step toward its translation.”

The research appears in the April 29 issue of the journal Nature. Jenet and Ransom studied the recently-discovered double pulsar system, in which two spinning pulsars orbit each other.

The discovery of the two-star system, officially named PSR J0737- 3039B, was announced in 2003 by a multinational team of researchers from Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Those researchers proposed that the duo contained one spinning pulsar and a neutron star. Later in 2003, scientists working at the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia, determined that both stars are actually pulsars. This discovery marked the first known example of a “binary,” or double, pulsar system. The stars are referred to as A and B.

Pulsars emit high-intensity radio radiation into a narrow beam. As the pulsar rotates, this beam moves in and out of our line of sight. Hence, we see periodic bursts of radio radiation. In this sense, a pulsar works like a lighthouse, in which the light may be on all the time, but it appears to blink on and off. Scientists were surprised to find that the B pulsar is on only at certain locations in its orbit. “It’s as though something is turning B on and off,” Jenet said.

According to Jenet and Ransom, this “something” is closely related to the radio emission beam emanating from the A pulsar. They believe that B becomes bright when it is illuminated by emission from A. Jenet and Ransom used Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to predict the future evolution of this pulsar system. The theory implies that gravitational effects will change the emission pattern of A, which will then alter the exact orbital locations where B becomes bright.

The double pulsar system is located about 2,000 light years, or 10 million billion miles, from Earth. Jenet and Ransom based their research on observations made at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

ESO Images Cosmic Collision

Image credit: ESO
Stars like our Sun are members of galaxies, and most galaxies are themselves members of clusters of galaxies. In these, they move around among each other in a mostly slow and graceful ballet. But every now and then, two or more of the members may get too close for comfort – the movements become hectic, sometimes indeed dramatic, as when galaxies end up colliding.

ESO shows an example of such a cosmic tango. This is the superb triple system NGC 6769-71, located in the southern Pavo constellation (the Peacock) at a distance of 190 million light-years.

This composite image was obtained on April 1, 2004, the day of the Fifth Anniversary of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). It was taken in the imaging mode of the VIsible Multi-Object Spectrograph (VIMOS) on Melipal, one of the four 8.2-m Unit Telescopes of the VLT at the Paranal Observatory (Chile). The two upper galaxies, NGC 6769 (upper right) and NGC 6770 (upper left), are of equal brightness and size, while NGC 6771 (below) is about half as bright and slightly smaller. All three galaxies possess a central bulge of similar brightness. They consist of elderly, reddish stars and that of NGC 6771 is remarkable for its “boxy” shape, a rare occurrence among galaxies.

Gravitational interaction in a small galaxy group
NGC 6769 is a spiral galaxy with very tightly wound spiral arms, while NGC 6770 has two major spiral arms, one of which is rather straight and points towards the outer disc of NGC 6769. NGC 6770 is also peculiar in that it presents two comparatively straight dark lanes and a fainter arc that curves towards the third galaxy, NGC 6771 (below). It is also obvious from this new VLT photo that stars and gas have been stripped off NGC 6769 and NGC 6770, starting to form a common envelope around them, in the shape of a Devil’s Mask. There is also a weak hint of a tenuous bridge between NGC 6769 and NGC 6771. All of these features testify to strong gravitational interaction between the three galaxies. The warped appearance of the dust lane in NGC 6771 might also be interpreted as more evidence of interactions.

Moreover, NGC 6769 and NGC 6770 are receding from us at a similar velocity of about 3800 km/s – a redshift just over 0.01 – while that of NGC 6771 is slightly larger, 4200 km/s.

A stellar baby-boom
As dramatic and destructive as this may seem, such an event is also an enrichment, a true baby-star boom. As the Phoenix reborn from its ashes, a cosmic catastrophe like this one normally results in the formation of many new stars. This is obvious from the blueish nature of the spiral arms in NGC 6769 and NGC 6770 and the presence of many sites of star forming regions.

Similarly, the spiral arms of the well-known Whirlpool galaxy (Messier 51) may have been produced by a close encounter with a second galaxy that is now located at the end of one of the spiral arms; the same may be true for the beautiful southern galaxy NGC 1232 depicted in another VLT photo (PR Photo 37d/98).

Nearer to us, a stream of hydrogen gas, similar to the one seen in ESO PR Photo 12/04, connects our Galaxy with the LMC, a relict of dramatic events in the history of our home Galaxy. And the stormy time is not yet over: now the Andromeda Galaxy, another of the Milky Way neighbours in the Local Group of Galaxies, is approaching us. Still at a distance of over 2 million light-years, calculations predict that it will collide with our galaxy in about 6,000 million years!

Original Source: ESO News Release

Another Gathering of Planets

Image credit: NASA
It’s happening again: the Moon and a bunch of planets are gathering in the evening sky.

Unlike last month, when five bright planets (including Mercury) were visible, this time there are only four: Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. Four is plenty, though. Using only your eyes and, if you have one, a small telescope, you’ll be able to see some wondrous things.

The show begins on Thursday, April 22nd. Step outside after nightfall and look west. The first thing you’ll notice is piercing-bright Venus and, not far below it, the delicate crescent Moon. These are the two brightest objects in the night sky, pleasingly close together. Mars is there, too, albeit not much brighter than an ordinary star. You can find it just above Venus, at one vertex of a Moon-Mars-Venus isosceles triangle.

Point a telescope at Venus and ? it looks just like the Moon! Well, almost. Because it lies between Earth and the Sun, Venus has phases just as our Moon does. At the moment Venus is a fat crescent. It’s colored gray-white, very Moon-like, but unlike the Moon, Venus is featureless. Thick uniform clouds hide the planet’s surface; the most powerful telescopes on Earth can’t penetrate them.

The crescent Moon is more fun to look at through a telescope. Low-slanting rays from the sun cast long shadows from lunar mountains. You can see impact craters, valleys and rilles ? all cast into sharp relief.

Can you also see a ghostly glow across the Moon’s dark terrain? For millennia the glow was a mystery, until Leonardo da Vinci figured it out in the 16th century. It is sunlight reflected from Earth onto the Moon. Modern astronomers call the glow Earthshine, and it’s one of the loveliest sights in the heavens–no telescope required.

The triangle shifts on Friday, April 23rd, as the Moon moves past Venus to a spot right beside Mars. This is the best night to find Mars, dim and red, using the Moon as a guidepost. Seen through a telescope Mars is not very impressive, not like it was in August 2003 when the planet made a historic close approach to Earth.

On Saturday, April 24th, the Moon glides away from Mars and toward Saturn, which looks like a bright yellow star. With the Moon beside Saturn to mark its location, you can’t miss it. Point your telescope at Saturn: Even a small ‘scope will show the planet’s lovely rings and it’s biggest moon Titan.

The NASA-ESA Cassini spacecraft is en route to Saturn now, due to arrive in July. Cassini will orbit for four years, studying Saturn’s rings, weather and magnetic field. Cassini will also drop a probe named Huygens through the thick orange clouds of Titan to discover what lies beneath.

Titan is one of the most mysterious worlds in the solar system. It has a nitrogen atmosphere denser than Earth’s and clouds laced with organic compounds. Some researchers believe there might be puddles, lakes or even oceans of liquid hydrocarbons sloshing around on the surface. These are places where organic molecules might get together for the first stirrings of simple life.

Through a backyard telescope Titan looks like an 8th magnitude star, an unremarkable pinprick. In fact, Titan is bigger than Mercury and Pluto. If it orbited the sun it would surely be considered a planet. What do the clouds of Titan hide? It’s something to think about while you’re peering through the eyepiece.

Finally on Thursday, April 29th, the Moon glides by Jupiter. You’ve probably noticed Jupiter before: it hangs almost directly overhead at sunset and outshines everything in the sky except Venus and the Moon. The Moon and Jupiter side by side are a pleasing sight.

Look at Jupiter through a telescope and you’ll see the planet’s rust-colored cloud belts and its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede. You might also see the Great Red Spot–a hurricane twice as wide as Earth and at least 100 years old. On April 29th it will be crossing Jupiter’s middle (as seen from Earth) at 09:12 p.m. PDT or 04:12 UT on April 30th.

Four planets, six moons, Earthshine, lunar mountains, the phases of Venus, a planet-sized hurricane and Saturn’s rings: Mark your calendar and see them all before April is done.

Original Source: NASA Science Story