Stunning View of the Crab Nebula Just Got Five Times Better

Images of the Crab Nebula are always a treat because it has such intriguing and varied structure. Also, just knowing that this stellar explosion was witnessed and recorded by people on Earth more than 900 years ago (with the supernova visible to the naked eye for about two years) gives this nebula added fascination.

A new image just might be the biggest Crab Nebula treat ever, as five different observatories combined forces to create an incredibly detailed view, with stunning details of the nebula’s interior region.

Data from the five telescopes span nearly the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves seen by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to the powerful X-ray glow as seen by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory. And, in between that range of wavelengths, the Hubble Space Telescope’s crisp visible-light view, and the infrared perspective of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Astronomers have produced a highly detailed image of the Crab Nebula, by combining data from telescopes spanning nearly the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum. This image combines data from five different telescopes: the VLA (radio) in red; Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared) in yellow; Hubble Space Telescope (visible) in green; XMM-Newton (ultraviolet) in blue; and Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-ray) in purple. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Dubner (IAFE, CONICET-University of Buenos Aires) et al.; A. Loll et al.; T. Temim et al.; F. Seward et al.; VLA/NRAO/AUI/NSF; Chandra/CXC; Spitzer/JPL-Caltech; XMM-Newton/ESA; and Hubble/STScI.

The Crab is 6,500 light-years from Earth and spans about 10 light-years in diameter. The supernova that created it was first witnessed in 1054 A. D. At its center is a super-dense neutron star that is as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town. This pulsar rotates every 33 milliseconds, shooting out spinning lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light. The pulsar can be seen as the bright dot at the center of the image.

Scientists say the nebula’s intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.

A new x-ray image of the Crab Nebula by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO.

For this new image, the VLA, Hubble, and Chandra observations all were made at nearly the same time in November of 2012. A team of scientists led by Gloria Dubner of the Institute of Astronomy and Physics (IAFE), the National Council of Scientific Research (CONICET), and the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina then made a thorough analysis of the newly revealed details in a quest to gain new insights into the complex physics of the object. They are reporting their findings in the Astrophysical Journal (see the pre-print here).

About the central region, the team writes, “The new HST NIR [near infrared] image of the central region shows the well-known elliptical torus around the pulsar, composed of a series of concentric narrow features of variable intensity and width… The comparison of the radio and the X-ray emission distributions in the central region suggests the existence of a double-jet system from the pulsar, one detected in X-rays and the other in radio. None of them starts at the pulsar itself but in its environs.”

“Comparing these new images, made at different wavelengths, is providing us with a wealth of new detail about the Crab Nebula. Though the Crab has been studied extensively for years, we still have much to learn about it,” Dubner said.

A multi-wavelength layout of the Crab Nebula. Credit: (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL/Caltech; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA; Ultraviolet: ESA/XMM-Newton).

Read the team’s paper: Morphological properties of the Crab Nebula: a detailed multiwavelength study based on new VLA, HST, Chandra and XMM-Newton images
Sources: Chandra, Hubble

A Single Wave, Bigger Than the Milky Way, is Rolling Through the Perseus Galaxy Cluster

NASA has discovered a wave of hot gas larger than the Milky Way rolling through the Perseus galaxy cluster. This X-ray image is the result of 16 days of observing with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The image was filtered to make details easier to see.Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.
NASA has discovered a wave of hot gas larger than the Milky Way  rolling through the Perseus galaxy cluster. This X-ray image is the result of 16 days of observing with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The image was filtered to make details easier to see. Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.
NASA has discovered a wave of hot gas larger than the Milky Way rolling through the Perseus galaxy cluster. This X-ray image is the result of 16 days of observing with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The image was filtered to make details easier to see. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.

An international team of scientists has discovered an enormous wave of hot gas rolling its way through the Perseus galaxy cluster. The wave is a giant version of what’s called a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave. They’re created when two fluids intersect at different velocities: for example, when wind blows over water.

In this instance, the wave was caused by a small galaxy cluster grazing the Perseus cluster, and setting off a chain of events lasting billions of years. The findings appear in a paper in the June 2017 issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“The wave we’ve identified is associated with the flyby of a smaller cluster, which shows that the merger activity that produced these giant structures is still ongoing.” – Stephen Walker, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Perseus is one of the most massive nearby clusters and the brightest one in X-rays, so Chandra data provide us with unparalleled detail,” said lead scientist Stephen Walker at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The wave we’ve identified is associated with the flyby of a smaller cluster, which shows that the merger activity that produced these giant structures is still ongoing.”

The Perseus galaxy cluster, also known as Abell 426, is 240 million light years away, and is about 11 million light years across. It’s one of the most massive objects we know of, and it’s named after the Perseus constellation, which appears in the same part of the sky.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally-bound objects in the Universe. Most of the observable matter in galaxy clusters is gas. But the gas is super hot—tens of millions of degrees hot—which means it emits x-rays.

X-Ray observations of Perseus have revealed several features and structures in the gas structure of the cluster. Some of them are bubble-like features caused by the super-massive black hole (SMBH) in NGC 1275, the Perseus cluster’s central galaxy. Another of these features is known as “the bay.” The bay is a concave feature which couldn’t have been formed by the SMBH.

This Hubble image shows NGC 1275, the Super-Massive Black Hole at the center of the Perseus cluster. NGC 1275 could not have been responsible for the "bay" feature found in Perseus. Image: By NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration - http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2008/28/image/a/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4634173
This Hubble image shows NGC 1275, the Super-Massive Black Hole at the center of the Perseus cluster. NGC 1275 could not have been responsible for the “bay” feature found in Perseus. Image: By NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration – http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2008/28/image/a/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4634173

The bay is a puzzle because it doesn’t produce any emissions, which would be expected of something formed by a SMBH. The bay also doesn’t conform to models of how gas should behave in this situation.

The lead scientist behind the study is Stephen Walker at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Walker turned to the Chandra X-ray Observatory to help solve this puzzle. Existing Chandra images of the Perseus cluster were filtered in order to highlight the edges of structures, and to make any subtle details more visible.

These filtered and processed images were then compared to computer simulations of galaxy clusters merging. John ZuHone, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has created an online catalog of these simulations.

“Galaxy cluster mergers represent the latest stage of structure formation in the cosmos.” -John ZuHone, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“Galaxy cluster mergers represent the latest stage of structure formation in the cosmos. Hydrodynamic simulations of merging clusters allow us to produce features in the hot gas and tune physical parameters, such as the magnetic field. Then we can attempt to match the detailed characteristics of the structures we observe in X-rays.” -John ZuHone, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

This alternate image of the Perseus galaxy cluster shows the wave at the 7 o'clock position. Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.
This alternate image of the Perseus galaxy cluster shows the wave at the 7 o’clock position. Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.

One of the simulations matched what astronomers were seeing in Perseus. In it, a large cluster like Perseus had settled itself into two regions: a colder region of gas around 30 million degrees Celsius, and a hotter region of gas at almost 100 million degrees Celsius. In this model, a cluster smaller than Perseus, but about a thousand times more massive than the Milky Way passes close to Perseus, missing its center by about 650,000 light years.

That happened about 2.5 billion years ago, and it set off a chain of events still playing itself out.

The near miss caused a gravitational disturbance that created an expanding spiral of the colder gas. An enormous wave of gas has formed at the edge of the spiral of colder gas, where it intersects with the hotter gas. This is the Kelvin-Helmholtz wave seen in the images.

“We think the bay feature we see in Perseus is part of a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave, perhaps the largest one yet identified, that formed in much the same way as the simulation shows,” Walker said. “We have also identified similar features in two other galaxy clusters, Centaurus and Abell 1795.”

The study provided another benefit besides just spotting an impossibly enormous wave. It allowed the team to measure the magnetic properties of the Perseus cluster. The researchers discovered that the strength of the magnetic field in the cluster affected the size of the wave of gas. It the field is too strong, the waves don’t form at all, and if the magnetic field is too weak, then the waves would be even larger.

According to the team, there is no other known way to measure the magnetic field.

Source: Scientists Find Giant Wave Rolling Through the Perseus Galaxy Cluster

Supernova Blast Wave Still Visible After 30 Years

30 years ago today, a supernova explosion was spotted in the southern hemisphere skies. The exploding star was located in the Large Magellanic Cloud — a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way – and Supernova 1987A was the brightest and nearest supernova explosion for modern astronomers to observe. This has provided an amazing opportunity to study the death of a star.

Telescopes around the world and in space have been keeping an eye on this event, and the latest images show the blast wave from the original explosion is still expanding, and it has plowed into a ring expelled by the pre-supernova star. The latest images and data reveal the blast is now moving past the ring.

Got a 3-D printer? You can print out your own version of SN1987A! Find the plans here.

Two different versions of 3-D printed models of SN1987A. Credit: Salvatore Orlando (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo) & NASA/CXC/SAO/A.Jubett et al.

Below is the latest image of this supernova, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. You can see it in the center of the image among a backdrop of stars, and the supernova is surrounded by gas clouds.

This new image of the supernova remnant SN 1987A was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in January 2017 using its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Hubble launched in 1990, just three years after the supernova was detected, so Hubble has a long history of observations. In addition, the Chandra X-ray telescope – launched in 1999 – has been keeping an eye on the explosion too.

Here are a few animations and images of SN1987A over the years:

This scientific visualization, using data from a computer simulation, shows Supernova 1987A, as the luminous ring of material we see today.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and F. Summers and G. Bacon (STScI); Simulation Credit: S. Orlando (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo)
This montage shows the evolution of the supernova SN 1987A between 1994 and 2016, as seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit:
NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Here’s a link to the original astronomer’s telegram announcing the detection.

Astronomers estimate that the ring material was was ejected about 20,000 years before the actual explosion took place. Then, the initial blast of light from the supernova illuminated the rings. They slowly faded over the first decade after the explosion, until the shock wave of the supernova slammed into the inner ring in 2001, heating the gas to searing temperatures and generating strong X-ray emission.

The observations by Hubble, Chandra and telescopes around the world has shed light on how supernovae can affect the dynamics and chemistry of their surrounding environment, and continue to shape galactic evolution.

See additional images and animations at the Chandra website, ESA’s Hubble website , and NASA.

A Black Hole’s Record Breaking Lunch

Does a distant black hole provide a new definition of pain and suffering?

The black hole, named XJ1500+0154, appears to be the real-life equivalent of the Pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlacc in Star Wars, which slowly digested its victims.

Over ten years ago, this giant black hole ripped apart a star and has since continued a very long lunch, feasting on the stars’ remains. Astronomers have been carefully monitoring this slow ‘digestion,’ because it is so unusual for what are called tidal disruption events (TDEs), where tidal forces from black holes tear stars apart.

“We have witnessed a star’s spectacular and prolonged demise,” said Dacheng Lin from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, who led the observations of this event. “Dozens of tidal disruption events have been detected since the 1990s, but none that remained bright for nearly as long as this one.”

This artist’s illustration depicts what astronomers call a “tidal disruption event,” or TDE, when an object such as a star wanders too close to a black hole and is destroyed by tidal forces generated from the black hole’s intense gravitational forces. (Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.

This decade-long feast has gone on ten times longer than any other observed TDE.

XJ1500+0154 is located in a small galaxy about 1.8 billion light years from Earth, and three telescopes have been monitoring this X-ray event: the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Swift satellite, and the XMM-Newton.

TDEs are different from another, more common black-hole related source of X-rays in the galaxy, active galactic nuclei (AGN). Like the digestion of the Sarlacc, AGNs really can last for thousands of years. These are supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies that pull in surrounding gas and “emit copious amounts of radiation, including X-rays,” explained Lin in a blog post on the Chandra website. “Radiation from AGNs do not vary a lot because the gas surrounding them extends over a large scale and can last for tens of thousands of years.”

In contrast, TDEs are relatively short-lived, lasting only a few months. During a TDE, some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speeds, while the rest falls toward the black hole. As it travels inwards to be consumed by the black hole, the material heats up to millions of degrees, generating a distinct X-ray flare.

XJ1500+0154 has provided an extraordinarily long, bright phase, spanning over ten years. Lin and his team said one explanation could be the most massive star ever to be completely torn apart during a TDE.

“To have the event last so long at such high luminosity requires full disruption of a relatively massive star, about twice the mass of the sun,” Lin wrote; however, “disruption of such massive stars by the SMBH is very unlikely because stars this massive are rare in most galaxies, unless the galaxy is young and actively forming stars, as in our case.

So, another more likely explanation is that this is the first TDE observed where a smaller star was completely torn apart.

Lin also said this event has broad implications for black hole physics.

An X-ray image of the full field of view by of the region where the ‘tidal disruption event’ is taking place. The purple smudge in the lower right shows the disruption from the black hole XJ1500+0154. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNH/D.Lin et al.

“To fully explain the super-long duration of our event requires the application of recent theoretical progress on the study of TDEs,” he wrote. “In the last two years, several groups independently found that it can take a long time after the disruption of the star for the stellar debris to settle onto the accretion disk and into the SMBH. Therefore, the event can evolve much more slowly than previously thought.”

Additionally, the X-ray data also indicate that radiation from material surrounding this black hole has consistently surpassed what is called the Eddington limit, which is defined as a balance between the outward pressure of radiation from the hot gas and the inward pull of the gravity of the black hole.

Seeing evidence of such rapid growth may help astronomers understand how supermassive black holes were able to reach masses about a billion times higher than the sun when the universe was only about a billion years old.

“This event shows that black holes really can grow at extraordinarily high rates,” said co-author Stefanie Komossa of QianNan Normal University for Nationalities in Duyun City, China. “This may help understand how precocious black holes came to be.”

Lin and his team will continue to monitor this event, and they expect the X-ray brightness to fade over the next few years, meaning the supply of ‘food’ for this long lunch will soon be consumed.

For further reading:
Paper: A likely decade-long sustained tidal disruption event
Lin’s blog post on the Chandra website
Chandra press release
Additional images and information from Chandra

Solar Storms Ignite Aurora On Jupiter

Composite images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope show the hyper-energetic x-ray auroras at Jupiter. The image on the left is of the auroras when the coronal mass ejection reached Jupiter, the image on the right is when the auroras subsided. The auroras were triggered by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun that reached the planet in 2011. Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

The Earthly Northern Lights are beautiful and astounding, but when it comes to planetary light shows, what happened at Jupiter in 2011 might take the cake. In 2011, a coronal mass ejection (CME) struck Jupiter, producing x-ray auroras 8 times brighter than normal, and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s auroras. A paper in the March 22nd, 2016 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research gave the details.

The Sun emits a ceaseless stream of energetic particles called the solar wind. Sometimes, the Sun ramps up its output, and what is called a coronal mass ejection occurs. A coronal mass ejection is a massive burst of matter and electromagnetic radiation. Though they’re slow compared to other phenomena arising from the Sun, such as solar flares, CMEs are extremely powerful.

When the CME in 2011 reached Jupiter, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory was watching, the first time that Jupiter’s X-ray auroras were monitored at the same time that a CME arrived. Along with some very interesting images of the event, the team behind the study learned other things. The CME that struck Jupiter actually compressed that planet’s magnetosphere. It forced the boundary between the solar wind and Jupiter’s magnetic field in towards the planet by more than 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles.)

The scientists behind this study used the data from this event to not only pinpoint the source of the x-rays, but also to identify areas for follow-up investigation. They’ll be using not only Chandra, but also the European Space Agency’s XMM Newton observatory to collect data on Jupiter’s magnetic field, magnetosphere, and aurora.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will reach Jupiter this summer. One of its primary missions is to map Jupiter’s magnetic fields, and to study the magnetosphere and auroras. Juno’s results will be fascinating to anyone interested in Jupiter’s auroras.

Here at Universe Today we’ve written about Jupiter’s aurora’s here, coronal mass ejections here, and the Juno mission here.

X-Ray Telescope Cracks Open Archives, Comes Up With Gassy Black Hole Gem

What a gem! This huge black hole in the middle of Hercules A is making gas around it super-heated to millions of degrees, making it shine brightly in X-Rays. The Chandra X-Ray Telescope captured the scene and in a new data release this week, telescope officials cracked open the archives to give us gems such as this.

The release comes as a part of American Archives Month, where every year Chandra officials go through the archives and pull out old Chandra data, combining it with the work of other telescopes to get as much information as possible about the objects being studied.

Chandra is one of three NASA “Great Observatories” still active, with the other two being the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. It’s been in operation now for more than 15 years.

You can see the six new pictures below. To read more about each of these objects, head on over to this link.

Six photos released from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory's archive in October 2014. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO
Six photos released from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory’s archive in October 2014. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO

What Sparked Star Explosion 2014J? NASA Telescope Seeks Clues

X marks the spot: after probing the area where a star used to be, in X-rays, astronomers have been able to rule out one cause for the supernova explosion.

Because the Chandra X-Ray Observatory did not detect anything unusual in X-rays, astronomers say this means that a white dwarf was not responsible for pulling off material from a massive star that exploded (from Earth’s vantage point) on Jan. 21, 2014, triggering excitement from professional and amateur astronomers alike.

“While it may sound a bit odd, we actually learned a great deal about this supernova by detecting absolutely nothing,” stated study leader Raffaella Margutti of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Massachusetts. “Now we can essentially rule out that the explosion was caused by a white dwarf continuously pulling material from a companion star.”

So what caused it? Possibly two white dwarfs merged instead. Follow-up observations will take place in Messier 88 and the source of the explosion, which was about 12 million light-years from Earth. While that’s a long time by human standards, astronomers point out that is close on the cosmic distance scale.

A study on this work was recently published in The Astrophysical Journal. You can read a preprint version of the article here.

Source: NASA

Cosmic Fireworks: A Supernova Feast And Google+ Hangout For Chandra’s 15th Anniversary

It’s well past the Fourth of July, but you can still easily find fireworks in the sky if you look around. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory has been doing just that for the past 15 years, revealing what the universe looks like in these longer wavelengths that are invisible to human eyes.

Just in time for the birthday, NASA released four pictures that Chandra took of supernova (star explosion) remnants it has observed over the years. The pictures stand as a symbol of what the telescope has shown us so far.

“Chandra changed the way we do astronomy. It showed that precision observation of the X-rays from cosmic sources is critical to understanding what is going on,” stated Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director, in a press release. “We’re fortunate we’ve had 15 years – so far – to use Chandra to advance our understanding of stars, galaxies, black holes, dark energy, and the origin of the elements necessary for life.”

The telescope launched into space in 1999 aboard the space shuttle and currently works at an altitude as high as 86,500 miles (139,000 miles). It is named after Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar; the name “Chandra” also means “moon” or “luminous” in Sanskrit.

And there’s more to come. You can learn more about Chandra’s greatest discoveries and its future in this Google+ Hangout, which will start at 3 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. EDT) at this link.

Chandra Image May Rival July 4th Fireworks

While Fourth of July festivities tonight may bring brilliant colors blazing across the night sky, only 23 million light-years away is another immense cosmic display, complete with a supermassive black hole, shock waves, and vast reservoirs of gas.

The night sky never ceases to amaze. And NGC 4258, also known as Messier 106, is a sight to be seen. A new image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is shedding light on one of the galaxy’s most startling features: instead of two spiral arms, typical for any massive spiral galaxy, it appears to have four (imaged above in blue and purple).

Although the second pair of arms can be seen in visible light images as ghostly wisps of gas, they are prominent in images outside the visible spectrum, such as those using X-ray or radio waves. Unlike normal arms, they are made up of hot gas rather than stars, and their origin has remained a mystery.

Astronomers now think the arms — so-called anomalous for their atypical features — are indirectly caused by the supermassive black hole at NGC 4258’s heart.

Images from multiple telescopes help paint a complete picture. Radio data taken with the Very Large Array show that the supermassive black hole is producing powerful jets. As these jets travel through the galactic matter, they disrupt the surrounding gas and generate shock waves. These shock waves, seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, heat the anomalous arms — composed of reservoirs of gas as massive as about 10 million Suns — to thousands of degrees.

Finally, the recent Chandra X-ray image also reveals huge bubbles of hot gas above and below the plane of the galaxy. These bubbles indicate that although much of the gas was originally in the disk of the galaxy, it was heated to such high temperatures that it was ejected into the outer regions by the jets from the supermassive black hole.

The results provide drastic implications for the fate of the galaxy. Most of the gas in the disk of the galaxy has been ejected, causing stars to form at a rate ten times slower than the Milky Way. Further, astronomers estimate that all of the remaining gas will be ejected within the next 300 million years.

Although NGC 4258 is currently a sight to be seen in any small telescope, like the best fireworks display followed by smoke, its death is inescapable.

The results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online.

Intriguing X-Ray Signal Might be Dark Matter Candidate

Could a strange X-ray signal coming from the Perseus galaxy cluster be a hint of the elusive dark matter in our Universe?

Using archival data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the XMM-Newton mission, astronomers found an unidentified X-ray emission line, or a spike of intensity at a very specific wavelength of X-ray light. This spike was also found in 73 other galaxy clusters in XMM-Newton data.

The scientists propose that one intriguing possibility is that the X-rays are produced by the decay of sterile neutrinos, a hypothetical type of neutrino that has been proposed as a candidate for dark matter and is predicted to interact with normal matter only via gravity.

“We know that the dark matter explanation is a long shot, but the pay-off would be huge if we’re right,” said Esra Bulbul of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the study. “So we’re going to keep testing this interpretation and see where it takes us.”

Astronomers estimate that roughly 85 percent of all matter in the Universe is dark matter, invisible to even the most powerful telescopes, but detectable by its gravitational pull.

Galaxy clusters are good places to look for dark matter. They contain hundreds of galaxies as well as a huge amount of hot gas filling the space between them. But measurements of the gravitational influence of galaxy clusters show that the galaxies and gas make up only about one-fifth of the total mass. The rest is thought to be dark matter.

Bulbul explained in a post on the Chandra blog that she wanted try hunting for dark matter by “stacking” (layering observations on top of each other) large numbers of observations of galaxy clusters to improve the sensitivity of the data coming from Chandra and XMM-Newton.

“The great advantage of stacking observations is not only an increased signal-to-noise ratio (that is, the amount of useful signal compared to background noise), but also the diminished effects of detector and background features,” wrote Bulbul. “The X-ray background emission and instrumental noise are the main obstacles in the analysis of faint objects, such as galaxy clusters.”

Her primary goal in using the stacking technique was to refine previous upper limits on the properties of dark matter particles and perhaps even find a weak emission line from previously undetected metals.

“These weak emission lines from metals originate from the known atomic transitions taking place in the hot atmospheres of galaxy clusters,” said Bulbul. “After spending a year reducing, carefully examining, and stacking the XMM-Newton X-ray observations of 73 galaxy clusters, I noticed an unexpected emission line at about 3.56 kiloelectron volts (keV), a specific energy in the X-ray range.”

In theory, a sterile neutrino decays into an active neutrino by emitting an X-ray photon in the keV range, which can be detectable through X-ray spectroscopy. Bulbul said that her team’s results are consistent with the theoretical expectations and the upper limits placed by previous X-ray searches.

Bulbul and her colleagues worked for a year to confirm the existence of the line in different subsamples, but they say they still have much work to do to confirm that they’ve actually detected sterile neutrinos.

“Our next step is to combine data from Chandra and JAXA’s Suzaku mission for a large number of galaxy clusters to see if we find the same X-ray signal,” said co-author Adam Foster, also of CfA. “There are lots of ideas out there about what these data could represent. We may not know for certain until Astro-H launches, with a new type of X-ray detector that will be able to measure the line with more precision than currently possible.”

Astro-H is another Japanese mission scheduled to launch in 2015 with a high-resolution instrument that should be able to see better detail in the spectra, and Bulbul said they hope to be able to “unambiguously distinguish an astrophysical line from a dark matter signal and tell us what this new X-ray emission truly is.”

Since the emission line is weak, this detection is pushing the capabilities Chandra and XMM Newton in terms of sensitivity. Also, the team says there may be explanations other than sterile neutrinos if this X-ray emission line is deemed to be real. There are ways that normal matter in the cluster could have produced the line, although the team’s analysis suggested that all of these would involve unlikely changes to our understanding of physical conditions in the galaxy cluster or the details of the atomic physics of extremely hot gases.

The authors also note that even if the sterile neutrino interpretation is correct, their detection does not necessarily imply that all of dark matter is composed of these particles.

The Chandra press release shared an interesting behind-the-scenes look into how science is shared and discussed among scientists:

Because of the tantalizing potential of these results, after submitting to The Astrophysical Journal the authors posted a copy of the paper to a publicly accessible database, arXiv. This forum allows scientists to examine a paper prior to its acceptance into a peer-reviewed journal. The paper ignited a flurry of activity, with 55 new papers having already cited this work, mostly involving theories discussing the emission line as possible evidence for dark matter. Some of the papers explore the sterile neutrino interpretation, but others suggest different types of candidate dark matter particles, such as the axion, may have been detected.

Only a week after Bulbul et al. placed their paper on the arXiv, a different group, led by Alexey Boyarsky of Leiden University in the Netherlands, placed a paper on the arXiv reporting evidence for an emission line at the same energy in XMM-Newton observations of the galaxy M31 and the outskirts of the Perseus cluster. This strengthens the evidence that the emission line is real and not an instrumental artifact.

Further reading:
Paper by Bulbul et al.
Chandra press release
ESA press release
Chandra blog