The Big Dipper in the Year 92,000

If we could transport Ptolemy, a famous astronomer who lived circa 90 – 168 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, he would have noticed the shift in position of Arcturus, Sirius and Aldebaran since his time. Everything else would appear virtually unchanged.
If we could transport Ptolemy, a famous astronomer who lived circa 90 – 168 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, he would have noticed the shift in position of Arcturus, Sirius and Aldebaran since his time. Everything else would appear virtually unchanged.

You go out and look at the stars year after year and never see any of them get up and walk away from their constellations. Take a time machine back to the days of Plato and Socrates and only careful viewing would reveal that just three of the sky’s naked eye stars had budged: Arcturus, Sirius and Aldebaran. And then only a little. Their motion was discovered by Edmund Halley in 1718 when he compared the stars’ positions then to their positions noted by the ancient Greek astronomers. In all three cases, the stars had moved “above a half a degree more Southerly at this time than the Antients reckoned them.”

NGC 4414 is a spiral galaxy that resembles our own Milky Way. I've drawn in the orbits of several stars. Both disk and halo stars orbit about the center but halo stars describe long elliptical orbits. When they plunge through the disk, if they happen to be relatively nearby as is Arcturus, they'll appear to move relatively quickly across the sky. Credit: NASA/ESA
NGC 4414 is a spiral galaxy that resembles our own Milky Way. I’ve drawn in the orbits of several stars. Both disk and halo stars orbit about the center, but halo stars describe long elliptical orbits that take them well beyond the disk. When a star plunges through the disk, if it happens to be relatively nearby as in the case of Arcturus, the star will appear to move relatively quickly across the sky. Both distance and the type of orbit a star has can affect how fast it moves from our perspective. Credit: NASA/ESA with orbits by the author

Stars are incredibly far away. I could throw light years around like I often do here, but the fact is, you can get a real feel for their distance by noting that during your lifetime, none will appear to move individually. The gems of the night and our sun alike revolve around the center of the galaxy. At our solar system’s distance from the center — 26,000 light years or about halfway from center to edge — it takes the sun about 225 million years to make one revolution around the Milky Way.

That’s a LONG time. The other stars we see on a September night take a similar length of time to orbit. Now divide the average lifetime of some 85 years into that number, and you’ll discover that an average star moves something like .00000038% of its orbit around the galactic center every generation. Phew, that ain’t much! No wonder most stars don’t budge in our lifetime.

This graphic, compiled using SkyMap software created by Chris Marriott, shows the motion of Arcturus over
This graphic, made using SkyMap software created by Chris Marriott, shows the motion of Arcturus over a span of 8,000 years.

Sirius, Aldebaran and Arcturus and several other telescopic stars are close enough that their motion across the sky becomes apparent within the span of recorded history. More powerful telescopes, which expand the scale of the sky, can see a great many stars amble within a human lifetime. Sadly, our eyes alone only work at low power!

Precession of Earth's axis maintains it usual 23.5 degree tilt, but this causes the axis to describe a circle in the sky like a wobbling top. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Precession of Earth’s axis maintains its usual 23.5 degree tilt, but this causes the axis to describe a circle in the sky like a wobbling top. The photo is an animation that repeats 10 seconds, so hang in there. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But we needn’t invest billions in building a time machine to zing to the future or past to see how the constellation outlines become distorted by the individual motions of the stars that compose them. We already have one! Just fire up a free sky charting software program like Stellarium and advance the clock. Like most such programs, it defaults to the present, but let’s look ahead. Far ahead.

If we advance 90,000 years into the future, many of the constellations would be unrecognizable. Not only that, but more locally, the precession of Earth’s axis causes the polestar to shift. In 2016, Polaris in the Little Dipper stands at the northernmost point in the sky, but in 90,000 years the brilliant star Vega will occupy the spot. Tugs from the sun and moon on Earth’s equatorial bulge cause its axis to gyrate in a circle over a period of about 26,000 years. Wherever the axis points defines the polestar.

I advanced Stellarium far enough into the future to see how radically the Big Dipper changes shape over time. Notice too that Vega will be the polestar in that distant era. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium
I advanced Stellarium far enough into the future to see how radically the Big Dipper changes shape over time. Notice too that Vega will be the polestar in that distant era. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

Take a look at the Big Dipper. Wow! It’s totally bent out of shape yet still recognizable. The Pointer Stars no longer quite point to Polaris, but with some fudging we might make it work. Vega stands near the pole, and being much closer to us than the rest of Lyra’s stars, has moved considerably farther north, stretching the outline of the constellation as if taffy.

Now let's head backwards in time 92,000 years to 90,000 B.C. The Dipper then was fairly unrecognizable, with both Vega and Arcturus near the pole. Map: Bob King , Source: Stellarium
Now let’s head backwards in time 92,000 years to 90,000 B.C. The Dipper then was fairly unrecognizable, with both Vega and Arcturus near the pole. Map: Bob King , Source: Stellarium

Time goes on. We look up at the night sky in the present moment, but so much came before us and much will come after. Constellations were unrecognizable in the past and will be again in the future. In a fascinating discussion with Michael Kauper of the Minnesota Astronomical Society at a recent star party, he described the amount of space in and between galaxies as so enormous that “we’re almost not here” in comparison. I would add that time is so vast we’re likewise almost not present. Make the most of the moment.

Best Picture Yet Of Milky Way’s Formation 13.5 Billion Years Ago

The Milky Way is like NGC 4594 (pictured), a disc shaped spiral galaxy with around 200 billion stars. The three main features are the central bulge, the disk, and the halo. Credit: ESO

Maybe we take our beloved Milky Way galaxy for granted. As far as humanity is concerned, it’s always been here. But how did it form? What is its history?

Our Milky Way galaxy has three recognized stellar components. They are the central bulge, the disk , and the halo. How these three were formed and how they evolved are prominent, fundamental questions in astronomy. Now, a team of researchers have used the unique property of a certain type of star to help answer these fundamental questions.

The type of star in question is called the blue horizontal-branch star (BHB star), and it produces different colors depending on its age. It’s the only type of star to do that. The researchers, from the University of Notre Dame, used this property of BHB’s to create a detailed chronographic (time) map of the Milky Way’s formation.

This map has confirmed what theories and models have predicted for some time: the Milky Way galaxy formed through mergers and accretions of small haloes of gas and dust. Furthermore, the oldest stars in our galaxy are at the center, and younger stars and galaxies joined the Milky Way over billions of years, drawn in by the galaxy’s growing gravitational pull.

The team who produced this study includes astrophysicist Daniela Carollo, research assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, and Timothy Beers, Notre Dame Chair of Astrophysics. Research assistant professor Vinicius Placco, and other colleagues rounded out the team.

“We haven’t previously known much about the age of the most ancient component of the Milky Way, which is the Halo System,” Carollo said. “But now we have demonstrated conclusively for the first time that ancient stars are in the center of the galaxy and the younger stars are found at longer distances. This is another piece of information that we can use to understand the assembly process of the galaxy, and how galaxies in general formed.”

This dazzling infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This dazzling infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) played a key role in these findings. The team used data from the SDSS to identify over 130,000 BHB’s. Since these stars literally “show their age”, mapping them throughout the Milky Way produced a chronographic map which clearly shows the oldest stars near the center of the galaxy, and youngest stars further away.

“The colors, when the stars are at that stage of their evolution, are directly related to the amount of time that star has been alive, so we can estimate the age,” Beers said. “Once you have a map, then you can determine which stars came in first and the ages of those portions of the galaxy. We can now actually visualize how our galaxy was built up and inspect the stellar debris from some of the other small galaxies being destroyed by their interaction with ours during its assembly.”

Astronomers infer, from various data-driven approaches, that different structural parts of the galaxy have different ages. They’ve assigned ages to different parts of the galaxy, like the bulge. That makes sense, since everything can’t be the same age. Not in a galaxy that’s this old. But this map makes it even clearer.

As the authors say in their paper, “What has been missing, until only recently, is the ability to assign ages to individual stellar populations, so that the full chemo-dynamical history of the Milky Way can be assessed.”

This new map, with over 130,000 stars as data points, is a pretty important step in understanding the evolution of the Milky Way. It takes something that was based more on models and theory, however sound they were, and reinforces it with more constrained data.

Update: The chronographic map, as well as a .gif, can be viewed here.

Terzan 5 May Unlock Secret to Milky Way’s Past

Peering through the thick dust clouds of the galactic bulge an international team of astronomers has revealed the unusual mix of stars in the stellar cluster known as Terzan 5. The new results indicate that Terzan 5 is in fact one of the bulge's primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of the very early days of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/F. Ferraro
Peering through the thick dust clouds of the galactic bulge (center of the galaxy) an international team of astronomers has revealed the unusual mix of stars in the stellar cluster known as Terzan 5. The new results indicate that Terzan 5 is in fact one of the bulge’s primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of the very early days of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/F. Ferraro

Not many people have heard of the globular star cluster Terzan 5. It’s a big ball of stars resembling spilled sugar like so many other globular clusters. A very few globulars are bright enough to see with the naked eye; Terzan 5 is faint because it lies far away in the direction of the center of Milky Way galaxy inside its central bulge. Here, the stars that formed at the galaxy’s birth are packed together in great numbers. They are the “old ones” of the Milky Way.

Today, a team of astronomers revealed that Terzan 5 is unlike any globular cluster known. Most Milky Way globulars contain stars of just one age, about 11-12 billion years. They formed around the same time as the Milky Way itself, used up all their available gas early to build stars and then spent the remaining billions of years aging. Most orbit the galaxy’s center in a vast halo like moths whirring around a bright light. Oddball Terzan 5 has two populations aged 12 billion and 4.5 billion years old and it’s located inside the galactic bulge.

Globular clusters are distributed in a spherical halo about the core or bulge in the Milky Way galaxy. The Sun and planets are located well away from the center. From our perspective, most globular clusters appear concentrated in the direction of the galaxy's center. Credit: Science Frontiers Online
Globular clusters are distributed in a spherical halo about the star-rich core or bulge at the center of the disk of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Science Frontiers Online

The team used the cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope as well as a host of ground-based telescopes to find compelling evidence for the two distinct kinds of stars. Not only do they show a large gap in age, but the differ in the elements they contain. Terzan 5’s dual populations point to a star formation process that wasn’t continuous but dominated by two distinct bursts of star formation.

“This requires the Terzan 5 ancestor to have large amounts of gas for a second generation of stars and to be quite massive. At least 100 million times the mass of the Sun,” explains Davide Massari, co-author of the study.

Its unusual properties make Terzan 5 the ideal candidate for the title of “living fossil” from the early days of the Milky Way. Current theories on galaxy formation assume that vast clumps of gas and stars interacted to form the primordial bulge of the Milky Way, merging and dissolving in the process.

While the properties of Terzan 5 are uncommon for a globular cluster, they’re very similar to the stars found in the galactic bulge. Remnants of those gaseous clumps appear to have stuck around intact since the days of our galaxy’s birth, one of them evolving into the present day Terzan 5. That makes it a relic from the Milky Way’s infant days and one of the earliest galactic building blocks. Later, the cluster, which held onto some of its remaining gas, experienced a second burst of star formation.

This current model of the Milky Way galaxy shows the yellow-hued galactic bulge formed by ancient stars well along in their evolution, in contrast to the bluer, younger stars in the spiral arms. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech)

“Some characteristics of Terzan 5 resemble those detected in the giant clumps we see in star-forming galaxies at high-redshift (galaxies just beginning to form in the remote universe in the far distant past), suggesting that similar assembling processes occurred in the local and in the distant universe at the epoch of galaxy formation,” said Dr. Francesco Ferraro from the University of Bologna, Italy, who headed up the team.

The Milky Way on a late September night offers an opportunity to contemplate the grand form of the galaxy. Credit: Bob King
The Milky Way on a late September night offers an opportunity to contemplate the grand form of the galaxy. Credit: Bob King

Terzan 5’s chandelier-like presence is helping astronomers understand how our galaxy was assembled. Reconstructing the past is one of the key occupations of astronomy. The present is continually departing with every passing moment. Soon enough, every piece of information slips into the past tense.  In the near-past, which records humanity’s comings and goings, details are often forgotten or lost. The deep past is even worse. With no one around and only scattered clues, astronomers continually look for fragmental remains that when woven into the fabric of a theory, reveal patterns and processes before we came to be.

New ‘Einstein Ring’ Discovered By Dark Energy Camera

The "Canarias Einstein Ring." The green-blue ring is the source galaxy, the red one in the middle is the lens galaxy. The lens galaxy has such strong gravity, that it distorts the light from the source galaxy into a ring. Because the two galaxies are aligned, the source galaxy appears almost circular. Image: This composite image is made up from several images taken with the DECam camera on the Blanco 4m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile.

A rare object called an Einstein Ring has been discovered by a team in the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. An Einstein Ring is a specific type of gravitational lensing.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted the phenomena of gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing tells us that instead of travelling in a straight line, light from a source can be bent by a massive object, like a black hole or a galaxy, which itself bends space time.

Einstein’s General Relativity was published in 1915, but a few years before that, in 1912, Einstein predicted the bending of light. Russian physicist Orest Chwolson was the first to mention the ring effect in scientific literature in 1924, which is why the rings are also called Einstein-Chwolson rings.

Gravitational lensing is fairly well-known, and many gravitational lenses have been observed. Einstein rings are rarer, because the observer, source, and lens all have to be aligned. Einstein himself thought that one would never be observed at all. “Of course, there is no hope of observing this phenomenon directly,” Einstein wrote in 1936.

The team behind the recent discovery was led by PhD student Margherita Bettinelli at the University of La Laguna, and Antonio Aparicio and Sebastian Hidalgo of the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. Because of the rarity of these objects, and the strong scientific interest in them, this one was given a name: The Canarias Einstein Ring.

There are three components to an Einstein Ring. The first is the observer, which in this case means telescopes here on Earth. The second is the lens galaxy, a massive galaxy with enormous gravity. This gravity warps space-time so that not only are objects drawn to it, but light itself is forced to travel along a curved path. The lens lies between Earth and the third component, the source galaxy. The light from the source galaxy is bent into a ring form by the power of the lens galaxy.

When all three components are aligned precisely, which is very rare, the light from the source galaxy is formed into a circle with the lens galaxy right in the centre. The circle won’t be perfect; it will have irregularities that reflect irregularities in the gravitational force of the lens galaxy.

Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA
Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA

The objects are more than just pretty artifacts of nature. They can tell scientists things about the nature of the lens galaxy. Antonio Aparicio, one of the IAC astrophysicists involved in the research said, “Studying these phenomena gives us especially relevant information about the composition of the source galaxy, and also about the structure of the gravitational field and of the dark matter in the lens galaxy.”

Looking at these objects is like looking back in time, too. The source galaxy is 10 billion light years from Earth. Expansion of the Universe means that the light has taken 8.5 billion light years to reach us. That’s why the ring is blue; that long ago, the source galaxy was young, full of hot blue stars.

The lens itself is much closer to us, but still very distant. It’s 6 billion light years away. Star formation in that galaxy likely came to a halt, and its stellar population is now old.

The discovery of the Canarias Einstein Ring was a happy accident. Bettinelli was pouring over data from what’s known as the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) of the 4m Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory, in Chile. She was studying the stellar population of the Sculptor dwarf galaxy for her PhD when the Einstein Ring caught her attention. Other members of the Stellar Population Group then used OSIRIS spectrograph on the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) to observe and analyze it further.

Dwarf Dark Matter Galaxy Hides In Einstein Ring

The large blue light is a lensing galaxy in the foreground, called SDP81, and the red arcs are the distorted image of a more distant galaxy. By analyzing small distortions in the red, distant galaxy, astronomers have determined that a dwarf dark galaxy, represented by the white dot in the lower left, is companion to SDP81. The image is a composite from ALMA and the Hubble. Image: Y. Hezaveh, Stanford Univ./ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)/NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

Everybody knows that galaxies are enormous collections of stars. A single galaxy can contain hundreds of billions of them. But there is a type of galaxy that has no stars. That’s right: zero stars.

These galaxies are called Dark Galaxies, or Dark Matter Galaxies. And rather than consisting of stars, they consist mostly of Dark Matter. Theory predicts that there should be many of these Dwarf Dark Galaxies in the halo around ‘regular’ galaxies, but finding them has been difficult.

Now, in a new paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, Yashar Hezaveh at Stanford University in California, and his team of colleagues, announce the discovery of one such object. The team used enhanced capabilities of the Atacamas Large Millimeter Array to examine an Einstein ring, so named because Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted the phenomenon long before one was observed.

An Einstein Ring is when the massive gravity of a close object distorts the light from a much more distant object. They operate much like the lens in a telescope, or even a pair of eye-glasses. The mass of the glass in the lens directs incoming light in such a way that distant objects are enlarged.

Einstein Rings and gravitational lensing allow astronomers to study extremely distant objects, by looking at them through a lens of gravity. But they also allow astronomers to learn more about the galaxy that is acting as the lens, which is what happened in this case.

If a glass lens had tiny water spots on it, those spots would add a tiny amount of distortion to the image. That’s what happened in this case, except rather than microscopic water drops on a lens, the distortions were caused by tiny Dwarf Galaxies consisting of Dark Matter. “We can find these invisible objects in the same way that you can see rain droplets on a window. You know they are there because they distort the image of the background objects,” explained Hezaveh. The difference is that water distorts light by refraction, whereas matter distorts light by gravity.

As the ALMA facility increased its resolution, astronomers studied different astronomical objects to test its capabilities. One of these objects was SDP81, the gravitational lens in the above image. As they examined the more distant galaxy being lensed by SDP81, they discovered smaller distortions in the ring of the distant galaxy. Hezaveh and his team conclude that these distortions signal the presence of a Dwarf Dark Galaxy.

But why does this all matter? Because there is a problem in the Universe, or at least in our understanding of it; a problem of missing mass.

Our understanding of the formation of the structure of the Universe is pretty solid, at least in the larger scale. Predictions based on this model agree with observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and galaxy clustering. But our understanding breaks down somewhat when it comes to the smaller scale structure of the Universe.

One example of our lack of understanding in this area is what’s known as the Missing Satellite Problem. Theory predicts that there should be a large population of what are called sub-halo objects in the halo of dark matter surrounding galaxies. These objects can range from things as large as the Magellanic Clouds down to much smaller objects. In observations of the Local Group, there is a pronounced deficit of these objects, to the tune of a factor of 10, when compared to theoretical predictions.

Because we haven’t found them, one of two things needs to happen: either we get better at finding them, or we modify our theory. But it seems a little too soon to modify our theories of the structure of the Universe because we haven’t found something that, by its very nature, is hard to find. That’s why this announcement is so important.

The observation and identification of one of these Dwarf Dark Galaxies should open the door to more. Once more are found, we can start to build a model of their population and distribution. So if in the future more of these Dwarf Dark Galaxies are found, it will gradually confirm our over-arching understanding of the formation and structure of the Universe. And it’ll mean we’re on the right track when it comes to understanding Dark Matter’s role in the Universe. If we can’t find them, and the one bound to the halo of SDP81 turns out to be an anomaly, then it’s back to the drawing board, theoretically.

It took a lot of horsepower to detect the Dwarf Dark Galaxy bound to SDP81. Einstein Rings like SDP81 have to have enormous mass in order to exert a gravitational lensing effect, while Dwarf Dark Galaxies are tiny in comparison. It’s a classic ‘needle in a haystack’ problem, and Hezaveh and his team needed massive computing power to analyze the data from ALMA.

ALMA will consist of 66 individual antennae like these when it is complete. The facility is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, at 5,000 meters above sea level. Credit: ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO)
ALMA will consist of 66 individual antennae like these when it is complete. The facility is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, at 5,000 meters above sea level. Credit: ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO)

ALMA, and the methodology developed by Hezaveh and team will hopefully shed more light on Dwarf Dark Galaxies in the future. The team thinks that ALMA has great potential to discover more of these halo objects, which should in turn improve our understanding of the structure of the Universe. As they say in the conclusion of their paper, “… ALMA observations have the potential to significantly advance our understanding of the abundance of dark matter substructure.”

Most ‘Outrageous’ Luminous Galaxies Ever Observed

An artist's conception of an extremely luminous infrared galaxy similar to the ones reported in this paper. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Astronomers might be running out of words when it comes to describing the brightness of objects in the Universe.

Luminous, Super-Luminous, Ultra-Luminous, Hyper-Luminous. Those words have been used to describe the brightest objects we’ve found in the cosmos. But now astronomers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have found galaxies so bright that new adjectives are needed. Kevin Harrington, student and lead author of the study describing these galaxies, says, “We’ve taken to calling them ‘outrageously luminous’ among ourselves, because there is no scientific term to apply.”

The terms “ultra-luminous” and “hyper-luminous” have specific meanings in astronomy. An infrared galaxy is called “ultra-luminous” when it has a rating of about 1 trillion solar luminosities. At 10 trillion solar luminosities, the term “hyper-luminous” is used. For objects greater than that, at around 100 trillion solar luminosities, “we don’t even have a name,” says Harrington.

The size and brightness of these 8 galaxies is astonishing, and their existence comes as a surprise. Professor Min Yun, who leads the team, says, “The galaxies we found were not predicted by theory to exist; they’re too big and too bright, so no one really looked for them before.” These newly discovered galaxies are thought to be about 10 billion years old, meaning they were formed about 4 billion years after the Big Bang. Their discovery will help astronomers understand the early Universe better.

“Knowing that they really do exist and how much they have grown in the first 4 billion years since the Big Bang helps us estimate how much material was there for them to work with. Their existence teaches us about the process of collecting matter and of galaxy formation. They suggest that this process is more complex than many people thought,” said Yun.

Gravitational lensing plays a role in all this though. The galaxies are not as large as they appear from Earth. As their light passes by massive objects on its way to Earth, their light is magnified. This makes them look 10 times brighter than they really are. But event taking gravitational lensing into account, these are still impressive objects.

But it’s not just the brightness of these objects that are significant. Gravitational lensing of a galaxy by another galaxy is rare. Finding 8 of them is unheard of, and could be “another potentially important discovery,” says Yun. The paper highlights these galaxies as being among the most interesting objects for further study “because the magnifying property of lensing allows us to probe physical details of the intense star formation activities at sub-kpc scale…”

The team’s analysis also shows that the extreme brightness of these galaxies is caused solely by star formation.“The Milky Way produces a few solar masses of stars per year, and these objects look like they forming one star every hour,” Yun says. Harrington adds, “We still don’t know how many tens to hundreds of solar masses of gas can be converted into stars so efficiently in these objects, and studying these objects might help us to find out.”

It took a tag team of telescopes to discover and confirm these outrageously luminous galaxies. The team of astronomers, led by Professor Min Yun, used the 50 meter diameter Large Millimeter Telescope for this work. It sits atop an extinct volcano in Mexico, the 15,000 foot Sierra Negra. They also relied on the Herschel Observatory, and the Planck Surveyor.

The Milky Way Galaxy’s Dark Halo Of Star Formation

Dark matter is invisible. Based on the effect of gravitational lensing, a ring of dark matter has been inferred in this image of a galaxy cluster (CL0024+17) and has been represented in blue. Image: NASA/ESA.

Dark Matter is rightly called one of the greatest mysteries in the Universe. In fact, so mysterious is it, that we here in the opulent sky-scraper offices of Universe Today often joke that it should be called “Dark Mystery.” But that sounds like a cheesy History Channel show, and here at Universe Today we don’t like cheesy, so Dark Matter it remains.

Though we still don’t know what exactly Dark Matter is, we keep learning more about how it interacts with the rest of the Universe, and nibbling around at the edges of what it might be. But before we get into the latest news about Dark Matter, it’s worth stepping back a bit to remind ourselves of what is known about Dark Matter.

Evidence from cosmology shows that about 25% of the mass of the Universe is Dark Matter, also known as non-baryonic matter. Baryonic matter is ‘normal’ matter, which we are all familiar with. It’s made up of protons and neutrons, and it’s the matter that we interact with every day.

Cosmologists can’t see the 25% of matter that is Dark Matter, because it doesn’t interact with light. But they can see the effect it has on the large scale structure of the Universe, on the cosmic microwave background, and in the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. So they know it’s there.

Large galaxies like our own Milky Way are surrounded by what is called a halo of Dark Matter. These huge haloes are in turn surrounded by smaller sub-haloes of Dark Matter. These sub-haloes have enough gravitational force to form dwarf galaxies, like the Milky Way’s own Sagittarius and Canis Major dwarf galaxies. Then, these dwarf galaxies themselves have their own Dark Matter haloes, which at this scale are now much too small to contain gas or stars. Called dark satellites, these smaller haloes are of course invisible to telescopes, but theory states they should be there.

But proving that these dark satellites are even there requires some evidence of the effect they have on their host galaxies.

Now, thanks to Laura Sales, who is an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside’s, Department of Physics and Astronomy, and her collaborators at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands, Tjitske Starkenberg and Amina Helmi, there is more evidence that these dark satellites are indeed there.

In their paper “Dark influences II: gas and star formation in minor mergers of dwarf galaxies with dark satellites,” from November 2015, they provide an analysis of theory-based computer simulations of the interaction between a dwarf galaxy and a dark satellite.

Their paper shows that when a dark satellite is at its closest point to a dwarf galaxy, the satellite’s gravitational influence compresses the gas in the dwarf. This causes a sustained period of star formation, called a starburst, that can last for billions of years.

NGC 5253 is one of the nearest of the known Blue Compact Dwarf (BCD) galaxies, and is located at a distance of about 12 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus. It is experiencing a starburst of hot, young stars, which could be caused by dark satellites. Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble.
NGC 5253 is one of the nearest of the known Blue Compact Dwarf (BCD) galaxies, and is located at a distance of about 12 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus. It is experiencing a starburst of hot, young stars, which could be caused by dark satellites. Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble.

Their modelling suggests that dwarf galaxies should be exhibiting a higher rate of star formation than would otherwise be expected. And observation of dwarf galaxies reveals that that is indeed the case. Their modelling also suggests that when a dark satellite and a dwarf galaxy interact, the shape of the dwarf galaxy should change. And again, this is born out by the observation of isolated spheroidal dwarf galaxies, whose origin has so far been a mystery.

The exact nature of Dark Matter is still a mystery, and will probably remain a mystery for quite some time. But studies like this keep shining more light on Dark Matter, and I encourage readers who want more detail to read it.

18 Billion Solar Mass Black Hole Rotates At 1/3 Speed Of Light

Way up in the constellation Cancer there’s a 14th magnitude speck of light you can claim in a 10-inch or larger telescope. If you saw it, you might sniff at something so insignificant, yet it represents the final farewell of chewed up stars as their remains whirl down the throat of an 18 billion solar mass black hole, one of the most massive known in the universe.

Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar. Credits: M. Weiss/CfA
Artist’s view of a black hole-powered blazar (a type of quasar) lighting up the center of a remote galaxy. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar.
Credits: M. Weiss/CfA

Astronomers know the object as OJ 287, a quasar that lies 3.5 billion light years from Earth. Quasars or quasi-stellar objects light up the centers of many remote galaxies. If we could pull up for a closer look, we’d see a brilliant, flattened accretion disk composed of heated star-stuff spinning about the central black hole at extreme speeds.

An illustration of the binary black hole system in OJ287. The predictions of the model are verified by observations. Credit: University of Turku
An illustration of the binary black hole system, OJ 287, showing the massive black hole surrounded by an accretion disk. A second, smaller black hole is believed to orbit the larger. When it intersects the larger’s disk coming and going, astronomers see a pair of bright flares. The predictions of the model are verified by observations. Credit: University of Turku

As matter gets sucked down the hole, jets of hot plasma and energetic light shoot out perpendicular to the disk. And if we’re so privileged that one of those jet happens to point directly at us, we call the quasar a “blazar”. Variability of the light streaming from the heart of a blazar is so constant, the object practically flickers.

Long exposures made with the Hubble Space Telescope showing brilliant quasars flaring in the hearts of six distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA
Long exposures made with the Hubble Space Telescope showing brilliant quasars flaring in the hearts of six distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA

A recent observational campaign involving more than two dozen optical telescopes and NASA’s space based SWIFT X-ray telescope allowed a team of astronomers to measure very accurately the rotational rate the black hole powering OJ 287 at one third the maximum spin rate — about 56,000 miles per second (90,000 kps) —  allowed in General Relativity  A careful analysis of these observations show that OJ 287 has produced close-to-periodic optical outbursts at intervals of approximately 12 years dating back to around 1891. A close inspection of newer data sets reveals the presence of double-peaks in these outbursts.

Illustration of a gradually precessing orbit similar to the precessing orbit of the smaller smaller black hole orbiting the larger in OJ 287. Credit: Willow W / Wikipedia
Illustration of a gradually precessing orbit similar to the precessing orbit of the smaller smaller black hole orbiting the larger in OJ 287. Credit: Willow W / Wikipedia

To explain the blazar’s behavior, Prof. Mauri Valtonen of the University of Turku (Finland) and colleagues developed a model that beautifully explains the data if the quasar OJ 287 harbors not one buy two unequal mass black holes — an 18 billion mass one orbited by a smaller black hole.

OJ 287 is visible due to the streaming of matter present in the accretion disk onto the largest black hole. The smaller black hole passes through the larger’s the accretion disk during its orbit, causing the disk material to briefly heat up to very high temperatures. This heated material flows out from both sides of the accretion disk and radiates strongly for weeks, causing the double peak in brightness.

The orbit of the smaller black hole also precesses similar to how Mercury’s orbit precesses. This changes when and where the smaller black hole passes through the accretion disk.  After carefully observing eight outbursts of the black hole, the team was able to determine not only the black holes’ masses but also the precession rate of the orbit. Based on Valtonen’s model, the team predicted a flare in late November 2015, and it happened right on schedule.

OJ 287 has been fluctuating around 13.5-140 magnitude lately. You can spot in a 10-inch or larger scope in Cancer not far from the Beehive Cluster. Click the image for a detailed AAVSO finder chart. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium
OJ 287 has been fluctuating around 13.5-140 magnitude lately. You can spot it in a 10-inch or larger scope in Cancer not far from the Beehive Cluster. Click the image for a detailed AAVSO finder chart. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium

The timing of this bright outburst allowed Valtonen and his co-workers to directly measure the rotation rate of the more massive black hole to be nearly 1/3 the speed of light. I’ve checked around and as far as I can tell, this would make it the fastest spinning object we know of in the universe. Getting dizzy yet?

The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups

In about 4 billion years, scientists estimate that the Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies are expected to collide, based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope. And when they merge, they will give rise to a super-galaxy that some are already calling Milkomeda or Milkdromeda (I know, awful isn’t it?) While this may sound like a cataclysmic event, these sorts of galactic collisions are quite common on a cosmic timescale.

As an international group of researchers from Japan and California have found, galactic “hookups” were quite common during the early universe. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Subaru Telescope at in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, they have discovered that 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang, galactic clumps grew to become large galaxies by merging. As part of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) “Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS)”, this information could tell us a great about the formation of the early universe.

Continue reading “The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups”

Great Attractor Revealed? Galaxies Found Lurking Behind the Milky Way

Milky Way by Matt Dieterich

Hundreds of galaxies hidden from sight by our own Milky Way galaxy have been studied for the first time. Though only 250 million light years away—which isn’t that far for galaxies—they have been obscured by the gas and dust of the Milky Way. These galaxies may be a tantalizing clue to the nature of The Great Attractor.

On February 9th, an international team of scientists published a paper detailing the results of their study of these galaxies using the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s (CSIRO) Parkes radio telescope, a 64 meter telescope in Australia. The ‘scope is equipped with an innovative new multi-beam receiver, which made it possible to peer through the Milky Way into the galaxies behind it.

The area around the Milky Way that is obscured to us is called the Zone of Avoidance (ZOA). This study focused on the southern portion of the ZOA, since the telescope is in Australia. (The northern portion of the ZOA is currently being studied by the Arecibo radio telescope, also equipped with the new multi-beam receiver.) The significance of their work is not that they found hundreds of new galaxies. There was no reason to suspect that galactic distribution would be any different in the ZOA than anywhere else. What’s significant is what it will tell us about The Great Attractor.

The Great Attractor is a feature of the large-scale structure of the Universe. It is drawing our Milky Way galaxy, and hundreds of thousands of other galaxies, towards it with the gravitational force of a million billion suns. The Great Attractor is an anomaly, because it deviates from our understanding of the universal expansion of the universe. “We don’t actually understand what’s causing this gravitational acceleration on the Milky Way or where it’s coming from,” said Professor Lister Staveley-Smith of The University of Western Australia, the lead author of the study.

“We know that in this region there are a few very large collections of galaxies we call clusters or superclusters, and our whole Milky Way is moving towards them at more than two million kilometres per hour.”

The core of the Milky Way seen in Infrared. Seeing through this has been a real challenge. Credit: NASA/Spitzer
The core of the Milky Way seen in Infrared. Seeing through this has been a real challenge. Credit: NASA/Spitzer

Professor Staveley-Smith and his team reported that they found 883 galaxies, of which over one third have never been seen before. “The Milky Way is very beautiful of course and it’s very interesting to study our own galaxy but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it,” he said.

The team identified new structures in the ZOA that could help explain the movement of The Milky Way, and other galaxies, towards The Great Attractor, at speeds of up to 200 million kilometres per hour. These include three galaxy concentrations, named NW1, NW2, and NW3, and two new clusters, named CW1 and CW2.

University of Cape Town astronomer Professor Renée Kraan-Korteweg, a member of the team who did this work, says “An average galaxy contains 100 billion stars, so finding hundreds of new galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way points to a lot of mass we didn’t know about until now.”

How exactly these new galaxies affect The Great Attractor will have to wait for further quantitative analysis in a future study, according to the paper. The data from the Arecibo scope will show us the northern hemisphere of the ZOA, which will also help build our understanding. But for now, just knowing that there are hundreds of new galaxies in our region of space sheds some light on the large-scale structure of our neighbourhood in the universe.