The Ant Nebula Actually has Intense Laser Emissions Coming From its Core

When low- to middleweight stars like our Sun approach the end of their life cycles they eventually cast off their outer layers, leaving behind a dense, white dwarf star. These outer layers became a massive cloud of dust and gas, which is characterized by bright colors and intricate patterns, known as a planetary nebula. Someday, our Sun will turn into such a nebula, one which could be viewed from light-years away.

This process, where a dying star gives rise to a massive cloud of dust, was already known to be incredibly beautiful and inspiring thanks to many images taken by Hubble. However, after viewing the famous Ant Nebula with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory, a team of astronomers discovered an unusual laser emission that suggests that there is a double star system at the center of the nebula.

The study, titled “Herschel Planetary Nebula Survey (HerPlaNS): hydrogen recombination laser lines in Mz 3“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Isabel Aleman of the University of São Paulo and the Leiden Observatory, and included members from the Herschel Science Center, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Royal Observatory of Belgium and multiple universities.

The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The Ant Nebula (aka. Mz 3) is a young bipolar planetary nebula located in the constellation Norma, and takes its name from the twin lobes of gas and dust that resemble the head and body of an ant. In the past, this nebula’s beautiful and intricate nature was imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The new data obtained by Herschel also indicates that the Ant Nebula beams intense laser emissions from its core.

In space, infrared laser emissions are detected at very different wavelengths and only under certain conditions, and only a few of these space lasers are known. Interestingly enough, it was astronomer Donald Menzel – who first observed and classified the Ant Nebula in 1920 (hence why it is officially known as Menzel 3 after him) – who was one of the first to suggest that lasers could occur in nebula.

According to Menzel, under certain conditions natural “light amplification by the stimulated emissions of radiation” (aka. where we get the term laser from) would occur in space. This was long before the discovery of lasers in laboratories, an occasion that is celebrated annually on May 16th, known as UNESCO’s International Day of Light. As such, it was highly appropriate that this paper was also published on May 16th, celebrating the development of the laser and its discoverer, Theodore Maiman.

As Isabel Aleman, the lead author of a paper, described the results:

“When we observe Menzel 3, we see an amazingly intricate structure made up of ionized gas, but we cannot see the object in its center producing this pattern. Thanks to the sensitivity and wide wavelength range of the Herschel observatory, we detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination line laser emission, which provided a way to reveal the nebula’s structure and physical conditions.”

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI
Artist’s impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

“Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission that Menzel suggested, in one of the planetary nebulae that he discovered,” she added.

The kind of laser emission they observed needs very dense gas close to the star. By comparing observations from the Herschel observatory to models of planetary nebula, the team found that the density of the gas emitting the lasers was about ten thousand times denser than the gas seen in typical planetary nebulae, and in the lobes of the Ant Nebula itself.

Normally, the region close to the dead star – in this case, roughly the distance between Saturn and the Sun – is quite empty because its material was ejected outwards after the star went supernova. Any lingering gas would soon fall back onto it. But as Professor Albert Zijlstra, from the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics and a co-author on the study, put it:

“The only way to keep such dense gas close to the star is if it is orbiting around it in a disc. In this nebula, we have actually observed a dense disc in the very center that is seen approximately edge-on. This orientation helps to amplify the laser signal. The disc suggests there is a binary companion, because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction. The laser gives us a unique way to probe the disc around the dying star, deep inside the planetary nebula.”

The planetary nebula Abell 39. According to a new study, our Sun will similarly become a luminous planetary nebula by the end of its life cycle. Credit: WIYN/NOAO/NSF

While astronomers have not yet seen the expected second star, they are hopeful that future surveys will be able to locate it, thus revealing the origin of the Ant Nebula’s mysterious lasers. In so doing, they will be able to connect two discoveries (i.e. planetary nebula and laser) made by the same astronomer over a century ago. As Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel project scientist, added:

“This study suggests that the distinctive Ant Nebula as we see it today was created by the complex nature of a binary star system, which influences the shape, chemical properties, and evolution in these final stages of a star’s life. Herschel offered the perfect observing capabilities to detect this extraordinary laser in the Ant Nebula. The findings will help constrain the conditions under which this phenomenon occurs, and help us to refine our models of stellar evolution. It is also a happy conclusion that the Herschel mission was able to connect together Menzel’s two discoveries from almost a century ago.”

Next-generation space telescopes that could tell us more about planetary nebula and the life-cycles of stars include the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Once this telescope takes to space in 2020, it will use its advanced infrared capabilities to see objects that are otherwise obscured by gas and dust. These studies could reveal much about the interior structures of nebulae, and perhaps shed light on why they periodically shoot out “space lasers”.

Further Reading: University of Manchester, ESA, MNRAS

2007 OR10 Needs A Name. We Suggest Dwarfplanet McDwarfplanetyface

Results of a study combining Kepler observations with Herschel data show that 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third largest overall. Illustration: Konkoly Observatory/András Pál, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Iván Éder, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Depending on shifting definitions of what exactly is or isn’t a dwarf planet, our Solar System has about half a dozen dwarf planets. They are: Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Ceres, and 2007 OR10.

Even though 2007 OR10’s name makes it stand out from the rest, dwarf planets as a group are an odd bunch. They spend their time in the cold, outer reaches of the Solar System, with Ceres being the only exception. Ceres resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Their distance from Earth makes them difficult targets for observation, even with the largest telescopes we have. Even the keen eye of the Hubble Telescope, orbiting above Earth’s view-inhibiting atmosphere, struggles to get a good look at the dwarf planets. But astronomers using the Kepler spacecraft discovered that its extreme light sensitivity have made it a useful tool to study the dwarves.

In a paper published in The Astronomical Journal, a team led by Andras Pal, at Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, have refined the measurement of 2007 OR10. Using the Kepler’s observational prowess, and combining it with archival data from the Herschel Space Observatory, the team has come up with a much more detailed understanding of 2007 OR10.

Previously, 2007 OR10 was thought to be about 1280 km (795 miles) in diameter. But the problem is the dwarf planet was only a faint, tiny, and distant point of light. Astronomers knew it was there, but didn’t know much else. Objects as far away as 2007 OR10, which is currently twice as far away from the Sun as Pluto is, can either be small, bright objects, or much larger, dimmer objects that reflect less light.

This is where the Kepler came in. It has exquisite sensitivity to tiny changes in light. Its whole mission is built around that sensitivity. It’s what has made Kepler such an effective tool for identifying exo-planets. Pointing it towards a tiny target like 2007 OR10, and monitoring the reflected light as the object rotates, is a logical use for Kepler.

Even so, Kepler alone wasn’t able to give the team a thorough understanding of the dwarf planet with the clumsy name.

Enter the Herschel Space Observatory, a powerful infrared space telescope. Herschel and its 3.5 metre (11.5 ft.) mirror were in operation at LaGrange 2 from 2009 to 2013. Herschel discovered many things in its mission-span, including solid evidence for comets being the source of water for planets, including Earth.

But the Herschel Observatory also bequeathed an enormous archive of data to astronomers and other space scientists. And that data was crucial to the new measurement of 2007 OR10.

Combining data and observations from multiple sources is not uncommon, and is often the only way to learn much about distant, tiny objects. In this case, the two telescopes were together able to determine the amount of sunlight reflected by the dwarf planet, using Kepler’s light sensitivity, and then measure the amount of that light later radiated back as heat, using Herschel’s infrared capabilities.

Combining those datasets gave a much clearer idea of the size, and reflectivity, of 2007 OR10. In this case, the team behind the new paper was able to determine that 2007 OR10 was significantly larger than previously thought. It’s measured size is now 1535 km (955 mi) in diameter. This is 255 km (160 mi) larger than previously measured.

It also tells us that the dwarf planet’s gravity is stronger, and the surface darker, than previously measured. This further cements the oddball status of 2007 OR10, since other dwarf planets are much brighter. Other observations of the planet have shown that is has a reddish color, which could be the result of methane ice on the surface.

Lead researcher Andras Pal said, “Our revised larger size for 2007 OR10 makes it increasingly likely the planet is covered in volatile ices of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen, which would be easily lost to space by a smaller object. It’s thrilling to tease out details like this about a distant, new world — especially since it has such an exceptionally dark and reddish surface for its size.”

Now that more is known about 2007 OR10, perhaps its time it was given a better name, something that’s easier to remember and that helps it fit in with its peer planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. According to convention, the honor of naming it goes to the planet’s discoverers, Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown and David Rabinowitz. They discovered it in 2007 during a search for distant bodies in the Solar System.

According to Schwamb, “The names of Pluto-sized bodies each tell a story about the characteristics of their respective objects. In the past, we haven’t known enough about 2007 OR10 to give it a name that would do it justice. I think we’re coming to a point where we can give 2007 OR10 its rightful name.”

The Universe is vast, and we need some numbered, structured way to name everything. And these names have to mean something scientifically. That’s why objects end up with names like 2007 OR10, or SDSS J0100+2802, the name given to a distant, ancient quasar. But objects closer to home, and certainly everything in our Solar System, deserves a more memory-friendly name.

So what’s it going to be? If you think you have a great name for the oddball dwarf named 2007 OR10, let us hear it in a tweet, or in the comments section.

The Dwarf Planet (and Plutoid) Makemake

In 2003, astronomer Mike Brown and his team from Caltech began a discovery process which would change the way we think of our Solar System. Initially, it was the discovery of a body with a comparable mass to Pluto (Eris) that challenged the definition of the word “planet”. But in the months and years that followed, more discoveries would be made that further underlined the need for a new system of classification.

This included the discovery of Haumea, Orcus and Salacia in 2004, and Makemake in 2005. Like many other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) discovered in the past decade, this planet’s status is the subject of some debate. However, the IAU was quick to designate it as the fourth dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third “Plutoid“.

Discovery and Naming:

Makemake was discovered on March 31st, 2005, at the Palomar Observatory by a team consisting of Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rainowitz. The discovery was announced to the public on July 29th, 2005, coincident with the announcement of the discovery of Eris. Originally, Brown and his team had been intent on waiting for further confirmation, but chose to proceed after a different team in Spain announced the discovery of Haumea on July 27th.

The provisional designation of 2005 FY9 was given to Makemake when the discovery was first made public. Before that, the discovery team used the codename “Easterbunny” for the object, because it was observed shortly after Easter. In July of 2008, in accordance with IAU rules for classical Kuiper Belt Objects, 2005 FY9 was given the name of a creator deity.

 Photograph of Makemake taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Mike Brown
Photograph of Makemake taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Mike Brown

In order to preserve the object’s connection with Easter, the object was given a name derived from the mythos of the Rapa Nui (the native people of Easter Island) to whom Makemake is the creator God. It was officially classified as a dwarf planet and a plutoid by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) on July 19th, 2008.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Based on infrared observations conducted by Brown and his team using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which were compared to similar observations made by the Herschel Space Telescope, an estimated diameter of 1,360 – 1,480 km was made. Subsequent observations made during the 2011 stellar occulation by Makemake produced estimated dimensions of 1502 ± 45 × 1430 ± 9 km.

Estimates of its mass place it in the vicinity of 4 x 10²¹ kg (4,000,000,000 trillion kg), which is the equivalent of 0.00067 Earths. This makes Makemake the third largest known Trans-Neptunian Object (TNOs) – smaller than Pluto and Eris, and slightly larger than Haumea.

Makemake has a slightly eccentric orbit (of 0.159), which ranges from 38.590 AU (5.76 billion km/3.58 billion mi) at perihelion to 52.840 AU ( 7.94 billion km or 4.934 billion miles) at aphelion. It has an orbital period of 309.09 Earth years, and takes about 7.77 Earth hours to complete a single sidereal rotation. This means that a single day on Makemake is less than 8 hours and a single year last as long as 112,897 days.

A selection of dwarf planets, sometimes considered trans-Neptunian objects depending on their interactions with the planet Neptune. Credit: NASA/STSci
A selection of dwarf planets, sometimes considered trans-Neptunian objects depending on their interactions with the planet Neptune. Credit: NASA/STSci

As a classical Kuiper Belt Object, Makemake’s orbit lies far enough from Neptune to remain stable over the age of the Solar System. Unlike plutinos, which can cross Neptune’s orbit, classical KBOs are free from Neptune’s perturbation. Such objects have relatively low eccentricities (below 0.2) and orbit the Sun in much the same way the planets do. Makemake, however, is a member of the “dynamically hot” class of classical KBOs, meaning that it has a high inclination compared to others in its population.

Composition and Surface:

With an estimated mean density of 1.4–3.2 g/cm³, Makemake is believed to be differentiated between an icy surface and a rocky core. Like Pluto and Eris, the surface ice is believed to be composed largely of frozen methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6). Though evidence exists for traces of nitrogen ice as well, it is nowhere near as prevalent as with Pluto or Triton.

Javier Licandro and his colleagues at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias performed examinations of Makemake using the William Herschel Telescope and Telescopio Nazionale Galileo. According to their findings, Makemake has a very bright surface (with a surface albedo of 0.81) which means it closely resembles that of Pluto.

In essence, it appears reddish in color (significantly more so than Eris), which also indicates strong concentrations of tholins in the surface ice. This is consistent with the presence of methane ice, which would have turned red due to exposure to solar radiation over time.

Atmosphere:

During it’s 2011 occultation with an 18th-magnitutde star, Makemake abruptly blocked all of its light. These results showed that Makemake lacks a substantial atmosphere, which contradicted earlier assumptions about it having an atmosphere comparable to that of Pluto. However, the presence of methane and possibly nitrogen suggests that Makemake could have a transient atmosphere similar to that of Pluto when it reaches perihelion.

Makemake. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the surface of Makemake. Credit: NASA

Essentially, when Makemake is closest to the Sun, nitrogen and other ices would sublimate, forming a tenuous atmosphere composed of nitrogen gas and hydrocarbons. The existence of an atmosphere would also provide a natural explanation for the nitrogen depletion, which could have been lost over time through the process of atmospheric escape.

Moon:

In April of 2016, observations using the Hubble Space Telescope‘s Wide Field Camera 3 revealed that Makemake had a natural satellite – which was designated S/2015 (136472) 1 (nicknamed MK 2 by the discovery team). It is estimated to be 175 km (110 mi) km in diameter and has a semi-major axis at least 21,000 km (13,000 mi) from Makemake.

Exploration:

Currently, no missions have been planned to the Kuiper Belt for the purpose of conducting a survey of Makemake. However, it has been calculated that – based on a launch date of August 21st, 2024, and August 24th, 2036 – a flyby mission to Makemake could take just over 16 years, using a Jupiter gravity assist. On either occasion, Makemake would be approximately 52 AU from the Sun when the spacecraft arrives.

Makemake is now the fourth designated dwarf planet in the solar system, and the third Plutoid. In the coming years, it is likely to be joined several more objects in the Trans-Neptunian region that are similar in size, mass, and orbit. And assuming we mount a flyby to the region, we may discover many similar objects, and learn a great deal more about this one.

We have many interesting articles on Makemake and the Kuiper Belt here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Planets are in the Solar System, and Makemake’s Mysterious Atmosphere.

Sources:

‘Weird’ Dust Ring Baffles In Cloud That Will Give Birth To Giant Stars

Long after telescopes cease operating, their bounty of scientific data continues to amaze. Here’s an example of that: this Herschel Space Telescope image of this dust and gas cloud about 8,000 light-years away.

The examination of NGC 7358 revealed a “weird” dusty ring in the cloud — nobody quite knows how it got there — as well as a baker’s dozen of huge dust clumps that could one day form gigantic stars.

“The 13 clumps spotted in NGC 7358, some of which lie along the edge of the mystery ring, all are more than 40 times more massive than the sun,” NASA stated.

“The clumps gravitationally collapse in on themselves, growing denser and hotter in their cores until nuclear fusion ignites and a star is born. For now, early in the star-formation process, the clumps remain quite cold, just a few tens of degrees above absolute zero. At these temperatures, the clumps emit the bulk of their radiation in the low-energy, submillimeter and infrared light that Herschel was specifically designed to detect.”

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI
Artist’s impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

More observations are planned to learn about the nature of the dusty ring. So far, astronomers can say it is 35 light-years at its longest axis, 25 light-years at its shortest-axis, and has a mass of about 500 times of the sun. The astronomers took a look at it with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii to gain some more information.

“Astronomers often see ring and bubble-like structures in cosmic dust clouds,” NASA added.” The strong winds cast out by the most massive stars, called O-type stars, can generate these expanding puffs, as can their explosive deaths as supernovas. But no energetic source or remnant of a deceased O-type star, such as a neutron star, is apparent within the center of this ring. It is possible that a big star blew the bubble and, because stars are all in motion, subsequently left the scene, escaping detection.”

While the research was published in the Astrophysical Journal about a year ago, the image appears to be a new entry on NASA’s and Herschel’s websites. You can also read the paper (led by Cassandra Fallscheer, a visiting assistant professor of astronomy at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington) in preprint version on Arxiv.

The Herschel telescope was shut down almost exactly a year ago after the liquid helium that cooled its instruments ran out.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Pushy Black Holes Stop Elliptical Galaxies From Forming Stars

Contradicting past theories, cold gas has been found in abundance in some elliptical galaxies — showing that there must be some other explanation why these types of galaxies don’t form new stars. Astronomers believe that the jets from supermassive black holes in these galaxies’ center must push around the gas and prevent stars from forming.

Researchers spotted the gas for the first time using old data from the recently retired Herschel space observatory, which was able to peer well into the infrared — where it spotted carbon ions and oxygen atoms. This find stands against the previous belief that these galaxies were “red and dead”, referring to their physical appearance and the fact that they form no new stars.

“We looked at eight giant elliptical galaxies that nobody had looked at with Herschel before and we were delighted to find that, contrary to previous belief, six out of eight abound with cold gas”, stated Norbert Werner, a researcher at Stanford University in California who led the study.

“These galaxies are red, but with the giant black holes pumping in their hearts, they are definitely not dead,” added Werner.

NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light years from Earth.  Credit: NASA, Chandra
NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light years from Earth. Credit: NASA, Chandra

Previously, scientists thought that the galaxies got rid of their cold gas or had used it all up during a burst of earlier star formation. With cold gas found in the majority of the sample, researchers then used other observatories to try to find warmer gas up to tens of millions of Kelvin (or Fahrenheit or Celsius).

X-ray information from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory revealed that there is hot gas cooling in six of the eight galaxies, but not in the remaining two of the sample.

“This is consistent with theoretical expectations: once cooled, the hot gas would become the warm and cold gas that are observed at longer wavelengths. However, in these galaxies the cooling process somehow stopped, and the cold gas failed to condense and form stars,” the European Space Agency stated.

“While the six galaxies with plenty of cold gas harbour moderately active black holes at their centres,” ESA added, “the other two show a marked difference. In the two galaxies without cold gas, the central black holes are accreting matter at frenzied pace, as confirmed by radio observations showing powerful jets of highly energetic particles that stem from their cores.”

You can read more about the research in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society or in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: European Space Agency

Speedy Science: Here’s Four Years Of Herschel Telescope Work In A Short Video

In just one minute, you can watch the Herschel space telescope painting the sky blue, green and yellow! The colors in this new video represent four years of observations from the European Space Agency telescope, which was active between 2009 and 2013.

“In total, Herschel observed almost a tenth of the entire sky for over 23,500 hours, providing new views into the previously hidden universe, pointing to unseen star birth and galaxy formation, and tracing water through the universe from molecular clouds to newborn stars and to their planet-forming discs and belts of comets,” ESA stated on a video explanation.

As ESA explains, Herschel had two cameras and imaging spectrometers on board, called PACS (Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer, in blue) and SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver, in green). When they worked together, their observations are shown in yellow.

Herschel was officially shut down on June 17 — check out the video of those commands here — but the scientific information the telescope produced is still being plumbed by astronomers.

Source: ESA

 

ALMA Spots a Nascent Stellar Monster

Even though it comprises over 99% of the mass of the Solar System (with Jupiter taking up most of the rest) our Sun is, in terms of the entire Milky Way, a fairly average star. There are lots of less massive stars than the Sun out there in the galaxy, as well as some real stellar monsters… and based on new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, there’s about to be one more.

Early science observations with ALMA have provided astronomers with the best view yet of a monster star in the process of forming within a dark cloud of dust and gas. Located 11,000 light-years away, Spitzer Dark Cloud 335.579-0.292 is a stellar womb containing over 500 times the mass of the Sun — and it’s still growing. Inside this cloud is an embryonic star hungrily feeding on inwardly-flowing material, and when it’s born it’s expected to be at least 100 times the mass of our Sun… a true stellar monster.

The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)
The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)

The star-forming region is the largest ever found in our galaxy.

“The remarkable observations from ALMA allowed us to get the first really in-depth look at what was going on within this cloud,” said Nicolas Peretto of CEA/AIM Paris-Saclay, France, and Cardiff University, UK. “We wanted to see how monster stars form and grow, and we certainly achieved our aim! One of the sources we have found is an absolute giant — the largest protostellar core ever spotted in the Milky Way.”

Watch: What’s the Biggest Star in the Universe?

SDC 335.579-0.292 had already been identified with NASA’s Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel space telescopes, but it took the unique sensitivity of ALMA to observe in detail both the amount of dust present and the motion of the gas within the dark cloud, revealing the massive embryonic star inside.

“Not only are these stars rare, but their birth is extremely rapid and their childhood is short, so finding such a massive object so early in its evolution is a spectacular result.”

– Team member Gary Fuller, University of Manchester, UK

The image above, a combination of data acquired by both Spitzer and ALMA (see below for separate images) shows tendrils of infalling material flowing toward a bright center where the huge protostar is located. These observations show how such massive stars form — through a steady collapse of the entire cloud, rather than through fragmented clustering.

SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.
SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.

“Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its center,” said Peretto. “This object is expected to form a star that is up to 100 times more massive than the Sun. Only about one in ten thousand of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass!”

(Although, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, that means there are still 20 million such giants roaming around out there!)

Read more on the ESO news release here.

Image credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE

Astronomers Capture Images of Herschel Telescope Heading Toward its ‘Graveyard’ Orbit

A pair of astronomers has proved that we haven’t seen the last of the Herschel Space Observatory! On June 17, 2013, engineers for the Herschel space telescope sent final commands to put the decommissioned observatory into its “graveyard” heliocentric parking orbit, after the liquid helium that cooled the observatory’s instruments was depleted. Now, Nick Howes and Ernesto Guido from the Remanzacco Observatory have used the 2 meter Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii to take a picture of the infrared observatory as it is moving away from its orbit around the L2 LaGrange Point where it spent the entirety of its mission.

Howes told Universe Today that their observations not only improve future chances of it being seen, but also will help astronomers in that the observatory won’t be mistaken for a new asteroid.

“We saw a potential issue here,” Howes said via email, “as the spacecraft would be in a slow tumble, receding from its stable L2 orbit, subjected to solar radiation pressure. And as ESA’s ground stations were no longer communicating with it, so we wanted to basically check the orbits and make sure that for future science, it was not mistakenly detected as an asteroid.”

The Herschel Telescope was imaged by Nick Howes and Ernesto Guido using Faulkes Telescope North in Haleakala, Hawaii, on June 26, 2013.
The Herschel Telescope was imaged by Nick Howes and Ernesto Guido using Faulkes Telescope North in Haleakala, Hawaii, on June 26, 2013.

When Howes and Guido realized that JPL’s Horizons coordinate system — which generates coordinates for objects in space like Herschel — would be suspending coordinates for the observatory from the end of June, they quickly and urgently used the information they had on Herschel’s movements to make their observations.

“The ephemeris from JPL and the Minor Planet Center varied,” Howes said, “and appeared to show quite different long term positions, so we took the initiative to try to help make sure this orbit was better understood. We knew ESA’s scientists had a pretty good handle on the position, but were perplexed by the variance in the coordinates being generated by the two ephemeris systems”

Radiation pressure and a host of other factors would have and will continue to affect the position of the spacecraft, but with it getting fainter by the day, Howes and Guido made the effort by taking two nights of observations to try and find Herschel as it drifted away from L2.

“Imaging a several metre wide spacecraft at over 2.1 million km from Earth in an orbit that was not quite precise, and a tumbling spacecraft is not an easy task, at the faint magnitudes it theoretically could have been at, ” said Guido, who helps manage the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy. “And while we found what we thought could be it on the first night, our calculations would need to be verified by observing it on a second night to validate that it was indeed Herschel.”

The orbit of Herschel during its mission. Credit: ESA.
The orbit of Herschel during its mission. Credit: ESA.

Howes, who’d written about Herschel when working in science communications for ESA, contacted several of the mission team via emails, who gave valuable advice on the effects of the final orbital burn.

“We effectively had three possible locations to hunt in,” Howes said, “and luckily, as rain at one of our telescope sites stopped our plans for the third run, and nothing showed up in our first coordinates, we managed to get it in the second set of images, exactly where we thought it could be, with the correct data for its motion, position angle and other orbital characteristics. Ernesto worked on the data reduction for these images, and after about 30 minutes of frantic discussion, said ‘I think I’ve found it.’”

The team have filed their data with the Minor Planet Center, and have worked closely with astronomers at Kitt Peak, who also imaged the Observatory, further refining the observing arc, passing their coordinates even on to astronomers in Chile, with significantly larger telescopes to get even more images of it.

The Faulkes Telescope Project is based at the University of South Wales, and the telescopes are operated by the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. The telescopes are also used for educational purposes, and schools using the Faulkes Telescope will be able to follow Herschel as she leaves her orbit to wander around the Sun. It will return to our neck of the Solar System around 2027/2028 (astrometry measured by Howes and Guido is factoring in radiation pressure, so the values are approximate), when it will return at around magnitude 21.7.

“We’ve engaged schools in this project as it’s great for learning astrometry, and photometry as well as a fun thing to do, and they’ve also been making animations from our data.”

Howes and Guido hope that the updated information will help others keep an eye on the telescope in the future. “It’s been an exciting week, and we wanted to say thank you to ESA for building such a magnificent telescope,” Howes said. “We just wanted to give it a good send off!”

Final Command Shuts Down Herschel Telescope

We knew it was coming, but it is still sad to see the end of a mission. Controllers for the Herschel space telescope sent final commands today to put the observatory into a heliocentric parking orbit. Commands were sent at 12:25 GMT on June 17, 2013, marking the official end of operations for Herschel. But expect more news from this spacecraft’s observations, as there is still a treasure trove of data that that will keep astronomers busy for many years to come. Additionally, maneuvers done by the spacecraft allowed engineers to test out control techniques that can’t normally be tested in-flight during a mission.

You can watch a video of Herschel’s final “live” moments below:

Herschel’s science mission had already ended in April when the liquid helium that cooled the observatory’s instruments ran out.

Herschel will now be parked indefinitely in a heliocentric orbit, as a way of “disposing” of the spacecraft. It should be stable for hundreds of years, but perhaps scientists will figure out another use for it in the future. One original idea for disposing of the spacecraft was to have it impact the Moon, a la the LCROSS mission that slammed into the Moon in 2009, and it would kick up volatiles at one of the lunar poles for observation by another spacecraft, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But that idea has been nixed in favor of the parking orbit.

Some of the maneuvers that were tested before the spacecraft was put into its final orbit were some in-orbit validations and analysis of hardware and software.

ESA's Herschel telescope used liquid helium to keep cool while it observed heat from the early Universe. Credit: ESA
ESA’s Herschel telescope used liquid helium to keep cool while it observed heat from the early Universe. Credit: ESA

“Normally, our top goal is to maximise scientific return, and we never do anything that might interrupt observations or put the satellite at risk,” says Micha Schmidt, Herschel’s Spacecraft Operations Manager at the European Space Operations Center. “But the end of science meant we had a sophisticated spacecraft at our disposal on which we could conduct technical testing and validate techniques, software and the functionality of systems that are going to be reused on future spacecraft. This was a major bonus for us.”

The test requests came from other missions. For example, the ExoMars team requested doing some validations using Herschel’s Visual Monitoring Camera since ExoMars will have a similar camera, and the Euclid spacecraft team asked for some reaction wheel tests.
On May 13-14, engineers commanded Herschel to fire its thrusters for a record 7-hours and 45-minutes. This ensured the satellite was boosted away from its operational orbit around the L2 Sun–Earth Lagrange Point and into a heliocentric orbit, further out and slower than Earth’s orbit. This depleted most of the fuel, and the final thruster command today used up all of the remaining fuel. Today’s final command was the last step in a complex series of flight control activities and thruster maneuvers designed to take Herschel into a safe disposal orbit around the Sun; additionally all its systems were turned off.

“Herschel has not only been an immensely successful scientific mission, it has also served as a valuable flight operations test platform in its final weeks of flight. This will help us increase the robustness and flexibility of future missions operations,” said Paolo Ferri, ESA’s Head of Mission Operations. “Europe really received excellent value from this magnificent satellite.”

Source: ESA

Milky Way’s Black Hole Munches On Supercooked Gas

It’s a simple menu, but smoking hot. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy is sucking in ultra-hot molecular gas, as seen through the eyes of the Herschel space telescope.

“The biggest surprise was quite how hot the molecular gas in the innermost central region of the galaxy gets. At least some of it is around 1000ºC [1832º F], much hotter than typical interstellar clouds, which are usually only a few tens of degrees above the –273ºC [-460ºF] of absolute zero,” stated the European Space Agency.

Herschel, which is out of coolant and winding down its scientific operations, will continue producing results in the next few years as scientists crunch the results. The telescope has found a bunch of basic molecules in the Milky Way that include water vapour and carbon monoxide, and has been engaged in looking to learn more about the gas that surrounds the massive black hole at our galaxy’s center.

In a region called Sagittarius* (Sgr A*), this huge black hole — four million times the mass of the sun — is thankfully a safe distance from Earth. It’s 26,000 light years away from the solar system.

At left, ionized gas in the galaxy as seen in radio wavelengths; at right, the spectrum at the center seen by Herschel. Credit: Radio-wavelength image: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Very Large Array (courtesy of C. Lang); spectrum: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE/J.R. Goicoechea et al. (2013).
At left, ionized gas in the galaxy as seen in radio wavelengths; at right, the spectrum at the center seen by Herschel. Credit: Radio-wavelength image: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Very Large Array (courtesy of C. Lang); spectrum: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE/J.R. Goicoechea et al. (2013).

Trouble is, there’s a heckuva lot of dust blocking our view to the center of the galaxy. Herschel got around that problem by taking pictures in the far-infrared, seeking heat signatures that can bely intense activity in and around the black hole.

“Herschel has resolved the far-infrared emission within just 1 light-year of the black hole, making it possible for the first time at these wavelengths to separate emission due to the central cavity from that of the surrounding dense molecular disc,” stated Javier Goicoechea of the Centro de Astrobiología, Spain, lead author of a paper reporting the results.

The science team supposes that there are strong shocks within the gas (which is magnetized) that help turn up the heat. The shocks could occur when gas clouds butt up against each other, or material shoots out Fast and Furious-style between stars and protostars (young stars.)

“The observations are also consistent with streamers of hot gas speeding towards Sgr A*, falling towards the very center of the galaxy,” stated Goicoechea. “Our galaxy’s black hole may be cooking its dinner right in front of Herschel’s eyes.”

Source: ESA