Gas, Not Galaxy Collisions Responsible for Star Formation in Early Universe


Was the universe a kinder, gentler place in the past that we have thought? The Herschel space observatory has looked back across time with its infrared eyes and has seen that galaxy collisions played only a minor role in triggering star births in the past, even though today the birth of stars always seem to be generated by galaxies crashing into each other. So what was the fuel for star formation in the past?

Simple. Gas.

The more gas a galaxy contained, the more stars were born.

Scientists say this finding overturns a long-held assumption and paints a nobler picture of how galaxies evolve.

Astronomers have known that the rate of star formation peaked in the early Universe, about 10 billion years ago. Back then, some galaxies were forming stars ten or even a hundred times more vigorously than is happening in our Galaxy today.

In the nearby, present-day Universe, such high birth rates are very rare and always seem to be triggered by galaxies colliding with each other. So, astronomers had assumed that this was true throughout history.

GOODS-North is a patch of sky in the northern hemisphere that covers an area of about a third the size of the Full Moon. Credit: ESA/GOODS-Herschel consortium/David Elbaz

But Herschel’s observations of two patches of sky show a different story.

Looking at these regions of the sky, each about a third of the size of the full Moon, Herschel has seen more than a thousand galaxies at a variety of distances from the Earth, spanning 80% of the age of the cosmos.

In analyzing the Herschel data, David Elbaz, from CEA Saclay in France, and his team found that even though some galaxies in the past were creating stars at incredible rates, galaxy collisions played only a minor role in triggering star births. The astronomers were able to compare the amount of infrared light released at different wavelengths by these galaxies, the team has shown that the star birth rate depends on the quantity of gas they contain, not whether they are colliding.

They say these observations are unique because Herschel can study a wide range of infrared light and reveal a more complete picture of star birth than ever seen before.

However, their work compliments other recent studies from data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope which found ancient galaxies fed on gas,not collisions

“It’s only in those galaxies that do not already have a lot of gas that collisions are needed to provide the gas and trigger high rates of star formation,” said Elbaz.

Today’s galaxies have used up most of their gaseous raw material after forming stars for more than 10 billion years, so they do rely on collisions to jump-start star formation, but in the past galaxies grew slowly and gently from the gas that they attracted from their surroundings.

This study was part of the GOODS observations with Herschel, the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey.

Read the team’s paper in Astronomy & Astrophysics: GOODS–Herschel: an infrared main sequence for star-forming galaxies’ by D. Elbaz et al.

Source: ESA

Book Review: A Dictionary of the Space Age

Writing a dictionary is not the same as writing a novel. While it might seem difficult to mess up a dictionary, even one with terminology that is as complicated as that used within the space industry – getting it right can be challenging. For those that follow space flight having such a dictionary can be invaluable. While A Dictionary of the Space Age does meet the basic requirements easily it fails somewhat in terms of its comprehensiveness.

When normal folks, even space enthusiasts watch launches and other space-related events (EVAs, dockings, landings and such) there are so many acronyms and jargon thrown about – that it is extremely hard to follow. With A Dictionary of the Space Age on hand, one can simply thumb through and find out exactly what is being said, making it both easier to follow along and making the endeavor being witnessed far more inclusive. That is as long if you are only looking for the most general of terms. The book is far from complete – but given the complex nature of the topic – this might not have been possible.

Crewed, unmanned, military space efforts and satellites – all have key terms addressed within the pages of this book.

The book is published by The Johns Hopkins University Press and was compiled and written by aerospace expert Paul Dickson. One can purchase the book on the secondary market ( for around $12 (new for around $25). The dictionary also has a Kindle edition which is available for $37.76. Dickson’s previous works on space flight is Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.

Weighing in at 288 pages, the book briefly covers the primary terms used within the space community. In short, if you are interested in learning more about space flight – or wish to do so – this is a good book for you.

Enceladus Rains Water on Saturn


It’s raining on Saturn! Well, kind of. Actually, not really. But there’s some really cool news about Saturn, Enceladus and water – great topics, all. The bubbly water shooting from the moon Enceladus is responsible for the “mystery” water that was found in Saturn’s upper atmosphere several years ago. Observations with the Herschel space observatory has shown that water ice from geysers on Enceladus forms a giant ring of water vapor around Saturn.

Astronomers from the ESA’s Infrared Observatory discovered the presence of trace amounts of water in Saturn’s atmosphere back in 1997, but couldn’t really find an explanation for why it was there and how it got there. Water vapor can’t be seen in visible light, but Herschel’s infrared vision was able to track down the source of the water vapor.

Enceladus expels around 250 kg of water vapor every second, through a collection of jets from the south polar region known as the Tiger Stripes because of their distinctive surface markings. Much of the ice ends up in orbit around Saturn, creating the hazy E ring in which Enceladus resides.

But a small amount reaches Saturn – about 3% to 5% of Enceladus’s ejected water ends up on the home planet of Saturn.

Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer figured out that a decent rain shower on Earth is 7,000,000,000,000 times heavier than the rainfall on Saturn. So, not a lot of water makes it to Saturn.

But the fact that a moon is having an effect on its planet is unprecedented, as far as we know.

“There is no analogy to this behaviour on Earth,” said Paul Hartogh, Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung, in Germany, who led the collaboration on the analysis of these results. “No significant quantities of water enter our atmosphere from space. This is unique to Saturn.”

The running theory is that Enceladus has a liquid subsurface ocean of Perrier-like bubbly (and maybe salty) water. No one knows yet how much water lies beneath the moon’s surface, but it is thought that the pressure from the rock and ice layers above combined with heat from within force the water up through the Tiger Stripes. When this water reaches the surface it instantly freezes, sending plumes of ice particles hundreds of miles into space.

The total width of the torus is more than 10 times the radius of Saturn, yet it is only about one Saturn radius thick. Enceladus orbits the planet at a distance of about four Saturn radii, replenishing the torus with its jets of water.

The water in Saturn’s upper atmosphere is ultimately transported to lower levels, where it condenses. But scientists say the amounts are so tiny that the resulting clouds are not observable.

Again, despite its enormous size, this torus has it has escaped detection until now because of how water vapor is transparent to visible light but not at the infrared wavelengths Herschel was designed to see.

“Herschel has proved its worth again. These are observations that only Herschel can make,” says Göran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel Project Scientist. “ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory found the water vapour in Saturn’s atmosphere. Then NASA/ESA’s Cassini/Huygens mission found the jets of Enceladus. Now Herschel has shown how to fit all these observations together.”

Read the team’s paper here.

Source: ESA

Herschel Telescope Sees a Twisted Ring at Our Galaxy’s Center


From a Herschel Observatory press release:

Observations with Herschel have revealed unprecedented views of a ring in the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. The ribbon of gas and dust is more than 600 light years across and appears to be twisted, for reasons which have yet to be explained. The origin of the ring could provide insight into the history of the Milky Way.

Professor Bruce Swinyard of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory said “Herschel’s detectors are ideally suited to see through the dust lying between us and the center of our galaxy, and to find the relatively cold material, at only 15 degrees above absolute zero, which we have learned makes up the ring.” The new results are published in a recent issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Warmer gas and dust from the center of our galaxy is shown in blue in the above image, while the colder material appears red. The ring, in yellow, is made of gas and dust at a temperature of just 15 degrees above absolute zero. The bright regions are denser, and include some of the most massive and active sites of star formation in our galaxy.

An annotated view of the 'twist' in the galactic center as seen by the Herschel telescope. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Hints of this feature were seen in previous images of the Galactic Centre made from the ground, but no-one realised what it was,” explained Dr. Mark Thompson of the University of Hertfordshire. “It was not until the launch of Herschel, with its unparalleled wavelength coverage, that we could measure the temperature of the dust clouds and determine its true nature.”

The central region of our galaxy is dominated by a bar-like structure, which stirs up the material in the outer galaxy as it rotates over millions of years and is thought to be responsible for its spiral structure. The ring seen by Herschel lies right in the middle of this bar, encircling the region which harbors a super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Professor Glenn White of The Open University and The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory said that “although bars have been seen in other galaxies, this ring of cold material revealed by Herschel, and the way it twists around the Galactic Centre, were completely unexpected, revealing several surprises.”

Firstly, the ring of gas is twisted, so from our vantage point we see two loops which appear to meet in the middle. These are seen in yellow in the image above, tilted slightly such that they run from top-left to bottom-right. Secondly, it seems to be slightly offset from the very center of our Galaxy, where a super-massive black hole lurks. “This is what is so exciting about launching a new space telescope like Herschel,” said Sergio Molinari of the Institute of Space Physics in Rome, Italy, lead author of the new paper. “We have a new and exciting mystery on our hands, right at the center of our own galaxy.”

The reason for the ring’s twist and offset are unknown, but understanding their origin may help explain the origin of the ring itself. Computer simulations indicate that bars and rings such as those we see in the center of our galaxy can be formed by gravitational interactions. It is possible that the structures in the heart of the Milky Way were caused by interactions with our largest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

“Like all good science experiments, Herschel is creating as many questions as it answers”, said Professor Matt Griffin, of the University of Cardiff, and Principle Investigator on one of Herschel’s detectors used in this study. “Unravelling the mystery of this ring could help us to explore the processes which have taken place deep in the heart of our Galaxy over billions of years.”

See the “twist” in Chromoscope or Google Sky.