On Jan. 30th, 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was retired after sixteen years of faithful service. As one of the four NASA Great Observatories – alongside Hubble, Chandra, and Compton space telescopes – Spitzer was dedicated to studying the Universe in infrared light. In so doing, it provided new insights into our Universe and enabled the study of objects and phenomena that would otherwise be impossible.
For instance, Spitzer was the first telescope to see light from an exoplanet and made important discoveries about comets, stars, and distant galaxies. It is therefore fitting that mission scientists decided to spend the last five days before the telescope was to be decommissioned capturing breathtaking images of the California Nebula, which were stitched into a mosaic and recently released to the public.
In 2017, an international team of astronomers announced a momentous discovery. Based on years of observations, they found that the TRAPPIST-1 system (an M-type red dwarf located 40 light-years from Earth) contained no less than seven rocky planets! Equally exciting was the fact that three of these planets were found within the star’s Habitable Zone (HZ), and that the system itself has had 8 billion years to develop the chemistry for life.
At the same time, the fact that these planets orbit tightly around a red dwarf star has given rise to doubts that these three planets could maintain an atmosphere or liquid water for very long. According to new research by an international team of astronomers, it all comes down to the composition of the debris disk that the planets formed from and whether or not comets were around to distribute water afterward.
The history of our Solar System is punctuated with collisions. Collisions helped create the terrestrial planets and end the reign of the dinosaurs. And a massive collision between Earth and an ancient body named Theia likely created the Moon.
Now astronomers have found of evidence of a collision between two exoplanets in a distant solar system.
When it comes to the first galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to understand the formation of those galaxies and their link to the underlying dark matter. In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible (a.k.a. “dark”), but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. A lot of dust.
That’s right: good old-fashioned dust. And thanks to some fancy simulations, we’re beginning to clear up the picture.
We need to talk about the dark ages. No, not those dark ages after the fall of the western Roman Empire. The cosmological dark ages. The time in our universe, billions of years ago, before the formation of the first stars. And we need to talk about the cosmic dawn: the birth of those first stars, a tumultuous epoch that completely reshaped the face the cosmos into its modern form.
Those first stars may have been completely unlike anything we see in the present universe. And we may, if we’re lucky, be on the cusp of seeing them for the first time.
Our universe is capable of some truly frightening scenarios, and in this case we have an apparent tragedy: two stars, lifelong companions, decide to move away from the Milky Way galaxy together. But after millions of years of adventure into intergalactic space, one star murders and consumes the other. It now continues its journey through the universe alone, much brighter than before, surrounded by a shell of leftover remnants.
At least, we think. All we have to go on right now is a crime scene.
Imagine, if you will, that the Universe was once a much dirtier place than it is today. Imagine also that what we see around us, a relatively clean and unobscured Universe, is the result of billions of years of stars behaving like giant celestial Roombas, cleaning up the space around them in preparation for our arrival. According to a set of recently published catalogues, which detail the latest findings from the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, this description is actually quite fitting.
These catalogues represents the work of an international team of over 100 astronomers who have spent the past seven years analyzing the infrared images taken by the Herschel Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey (Herschel-ATLAS). Presented earlier this week at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham, this catalogue revealed that 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe looked much different than it does today.
In order to put this research into context, it is important to understand the important of infrared astronomy. Prior to the deployment of missions like Herschel (which was launched in 2009), astronomers were unable to see a good portion of the light emitted by stars and galaxies. With roughly half of this light being absorbed by interstellar dust grains, research into the birth and lives of galaxies was difficult.
But thanks to surveys like Herschel ATLAS – as well NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) – astronomers have been able to account for this missing energy. And what they have seen (especially from this latest survey) has been quite remarkable, presenting a Universe that is far denser than previously expected.
Professor Haley Gomez of Cardiff University presented this catalogue during the third day of the National Astronomy Meeting (which ran from June 27th to July 1st). As she told Universe Today via email:
“The Herschel survey is the largest one of the sky in these special infrared light. Because of this we see rare objects that we might not see in a smaller patch of sky, but also we now see hundreds of thousands of dusty galaxies, compared to the few hundred we saw in previous telescopes. So this is a massive improvement in terms of knowing what kinds of galaxies there are. Some of these are so covered in dust we might never had seen them using visible light telescopes. Because of the unprecedented large area we have with this Herschel survey, we see a huge variety in the type of objects too, from nearby dusty star forming clouds, to nearby dusty galaxies like Andromeda, to galaxies that shone their infrared light more than 12 billion years ago. We can also use this survey to understand the structure of galaxies in the universe – the so-called cosmic web in a way we’ve never been able to do in the far infrared.”
The images they showed gave all those present a glimpse of the unseen stars and galaxies that have existed over the last 12 billion years of cosmic history. In sum, over half-a-million far-infrared sources have been spotted by the Herschel-ATLAS survey. Many of these sources were galaxies that are nearby and similar to our own, and which are detectable using using conventional telescopes.
The others were much more distant, their light taking billions of years to reach us, and were obscured by concentrations of cosmic dust. The most distant of these galaxies were roughly 12 billion light-years away, which means that they appeared as they would have 12 billion years ago.
Ergo, astronomers now know that 12 billion years ago (i.e. shortly after the Big Bang)., stars and galaxies were much dustier than they are now. They further concluded that the evolution of our galaxies since shortly after the Big Bang has essentially been a major clean-up effort, as stars gradually absorbed the dust that obscured their light, thus making it the more “visible” place it is today.
“Gas and dust are the main components of stars: they collapse to form stars and they are ejected at the end of stars’ life. The interesting thing that has been discovered thanks to the Herschel data is that the two phenomena are not in equilibrium. We knew this was true 10 billion years ago, but we expected, according to the current models, that some equilibrium was reached at more recent times. Instead, the amount of dust in galaxies 5 billion years ago was much larger than the amount we see in galaxies today: this was unexpected.”
Until recently, such a survey would have been impossible due to the fact that many of these infrared sources would have been invisible to astronomers. The reason for this, which was revealed by the survey, was that these galaxies were so dusty that they would have been virtually impossible to detect with conventional optics. What’s more, their light would have been gravitationally magnified by intervening galaxies.
The huge size of the survey has also meant that changes that have occurred in galaxies – relatively recent in cosmic history – can be studied for the first time. For instance, the survey showed that even only one billion years in the past, a small fraction of the age of the universe, galaxies were forming stars at a faster rate and contained more dust than they do today.
Dr. Nathan Bourne – from the University of Edinburgh – is the lead author of another other paper describing the catalogues. As he told Universe Today via email:
“We can think of galaxies as big recycling machines. When they form, they accrete gas (mostly hydrogen and helium, with traces of lithium and a couple of other elements) from the universe around them, and they turn it into stars. As time goes on, the stars pump this gas back out into the galaxy, into the interstellar medium. Due to the nuclear processes within the stars, the gas is now enriched by heavy elements (what we call metals, though they include both metals and non-metals), and some of these form microscopic solid particles of dust, as a sort of by-product.
“But there are still stars forming, and the next generations of stars recycle this interstellar material, and now that it contains heavy elements and dust, things are a bit different, and planets can also form around the new stars, from accumulations of this heavy material. So, if you look at the big picture, when the first galaxies started forming within the first billion years after the Big Bang, they began using up the gas around them, and then while they are active they fill their interstellar medium up with gas and dust, but by the end of a galaxy’s lifecycle, it has used up all this gas and dust, and you could say that it has cleaned itself.”
The catalogues and maps of the hidden universe are a triumph for the Herschel team. Despite the fact that the last information obtained by the Herschel observatory was back in 2013, the maps and catalogues produced from its years of service have become vital to astronomers. In addition to showing the Universe’s hidden energy, they are also laying the groundwork for future research.
“Now we need to explain why there is dust where we did not expect to find it.” said Valiante. “And to explain this, we need to change our theories about how the Universe evolves. Our data poses a challenge we have accepted, but we haven’t overcome it yet!”
“[W]e understand a lot more about how galaxies evolve,” added Bourne, “about when most of the stars formed, what happens to the gas and dust as galaxies evolve, and how rapidly the star-forming activity in the Universe as a whole has faded in the latter half of the Universe’s history. It’s fair to say that this understanding comes from having a whole suite of different types of instruments studying different aspects of galaxies in complementary ways, but Herschel has certainly contributed a major part of that effort and will have a lasting legacy.”
Ensuring Herschel’s lasting legacy is one of the main aims of the Herschel Extragalactic Project (HELP) program, which is overseen by the EU Research Executive Agency. Other projects they oversee include the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES), which also released survey data late last month. All of this has left a lasting mark on the field of astronomy, despite the fact that Herschel is no longer in operation. As Professor Gomez said of the Herschel Observatory’s enduring contributions:
“The Herschel Space Observatory stopped taking data in 2013, yet our understanding of the dusty universe is really only just starting with the release of large surveys and galaxy catalogues in recent months. Ultimately, once astronomers have gone through all the valuable data, Herschel will have provided a view of the infrared universe covering 1000 square degrees of the sky.”
The implications of these findings are also likely to have a far-reaching effect, ranging from cosmology and astronomy, to perhaps shedding some light on that tricky Fermi paradox. Could it be intelligent life that emerged billions of years ago didn’t venture to other star systems because they couldn’t see them? Just a thought…
Of the more than 600,000 known asteroids in our Solar System, almost 10 000 are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). These are asteroids or comets whose orbits bring them close to Earth’s, and which could potentially collide with us at some point in the future. As such, monitoring these objects is a vital part of NASA’s ongoing efforts in space. One such mission is NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which has been active since December 2013.
And now, after two years of study, the information gathered by the mission is being released to the public. This included, most recently, NEOWISE’s second year of survey data, which accounted for 72 previously unknown objects that orbit near to our planet. Of these, eight were classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), based on their size and how closely their orbits approach Earth.
The story of KIC 8462852 appears far from over. You’ll recall NASA’s Kepler mission had monitored the star for four years, observing two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when its light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways. Models to explain its erratic behavior were so lacking that some considered the possibility that alien megastructures built to capture sunlight around the host star (think Dyson Spheres) might be the cause.
Shattered comets and asteroids were also suggested as possible explanations — dust and ground-up rock would be at the right temperature to glow in the infrared — but Kepler could only observe in visible light where any debris would be invisible or swamped by the light of the star. So researchers looked through older observations made in 2010 by the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. Unfortunately, WISE observed the star before the strange variations were seen and therefore before any putative dust-busting collisions.
Not to be stymied, astronomers next checked out the data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which like WISE, is optimized for infrared light. Spitzer just happened to observe KIC 8462852 much more recently in 2015.
“Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust,” said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist and the lead investigator of that particular Spitzer/Kepler observing program.
I’d love to report that Spitzer tracked down glowing dust but no, it also came up empty-handed. This makes the idea of an asteroidal smash-up very unlikely, but not one involving comets according to Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University (Ames) who led the new study. Marengo proposes that cold comets are responsible. Picture a family of comets traveling on a very long, eccentric orbit around the star with a very large comet at the head of the pack responsible for the big fading seen by Kepler in 2011. Later, in 2013, the rest of the comet family, a band of various-sized fragments lagging behind, would have passed in front of the star and again blocked its light. By 2015, the comets would have moved even farther away on their long orbital journey, leaving no detectable infrared excess.
“This is a very strange star,” said Marengo. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men.'”
Clearly, more long-term observations are needed. And frankly, I’m still puzzled why cold or less active comets might still not be detected by their glowing dust. But let’s assume for a moment the the comet idea is correct. If so, we should expect to see similar dips in KIC 8462852’s light as the comet swarm swings around again.
Astronomers have been arguing over just how many spiral arms our Galaxy exhibits. Is the Milky Way a four or two-armed spiral galaxy? Astronomers had often assumed the Milky Way was potentially a four-armed spiral galaxy, but comparatively recent observations from NASA’s Spitzer telescope implied the Galaxy had two spiral arms. In 2013, astronomers mapped star forming regions and argued they had found the two missing arms, bringing the total number of arms back to four.
The case for a four-armed Milky Way may have just gotten stronger.
“Despite efforts aimed at improving our understanding of the Galaxy’s structure, questions remain. There is no consensus regarding the number and shape of the Galaxy’s spiral arms.”, noted lead author D. Camargo. He added that the Sun’s location within the obscured disc of the Galaxy was a principal factor hindering our understanding of the Milky Way’s broader structure. In other words, we do not have a bird’s eye view of our Galaxy.
The team remarked that young embedded clusters are excellent tracers of the Galaxy’s structure, “The present results indicate that the Galaxy’s embedded clusters are predominantly located in the spiral arms.” They noted that star formation may occur after the collapse and fragmentation of giant molecular clouds found within spiral arms, and consequently the young embedded star clusters that subsequently emerge are excellent probes of Galactic structure as they have not displaced far from their birthplace.
The team used data from NASA’s WISE infrared telescope to identify young clusters still embedded in their natal clouds, which are often encompassed by significant dust. Infrared stellar light is less obscured by dust than visible light, giving the astronomers an unprecedented view. Indeed, the group discovered 7 new embedded clusters, several of which (designated Camargo 441-444) may belong to a larger aggregate that resides in the Perseus arm. They suggested that a giant molecular cloud was compressed by the spiral arm which may have triggered star formation in several clumps, and numerous star clusters with similar ages emerged (an alternative or concurrent scenario is sequential formation).
The team also used near-infrared data from the 2MASS survey to determine distances for the star clusters, once the objects were identified in the WISE images. A primary goal of their work was to establish accurate fundamental cluster parameters, which would bolster any resulting conclusions concerning the Galaxy’s overall structure. An innovative algorithm was therefore adopted to minimize contamination by foreground and background stars along the sight-line, which may otherwise appear as cluster members and degrade the reliability of any distant estimates.
“The embedded clusters in the present sample are distributed along the Sagittarius-Carina, Perseus, and Outer arms.”, concluded the team. They likewise noted that the search for new embedded clusters throughout the entire Galaxy must continue unabated, since such targets may foster our understanding of the Galaxy’s structure.
The discoveries are described in a new study by D. Camargo, C. Bonatto, and E. Bica that is entitled “Tracing the Galactic spiral structure with embedded clusters”. The research has been accepted for publication, and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). A preprint of the work is available on arXiv.