James Webb Unfolds Sunshield

It’s almost time.

Soon the James Webb Space Telescope will be on its way to the Sun/Earth L2 Lagrange point and will begin its at least 5-year science mission. Really, it’s going to happen.

Despite several delays since the program began in 1996 and a budget that has exceeded the original by several billion dollars, the launch of the JWST seems close at hand. That is if you consider almost a year away (the new planned launch date is October 31, 2021) to be close.

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NASA Announces the Discovery of Water in the Sunlit Parts of the Moon

For decades, astronomers have speculated that there may be water on the Moon. In recent years, this speculation was confirmed one orbiting satellite after another detected water ice around the Moon’s southern polar region. Within this part of the lunar surface, known as the South-Pole Aitken Basin, water ice is able to persist because of the many permanently-shadowed craters that are located there.

But until now, scientists were operating under the assumption that lunar water was only to be found in permanently shadowed craters. But thanks to NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), water has been observed on the sunlit side of the Moon for the first time. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed all across the lunar surface, and not limited to the dark corners.

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We’re Made of Starstuff. Especially From Extremely Massive Stars

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005

A new study shows how massive young stars create the kind of organic molecules that are necessary for life.

A team of researchers used an airborne observatory to examine the inner regions around two massive young stars. Along with water, they found things like ammonia and methane. These molecules are swirling around in a disk of material that surrounds the young stars.

That material is the same stuff that planets form from, and the study presents some new insights into how the stuff of life becomes incorporated into planets.

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This is the Final Picture NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope

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.

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How Did the TRAPPIST-1 Planets Get Their Water?

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

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Astronomers See the Wreckage from a Collision Between Exoplanets

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.

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What Will the James Webb Space Telescope See? A Whole Bunch of Dust, That’s What

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.

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We May Soon Be Able To See the First, Supergiant Stars in the Universe

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.

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This Star Killed its Companion and is now Escaping the Milky Way

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.

Let’s investigate.

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Stars Are The Universe’s Neat Freaks

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.

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

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.

Herschel fig2smallAn illustration of the time reach of the Herschel ATLAS and the kinds of objects it has discovered. Credit: Herschel-ATLAS/ESA/ALMA/ NRAO
Herschel fig2smallAn illustration of the time reach of the Herschel ATLAS and the kinds of objects it has discovered. Credit: Herschel-ATLAS/ESA/ALMA/ NRAO

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.

The data released by the survey includes several maps and additional files which were described in an article produced by Dr. Elisabetta Valiante and a research team from Cardiff University – titled “The Herschel-ATLAS Data Release 1 Paper I: Maps, Catalogues and Number Counts“. As Dr. Valiante told Universe Today via email:

“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.

"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. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Infrared images (like the one captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope here) show countless stars and galaxies that are obscured in visible-light by cosmic dust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA (top), NASA/DIRBE Team/COBE/ (bottom)
IR images of the entire sky take by the WISE All-Sky Data Release (top), and a projection of the IR sky created by images taken by the COBE spacecraft (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA (top), NASA/DIRBE Team/COBE/ (bottom)

“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…

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, ESA