Ghostly Jets Haunt the Milky Way’s Black Hole

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A ghost is haunting the Milky Way’s central black hole, revealing the galactic nucleus was likely much more active in the past than it is now. Scientists using the Fermi space telescope have found faint apparitions of what must have been powerful gamma-ray jets emanating from our galaxy’s center.

“These faint jets are a ghost or after-image of what existed a million years ago,” said Meng Su, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), and lead author of a new paper in the Astrophysical Journal. “They strengthen the case for an active galactic nucleus in the Milky Way’s relatively recent past.”

This is the first time this type of jet has been detected from the Milky Way’s black hole. Scientists know that other active galaxies have cores that glow brightly, powered by supermassive black holes swallowing material, and often spit twin jets in opposite directions.

The two beams, or jets found by Fermi observations extend from the galactic center to a distance of 27,000 light-years above and below the galactic plane.
The newfound jets may be related to mysterious gamma-ray bubbles that Fermi detected in 2010. Those bubbles also stretch 27,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way. However, where the bubbles are perpendicular to the galactic plane, the gamma-ray jets are tilted at an angle of 15 degrees. This may reflect a tilt of the accretion disk surrounding the supermassive black hole.

“The central accretion disk can warp as it spirals in toward the black hole, under the influence of the black hole’s spin,” explained co-author Douglas Finkbeiner of the CfA. “The magnetic field embedded in the disk therefore accelerates the jet material along the spin axis of the black hole, which may not be aligned with the Milky Way.”

The two structures also formed differently. The jets were produced when plasma squirted out from the galactic center, following a corkscrew-like magnetic field that kept it tightly focused. The gamma-ray bubbles likely were created by a “wind” of hot matter blowing outward from the black hole’s accretion disk. As a result, they are much broader than the narrow jets.

Both the jets and bubbles are powered by inverse Compton scattering. In that process, electrons moving near the speed of light collide with low-energy light, such as radio or infrared photons. The collision increases the energy of the photons into the gamma-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The discovery leaves open the question of when the Milky Way was last active. A minimum age can be calculated by dividing the jet’s 27,000-light-year length by its approximate speed. However, it may have persisted for much longer.

“These jets probably flickered on and off as the supermassive black hole alternately gulped and sipped material,” said Finkbeiner.

It would take a tremendous influx of matter for the galactic core to fire up again. Finkbeiner estimates that a molecular cloud weighing about 10,000 times as much as the Sun would be required.

“Shoving 10,000 suns into the black hole at once would do the trick. Black holes are messy eaters, so some of that material would spew out and power the jets,” he said.

Source: CfA

Astrophoto: Meteor Fireball Passing through the Milky Way

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Northern Minnesota is famous for its bountiful lakes, and clear, dark skies. This beautiful astrophoto combines both — and more — as photographer Luke Arens captured a big meteor fireball reflecting off a northern Minnesota lake just as the Milky Way core rose above the scene. Luke took this image over the weekend as part of a timelapse sequence, which he says will be available soon. Update: see the timelapse below!

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group, post in our Forum or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Newly Discovered Satellite Galaxies: Another Blow Against Dark Matter?

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A group of astronomers have discovered a vast structure of satellite galaxies and clusters of stars surrounding our Milky Way galaxy, stretching out across a million light years. The team says their findings may signal a “catastrophic failure of the standard cosmological model,” challenging the existence of dark matter. This joins another study released last week, where scientists said they found no evidence for dark matter.

PhD student Marcel Pawlowski and astronomy professor Pavel Kroupa from the University of Bonn in Germany are no strangers to the study – and skepticism — of dark matter. Together the two have a blog called The Dark Matter Crisis, and in a 2009 paper that also studied satellite galaxies, Kroupa declared that perhaps Isaac Newton was wrong. “Although his theory does, in fact, describe the everyday effects of gravity on Earth, things we can see and measure, it is conceivable that we have completely failed to comprehend the actual physics underlying the force of gravity,” he said.

While conventional cosmology models for the origin and evolution of the universe are based on the presence of dark matter, invisible material thought to make up about 23% of the content of the cosmos, this model is backed up by recent observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background that estimate the Universe is made of 4% regular baryonic matter, 73% dark energy and the remaining is dark matter.

But dark matter has never been detected directly, and in the currently accepted model – the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter model – the Milky Way is predicted to have far more satellite galaxies than are actually seen.

Pawlowski, Kroupa and their team say they have found a huge structure of galaxies and star clusters that extends as close as 33,000 light years to as far away as one million light years from the center of the galaxy, existing in right angles to the Millky Way, or in a polar structure both ‘north’ and ‘south’ of the plane of our galaxy.

This could be the ‘lost’ matter everyone has been searching for.

They used a range of sources to try and compile this new view of exactly what surrounds our galaxy, employing twentieth century photographic plates and images from the robotic telescope of the Sloan Deep Sky Survey. Using all these data they assembled a picture that includes bright ‘classical’ satellite galaxies, more recently detected fainter satellites and the younger globular clusters.

Altogether, it forms a huge structure.

“Once we had completed our analysis, a new picture of our cosmic neighbourhood emerged,” said Pawlowski.

The team said that various dark matter models struggle to explain what they have discovered. “In the standard theories, the satellite galaxies would have formed as individual objects before being captured by the Milky Way,” said Kroupa. “As they would have come from many directions, it is next to impossible for them to end up distributed in such a thin plane structure.”

Many astronomers, including astrophysicist Ethan Siegel in his Starts With a Bang blog, say the big picture of dark matter does a good job of explaining the structure of the Universe.

Siegel asks if any studies refuting dark matter “allow us to get away with a Universe without dark matter in explaining large-scale structure, the Lyman-alpha forest, the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, or the matter power spectrum of the Universe? The answers, at this point, are no, no, no, and no. Definitively. Which doesn’t mean that dark matter is a definite yes, and that modifying gravity is a definite no. It just means that I know exactly what the relative successes and remaining challenges are for each of these options.”

However, via Twitter today Pawlowski said, “Unfortunately the big picture of dark matter being reportedly fine only helps if looking from far away or with broken glasses.”

One explanation for how this structure formed is that the Milky Way collided with another galaxy in the distant past.

“The other galaxy lost part of its material, material that then formed our Galaxy’s satellite galaxies and the younger globular clusters and the bulge at the galactic centre.” said Pawlowski. “The companions we see today are the debris of this 11 billion year old collision.”

The team wrote in their paper: “If all the satellite galaxies and young halo clusters have been formed in an encounter between the young Milky Way and another gas-rich galaxy about 10-11 Gyr ago, then the Milky Way does not have any luminous dark-matter substructures and the missing satellites problem becomes a catastrophic failure of the standard cosmological model.”

“We were baffled by how well the distributions of the different types of objects agreed with each other,” said Kroupa. “Our model appears to rule out the presence of dark matter in the universe, threatening a central pillar of current cosmological theory. We see this as the beginning of a paradigm shift, one that will ultimately lead us to a new understanding of the universe we inhabit.”

Read the team’s paper.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Hubble Gets Best Look Yet At Messier 9

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First discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, the globular cluster Messier 9 is a vast swarm of ancient stars located 25,000 light-years away, close to the center of the galaxy. Too distant to be seen with the naked eye, the cluster’s innermost stars have never been individually resolved… until now.

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope is the most detailed view yet into Messier 9, capturing details of over 250,000 stars within it. Stars’ shape, size and color can be determined — giving astronomers more clues as to what the cluster’s stars are made of. (Download a large 10 mb JPEG file here.)

Hot blue stars as well as cooler red stars can be seen in Messier 9, along with more Sun-like yellow stars.

Unlike our Sun, however, Messier 9’s stars are nearly ten billion years old — twice the Sun’s age — and are made up of much less heavy elements.

Since heavy elements (such as carbon, oxygen and iron) are formed inside the cores of stars and dispersed into the galaxy when the stars eventually go supernova, stars that formed early on were birthed from clouds of material that weren’t yet rich in such elements.

Zoom into the Messier 9 cluster with a video from NASA and the European Space Agency below:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA. See more at www.spacetelescope.org.

Image credit: NASA & ESA. Video: NASA, ESA, Digitized Sky Survey 2, N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

The Milky Way’s Magnetic Personality

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Recently we took a look at a very unusual type of map – the Faraday Sky. Now an international team of scientists, including those at the Naval Research Laboratory, have pooled their information and created one of the most high precision maps to date of the Milky Way’s magnetic fields. Like all galaxies, ours has a magnetic “personality”, but just where these fields come from and how they are created is a genuine mystery. Researchers have always simply assumed they were created by mechanical processes like those which occur in Earth’s interior and the Sun. Now a new study will give scientists an even better understanding about the structure of galactic magnetic fields as seen throughout our galaxy.

The team, led by the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA), gathered their information and compiled it with theoretical simulations to create yet another detailed map of the magnetic sky. As NRL’s Dr. Tracy Clarke, a member of the research team explains, “The key to applying these new techniques is that this project brings together over 30 researchers with 26 different projects and more than 41,000 measurements across the sky. The resulting database is equivalent to peppering the entire sky with sources separated by an angular distance of two full moons.” This huge amount of data provides a new “all-sky” look which will enable scientists to measure the magnetic structure of the Milky Way in minute detail.

In this map of the sky, a correction for the effect of the Galactic disk has been made in order to emphasize weaker magnetic field structures. The magnetic field directions above and below the disk seem to be diametrically opposed, as indicated by the positive (red) and negative (blue) values. An analogous change of direction takes place across the vertical center line, which runs through the center of the Milky Way. (Image Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)
Just what’s so “new” about this map? This time we’re looking at a quantity called Faraday depth – an idea dependent on a line-of-sight information set on the magnetic fields. It was created by combining more than 41,000 singular measurements which were then combined using a new image reconstruction method. In this case, all the researchers at MPA are specialists in the new discipline of information field theory. Dr. Tracy Clarke, working in NRL’s Remote Sensing Division, is part of the team of international radio astronomers who provided the radio observations for the database. It’s magnetism on a grand scale… and imparts even the smallest of magnetic features which will enable scientists to further understand the nature of galactic gas turbulence.

The concept of the Faraday effect isn’t new. Scientists have been observing and measuring these fields for the last century and a half. Just how is it done? When polarized light passes through a magnetized medium, the plane of the polarization flips… a process known as Faraday rotation. The amount of rotation shows the direction and strength of the field and thereby its properties. Polarized light is also generated from radio sources. By using different frequencies, the Faraday rotation can also be measured in this alternative way. By combining all of these unique measurements, researchers can acquire information about a single path through the Milky Way. To further enhance the “big picture”, information must be gathered from a variety of sources – a need filled by 26 different observing projects that netted a total of 41,330 individual measurements. To give you a clue of the size, that ends up being about one radio source per square degree of sky!

The uncertainty in the Faraday map. Note that the range of values is significantly smaller than in the Faraday map (Fig. 1). In the area of the celestial south pole, the measurement uncertainties are particularly high because of the low density of data points. (Image Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)
Even with depth like this, there are still areas in the southern sky where only a few measurements have been cataloged. To fill in the gaps and give a more realistic view, researchers “have to interpolate between the existing data points that they have recorded.” However, this type of data causes some problems with accuracy. While you might think the more exact measurements would have the greatest impact on the map, scientists aren’t quite sure how reliable any single measurement could be – especially when they could be influenced by the environment around them. In this case, the most accurate measurements don’t always rank the highest in mapping points. Like Heisenberg, there’s an uncertainty associated with the process of obtaining measurements because the process is so complex. Just one small mistake could lead to a huge distortion in the map’s contents.

Thanks to an algorithm crafted by the MPA, scientists are able to face these types of difficulties with confidence as they put together the images. The algorithm, called the “extended critical filter,” employs tools from new disciplines known as information field theory – a logical and statistical method applied to fields. So far it has proven to be an effective method of weeding out errors and has even proven itself to be an asset to other scientific fields such as medicine or geography for a range of image and signal-processing applications.

Even though this new map is a great assistant for studying our own galaxy, it will help pave the way for researchers studying extragalactic magnetic fields as well. As the future provides new types of radio telescopes such as LOFAR, eVLA, ASKAP, MeerKAT and the SKA , the map will be a major resource of measurements of the Faraday effect – allowing scientists to update the image and further our understanding of the origin of galactic magnetic fields.

Original Story Source: Naval Research Laboratory News.

ISS Soars Over Stormy Africa


Here’s a quick but lovely little gem: a time-lapse video taken from the ISS as it passed above central Africa, Madagascar and the southern Indian Ocean on December 29, 2011. The nighttime flyover shows numerous lightning storms and the thin band of our atmosphere, with a layer of airglow above, set against a stunning backdrop of the Milky Way and a barely-visible Comet Lovejoy, just two weeks after its close encounter with the Sun.

This video was made from photos taken by Expedition 30 astronauts. The photos were compiled at Johnson Space Center and uploaded to The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, an excellent database of… well, of astronauts’ photos of Earth.

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The site’s description of this particular video states:

This video was taken by the crew of Expedition 30 on board the International Space Station. The sequence of shots was taken December 29, 2011 from 20:55:05 to 21:14:09 GMT, on a pass from over central Africa, near southeast Niger, to the South Indian Ocean, southeast of Madagascar. The complete pass is over southern Africa to the ocean, focusing on the lightning flashes from local storms and the Milky Way rising over the horizon. The Milky Way can be spotted as a hazy band of white light at the beginning of the video. The pass continues southeast toward the Mozambique Channel and Madagascar. The Lovejoy Comet can be seen very faintly near the Milky Way. The pass ends as the sun is rising over the dark ocean.

There are lots more time-lapse videos on the Gateway as well, updated periodically. Check them out here.

Video courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

First-Ever Image of a Black Hole to be Captured by Earth-Sized Scope

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“Sgr A* is the right object, VLBI is the right technique, and this decade is the right time.”

So states the mission page of the Event Horizon Telescope, an international endeavor that will combine the capabilities of over 50 radio telescopes across the globe to create a single Earth-sized telescope to image the enormous black hole at the center of our galaxy. For the first time, astronomers will “see” one of the most enigmatic objects in the Universe.

And tomorrow, January 18, researchers from around the world will convene in Tucson, AZ to discuss how to make this long-standing astronomical dream a reality.

During a conference organized by Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and Dan Marrone, an assistant professor of astronomy at the Steward Observatory, astrophysicists, scientists and researchers will gather to coordinate the ultimate goal of the Event Horizon Telescope; that is, an image of Sgr A*’s accretion disk and the “shadow” of its event horizon.

“Nobody has ever taken a picture of a black hole. We are going to do just that.”

– Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory

Sgr A* (pronounced as “Sagittarius A-star”) is a supermassive black hole residing at the center of the Milky Way. It is estimated to contain the equivalent mass of 4 million Suns, packed into an area smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s orbit.

Because of its proximity and estimated mass, Sgr A* presents the largest apparent event horizon size of any black hole candidate in the Universe. Still, its size in the sky is about the same as viewing “a grapefruit on the Moon.”

So what are astronomers expecting to actually “see”?

(Read more: What does a black hole look like?)

A black hole's "shadow", or event horizon. (NASA illustration)

Because black holes by definition are black – that is, invisible in all wavelengths of radiation due to the incredibly powerful gravitational effect on space-time around them – an image of the black hole itself will be impossible. But Sgr A*’s accretion disk should be visible to radio telescopes due to its billion-degree temperatures and powerful radio (as well as submillimeter, near infrared and X-ray) emissions… especially in the area leading up to and just at its event horizon. By imaging the glow of this super-hot disk astronomers hope to define Sgr A*’s Schwarzschild radius – its gravitational “point of no return”.

This is also commonly referred to as its shadow.

The position and existence of Sgr A* has been predicted by physics and inferred by the motions of stars around the galactic nucleus. And just last month a giant gas cloud was identified by researchers with the European Southern Observatory, traveling directly toward Sgr A*’s accretion disk. But, if the EHT project is successful, it will be the first time a black hole will be directly imaged in any shape or form.

“So far, we have indirect evidence that there is a black hole at the center of the Milky Way,” said Dimitrios Psaltis. “But once we see its shadow, there will be no doubt.”

(Read more: Take a trip into our galaxy’s core)

Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham, AZ. (Used with permission from University of Arizona, T. W. Folkers, photographer.)

The ambitious Event Horizon Telescope project will use not just one telescope but rather a combination of over 50 radio telescopes around the world, including the Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California, as well as several radio telescopes in Europe, a 10-meter dish at the South Pole and, if all goes well, the 50-radio-antenna capabilities of the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile. This coordinated group effort will, in effect, turn our entire planet into one enormous dish for collecting radio emissions.

By using long-term observations with Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) at short (230-450 GHz) wavelengths, the EHT team predicts that the goal of imaging a black hole will be achieved within the next decade.

“What is great about the one in the center of the Milky Way is that is big enough and close enough,” said assistant professor Dan Marrone. “There are bigger ones in other galaxies, and there are closer ones, but they’re smaller. Ours is just the right combination of size and distance.”

Read more about the Tucson conference on the University of Arizona’s news site here, and visit the Event Horizon Telescope project site here.

 

What Color is the Milky Way? White as Snow (not Milk)

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What color would the Milky Way appear to alien civilizations looking at our galaxy through their telescopes? It turns out the Milky Way has approximately the right name – but for all the wrong reasons. “The true color of the Milky Way is as white as fine-grained new spring snow seen in early morning light,” said Dr. Jeffrey Newman, from the University of Pittsburgh, speaking at a press conference from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Meeting.

Our ancestors gave our galaxy the name “Milky Way” because when they looked up and saw the band of the stars that stretches from one horizon to the other, it appears white to our human eyes. “But that’s only because our low-light vision isn’t sensitive to color,” said Newman. “There are portions of the Milky Way that are more yellow or red versus more blue, but our eyes can’t pick that up. But a sensitive instrument or photograph can.”

When we look at other galaxies, we can see them in their entirety, and can examine them for color and luminosity. Color and luminosity have been great tool for astronomy, helping us to understand stars and galaxies.

“Unfortunately we can’t get a complete picture of the Milky Way from outside, so we have had to resort to other methods,” said Newman. “Not only are we looking at Milky Way from the inside, but it’s even worse than that — our view is blocked by dust, both in clouds and diffuse dust. We can only see about 1,000 -2,000 light years in any direction, even though our galaxy is a 100,000 light years across.”

A digital all-sky mosaic of our view of the Milky Way from Earth, assembled from more than 3,000 individual CCD frames. Credit: Axel Mellinger. Click on image to view a zoomable panorama.

So if you ask, ‘what is the integrated color of the Milky Way,’ we can can’t tell from a picture like the one above, we can only tell what color the local neighborhood is.

“We have had to resort to different techniques, and rather than looking at the Milky Way directly, we look at other galaxies that should be like the Milky Way and we can determine what their color and luminosity are,” Newman said.

Newman, along with Timothy Licquia, a PhD student in physics at Pitt, used images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey — which contains detailed properties of nearly a million galaxies — and looked for galaxies with similar properties to the Milky Way in regards to total mass and star formation rates. The Milky Way Galaxy should then fall on a plot somewhere within the range of colors of these matching objects.

While the composite color of the Milky Way is snowy-white, our galaxy appears more yellow towards the center and more blue out in the spiral arms.

Newman and Licquia determined the light color temperature of the Milky Way is 4,840 K, which closely matches the light from a standard light bulb with a color temperature of 4,700-5,000K. “It is well within the range our eye can perceive as white—roughly halfway between the light from old-style incandescent light bulbs and the standard spectrum of white on a television,” said Newman. “Our eyes treat both as white.”

The color of new snow is the whitest natural color on Earth. While milk has a more bluish color than snow, the association of our Milky Way to milk has proven to be very appropriate, given the Milky Way’s true color.

Newman even wrote a Haiku about the color:

Look at new spring snow
See the River of Heaven
An hour after dawn

The Milky Way’s color could be on either side of a standard dividing line between red and blue galaxies: relatively red galaxies rarely form new stars and blue galaxies have stars still being born. This adds to the evidence that although the Milky Way is still producing stars, it is “on its way out,” according to Newman. “A few billion years from now, our Galaxy will be a much more boring place, full of middle-aged stars slowly using up their fuel and dying off, but without any new ones to take their place. It will be less interesting for astronomers in other galaxies to look at, too: The Milky Way’s spiral arms will fade into obscurity when there are no more blue stars left.”

Source: Pitt, AAS press briefing

A New Look at the Milky Way’s Central Bar

[/caption]You may have heard about the restaurant at the end of the Universe, but have you heard of the bar in the middle of the Milky Way?

Nearly 80 years ago, astronomers determined that our home, the Milky Way Galaxy, is a large spiral galaxy. Despite being stuck inside and not being able to see what the entire the structure looks like — as we can with the Pinwheel Galaxy, or our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy — researchers have suspected our galaxy is actually a “barred” spiral galaxy. Barred spiral galaxies feature an elongated stellar structure , or bar, in the middle which in our case is hidden by dust and gas. There are many galaxies in the Universe that are barred spirals, and yet, there are numerous galaxies which do not feature a central bar.

How do these central bars form, and why are they only present in some, but not all spiral galaxies?

A research team led by Dr. R. Michael Rich (UCLA), dubbed BRAVA (Bulge Radial Velocity Assay), measured the velocity of many old, red stars near the center of our galaxy. By studying the spectra (combined light) of the M class giant stars, the team was able to calculate the velocity of each star along our line of sight. During a four-year time span, the spectra for nearly 10,000 stars was acquired with the CTIO Blanco 4-meter telescope located in Chile’s Atacama desert.

Analyzing the velocities of stars in their study, the team was able to confirm that the Milky Way’s central bulge does contain a massive bar, with one end nearly pointed right at our solar system. One other discovery made by the team is that while our galaxy rotates like a wheel, the BRAVA study found that the rotation of the central bar is more like that of a roll of paper towels in a dispenser. The team’s discoveries provide vital clues to help explain the formation of the Milky Way’s central region.

BRAVA data. Image Credit: D. Talent, K. Don, P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF and the BRAVA Project

The spectra data set was compared to a computer simulation created by Dr. Juntai Shen (Shanghai Observatory) showing how the bar formed from a pre-existing disk of stars. The team’s data fits the model quite well, suggesting that before the central bar existed, there was a massive disk of stars. The conclusion reached by the team is in stark contrast to the commonly accepted model of formation of our galaxy’s central region – a model that predicts the Milky Way’s central region formed from an early chaotic merger of gas clouds. The “take-away” point from the team’s conclusions is that gas did play some role in the formation of our galaxy’s central region, which organized into a massive rotating disk, and then turned into a bar due to the gravitational interactions of the stars.

One other benefit to the team’s research is that stellar spectra data will allow the team to analyze the chemical composition of the stars. All stars are composed of mostly hydrogen and helium, but the tiny amounts of other elements (astronomers refer to anything past helium as “metals”) provides insight into the conditions present during a star’s formation.

The BRAVA team found that stars closest to the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy have fewer “metals” than stars further from its galactic plane. The team’s conclusion does confirm standard views of stellar formation, yet the BRAVA data covers a significant area of the galactic bulge that can be chemically analyzed. If researchers map the metal content of stars throughout the Milky Way, a clear picture of stellar formation and evolution emerges, similar to how mapping CO2 concentrations in the Antarctic ice shelf can reveal the past weather patterns here on Earth.

If you’d like to read the full paper, a pre-print version is available at: http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.1955

Source: National Optical Astronomy Observatory press release

First Look at a Black Hole’s Feast


A true heart of darkness lies at the center of our galaxy: Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”) is a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million suns packed into an area only as wide as the distance between Earth and the Sun. Itself invisible to direct observation, Sgr A* makes its presence known through its effect on nearby stars, sending them hurtling through space in complex orbits at speeds upwards of 600 miles a second. And it emits a dull but steady glow in x-ray radiation, the last cries of its most recent meals. Gas, dust, stars… solar systems… anything in Sgr A*’s vicinity will be drawn inexorably towards it, getting stretched, shredded and ultimately absorbed (for lack of a better term) by the dark behemoth, just adding to its mass and further strengthening its gravitational pull.

Now, for the first time, a team of researchers led by Reinhard Genzel from the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany will have a chance to watch a supermassive black hole’s repast take place.

Continue reading “First Look at a Black Hole’s Feast”