Milky Way Harbors “Ticking Time Bombs”


According to new research, the only thing that may be keeping elderly stars from exploding is their rapid spin. In a galaxy filled with old stars, this means we could literally be sitting on a nearby “time bomb”. Or is this just another scare tactic?

“We haven’t found one of these ‘time bomb’ stars yet in the Milky Way, but this research suggests that we’ve been looking for the wrong signs. Our work points to a new way of searching for supernova precursors,” said astrophysicist Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

In light of the two recently discovered supernova events in Messier 51 and Messier 101, it isn’t hard to imagine the Milky Way having more than one candidate for a Type Ia supernova. This is precisely the type of stellar explosion Di Stefano and her colleagues are looking for… and it happens when a white dwarf star goes critical. It has reached Chandrasekhar mass. Add any more weight and it blows itself apart. How does this occur? Some astronomers believe Type Ia supernova are sparked by accretion from a binary companion – or a collision of two similar dwarf stars. However, there hasn’t been much – if any – evidence to support either theory. This has left scientists to look for new answers to old questions. Di Stefano and her colleagues suggest that white dwarf spin might just be what we’re looking for.

“A spin-up/spin-down process would introduce a long delay between the time of accretion and the explosion. As a white dwarf gains mass, it also gains angular momentum, which speeds up its spin. If the white dwarf rotates fast enough, its spin can help support it, allowing it to cross the 1.4-solar-mass barrier and become a super-Chandrasekhar-mass star. Once accretion stops, the white dwarf will gradually slow down. Eventually, the spin isn’t enough to counteract gravity, leading to a Type Ia supernova.” explains Di Stefano. “Our work is new because we show that spin-up and spin-down of the white dwarf have important consequences. Astronomers therefore must take angular momentum of accreting white dwarfs seriously, even though it’s very difficult science.”

Sure. It might take a billion years for the spin down process to happen – but what’s a billion years in cosmic time? In this scenario, it’s enough to allow accretion to have completely stopped and a companion star to age to a white dwarf. In the Milky Way there’s an estimated three Type Ia supernovae every thousand years. If figures are right, a typical super-Chandrasekhar-mass white dwarf takes millions of years to spin down and explode. This means there could be dozens of these “time bomb” systems within a few thousand light-years of Earth. While we’re not able to ascertain their locations now, upcoming wide-field surveys taken with instruments like Pan-STARRS and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope might give us a clue to their location.

“We don’t know of any super-Chandrasekhar-mass white dwarfs in the Milky Way yet, but we’re looking forward to hunting them out,” said co-author Rasmus Voss of Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

And the rest of us hope you don’t find them…

Original Story Source: Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics News. For Further Reading: Spin-Up/Spin-Down models for Type Ia Supernovae.

Huge Reservoir of Water Discovered in Space 30 Billion Trillion Miles Away


From a Caltech Press Release:

Water really is everywhere. Two teams of astronomers, each led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. Looking from a distance of 30 billion trillion miles away into a quasar—one of the brightest and most violent objects in the cosmos—the researchers have found a mass of water vapor that’s at least 140 trillion times that of all the water in the world’s oceans combined, and 100,000 times more massive than the sun.

Because the quasar is so far away, its light has taken 12 billion years to reach Earth. The observations therefore reveal a time when the universe was just 1.6 billion years old. “The environment around this quasar is unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water,” says Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and a visiting associate at Caltech. “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.” Bradford leads one of two international teams of astronomers that have described their quasar findings in separate papers that have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Read Bradford & team’s paper here.

A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole that is steadily consuming a surrounding disk of gas and dust; as it eats, the quasar spews out huge amounts of energy. Both groups of astronomers studied a particular quasar called APM 08279+5255, which harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

Since astronomers expected water vapor to be present even in the early universe, the discovery of water is not itself a surprise, Bradford says. There’s water vapor in the Milky Way, although the total amount is 4,000 times less massive than in the quasar, as most of the Milky Way’s water is frozen in the form of ice.

Nevertheless, water vapor is an important trace gas that reveals the nature of the quasar. In this particular quasar, the water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years (a light-year is about six trillion miles), and its presence indicates that the gas is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas is a chilly –53 degrees Celsius (–63 degrees Fahrenheit) and is 300 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere, it’s still five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what’s typical in galaxies like the Milky Way.

The water vapor is just one of many kinds of gas that surround the quasar, and its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas in both X-rays and infrared radiation. The interaction between the radiation and water vapor reveals properties of the gas and how the quasar influences it. For example, analyzing the water vapor shows how the radiation heats the rest of the gas. Furthermore, measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest that there is enough gas to feed the black hole until it grows to about six times its size. Whether this will happen is not clear, the astronomers say, since some of the gas may end up condensing into stars or may be ejected from the quasar.

Bradford’s team made their observations starting in 2008, using an instrument called Z-Spec at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO), a 10-meter telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Z-Spec is an extremely sensitive spectrograph, requiring temperatures cooled to within 0.06 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. The instrument measures light in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum called the millimeter band, which lies between infrared and microwave wavelengths. The researchers’ discovery of water was possible only because Z-Spec’s spectral coverage is 10 times larger than that of previous spectrometers operating at these wavelengths. The astronomers made follow-up observations with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

This discovery highlights the benefits of observing in the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths, the astronomers say. The field has developed rapidly over the last two to three decades, and to reach the full potential of this line of research, the astronomers—including the study authors—are now designing CCAT, a 25-meter telescope to be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile. CCAT will allow astronomers to discover some of the earliest galaxies in the universe. By measuring the presence of water and other important trace gases, astronomers can study the composition of these primordial galaxies.

The second group, led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the CSO, used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water. In 2010, Lis’s team was looking for traces of hydrogen fluoride in the spectrum of APM 08279+5255, but serendipitously detected a signal in the quasar’s spectrum that indicated the presence of water. The signal was at a frequency corresponding to radiation that is emitted when water transitions from a higher energy state to a lower one. While Lis’s team found just one signal at a single frequency, the wide bandwidth of Z-Spec enabled Bradford and his colleagues to discover water emission at many frequencies. These multiple water transitions allowed Bradford’s team to determine the physical characteristics of the quasar’s gas and the water’s mass.

Read Lis & team’s paper here.

Milky Way Sparkles In The Eyes Of Gaia


Here on Earth we play around with CCD cameras that boast a million pixels. But, can you imagine what a billion pixels could do? That’s the plan for ESA’s Galaxy-mapping Gaia mission. One hundred six electronic plates are being carefully integrated together to add up to the largest digital camera ever built for space… and its mission is to chart the Milky Way.

Beginning in 2013, Gaia’s five year mission will be to photograph a billion stars within our own galaxy – determining magnitude, spectral characteristics, proper motion and dimensional positioning. This information will be gathered by its charge coupled device (CCD) sensor array. Each of the 106 detectors are smaller than a normal credit card and thinner than a human hair. Put simplistically, each plate holds its own array of light-sensitive cells called photosites. Each photosite is its own pixel – just one tiny cell in the whole body of a photograph that could contain hundreds of thousands of pixels! When incoming light strikes the photosite, the photoelectric effect occurs and creates electrons for as long as exposure occurs. The electrons are then kept “stored” in their individual cells until a computer unloads the array, counts the electrons and reassembles them into the “big picture”.

And what a picture it will be…

In a period of a month, technicians managed to delicately assemble the CCD plates onto the support structure, leaving only a 1 mm gap between them. “The mounting and precise alignment of the 106 CCDs is a key step in the assembly of the flight model focal plane assembly,” said Philippe Garé, ESA’s Gaia payload manager. Upon completion, there will be seven rows of CCD composites with a main bank of 102 strictly dedicated to star detection. The remaining four will monitor image quality of each telescope and the stability of the 106.5º angle between the two telescopes that Gaia uses to obtain stereo views of stars. And, just like cooling a smaller CCD camera, the temperature needs to be maintained at -110ºC to keep up the sensitivity.

Gaia might be heavy on imaging capabilities, but she’s light on weight. The majority of the spacecraft, including the support structure is crafted from a ceramic-like material called silicon carbide. Resistant to warping in extreme temperature conditions, the whole support structure with its detectors weighs in at only 20 kg. She’ll sail out to Lagrange Point L2 – 1.5 million kilometers behind the Earth – where twin telescopes will capture perhaps 1% of our galaxy’s stellar population. While that may seem like a small amount, the information that Gaia’s three-dimensional star map will provide can reveal much more than we already know about the composition, formation and evolution of the Milky Way.

Original Story Source: ESA News.

Carbon Monoxide Reveals Distant Milky Way Arm


Our Milky Way Galaxy’s elemental form is hypothesized to be a barred structure – made up of two major spiral arms originating at both poles of the central bar. But from our vantage point, we can only see portions of those arms. Because of huge amounts of dust literally blocking our view, we can’t be as confident of our structure as other galaxies we can study as a whole. However, by “sniffing our galaxy’s tailpipe”, we’re able to judge our structure just a little bit better.

We’re all aware of theoretical models of the Milky Way… a sprawling, pinwheel-like structure with sweeping, grandiose arms loaded with stars, gases and dust. We’re also aware our Solar System is lodged in a spur of those arms, slowly orbiting and located about 25,000 light-years from the center. But hard and fast details of our Galaxy haven’t been possible until now. Thanks to the use of radio waves, we’re able to cut through the murk and see wavelengths that give us clues. These architectural hints are coming to us in the forms of molecules like carbon monoxide – a great tracer of our galactic format.

Using a small 1.2-meter radio telescope on the roof of their science building in Cambridge, CfA astronomers Tom Dame and Pat Thaddeus used carbon monoxide emissions to ferret out proof there is more spiral structure located in the most distant parts of our galactic home. What they uncovered was a previously reported new spiral arm at the far end of the Scutum-Centaurus Arm – but how they did it was by verifying vast, dense concentrations of this molecular gas.

Where does it come from? Try the “exhaust” of carbon stars. These late-type stars have an atmosphere which is higher in carbon than oxygen. When the two combine in the upper layers of the star they create carbon monoxide. It also happens in “normal” stars like our Sun, too. It’s richer in oxygen than carbon, but still cool enough to form carbon monoxide. “After preliminary Galactic surveys in the mid-1970’s revealed the vast extent of CO emission on the sky,” says Dame, “It became clear that even with the relatively large beams of the 1.2 meter telescopes a sensitive, well-sampled survey of the entire Galaxy would require many years.”

And its time has come…

Original Story Source: Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Timelapse: Milky Way from the Dakotas

Growing up in the Dakotas, I can attest to the dark skies that grace the northern plains. However, there is also cold weather (even in the spring) and — at times — almost unbelievably windy conditions. But that didn’t stop videographer Randy Halverson from shooting this magnificent timelapse video of the Milky Way. And in fact, his low shots enhance the beauty of the landscape and sky. “There were very few nights, when I could shoot, that were perfectly clear, and often the wind was blowing 25mph +,” Halverson said. “That made it hard to get the shots I wanted. I kept most of the shots low to the ground, so the wind wouldn’t catch the setup and cause camera shake, or blow it over.”

Ten seconds of the video is about 2 hours 20 minutes in real time. Randy tells us he has been doing astro timelapse for only about 16 months, but shooting other types of video since the mid 90’s. See more of his marvelous work at his Dakotalapse website.

Twisted Ring Of Gas Orbits Galactic Center


The Herschel Space Observatory scanned the center of the galaxy in far-infrared and found a cool (in all senses of the word) twisting ring of rapidly orbiting gas clouds. The ring is estimated to have dimensions of 100 parsecs by 60 parsecs (or 326 by 196 light years) – with a composite mass of 30 million solar masses.

The ring is proposed to oscillate twice about the galactic mid-plane for each orbit it makes of the galactic center – giving it the apparent shape of an infinite symbol when viewed from the side.

The research team speculate that the ring may be conforming to the shape of a standing wave – perhaps caused by the spin of the central galactic bulge and the lateral movement of gas across the galaxy’s large central bar. The researchers suggest that the combination of these forces may produce some kind of gravitational ‘sloshing’ effect, which would account for the unusual movement of the ring.

The estimated shape of the 100 by 60 parsec ring. Note the oscillating shape from a lateral perspective – and from above, note the ring encircles the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*, but the black hole is not at its center. Credit: Molinari et al.

Although the ring is estimated to have an average orbital velocity of 10 to 20 kilometers a second, an area of dense cloud coming in close to the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, was clocked at 50 kilometers a second – perhaps due to its close proximity to Sagittarius A*.

However, the researchers also estimate that Sagittarius A* is well off-centre of the gas ring. Thus, the movement of the ring is dominated by the dynamics of the galactic bulge – rather than Sagittarius A*, which would only exert a significant gravitational influence within a few parsecs of itself.

Further reading: Molinari et al A 100 parsec elliptical and twisted ring of cold and dense molecular clouds revealed by Herschel around the galactic center.

Hubble Finds “Oddball” Stars in Milky Way Hub

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to peer deep into the central bulge of our galaxy have found a population of rare and unusual stars. Dubbed “blue stragglers”, these stars seem to defy the aging process, appearing to be much younger than they should be considering where they are located. Previously known to exist within ancient globular clusters, blue stragglers have never been seen inside our galaxy’s core – until now.

The stars were discovered following a seven-day survey in 2006 called SWEEPS – the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search – that used Hubble to search a section of the central portion of our Milky Way galaxy, looking for the presence of Jupiter-sized planets transiting their host stars. During the search, which examined 180,000 stars, Hubble spotted 42 blue stragglers.

Of the 42 it’s estimated that 18 to 37 of them are genuine.

What makes blue stragglers such an unusual find? For one thing, stars in the galactic hub should appear much older and cooler… aging Sun-like stars and old red dwarfs. Scientists believe that the central bulge of the Milky Way stopped making new stars billions of years ago. So what’s with these hot, blue, youthful-looking “oddballs”? The answer may lie in their formation.

Artist's concept of a blue straggler pair. NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

A blue straggler may start out as a smaller member of a binary pair of stars. Over time the larger star ages and gets even bigger, feeding material onto the smaller one. This fuels fusion in the smaller star which then grows hotter, making it shine brighter and bluer – thus appearing similar to a young star.

However they were formed, just finding the blue stragglers was no simple task. The stars’ orbits around the galactic core had to be determined through a confusing mix of foreground stars within a very small observation area. The region of the sky Hubble studied was no larger than the width of a fingernail held at arm’s length! Still, within that small area Hubble could see over 250,000 stars. Incredible.

“Only the superb image quality and stability of Hubble allowed us to make this measurement in such a crowded field.”

– Lead author Will Clarkson, Indiana University in Bloomington and the University of California in Los Angeles

The discovery of these rare stars will help astronomers better understand star formation in the Milky Way’s hub and thus the evolution of our galaxy as a whole.

Read more on the Hubble News Center.

Image credit: NASAESA, W. Clarkson (Indiana University and UCLA), and K. Sahu (STScI)

New Arm Embraces Milky Way


Some sixteen decades ago, Lord Rosse was the first to point out spiral structure in distant “nebula”… and today astrophysicists Thomas Dame and Patrick Thaddeus are discovering it closer to home. Our Milky Way Galaxy was believed to only have six spiral arms, but their research has revealed an outer extension of the Scutum-Centaurus arm from the inner galaxy.

“We have identified a spiral arm lying beyond the Outer Arm in the first Galactic quadrant ~15 kpc from the Galactic center.” says Dame and Thaddeus. “One of the detections was fully mapped to reveal a large molecular cloud with a radius of 47 pc and a molecular mass of ~50,000 M. At a mean distance of 21 kpc, the molecular gas in this arm is the most distant yet detected in the Milky Way. The new arm appears to be the continuation of the Scutum–Centaurus Arm in the outer Galaxy, as a symmetric counterpart of the nearby Perseus Arm.”

Over the last 50 years, many models of our galaxy have been proposed – revealing a pleasing, duo-symmetry. However, finding evidence to prove these theories has been a bit more elusive. Since we cannot observe ourselves, seeing spiral structure on the far side of the galaxy is problematic – hidden by near-side emission at the same velocity. But these researchers didn’t stop. The new arm was found as a result of attempts to follow the Sct–Cen Arm past its tangent.

“The new arm was largely overlooked in existing 21 cm surveys probably because it lies mainly out of the Galactic plane, its Galactic latitude steadily increasing with longitude as it follows the warp in the distant outer Galaxy.” says Dame. “In the first quadrant the only prominent HI spiral feature in the outer Galaxy is the well-known Outer Arm, a feature also well traced by CO. However, at 3 degrees above the plane one sees instead the new arm as a prominent linear feature running roughly parallel to the locus of the Outer Arm but shifted to more negative velocities.”

Is our smoothly constructed galaxy indeed a mirror image of itself? This new evidence suggests the Scutum-Centaurus arm embraces the entire Milky Way – forming a symmetrical, star-forming counterpart to the galaxy’s other arm, Perseus. “Confirmation of the present feature as the ”Outer Sct-Cen Arm” will require a great deal of new data from several telescopes and much observing time over an extended period.” says Thaddeus. “Key steps toward confirming the proposal include, as mentioned, tracking Sct–Cen in the fourth quadrant and, even harder, tracking the Perseus Arm from the point where it passes inside the solar circle near longitude 50 degrees to its putative origin at the far end of the bar.”

Mapping the findings of galactic data on atomic hydrogen gas isn’t going to happen overnight… and even more discoveries and clarifications could be revealed in the future. “The Galactic symmetry suggested by the present work and clearly demonstrated by the identification of the Far 3-kpc Arm a few years ago, coupled with evidence for a global two-armed spiral pattern in the old stars, and, indeed, with the discovery of the bar itself, all hint at Galactic spiral structure that is both simpler and more amenable to study than had long been assumed. As emphasized here, much work remains, but aided by greatly improved distances from forthcoming astrometric surveys, a reasonably complete picture of our Galaxy’s spiral pattern may be achieved over the next decade.”

A New Spin on Galactic Evolution


There’s a new concept in the works regarding the evolution of galactic arms and how they move across the structure of spiral galaxies. Robert Grand, a postgraduate student at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, used new computer modeling to suggest that these signature features of spiral galaxies – including our own Milky Way – evolve in different ways than previously thought.

The currently accepted theory is as spiral galaxies rotate, the “arms” are actually transient structures that move across the flattened disc of stars surrounding the galactic bulge, yet don’t directly affect the movement of the individual stars themselves. This would work in much the same way as a “wave” goes across a crowd at a stadium event. The wave moves, but the individual people do not move along with it – rather, they stay seated after it has passed.

However when Grand researched this suggested motion using computer models of galaxies, he and his colleagues found that this was not what tended to happen. Instead the stars actually moved along with the arms, rather than maintaining their positions.

Also it was observed in these models that the arms themselves are not permanent features, but rather break up and reform over the course of 80 to 100 million years. Grand suggests that this may be due to the powerful gravitational shear forces generated by the spinning of the galaxy.

“We simulated the evolution of spiral arms for a galaxy with five million stars over a period of 6 billion years. We found that stars are able to migrate much more efficiently than anyone previously thought. The stars are trapped and move along the arm by their gravitational influence, but we think that eventually the arm breaks up due to the shear forces.”

– Robert Grand

Snapshots of face-on view of a simulated disc galaxy.

The computer models also showed that the stars along the leading edge of the arms tended to move inwards toward the galactic center while the stars lining the trailing ends were carried to the outer edge of the galaxy.

Since it takes hundreds of millions of years for a spiral galaxy to complete even just one single rotation, observing their evolution and morphology is impossible to do in real time. Researchers like Grand and his simulations are key to our eventual understanding of how these islands of stars formed and continue to shape themselves into the vast, varied structures we see today.

“This research has many potential implications for future observational astronomy, like the European Space Agency’s next corner stone mission, Gaia, which MSSL is also heavily involved in.  As well as helping us understand the evolution of our own galaxy, it may have applications for regions of star formation.”

– Robert Grand

The results were presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Wales on April 20. Read the press release on the Royal Astronomical Society’s website here.

Top image: M81, a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, is one of the brightest galaxies that can be seen from Earth. The spiral arms wind all the way down into the nucleus and are made up of young, bluish, hot stars formed in the past few million years, while the central bulge contains older, redder stars. Credit: NASAESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Awe-Inspiring View of the Milky Way


The Chilean Atacama Desert boasts some of the darkest skies on Earth – which is why it is home to several telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope. This beautiful panoramic image was taken there, showing the VLT’s Unit Telescope 1, and across on the other side of the image are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds glowing brightly. Like an arch in between is plane of our Milky Way galaxy. This awe-inspiring image was taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Yuri Beletsky. These photographers specialize in taking images of not only the night sky, but also the large telescopes that give us eyes to see across the great distances of our Universe.

See this ESO page for a larger version of this image.