Students Find Rare “Recycled” Pulsar


From a press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory:

In the constellation of Ophiuchus, above the disk of our Milky Way Galaxy, there lurks a stellar corpse spinning 30 times per second — an exotic star known as a radio pulsar. This object was unknown until it was discovered last week by three high school students. These students are part of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC) project, run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, WV, and West Virginia University (WVU).

The pulsar, which may be a rare kind of neutron star called a recycled pulsar, was discovered independently by Virginia students Alexander Snider and Casey Thompson, on January 20, and a day later by Kentucky student Hannah Mabry. “Every day, I told myself, ‘I have to find a pulsar. I better find a pulsar before this class ends,'” said Mabry.

When she actually made the discovery, she could barely contain her excitement. “I started screaming and jumping up and down.”

Thompson was similarly expressive. “After three years of searching, I hadn’t found a single thing,” he said, “but when I did, I threw my hands up in the air and said, ‘Yes!’.”

Snider said, “It actually feels really neat to be the first person to ever see something like that. It’s an uplifting feeling.”

As part of the PSC, the students analyze real data from NRAO’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to find pulsars. The students’ teachers — Debra Edwards of Sherando High School, Leah Lorton of James River High School, and Jennifer Carter of Rowan County Senior High School — all introduced the PSC in their classes, and interested students formed teams to continue the work.

Even before the discovery, Mabry simply enjoyed the search. “It just feels like you’re actually doing something,” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Basics of a Pulsar CREDIT: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Once the pulsar candidate was reported to NRAO, Project Director Rachel Rosen took a look and agreed with the young scientists. A followup observing session was scheduled on the GBT. Snider and Mabry traveled to West Virginia to assist in the follow-up observations, and Thompson joined online.

“Observing with the students is very exciting. It gives the students a chance to learn about radio telescopes and pulsar observing in a very hands-on way, and it is extra fun when we find a pulsar,” said Rosen.

Snider, on the other hand, said, “I got very, very nervous. I expected when I went there that I would just be watching other people do things, and then I actually go to sit down at the controls. I definitely didn’t want to mess something up.”

Everything went well, and the observations confirmed that the students had found an exotic pulsar. “I learned more in the two hours in the control room than I would have in school the whole day,” Mabry said.

Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that sling lighthouse beams of radio waves or light around as they spin. A neutron star is what is left after a massive star explodes at the end of its normal life. With no nuclear fuel left to produce energy to offset the stellar remnant’s weight, its material is compressed to extreme densities. The pressure squeezes together most of its protons and electrons to form neutrons; hence, the name neutron star. One tablespoon of material from a pulsar would weigh 10 million tons — as much as a supertanker.

The object that the students discovered is in a special class of pulsar that spins very fast – in this case, about 30 times per second, comparable to the speed of a kitchen blender.

“The big question we need to answer first is whether this is a young pulsar or a recycled pulsar,” said Maura McLaughlin, an astronomer at WVU. “A pulsar spinning that fast is very interesting as it could be newly born or it could be a very old, recycled pulsar.”

A recycled pulsar is one that was once in a binary system. Material from the companion star is deposited onto the pulsar, causing it to speed up, or be recycled. Mystery remains, however, about whether this pulsar has ever had a companion star.

If it did, “it may be that this pulsar had a massive companion that exploded in a supernova, disrupting its orbit,” McLaughlin said. Astronomers and students will work together in the coming months to find answers to these questions.

The PSC is a joint project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and West Virginia University, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The PSC, led by NRAO Education Officer Sue Ann Heatherly and Project Director Rachel Rosen, includes training for teachers and student leaders, and provides parcels of data from the GBT to student teams. The project involves teachers and students in helping astronomers analyze data from the GBT, a giant, 17-million-pound telescope.

Some 300 hours of observing data were reserved for analysis by student teams. Thompson, Snider, and Mabry have been working with about 170 other students across the country. The responsibility for the work, and for the discoveries, is theirs. They are trained by astronomers and by their teachers to distinguish between pulsars and noise. The students’ collective judgment sifts the pulsars from the noise.

All three students had analyzed thousands of data plots before coming upon this one. Casey Thompson, who has been with the PSC for three years, has analyzed more than 30,000 plots.

“Sometimes I just stop and think about the fact that I’m looking at data from space,” Thompson said. “It’s really special to me.”

In addition to this discovery, two other astronomical objects have been discovered by students. In 2009, Shay Bloxton of Summersville, WV, discovered a pulsar that spins once every four seconds, and Lucas Bolyard of Clarksburg, WV, discovered a rapidly rotating radio transient, which astronomers believe is a pulsar that emits radio waves in bursts.

Those involved in the PSC hope that being a part of astronomy will give students an appreciation for science. Maybe the project will even produce some of the next generation of astronomers. Snider, surely, has been inspired.

“The PSC changed my career path,” confessed Thompson. “I’m going to study astrophysics.”
Snider is pleased with the idea of contributing to scientific knowledge. “I hope that astronomers at Green Bank and around the world can learn something from the discovery,” he said.

Mabry is simply awed. “We’ve actually been able to experience something,” she said.

The PSC will continue through 2011. Teachers interested in participating in the program can learn more at this link.

First Images from Europe-Wide Giant Radio Observatory


An array of radio telescopes has connected for the first time to its various locations across Europe, creating the largest telescope in the world at almost 1000 km wide. With the connection, the LOFAR telescope has delivered its first ‘radio pictures’. The images of the 3C196 quasar, a black hole in a distant galaxy, were taken in January 2011 by the International LOFAR Telescope (ILT). LOFAR is a network of radio telescopes designed to study the sky at the lowest radio frequencies accessible from the surface of the Earth with unprecedented resolution.

The UK based telescope at Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire, was added to the network, and is the western most ‘telescope station’ in LOFAR.

“This is a very significant event for the LOFAR project and a great demonstration of what the UK is contributing”, said Derek McKay-Bukowski, STFC/SEPnet Project Manager at LOFAR Chilbolton. “The new images are three times sharper than has been previously possible with LOFAR. LOFAR works like a giant zoom lens – the more radio telescopes we add, and the further apart they are, the better the resolution and sensitivity. This means we can see smaller and fainter objects in the sky which will help us to answer exciting questions about cosmology and astrophysics.”

A close up of the quasar 3C196 (Credit: ASTRON and LOFAR)

“This is fantastic”, said Professor Rob Fender, LOFAR-UK Leader from the University of Southampton. “Combining the LOFAR signals together is a very important milestone for this truly international facility. For the first time, the signals from LOFAR radio telescopes in the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have been successfully combined in the LOFAR BlueGene/P supercomputer in the Netherlands. The connection between the Chilbolton telescope and the supercomputer requires an internet speed of 10 gigabits per second – over 1000 times faster than the typical home broadband speeds,” said Professor Fender. “Getting that connection working without a hitch was a great feat requiring close collaboration between STFC, industry, universities around the country, and our international partners.”

“The images show a patch of the sky 15 degrees wide (as large as a thousand full moons) centred on the quasar 3C196”, said Dr Philip Best, Deputy LOFAR-UK leader from the University of Edinburgh. “In visible light, quasar 3C196 (even through the Hubble Space Telescope) is a single point. By adding the international stations like the one at Chilbolton we reveal two main bright spots. This shows how the International LOFAR Telescope will help us learn about distant objects in much more detail.”

LOFAR was designed and built by ASTRON in the Netherlands and is currently being extended across Europe. As well as deep cosmology, LOFAR will be used to monitor the Sun’s activity, study planets, and understand more about lightning and geomagnetic storms. LOFAR will also contribute to UK and European preparations for the planned global next generation radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Source: STFC

LOFAR Swedish Station Begins Construction


Robert Cumming from the Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden sent us this image, letting us know that construction has officially begun for the Swedish station of the new LOFAR radio telescope. The LOw Frequency ARray is a multi-purpose sensor array, with its main purpose to search the sky at low frequencies (10-250 MHz) which will enable astronomers to see the fog of hydrogen gas that filled the universe during its first two hundred million years. It will also be able to image the regions around supermassive black holes in the centres of nearby galaxies. The headquarters are in the Netherlands, but eight stations will be spread over Europe.

This aerial photograph shows the Onsala LOFAR station site at the lower right. Behind, the white radome of the observatory’s 20-metre telescope and the dish of the 25-meter telescope by the Kattegat shore.

The two circular areas where the LOFAR station’s high-band (snow-covered) and low-band antennas will be placed are already flattened. The cold weather has delayed the next stage in the work, deploying the fibre cables, but the Onsala station should still be fully operational by mid-2011.

Onsala is LOFAR’s northernmost station and will help give the array a close to circular beam. It will also contribute some of the array’s longest baselines.

“Each LOFAR station collects and handles up to 32 terabytes of data every day,” said John Conway, professor of observational radio astronomy at Chalmers University of Technology and Vice-Director of Onsala Space Observatory. “ At Chalmers we’re working together with our European colleagues to develop new kinds of software so that we can analyse radio signals from distant sources.”

Onsala’s LOFAR station will consist of 192 small antennas which together collect radio waves from space. The signals which are registered are then transferred by fiber link to the Netherlands to be combined with data from the other stations.

You can see more images from the Onsala Observatory at the Flickr page.

More information about LOFAR.

An Apertif to the Next Radio Astronomy Entrée


To aid in the digestion of a new era in radio astronomy, a new technique for improving the is unfolding at the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT) in the Netherlands. By adding a plate of detectors to the focal plane of just one of the 14 radio antennas at the WSRT, astronomers at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) have been able to image two pulsars separated by over 3.5 degrees of arc, which is about 7 times the size of the full Moon as seen from Earth.

The new project – called Apertif – uses an array of detectors in the focal plane of the radio telescope. This ‘phased array feed’ – made of 121 separate detectors – increases the field of view of the radio telescope by over 30 times. In doing so, astronomers are able to see a larger portion of the sky in the radio spectrum. Why is this important? Well, in keeping with our food course analogy, imagine trying to eat a bowl of soup with a thimble – you can only get a small portion of the soup into your mouth at a time. Then imagine trying to eat it with a ladle.

This same analogy of surveying and observing the sky for radio sources holds true. Dr. Tom Oosterloo, the Principle Investigator of the Apertif project, explains the meat of the new technique:

“The phased array feed consists of 121 small antennas, closely packed together. This matrix covers about 1 square meter. Each WSRT will have such a antenna matrix in its focus. This matrix fully samples the radiation field in the focal plane. By combining the signals of all 121 elements, a ‘compound beams'[sic] can be formed which can be steered to be pointing at any location inside a region of 3×3 degrees on the sky. By combining the signals of all 121 elements, the response of the telescope can be optimised, i.e. all optical distortions can be removed (because the radiation field is fully measured). This process is done in parallel 37 times, i.e. 37 compound beams are formed. Each compound beam basically functions as a separate telescope. If we do this in all WSRT dishes, we have 37 WSRTs in parallel. By steering all the beams to different locations within the 3×3 degree region, we can observe this region entirely.”

In other words, traditional radio telescopes use only a single detector in the focal plane of the telescope (where all of the radiation is focused by the telescope). The new detectors are somewhat like the CCD chip in your camera, or those in use in modern optical telescopes like Hubble. Each separate detector in the array receives data, and by combining the data into a composite image a high-quality image can be captured.

The new array will also widen the field of view of the radio telescope, which allowed for this most recent observation of widely separated pulsars in the sky, a milestone test for the project. As an added bonus, the new detector will increase the efficiency of the “aperture” to around 75%, up from 55% with the traditional antennas.

Dr. Oosterloo explained, “The aperture efficiency is higher because we have much more control over the radiation field in the focal plane. With the classic single antenna systems (as in the old WSRT or as in the eVLA), one measures the radiation field in a single point only. By measuring the radiation field over the entire focal plane, and by cleverly combining the signals of all elements, optical distortion effects can be minimised and a larger fraction of the incoming radiation can be used to image the sky.”

This image illustrates the larger field of view afforded by the new instrument. Image Credit: ASTRON

For now, there is only one of the 14 radio antennas equipped with Apertif. Dr. Joeri Van Leeuwen, a researcher at ASTRON, said in an email interview that in 2011, 12 of the antennas will be outfitted with the new detector array.

Sky surveys have been a boon for astronomers in recent years. By taking enormous amounts of data and making it available to the scientific community, astronomers have been able to make many more discoveries than they would have been able to by applying for time on disparate instruments.

Though there are some sky surveys in the radio spectrum that have been completed so far – the VLA FIRST Survey being the most prominent – the field has a long way to go. Apertif is the first step in the direction of surveying the whole sky in the radio spectrum with great detail, and many discoveries are expected to be made by using the new technique.

Apertif is expected to discover over 1,000 pulsars, based on current modeling of the Galactic pulsar population. It will also be a useful tool in studying neutral hydrogen in the Universe on large scales.

Dr. Oosterloo et. al. wrote in a paper published on Arxiv in July, 2010, “One of the main scientific applications of wide-field radio telescopes operating at GHz frequencies is to observe large volumes of space in order to make an inventory of the neutral hydrogen in the Universe. With such information, the properties of the neutral hydrogen in galaxies as function of mass, type and environment can be studied in great detail, and, importantly, for the first time the evolution of these properties with redshift can be addressed.”

Adding the radio spectrum to the visible and infrared sky surveys would help to fine-tune current theories about the Universe, as well as make new discoveries. The more eyes on the sky we have in different spectra, the better.

Though Apertif is the first such detector in use, there are plans to update other radio telescopes with the technology. Dr. Oosterloo said of other such projects, “Phased array feeds are also being built by ASKAP, the Australia SKA Pathfinder. This is an instrument of similar characteristics as Apertif. It is our main competitor, although we also collaborate on many things. I am also aware of a prototype being tested at Arecibo currently. In Canada, DRAO [Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory] is doing work on phased array feed development. However, only Apertif and ASKAP will construct an actual radio telescope with working phased array feeds in the short term.”

On November 22nd and 23rd, a science coordination meeting was held about the Apertif project in Dwingeloo, Drenthe, Netherlands. Dr. Oosterloo said that the meeting was attended by 40 astronomers, from Europe, the US, Australia and South Africa to discuss the future of the project, and that there has been much interest in the potential of the technique.

Sources: ASTRON press release, Arxiv, email interview with Dr. Tom Oosterloo and Dr. Joeri Van Leeuwen

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Black Hole Evolution


While only observable by inference, the existence of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the centre of most – if not all – galaxies remains a compelling theory supported by a range of indirect observational methods. Within these data sources, there exists a strong correlation between the mass of the galactic bulge of a galaxy and the mass of its central SMBH – meaning that smaller galaxies have smaller SMBHs and bigger galaxies have bigger SMBHs.

Linked to this finding is the notion that SMBHs may play an intrinsic role in galaxy formation and evolution – and might have even been the first step in the formation of the earliest galaxies in the universe, including the proto-Milky Way.

Now, there are a number of significant assumptions built into this line of thinking, since the mass of a galactic bulge is generally inferred from the velocity dispersion of its stars – while the presence of supermassive black holes in the centre of such bulges is inferred from the very fast radial motion of inner stars – at least in closer galaxies where we can observe individual stars.

For galaxies too far away to observe individual stars – the velocity dispersion and the presence of a central supermassive black hole are both inferred – drawing on the what we have learnt from closer galaxies, as well as from direct observations of broad emission lines – which are interpreted as the product of very rapid orbital movement of gas around an SMBH (where the ‘broadening’ of these lines is a result of the Doppler effect).

But despite the assumptions built on assumptions nature of this work, ongoing observations continue to support and hence strengthen the theoretical model. So, with all that said – it seems likely that, rather than depleting its galactic bulge to grow, both an SMBH and the galactic bulge of its host galaxy grow in tandem.

It is speculated that the earliest galaxies, which formed in a smaller, denser universe, may have started with the rapid aggregation of gas and dust, which evolved into massive stars, which evolved into black holes – which then continued to grow rapidly in size due to the amount of surrounding gas and dust they were able to accrete.

Distant quasars may be examples of such objects which have grown to a galactic scale. However, this growth becomes self-limiting as radiation pressure from an SMBH’s accretion disk and its polar jets becomes intense enough to push large amounts of gas and dust out beyond the growing SMBH’s sphere of influence. That dispersed material contains vestiges of angular momentum to keep it in an orbiting halo around the SMBH and it is in these outer regions that star formation is able to take place. Thus a dynamic balance is reached where the more material an SMBH eats, the more excess material it blows out – contributing to the growth of the galaxy that is forming around it.

The almost linear correlation between the SMBH mass (M) and velocity dispersion (sigma) of the galactic bulge (the 'M-sigma relation') suggests that there is some kind of co-evolution going on between an SMBH and its host galaxy. The only way an SMBH can get bigger is if its host galaxy gets bigger - and vice versa. The left chart shows data points derived from different objects in a galaxy - the right chart shows data points derived from different types of galaxies. Credit: Tremaine et al. (2002).

To further investigate the evolution of the relationship between SMBHs and their host galaxies – Nesvadba et al looked at a collection of very red-shifted (and hence very distant) radio galaxies (or HzRGs). They speculate that their selected group of galaxies have reached a critical point – where the feeding frenzy of the SMBH is blowing out about as much material as it is taking in – a point which probably represents the limit of the active growth of the SMBH and its host galaxy.

From that point, such galaxies might grow further by cannibalistic merging – but again this may lead to a co-evolution of the galaxy and the SMBH – as much of the contents of the galaxy being eaten gets used up in star formation within the feasting galaxy’s disk and bulge, before whatever is left gets through to feed the central SMBH.

Other authors (e.g. Schulze and Gebhardt), while not disputing the general concept, suggest that all the measurements are a bit out as a result of not incorporating dark matter into the theoretical model. But, that is another story…

Further reading: Nesvadba et al. The black holes of radio galaxies during the “Quasar Era”: Masses, accretion rates, and evolutionary stage.

J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!


It seems oddly appropriate to be writing about astrophysical jets on Thanksgiving Day, when the New York football Jets will be featured on television. In the most recent issue of Science, Carlos Carrasco-Gonzalez and collaborators write about how their observations of radio emissions from young stellar objects (YSOs) shed light one of the unsolved problems in astrophysics; what are the mechanisms that form the streams of plasma known as polar jets? Although we are still early in the game, Carrasco-Gonzalez et al have moved us closer to the goal line with their discovery.

Astronomers see polar jets in many places in the Universe. The largest polar jets are those seen in active galaxies such as quasars. They are also found in gamma-ray bursters, cataclysmic variable stars, X-ray binaries and protostars in the process of becoming main sequence stars. All these objects have several features in common: a central gravitational source, such as a black hole or white dwarf, an accretion disk, diffuse matter orbiting around the central mass, and a strong magnetic field.

Relativistic jet from an AGN. Credit: Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

When matter is emitted at speeds approaching the speed of light, these jets are called relativistic jets. These are normally the jets produced by supermassive black holes in active galaxies. These jets emit energy in the form of radio waves produced by electrons as they spiral around magnetic fields, a process called synchrotron emission. Extremely distant active galactic nuclei (AGN) have been mapped out in great detail using radio interferometers like the Very Large Array in New Mexico. These emissions can be used to estimate the direction and intensity of AGNs magnetic fields, but other basic information, such as the velocity and amount of mass loss, are not well known.

On the other hand, astronomers know a great deal about the polar jets emitted by young stars through the emission lines in their spectra. The density, temperature and radial velocity of nearby stellar jets can be measured very well. The only thing missing from the recipe is the strength of the magnetic field. Ironically, this is the one thing that we can measure well in distant AGN. It seemed unlikely that stellar jets would produce synchrotron emissions since the temperatures in these jets are usually only a few thousand degrees. The exciting news from Carrasco-Gonzalez et al is that jets from young stars do emit synchrotron radiation, which allowed them to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the massive Herbig-Haro object, HH 80-81, a protostar 10 times as massive and 17,000 times more luminous than our Sun.

Finally obtaining data related to the intensity and orientation of the magnetic field lines in YSO’s and their similarity to the characteristics of AGN suggests we may be that much closer to understanding the common origin of all astrophysical jets. Yet another thing to be thankful for on this day.

New Technique Could Track Down Dark Energy


From an NRAO press release:

Dark energy is the label scientists have given to what is causing the Universe to expand at an accelerating rate, and is believed to make up nearly three-fourths of the mass and energy of the Universe. While the acceleration was discovered in 1998, its cause remains unknown. Physicists have advanced competing theories to explain the acceleration, and believe the best way to test those theories is to precisely measure large-scale cosmic structures. A new technique developed for the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) have given astronomers a new way to map large cosmic structures such as dark energy.

Sound waves in the matter-energy soup of the extremely early Universe are thought to have left detectable imprints on the large-scale distribution of galaxies in the Universe. The researchers developed a way to measure such imprints by observing the radio emission of hydrogen gas. Their technique, called intensity mapping, when applied to greater areas of the Universe, could reveal how such large-scale structure has changed over the last few billion years, giving insight into which theory of dark energy is the most accurate.

“Our project mapped hydrogen gas to greater cosmic distances than ever before, and shows that the techniques we developed can be used to map huge volumes of the Universe in three dimensions and to test the competing theories of dark energy,” said Tzu-Ching Chang, of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan and the University of Toronto.

To get their results, the researchers used the GBT to study a region of sky that previously had been surveyed in detail in visible light by the Keck II telescope in Hawaii. This optical survey used spectroscopy to map the locations of thousands of galaxies in three dimensions. With the GBT, instead of looking for hydrogen gas in these individual, distant galaxies — a daunting challenge beyond the technical capabilities of current instruments — the team used their intensity-mapping technique to accumulate the radio waves emitted by the hydrogen gas in large volumes of space including many galaxies.

“Since the early part of the 20th Century, astronomers have traced the expansion of the Universe by observing galaxies. Our new technique allows us to skip the galaxy-detection step and gather radio emissions from a thousand galaxies at a time, as well as all the dimly-glowing material between them,” said Jeffrey Peterson, of Carnegie Mellon University.

The astronomers also developed new techniques that removed both man-made radio interference and radio emission caused by more-nearby astronomical sources, leaving only the extremely faint radio waves coming from the very distant hydrogen gas. The result was a map of part of the “cosmic web” that correlated neatly with the structure shown by the earlier optical study. The team first proposed their intensity-mapping technique in 2008, and their GBT observations were the first test of the idea.

“These observations detected more hydrogen gas than all the previously-detected hydrogen in the Universe, and at distances ten times farther than any radio wave-emitting hydrogen seen before,” said Ue-Li Pen of the University of Toronto.

“This is a demonstration of an important technique that has great promise for future studies of the evolution of large-scale structure in the Universe,” said National Radio Astronomy Observatory Chief Scientist Chris Carilli, who was not part of the research team.

In addition to Chang, Peterson, and Pen, the research team included Kevin Bandura of Carnegie Mellon University. The scientists reported their work in the July 22 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

Radio Observations Provide New Explanation for Hanny’s Voorwerp


Is Hanny’s Voorwerp the result of a “light echo” of a violent event that happened long ago or perhaps is this mystifying blob of glowing gas being fueled by an ongoing, and current phenomenon? A just-released paper about the Voorwerp offers a new explanation for this perplexing, seemingly one-of-a-kind object in the constellation of Leo Minor. If you haven’t heard the remarkable story, the object was discovered in 2007 by Dutch school teacher Hanny Van Arkel while she was classifying galaxies for the Galaxy Zoo online citizen science project. Until now, the working hypothesis for the explanation of this unusual object was that we might be seeing the “light echo” of a quasar outburst event that occurred millions of years ago. But new radio observations reveal that instead, a black hole in that same nearby galaxy might be producing a radio jet, shooting a thin beam directly at this cloud of gas, causing it to light up.

Hanny’s Voorwerp (Dutch for object) consists of dust and gas – but no stars – so astronomers know it is not a galaxy, even though it is galaxy-sized. Previously, astronomers studying the object thought the gas and dust were illuminated by a quasar outburst within the nearby galaxy IC 2497. While the outburst would have faded within the last 100,000 years, the light only reached the dust and gas in time for our telescopes to see the effect. But this explanation was slightly unsatisfactory in that such an event, where an entire galaxy would flare up suddenly and briefly, is unexplained.

The naturally weighted 18 cm MERLIN radio map of IC 2497 (black contours), showing both C1 & C2, embedded within a region of smooth extended emission, overlaid over the same map with the point sources subtracted. Credit: Rampadarath, et al.

But radio observations with the European Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network at 18 cm, and the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (MERLIN) at 18 cm and 6 cm show evidence of black hole, or active galactic nuclei (AGN) activity and a nuclear starburst in the central regions of IC 2497.

This event is hard to see from our vantage point on Earth because another cloud of dust and gas sits between us on Earth and IC 2497, preventing us from directly seeing the black hole.

“The new data shows that the nucleus continues to produce a radio jet, in about the direction of Hanny’s Voorwerp,” said Bill Keel from the University of Alabama, one of the astronomers who has been studying the object intently ever since its discovery, and was part of the new observations. “The core is still too weak in the radio to be able to conclude that it puts off enough UV and X-rays to light up the gas, however. There may well be interaction between outflowing material connected with the jet and the gas outside the galaxy, helping to shape the Voorwerp, but the spectra in the discovery paper already made it clear that the gas is ionized not by shocks from such an interaction, but by radiation. ”

Keel said, though, there is still remaining uncertainty — and different astronomers have varying estimates of this likelihood – of whether the radiation from the quasar core remains strong or whether it shoots in fits and starts.

“Some active galaxies put out a lot of energy in jets and outflows compared to radiation, and we are considering the possibility that this one has switched to such a “radio mode” in the recent past,” he said. “If so, the Voorwerp would be an ionization echo, or light echo, since the re-radiation from ionized gas is not instantaneous, as scattering is.”

The Voorwerp has captured enough attention and curiosity that astronomers have trained numerous telescopes on the object in an effort to sort out the mystery. But Keel said this approach is essential in eventually figuring this out.

“Each wavelength range gives us a different, and usually complementary, piece of the story,” he said. “The earlier radio data tell us something about where all that gas came from, and we got another connection from recent data putting an apparent companion spiral galaxy at the same distance as IC 2497. Even the early X-ray data showed us that there was an interesting puzzle as to why we didn’t see the core AGN. The GALEX UV spectrum is informing our interpretation of the Hubble UV image.”

Yes, Hubble recently looked at the Voorwerp in a couple of different wavelengths, (read our article about the Hubble observations here) and while Keel couldn’t comment directly about data from the iconic telescope, (everything is still being analyzed) he did say it holds some interesting surprises.

“One of the first things we started checking with Hubble data was whether we have a clear view in at least the infrared to the nucleus, starting from the location of the radio source,” he said. “Also, these results give us particular reason to look at the structural details of the gas in Hanny’s Voorwerp, for signs that it may be affected by an outflow from the nucleus. I can mention that there are some interesting surprises from the HST data, which is what we always hope for!”

Keel said he also has been observing at Kitt Peak, looking at other candidate “voorwerpjes” – similar “ionized clouds on a somewhat smaller scale around AGN, where the same lifetime-versus-obscuration issues apply but we can usually see the AGN responsible,” he said.

And look for some upcoming public outreach projects on the Voorwerp based on the Hubble data, as well, including one in Bloomington, Minnesota on July 1-4 at the CONvergence, where writers and scienctists will be writing a graphic novel based on the discovery of Hanny’s Voorwerp. Check out this website for more information.

Read the team’s paper: Hanny’s Voorwerp: Evidence Of AGN Activity And A Nuclear Starburst In The Central Regions Of IC 2497.

Scientist Explains New LOFAR Image of Quasar 3C196


We received several questions about our article on the new high-resolution LOFAR (LOw Frequency Array) image of quasar 3C196, concerning what was actually visible in this new image. We contacted LOFAR scientist Olaf Wucknitz from the Argelander-Institute for Astronomy at Bonn University in Germany, and he has provided an extensive explanation.

“3C196 is a quasar, the core of which is sitting right in the middle of the radio component,” Wucknitz said. “The core itself is not seen in radio observations but only on optical images. A possible reason for not seeing the core or the jets is that the central engine may not be very active at the moment (or rather it was not very active when the radiation left the object about 7 billion years ago). Alternatively it is possible that the inner parts of this source radiate very inefficiently so that we just do not see them in the radio images.”

In any case, he said, there must have been considerable activity earlier, because extensions of the jets that form radio lobes and hot spots are able to be seen in the image.

“The main lobes seem to be the bright SW component and the more compact NE component. When compared to observations at higher frequencies, these have the flattest spectra, i.e. they dominate at higher frequencies,” Wucknitz continued. “Then there is the other pair of components, the fuzzier E and W components. They are much weaker at higher frequencies.”

“The standard explanation for this would be that the jets from the core are changing its orientation with time (e.g. due to precession caused by a second black hole near the core, but this is very speculative). In this scenario the more extended components are older. Because of their age, the electrons causing the radiation have lost so much energy that we now see more low-frequency (i.e. low energy) radiation. The more compact components would be younger and therefore produce more high-frequency radiation.”

Interestingly, the W and E components show very different “colors” between 30-80 MHz, he said, so there must be some difference in the physical conditions in these two regions.

“Another possible explanation is that the compact components are the main lobes. There the jets interact with the surrounding medium. The matter is deflected and causes an outflow which we see as the other components.”

So basically, Wucknitz said, with the study of the data now available, they cannot draw firm conclusions, and he and his team have not had the opportunity to write a paper on the new image. “At the moment we are concentrating on getting LOFAR to run routinely and try to resist the temptation to do too much science with the first images. I hope that we can provide a real scientific analysis of this and similar images later this year.”

However, he suggested a couple of earlier papers that discuss quasar 3C196.

“Rotationally symmetric structure in two extragalactic radio sources” by Lonsdale, C. J.; Morison, I. describes the model of rotating jets for several obects including 3C196.

And this paper, Kiloparsec scale structure in the hotspots of 3C 196 by Lonsdale, C. J. discuses how previous observations by the MERLIN array revealed the presence of complex structure in each of the two bright hot spots in the quasar.

Wucknitz said he looks forward to delving into this object deeper as more of the LOFAR stations come online. “Once we can calibrate our new data better and produce slightly nicer images, we can hopefully say more and decide for one of the models,” he said.

Thanks to Olaf Wucknitz for providing an explanation of this new LOFAR image. Still have questions? Post them in the comments below.

First High-Res, Low Frequency Radio Image from LOFAR Array


Just eight of the eventual forty-four antenna stations for the LOw Frequency ARray (LOFAR) were combined to produce the first high-resolution image of a distant quasar at meter radio wavelengths. The first image shows fine details of the quasar 3C 196, a strong radio source several billion light years away, observed at wavelengths between 4 and 10 m. “We chose this object for the first tests, because we know its structure very well from observations at shorter wavelengths,” said Olaf Wucknitz from Bonn University. “The goal was not to find something new but to see the same or similar structures also at very long wavelengths to confirm that the new instrument really works. Without the German stations, we only saw a fuzzy blob, no sub-structure. Once we included the long baselines, all the details showed up.”

Five stations in the Netherlands were connected with three stations in Germany. To make detailed observations at such low frequencies, the telescopes have to be spaced far apart. When complete, the LOFAR array span across a large part of Europe.

Observations at wavelengths covered by LOFAR are not new. In fact, the pioneers of radio astronomy started their work in the same range. However, they were only able to produce very rough maps of the sky and to measure just the positions and intensities of objects.

“We are now returning to this long neglected wavelength range”, says Michael Garrett, general director of ASTRON, in The Netherlands, the institution that leads the international LOFAR project. “But this time we are able to see much fainter objects and, even more important, to image very fine details. This offers entirely new opportunities for astrophysical research.”

“The high resolution and sensitivity of LOFAR mean that we are really entering uncharted territory, and the analysis of the data was correspondingly intricate”, adds Olaf Wucknitz. “We had to develop completely new techniques. Nevertheless, producing the images went surprisingly smoothly in the end. The quality of the data is stunning.” The next step for Wucknitz is to use LOFAR to study so-called gravitational lenses, where the light from distant objects is distorted by large mass concentrations. High resolution is required to see the interesting structures of these objects. This research would be impossible without the international stations.

IS-DE1: Some of the 96 low-band dipole antennas, Effelsberg LOFAR station (foreground); high-band array (background) (Credit: James Anderson, MPIfR)

LOFAR will consist of at least 36 stations in the Netherlands and eight stations in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Sweden. Currently 22 stations are operational and more are being set up. Each station consists of hundreds of dipole antennas that are connected electronically to form a huge radio telescope that will cover half of Europe. With the novel techniques introduced by LOFAR, it is no longer necessary to point the radio antennas at specific objects of interest. Instead it will be possible to observe several regions of the sky simultaneously.

The resolution of an array of radio telescopes depends directly on the separation between the telescopes. The larger these baselines are relative to the observed wavelength, the better the achieved resolution. Currently the German stations provide the first long baselines of the array and improve the resolution by a factor of ten over just using the Dutch stations. ASTRON officials say the imaging quality will improve significantly as more stations come online.

“We want to use LOFAR to search for signals from very early epochs of the Universe,, said Benedetta Ciardi from the Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik (MPA) in Garching. “Having a completely theoretical background myself, I never had thought that I would get excited over a radio image, but this result is really fascinating.”

Source: Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik