Space Telescopes Look Back 13.2 Billion Years and See Surprisingly Luminous Galaxies

What was the Universe like more than 13 billion years ago, just 500 million years after the big bang? New data from the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes reveal some surprisingly bright galaxies that are about 10 to 20 times more luminous than anything seen previously in that epoch.

Garth Illingworth from the University of California, Santa Cruz said the discovery of these four bright galaxies came from combining the power of both telescopes, but these galaxies lie right at the limit of the telescopes’ capabilities.

“We’re actually reaching back 13.2 billion years through the life of the Universe — that’s 96% of the life of the Universe that we are looking back at these galaxies,” said Illingworth, speaking at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C. this week. “That’s an astonishing undertaking and an astonishing accomplishment that Hubble and Spitzer have achieved.”

Detail of the Hubble and Spitzer observations of a galaxy from the early Universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz; Yale University), R. Bouwens and I. Labbé (Leiden University), and the Science Team.
Detail of the Hubble and Spitzer observations of a galaxy from the early Universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz; Yale University), R. Bouwens and I. Labbé (Leiden University), and the Science Team.

Illingworth said the typical galaxy candidate from that far back in time is very faint and hard to see. But these new galaxies are about 15-20 % brighter than what astronomers have seen before at redshift 10.

The tiny are bright because they are bursting with star formation activity. The brightest one is forming stars approximately 50 times faster than the Milky Way does today. Although these fledgling galaxies are only one-twentieth the size of the Milky Way, they probably contain around a billion stars crammed together.

Astronomers think these bright, young galaxies grew exceptionally fast because of interactions and mergers of smaller infant galaxies that started forming stars even earlier in the Universe. Since the ancient time billions of years ago when the light that we now see started its long journey to us, they have probably kept growing to become similar to the largest modern galaxies. Many of the stars of these infant galaxies likely live on today in the centers of giant elliptical galaxies, much larger even than our own Milky Way.

Slide from Garth Illingworth's presentation at the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting, describing the discovery of bright galaxies from early in the Universe. Credit: Garth Illingworth.
Slide from Garth Illingworth’s presentation at the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting, describing the discovery of bright galaxies from early in the Universe. Credit: Garth Illingworth.

Illingworth said this era appears to be a timeframe where things were changing quite rapidly. “We’ve gone back to a very interesting time when the Universe is changing,” he said.

The galaxies were first detected with Hubble, and astronomers were able to measure their star-formation rates and sizes. But using Spitzer, the scientists were also able to measure the galaxies’ masses.

“This is the first-ever measurement of the mass density of the galaxies when the Universe was at 500 million years of age,” Illingworth said. “These galaxies are about a billion times the mass of our Sun, which is massive for those times, but still only 1% the mass of the Milky Way.”

Illingworth added that the mass measurements are rough estimates because of how challenging the task was.

Illingworth and team member Ivo Labbé from Leiden University said they are looking forward to finding out more about these galaxies, particularly from future observations with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

“At the same time, the extreme masses and star formation rates are really mysterious,” Labbé said, “and we are eager to confirm them with future observations on our powerful telescopes.”

You can find out more about these early galaxies — and more — at the First Galaxies website.

Further reading: HubbleSite

How Spitzer’s Focus Changed To Strange New Worlds

After 10 years in space — looking at so many galaxies and stars and other astronomy features — the Spitzer Space Telescope is being deployed for new work: searching for alien worlds.

The telescope is designed to peer in infrared light (see these examples!), the wavelength in which heat is visible. When looking at infrared light from exoplanets, Spitzer can figure out more about their atmospheric conditions. Over time, it can even detect brightness differences as the planet orbits its sun, or measure the temperature by looking at how much the brightness declines when the planet goes behind its star. Neat stuff overall.

“When Spitzer launched back in 2003, the idea that we would use it to study exoplanets was so crazy that no one considered it,” stated Sean Carey of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center, which is at the California Institute of Technology. “But now the exoplanet science work has become a cornerstone of what we do with the telescope.”

Of course, the telescope wasn’t designed to do this. But to paraphrase the movie Apollo 13, NASA was interested in what the telescope could do while it’s in space — especially because the planet-seeking Kepler space telescope has been sidelined by a reaction wheel problem. Redesigning Spitzer, in a sense, took three steps.

Classifying Galaxies
An example of Spitzer’s past work: This image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows infrared light from the Sunflower galaxy, otherwise known as Messier 63. Spitzer’s view highlights the galaxy’s dusty spiral arms. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Fixing the wobble: Spitzer is steady, but not so steady that it could easily pick out the small bit of light that an exoplanet emits. Engineers determined that the telescope actually wobbled regularly and would wobble for an hour. Looking into the problem further, they discovered it’s because a heater turns on to keep the telescope battery’s temperature regulated.

“The heater caused a strut between the star trackers and telescope to flex a bit, making the position of the telescope wobble compared to the stars being tracked,” NASA stated. In October 2010, NASA decided to cut the heating back to 30 minutes because the battery only needs about 50 per cent of the heat previously thought. Half the wobble and more exoplanets was more the recipe they were looking for.

The Spitzer Space Telescope.  Credit:  NASA
The Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Repurposing a camera: Spitzer has a pointing control reference sensor “peak-up” camera on board, which originally gathered up infrared light to funnel to a spectrometer. It also calibrated the telescope’s star-tracker pointing devices. The same principle was applied to infrared camera observations, putting stars in the center of camera pixels and allowing a better view.

Remapping a camera pixel: The scientists charted the variations in a single pixel of the camera that showed them which were the most stable areas for observations. For context, about 90% of Spitzer’s exoplanet observations are about a 1/4 of a pixel wide.

That’s pretty neat stuff considering that Spitzer’s original mission was just 2.5 years, when it had coolant on board to allow three temperature-sensitive science instruments to function. Since then, engineers have set up a passive cooling system that lets one set of infrared cameras keep working.

Source: NASA

NASA’s Great Observatories Provide a Sparkly New View of the Small Magellanic Cloud

This is just pretty! NASA’s Great Observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Infrared Telescope — have combined forces to create this new image of the Small Magellanic Cloud. The SMC is one of the Milky Way’s closest galactic neighbors. Even though it is a small, or so-called dwarf galaxy, the SMC is so bright that it is visible to the unaided eye from the Southern Hemisphere and near the equator.

What did it take to create this image? Let’s take a look at the images from each of the observatories:

The Small Magellenic Cloud in X-Ray from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud in X-Ray from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud in infrared, from the Spitzer Infrared Telescope. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud in infrared, from the Spitzer Infrared Telescope. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud as seen in optical wavelengths from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud as seen in optical wavelengths from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.

The various colors represent wavelengths of light across a broad spectrum. X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory are shown in purple; visible-light from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is colored red, green and blue; and infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope are also represented in red.

The three telescopes highlight different aspects of this lively stellar community. Winds and radiation from massive stars located in the central, disco-ball-like cluster of stars, called NGC 602a, have swept away surrounding material, clearing an opening in the star-forming cloud.

Find out more at this page from Chandra, and this one from JPL.

Distant Star Goes Disco

A disco inferno in space? Astronomers have been keeping an eye on an unusual star that unleashes a burst of light every 25 days, like an extremely slow pulsating disco ball. Similar pulsating bursts of light have been seen before, but this one, named LRLL 54361 is the most powerful beacon ever seen.

Using the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, astronomers have solved the mystery of this star. It is actually two newly formed protostars in a binary system, doing a little disco dance of their own. And as they spin around each other on the smoky dance floor (actually a dense cloud of gas and dust), a blast of radiation is unleashed each time the stars get close to each other in their orbits. The effect seen by the telescopes is enhanced by an optical illusion called a light echo.

NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have teamed up to uncover a mysterious infant star that behaves like a police strobe light. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Muzerolle (STScI), E. Furlan (NOAO and Caltech), K. Flaherty (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), Z. Balog (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), and R. Gutermuth (University of Massachusetts, Amherst).
NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have teamed up to uncover a mysterious infant star that behaves like a police strobe light. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Muzerolle (STScI), E. Furlan (NOAO and Caltech), K. Flaherty (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), Z. Balog (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), and R. Gutermuth (University of Massachusetts, Amherst).

The unusual thing is, while astronomers have seen this phenomenon before, called pulsed accretion, usually it is found in later stages of star birth – and not in such a young system or with such intensity and regularity.
Astronomers say LRLL 54361 offers insights into the early stages of star formation when lots of gas and dust is being rapidly accreted to form a new binary star.

“This protostar has such large brightness variations with a precise period that it is very difficult to explain,” said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute. His paper recently was published in the journal Nature.

Discovered by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, LRLL 54361 is a variable object inside the star-forming region IC 348, located 950 light-years from Earth. Data from Spitzer’s dust-piercing infrared cameras showed unusual outbursts in the brightness, occurring every 25.34 days, which is a very rare phenomenon.

Based on statistical analysis, the two stars are estimated to be no more than a few hundred thousand years old.

Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm the Spitzer observations and reveal the detailed stellar structure around LRLL 54361. Hubble observed two cavities above and below a dusty disk. The cavities are visible by tracing light scattered off their edges. They likely were blown out of the surrounding natal envelope of dust and gas by an outflow launched near the central stars. The disk and the envelope prevent the suspected binary star pair from being observed directly. By capturing multiple images over the course of one pulse event, the Hubble observations uncovered a spectacular movement of light away from the center of the system, the light echo optical illusion, where a sudden flash or burst of light is reflected off a source and arrives at the viewer some time after the initial flash.

A series of images taken by Hubble Space Telescope over  a month show the pulse of light moving through the nebula. The light is illuminating the material around the stars. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)
A series of images taken by Hubble Space Telescope over a month show the pulse of light moving through the nebula. The light is illuminating the material around the stars. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

Muzerolle and his team hypothesized the pair of stars in the center of the dust cloud move around each other in a very eccentric orbit. As the stars approach each other, dust and gas are dragged from the inner edge of a surrounding disk. The material ultimately crashes onto one or both stars, which triggers a flash of light that illuminates the circumstellar dust. The system is rare because close binaries account for only a few percent of our galaxy’s stellar population. This is likely a brief, transitory phase in the birth of a star system.

Muzerolle’s team next plans to continue monitoring LRLL 54361 using other facilities including the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Telescope. The team hopes to eventually obtain more direct measurements of the binary star and its orbit.

Read Muzerolle’s paper (pdf)

Source: HubbleSite

Clouds of Sand and Iron Swirl in a Failed Star’s Extreme Atmosphere

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026. NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes observed the object to learn more about its turbulent atmosphere. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become sizzling stars. Their atmospheres can be similar to the giant planet Jupiter's. Spitzer and Hubble simultaneously observed the object as it rotated every 1.4 hours. The results suggest wind-driven, planet-size clouds. Image credit:

Artist’s concept of brown dwarf  2MASSJ22282889-431026 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The complex weather patterns within the atmosphere of a rapidly-rotating brown dwarf have been mapped in the highest detail ever by researchers using the infrared abilities of NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes… talk about solar wind!

Sometimes referred to as failed stars, brown dwarfs form from condensing gas and dust like regular stars but never manage to gather enough mass to ignite full-on hydrogen fusion in their cores. As a result they more resemble enormous Jupiter-like planets, radiating low levels of heat while possessing bands of wind-driven eddies in their upper atmospheric layers.

Although brown dwarfs are by their nature very dim, and thus difficult to observe in visible wavelengths of light, their heat can be detected by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope — both of which can “see” just fine in near- and far-infrared, respectively.

Led by researchers from the University of Arizona, a team of astronomers used these orbiting observatories on July 7, 2011 to measure the light curves from a brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026 (2M2228 for short.) What they found was that while 2M2228 exhibited periodic brightening in both near- and far-infrared over the course of its speedy 1.43-hour rotation, the amount and rate of brightening varied between the different wavelengths detected by the two telescopes.

ssc2013-01a_Inline

“With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at different atmospheric layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body.”

– Daniel Apai, principal investigator, University of Arizona

This unexpected variance — or phase shift — most likely indicates different layers of cloud material and wind velocities surrounding 2M2228, swirling around the dwarf star in very much the same way as the stormy cloud bands seen on Jupiter or Saturn.

But while the clouds on Jupiter are made of gases like ammonia and methane, the clouds of 2M2228 are made of much more unusual stuff.

ssc2013-01b_Inline“Unlike the water clouds of Earth or the ammonia clouds of Jupiter, clouds on brown dwarfs are composed of hot grains of sand, liquid drops of iron, and other exotic compounds,” said Mark Marley, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and co-author of the paper. “So this large atmospheric disturbance found by Spitzer and Hubble gives a new meaning to the concept of extreme weather.”

While it might seem strange to think about weather on a star, remember that brown dwarfs are much more gas planet-like than “real” stars. Although the temperatures of 1,100–1,600 ºF (600–700 ºC) found on 2M2228 might sound searingly hot, it’s downright chilly compared to even regular stars like our Sun, which has an average temperature of nearly 10,000 ºF (5,600 ºC). Different materials gather at varying layers of its atmosphere, depending on temperature and pressure, and can be penetrated by different wavelengths of infrared light — just like gas giant planets.

“What we see here is evidence for massive, organized cloud systems, perhaps akin to giant versions of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter,” said Adam Showman, a theorist at the University of Arizona involved in the research. “These out-of-sync light variations provide a fingerprint of how the brown dwarf’s weather systems stack up vertically. The data suggest regions on the brown dwarf where the weather is cloudy and rich in silicate vapor deep in the atmosphere coincide with balmier, drier conditions at higher altitudes — and vice versa.”

The team’s results were presented today, January 8, during the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, CA.

Read more on the Spitzer site, and find the team’s paper in PDF form here.

Inset image: the anatomy of a brown dwarf’s atmosphere (NASA/JPL).

Orion Revisited: Astronomers Find New Star Cluster in Front of the Orion Nebula

The well-known star-forming region of the Orion Nebula.  Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope / Coelum (J.-C. Cuillandre & G. Anselmi)

Precise distances are difficult to gauge in space, especially within the relatively local regions of the Galaxy. Stars which appear close together in the night sky may actually be separated by many hundreds or thousands of light-years, and since there’s only a limited amount of space here on Earth with which to determine distances using parallax, astronomers have to come up with other ways to figure out how far objects are, and what exactly is in front of or “behind” what.

Recently, astronomers using the 340-megapixel MegaCam on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) observed the star-forming region of the famous Orion nebula — located only about 1,500 light-years away — and determined that two massive groupings of the nebula’s stars are actually located in front of the cluster as completely separate structures… a finding that may ultimately force astronomers to rethink how the many benchmark stars located there had formed.

Although the Orion nebula is easily visible with the naked eye (as the hazy center “star” in Orion’s three-star sword, hanging perpendicular below his belt) its true nebulous nature wasn’t identified until 1610. As a vast and active star-forming region of bright dust and gas located a mere 1,500 light-years distant, the various stars within the Orion Nebula Cluster (ONC) has given astronomers invaluable benchmarks for research on many aspects of star formation.

[Read more: Astrophoto – Orion’s Bloody Massacre]

Now, CFHT observations of the Orion nebula conducted by Dr. Hervé Bouy of the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) and Centre for Astrobiology (CSIC) and Dr. João Alves of the Institut für Astronomie (University of Vienna) have shown that a massive cluster of stars known as NGC 1980 is actually in front of the nebula, and is an older group of approximately 2,000 stars that is separate from the stars found within the ONC… as well as more massive than once thought.

“It is hard to see how these new observations fit into any existing theoretical model of cluster formation, and that is exciting because it suggests we might be missing something fundamental.”

– Dr. João Alves, Institut für Astronomie, University of Vienna

In addition their observations with CFHT — which were combined with previous observations with ESA’s Herschel and XMM-Newton and NASA’s Spitzer and WISE — have led to the discovery of another smaller cluster, L1641W.

According to the team’s paper, “We find that there is a rich stellar population in front of the Orion A cloud, from B-stars to M-stars, with a distinct 1) spatial distribution; 2) luminosity function; and 3) velocity dispersion from the reddened population inside the Orion A cloud. The spatial distribution of this population peaks strongly around NGC 1980 (iota Ori) and is, in all likelihood, the extended stellar content of this poorly studied cluster.”

The findings show that what has been known as Orion Nebula Cluster is actually a combination of older and newer groups of stars, possibly calling for a “revision of most of the observables in the benchmark ONC region (e.g., ages, age spread, cluster size, mass function, disk frequency, etc.)”

[Read more: Astronomers See Stars Changing Right Before Their Eyes in Orion Nebula]

“We must untangle these two mixed populations, star by star, if we are to understand the region, and star formation in clusters, and even the early stages of planet formation,” according to co-author Dr. Hervé Bouy.

The team’s article “Orion Revisited” was published in the November 2012 Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. Read the CFHT press release here.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope’s Mauna Kea summit dome in September 2009. Credit: CFHT/Jean-Charles Cuillandre

Inset image: Orion nebula seen in optical – where the molecular cloud is invisible – and infrared, which shows the cloud. Any star detected in the optical in the line of sight over the region highlighted in the right panel must therefore be located in the foreground of the molecular cloud. Credit: J. Alves & H. Bouy.

Now Even Further: Ancient Galaxy is Latest Candidate for Most Distant

It seems that every few months or so comes a new discovery of a new “most distant galaxy ever found.” It’s not really a surprise that new benchmarks are reached with such an amazing frequency as our telescopes get better and astronomers refine their techniques for observing faraway and ancient objects. This latest “most distant” is pretty interesting in that it was found by combining observations from two space telescopes – Hubble and Spitzer – as well as using massive galaxy clusters as gravitational lenses to magnify the distant galaxy behind them. It’s also extremely small and may not even be a fully developed galaxy at the time we are seeing it.

While this galaxy, named MACS0647-JD, appears as a diminutive blob in the new images, astronomers say it offers a peek back into a time when the universe was just 3 percent of its present age of 13.7 billion years. This newly discovered galaxy was observed 420 million years after the Big Bang, and its light has traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth.

“This object may be one of many building blocks of a galaxy,” said Dan Coe of the Space Telescope Science Institute, lead author of a new paper on the observations. “Over the next 13 billion years, it may have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of merging events with other galaxies and galaxy fragments.”

The discovery comes from the Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH), a program that combines the power of space telescopes with the natural zoom of gravitational lensing to reveal distant galaxies in the early Universe. Observations with Spitzer’s infrared eyes allowed for confirmation of this object.

The light from MACS0647-JD was magnified by a massive galaxy cluster named MACS J0647+7015, and without the cluster’s magnification powers, astronomers would not have seen the remote galaxy. Because of gravitational lensing, the CLASH research team was able to observe three magnified images of MACS0647-JD with the Hubble telescope. The cluster’s gravity boosted the light from the faraway galaxy, making the images appear about eight, seven, and two times brighter than they otherwise would that enabled astronomers to detect the galaxy more efficiently and with greater confidence.

“This cluster does what no manmade telescope can do,” said Marc Postman, also from STScI. “Without the magnification, it would require a Herculean effort to observe this galaxy.”

MACS0647-JD is just a fraction of the size of our Milky Way galaxy, and is so small it may not even be a fully formed galaxy. Data show the galaxy is less than 600 light-years wide. Based on observations of somewhat closer galaxies, astronomers estimate that a typical galaxy of a similar age should be about 2,000 light-years wide. For comparison, the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy companion to the Milky Way, is 14,000 light-years wide. Our Milky Way is 150,000 light-years across.

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The galaxy was observed with 17 filters, spanning near-ultraviolet to near-infrared wavelengths, using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). Coe discovered the galaxy in February while poring over a catalogue of thousands of gravitationally lensed objects found in Hubble observations of 17 clusters in the CLASH survey. But the galaxy appeared only in the two reddest filters.

“So either MACS0647-JD is a very red object, only shining at red wavelengths, or it is extremely distant and its light has been ‘redshifted’ to these wavelengths, or some combination of the two,” Coe said. “We considered this full range of possibilities.”

The CLASH team identified multiple images of eight galaxies lensed by the galaxy cluster. Their positions allowed the team to produce a map of the cluster’s mass, which is primarily composed of dark matter. Dark matter is an invisible form of matter that makes up the bulk of the universe’s mass. “It’s like a big puzzle,” said Coe. “We have to arrange the mass in the cluster so that it deflects the light of each galaxy to the positions observed.” The team’s analysis revealed that the cluster’s mass distribution produced three lensed images of MACS0647-JD at the positions and relative brightness observed in the Hubble image.

Coe and his collaborators spent months systematically ruling out these other alternative explanations for the object’s identity, including red stars, brown dwarfs, and red (old or dusty) galaxies at intermediate distances from Earth. They concluded that a very distant galaxy was the correct explanation.

Redshift is a consequence of the expansion of space over cosmic time. Astronomers study the distant universe in near-infrared light because the expansion of space stretches ultraviolet and visible light from galaxies into infrared wavelengths. Coe estimates MACS0647-JD has a redshift of 11, the highest yet observed.

Images of the galaxy at longer wavelengths obtained with the Spitzer Space Telescope played a key role in the analysis. If the object were intrinsically red, it would appear bright in the Spitzer images. Instead, the galaxy barely was detected, if at all, indicating its great distance. The research team plans to use Spitzer to obtain deeper observations of the galaxy, which should yield confident detections as well as estimates of the object’s age and dust content.

MACS0647-JD galaxy, however, may be too far away for any current telescope to confirm the distance based on spectroscopy, which spreads out an object’s light into thousands of colors. Nevertheless, Coe is confident the fledgling galaxy is the new distance champion based on its unique colors and the research team’s extensive analysis. “All three of the lensed galaxy images match fairly well and are in positions you would expect for a galaxy at that remote distance when you look at the predictions from our best lens models for this cluster,” Coe said.

The new distance champion is the second remote galaxy uncovered in the CLASH survey, a multi-wavelength census of 25 hefty galaxy clusters with Hubble’s ACS and WFC3. Earlier this year, the CLASH team announced the discovery of a galaxy that existed when the universe was 490 million years old, 70 million years later than the new record-breaking galaxy. So far, the survey has completed observations for 20 of the 25 clusters.

The team hopes to use Hubble to search for more dwarf galaxies at these early epochs. If these infant galaxies are numerous, then they could have provided the energy to burn off the fog of hydrogen that blanketed the universe, a process called re-ionization. Re-ionization ultimately made the universe transparent to light.

Read the team’s paper (pdf).

Sources: HubbleSite, ESA Hubble

Dark Matter Halos May Contain Stars

The image on the left shows a portion of our sky, called the Boötes field, in infrared light, while the image on the right shows a mysterious, background infrared glow captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in the same region of sky.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What causes the mysterious glow of radiation seen across the entire sky by infrared telescopes? The answer may lie in a combination of concepts that are relatively new to the field of astronomy, and are somewhat controversial, too. Rogue stars that have been kicked out of galaxies may be embedded in dark matter halos that have been theorized to surround galaxies. While these dark matter halos have previously only been detected indirectly by observing their gravitational effects, they may also hold the source of the enigmatic background glow of radiation.

“The infrared background glow in our sky has been a huge mystery,” said Asantha Cooray of the University of California at Irvine, lead author of the new research published today in the journal Nature. “We have new evidence this light is from the stars that linger between galaxies. Individually, the stars are too faint to be seen, but we think we are seeing their collective glow.”

The collective glow is from the “interhalo” of dark matter halos that pervade the Universe, and may answer the big question of why the amount of light observed exceeds the amount of light emitted from known galaxies.

“Galaxies exist in dark matter halos that are much bigger than the galaxies; when galaxies form and merge together, the dark matter halo gets larger and the stars and gas sink to the middle of the halo,” said Edward L. (Ned) Wright from UCLA and a member of the team that used the Spitzer Space Telescope to seek out the source of the infrared light. “What we’re saying is one star in a thousand does not do that and instead gets distributed like dark matter. You can’t see the dark matter very well, but we are proposing that it actually has a few stars in it — only one-tenth of 1 percent of the number of stars in the bright part of the galaxy. One star in a thousand gets stripped out of the visible galaxy and gets distributed like the dark matter.”

The dark matter halo is not totally dark, Wright said. “A tiny fraction, one-tenth of a percent, of the stars in the central galaxy has been spread out into the halo, and this can produce the fluctuations that we see.”

In large clusters of galaxies, astronomers have found much higher percentages of intra-halo light, as large as 20 percent, Wright said.

For this study, Cooray, Wright and colleagues used the Spitzer Space Telescope to produce an infrared map of a region of the sky in the constellation Boötes. The light has been travelling to us for 10 billion years.

“Presumably this light in halos occurs everywhere in the sky and just has not been measured anywhere else,” said Wright, who is also principal investigator of NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

“If we can really understand the origin of the infrared background, we can understand when all of the light in the universe was produced and how much was produced,” Wright said. “The history of all the production of light in the universe is encoded in this background. We’re saying the fluctuations can be produced by the fuzzy edges of galaxies that existed at the same time that most of the stars were created, about 10 billion years ago.”

The light appears at a blotchy pattern in the Spitzer images.

The new finding are at odds with a study that came out this summer. Alexander “Sasha” Kashlinsky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and his team looked at this same patch of sky with Spitzer and proposed the light making the unusual pattern was coming from the very first stars and galaxies.

In the new study, Cooray and colleagues looked at data from a larger portion of the sky, called the Bootes field, covering an arc equivalent to 50 full Earth moons. These observations were not as sensitive as those from the Kashlinsky group’s studies, but the larger scale allowed researchers to analyze better the pattern of the background infrared light.

“We looked at the Bootes field with Spitzer for 250 hours,” said co-author Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Studying the faint infrared background was one of the core goals of our survey, and we carefully designed the observations in order to directly address the important, challenging question of what causes the background glow.”

The team concluded the light pattern of the infrared glow is not consistent with theories and computer simulations of the first stars and galaxies. Researchers say the glow is too bright to be from the first galaxies, which are thought not to have been as large or as numerous as the galaxies we see around us today. Instead, the scientists propose a new theory to explain the blotchy light, based on theories of “intracluster” or “intrahalo” starlight.

The team said more research is needed to confirm these findings, adding that the James Webb Space Telescope should help.

“The keen infrared vision of the James Webb Telescope will be able to see some of the earliest stars and galaxies directly, as well as the stray stars lurking between the outskirts of nearby galaxies,” said Eric Smith, JWST’s deputy program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The mystery objects making up the background infrared light may finally be exposed.”

Sources: NASA, UCLA

Eye-Like Helix Nebula Turns Blue in New Image

A combined image of the Helix Nebula from the Spitzer Space Telescope,the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).. Credit: NASA/Caltech

The Helix Nebula has been called the “Eye of God,” or the “Eye of Sauron,” and there’s no denying this object appears to be a cosmic eye looking down on us all. And this new image – a combined view from Spitzer and GALEX — gives a blue tint to the eye that we’ve seen previously in gold, green and turquoise hues from other telescopes. But really, this eye is just a dying star. And it is not going down without a fight. The Helix Nebula continues to glow from the intense ultraviolet radiation being pumped out by the hot stellar core from the white dwarf star, which, by the way, is just a tiny white pinprick right at the center of the nebula.

The Helix nebula, or NGC 7293, lies 650 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius. Planetary nebulae are the remains of Sun-like stars, and so one day – in about five billion years – our own Sun may look something like this — from a distance. Earth will be toast.

The team from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) that cooperated to create this image describe what is going on:

When the hydrogen fuel for the fusion reaction runs out, the star turns to helium for a fuel source, burning it into an even heavier mix of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Eventually, the helium will also be exhausted, and the star dies, puffing off its outer gaseous layers and leaving behind the tiny, hot, dense core, called a white dwarf. The white dwarf is about the size of Earth, but has a mass very close to that of the original star; in fact, a teaspoon of a white dwarf would weigh as much as a few elephants!

The intense ultraviolet radiation from the white dwarf heats up the expelled layers of gas, which shine brightly in the infrared. GALEX has picked out the ultraviolet light pouring out of this system, shown throughout the nebula in blue, while Spitzer has snagged the detailed infrared signature of the dust and gas in red, yellow and green. Where red Spitzer and blue GALEX data combine in the middle, the nebula appears pink. A portion of the extended field beyond the nebula, which was not observed by Spitzer, is from NASA’s all-sky Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

Source: JPL

Spitzer Provides Most Precise Measurement Yet of the Universe’s Expansion

This graph illustrates the Cepheid period-luminosity relationship, which scientists use to calculate the size, age and expansion rate of the Universe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Carnegie

How fast is our Universe expanding? Over the decades, there have been different estimates used and heated debates over those approximations, but now data from the Spitzer Space Telescope have provided the most precise measurement yet of the Hubble constant, or the rate at which our universe is stretching apart. The result? The Universe is getting bigger a little bit faster than previously thought.

The newly refined value for the Hubble constant is 74.3 plus or minus 2.1 kilometers per second per megaparsec.

The most previous estimation came from a study from the Hubble Space Telescope, at 74.2 plus or minus 3.6 kilometers per second per megaparsec. A megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years.

To make the new measurements, Spitzer scientists looked at pulsating stars called cephied variable stars, taking advantage of being able to observe them in long-wavelength infrared light. In addition, the findings were combined with previously published data from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) on dark energy. The new determination brings the uncertainty down to 3 percent, a giant leap in accuracy for cosmological measurements, scientists say.

WMAP obtained an independent measurement of dark energy, which is thought to be winning a battle against gravity, pulling the fabric of the universe apart. Research based on this acceleration garnered researchers the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.

The Hubble constant is named after the astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, who astonished the world in the 1920s by confirming our universe has been expanding since it exploded into being 13.7 billion years ago. In the late 1990s, astronomers discovered the expansion is accelerating, or speeding up over time. Determining the expansion rate is critical for understanding the age and size of the universe.

“This is a huge puzzle,” said the lead author of the new study, Wendy Freedman of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena. “It’s exciting that we were able to use Spitzer to tackle fundamental problems in cosmology: the precise rate at which the universe is expanding at the current time, as well as measuring the amount of dark energy in the universe from another angle.” Freedman led the groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope study that earlier had measured the Hubble constant.

Glenn Wahlgren, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said the better views of cepheids enabled Spitzer to improve on past measurements of the Hubble constant.

“These pulsating stars are vital rungs in what astronomers call the cosmic distance ladder: a set of objects with known distances that, when combined with the speeds at which the objects are moving away from us, reveal the expansion rate of the universe,” said Wahlgren.

Cepheids are crucial to the calculations because their distances from Earth can be measured readily. In 1908, Henrietta Leavitt discovered these stars pulse at a rate directly related to their intrinsic brightness.

To visualize why this is important, imagine someone walking away from you while carrying a candle. The farther the candle traveled, the more it would dim. Its apparent brightness would reveal the distance. The same principle applies to cepheids, standard candles in our cosmos. By measuring how bright they appear on the sky, and comparing this to their known brightness as if they were close up, astronomers can calculate their distance from Earth.

Spitzer observed 10 cepheids in our own Milky Way galaxy and 80 in a nearby neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. Without the cosmic dust blocking their view, the Spitzer research team was able to obtain more precise measurements of the stars’ apparent brightness, and thus their distances. These data opened the way for a new and improved estimate of our universe’s expansion rate.

“Just over a decade ago, using the words ‘precision’ and ‘cosmology’ in the same sentence was not possible, and the size and age of the universe was not known to better than a factor of two,” said Freedman. “Now we are talking about accuracies of a few percent. It is quite extraordinary.”

“Spitzer is yet again doing science beyond what it was designed to do,” said project scientist Michael Werner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Werner has worked on the mission since its early concept phase more than 30 years ago. “First, Spitzer surprised us with its pioneering ability to study exoplanet atmospheres,” said Werner, “and now, in the mission’s later years, it has become a valuable cosmology tool.”

The study appears in the Astrophysical Journal.

Paper on arXiv: A Mid-Infrared Calibration of the Hubble Constant

Source: JPL