While our planet orbits the Sun each year – a billion kilometers – our entire Solar System is drifting through the Milky Way Galaxy making one rotation every 225-250 million years (that means dinosaurs actually lived on the other side of the Galaxy!) Humanity has been on Earth for a small fraction of that journey, but parts of what we’ve missed is chronicled. It is written into the rock and life of our planet by the explosions of dying stars – supernova. Turns out supernovas write in radioactive ink called Iron-60.
As the Sun travels through the Galaxy, so too do the hundreds of billions of other stars that comprise the Milky Way; all swirling and spiraling in varying directions. If you could time travel to a distant past, you’d look up and see an unfamiliar sky – different stars, different constellations, and sometimes the glow of a brilliant supernova. Stars explode in the Milky Way about once every fifty years. Given the immense size of the Galaxy at around 150,000 light years in diameter, the odds of one of those stars exploding in our backyard is low. But while supernova happen in the Galaxy twice a century, those in close proximity to Earth, within 400 light years, do happen once every few million years. And along Earth’s epic 4.5 billion-year journey, it appears that we’ve had close encounters with supernova several times. In fact, we seem to be travelling through the fallout cloud of supernovae right now.
Stars form from the collapse of dense clouds of gas and dust, which makes it very hard for astronomers to watch the process unfold. Recently the ALMA telescope has revealed a treasure trove of embryonic stars in the Taurus Molecular Cloud, illuminating how baby stars are born.
Where do they come from, those beguiling singularities that flummox astrophysicists—and the rest of us. Sure, we understand the processes behind stellar mass black holes, and how they form from the gravitational collapse of a star.
But what about the staggering behemoths at the center of galaxies, those supermassive black holes (SMBH) that can grow to be billions of times more massive than our Sun?
The Milky Way has a number of satellite galaxies; nearly 60 of them, depedending on how we define them. One of them, called the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy (Sgr d Sph), may have played a huge role when it comes to humans, our world and our little civilization. A collision between the Milky Way and the Sgr d Sph may have created the Solar System itself.
Astronomers like observing distant young stars as they form. Stars are born out of a molecular cloud, and once enough of the matter in that cloud clumps together, fusion ignites and a star begins its life. The leftover material from the formation of the star is called a circumstellar disk.
As the material in the circumstellar disk swirls around the now-rotating star, it clumps up into individual planets. As planets form in it, they leave gaps in that disk. Or so we think.
Stars exhibit all sorts of behaviors as they evolve. Small red dwarfs smolder for billions or even trillions of years. Massive stars burn hot and bright but don’t last long. And then of course there are supernovae.
Some other stars go through a period of intense flaring when young, and those young flaring stars have caught the attention of astronomers. A team of researchers are using the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) to try to understand the youthful flaring. Their new study might have found the cause, and might have helped answer a long-standing problem in astronomy.
For some time, astronomers have known that collisions or mergers between galaxies are an integral part of cosmic evolution. In addition to causing galaxies to grow, these mergers also trigger new rounds of star formation as fresh gas and dust are injected into the galaxy. In the future, astronomers estimate that the Milky Way Galaxy will merge with the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds in the meantime.
According to new results obtained by researchers at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) in New York city, the results of our eventual merger with the Magellanic Clouds is already being felt. According to results presented at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society this week, stars forming in the outskirts of our galaxy could be the result of these dwarf galaxies merging with our own.
The world’s largest airborne telescope, SOFIA, has peered into the core of the Milky Way and captured a crisp image of the region. With its ability to see in the infrared, SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) is able to observe the center of the Milky Way, a region dominated by dense clouds of gas and dust that block visible light. Those dense clouds are the stuff that stars are born from, and this latest image is part of the effort to understand how massive stars form.
Thanks to the latest generation of sophisticated telescopes, astronomers are learning things a great deal about our Universe. The improved resolution and observational power of these instruments also allow astronomers to address previously unanswered questions. Many of these telescopes can be found in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where atmospheric interference is minimal and the cosmos can be seen with greater clarity.
It is here that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) maintains many observatories, not the least of which is the Paranal Observatory where the Very Large Telescope (VLT) resides. Recently, an international team of astronomers used the VLT to study the center of the Milky Way and observed evidence of ancient starbursts. These indicate that the central region of our galaxy experienced an intense period of star birth in the past.
Neutron stars are the end-state of massive stars that have spent their fuel and exploded as supernovae. There’s an upper limit to their mass, because a massive enough star won’t become a neutron star; it’ll become a black hole. But finding that upper mass limit, or tipping point, between a star that becomes a black hole and one that becomes a neutron star, is something astronomers are still working on.
Now a new discovery from astronomers using the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) have found the most massive neutron star yet, putting some solid data in place about the so-called tipping point.