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:
This artist's conception illustrates what a "hot jupiter" might look like.

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.


“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).

Behold! Hubble’s Heavenly Holiday “Ornament”

Planetary nebula NGC 5189 as seen by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

It may be just a tad too big to hang on your tree but this bright, twisted planetary nebula would make a beautiful holiday ornament… if scaled a bit down to size, of course.

(Click the image to see it in its full festive glory!)

NGC 5189 is a planetary nebula that lies 1,800 light-years away in the southern constellation Musca. The gorgeous image above, acquired by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on October 8, 2012, shows the glowing streamers of oxygen, sulfur and hydrogen that are being blown far into space from the hot star star at its heart — HD 117622 (at right.)

The expelled gas forms a double structure, with a series of central blue lobes surrounded by a twisted helix of bright streamers, called radial filaments. These filaments are the result of fast-moving material from the star impacting previously expelled, slower-moving gas, which becomes visible due to ionizing radiation.

The twisted shapes — as opposed to the circular or spherical structures found in many planetary nebulae — may be the result of an unseen binary partner to HD 117622, which over time would affect its rotational orientation.

“The likely mechanism for the formation of this planetary nebula is the existence of a binary companion to the dying star,” said scientist Kevin Volk in a Gemini Observatory article from 2006. “Over time the orbits drift due to precession and this could result in the complex curves on the opposite sides of the star.”

Read more: How Much Do Binary Stars Shape Planetary Nebulae?

The surrounding stars in the image were captured in visible and near-infrared light.

Read more on the Hubble site here, and check out a video below that zooms into the region of the sky where NGC 5189 is located:

Video credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

The Truth About 2012: Killer Solar Flares Are a Physical Impossibility

NASA is trying to make sure that no one is taking the 2012 doomsday nonsense seriously, and just put out this video today detailing how a gigantic “killer solar flare” just ain’t gonna happen. Dr. Alex Young from the Goddard Space Flight Center explains how the Sun’s regular 11-year solar cycle is expected to peak in 2013 and 2014, not on December 21 of this year. Plus, this current solar cycle has been kind of a dud as far as wild activity goes, and scientists are not expecting the peak of this cycle to even be as strong as the previous one, which was rather mild.

Solar prominence in H alpha, with Earth scale model. Credit: John Brady.

Not to mention, Earth’s atmosphere keeps us well protected here on Earth. The only thing we do have to be concerned with is how solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can damage satellites and even impact the power grid on Earth; additionally astronauts in Space to have to be specially protected as they are outside of the protection of the atmosphere.

You can get more information in our detailed article “2012: No Killer Solar Flare.”

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.

Closely-Orbiting Stellar Companions Surrounded by “Mystery Dust”

Artist’s concept showing a dust disk around a binary system containing a white dwarf and a less-massive M (red) dwarf companion. (P. Marenfeld and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Even though NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft — aka WISE — ran out of coolant in October 2010, bringing its infrared survey mission to an end, the data that it gathered will be used by astronomers for decades to come as it holds clues to some of the most intriguing and hard-to-find objects in the Universe.

Recently astronomers using WISE data have found evidence of a particularly curious disk of dust and gas surrounding a pair of stars — one a dim red dwarf and the other the remains of a dead Sun-sized star — a white dwarf. The origin of the gas is a mystery, since based on standard models of stellar evolution it shouldn’t be there… yet there it is.

The binary system (which has the easy-to-remember name SDSS J0303+0054) consists of a white dwarf and a red dwarf separated by a distance only slightly larger than the radius of the Sun — about 700,000 km — which is incredibly close for two whole stars. The stars orbit each other quickly too: once every 3 hours.

The stars are so close that the system is referred to as a “post-common envelope” binary, because at one point the outer material of one star expanded out far enough to briefly engulf the other completely in what’s called a “common envelope.” This envelope of material brought the stars even closer together, transferring stellar material between them and ultimately speeding up the death of the white dwarf.

The system was first spotted during the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (hence the SDSS prefix) and was observed with WISE’s infrared abilities during a search for dust disks or brown dwarfs orbiting white dwarf stars. To find both a red (M) dwarf star 40-50 times the mass of Jupiter and a disk of dust orbiting the white dwarf in this system was unexpected — in fact, it’s the only known example of a system like it.

The entire mass of the dust (termed an infrared excess) is estimated to be “equivalent to the mass of an asteroid a few tens of kilometers in radius” and extends out to about the same distance as Venus’ orbit — just over 108 million kilometers, or 0.8 AU.

Why is the dust so unusual? Because, basically, it shouldn’t even be there. At that distance from the white dwarf, positioned just out of reach (but not terribly far away at all) anything that was within that zone when the original Sun-sized star swelled into its red giant phase should have spiraled inwards, getting swallowed up by the expanding stellar atmosphere.

Such is the fate that likely awaits the inner planets of our own Solar System — including Earth — when the Sun reaches the final phases of its stellar life.

So this requires that there are other sources of the dust. According to the WISE science update, “One possibility is that it is caused by multiple asteroids that orbit further away and somehow are perturbed close to the binary and collide with each other. [Another] is that the red dwarf companion releases a large amount of gas in a stellar wind that is trapped by the gravitational pull of its more massive white dwarf companion. The gas then condenses and forms the dust disk that is observed.

“Either way, this new discovery provides an interesting laboratory for the study of binary star evolution.”

See the team’s paper here, and read more on Berkeley’s WISE mission site here.

WISE launched into space on Dec. 14, 2009 on a mission to map the entire sky in infrared light with greatly improved sensitivity and resolution over its predecessors. From its polar orbit 525 kilometers (326 miles) in altitude it scanned the skies, collecting images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light. WISE took more than 2.7 million images over the course of its mission, capturing objects ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids relatively close to Earth before exhausting the supply of coolant necessary to mask its own heat from its ultra-sensitive sensors.

Inset:  Infrared images of SDSS J0303+0054.  (NASA/JPL and  John H. Debes et. al.)

STEREO Spots a CME Soaring Into Space

Press “play.” Say “wow.”

The enormous eruption of a solar prominence and resulting coronal mass ejection (CME) back on August 31 that was captured in amazing HD by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory was also spotted by the Sun-flanking STEREO-B spacecraft, which observed the gigantic gout of solar material soaring away from the Sun.

This video shows the eruption as it passes across the fields of view of several of STEREO-B’s cameras over the course of 48 hours.

According to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “while CMEs are routinely seen in the Heliographic Imager (HI) telescopes, it’s very rare for prominences to stay visible for so long. The HI1 field of view ranges from 4 to 24 degrees away from the Sun. To get a sense of scale, we know the Sun is roughly 860,000 miles wide — and look how far the prominence holds together. And this CME is so bright it initially saturates the COR1 telescope.”

The bright spot in the red (COR2) field of view is the planet Venus.

Coronal mass ejections are huge bubbles of gas bounded by magnetic field lines that are ejected from the Sun over the course of several minutes — sometimes even hours. If they are directed toward Earth, the cloud of charged solar particles can interact with our magnetosphere and cause anything from increased auroral activity to radio interference to failure of sensitive electromagnetic equipment.

Particularly long filaments like the one that caused the August 31 CME have been known to collapse with explosive results when they hit the stellar surface.

The CME did not travel directly toward Earth but did connect with Earth’s magnetosphere with a glancing blow, causing bright aurorae to appear around the upper latitudes on the night of September 3.


A New Species of Type Ia Supernova?

Artist’s conception of a binary star system that produces recurrent novae, and ultimately, the supernova PTF 11kx. (Credit: Romano Corradi and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias)

Although they have been used as the “standard candles” of cosmic distance measurement for decades, Type Ia supernovae can result from different kinds of star systems, according to recent observations conducted by the Palomar Transient Factory team at California’s Berkeley Lab.

Judging distances across intergalactic space from here on Earth isn’t easy. Within the Milky Way — and even nearby galaxies — the light emitted by regularly pulsating stars (called Cepheid variables) can be used to determine how far away a region in space is. Outside of our own local group of galaxies, however, individual stars can’t be resolved, and so in order to figure out how far away distant galaxies are astronomers have learned to use the light from much brighter objects: Type Ia supernovae, which can flare up with a brilliance equivalent to 5 billion Suns.

Type Ia supernovae are created from a special pairing of two stars orbiting each other: one super-dense white dwarf drawing material in from a companion until a critical mass — about 40% more massive than the Sun — is reached. The overpacked white dwarf suddenly undergoes a rapid series of thermonuclear reactions, exploding in an incredibly bright outburst of material and energy… a beacon visible across the Universe.

Because the energy and luminance of Type Ia supernovae have been found to be so consistently alike, distance can be gauged by their apparent brightness as seen from Earth. The dimmer one is when observed, the farther away its galaxy is. Based on this seemingly universal similarity it’s been thought that these supernovae must be created under very similar situations… especially since none have been directly observed — until now.

An international team of astronomers working on the Palomar Transient Factory collaborative survey have observed for the first time a Type Ia supernova-creating star pair — called a progenitor system — located in the constellation Lynx. Named PTF 11kx, the system, estimated to be some 600 million light-years away, contains a white dwarf and a red giant star, a coupling that has not been seen in previous (although indirect) observations.

“It’s a total surprise to find that thermonuclear supernovae, which all seem so similar, come from different kinds of stars,” says Andy Howell, a staff scientist at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and a co-author on the paper, published in the August 24 issue of Science. “How could these events look so similar, if they had different origins?”

The initial observations of PTF 11kx were made possible by a robotic telescope mounted on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory as well as a high-speed data pipeline provided by the NSF, NASA and Department of Energy. The supernova was identified on January 16, 2011 and supported by subsequent spectrography data from Lick Observatory, followed up by immediate “emergency” observations with the Keck Telescope in Hawaii.

“We basically called up a fellow UC observer and interrupted their observations in order to get time critical spectra,” said Peter Nugent, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author on the paper.

The Keck observations showed the PTF 11kx post-supernova system to contain slow-moving clouds of gas and dust that couldn’t have come from the recent supernova event. Instead, the clouds — which registered high in calcium in the Lick spectrographic data — must have come from a previous nova event in which the white dwarf briefly ignited and blew off an outer layer of its atmosphere. This expanding cloud was then seen to be slowing down, likely due to the stellar wind from a companion red giant.

(What’s the difference between a nova and a supernova? Read NASA’s STEREO Spots a New Nova)

Eventually the decelerating nova cloud was impacted by the rapidly-moving outburst from the supernova, evidenced by a sudden burst in the calcium signal which had gradually diminished in the two months since the January event. This calcium burst was, in effect, the supernova hitting the nova and causing it to “light up”.

The observations of PTF 11kx show that Type Ia supernova can occur in progenitor systems where the white dwarf has undergone nova eruptions, possibly repeatedly — a scenario that many astronomers had previously thought couldn’t happen. This could even mean that PTF 11kx is an entirely new species of Type Ia supernova, and while previously unseen and rare, not unique.

Which means our cosmic “standard candles” may need to get their wicks trimmed.

“We know that Type 1a supernovae vary slightly from galaxy to galaxy, and we’ve been calibrating for that, but this PTF 11kx observation is providing the first explanation of why this happens,” Nugent said. “This discovery gives us an opportunity to refine and improve the accuracy of our cosmic measurements.”

Source: Berkeley Lab news center

Inset images: PTF 11kx observation (BJ Fulton, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network) / The 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope dome at Palomar Observatory. Video: Romano Corradi and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: August 27-September 2, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! If you only get your telescope or binoculars out once in a Blue Moon, then get them out this week when a Blue Moon actually happens! However, if you can’t wait, then let’s explore some great lunar features, bright star clusters and great double stars. When you’re ready to learn some history, mystery and more, then just step on inside…

Monday, August 27 – Tonight the waxing Moon’s most notable features will be the vast area of craters dominating the south-central portion near and along the terminator. Now emerging is Ptolemaeus – just north-northeast of Albategnius. This large round crater is a mountain walled plain filled with lava flow. With the exception of interior crater Ptolemaeus A, binoculars will see it as very smooth. Telescopes, however, can reveal faint mottling in the surface of the crater’s interior, along with a single elongated craterlet to the northeast. Despite its apparent uniformity, close inspection has revealed as many as 195 interior craterlets within Ptolemaeus! Look for a variety of interior ridges and shallow depressions.

With the Moon low to the southwest, we have a chance to go northeast to Cepheus for a new study – NGC 7160 (Right Ascension: 21 : 53.7 (hours : minutes) Declination: +62 : 36). At magnitude 6.1, this small open cluster is easily identified in scopes and may be seen as a faint starfield in binoculars. You’ll find it about a finger-width north of Nu Cephei.

Tuesday, August 28 – In 1789 on this day, Sir William Herschel discovered Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

On the lunar surface tonight, we’ll start by following the southward descent of large crater rings Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel to a smaller, bright one southwest named Thebit. We’re going to have a look at Hell…

Just west of Thebit and its prominent A crater to the northwest, you see the Straight Wall – Rupes Recta – appearing as a thin, white line. Continue south until you see large, eroded crater Deslandres. On its western shore, is a bright ring that marks the boundary of Hell. While this might seem like an unusual name for a crater, it was named for an astronomer – and clergyman!

Once you’ve been to Hell, let’s go to the heavens for NGC 7235 (Right Ascension: 22 : 12.6 – Declination: +57 : 17). Locate the star crowded area of Epsilon Cephei which will also include this 7.7 magnitude open cluster in the same low power field. Give it a try. Look for a small, rectangular assortment of 10th magnitude and fainter stars, including a beautiful ruby red, west-northwest of Epsilon.

Wednesday, August 29 – Due south of mighty Copernicus on the eastern edge of Mare Cognitum, you will see a ruined pair of flattened craters. They are Bonpland and Parry – with Frau Mauro just above them. The smallest and brightest of these ancient twins is the eastern Parry. Have a look at its south wall where a huge section is entirely lost. It was near this location that Ranger 7 ended its successful flight in 1964. Just south of Parry is another example of a well-worn Class V crater. See if you can distinguish the ruins of Guericke. Not much is left save for a slight U-shape to its battered walls. These are some of the oldest visible features on the Moon!

If you’d like to head for something very young, have a look at 6.8 magnitude open cluster NGC 6811 (Right Ascension: 19 : 37.3 – Declination: +46 : 23) in Cygnus. This mid-sized, unusually dense open cluster is found less than finger-width north-northwest of Delta – the westernmost star of the Northern Cross. Like most open clusters, the age of NGC 6811 is measured in millions, rather than billions, of years. Visible in binoculars on most nights, telescopes should show a half dozen or so broadly-spaced resolvable stars overlaying a fainter field. Be sure to return again on a moonless night, and have another look a disparate double Delta!

Thursday, August 30 – Today celebrates the Yohkoh Mission, launched in 1991. It was a joint effort of both Japan and the United States to monitor solar flares and the corona. While its initial mission was quite successful, on December 14, 2001 the signal was lost during a total eclipse. Unable to reposition the satellite back towards the Sun, the batteries discharged and Yohkoh became inoperable.

While the graceful Gassendi will try to steal the lunar show tonight, let’s have a go at Foucault instead. To find it, head north to Sinus Iridum and locate Bianchini in the Juras Mountains. Just northeast, and near the shore of south-eastern Mare Frigoris, look for a bright little ring.

Physicist Jean Foucault played an instrumental role in the creation of today’s parabolic mirrors. His “Foucault knife edge test” made it possible for opticians to test mirror curves for optical excellence during the final phases of shaping before metallization. Thanks to Foucault’s insight, we can turn our telescopes on such difficult double stars as Beta Delphini and resolve its 0.6 arc-second distant 5.0 magnitude companion. A challenge for smaller scopes is MU Cygni. This 4.5 and 6.0 magnitude pair should be resolvable in any scope that passed Foucault’s test!

Tonight let’s view a double star, Eta Lyra. Just on the edge of unaided visibility, you will find it around three finger-widths due east of Vega. This wide, disparate pair of 4.5 and 8.0 magnitude stars should be resolvable in just about any scope, but is beyond the reach of binoculars.

Friday, August 31 – Tonight we will begin entering the stream of the Andromedid meteor shower, which peaks off and on for the next couple of months. For those of you in the northern hemisphere, look for the lazy “W” of Cassiopeia to the northeast. This is the radiant – or relative point of origin – for this meteor stream. At times, this shower has been known to be spectacular, but let’s stick with an accepted fall rate of around 20 per hour. These are the offspring of Beila’s Comet, one that split apart leaving radically different streams – much like 73/P Schwassman-Wachmann did last year. These meteors have a reputation for red fireballs with spectacular trains, so watch for them in the weeks ahead.

It’s Blue Moon! That doesn’t mean the Moon is going to be colored any differently – it just means it’s the second full Moon within a month.

Think having all this Moon around is the pits? Then let’s venture to Zeta Sagittarii and have a look at Ascella – “The Armpit of the Centaur.” While you’ll find Zeta easily as the southern star in the handle of the teapot formation, what you won’t find is an easy double. With almost identical magnitudes, Ascella is one of the most difficult of all binaries. Discovered by W. C. Winlock in 1867, the components of this pair orbit each other very quickly – in just a little more than 21 years. While they are about 140 light-years away, this gravitationally bound pair waltz no further apart than our own Sun and Uranus!

Too difficult? Then have a look at Nu Sagittarii – Ain al Rami, or the “Eye of the Archer.” It’s one of the earliest known double stars and was recorded by Ptolemy. While Nu 1 and Nu 2 are actually not physically related to one another, they are an easy split in binoculars. Eastern Nu 2 is a K type spectral giant that is around 270 light-years from our solar system. But take a very close look at the western Nu 1 – while it appears almost as bright, this one is 1850 light-years away! As a bonus, power up in the telescope, because this is one very tight triple star system!

Saturday, September 1 – On this day 1859, solar physicist Richard Carrington (who originally assigned sunspot rotation numbers) observed the first solar flare ever recorded. Naturally enough, an intense aurora followed the next day. 120 years later in 1979, Pioneer 11 made history as it flew by Saturn.

While the Moon essentially appears to be full throughout the night, take the time to compare the western and eastern limbs. To the west, you will see the smooth arc no longer displays high contrast features. To the east you should see a broken edge now in sunset. Watch in the days ahead as many of your favorite craters begin to reveal themselves in a “different light.”

Tonight let’s visit Alya. One of the fainter stars to receive a proper name, Theta Serpens Caput is located around a hand span due east of Beta Ophiuchi. Thankfully, resolving this wide, matched magnitude pair is easier than finding it. If you have high power, self-stabilizing binoculars, this one could be real fun!

Sunday, September 2 – It won’t be long until the Moon lights the skies, so let’s have a look at disparate double Kappa Pegasi. It’s the westernmost star of northern Pegasus and is around a hand span due south of Sadr – the central star of the Northern Cross. At magnitude 4.3, look for a faint companion leading the orange-yellow primary across the sky. This one could be tough for small scopes – so make a challenge of it!

Now let’s have a look at Beta and Gamma Lyrae – the lower two stars in the “Harp.” Beta is actually a quick change variable dropping to less than half the brightness of Gamma every 12 days, but for a few days the two stars appear to be of near equal brightness. Beta is a very unusual eclipsing spectroscopic binary. Its unseen companion may be a “collapsar.”
Before you call it a night, head a finger-width north of Omicron Andromedae for 15 Lacertae. Just on the edge of unaided visibility, this carbon star is also a disparate double. The 5.2 magnitude variable primary will appear more red at its faintest, but its 11.0 magnitude companion is the faintest of all!

But don’t put the telescope away just yet. If you can locate the Moon, you can locate Uranus! Just take a look about 3 degrees away to lunar south to catch the slightly greenish orb of the outer planet.

Until next week, ask for the Moon… But keep on reaching for the stars!

Ptolemaeus Crater Image Credit: Damian Peach

Bright Stars Don’t Like to Be Alone

Caption: New research using data from European Southern Observatory telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope, has revealed that the hottest and brightest stars, known as O stars, are often found in close pairs. Credit: ESA, NASA, H. Sana (Amsterdam University), and S.E. de Mink (STScI)

Like humans, stars seem to prefer the company of companions. A new study using the Very Large Telescope reveals that most very bright, high-mass O-type stars do not live alone. Surprisingly, almost three-quarters of these stars have a close companion star, far more than previously thought. But sometimes – also like humans – the relationship between companion stars can turn a little ugly, with one star becoming dominant and even disruptive by stealing matter from the other, or doing a hostile takeover.

An international team of astronomers have found that some stars will virtually suck the life out of another, and about one-third of the time, a pair of stars will ultimately merge to form a single star.

The stars included in this study are some of the biggest, brightest stars which have very high temperatures. They live fast and die young, and in their lives play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. by, which drive the evolution of galaxies. They are also linked to extreme phenomena such as gamma-ray bursts.

“These stars are absolute behemoths,” said Hugues Sana, from the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, lead author of the study. “They have 15 or more times the mass of our Sun and can be up to a million times brighter. These stars are so hot that they shine with a brilliant blue-white light and have surface temperatures over 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit (30,000 degrees C).”

The astronomers studied a sample of 71 O-type single stars and stars in pairs (binaries) in six nearby young star clusters in the Milky Way.
By analyzing the light coming from these targets in greater detail than before, the team discovered that 75 percent of all O-type stars exist inside binary systems, a higher proportion than previously thought, and the first precise determination of this number. More importantly, though, they found that the proportion of these pairs that are close enough to interact (through stellar mergers or transfer of mass by so-called vampire stars) is far higher than anyone had thought, which has profound implications for our understanding of galaxy evolution.

O-type stars make up just a fraction of a percent of the stars in the universe, but the violent phenomena associated with them mean they have a disproportionate effect on their surroundings. The winds and shocks coming from these stars can both trigger and stop star formation, their radiation powers the glow of bright nebulae, their supernovae enrich galaxies with the heavy elements crucial for life, and they are associated with gamma-ray bursts, which are among the most energetic phenomena in the universe. O-type stars are therefore implicated in many of the mechanisms that drive the evolution of galaxies.

“The life of a star is greatly affected if it exists alongside another star,” said Selma de Mink of the Space Telescope Science Institute, in Baltimore, Md., a co-author of the study. “If two stars orbit very close to each other they may eventually merge. But even if they don’t, one star will often pull matter off the surface of its neighbor.”

Mergers between stars, which the team estimates will be the ultimate fate of around 20 to 30 percent of O-type stars, are violent events. But even the comparatively gentle scenario of vampire stars, which accounts for a further 40 to 50 percent of cases, has profound effects on how these stars evolve.

Until now, astronomers mostly considered that closely orbiting massive binary stars were the exception, something that was only needed to explain exotic phenomena such as X-ray binaries, double pulsars, and black hole binaries. The new study shows that to properly interpret the universe, this simplification cannot be made: these heavyweight double stars are not just common, their lives are fundamentally different from those of single stars.

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For instance, in the case of vampire stars — where the smaller, lower-mass star is rejuvenated as it sucks the fresh hydrogen from its companion — its mass will increase substantially and it will outlive its companion, surviving much longer than a single star of the same mass. The victim star, meanwhile, is stripped of its envelope before it has a chance to become a luminous red supergiant. Instead, its hot, blue core is exposed. As a result, the stellar population of a distant galaxy may appear to be much younger than it really is: both the rejuvenated vampire stars, and the diminished victim stars become hotter, and bluer in color, mimicking the appearance of younger stars. Knowing the true proportion of interacting high-mass binary stars is therefore crucial to correctly characterize these faraway galaxies.

“The only information astronomers have on distant galaxies is from the light that reaches our telescopes. Without making assumptions about what is responsible for this light we cannot draw conclusions about the galaxy, such as how massive or how young it is. This study shows that the frequent assumption that most stars are single can lead to the wrong conclusions,” said Sana.

Understanding how big these effects are, and how much this new perspective will change our view of galactic evolution, will need further work. Modeling binary stars is complicated, so it will take time before all these considerations are included in models of galaxy formation.

The paper was published in the July 27 issue of the journal Science.

Paper by: Sana, de Mink, et al. (PDF document)

Sources: ESO, HubbleSite

NASA To Launch The Finest Mirrors Ever Made

This Wednesday NASA will launch its High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) mission from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, sending a sounding rocket above the atmosphere with some of the best mirrors ever made to capture incredibly-detailed ultraviolet images of our Sun.

HI-C will use a state-of-the-art imaging system to focus on a region near the center of the Sun about 135,000 miles (271,000 km) across. During its brief flight — only ten minutes long — HI-C will return some of the most detailed images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired, with a resolution five times that of previous telescopes… including NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

While SDO collects images in ten wavelengths, however, HI-C will focus on just one: 193 Angstroms, a wavelength of ultraviolet radiation that best reveals the structures of the Sun’s corona present in temperatures of 1.5 million kelvin. And although HI-C’s mirrors aren’t any larger than SDO’s — about 9.5 inches in diameter — they are “some of the finest ever made.” In addition, an interior “maze” between mirrors effectively increases HI-C’s focal length.

Researchers expect HI-C’s super-smooth mirrors to resolve coronal structures as small as 100 miles (160 km) across (0.1 arcsec/pixel).

“Other instruments in space can’t resolve things that small, but they do suggest – after detailed computer analysis of the amount of light in any given pixel – that structures in the sun’s atmosphere are about 100 miles across,” said Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for HI-C at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “And we also have theories about the shapes of structures in the atmosphere, or corona, that expect that size. HI-C will be the first chance we have to see them.”

One of the main goals of HI-C will be to place significant new constraints on theories of coronal heating and structuring, by observing the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma and establishing whether or not there are additional structures below what can currently be seen.

“This instrument could push the limits on theories of coronal heating, answering questions such as why the temperature of the sun’s corona is millions of degrees higher than that of the surface,” said Marshall’s Dr. Jonathan Cirtain, heliophysicist and principle investigator on the mission.

Read more on the NASA news release here.

Top image: A Black Brant sounding rocket containing NASA’s HI-C mission will launch on July 11, 2012 to observe the sun’s corona. (NASA) Bottom image: TRACE image of the Sun at a resolution of 0.5 arcsec/pixel. HI-C will have a resolution 5 times finer.