End the Year with a Bang! See a Bright Supernova in Virgo

A 14th magnitude supernova discovered in the spiral galaxy NGC 4666 earlier this month has recently brightened to 11th magnitude, making it not only the second brightest supernova of the year, but an easy find in an 8-inch or larger telescope. I made a special trip into the cold this morning for a look and saw it with ease in my 10-inch (25-cm) scope at low power at magnitude 11.9.

Before the Moon taints the dawn sky, you may want to bundle up and have a look, too. The charts below will help you get there.

NGC 4666 is also known as the Superwind Galaxy. Home to vigorous star formation, a combination of supernova explosions and strong winds from massive stars in the starburst region drives a vast outflow of gas from the galaxy into space, a so-called “superwind”. Credit: ESO/J. Dietrich
NGC 4666 is also known as the Superwind Galaxy. Home to vigorous star formation, a combination of supernova explosions and strong winds from massive stars in the starburst region drives a vast outflow of gas from the galaxy into space, called a “superwind”. Credit: ESO/J. Dietrich

With the temporary name ASASSN-14lp, this Type Ia supernova was snatched up by the catchy-titled “Assassin Project”, short for  Automated Sky Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN) on December 9th. Only 80 million light years from Earth, NGC 4666 is a relatively nearby spiral galaxy famous enough to earn a nickname.

Extra-planar soft X-ray emitting hot gas is observed above the most actively star-forming regions in the galactic disk of NGC 4666 and coexists together with filaments of the warm ionized medium, cosmic rays and vertical magnetic field structures channelling (or following) the outflow. Credit: M. Ehle and ESO
Hot, X-ray emitting gas in NGC 4666 billows around the main galaxy as a superwind seen here as outflows on either side of the optical image. Photo taken with the XMM-Newton telescope.  Credit: M. Ehle and ESO

Called the Superwind Galaxy, it’s home to waves of intense star formation thought to be caused by gravitational interactions between it and its neighboring galaxies, including NGC 4668, visible in the lower left corner of the photo above.

Supernovae also play a part in powering the wind which emerges from the galaxy’s central regions like pseudopods on an amoeba.  X-ray and radio light show the outflows best. How fitting that a bright supernova should happen to appear at this time. Seeing one of the key players behind the superwind with our own eyes gives us a visceral feel for the nature of its home galaxy.

Wide view map showing the location of the galaxy NGC 4666 in Virgo not far from Porrima or Gamma Virginis. This map shows the sky facing south shortly before the start of dawn in early January. Source: Stellarium
“Big picture” map showing the location of the galaxy NGC 4666 in Virgo not far from Porrima. The view faces south shortly before the start of dawn in early January. Source: Stellarium

Spectra taken of ASASSN-14lp show it to be a Type Ia object involving the explosive burning of a white dwarf star in a binary system. The Earth-size dwarf packs the gravitational might of a sun-size star and pulls hydrogen gas from the nearby companion down to its surface. Slowly, the dwarf gets heavier and more massive.

When it attains a mass 1.4 times that of the sun, it can no longer support itself. The star suddenly collapses, heats to incredible temperatures and burns up explosively in a runaway fusion reaction. Bang! A supernova.

Detailed map with stars to about magnitude 10. The galaxy is just a little more than a degree northeast of Porrima (Gamma Virginis). Source: Stellarium
Detailed map with stars to about magnitude 10. The galaxy is just a little more than a degree northeast of Porrima (Gamma Virginis). Source: Stellarium

Here are a couple maps to help you find the new object. Fortunately, it’s high in the sky just before the start of dawn in the “Y” of Virgo only a degree or so from the 3rd magnitude double star Porrima, also known as Gamma Virginis. Have at it and let us know if you spot the latest superwind-maker.

For more photos and magnitude updates, check out Dave Bishop’s page on the supernova. You can also print a chart with comparison magnitudes by clicking over to the AAVSO and typing in ASASSN-14lp in the “name” box.

New Signal May Be Evidence of Dark Matter, Say Researchers

Dark Matter Halo

Dark matter is the architect of large-scale cosmic structure and the engine behind proper rotation of galaxies. It’s an indispensable part of the physics of our Universe – and yet scientists still don’t know what it’s made of. The latest data from Planck suggest that the mysterious substance comprises 26.2% of the cosmos, making it nearly five and a half times more prevalent than normal, everyday matter. Now, four European researchers have hinted that they may have a discovery on their hands: a signal in x-ray light that has no known cause, and may be evidence of a long sought-after interaction between particles – namely, the annihilation of dark matter.

When astronomers want to study an object in the night sky, such as a star or galaxy, they begin by analyzing its light across all wavelengths. This allows them to visualize narrow dark lines in the object’s spectrum, called absorption lines. Absorption lines occur because a star’s or galaxy’s component elements soak up light at certain wavelengths, preventing most photons with those energies from reaching Earth. Similarly, interacting particles can also leave emission lines in a star’s or galaxy’s spectrum, bright lines that are created when excess photons are emitted via subatomic processes such as excitement and decay. By looking closely at these emission lines, scientists can usually paint a robust picture of the physics going on elsewhere in the cosmos.

But sometimes, scientists find an emission line that is more puzzling. Earlier this year, researchers at the Laboratory of Particle Physics and Cosmology (LPPC) in Switzerland and Leiden University in the Netherlands identified an excess bump of energy in x-ray light coming from both the Andromeda galaxy and the Perseus star cluster: an emission line with an energy around 3.5keV. No known process can account for this line; however, it is consistent with models of the theoretical sterile neutrino – a particle that many scientists believe is a prime candidate for dark matter.

The researchers believe that this strange emission line could result from the annihilation, or decay, of these dark matter particles, a process that is thought to release x-ray photons. In fact, the signal appeared to be strongest in the most dense regions of Andromeda and Perseus and increasingly more diffuse away from the center, a distribution that is also characteristic of dark matter. Additionally, the signal was absent from the team’s observations of deep, empty space, implying that it is real and not just instrumental artifact.

In a pre-print of their paper, the researchers are careful to stress that the signal itself is weak by scientific standards. That is, they can only be 99.994% sure that it is a true result and not just a rogue statistical fluctuation, a level of confidence that is known as 4σ. (The gold standard for a discovery in science is 5σ: a result that can be declared “true” with 99.9999% confidence) Other scientists are not so sure that dark matter is such a good explanation after all. According to predictions made based on measurements of the Lyman-alpha forest – that is, the spectral pattern of hydrogen absorption and photon emission within very distant, very old gas clouds – any particle purporting to be dark matter should have an energy above 10keV – more than twice the energy of this most recent signal.

As always, the study of cosmology is fraught with mysteries. Whether this particular emission line turns out to be evidence of a sterile neutrino (and thus of dark matter) or not, it does appear to be a signal of some physical process that scientists do not yet understand. If future observations can increase the certainty of this discovery to the 5σ level, astrophysicists will have yet another phenomena to account for – an exciting prospect, regardless of the final result.

The team’s research has been accepted to Physical Review Letters and will be published in an upcoming issue.

Just in Time for the Holidays – Galactic Encounter Puts on Stunning Display

At this time of year, festive displays of light are to be expected. This tradition has clearly not been lost on the galaxies NHC 2207 and IC 2163. Just in time for the holidays, these colliding galaxies, which are located within the Canis Major constellation (some 130 million light-years from Earth,) were seen putting on a spectacular lights display for us folks here on Earth!

And while this galaxy has been known to produce a lot of intense light over the years, the image above is especially luminous. A composite using data from the Chandra Observatory and the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, it shows the combination of visible, x-ray, and infrared light coming from the galactic pair.

In the past fifteen years, NGC 2207 and IC 2163 have hosted three supernova explosions and produced one of the largest collections of super bright X-ray lights in the known universe. These special objects – known as “ultraluminous X-ray sources” (ULXs) – have been found using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

While the true nature of ULXs is still being debated, it is believed that they are a peculiar type of star X-ray binary. These consist of a star in a tight orbit around either a neutron star or a black hole. The strong gravity of the neutron star or black hole pulls matter from the companion star, and as this matter falls toward the neutron star or black hole, it is heated to millions of degrees and generates X-rays.

 the core of galaxy Messier 82 (M82), where two ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, reside (X-1 and X-2). Credit: NASA
The core of galaxy Messier 82 (M82), where two ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, reside (X-1 and X-2). Credit: NASA

Data obtained from Chandra has determined that – much like the Milky Way Galaxy – NGC 2207 and IC 2163 are sprinkled with many star X-ray binaries. In the new Chandra image, this x-ray data is shown in pink, which shows the sheer prevalence of x-ray sources within both galaxies.

Meanwhile, optical light data from the Hubble Space Telescope is rendered in red, green, and blue (also appearing as blue, white, orange, and brown due to color combinations,) and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope is shown in red.

The Chandra observatory spent far more time observing these galaxies than any previous ULX study, roughly five times as much. As a result, the study team – which consisted of researchers from Harvard University, MIT, and Sam Houston State University – were able to confirm the existence of 28 ULXs between NGC 2207 and IC 2163, seven of which had never before been seen.

In addition, the Chandra data allowed the team of scientists to observe the correlation between X-ray sources in different regions of the galaxy and the rate at which stars are forming in those same regions.

Galaxy mergers, such as the Mice Galaxies will be part of Galaxy Zoo's newest project. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope
The Mice galaxies, seen here well into the process of merging. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

As the new Chandra image shows, the spiral arms of the galaxies – where large amounts of star formation is known to be occurring – show the heaviest concentrations of ULXs, optical light, and infrared. This correlation also suggests that the companion star in the star X-ray binaries is young and massive.

This in turn presents another possibility which has to do with star formation during galactic mergers. When galaxies come together, they produce shock waves that cause clouds of gas within them to collapse, leading to periods of intense star formation and the creation of star clusters.

The fact that the ULXs and the companion stars are young (the researchers estimate that they are only 10 million years old) would seem to confirm that they are the result of NGC 2207 and IC 2163 coming together. This seem a likely explanation since the merger between these two galaxies is still in its infancy, which is attested to by the fact that the galaxies are still separate.

They are expected to collide soon, a process which will make them look more like the Mice Galaxies (pictured above). In about one billion years time, they are expected to finish the process, forming a spiral galaxy that would no doubt resemble our own.

A paper describing the study was recently published on online with The Astrophysical Journal.

Further Reading: NASA/JPL, Chandra, arXiv Astrophysics

Nearby Galaxy Holds First Ultraluminous X-Ray Source that is a Pulsar

A research team led by Caltech astronomers of Pasadena California have discovered an ultraluminous X-ray (ULX) source that is pulsating. Their analysis concluded that the source in a nearby galaxy – M82 – is from a rotating neutron star, a pulsar. This is the first ULX source attributed to a pulsar.

Matteo Bachetti of the Université de Toulouse in France first identified the pulsating source and is the lead author of the paper, “An ultraluminous X-ray source powered by an accreting neutron star” in the journal Nature. Caltech astronomer Dr. Fiona Harrison, the team leader, stated “This compact little stellar remnant is a real powerhouse. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. We all thought an object with that much energy had to be a black hole.”

What is most extraordinary is that this discovery places even more strain on theories already hard pressed to explain the existence of ultraluminous X-Ray sources. The burden falls on the shoulder of the theorists.

The NuStar Space Telescope launched into Earth orbit by a Orbital Science Corp. Pegasus rocket, 2012. The Wolter telescope design images throughout a spectral range from 5 to 80 KeV. (Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL)
The NuStar Space Telescope launched into Earth orbit by a Orbital Science Corp. Pegasus rocket, 2012. The Wolter telescope design images throughout a spectral range from 5 to 80 KeV. (Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL)

The source of the observations is the NuSTAR space telescope, a SMEX class NASA mission. It is a Wolter telescope that uses grazing incidence optics, not glass (refraction) or mirrors (reflection) as in visible light telescopes. The incidence angle of the X-rays must be very shallow and consequently the optics are extended out on a 10 meter (33 feet) truss. NuSTAR records its observations with a time stamp such as taking a video of the sky. The video recording in high speed is not in visible everyday light but what is called hard x-rays. Only gamma rays are more energetic. X-rays emanate from the most powerful sources and events in the Universe. NuStar observes in the energy range of X-Rays from 5 to 80 KeV (electron volt)while the famous Chandra space telescope observes in the .1 to 10 KeV range. Chandra is one NASA’s great space telescope, was launched by the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-93) in 1999. Chandra has altered our view of the Universe as dramatically as the first telescope constructed by Galileo. NuSTAR carries on the study of X-rays to higher energies and with greater acuity.

ULX sources are rare in the Universe but this is the first pulsating ULX. After analysis, they concluded that this is not a black hole but rather its little brother, a spinning neutron star as the source. More specifically, this is an accreting binary pulsar; matter from a companion star is being  gravitationally attracted by and accreting onto the pulsar.

The Crab Nebula Pulsar, M1. Both are sequences of observations that show the expansion of shock waves emanating from the Pulsar interacting with the surrounding nebula. The Crab Pulsar actually pulsates 30 times per second a result of its rotation rate and the relative offset of the magnetic pole. Charndra X-Rays (left), Hubble Visible light (right). (Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech)
The prime example of a pulsar – the Crab Nebula Pulsar, M1. These actual observations show the expansion of shock waves emanating from the Pulsar interacting with the surrounding nebula. The Crab Pulsar actually pulsates 30 times per second, not seen here, a result of its rotation rate and the relative offset of the magnetic pole. Charndra X-Rays (left), Hubble Visible light (right). (Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech)

Take a neutron star and spin it up to anywhere from 700 rotations per second to a mere one  rotation every 10 seconds. Now you have a neutron star called a pulsar. Spinning or not, these are the remnants of supernovae, stellar explosions that can outshine a galaxy of 300 billion stars. Just one teaspoon of neutron star material weighs 10 million tons (9,071,847,400 kg). That is the same weight as 900 Great Pyramids of Giza all condensed to one teaspoon. As incredible a material and star that a neutron star is, they were not thought to be the source of any ultraluminous X-Ray sources. This view has changed with the analysis of observations by this research team utilizing NuSTAR. The telescope name – NuSTAR – stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array.

There is nothing run of the mill about black holes. Dr. Stephen Hawking only conceded after 25 years, in 2004 (the Thorne-Hawking Bet)  that Black Holes exist. And still today it is not absolutely certain. Recall the Universe Today weekly – Space Hangout on September 26 – “Do Black Holes exist?” and the article by Jason Major, “There are no such things as Black Holes.

Pulsars stars are nearly as exotic as black holes, and all astronomers accept the existence of these spinning neutron stars. There are three final states of a dying star. Stars like our Sun at the end of their life become very dense White Dwarf stars, about the size of the Earth. Neutron stars are the next “degenerate” state of a dying exhausted star. All the electrons have merged with the protons in the material of the star to become neutrons. A neutron star is a degenerate form of matter effectively made up of all neutron particles. Very dense, these stars are really small, the size of cities, about 16 miles in diameter. The third type of star in its final state is the Black Hole.

The Crab Nebula was first  observed in the 1700s and is catalogued Messier object, M1. The remant explosion of a SuperNova, Chinese astronomers observed in 1054 A.D and holds the second Pular discovered (1968).
The Crab Nebula was first observed in the 1700s and is catalogued Messier object, M1. The remant explosion of a SuperNova that Chinese astronomers observed in 1054 A.D, it holds the second Pulsar discovered (1968).

A spinning neutron star creates a magnetic field, the most powerful of such fields in the Universe. They are like a dipole of a bar magnet and because of how magnetic fields confine the hot gases – plasma – of the neutron star, constant streams of material flow down and light streams out from the magnetic poles.

Recently, the Earth has had incredible northern lights, aurora. These lights are also from hot gases — a plasma — at the top of our atmosphere. Likewise, hot energetic particles from the Sun are funneled down into the magnetic poles of the Earth’s field that creates the northern lights. For spinning neutron stars – pulsars – the extreme light from the magnetic poles are like beacons. Just like our Earth, the magnetic poles and the spin axis poles do not coincide. So the intense beacon of light will rotate around and periodically point at the Earth. The video of the first illustration describes this action.

Messier object - M82, the Cigar Nebula, nicknamed for the shape seen through telescopes of the 1800s. This is the location of the newly discovered Pulsar.
Messier object – M82, the Cigar Nebula, nicknamed for the shape seen through telescopes of the 1800s. This is the location of the newly discovered Pulsar.

The light beacons from pulsars are very bright but theory, until now, has been supported by observations. No ultraluminous X-ray sources should be pulsars. The newly discovered pulsar is outputting 100 times more energy than any other. Discoveries like the one by these astronomers utilizing NuSTAR is proof that there remains more to discover and understand and new telescopes will be conceived to help resolve questions raised by NuSTAR or Chandra.

Further reading: JPL

Intriguing X-Ray Signal Might be Dark Matter Candidate

Could a strange X-ray signal coming from the Perseus galaxy cluster be a hint of the elusive dark matter in our Universe?

Using archival data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the XMM-Newton mission, astronomers found an unidentified X-ray emission line, or a spike of intensity at a very specific wavelength of X-ray light. This spike was also found in 73 other galaxy clusters in XMM-Newton data.

The scientists propose that one intriguing possibility is that the X-rays are produced by the decay of sterile neutrinos, a hypothetical type of neutrino that has been proposed as a candidate for dark matter and is predicted to interact with normal matter only via gravity.

“We know that the dark matter explanation is a long shot, but the pay-off would be huge if we’re right,” said Esra Bulbul of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the study. “So we’re going to keep testing this interpretation and see where it takes us.”

Astronomers estimate that roughly 85 percent of all matter in the Universe is dark matter, invisible to even the most powerful telescopes, but detectable by its gravitational pull.

Galaxy clusters are good places to look for dark matter. They contain hundreds of galaxies as well as a huge amount of hot gas filling the space between them. But measurements of the gravitational influence of galaxy clusters show that the galaxies and gas make up only about one-fifth of the total mass. The rest is thought to be dark matter.

Bulbul explained in a post on the Chandra blog that she wanted try hunting for dark matter by “stacking” (layering observations on top of each other) large numbers of observations of galaxy clusters to improve the sensitivity of the data coming from Chandra and XMM-Newton.

“The great advantage of stacking observations is not only an increased signal-to-noise ratio (that is, the amount of useful signal compared to background noise), but also the diminished effects of detector and background features,” wrote Bulbul. “The X-ray background emission and instrumental noise are the main obstacles in the analysis of faint objects, such as galaxy clusters.”

Her primary goal in using the stacking technique was to refine previous upper limits on the properties of dark matter particles and perhaps even find a weak emission line from previously undetected metals.

“These weak emission lines from metals originate from the known atomic transitions taking place in the hot atmospheres of galaxy clusters,” said Bulbul. “After spending a year reducing, carefully examining, and stacking the XMM-Newton X-ray observations of 73 galaxy clusters, I noticed an unexpected emission line at about 3.56 kiloelectron volts (keV), a specific energy in the X-ray range.”

In theory, a sterile neutrino decays into an active neutrino by emitting an X-ray photon in the keV range, which can be detectable through X-ray spectroscopy. Bulbul said that her team’s results are consistent with the theoretical expectations and the upper limits placed by previous X-ray searches.

Bulbul and her colleagues worked for a year to confirm the existence of the line in different subsamples, but they say they still have much work to do to confirm that they’ve actually detected sterile neutrinos.

“Our next step is to combine data from Chandra and JAXA’s Suzaku mission for a large number of galaxy clusters to see if we find the same X-ray signal,” said co-author Adam Foster, also of CfA. “There are lots of ideas out there about what these data could represent. We may not know for certain until Astro-H launches, with a new type of X-ray detector that will be able to measure the line with more precision than currently possible.”

Astro-H is another Japanese mission scheduled to launch in 2015 with a high-resolution instrument that should be able to see better detail in the spectra, and Bulbul said they hope to be able to “unambiguously distinguish an astrophysical line from a dark matter signal and tell us what this new X-ray emission truly is.”

Since the emission line is weak, this detection is pushing the capabilities Chandra and XMM Newton in terms of sensitivity. Also, the team says there may be explanations other than sterile neutrinos if this X-ray emission line is deemed to be real. There are ways that normal matter in the cluster could have produced the line, although the team’s analysis suggested that all of these would involve unlikely changes to our understanding of physical conditions in the galaxy cluster or the details of the atomic physics of extremely hot gases.

The authors also note that even if the sterile neutrino interpretation is correct, their detection does not necessarily imply that all of dark matter is composed of these particles.

The Chandra press release shared an interesting behind-the-scenes look into how science is shared and discussed among scientists:

Because of the tantalizing potential of these results, after submitting to The Astrophysical Journal the authors posted a copy of the paper to a publicly accessible database, arXiv. This forum allows scientists to examine a paper prior to its acceptance into a peer-reviewed journal. The paper ignited a flurry of activity, with 55 new papers having already cited this work, mostly involving theories discussing the emission line as possible evidence for dark matter. Some of the papers explore the sterile neutrino interpretation, but others suggest different types of candidate dark matter particles, such as the axion, may have been detected.

Only a week after Bulbul et al. placed their paper on the arXiv, a different group, led by Alexey Boyarsky of Leiden University in the Netherlands, placed a paper on the arXiv reporting evidence for an emission line at the same energy in XMM-Newton observations of the galaxy M31 and the outskirts of the Perseus cluster. This strengthens the evidence that the emission line is real and not an instrumental artifact.

Further reading:
Paper by Bulbul et al.
Chandra press release
ESA press release
Chandra blog

Amazing New X-Ray Image of the Whirlpool Galaxy Shows it is Dotted with Black Holes

In any galaxy there are hundreds of X-ray binaries: systems consisting of a black hole capturing and heating material from a relatively low-mass orbiting companion star. But high-mass X-ray binaries — systems consisting of a black hole and an extremely high-mass companion star — are hard to come by. In the Milky Way there’s only one: Cygnus X-1. But 30 million light-years away in the Whirlpool galaxy, M51, there are a full 10 high-mass X-ray binaries.

Nearly a million seconds of observing time with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has revealed these specks. “This is the deepest, high-resolution exposure of the full disk of any spiral galaxy that’s ever been taken in the X-ray,” said Roy Kilgard, from Wesleyan University, at a talk presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting today in Boston. “It’s a remarkably rich data set.”

Within the image there are 450 X-ray points of light, 10 of which are likely X-ray binaries.

The Whilpool galaxy is thought to have so many X-ray binaries because it’s in the process of colliding with a smaller companion galaxy. This interaction triggers waves of star formation, creating new stars at a rate seven times faster than the Milky Way and supernova deaths at a rate 10-100 times faster. The more-massive stars simply race through their evolution in a few million years and collapse to form neutron stars or black holes quickly.

“In this image, there’s a very strong correlation between the fuzzy purple stuff, which is hot gas in the X-ray, and the fuzzy red stuff, which is hydrogen gas in the optical,” said Kilgard. “Both of these are tracing the star formation very actively. You can see it really enhanced in the northern arm that approaches the companion galaxy.”

Eight of the 10 X-ray binaries are located close to star forming regions.

Chandra is providing astronomers with an in depth look at a class of objects that has only one example in the Milky Way.

“We’re catching them at a short window in their evolutionary cycle,” said Kilgard. “The massive star that formed the black hole has died, and the massive star that is accreting material onto the black hole has not yet died. The window at which these objects are X-ray bright is really short. It’s maybe only tens of thousands of years.”

Additional information available on the Chandra website.

Dense Gas Clouds Blot The View Of Supermassive Black Holes

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Gas around supermassive black holes tends to clump into immense clouds, periodically blocking the view of these huge X-ray sources from Earth, new research reveals.

Observations of 55 of these “galactic nuclei” revealed at least a dozen times when an X-ray source dimmed for a time as short as a few hours or as long as years, which likely happened when a gas cloud blotted out the signal seen from Earth. This is different than some previous models suggesting the gas was more uniform.

“Evidence for the clouds comes from records collected over 16 years by NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, a satellite in low-earth orbit equipped with instruments that measured variations in X-ray sources,” stated the Royal Astronomical Society.

“Those sources include active galactic nuclei, brilliantly luminous objects powered by supermassive black holes as they gather and condense huge quantities of dust and gas.”

You can read more in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society or in preprint version on Arxiv. Below are some different versions of the YouTube video on top, one with weather symbols and another showing a diagram with varying X-ray emission.

The research was led by Alex Markowitz, an astrophysicist at the University of California, San Diego and the Karl Remeis Observatory in Bamberg, Germany.

There have been a few neat studies lately looking at the environment around these huge objects. One examined how the black hole fuels itself, while another suggested that perhaps these singularities formed as twins before evolving.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Stars Boil Before They Blow Up, Says NuSTAR

Supernovas are some of the most energetic and powerful events in the observable Universe. Briefly outshining entire galaxies, they are the final, dying  outbursts of stars several times more massive than our Sun. And while we know supernovas are responsible for creating the heavy elements necessary for everything from planets to people to power tools,  scientists have long struggled to determine the mechanics behind the sudden collapse and subsequent explosion of massive stars.

Now, thanks to NASA’s NuSTAR mission, we have our first solid clues to what happens before a star goes “boom.”

The image above shows the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (or Cas A for short) with NuSTAR data in blue and observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory in red, green, and yellow. It’s the shockwave left over from the explosion of a star about 15 to 25 times more massive than our Sun over 330 years ago*, and it glows in various wavelengths of light depending on the temperatures and types of elements present.

Artist's concept of NuSTAR in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of NuSTAR in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Previous observations with Chandra revealed x-ray emissions from expanding shells and filaments of hot iron-rich gas in Cas A, but they couldn’t peer deep enough to get a better idea of what’s inside the structure. It wasn’t until NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array — that’s NuSTAR to those in the know — turned its x-ray vision on Cas A that the missing puzzle pieces could be found.

And they’re made of radioactive titanium.

Many models have been made (using millions of hours of supercomputer time) to try to explain core-collapse supernovas. One of the leading ones has the star ripped apart by powerful jets firing from its poles — something that’s associated with even more powerful (but focused) gamma-ray bursts. But it didn’t appear that jets were the cause with Cas A, which doesn’t exhibit elemental remains within its jet structures… and besides, the models relying on jets alone didn’t always result in a full-blown supernova.

As it turns out, the presence of asymmetric clumps of radioactive titanium deep within the shells of Cas A, revealed in high-energy x-rays by NuSTAR, point to a surprisingly different process at play: a “sloshing” of material within the progenitor star that kickstarts a shockwave, ultimately tearing it apart.

Watch an animation of how this process occurs:

The sloshing, which occurs over a time span of a mere couple hundred milliseconds — literally in the blink of an eye — is likened to boiling water on a stove. When the bubbles break through the surface, the steam erupts.

Only in this case the eruption leads to the insanely powerful detonation of an entire star, blasting a shockwave of high-energy particles into the interstellar medium and scattering a periodic tableful of heavy elements into the galaxy.

In the case of Cas A, titanium-44 was ejected, in clumps that echo the shape of the original sloshing asymmetry. NuSTAR was able to image and map the titanium, which glows in x-ray because of its radioactivity (and not because it’s heated by expanding shockwaves, like other lighter elements visible to Chandra.)

“Until we had NuSTAR we couldn’t really see down into the core of the explosion,” said Caltech astronomer Brian Grefenstette during a NASA teleconference on Feb. 19.

Illustration of the pre-supernova star in Cassiopeia A. It's thought that its layers were "turned inside out" just before it detonated. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Illustration of the pre-supernova star in Cassiopeia A. It’s thought that its layers were “turned inside out” just before it detonated. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

“Previously, it was hard to interpret what was going on in Cas A because the material that we could see only glows in X-rays when it’s heated up. Now that we can see the radioactive material, which glows in X-rays no matter what, we are getting a more complete picture of what was going on at the core of the explosion.”

– Brian Grefenstette, lead author, Caltech

Okay, so great, you say. NASA’s NuSTAR has found the glow of titanium in the leftovers of a blown-up star, Chandra saw some iron, and we know it sloshed and ‘boiled’ a fraction of a second before it exploded. So what?

“Now you should care about this,” said astronomer Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Supernovae make the chemical elements, so if you bought an American car, it wasn’t made in Detroit two years ago; the iron atoms in that steel were manufactured in an ancient supernova explosion that took place five billion years ago. And NuSTAR shows that the titanium that’s in your Uncle Jack’s replacement hip were made in that explosion too.

“We’re all stardust, and NuSTAR is showing us where we came from. Including our replacement parts. So you should care about this… and so should your Uncle Jack.”

And it’s not just core-collapse supernovas that NuSTAR will be able to investigate. Other types of supernovas will be scrutinized too — in the case of SN2014J, a Type Ia that was spotted in M82 in January, even right after they occur.

“We know that those are a type of white dwarf star that detonates,” NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison responded to Universe Today during the teleconference. “This is very exciting news… NuSTAR has been looking at [SN2014J] for weeks, and we hope to be able to say something about that explosion as well.”

Previous imaging with Chandra (left, middle) is combined with new data from NuSTAR (right) to make a complete image of a supernova remnant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO)
Previous imaging with Chandra (left, middle) is combined with new data from NuSTAR (right) to make a complete image of a supernova remnant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO)

One of the most valuable achievements of the recent NuSTAR findings is having a new set of observed constraints to place on future models of core-collapse supernovas… which will help provide answers — and likely new questions — about how stars explode, even hundreds or thousands of years after they do.

“NuSTAR is pioneering science, and you have to expect that when you get new results, it’ll open up as many questions as you answer,” said Kirshner.

Launched in June of 2012, NuSTAR is the first focusing hard X-ray telescope to orbit Earth and the first telescope capable of producing maps of radioactive elements in supernova remnants.

Read more on the JPL news release here, and listen to the full press conference here.

*As Cas A resides 11,000 light-years from Earth, the actual date of the supernova would be about 11,330 years ago. Give or take a few.

New Findings from NuSTAR: A New X-Ray View of the “Hand of God” and More

One star player in this week’s findings out of the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society has been the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array Mission, also known as NuSTAR. On Thursday, researchers revealed some exciting new results and images from the mission, as well as what we can expect from NuSTAR down the road.

NuSTAR was launched on June 13th, 2012 on a Pegasus XL rocket deployed from a Lockheed L-1011 “TriStar” aircraft flying near the Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Part of a new series of low-cost missions, NuSTAR is the first of its kind to employ a space telescope focusing on the high energy X-ray end of the spectrum centered around 5-80 KeV.

Daniel Stern, part of the NuSTAR team at JPL Caltech, revealed a new X-ray image of the now-famous supernova remnant dubbed “The Hand of God.” Discovered by the Einstein X-ray observatory in 1982, the Hand is home to pulsar PSR B1509-58 or B1509 for short, and sits about 18,000 light years away in the southern hemisphere constellation Circinus. B1509 spins about 7 times per second, and the supernova that formed the pulsar is estimated to have occurred 20,000 years ago and would’ve  been visible form Earth about 2,000 years ago.

A diagram of the NuSTAR satellite. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)
A diagram of the NuSTAR satellite. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

While the Chandra X-ray observatory has scrutinized the region before, NuSTAR can peer into its very heart. In fact, Stern notes that views from NuSTAR take on less of an appearance of a “Hand” and more of a “Fist”. Of course, the appearance of any nebula is a matter of perspective. Pareidolia litter the deep sky, whether it’s the Pillars of Creation to the Owl Nebula.  We can’t help but being reminded of the mysterious “cosmic hand” that the Guardians of Oa of Green Lantern fame saw when they peered back at the moment of creation. Apparently, the “Hand” is also rather Simpson-esque, sporting only three “fingers!”

An diagram of the Hand of God. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/McGill).

NuSTAR is the first, and so far only, focusing hard X-ray observatory deployed in orbit. NuSTAR employs what’s known as grazing incidence optics in a Wolter telescope configuration, and the concentric shells of the detector look like layers on an onion. NuSTAR also requires a large focal length, and employs a long boom that was deployed shortly after launch.

The hard X-ray regime that NuSTAR monitors is similar to what you encounter in your dentist’s office or in a TSA body scanner. Unlike the JEM-X monitor aboard ESA’s INTERGRAL or the Swift observatory, which have a broad resolution of about half a degree to a degree, NuSTAR has an unprecedented resolution of about 18 arc seconds.

The first data release from NuSTAR was in late 2013. NuSTAR is just begging to show its stuff, however, in terms of what researchers anticipate that it’s capable of.

“NuSTAR is uniquely able to map the Titanium-44 emission, which is a radioactive tracer of (supernova) explosion physics,” Daniel Stern told Universe Today.

NuSTAR will also be able to pinpoint high energy sources at the center of our galaxy. “No previous high-energy mission has had the imaging resolution of NuSTAR,” Stern told Universe Today. ”Our order-of-magnitude increase in image sharpness means that we’re able to map out that very rich region of the sky, which is populated by supernovae remnants, X-ray binaries, as well as the big black hole at the center of our Galaxy, Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star).”

NuSTAR identifies new black hole canidates (in blue) in the COSMOS field. Overlayed on previous black holes spotted by Chandra in the same field denoted in red and green. (Credit-NASA/JPL-Caltech/Yale University).
NuSTAR identifies new black hole candidates (in blue) in the COSMOS field. The discoveries in the image above are overlayed on previous black holes spotted by Chandra in the same field, which are denoted in red and green. (Credit-NASA/JPL-Caltech/Yale University).

Yale University researcher Francesca Civano also presented a new image from NuSTAR depicting black holes that were previously obscured from view.  NuSTAR is especially suited for this, gazing into the hearts of energetic galaxies that are invisible to observatories such Chandra or XMM-Newton. The image presented covers the area of Hubble’s Cosmic Evolution Survey, known as COSMOS in the constellation Sextans. In fact, Civano notes that NuSTAR has already seen the highest number of obscured black hole candidates to date.

“This is a hot topic in astronomy,” Civano said in a recent press release. “We want to understand how black holes grew and the degree to which they are obscured.”

To this end, NuSTAR researchers are taking a stacked “wedding cake” approach, looking at successively larger slices of the sky from previous surveys. These include looking at the quarter degree field of the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOOD-S) for 18 days, the two degree wide COSMOS field for 36 days, and the large four degree Swift-BAT fields for 40 day periods hunting for serendipitous sources.

Interestingly, NuSTAR has also opened the window on the hard X-ray background that permeates the universe as well. This peaks in the 20-30 KeV range, and is the combination of the X-ray emissions of millions of black holes.

“For several decades already, we’ve known what the sum total emission of the sky is across the X-ray regime,” Stern told Universe Today. “The shape of this cosmic X-ray background peaks strongly in the NuSTAR range. The most likely interpretation is that there are a large number of obscured black holes out there, objects that are hard to find in other energy bands. NuSTAR should find these sources.”

And NuSTAR may just represent the beginning of a new era in X-ray astronomy. ESA is moving ahead with its next generation flagship X-ray mission, known as Athena+, set to launch sometime next decade. Ideas abound for wide-field imagers and X-ray polarimeters, and one day, we may see a successor to NuSTAR dubbed the High-Energy X-ray Probe or (HEX-P) make it into space.

But for now, expect some great science out of NuSTAR, as it unlocks the secrets of the X-ray universe!

Chandra’s Verdict on the Demise of a Star: “Death by Black Hole”

This week, astronomers announced the detection of a rare event, a star being torn to shreds by a massive black hole in the heart of a distant dwarf galaxy. The evidence was presented Wednesday January 8th at the ongoing 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society being held this week in Washington D.C.

Although other instances of the death of stars at the hands of black holes have been witnessed before, Chandra may have been the first to document an intermediate black hole at the heart of a dwarf galaxy “in the act”.

The results span observations carried out by the space-based Chandra X-ray observatory over a period spanning 1999 to 2005. The search is part of an archival study of observations, and revealed no further outbursts after 2005.

“We can’t see the star being torn apart by the black hole, but we can track what happens to the star’s remains,” said University of Alabama’s Peter Maksym in a recent press release. A comparison of with similar events seen in larger galaxies backs up the ruling of “death by black hole.”  A competing team led by Davide Donato also looked at archival data from Chandra and the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE), along with supplementary observations from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope to determine the brightness of the host galaxy, and gained similar results.

The dwarf galaxy in the Abell 1795 cluster that was observed has the name WINGS J134849.88+263557.5, or WINGS J1348 for short. The Abell 1795 cluster is about 800 million light years distant.

WINGS denotes the galaxy’s membership in the WIde-field Nearby Galaxy-cluster Survey, and the phone number-like designation is the galaxy’s position in the sky in right ascension and declination.

Like most galaxies associated with galaxy clusters, WINGS J1348 a dwarf galaxy probably smaller than our own satellite galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud. The Abell 1795 cluster is located in the constellation Boötes, and WINGS J1348 has an extremely faint visual magnitude of +22.46.

An optical view of the Abell 1795 galaxy cluster. Credit- NASA/CFHT/D. Donato et al.

“Scientists have been searching for these intermediate mass black holes for decades,” NASA’s Davide Donato said in a recent press release “We have lots of evidence for small black holes and very big ones, but these medium-sized ones have been tough to pin down.”

Maksym notes in an interview with Universe Today that this isn’t the first detection of an intermediate-mass black hole, which are a class of black holes often dubbed the “mostly” missing link between stellar mass and super massive black holes.

The mass range for intermediate black holes is generally pegged at 100 to one million solar masses.

What makes the event witnessed by Chandra in WINGS J1348 special is that astronomers managed to capture a rare tidal flare, as opposed to a supermassive black hole in the core of an active galaxy.

A bright, long duration flare may be the first recorded event of a black hole destroying a star in a dwarf galaxy. The dwarf galaxy is located in the galaxy cluster Abell 1795, about 800 million light years from Earth. A composite image of the cluster shows Chandra data in blue and optical data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in red, green and blue. An inset centered on the dwarf galaxy shows Chandra data taken between before and after 2005. The X-ray flare provides evidence that a large black hole has pulled in debris from a star that was torn apart by tidal forces.
A closeup view of the bright, long duration flare witnessed by Chandra pre-2005. Credit- NASA/CXC/University of Alabama/W.P. Maksym et al.

“Most of the time, black holes eat very little, so they can hide very well,” Maksym said in the AAS meeting on Wednesday.

This discovery pushes the limits on what we know of intermediate black holes. By documenting an observed number of tidal flare events, it can be inferred that a number of inactive black holes must be lurking in galaxies as well. The predicted number of tidal events that occur also have implications for the eventual detection of gravity waves from said mergers.

And more examples of these types of X-ray flare events could be waiting to be uncovered in the Chandra data as well.

“Chandra has taken quite a few pictures over the past 13+ years, and collaborators and I have an ongoing program to look for more tidal flares,” Maksym told Universe Today. “We’ve found one other this way, from a larger galaxy, and hope to find more. Abell 1795 was a particularly good place to look because as a calibration source, there were tons of pictures.”

Use of Chandra data was also ideal for the study because its spatial resolution allowed researchers to pinpoint an individual galaxy in the cluster. Maksym also notes that while it’s hard to get follow-up observations of events based on archival data, future missions dedicated to X-ray astronomy with wider fields of view may be able to scour the skies looking for such tidal flaring events.

The NuSTAR satellite was the latest X-Ray observatory  to launch in 2012.  NASA’s Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer picked up a strong ultraviolet source in 1998 right around the time of the tidal flare event, and ESA’s XMM-Newton satellite may have detected the event in 2000 as well.

This was also one of the smallest galaxies ever observed to contain a black hole. Maksym noted in Wednesday’s press conference that an alternative explanation could be a super-massive black hole in a tiny galaxy that just “nibbled” on a passing star, but said that new data from the Gemini observatory does not support this.

“It would be like looking into a dog house and finding a large ogre crammed in there,” Maksym said at Wednesday’s press conference.

This discovery provides valuable insight into the nature of intermediate mass black holes and their formation and behavior. What other elusive cosmological beasties are lying in wait to be discovered in the archives?

Congrats to Maksym and teams on this exciting new discovery, and the witnessing of a rare celestial event!