Eccentric Binary Creates Dual Gamma-Ray Flares


It’s a gamma-ray flare – the most extreme form of light so far known. So, what could top it? Try a pair of gamma-ray flares. Way off in the southern constellation of Crux, an extreme team of stars gave a real show to NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. In December 2010, they blew past each other at about the distance Venus orbits our Sun. Why was this encounter so unique? Because one member was hot and blue/white… and the other a pulsar.

“Even though we were waiting for this event, it still surprised us,” said Aous Abdo, a Research Assistant Professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a leader of the research team.

Astronomers were aware that PSR B1259-63 and LS 2883 made a close pass to each other about every 3 to 4 years and were eagerly anticipating the action. Residing at about 8,000 light years away, the signature signal from PSR B1259-63 was discovered in 1989 by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. It is suspected to be quite small – about the size of Washington, DC and weighs about twice as much as Sol. What’s cool is it rotates at a dizzying 21 times per second… shooting of a powerful beam of electromagnetic energy that sweeps around like a search light. Next door the blue/white companion star lay embedded in gas, measuring in about 9 times larger size and weighing in at about 24 solar masses. Of these “odd couples” only four are known to produce gamma-rays and only this particular system is known to contain a pulsar… one that punches through the gas disk both coming and going during orbit.

“During these disk passages, energetic particles emitted by the pulsar can interact with the disk, and this can lead to processes that accelerate particles and produce radiation at different energies,” said study co-author Simon Johnston of the Australia Telescope National Facility in Epping, New South Wales. “The frustrating thing for astronomers is that the pulsar follows such an eccentric orbit that these events only happen every 3.4 years.”

On December 15, 2010, all “eyes” and “ears” were turned the system’s way in anticipation of the dual gamma-ray burst. The observatories included Fermi and NASA’s Swift spacecraft; the European space telescopes XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL; the Japan-U.S. Suzaku satellite; the Australia Telescope Compact Array; optical and infrared telescopes in Chile and South Africa; and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.), a ground-based observatory in Namibia that can detect gamma rays with energies of trillions of electron volts, beyond Fermi’s range.

“When you know you have a chance of observing this system only once every few years, you try to arrange for as much coverage as you can,” said Abdo, the principal investigator of the NASA-funded international campaign. “Understanding this system, where we know the nature of the compact object, may help us understand the nature of the compact objects in other, similar systems”.

While the EGRET telescope aboard NASA’s Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory had been observing this rare pair since the 1990s, no gamma-ray emission in the billion-electron-volt (GeV) energy range had ever been recorded. But, as the time of passage approached, the Large Area Telescope (LAT) aboard Fermi began to pick up faint gamma-ray emission. “During the first disk passage, which lasted from mid-November to mid-December, the LAT recorded faint yet detectable emission from the binary. We assumed that the second passage would be similar, but in mid-January 2011, as the pulsar began its second passage through the disk, we started seeing surprising flares that were many times stronger than those we saw before,” Abdo said.

To make this strange scenario even more unusual, radio and x-ray readings were nominal as the gamma-rays flared. “The most intense days of the flare were Jan. 20 and 21 and Feb. 2, 2011,” said Abdo. “What really surprised us is that on any of these days, the source was more than 15 times brighter than it was during the entire month-and-a-half-long first passage.”

It won’t happen again until May, 2014… But you can bet astronomers will be tuned in to catch the action!

Original Story Source: NASA / Fermi News.

Neutron Star Burps Up Stellar Gas

This animated sequence of images illustrates the partial ingestion of a clump of matter by the neutron star hosted in the Supergiant Fast X-Ray Transient, IGR J18410-0535. The ingestion of the clump material produced a dramatic increase in the X-rays released by the neutron star, which was detected with XMM-Newton. The peak in the X-ray luminosity corresponds to the period when the accretion rate was at its maximum. Credits: ESA/AOES Medialab

During a routine twelve and a half hour observation of star system IGR J18410-0535, the XMM-Newton caught an event that would make Emily Post proud… a not-so-discreet burp from a neutron star. Continue reading “Neutron Star Burps Up Stellar Gas”

Cygnus X-1: Blue Supergiant Pairs With Black Hole


Discovered in 1964 during a rocket flight, Cygnus X-1 holds the record for being the strongest X-ray source seen from Earth. The blue supergiant star designated as HDE 226868 is just part of this high-mass X-ray binary system… the other is a black hole.

“We present a detailed study of the X-ray dust scattering halo of the black hole candidate based on two Chandra HETGS observations. Using 18 different dust models, including one modified by us (dubbed XLNW), we probe the interstellar medium between us and this source.” says Jingen Xiang, et al. “A consistent description of the cloud properties along the line of sight that describes at the same time the halo radial profile, the halo lightcurves, and the column density from source spectroscopy is best achieved with a small subset of these models… The remainder of the dust along the line of sight is close to the black hole binary.”

Located about 6,000 light years from Earth as measured by the Hipparcos satellite (but this value has a relatively high degree of uncertainty), Cygnus X-1 has been the topic for a huge amount of astronomical studies for nearly 50 years. We’re aware the blue supergiant variable star orbits its unseen companion at roughly 1/5 the distance of the Sun to the Earth (0.2 AU), and we surmised that stellar wind accounted for the accretion disk around the X-ray source. We are also aware of a pair of jets spewing material into interstellar space. Deep inside, superheated materials are sending out copious amounts of X-rays, but what else lay beyond? Can we separate star from event horizon with accuracy?

“We report a direct and accurate measurement of the distance to the X-ray binary Cygnus X-1, which contains the first black hole to be discovered. The distance of 1.86(-0.11,+0.12) kpc was obtained from a trigonometric parallax measurement using the Very Long Baseline Array. The position measurements are also sensitive to the 5.6 d binary orbit and we determine the orbit to be clockwise on the sky.” says Mark J. Reid, et al. “We also measured the proper motion of Cygnus X-1 which, when coupled to the distance and Doppler shift, gives the three-dimensional space motion of the system. When corrected for differential Galactic rotation, the non-circular (peculiar) motion of the binary is only about 21 km/s, indicating that the binary did not experience a large “kick” at formation.”

If you don’t think this is exciting news, then think again. “The compact primary in the X-ray binary Cygnus X-1 was the first black hole to be established via dynamical observations.” says Lijun Gou. “We have recently determined accurate values for its mass and distance, and for the orbital inclination angle of the binary. Building on these results, which are based on our favored (asynchronous) dynamical model, we have measured the radius of the inner edge of the black hole’s accretion disk by fitting its thermal continuum spectrum to a fully relativistic model of a thin accretion disk.”

Determining the spin rate has been high on the list of observations – and difficult because it changed states periodically. Only when it is in a soft spectral state can accurate measurements be taken. Oddly enough, for all the countless observations taken of Cygnus X-1 over the years, it has never been caught in a thermally dominant state. To that end, the black hole spin is measured by estimating the inner radius of the accretion disk.

“Our results take into account all significant sources of observational and model-parameter uncertainties, which are dominated by the uncertainties in black hole mass, orbital inclination angle and distance.” says the team. “The uncertainties introduced by the thin-disk model we employ are particularly small in this case, given the disk’s low luminosity.”

Heisenberg would be so proud….

Original Story Souce: Cornell University Library with facts from Wikipedia.

Black Hole Devours Star and Hurls Energy Across 3.8 Billion Light Years


Engaging the Hubble Space Telescope, Swift satellite and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers at the University of Warwick were quick to pick up a signal from Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope on March 28, 2011. In a classic line from Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson says: “It’s a UFO beaming back at you.” But this time it isn’t a UFO… it’s the death scream of a star being consumed by a black hole. The alert was just the beginning of a series of x-ray blasts that turned out to be the largest and most luminous event so far recorded in a distant galaxy.

Originating 3.8 billion light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation of Draco, the beam consisting of high energy X-rays and gamma-rays remained brilliant for a period of weeks after the initial event. As more and more material from the doomed star crossed over the event horizon, bright flares erupted signaling its demise. Says Dr. Andrew Levan, lead researcher on the paper from the University of Warwick; “Despite the power of this the cataclysmic event we still only happen to see this event because our solar system happened to be looking right down the barrel of this jet of energy”.

Dr Andrew Levan is a researcher at the University of Warwick.
Dr. Levan’s findings were published today in the Journal Science in a paper entitled “An Extremely Luminous Panchromatic Outburst from the Nucleus of a Distant Galaxy”. His findings leave no doubt as to the origin of the event and it has been cataloged as Sw 1644+57.

“The only explanation that so far fits the size, intensity, time scale, and level of fluctuation of the observed event, is that a massive black at the very centre of that galaxy has pulled in a large star and ripped it apart by tidal disruption.” says Levan. “The spinning black hole then created the two jets one of which pointed straight to Earth.”

And straight into our eager eyes…

Original Story Source: Eurekalert.

Baby Black Holes Grew Up Fast


For more than six weeks, the watchful eye of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory kept track of a small portion of sky dubbed the Chandra Deep Field South (CDFS). Its object was to research 200 distant galaxies dating back to about 800 million to 950 million years old. What Chandra was looking for was evidence of massive black holes. The deepest evidence yet…

When combined with very deep optical and infrared images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the new Chandra data leads astronomers to speculate that young black holes may have evolved in unison with their young galaxies. “Until now, we had no idea what the black holes in these early galaxies were doing, or if they even existed,” said Ezequiel Treister of the University of Hawaii, lead author of the study appearing in the June 16 issue of the journal Nature. “Now we know they are there, and they are growing like gangbusters.”

What does this new information mean? The massive growth of the black holes in the CDFS are just shy of being a quasar – the super-luminous by-product of material slipping over the event horizon. “However, the sources in the CDFS are about a hundred times fainter and the black holes are about a thousand times less massive than the ones in quasars.” How often did it occur in the new data? Try between 30 and 100% of the case studies, resulting in a estimated 30 million supermassive black holes in the early Universe.

“It appears we’ve found a whole new population of baby black holes,” said co-author Kevin Schawinski of Yale University. “We think these babies will grow by a factor of about a hundred or a thousand, eventually becoming like the giant black holes we see today almost 13 billion years later.”

While the existence of these early black holes had been predicted, no observation had been made until now. Due to their natural “cloaking devices” of gas and dust, optical observation had been prohibited, but x-ray signatures don’t lie. The concept of tandem black hole / galaxy growth has been studied closer to home, but taking a look further back into time and space has revealed growth a hundred times more than estimated. These new Chandra results are teaching us that this connection begins at the beginning.

“Most astronomers think in the present-day universe, black holes and galaxies are somehow symbiotic in how they grow,” said Priya Natarajan, a co-author from Yale University. “We have shown that this codependent relationship has existed from very early times.”

Theories also abound which imply neophyte black holes may have played “an important role in clearing away the cosmic “fog” of neutral, or uncharged, hydrogen that pervaded the early universe when temperatures cooled down after the Big Bang”. But to the contrary, the new Chandra findings point towards the pervasive materials stopping ultraviolet radiation before the re-ionization process can occur. Resultant stars and dormant black holes are the most likely culprit to have cleared space for the cosmic dawn.

Although the Chandra X-ray Observatory is up to the task of picking up on uber-faint objects at incredible distances, these baby black holes are so veiled that only a few photons can slip through, making individual detection impossible. To gather this new data, the team employed Chandra’s directional abilities and tallied the hits near the positions of distant galaxies and found a statistically significant signal.

Original Story Source: Chandra News.

Australian Student Uncovers the Universe’s Missing Mass


Not since the work of Fritz Zwicky has the astronomy world been so excited about the missing mass of the Universe. His evidence came from the orbital velocities of galaxies in clusters, rotational speeds, and gravitational lensing of background objects. Now there’s even more evidence that Zwicky was right as Australian student – Amelia Fraser-McKelvie – made another breakthrough in the world of astrophysics.

Working with a team at the Monash School of Physics, the 22-year-old undergraduate Aerospace Engineering/Science student conducted a targeted X-ray search for the hidden matter and within just three months made a very exciting discovery. Astrophysicists predicted the mass would be low in density, but high in temperature – approximately one million degrees Celsius. According to theory, the matter should have been observable at X-ray wavelengths and Amelia Fraser-McKelvie’s discovery has proved the prediction to be correct.

Dr Kevin Pimbblet from the School of Astrophysics explains: “It was thought from a theoretical viewpoint that there should be about double the amount of matter in the local Universe compared to what was observed. It was predicted that the majority of this missing mass should be located in large-scale cosmic structures called filaments – a bit like thick shoelaces.”

Up until this point in time, theories were based solely on numerical models, so Fraser-McKelvie’s observations represent a true break-through in determining just how much of this mass is caught in filamentary structure. “Most of the baryons in the Universe are thought to be contained within filaments of galaxies, but as yet, no single study has published the observed properties of a large sample of known filaments to determine typical physical characteristics such as temperature and electron density.” says Amelia. “We examine if a filament’s membership to a supercluster leads to an enhanced electron density as reported by Kull & Bohringer (1999). We suggest it remains unclear if supercluster membership causes such an enhancement.”

Still a year away from undertaking her Honors year (which she will complete under the supervision of Dr Pimbblet), Ms Fraser-McKelvie is being hailed as one of Australia’s most exciting young students… and we can see why!

Perseus Cluster Thicker Around the Middle Than Thought


The Japanese Suzaku X-ray telescope has just taken a close look at the Perseus galaxy cluster, and revealed it’s got a bit of a spare tire.

Suzaku explored faint X-ray emission of hot gas across two swaths of the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. The resulting images, which record X-rays with energies between 700 and 7,000 electron volts in a combined exposure of three days, are shown in the two false-color strips above. Bluer colors indicate less intense X-ray emission. The dashed circle is 11.6 million light-years across and marks the so-called virial radius, where cold gas is now entering the cluster. Red circles indicate X-ray sources not associated with the cluster.

The results appear in today’s issue of Science.

The Perseus cluster (03hh 18m +41° 30) is the brightest extragalactic source of extended X-rays.

Lead author Aurora Simionescu, an astrophysicist at Stanford, and her colleagues note that until now, most observations of galaxy clusters have focused on their bright interiors. The Suzaku telescope was able to peer more closely at the outskirts of the Perseus cluster. The resulting census of baryonic matter (protons and neutrons of gas and metals) compared to dark matter offers some surprising observations.

It turns out the fraction of baryonic matter to dark matter at Perseus’s center was consistent with measurements for the universe as a whole, but the baryonic fraction unexpectedly exceeds the universal average on the cluster’s outskirts.

“The apparent baryon fraction exceeds the cosmic mean at larger radii, suggesting a clumpy distribution of the gas, which is important for understanding the ongoing growth of clusters from the surrounding cosmic web,” the authors write in the new paper.

Source: Science. See also JAXA’s Suzaku site

Star Birth and Death in the Andromeda Galaxy


To the naked eye, the Andromeda galaxy appears as a smudge of light in the night sky. But to the combined powers of the Herschel and XMM-Newton space observatories, these new images put Andromeda in a new light! Together, the images provide some of the most detailed looks at the closest galaxy to our own. In infrared wavelengths, Herschel sees rings of star formation and XMM-Newton shows dying stars shining X-rays into space.

During Christmas 2010, the two ESA space observatories targeted Andromeda, a.k.a. M31.

Andromeda is about twice as big as the Milky Way but very similar in many ways. Both contain several hundred billion stars. Currently, Andromeda is about 2.2 million light years away from us but the gap is closing at 500,000 km/hour. The two galaxies are on a collision course! In about 3 billion years, the two galaxies will collide, and then over a span of 1 billion years or so after a very intricate gravitational dance, they will merge to form an elliptical galaxy.

Let’s look at each of the images:

Herschel’s view in far-infrared:

Andromeda in far-infrared from Herschel. Credits: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/J. Fritz, U. Gent

Sensitive to far-infrared light, Herschel sees clouds of cool dust and gas where stars can form. Inside these clouds are many dusty cocoons containing forming stars, each star pulling itself together in a slow gravitational process that can last for hundreds of millions of years. Once a star reaches a high enough density, it will begin to shine at optical wavelengths. It will emerge from its birth cloud and become visible to ordinary telescopes.

Many galaxies are spiral in shape but Andromeda is interesting because it shows a large ring of dust about 75,000 light-years across encircling the center of the galaxy. Some astronomers speculate that this dust ring may have been formed in a recent collision with another galaxy. This new Herschel image reveals yet more intricate details, with at least five concentric rings of star-forming dust visible.

XMM Newton’s view in X-rays

XMM Newton's view in X-Ray. Credits: ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/W. Pietsch, MPE

Superimposed on the infrared image is an X-ray view taken almost simultaneously by ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory. Whereas the infrared shows the beginnings of star formation, X-rays usually show the endpoints of stellar evolution.

XMM-Newton highlights hundreds of X-ray sources within Andromeda, many of them clustered around the centre, where the stars are naturally found to be more crowded together. Some of these are shockwaves and debris rolling through space from exploded stars, others are pairs of stars locked in a gravitational fight to the death.

In these deadly embraces, one star has already died and is pulling gas from its still-living companion. As the gas falls through space, it heats up and gives off X-rays. The living star will eventually be greatly depleted, having much of its mass torn from it by the stronger gravity of its denser partner. As the stellar corpse wraps itself in this stolen gas, it could explode.

Together, the infrared and X-ray images show information that is impossible to collect from the ground because these wavelengths are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. Visible light shows us the adult stars, whereas infrared gives us the youngsters and X-rays show those in their death throes.