Mars Express Says Goodbye to the Earth and Moon

Image credit: ESA

Now well on its way to the Red Planet, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft took a farewell image of the Earth and Moon. The photo was snapped on July 3 when the spacecraft was 8 million kilometres away from the Earth. The picture was taken as part of a series of tests the ESA is doing to make sure the Mars Express’ cameras and instruments are working properly. Once it reaches Mars in late December, the spacecraft will be able to resolve objects on the surface of Mars as small as 2 metres.

A unique view of our home planet and its natural satellite ? the Moon – is one of the first data sets coming from ESA’s Mars Express.

?It is very good news for the mission,? says ESA’s Mars Express Project Scientist, Agustin Chicarro. These and other data, such as those recording the major constituents of Earth as seen from space, are the actual proof that the instruments on board Mars Express, launched 2 June 2003, are working perfectly.

The routine check-outs of Mars Express’s instruments and of the Beagle-2 lander, performed during the last weeks, have been very successful. “As in all space missions little problems have arisen, but they have been carefully evaluated and solved. Mars Express continues on its way to Mars performing beautifully”, comments Chicarro.

The views of the Earth/Moon system were taken on 3 July 2003 by Mars Express’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), when the spacecraft was 8 million kilometres from Earth. The image taken shows true colours; the Pacific Ocean appears in blue, and the clouds near the Equator and in mid to northern latitudes in white to light grey. The image was processed by the Instrument Team at the Institute of Planetary Research of DLR, Berlin (Germany). It was built by combining a super resolution black and white HRSC snap-shot image of the Earth and the Moon with colour information obtained by the blue, green, and red sensors of the instrument.

?The pictures and the information provided by the data prove the camera is working very well. They provide a good indication of what to expect once the spacecraft is in its orbit around Mars, at altitudes of only 250-300 kilometres: very high resolution images with brilliant true colour and in 3D,? says the Principal Investigator of the HRSC, Gerhard Neukum, of the Freie Universit?t of Berlin (Germany). This camera will be able to distinguish details of up to 2 metres on the Martian surface.

Another striking demonstration of Mars Express’s instruments high performance are the data taken by the OMEGA spectrometer. Once at Mars, this instrument will provide the best map of the molecular and mineralogical composition of the whole planet, with 5% of the planetary surface in high resolution. Minerals and other compounds such as water will be charted as never before. As the Red Planet is still too far away, the OMEGA team devised an ingenious test for their instrument: to detect the Earth?s surface components.

As expected, OMEGA made a direct and unambiguous detection of major and minor constituents of the Earth?s atmosphere, such as molecular oxygen, water and carbon dioxide, ozone and methane, among other molecules. “The sensitivity demonstrated by OMEGA on these Earth spectra should reveal really minute amounts of water in both Martian surface materials and atmosphere,” says the Principal Investigator of OMEGA, Jean Pierre Bibring , from the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Orsay, France.

The experts will carry on testing Mars Express?s instruments up till the arrival to the Red Planet, next December. The scientists agree on the fact that these instruments will enormously increase our understanding of the morphology and topography of the Martian surface, of the geological structures and processes – active now and in the past, and eventually of Mars?s geological evolution. With such tools, Mars Express is also able to address the important ?water? question, namely how much water there is today and how much there was in the past. Ultimately, this will also tell us whether Mars had environmental conditions that could favour the evolution of life.

Original Source: ESA News Release

SOHO is Back in Business

Image credit: ESA/NASA

ESA/NASA’s SOHO spacecraft is back to full capacity after a 9-day long blackout. On June 19, the pointing mechanism on the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna malfunctioned; however, controllers were able to retrieve data through its low-gain antenna using larger receiving dishes on Earth. The spacecraft was repositioned this week to let its antenna point directly at Earth. By repositioning it every three months, mission controllers don’t expect they will lose more than a fraction of data, allowing the spacecraft to continue operations for another five years.

ESA/NASA’s solar watchdog, SOHO, is back to full operation after its predicted 9-day-long high-gain antenna blackout. Engineers and scientists are now confident that they understand the situation and can work around it in the future to minimise the data losses.

Since 19 June 2003, SOHO’s high-gain antenna (HGA), which transmits high-speed data to Earth, has been fixed in position following the discovery of a malfunction in its pointing mechanism. This resulted in a loss of signal through SOHO’s usual 26-metre ground stations on 27 June 2003. However, 34-metre radio dishes continued to receive high-speed transmissions from the HGA until 1 July 2003.

Since then, astronomers have been relying primarily on a slower transmission rate signal, sent through SOHO’s backup antenna. It can be picked up whenever a 34-metre dish is available. However, this signal could not transmit all of SOHO’s data. Some data was recorded on board, however, and downloaded using high-speed transmissions through the backup antenna when time on the largest, 70-metre dishes could be spared.

SOHO itself orbits a point in space, 1.5 million kilometres closer to the Sun than the Earth, once every 6 months. To reorient the HGA for the next half of this orbit, engineers rolled the spacecraft through a half-circle on 8 July 2003. On 10 July, the 34-metre radio dish in Madrid re-established contact with SOHO’s HGA. Then on the morning of 14 July 2003, normal operations with the spacecraft resumed through its usual 26-metre ground stations, as predicted.

With the HGA now static, the blackouts, lasting between 9 and 16 days, will continue to occur every 3 months. Engineers will rotate SOHO by 180 degrees every time this occurs. This manoeuvre will minimise data losses. Stein Haugan, acting SOHO project scientist, says “It is good to welcome SOHO back to normal operations, as it proves that we have a good understanding of the situation and can confidently work around it.”

Original Source: ESA News Release

Clusters without a Home

Image credit: Hubble

Thousands of globular star clusters wander aimlessly between galaxies, in what was once thought to be ’empty space’. This is the finding of a joint US-UK project announced today at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Sydney. The group, lead by Dr. Michael West of the University of Hawaii, believes these clusters were ‘torn’ away from their parent galaxies and now drift as orphans. (contributed by Darren Osborne)

US and UK astronomers have discovered a population of previously unknown star clusters in what was thought to be the empty space between galaxies. The research is being presented today at the International Astronomical Union?s 25th General Assembly being held in Sydney, Australia, by Dr. Michael West of the University of Hawaii.

Most galaxies are surrounded by tens, hundreds or even thousands of ancient star clusters, which swarm around them like bees around a hive. Our own Milky Way galaxy has about 150 of these ?globular clusters?, as they are called. Globular clusters are systems of up to a million stars compacted together by gravity into dense sphere-shaped groupings. Studies of globular clusters have provided many important insights over the years into the formation of their parent galaxies.

The discovery of this new type of star cluster was made using images obtained last year with the Hubble Space Telescope and the giant 10-meter Keck Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. ?We found a large number of ?orphaned? globular clusters,? said Dr West. ?These clusters are no longer held within the gravitational grip of galaxies, and seem to be wandering freely through intergalactic space like cosmic vagabonds.?

Although the lonely existence of such star clusters had been predicted for half a century, it is only now that astronomers have finally been able to confirm their existence. Dr West?s team published preliminary findings about its discovery in April this year, and is today presenting new results at the International Astronomical Union?s 25th General Assembly, being held in Sydney, Australia.

?The new data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Telescope confirm our discovery, and are providing new insights to the origin of these objects,? said Dr West.

According to West, these globular star clusters probably once resided in galaxies just like most of the normal globular clusters that we see in nearby galaxies today. However, the pull of gravity from a passing galaxy can rip stars and star clusters loose — in some cases entire galaxies can be damaged or destroyed by violent collisions or by the collective gravitational pull from their galactic neighbors.

It is thought that the partial or complete destruction of their parent galaxies spilled the globular star clusters into intergalactic space.

Finding these globular clusters hasn?t been easy. With only one exception, all of the intergalactic globular clusters the teams have detected are so far away (millions of light-years) that they just look like tiny points of light in a vast sea of blackness.

?Because they’re so far away these objects are very faint, almost a billion times fainter than the unaided human eye can see,? said Dr West. ?Detecting such faint objects pushes the limits of even what the Hubble Space Telescope can do.?

?By studying these intergalactic vagabonds in greater detail we hope to learn more about the numbers and types of galaxies that may have been destroyed so far during the life of the universe,? said Dr West. ?Some of these star clusters might also eventually be ?adopted? by other galaxies if they stray close enough to be captured by their gravity.?

The researchers are currently analyzing new Hubble Space Telescope images they recently obtained, and are planning to obtain more at the end of this year.

Original Source: University of Hawaii News Release

My Two Favorite Radio Programs

If you’re interested in science and discovery in general, I’d like to suggest two weekly, hour-long radio shows that you should tune into – through the Internet.

  • Quirks and Quarks – Every Canadian reader will know exactly what I’m talking about. This is a weekly radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Channel hosted by Bob McDonald. They have archives available online going back almost 10 years.
  • NPR Science Friday – Every Friday, NPR’s Talk of the Nation is taken over by Ira Flatow to discuss the latest happening in science. It’s a great show.

Both are well worth your time. Check them out.

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

New Camera Catches a Near Earth Object Already

Image credit: NASA

Even though it’s still in its initial commissioning trials, NASA’s Quasar Equatorial Survey (or Quest) camera system attached to the 1.2 metre Oschin telescope on Palomar Mountain has already bagged an asteroid. The 250-metre near-Earth object (NEO) 2003 NL7 was discovered on the evening of July 8 by the Quest system, and then later confirmed by several other observatories. Once Quest is fully operational, it should be 3 to 4 times better than the older equipment it replaced.

NASA astronomers in pursuit of near-Earth asteroids have already made a discovery with the newly installed Quasar Equatorial Survey, or ‘Quest,’ camera mounted in mid-April on Palomar Mountain’s 1.2-meter (48-inch) Oschin telescope.

“The Quest camera is still undergoing commissioning trials,” said Dr. Steven Pravdo, project manager for the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do some real science in the meantime. What we found was a near-Earth asteroid, estimated to be about 250 meters (820 feet) in size.”

The detection of the near-Earth object, 2003 NL7, occurred on the evening of July 8. It has been confirmed by follow-up measurements from three other observatories and subsequently certified by the official clearinghouse of the solar system’s smaller inhabitants, the Minor Planet Center. While 2003 NL7 has been labeled a near-Earth asteroid, it is considered non-hazardous, with a 2.97-year orbit of the Sun in which its closest approach to Earth’s orbit is about 25.1 million kilometers (15.6 million miles).

The Quest camera is being developed as a multi-purpose instrument by Yale and Indiana universities with Dr. Charles Baltay, chairman of Yale’s physics department, as the principal investigator. It is designed for use in detecting and characterizing quasars, near-Earth asteroids, trans-Neptunian objects, supernovas, and a large variety of other astrophysical phenomena, by scientists from Yale, JPL and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The complex camera consists of 112 electronic chips known as charged coupled devices (CCDs) arranged over the Oschin telescope’s focal plane. This gives the Quest camera 161-megapixel capability. By comparison, a good store-bought digital camera would probably be in the four-megapixel range.

“When Quest becomes operational, it will be a significant advancement for the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking team,” said Dr. Raymond Bambery, the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking Project’s principal investigator. “We expect the new camera to increase the efficiency of detection of near-Earth asteroids by some 3 to 4 times that of the camera it replaced. This will make a major contribution to NASA’s goal of discovering more than 90 percent of near-Earth objects that are greater that 1 kilometer (.62 mile) in diameter by 2008.”

The Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking System is managed by JPL for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of Caltech. More information on the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking Program is available at .

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

NASA Creates an Independent Safety Centre

Image credit: NASA

NASA announced the creation of an independent Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) at the agency’s Langley Research Center. The 250-person division will provide independent assessment and safety review for various NASA projects and missions. The office was a response to the Columbia disaster, ideally to prevent the kind of safety problems that were uncovered by the investigation team. The team leader has yet to be announced.

NASA today announced plans to create an independent Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to provide comprehensive examination of all NASA programs and projects. The center will provide a central location to coordinate and conduct robust engineering and safety assessment across the entire agency.

“Among the things we’ve learned during the investigation of the Columbia tragedy is the need to independently verify our engineering and safety standards. The new NASA Engineering and Safety center will have the capacity and authority to have direct operational influence on any agency mission,” said NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. “When it comes to safety and engineering analysis, we need to improve our ability to share technical information, practices and talent, and independently ensure we are in the best position to achieve mission success.”

The NESC is expected to draw on the talents of about 250 people throughout NASA and will report to former astronaut General Roy Bridges, Langley Center Director. Bryan O’Connor, also a former astronaut and Associate Administrator for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA Headquarters in Washington, will have policy responsibility for the organization. O’Connor’s task will be to assure the effective use of all agency assets and expertise to derive the independent assessments.

“As we move forward with our ‘Return to Flight’ efforts, the development and implementation of the NESC will help us focus on the future of our technical and safety imperatives,” said O’Connor. “We have a responsibility to make our programs as safe and as sound as possible. This project raises our commitment to unprecedented levels.”

Planned activities of the new organization include:
# Independent engineering assessment and testing to support critical NASA projects and programs;
# Engineering and safety review and evaluation through independent analysis, hazard and risk assessment, safety audit, and participation in mishap investigations;
# A central location for independent trend analysis utilizing state-of-the-art tools and techniques;
# A structure to support engineering collaboration for problem resolution;
# Central coordination of engineering and programmatic lessons learned, technical standards, and technical discipline expertise; and
# Independent inspection and validation of activities to ensure the constant maintenance of NASA safety standards.

“We need to go further than what we expect to see in the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB),” added Dr. Michael Greenfield, Associate Deputy Administrator for Technical Programs at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Greenfield co-chairs the agency’s Return to Flight Team with Associate Administrator for Space Flight William F. Readdy. “We need to look beyond the CAIB and provide a centralized clearinghouse that provides NASA with authoritative and consolidated analysis and assessment for all of the agency’s high-risk endeavors,” Greenfield observed.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Supernovae Produce Dust More Efficiently Than Previously Thought

Image credit: Hubble

A new article published in the journal Nature helps settle a long-time mystery about some of the earliest solid particles in the Universe. By measuring supernova remnant Cassiopeia A with the very precise SCUBA telescope, astronomers were able to detect enormous quantities of cosmic dust below -257 degrees Celsius. Hot dust had been found in the past, but the colder dust was mostly invisible – until now. It appears that supernovae are extremely efficient at producing the dust that later forms planets, rocks, and people.

We have just discovered that some supernovae have bad habits – they belch out huge quantities of smoke, known as cosmic dust. This solves a long-standing mystery over the origin of cosmic dust and suggests that supernovae, which are exploding stars, were responsible for producing the first ever solid particles in the Universe.

The Prime Suspects
Supernovae are the violent explosions of stars occurring at the end of their lives. They occur around every 50 years or so in our Galaxy and there are two main types – Type Ia and II. Type II are the explosions of very massive stars with mass greater than 8 times the mass of the Sun (Msun). These stars are ‘live fast – die young’ using up their hydrogen and helium fuel in only a few million years, thousands of times faster than the Sun burns it’s fuel. When the fuel supply is exhausted the star must burn heavier and heavier elements until, finally, when it can do no more to keep itself alive the inner parts of the star collapse to form a neutron star or Black Hole, and the outer parts are flung off in the cataclysm we call a supernova. The enormous explosion sweeps up the surrounding gas into a shell which shines at X-ray, optical and radio wavelengths, and sends shock waves through the galaxy. Supernovae release more energy in a single instant than the Sun will produce in its whole life-time. If the nearest massive star, Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion, were to go supernova it would (for a short time) be brighter than the full moon.

The Cosmic Smoke-Screen
Interstellar dust consists of tiny particles of solid material floating around in the space between the stars – with sizes typically that of cigarette smoke. It is not the same as the dust we clean up in our houses, and in fact the Earth is a giant lump of cosmic dust! It is responsible for blocking about half of all the light emitted from stars and galaxies and profoundly affects our view of the Universe. This ‘dusty’ cloud has a silver lining though, as the astronomers can `see’ the dust radiating the stolen starlight using special cameras designed to work at longer wavelengths, in the Infra-Red (IR: 10 – 100 microns) and Submillimeter (sub-mm: 0.3 – 1mm) part of the electromagnetic spectrum. One such camera is called SCUBA and it is located on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. SCUBA is a UK-built instrument which detects light-waves at sub-mm wavelengths and is able to see dust right out to where the furthest stars and galaxies are found.

Dusty Beginnings
Recent observations with SCUBA have shown that a huge amount of dust exists in galaxies and quasars when the Universe was only 1/10th of its present age, long before the Earth and solar system had formed. The presence of all this dust in the distant Universe has a great impact on what astronomers are able to see with their giant optical telescopes, as it limits the amount of starlight which can escape from a distant galaxy and be seen on Earth.

That there were so many solid particles in Universe at such an early time was a great surprise to astronomers as they had believed that dust was mainly formed in cool winds from red giant stars near the end of their lives. Since it takes a long time for star to reach this stage in its evolution (the Sun will take around 9 billion years) there has simply not been enough time for so much dust to have been made in this way.

‘Dust has been swept under the cosmic carpet – for years astronomers have treated it as a nuisance because of the way it hides the light from the stars. But then we found that there is dust right at the edge of the Universe, in the earliest stars and galaxies, and we realised that we were ignorant of even its basic origin’ explained Dr Dunne.

Supernovae also make large amounts of heavy elements, such as carbon and oxygen, and throw them out into interstellar space. These are the elements which make up our bodies and, since they are also the elements which make up dust grains, supernovae have long been a prime suspect in the mystery of the origin of cosmic dust. As it takes only a few million years for the most massive stars to reach the end of lives and explode as supernovae, they could make dust quickly enough to explain what is seen in the early Universe. However, until this team’s work, only tiny amounts of dust had ever been found in supernovae – leaving astronomers with a smoking gun but no ‘smoke’

Haley Morgan, a PhD student at Cardiff said ‘If supernovae were efficient dust ‘factories’ they would each be producing more than the mass of the Sun in dust.’

‘As massive stars evolve to become supernovae in the blink of an eye by astronomical standards, they could easily explain why the early Universe appears so dusty.’ added Dr Rob Ivison of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

Supernova Sleuths
The team from Cardiff and Edinburgh used SCUBA to look for the emission from dust in the remains of a recent supernova. Cassiopeia A is the remnant of a supernova which happened around 320 years ago. It is located in the constellation Cassiopeia, 11,000 light years from Earth and is about 10 light years across. Cas A is the brightest radio source in the sky so it is well studied at many wavelengths from the optical to X-rays. The images below show Cas A in the X-rays, optical, infra-red and radio. The X-rays follow the really hot gas (10 million degrees Kelvin), and the other wavelengths trace material at: 10 thousand degrees (optical), hot dust at 100 K (IR) and high energy electrons (radio).

Although astronomers had been searching for dust in supernova remnants for decades, they had used instruments which could only detect dust that was quite warm, such as that in the ISO infra-red image above. SCUBA has the advantage here because it is able to see dust which is very cold and this is because it works at longer sub-mm wavelengths.

‘In the same way that you can only see an iron poker glowing when it’s been in a fire, you can only see dust with infra-red cameras when it is warmer than about 25 Kelvin, but SCUBA can see it when it’s colder too’ explained Dr Steve Eales, Reader in Astrophysics at Cardiff University.

Cold Hard Evidence
SCUBA found a large amount of dust in the Cas A remnant, 1-4 times more than the mass of the Sun ! This is over 1,000 times more than had been seen before. This means that Cas A was very efficient at creating dust from the elements available. The temperature of the dust is very low, only 18 Kelvin (-257 degrees Celsius), and this is the reason that it had never been seen before. Below are the two sub-mm images of Cas A at 850 and 450 microns taken with SCUBA. You can see that the left image looks a little like the radio one above, and this is because the high energy electrons which make the radio image also emit some of their energy at slightly shorter wavelengths – contaminating the sub mm emission at 850microns. The middle image is at 450 microns where the contamination is much lower, and so most of this emission is from cold dust. If we remove the contamination we get a different picture (right). All the dust is seen in the bottom half of the remnant and the two sub-mm images now look much more similar!
850 microns without radio contamination

‘The puzzle is how the dust can remain so cold when we know that there is gas at over a million degrees present from the X-ray radiation it gives off.’ commented Prof. Mike Edmunds, head of the School of Physics & Astronomy in Cardiff.

The dust also has different properties to the ‘everyday’ kind of dust in the Milky Way and other galaxies – it is better at ‘shining’ in the sub-mm, maybe because it is still very young and relatively pristine. If all supernovae were this efficient at making dust they would be the biggest dust ‘factories’ in the Galaxy. Smoking supernovae provide a solution to the mystery of the huge amounts of dust seen in the early Universe.

‘These observations give us a tantalising glimpse of how the first solid particles in the Universe were created’ said Haley Morgan.

Original Source: Cardiff University News Release

Image of a Cosmic Mirage

Image credit: ESO

Astronomers from the European Southern Observatory have found a very rare “Einstein ring” gravitational lens, where the light from a distant quasar is warped and magnified by the gravity of a closer galaxy. The two objects are so closely aligned that the image of the quasar forms a ring around the galaxy from our vantage point here on Earth. With careful measurements, the team was able to determine that the quasar is 6.3 billion light-years away, and the galaxy is only 3.5 billion light-years away, making it the closest gravitational lens ever discovered.

Using the ESO 3.6-m telescope at La Silla (Chile), an international team of astronomers [1] has discovered a complex cosmic mirage in the southern constellation Crater (The Cup). This “gravitational lens” system consists of (at least) four images of the same quasar as well as a ring-shaped image of the galaxy in which the quasar resides – known as an “Einstein ring”. The more nearby lensing galaxy that causes this intriguing optical illusion is also well visible.

The team obtained spectra of these objects with the new EMMI camera mounted on the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT), also at the La Silla observatory. They find that the lensed quasar [2] is located at a distance of 6,300 million light-years (its “redshift” is z = 0.66 [3]) while the lensing elliptical galaxy is rougly halfway between the quasar and us, at a distance of 3,500 million light-years (z = 0.3).

The system has been designated RXS J1131-1231 – it is the closest gravitationally lensed quasar discovered so far.

Cosmic mirages
The physical principle behind a “gravitational lens” (also known as a “cosmic mirage”) has been known since 1916 as a consequence of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. The gravitational field of a massive object curves the local geometry of the Universe, so light rays passing close to the object are bent (like a “straight line” on the surface of the Earth is necessarily curved because of the curvature of the Earth’s surface).

This effect was first observed by astronomers in 1919 during a total solar eclipse. Accurate positional measurements of stars seen in the dark sky near the eclipsed Sun indicated an apparent displacement in the direction opposite to the Sun, about as much as predicted by Einstein’s theory. The effect is due to the gravitational attraction of the stellar photons when they pass near the Sun on their way to us. This was a direct confirmation of an entirely new phenomenon and it represented a milestone in physics.

In the 1930’s, astronomer Fritz Zwicky (1898 – 1974), of Swiss nationality and working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, realised that the same effect may also happen far out in space where galaxies and large galaxy clusters may be sufficiently compact and massive to bend the light from even more distant objects. However, it was only five decades later, in 1979, that his ideas were observationally confirmed when the first example of a cosmic mirage was discovered (as two images of the same distant quasar).

Cosmic mirages are generally seen as multiple images of a single quasar [2], lensed by a galaxy located between the quasar and us. The number and the shape of the images of the quasar depends on the relative positions of the quasar, the lensing galaxy and us. Moreover, if the alignment were perfect, we would also see a ring-shaped image around the lensing object. Such “Einstein rings” are very rare, though, and have only been observed in a very few cases.

Another particular interest of the gravitational lensing effect is that it may not only result in double or multiple images of the same object, but also that the brightness of these images increase significantly, just as it happens with an ordinary optical lens. Distant galaxies and galaxy clusters may thereby act as “natural telescopes” which allow us to observe more distant objects that would otherwise have been too faint to be detected with currently available astronomical telescopes.

Image sharpening techniques resolve the cosmic mirage better
A new gravitational lens, designated RXS J1131-1231, was serendipitously discovered in May 2002 by Dominique Sluse, then a PhD student at ESO in Chile, while inspecting quasar images taken with the ESO 3.6-m telescope at the La Silla Observatory. The discovery of this system profited from the good observational conditions prevailing at the time of the observations. From a simple visual inspection of these images, Sluse provisionally concluded that the system had four star-like (the lensed quasar images) and one diffuse (the lensing galaxy) component.

Because of the very small separation between the components, of the order of one arcsecond or less, and the unavoidable “blurring” effect caused by turbulence in the terrestrial atmosphere (“seeing”), the astronomers used sophisticated image-sharpening software to produce higher-resolution images on which precise brightness and positional measurements could then be performed (see also ESO PR 09/97). This so-called “deconvolution” technique makes it possible to visualize this complex system much better and, in particular, to confirm and render more conspicuous the associated Einstein ring, cf. PR Photo 20a/03.

Identification of the source and of the lens
The team of astronomers [1] then used the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at La Silla to obtain spectra of the individual image components of this lensing system. This is imperative because, like human fingerprints, the spectra allow unambiguous identification of the observed objects.

Nevertheless, this is not an easy task because the different images of the cosmic mirage are located very close to each other in the sky and the best possible conditions are needed to obtain clean and well separated spectra. However, the excellent optical quality of the NTT combined with reasonably good seeing conditions (about 0.7 arcsecond) enabled the astronomers to detect the “spectral fingerprints” of both the source and the object acting as a lens, cf. ESO PR Photo 20b/03.

The evaluation of the spectra showed that the background source is a quasar with a redshift of z = 0.66 [3], corresponding to a distance of about 6,300 million light-years. The light from this quasar is lensed by a massive elliptical galaxy with a redshift z=0.3, i.e. at a distance of 3,500 million light-years or about halfway between the quasar and us. It is the nearest gravitationally lensed quasar known to date.

Because of the specific geometry of the lens and the position of the lensing galaxy, it is possible to show that the light from the extended galaxy in which the quasar is located should also be lensed and become visible as a ring-shaped image. That this is indeed the case is demonstrated by PR Photo 20a/03 which clearly shows the presence of such an “Einstein ring”, surrounding the image of the more nearby lensing galaxy.

Micro lensing within macro lensing ?
The particular configuration of the individual lensed images observed in this system has enabled the astronomers to produce a detailed model of the system. From this, they can then make predictions about the relative brightness of the various lensed images.

Somewhat unexpectedly, they found that the predicted brightnesses of the three brightest star-like images of the quasar are not in agreement with the observed ones – one of them turns out to be one magnitude (that is, a factor of 2.5) brighter than expected. This prediction does not call into question General Relativity but suggests that another effect is at work in this system.

The hypothesis advanced by the team is that one of the images is subject to “microlensing”. This effect is of the same nature as the cosmic mirage – multiple amplified images of the object are formed – but in this case, additional light-ray deflection is caused by a single star (or several stars) within the lensing galaxy. The result is that there are additional (unresolved) images of the quasar within one of the macro-lensed images.

The outcome is an “over-amplification” of this particular image. Whether this is really so will soon be tested by means of new observations of this gravitational lens system with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal (Chile) and also with the Very Large Array (VLA) radio observatory in New Mexico (USA).

Until now, 62 multiple-imaged quasars have been discovered, in most cases showing 2 or 4 images of the same quasar. The presence of elongated images of the quasar and, in particular, of ring-like images is often observed at radio wavelengths. However, this remains a rare phenomenon in the optical domain – only four such systems have been imaged by optical/infrared telecopes until now.

The complex and comparatively bright system RXS J1131-1231 now discovered is a unique astrophysical laboratory. Its rare characteristics (e.g., brightness, presence of a ring-shaped image, small redshift, X-ray and radio emission, visible lens, …) will now enable the astronomers to study the properties of the lensing galaxy, including its stellar content, structure and mass distribution in great detail, and to probe the source morphology. These studies will use new observations which are currently being obtained with the VLT at Paranal, with the VLA radio interferometer in New Mexico and with the Hubble Space Telescope.
More information

The research described in this press release is presented in a Letter to the Editor, soon to appear in the European professional journal Astronomy & Astrophysics (“A quadruply imaged quasar with an optical Einstein ring candidate : 1RXS J113155.4-123155”, by Dominique Sluse et al.).

More information on gravitational lensing and on this research group can also be found at the URL :

[1]: The team consists of Dominique Sluse, Damien Hutsem?kers, and Thodori Nakos (ESO and Institut d’Astrophysique et de G?ophysique de l’Universit? de Li?ge – IAGL), Jean-Fran?ois Claeskens, Fr?d?ric Courbin, Christophe Jean, and Jean Surdej (IAGL), Malvina Billeres (ESO), and Sergiy Khmil (Astronomical Observatory of Shevchentko University).

[2]: Quasars are particularly active galaxies, the centres of which emit prodigious amounts of energy and energetic particles. It is believed that they harbour a massive black hole at their centre and that the energy is produced when surrounding matter falls into this black hole. This type of object was first discovered in 1963 by the Dutch-American astronomer Maarten Schmidt at the Palomar Observatory (California, USA) and the name refers to their “star-like” appearance on the images obtained at that time.

[3]: In astronomy, the “redshift” denotes the fraction by which the lines in the spectrum of an object are shifted towards longer wavelengths. Since the redshift of a cosmological object increases with distance, the observed redshift of a remote galaxy also provides an estimate of its distance.

Original Source: ESO News Release

Dust Galaxies Discovered

Image credit: ANU

An Australian astronomer has discovered 20 galaxies that contain mostly gas, rather than stars – revising the definition of “galaxy”. These galaxies are giant discs of gas, tens of thousands of light-years across, and contain the mass of billions of sun, but for some reason their hydrogen hasn’t coalesced into stars like regular galaxies. The discovery of these gas galaxies will help astronomers better understand what it takes for a galaxy to form.

Any dictionary will tell you that a galaxy is a vast collection of stars, floating deep in space. But this definition may need revision following new research by an ANU graduate student who has discovered galaxies that consist mostly of gas, rather than stars.

In research to be presented to the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Sydney today, Brad Warren will reveal his discovery of twenty gassy galaxies, which have very few stars.

?When you look for gas [in these galaxies] the signal just booms in,? Mr Warren said. ?But when you look for stars, all you see is a barely recognisable smudge.?

The galaxies are vast discs of hydrogen, tens of thousands of light years across, weighing more than a billion suns, with a tiny number of barely visible stars in their centre.

For an unknown reason, they have not transformed their rich source of hydrogen gas into masses of stars like their brilliant, twinkling counterparts.

?Hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe and it forms the building blocks for stars,? Mr Warren said.

?Most galaxies, like our own Milky Way, have transformed most of their gas into stars but the galaxies we have discovered have held back and we are not sure why.

?Discovering this missing link will give us important insights into how, when and why galaxies, such as our own, formed.?

Although the existence of gassy galaxies has been documented in the past, it is the first time they have been discovered with such prominent discrepancies between the amount of hydrogen gas and stars.

?This research throws up a further challenge in the ongoing quest to discover the secrets of the Universe,? Mr Warren said.

Mr Warren, from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, collaborated with fellow ANU researcher, Dr Helmut Jerjen, and Dr Baerbel Koribalski, from CSIRO?s Australia Telescope National facility.

The team used three of Australia?s most powerful telescopes for their research – the Parkes Radio Telescope; the Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri and the University?s 2.3 metre telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, Coonabarabran.

Original Source: ANU News Release

Galaxies and Their Black Holes Grow Together

Image credit: SDSS

After surveying 120,000 nearby galaxies as part of the Sloan Digital Survey, a team of astronomers have found evidence that the growth of supermassive black holes at the heart of most galaxies is closely matched to the rate of new star formation. The growth rate of the black holes was determined by measuring the amount of material being consumed at the heart of the galaxy. The actual nature of this relationship is still unknown, but future surveys will help to uncover more details.

By studying more than 120,000 nearby galaxies observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a team of astronomers from Germany and the United States has been able to show that the growth of supermassive black holes is closely linked with the birth of new stars in their host galaxies.

This discovery — a first direct glimpse of the connection between galaxy formation and black hole formation — was announced July 14 at the International Astronomical Union’s Maps of the Cosmos Symposium in Sydney, Australia. The paper, The Host Galaxies of the Active galactic nuclei, was submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

One of the most remarkable discoveries of recent years has been the demonstration that every large galaxy harbors, at its core, a black hole weighing many million times as much as the Sun, explained research team leader Dr. Guinevere Kauffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

Furthermore, Kauffmann said the mass of this central black hole is very closely related to the properties of the galaxy in which it is embedded. This implies that the formation of the black hole is intimately entwined with that of its galaxy, but the nature of this link remains obscure.

Does the black hole control the growth of its host, or does the galaxy limit the growth of its central black hole? Do black holes and galaxy growth form some kind of a symbiotic relationship? These questions can only be answered by careful study of the growth process, she said.

Co-team leader Dr. Timothy Heckman of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., explained that as black holes grow they release prodigious amounts of energy, in extreme cases outshining their host galaxy, to produce a bright quasar. The main epoch of quasar activity, and perhaps of black hole growth, occurred when the Universe was between a third and a tenth of its present age of 14 billion years.

Heckman said large galaxies are thought to have formed through the collapse and merging of smaller systems during this same time period. Black hole growth is still detectable in galaxy nuclei today, however, and stars still form in these inner regions. “Since nearby galaxies can be studied much more easily than their distant and more spectacular ancestors, it is no surprise that the link between black hole growth and galaxy growth first became apparent in our own backyard,” he said. The light from these nearby galaxies studied took less than one billion years to reach us (compared to almost ten billion years for most quasars). These are close enough for researchers us to study in some detail but long after the rapid building process for both black holes and galaxies has subsided to a lower level.

By searching for tell tale features in the spectra of more than 120,000 galaxies, the SDSS team was able to show that more than 20,000 of them contain black holes that are currently growing. The growth rate of the black hole is inferred from the strength of characteristic emission lines known to be correlated with how much material is falling onto the black hole.

These growing black holes are located almost exclusively in galaxies more massive than the Milky Way. Massive galaxies where black hole growth is currently weak or absent typically have the structure and star content of old elliptical galaxies, which finished making stars long ago, researchers explained. Galaxies where black hole growth is currently strong have similar mass and structure, but show evidence for substantial recent star formation.

In its conclusion, the team said that as the rate of black hole growth increases, so does the amount of star formation within the past 100 million years, recent in astronomical terms. In the most extreme objects the black hole is growing as fast as in bright quasars and the galaxy is dominated by young stars.

They say that this probably means that the black hole is growing by swallowing some of the same supply of relatively cold and dense gas from which stars are forming elsewhere in the galaxy. The stellar mass of these galaxies and the masses of their central black holes are clearly growing together. Like chicken and egg, neither black hole nor galaxy can be said to come first; each is necessary for the other.

Original Source: SDSS News Release