The Dark Energy Survey Begins to Reveal Previously Unknown Trans-Neptunian Objects

Sometimes when you stare at something long enough, you begin to see things. This is not the case with optical sensors and telescopes. Sure, there is noise from electronics, but it’s random and traceable. Stargazing with a telescope and camera is ideal for staring at the same patches of real estate for very long and repeated periods. This is the method used by the Dark Energy Survey (DES), and with less than one percent of the target area surveyed, astronomers are already discovering previously unknown objects in the outer Solar System.

The Dark Energy Survey is a five year collaborative effort that is observing Supernovae to better understand the structures and expansion of the universe. But in the meantime, transient objects much nearer to home are passing through the fields of view. Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), small icy worlds beyond the planet Neptune, are being discovered. A new scientific paper, released as part of this year’s American Astronomical Society gathering in Seattle, Washington, discusses these newly discovered TNOs. The lead authors are two undergraduate students from Carleton College of Northfield, Minnesota, participating in a University of Michigan program.

The Palomar Sky Survey (POSS-1, POSS-2), the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and every other sky survey have mapped not just the static, nearly unchanging night sky, but also transient events such as passing asteroids, comets, or novae events. The Dark Energy Survey is looking at the night sky for structures and expansion of the Universe. As part of the five year survey, DES is observing ten select 3 square degree fields for Type 1a supernovae on a weekly basis. As the survey proceeds, they are getting more than anticipated. The survey is revealing more trans-Neptunian objects. Once again, deep sky surveys are revealing more about our local environment – objects in the farther reaches of our Solar System.

DES is an optical imaging survey in search of Supernovae that can be used as weather vanes to measure the expansion of the universe. This expansion is dependent on the interaction of matter and the more elusive exotic materials of our Universe – Dark Energy and Dark Matter. The five year survey is necessary to achieve a level of temporal detail and a sufficient number of supernovae events from which to draw conclusions.

In the mean time, the young researchers of Carleton College – Ross Jennings and Zhilu Zhang – are discovering the transients inside our Solar System. Led by Professor David Gerdes of the University of Michigan, the researchers started with a list of nearly 100,000 observations of individual transients. Differencing software and trajectory analysis helped identify those objects that were trans-Neptunian rather than asteroids of the inner Solar System.

While asteroids residing in the inner solar system will pass quickly through such small fields, trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) orbit the Sun much more slowly. For example, Pluto, at an approximate distance of 40 A.U. from the Sun, along with the object Eris, presently the largest of the TNOs, has an apparent motion of about 27 arc seconds per day – although for a half year, the Earth’s orbital motion slows and retrogrades Pluto’s apparent motion. The 27 arc seconds is approximately 1/60th the width of a full Moon. So, from one night to the next, TNOs can travel as much as 100 pixels across the field of view of the DES survey detectors since each pixel has a width of 0.27 arc seconds.

Composite Dark Energy Camera image of one of the sky regions that the collaboration will use to study supernovae, exploding stars that will help uncover the nature of dark energy. The outlines of each of the 62 charge-coupled devices can be seen. This picture spans 2 degrees across on the sky and contains 520 megapixels. (Credit: Fermilab)
Composite Dark Energy Camera image of one of the sky regions that the collaboration will use to study supernovae, exploding stars that will help uncover the nature of dark energy. The outlines of each of the 62 charge-coupled devices can be seen. This picture spans 2 degrees across on the sky and contains 520 megapixels. (Credit: Fermilab)

The scientific sensor array, DECam, is located at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile utilizing the 4-meter (13 feet) diameter Victor M. Blanco Telescope. It is an array of 62 2048×4096 pixel back-illuminated CCDs totaling 520 megapixels, and altogether the camera weighs 20 tons.

A simple plot of the orbit of one of sixteen TNOs discovered by DES observatrions. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)
A simple plot of the orbit of one of sixteen TNOs discovered by DES observations. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)

With a little over 2 years of observations, the young astronomers stated, “Our analysis revealed sixteen previously unknown outer solar system objects, including one Neptune Trojan, several objects in mean motion resonances with Neptune, and a distant scattered disk object whose 1200-year orbital period is among the 50 longest known.”

Object 2013 TV158 is one of the objects discovered by Carleton College and University of Michigan team. Observed more than a dozen times over 10 months, the animated gif shows two image frames from August, 2014 taken two hours apart. 2013 TV158 takes 1200 years to orbit the Sun and is likely a few hundred kilometers across (about the size of the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)
Object 2013 TV158 is one of the objects discovered by the Carleton College and University of Michigan team. Observed more than a dozen times over 10 months, the animated gif shows two image frames from August 2014 taken two hours apart. 2013 TV158 takes 1200 years to orbit the Sun and is likely a few hundred kilometers across – about the size of the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)

“So far we’ve examined less than one percent of the area that DES will eventually cover,” says Dr. Gerdes. “No other survey has searched for TNOs with this combination of area and depth. We could discover something really unusual.”

Illustration of colour distribution of the trans-Neptunian objects. The horizontal axis represents the difference in intensity between visual (green & yellow) and blue of the object while the vertical is the difference between visual and red. The distribution indicates how TNOs share a common origin and physical makeup as well as common weathering in space. Yellow objects serve as reference: Neptune's moon Triton, Saturn's moon Phoebe, centaur Pholus, and the planet Mars. The objects color represents the hue of the object. The size of the objects are relative where the larger objects are more accurate estimates and smaller objects are simply based on absolute magnitude. (Credit: Wikimedia, Eurocommuter)
Illustration of color distribution of the trans-Neptunian objects. The horizontal axis represents the difference in intensity between visual (green & yellow) and blue of the object, while the vertical axis is the difference between visual and red. The distribution indicates how TNOs share a common origin and physical makeup, as well as common weathering in space. Yellow objects serve as reference: Neptune’s moon Triton, Saturn’s moon Phoebe, centaur Pholus, and the planet Mars. The object’s color represents the hue of the object. The size of the objects are relative – the larger objects are more accurate estimates, while smaller objects are simply based on absolute magnitude. (Credit: Wikimedia, Eurocommuter)

What does it all mean? It is further confirmation that the outer Solar System is chock-full of rocky-icy small bodies. There are other examples of recent discoveries, such as the search for a TNO for the New Horizons mission. As New Horizons has been approaching Pluto, the team turned to the Hubble space telescope to find a TNO to flyby after the dwarf planet. Hubble made short shrift of the work, finding three that the probe could reach. However, the demand for Hubble time does not allow long term searches for TNOs. A survey such as DES will serve to uncover many thousands of more objects in the outer Solar System. As Dr. Michael Brown of Caltech has stated, there is a fair likelihood that a Mars or Earth-sized object will be discovered beyond Neptune in the Oort Cloud.

References:
Observation of new trans-Neptunian Objects in the Dark Energy Survey Supernova Fields
Undergraduate Researchers Discover New Trans-Neptunian Objects
Dark Sky Detectives

For more details on the Dark Energy Survey: DES Website

‘Mega-Earth’ And Doomed Planets Top Today’s Exoplanet Finds

Can you imagine a world that is 17 times as massive as Earth, but still rocky? Or two planets that are doomed to be swallowed up by their parent star in just a blink of astronomical time?

While these scenarios sound like science fiction, these are real-life finds released today (June 2) at the American Astronomical Association meeting in Boston.

Here’s a rundown of the finds about these planets in our ever-more-amazing universe.

‘Mega-Earth’ Kepler-10c

Spinning around its star every 45 days is Kepler-10c, which is about 2.3 times as large as Earth but a heavyweight, at 17 times more massive. The planet was discovered by the prolific NASA Kepler space telescope (which was sidelined after a reaction wheel failed last year, but now has been tasked with a new planet-hunting mandate.)

While initially astronomers thought Kepler-10c was a “mini-Neptune”, or a world that is similar to that planet in our solar system, its mass measured by the HARPS-North instrument on the Galileo National Telescope showed it was a rocky world. What’s more, astronomers believe the planet did not “let go” of any atmosphere over time, which implies the planet’s past is similar to what it was today.

Here’s the other neat thing: astronomers found that the system was 11 billion years old, at a time when the universe was young (it was formed 13.7 billion years ago) and the elements needed to make rocky planets were scarce. This implies that rocky planets could have formed earlier than previously thought.

“I was wrong that old stars do not have rocky planets, which has consequences about the Fermi Paradox,” the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’s (CfA) Dimitar Sasselov said in a webcast press conference today (June 2).  The Fermi Paradox, simply put, refers to the question of why we can’t see civilizations since they are assumed to have spread quite a ways since the universe was formed.

Artist's impression of Kepler-56b being torn apart by its star about 130 million years from today. Its sibling planet, Kepler-56c, will last until 155 million years from now. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
Artist’s impression of Kepler-56b being torn apart by its star about 130 million years from today. Its sibling planet, Kepler-56c, will last until 155 million years from now. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

‘We’re doomed!’ Kepler-56b and Kepler-56c

If there was anybody in the vicinity of these two planets, you’d want to move out of the way fairly quickly — at least when talking about astronomical time. Both of these planets, whose orbits are within the equivalent distance of Mercury to the sun, are expected to be swallowed up by their star in 130 million years (for Kepler-56b) and 155 million years (Kepler-56c). It’s the first time two doomed planets have been found in a single system.

“Possibly the core of planet will be left behind and you [will] see this dead corpse floating behind in the universe,” said CfA’s Gongjie Li in the press conference.

There are two factors behind this: the size of the star will enlarge as it gets older (which is typical among stars) and the tidal forces between the planets and their star will also cause them to slow down in their orbits and rip apart. Interestingly enough, another gas giant planet called Kepler-56d will remain safe from most of the chaos since its orbit is equivalent to the asteroid belt in our own solar system.

“Looking at this system is like foreseeing our own solar system,” added Li, referring to the fact that in another five billion years or so our sun will enlarge and swallow Mercury and Venus at the least, boiling off all the oceans on our planet and killing anything left.

Artist's conception of an exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
Artist’s conception of an exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Windy City: Why living near a red dwarf might be a bad idea

One fertile ground for exoplanet discoveries — particularly when looking for planets about Earth’s size in the habitable zone — is red dwarfs, because they are smaller and therefore have less light to obscure any rocky worlds orbiting nearby. A new study warns that they could be less friendly to life than previously believed.

CfA’s Ofer Cohen said that red dwarfs can have intense stellar winds, when looking at the model of a known red dwarf with three planets around it: KOI 1422.02, KOI 2626.01, KOI 584.01. Even a magnetic field the size of Earth would not be able to protect the planet from being stripped of its atmosphere assuming a certain intensity of stellar flares.

A member of the audience pointed out that the red dwarf star under study likely has stronger winds than 95% of all red dwarfs, however. Cohen acknowledged that, but added “the main effect is not the stellar activity, but these giants are close to the star.” All the same, this could require a more nuanced understanding of the habitable zone around these stars, he added.

Artist's impression of exoplanets. Credit: J. Jauch
Artist’s impression of exoplanets. Credit: J. Jauch

Heavy metal: Figuring out how much planets have

In astronomical terms, any elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are considered to be “metallic”. Past research found that metal-rich stars tend to have hot Jupiter exoplanets, while the smaller planets have a larger span of metal possibilities.

A team led by CfA’s Lars Buchhave surveyed more than 400 stars with 600 exoplanets, and found that planets smaller than 1.7 times the size of Earth are more likely to be rocky, while those than are 3.9 times the size of Earth or larger are likely gassy.

In between is a zone called “gas dwarfs”, which are planets 1.7 and 3.9 times the size of Earth that likely have hydrogen and helium atmospheres blanketing their surface.

Also intriguing: the researchers discovered that planets far away from their stars can get larger before picking up a lot of gas and becoming a “gas dwarf”, presumably because there isn’t as much gas material out there.

The team also discovered that stars with smaller, Earth-like worlds metallicities like our sun, while stars with “gas dwarfs” have more metals, and stars with gas giants have even more metals. But bear in mind these are for planets close to their host star, which are easiest for Kepler to find. Buchhave plans to do work for planets further away.

The papers for these findings are on arVix: Kepler 10b, habitable planets orbiting M-dwarfs, exoplanets around metal-rich stars.

Weekly Space Hangout – January 10, 2014: Wake Up, Rosetta! & Top Stories from AAS

Host: Fraser Cain
Guests: David Dickinson, Amy Shira Teitel, Scott Lewis, Brian Koberlein, special guest Ruth McAvinia from the ESA

This week’s stories:
Ruth:
Wake up, Rosetta!
Facebook link to contest

David:
AAS-Gamma Ray Gravitational Lens
AAS-Death by Black Hole
Antares Launch
Remote Deployment of Cubesats
Venus at Inferior Conjunction

Scott:
Learning tools for visually impaired:
More information on the 3-D Hubble images can be found here
Here’s the press release for the iBook being released
Frontier Fields

Brian:
New Triple Star System

Amy:
ISS Life extension

Fraser:
Space Ship 2’s first Supersonic Flight

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

Astronomers Witness a Web of Dark Matter

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We can’t see it, we can’t feel it, we can’t even interact with it… but dark matter may very well be one of the most fundamental physical components of our Universe. The sheer quantity of the stuff – whatever it is – is what physicists have suspected helps gives galaxies their mass, structure, and motion, and provides the “glue” that connects clusters of galaxies together in vast networks of cosmic webs.

Now, for the first time, this dark matter web has been directly observed.

An international team of astronomers, led by Dr. Catherine Heymans of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Associate Professor Ludovic Van Waerbeke of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, used data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Legacy Survey to map images of about 10 million galaxies and study how their light was bent by gravitational lensing caused by intervening dark matter.

Inside the dome of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. (CFHT)

The images were gathered over a period of five years using CFHT’s 1×1-degree-field, 340-megapixel MegaCam. The galaxies observed in the survey are up to 6 billion light-years away… meaning their observed light was emitted when the Universe was only a little over half its present age.

The amount of distortion of the galaxies’ light provided the team with a visual map of a dark matter “web” spanning a billion light-years across.

“It is fascinating to be able to ‘see’ the dark matter using space-time distortion,” said Van Waerbeke. “It gives us privileged access to this mysterious mass in the Universe which cannot be observed otherwise. Knowing how dark matter is distributed is the very first step towards understanding its nature and how it fits within our current knowledge of physics.”

This is one giant leap toward unraveling the mystery of this massive-yet-invisible substance that pervades the Universe.

The densest regions of the dark matter cosmic web host massive clusters of galaxies. Credit: Van Waerbeke, Heymans, and CFHTLens collaboration.

“We hope that by mapping more dark matter than has been studied before, we are a step closer to understanding this material and its relationship with the galaxies in our Universe,” Dr. Heymans said.

The results were presented today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. Read the release here.

Want Astronomy Apps? There’s a Catalog for That

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With the plethora of mobile apps now available for astronomy applications, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Thanks to astronomer Andy Fraknoi and the American Astronomical Society there’s now a catalog for that. “This catalog is a first attempt to make a list of those of particular interest to astronomy educators,” wrote Fraknoi.

The catalog, published by the Astronomy Education Review, includes a short description and reviews of some — but not all — the apps to help people distinguish which app will best cover their needs. However, “the number of apps is fast outpacing the ability of reviewers to keep up,” Fraknoi said, adding that suggestions and additions for this catalog are most welcome.

Click here to access the app catalog.

Hubble Finds “Oddball” Stars in Milky Way Hub

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to peer deep into the central bulge of our galaxy have found a population of rare and unusual stars. Dubbed “blue stragglers”, these stars seem to defy the aging process, appearing to be much younger than they should be considering where they are located. Previously known to exist within ancient globular clusters, blue stragglers have never been seen inside our galaxy’s core – until now.

The stars were discovered following a seven-day survey in 2006 called SWEEPS – the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search – that used Hubble to search a section of the central portion of our Milky Way galaxy, looking for the presence of Jupiter-sized planets transiting their host stars. During the search, which examined 180,000 stars, Hubble spotted 42 blue stragglers.

Of the 42 it’s estimated that 18 to 37 of them are genuine.

What makes blue stragglers such an unusual find? For one thing, stars in the galactic hub should appear much older and cooler… aging Sun-like stars and old red dwarfs. Scientists believe that the central bulge of the Milky Way stopped making new stars billions of years ago. So what’s with these hot, blue, youthful-looking “oddballs”? The answer may lie in their formation.

Artist's concept of a blue straggler pair. NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

A blue straggler may start out as a smaller member of a binary pair of stars. Over time the larger star ages and gets even bigger, feeding material onto the smaller one. This fuels fusion in the smaller star which then grows hotter, making it shine brighter and bluer – thus appearing similar to a young star.

However they were formed, just finding the blue stragglers was no simple task. The stars’ orbits around the galactic core had to be determined through a confusing mix of foreground stars within a very small observation area. The region of the sky Hubble studied was no larger than the width of a fingernail held at arm’s length! Still, within that small area Hubble could see over 250,000 stars. Incredible.

“Only the superb image quality and stability of Hubble allowed us to make this measurement in such a crowded field.”

– Lead author Will Clarkson, Indiana University in Bloomington and the University of California in Los Angeles

The discovery of these rare stars will help astronomers better understand star formation in the Milky Way’s hub and thus the evolution of our galaxy as a whole.

Read more on the Hubble News Center.

Image credit: NASAESA, W. Clarkson (Indiana University and UCLA), and K. Sahu (STScI)

Multi-Planet Systems Common in Kepler Findings

 

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Of the 1235 planetary candidates that NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found so far, 408 reside in multiple-planet systems – a growing trend that indicates planets do, in fact,  like company.

The systems observed also seem to behave quite differently than our own solar system. In particular many are flatter than ours; that is, the planets orbit their stars in more or less the same exact plane. This, of course, is what allows Kepler to see them in the first place… the planets have to transit their stars perpendicular to Kepler’s point of view in order for it to detect the oh-so-subtle change in brightness that indicates the likely presence of a planet. In our solar system there’s a variation in the orbital plane of some planets up to 7º – enough of a difference that an alien Kepler-esque telescope might very well not be able to spot all eight planets.

The reason for this relative placidity in exoplanet orbits may be due to the lack of gas giants like Jupiter in these systems. So far, all the multiple-planet systems found have planets smaller than Neptune. Without the massive gravitational influence of a Jupiter-sized world to shake things up, these exosystems likely experience a much calmer environment – gravitationally speaking, of course.

“Most likely, if our solar system didn’t have large planets like Jupiter and Saturn to have stirred things up with their gravitational disturbances, it would be just as flat. Systems with smaller planets probably had a much more sedate history.”

– David Latham, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA

Slide showing Kepler multi-planet systems (blue dots). Credit: David Latham.

Systems containing large gas giants have also been found but they are not as flat as those without, and many smaller worlds are indeed out there… “probably including a lot of them comparable in size to Earth,” said planet-hunter Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.

While multiple-planet systems were expected, the scientists on the Kepler team were surprised by the amount that have been discovered.

“We didn’t anticipate that we would find so many multiple-transit systems. We thought we might see two or three. Instead, we found more than 100,” said Latham.

A total of 171 multiple-planet systems have been found so far… with many more to come, no doubt!

Announced yesterday at the American Astronomical Society conference in Boston, these findings are the result of only the first four months of Kepler’s observations. There will be another news release next summer but in the meantime the team wants time to extensively research the data.

“We don’t want to get premature information out. There’s still a lot of analysis that needs to be done.”

– Kepler principal investigator William Borucki

Read more on the Kepler mission site, or on Science NOW.

WISE “First Light” Image Released

Caption: WISE First Light image. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“In many respects, the most important moment for a telescope is its first light,” said Bill Irace, project manager for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft, speaking at the 215th American Astronomical Society meeting. “And we are happy to be able to share WISE’s first light image with you today.” The image covers a patch of sky about three times larger than the full moon. An interstellar dust cloud shows in the upper left, and the bright object in the right-center is V 482 Carina, an old puffy, cool giant star. The image was taken with what will be WISE’s standard 8.8 seconds of exposure time where it “stares” at a specific point in the sky. Ultimately, WISE will take millions of images to conduct an all sky survey in 10 months, before the frozen hydrogen that keeps the instrument cold evaporates away.

The exposure shows infrared light from three of WISE’s four wavelength bands: Blue, green and red correspond to 3.4, 4.6, and 12 microns, respectively. WISE will search for millions of hidden objects, including asteroids, “failed” stars, powerful galaxies and brown dwarf stars too cool to emit light, including a potential brown dwarf that might be closer to Earth than Proxima Centauri. WISE data will also serve as navigation charts for other missions.

Irace and David Leisawitz from Goddard Space Flight Center said in about a month, the science team will release the first images from the first survey to the public. “Longer term, the astronomical community around the world has been looking forward to this,” said Leisawitz, “as all of WISE’s data will be released for anyone to use starting in April 2011, with the final release in March 2012. The data products include an atlas of images and catalog of individual objects.”

Leisawitz said that magnificently and stunningly, WISE provides 400 times better angular resolution than the infrared instrument on the COBE spacecraft.

Irace divulged that this image was strictly an engineering image with no regard to the field of view. “We actually took about six images, but this one was the prettiest,” he said. “We did not point at a particular point in the sky, and in fact we didn’t know if we were going to be able to do it this fast, so this is basically a random image.”

The science team believes the spacecraft will still be operational for 3 additional months following the 10 month prime mission, and are writing a proposal to NASA for funding to continue.

For a larger version of the image, visit this NASA webpage.

Source: AAS press conference

Milky Way Has a “Squashed Beachball”-Shaped Dark Matter Halo

This illustration shows the visible Milky Way galaxy surrounded by a "squashed beachball"-shaped dark matter halo. Source: UCLA

This illustration shows the visible Milky Way galaxy surrounded by a “squashed beachball”-shaped dark matter halo. Source: UCLA

Our galaxy is shaped like a flat spiral right? Not if you’re talking about dark matter. Astronomers announced today that the Milky Way’s dark matter halo, which represents about 70% of the galaxy’s mass, is actually shaped like a squashed beachball.

Dark matter is completely invisible, but it still obeys the law of gravity, so the existence of dark matter haloes, and their shape, can be inferred by monitoring the orbits of dwarf galaxies orbiting the much larger Milky Way.

Unfortunately, to determine the orbit of an object, you have to measure its position at several points in that orbit, and dwarf galaxies take about a billion years to go around the Milky Way. Astronomers just haven’t been around long enough to watch even a fraction of a complete orbit. Luckily, they don’t have to.

Dwarf galaxies, just like their full-sized counterparts, and made of billions of stars. When the tidal forces from a big galaxy like the Milky Way act on a dwarf galaxy, the result is a streamer of stars that trace out the dwarf galaxy’s orbit. By using data from huge all-sky surveys, a group of astronomers led by David Law at UCLA were able to reconstruct the orbit of the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. There was just one problem: different parts of the dwarf galaxy had different orbits, which led to wildly different dark matter halo shapes.

Law and his colleagues Steven Majewski (University of Virginia) and Kathryn Johnston (Columbia University) solved this problem by allowing models of the dark matter halo to be “triaxial” – in other words, have different lengths in all three dimensions. The best model solution results in a halo shaped like a beach ball that has been squashed sideways.

“We expected some amount of flattening based on the predictions of the best dark-matter theories,” said Law, “but the extent, and particularly the orientation, of the flattening was quite unexpected. We’re pretty excited about this, because it begs the question of how our galaxy formed in its present orientation.”

Sagittarius is not the only dwarf galaxy orbiting the Milky Way, and Law and his colleagues plan to study the orbits of other dwarf galaxies to refine their model. “It will be important to see if these results hold up as precise orbits are measured for more of these galaxies. In the meantime, such a squashed dark-matter halo is one of the best explanations for the observed data.”

This illustration shows the visible Milky Way galaxy (blue spiral) and the streams of stars represent the tidally shredded Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Click the image for a flyaround view. Source: UCLA

This illustration shows the visible Milky Way galaxy (blue spiral) and the streams of stars represent the tidally shredded Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Source: UCLA

New Pulsar “Clocks” Will Aid Gravitational Wave Detection

This illustration shows a pulsar’s magnetic field (blue) creates narrow beams of radiation (magenta). Image credit: NASA

How do you detect a ripple in space-time itself? Well, you need hundreds of precision clocks distributed throughout the galaxy, and the Fermi gamma ray telescope has given astronomers a new way to find them.

The “clocks” in question are actually millisecond pulsars – city-sized, sun-massed stars of ultradense matter that spin hundreds of times per second. Due to their powerful magnetic fields, pulsars emit most of their radiation in tightly focused beams, much like a lighthouse. Each spin of the pulsar corresponds to a “pulse” of radiation detectable from Earth. The rate at which millisecond pulsars pulse is extremely stable, so they serve as some of the most reliable clocks in the universe.

Astronomers watch for the slightest variations in the timing of millisecond pulsars which might suggest that space-time near the pulsar is being distorted by the passage of a gravitational wave. The problem is, to make a reliable measurement requires hundreds of pulsars, and until recently they have been extremely difficult to find.

“We’ve probably found far less than one percent of the millisecond pulsars in the Milky Way Galaxy,” said Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

Data from the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope, which started collecting data in 2008, have changed the way millisecond pulsars are detected. The Fermi telescope has identified hundreds of gamma-ray sources in the Milky Way. Gamma rays are high-energy photons, and they are produced near exotic objects, including millisecond pulsars.

“The data from Fermi were like a buried-treasure map,” Ransom said. “Using our radio telescopes to study the objects located by Fermi, we found 17 millisecond pulsars in three months. Large-scale searches had taken 10-15 years to find that many.”

Ransom and collaborator Mallory Roberts of Eureka Scientific used the National Science Foundation’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to find eight of the 17 new pulsars.

Right now astronomers have only barely enough millisecond pulsars to make a convincing gravitational wave detection, but with Fermi to help identify more pulsars, the odds of detecting these ripples in space-time are steadily increasing.

Ransom and Roberts announced their discoveries today at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Washington, DC.

(NRAO Press Release)