One of Our Best Views of the Supermassive Black Hole at the Heart of the Milky Way

Top left: simulation of Sgr A* at 86 GHz without interstellar scattering. Top right: simulation with interstellar scattering. Bottom right: observed image of Sgr A*. Bottom left: observed image of Sgr A* after removing the effects of interstellar scattering. Credit: S. Issaoun, M. Mo?cibrodzka, Radboud University/ M. D. Johnson, CfA

An almost unimaginably enormous black hole is situated at the heart of the Milky Way. It’s called a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH), and astronomers think that almost all massive galaxies have one at their center. But of course, nobody’s ever seen one (sort of, more on that later): It’s all based on evidence other than direct observation.

The Milky Way’s SMBH is called Sagittarius A* (Sgr. A*) and it’s about 4 million times more massive than the Sun. Scientists know it’s there because we can observe the effect it has on matter that gets too close to it. Now, we have one of our best views yet of Sgr. A*, thanks to a team of scientists using a technique called interferometry.

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Bizarre Double Star System Flipped its Planetary Disk on its Side

Astronomers theorize that when our Sun was still young, it was surrounded by a disc of dust and gas from which the planets eventually formed. It is further theorized that the majority of stars in our Universe are initially surrounded in this way by a “protoplanetary disk“, and that in roughly 30% of cases, these disks will go on to become a planet or system of planets.

Ordinarily, these disks are thought to orbit around the equatorial band (aka. the ecliptic) of a star or system of stars. However, new research conducted by an international group of scientists has discovered the first example of a binary star system where the orientation was flipped and the disk now orbits the stars around their poles (perpendicular to the ecliptic).

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Here are 20 Protoplanetary Disks, With Newly Forming Planets Carving Out Gaps in the Gas and Dust

The hunt for other planets in our galaxy has heated up in the past few decades, with 3869 planets being detected in 2,886 systems and another 2,898 candidates awaiting confirmation. Though the discovery of these planets has taught scientists much about the kinds of planets that exist in our galaxy, there is still much we do not know about the process of planetary formation.

To answer these questions, an international team recently used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to conduct the first large-scale, high-resolution survey of protoplanetary disks around nearby stars. Known as the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project (DSHARP), this program yielded high-resolution images of 20 nearby systems where dust and gas was in the process of forming new planets.

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Gas and Dust Seen Swirling Around our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole

ALMA images show gas and dust swirling around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/ J. R. Goicoechea (Instituto de Física Fundamental, CSIC, Spain)

At the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy lurks a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) named Sagittarius A* (Sag. A-star). Sag. A* is an object of intense study, even though you can’t actually see it. But new images from the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA) reveal swirling high-speed clouds of gas and dust orbiting the black hole, the next best thing to seeing the hole itself.

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Simulated View of a Newly Forming Planetary System with Rings and Gaps

When searching for extra-solar planets, astronomers most often rely on a number of indirect techniques. Of these, the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) and the Radial Velocity Method (aka. Doppler Spectroscopy) are the two most effective and reliable (especially when used in combination). Unfortunately, direct imaging is rare since it is very difficult to spot a faint exoplanet amidst the glare of its host star.

However, improvements in radio interferometers and near-infrared imaging has allowed astronomers to image protoplanetary discs and infer the orbits of exoplanets. Using this method, an international team of astronomers recently captured images of a newly-forming planetary system. By studying the gaps and ring-like structures of this system, the team was able to hypothesize the possible size of an exoplanet.

The study, titled “Rings and gaps in the disc around Elias 24 revealed by ALMA “, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Giovanni Dipierro, an astrophysicist from the University of Leicester, and included members from the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Joint ALMA Observatory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy, and multiple universities and research institutes.

Artist’s impression of circumstellar disc of debris around a distant star. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the past, rings of dust have been identified in many protoplanetary systems, and their origins and relation to planetary formation are the subject of much debate. On the one hand, they might be the result of dust piling up in certain regions, of gravitational instabilities, or even variations in the optical properties of the dust. Alternately, they could be the result of planets that have already developed, which cause the dust to dissipate as they pass through it.

As Dipierro and his colleagues explained in their study:

“The alternative scenario invokes discs that are dynamically active, in which planets have already formed or are in the act of formation. An embedded planet will excite density waves in the surrounding disc, that then deposit their angular momentum as they are dissipated. If the planet is massive enough, the exchange of angular momentum between the waves created by the planet and the disc results in the formation of a single or multiple gaps, whose morphological features are closely linked to the local disc conditions and the planet properties.”

For the sake of their study, the team used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) Cycle 2 observations – which began back in June of 2014. In so doing, they were able to image the dust around Elias 24 with a resolution of about 28 AU (i.e. 28 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). What they found was evidence of gaps and rings that could be an indication of an orbiting planet.

From this, they constructed a model of the system that took into account the mass and location of this potential planet and how the distribution and density of dust would cause it to evolve. As they indicate in their study, their model reproduces the observations of the dust ring quite well, and predicted the presence of a Jupiter-like gas giant within forty-four thousand years:

“We find that the dust emission across the disc is consistent with the presence of an embedded planet with a mass of ?0.7?MJ at an orbital radius of ? 60?au… The surface brightness map of our disc model provides a reasonable match to the gap- and ring-like structures observed in Elias 24, with an average discrepancy of ?5?per?cent of the observed fluxes around the gap region.”

Thie sharpest image ever taken by ALMA showing the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star HL Tauri. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

 

These results reinforce the conclusion that the gaps and rings that have been observed in a wide variety of young circumstellar discs indicate the presence of orbiting planets. As the team indicated, this is consistent with other observations of protoplanetary discs, and could help shed light on the process of planetary formation.

“The picture that is emerging from the recent high resolution and high sensitivity observations of protoplanetary discs is that gap and ring-like features are prevalent in a large range of discs with different masses and ages,” they conclude. “New high resolution and high fidelity ALMA images of dust thermal and CO line emission and high quality scattering data will be helpful to find further evidences of the mechanisms behind their formation.”

One of the toughest challenges when it comes to studying the formation and evolution of planets is the fact that astronomers have been traditionally unable to see the processes in action. But thanks to improvements in instruments and the ability to study extra-solar star systems, astronomers have been able to see system’s at different points in the formation process.

This in turn is helping us refine our theories of how the Solar System came to be, and may one day allow us to predict exactly what kinds of systems can form in young star systems.

Further Reading: CfA, MNRAS

Maybe There’s no Connection Between Supermassive Black Holes and Their Host Galaxies?

For decades, astrophysicists have puzzled over the relationship between Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) and their respective galaxies. Since the 1970s, it has been understood the majority of massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center, and that these are surrounded by rotating tori of gas and dust. The presence of these black holes and tori are what cause massive galaxies to have an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN).

However, a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers revealed a startling conclusion when studying this relationship. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe an active galaxy with a strong ionized gas outflow from the galactic center, the team obtained results that could indicate that there is no relationship between a an SMBH and its host galaxy.

The study, titled “No sign of strong molecular gas outflow in an infrared-bright dust-obscured galaxy with strong ionized-gas outflow“, recently appeared in the Astrophysical Journal. The study was led by Yoshiki Toba of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and included members from Ehime University, Kogakuin University, and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI), and Johns Hopkins University.

Images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) (left), and mid-infrared image from WISE (right), respectively. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey/NASA/JPLCaltech

The question of how SMBHs have affected galactic evolution remains one of the greatest unresolved questions in modern astronomy. Among astrophysicists, it is something of a foregone conclusion that SMBHs have a significant impact on the formation and evolution of galaxies. According to this accepted notion, SMBHs significantly influence the molecular gas in galaxies, which has a profound effect on star formation.

Basically, this theory holds that larger galaxies accumulate more gas, thus resulting in more stars and a more massive central black hole. At the same time, there is a feedback mechanism, where growing black holes accrete more matter on themselves. This results in them sending out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets, which is believed to curtail star formation in their vicinity.

However, when observing an infrared (IR)-bright dust-obscured galaxy (DOG) – WISE1029+0501 – Yoshiki and his colleagues obtained results that contradicted this notion. After conducting a detailed analysis using ALMA, the team found that there were no signs of significant molecular gas outflow coming from WISE1029+0501. They also found that star-forming activity in the galaxy was neither more intense or suppressed.

This indicates that a strong ionized gas outflow coming from the SMBH in WISE1029+0501 did not significantly affect the surrounding molecular gas or star formation. As Dr. Yoshiki Toba explained, this result:

“[H]as made the co-evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes more puzzling. The next step is looking into more data of this kind of galaxies. That is crucial for understanding the full picture of the formation and evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes”.

Emission from Carbon Monoxide (Left) and Cold Dust (Right) in WISE1029 Observed by ALMA (image). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Toba et al.

This not only flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but also in the face of recent studies that showed a tight correlation between the mass of central black holes and those of their host galaxies. This correlation suggests that supermassive black holes and their host galaxies evolved together over the course of the past 13.8 billion years and closely interacted as they grew.

In this respect, this latest study has only deepened the mystery of the relationship between SMBHs and their galaxies. As Tohru Nagao, a Professor at Ehime University and a co-author on the study, indicated:

“[W]e astronomers do not understand the real relation between the activity of supermassive black holes and star formation in galaxies. Therefore, many astronomers including us are eager to observe the real scene of the interaction between the nuclear outflow and the star-forming activities, for revealing the mystery of the co-evolution.”

The team selected WISE1029+0501 for their study because astronomers believe that DOGs harbor actively growing SMBHs in their nuclei. In particular, WISE1029+0501 is an extreme example of galaxies where outflowing gas is being ionized by the intense radiation from its SMBH. As such, researchers have been highly motivated to see what happens to this galaxy’s molecular gas.

Artist’s impression of the black hole wind at the center of a galaxy. Credit: ESA

The study was made possible thanks to ALMA’s sensitivity, which is excellent when it comes to investigating the properties of molecular gas and star-forming activity in galaxies. In fact, multiple studies have been conducted in recent years that have relied on ALMA to investigate the gas properties and SMBHs of distant galaxies.

And while the results of this study contradict widely-held theories about galactic evolution, Yoshiki and his colleagues are excited about what this study could reveal. In the end, it may be that radiation from a SMBH does not always affect the molecular gas and star formation of its host galaxy.

“[U]nderstanding such co-evolution is crucial for astronomy,” said Yoshiki. “By collecting statistical data of this kind of galaxies and continuing in more follow-up observations using ALMA, we hope to reveal the truth.”

Further Reading: ALMA Observatory, Astrophysical Journal

Proxima Centauri has a Cold Dust Belt that Could Indicate Even More Planets

Proxima Centauri, in addition to being the closest star system to our own, is also the home of the closest exoplanet to Earth. The existence of this planet, Proxima b, was first announced in August of 2016 and then confirmed later that month. The news was met with a great deal of excitement, and a fair of skepticism, as numerous studies followed t were dedicated to determining if this planet could in fact be habitable.

Another important question has been whether or not Proxima Centauri could have any more objects orbiting it. According to a recent study by an international team of astronomers, Proxima Centauri is also home to a belt of cold dust and debris that is similar to the Main Asteroid Belt and Kuiper Belt in our Solar System. The existence of this dusty belt could indicate the presence of more planets in this star system.

The study, titled “ALMA Discovery of Dust Belts Around Proxima Centauri“, recently appeared online and is scheduled to appear in the Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society. The study was led by Guillem Anglada from the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia (CSIS), and included members from the Institute of Space Sciences (IEEC), the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the Joint ALMA Observatory, and multiple universities.

View of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) site in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Credit: A. Marinkovic/X-Cam/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

For their study, the team relied on data obtained by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimter Array (ALMA) at the ALMA Observatory in Chile. These observations revealed the glow of a cold dust belt that is roughly 1 to 4 AUs from Proxima Centauri – one to four times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This puts it significantly further out than Proxima b, which orbits its sun at a distance of 0.0485 AU (~5% of Earth’s distance from the Sun).

Dust belts are essentially the leftover material that did not form into larger bodies withing a star system. The particles of rock and ice in these belts vary in size from being smaller than a millimeter across to asteroids that are many kilometers in diameter. Based on their observations, the team estimated that the belt in Proxima Centauri has a total mass that is about one-hundredth the mass of Earth.

The team also estimated that this belt experiences temperatures of about 43 K (-230°C; -382 °F), making it as cold as the Kuiper Belt. As Dr. Anglada explained the significance of these findings in a recent ESO press release:

“The dust around Proxima is important because, following the discovery of the terrestrial planet Proxima b, it’s the first indication of the presence of an elaborate planetary system, and not just a single planet, around the star closest to our Sun.”

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO

The ALMA data also provided indications that Proxima Centauri might also have another belt located about ten times further out. In other words, Proxima Centauri may have two belts, just like our Solar System. If confirmed, this could indicate that this neighboring star also has a system of planets that fall within and between belts of unconsolidated material, which in turn is leftover from the early days of planet formation. As Dr. Anglada explained:

“This result suggests that Proxima Centauri may have a multiple planet system with a rich history of interactions that resulted in the formation of a dust belt. Further study may also provide information that might point to the locations of as yet unidentified additional planets.”

The very cold environment of this outer belt could also have some interesting implications, since its parent star is much dimmer than our own. Pedro Amado, who also hails from the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia, was similarly enthusiastic about these findings. As he indicated, they are just the beginning of what is sure to be a long process of discovery about this system.

“These first results show that ALMA can detect dust structures orbiting around Proxima,” he said. “Further observations will give us a more detailed picture of Proxima’s planetary system. In combination with the study of protoplanetary discs around young stars, many of the details of the processes that led to the formation of the Earth and the Solar System about 4600 million years ago will be unveiled. What we are seeing now is just the appetiser compared to what is coming!”

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

This study is also likely to be of interest to those planning on conducting direct observations of the Alpha Centauri system, such as Project Blue. In the coming years, they hope to deploy a space telescope that will observe Alpha Centauri directly to study any exoplanets it may have. With a slight adjustment, this telescope could also take a gander at Proxima Centauri and aid in the hunt for a system of planets there.

And then there’s Breakthrough Starshot, the first proposed interstellar voyage which hopes to send a laser sail-driven nanocraft to Alpha Centauri in the coming decades. Recently, the scientists behind Starshot discussed the possibility of extending the mission to include a stopover in Proxima Centauri. Before such a mission can take place, the planners need to know what kind of dusty environment awaits it.

And of course, future studies will benefit from the deployment of next-generation instruments, like the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for launch in 2019) and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) – which is expected to collect its first light in 2024.

Further Reading: ESO, arXiv

Galaxies Swell due to Explosive Action of New Stars

In 1926, famed astronomer Edwin Hubble developed his morphological classification scheme for galaxies. This method divided galaxies into three basic groups – Elliptical, Spiral and Lenticular – based on their shapes. Since then, astronomers have devoted considerable time and effort in an attempt to determine how galaxies have evolved over the course of billions of years to become these shapes.

One of th most widely-accepted theories is that galaxies changed by merging, where smaller clouds of stars – bound by mutual gravity – came together, altering the size and shape of a galaxy over time. However, a new study by an international team of researchers has revealed that galaxies could actually assumed their modern shapes through the formation of new stars within their centers.

The study, titled “Rotating Starburst Cores in Massive Galaxies at z = 2.5“, was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by Ken-ichi Tadaki – a postdoctoral researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) – the team conducted observations of distant galaxies in order to get a better understanding of galactic metamorphosis.

Evolution diagram of a galaxy. First the galaxy is dominated by the disk component (left) but active star formation occurs in the huge dust and gas cloud at the center of the galaxy (center). Then the galaxy is dominated by the stellar bulge and becomes an elliptical (or lenticular) galaxy. Credit: NAOJ

This involved using ground-based telescopes to study 25 galaxies that were at a distance of about 11 billion light-years from Earth. At this distance, the team was seeing what these galaxies looked like 11 billion years ago, or roughly 3 billion years after the Big Bang. This early epoch coincides with a period of peak galaxy formation in the Universe, when the foundations of most galaxies were being formed. As Dr. Tadaki indicated in a NAOJ press release:

“Massive elliptical galaxies are believed to be formed from collisions of disk galaxies. But, it is uncertain whether all the elliptical galaxies have experienced galaxy collision. There may be an alternative path.”

Capturing the faint light of these distant galaxies was no easy task and the team needed three ground-based telescopes to resolve them properly. They began by using the NAOJ’s 8.2-m Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to pick out the 25 galaxies in this epoch. Then they targeted them for observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

Whereas the HST captured light from stars to discern the shape of the galaxies (as they existed 11 billion years ago), the ALMA array observed submillimeter waves  emitted by the cold clouds of dust and gas – where new stars are being formed. By combining the two, they were able to complete a detailed picture of how these galaxies looked 11 billion years ago when their shapes were still evolving.

Observation images of a galaxy 11 billion light-years away. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, Tadaki et al.

What they found was rather telling. The HST images indicated that early galaxies were dominated by a disk component, as opposed to the central bulge feature we’ve come to associate with spiral and lenticular galaxies. Meanwhile, the ALMA images showed that there were massive reservoirs of gas and dust near the centers of these galaxies, which coincided with a very high rate of star formation.

To rule out alternate possibility that this intense star formation was being caused by mergers, the team also used data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) – located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile – to confirm that there were no indications of massive galaxy collisions taking place at the time. As Dr. Tadaki explained:

“Here, we obtained firm evidence that dense galactic cores can be formed without galaxy collisions. They can also be formed by intense star formation in the heart of the galaxy.”

These findings could lead astronomers to rethink their current theories about galactic evolution and howthey came to adopt features like a central bulge and spiral arms. It could also lead to a rethink of our models regarding cosmic evolution, not to mention the history of own galaxy. Who knows? It might even cause astronomers to rethink what might happen in a few billion years, when the Milky Way is set to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy.

As always, the further we probe into the Universe, the more it reveals. With every revelation that does not fit our expectations, our hypotheses are forced to undergo revision.

Further Reading: ALMAAstrophysical Journal Letters

The Most Distant Massive Galaxy Observed to Date Provides Insight into the Early Universe

In their pursuit of learning how our Universe came to be, scientists have probed very deep into space (and hence, very far back in time). Ultimately, their goal is to determine when the first galaxies in our Universe formed and what effect they had on cosmic evolution. Recent efforts to locate these earliest formations have probed to distances of up to 13 billion light-years from Earth – i.e. about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

From this, scientist are now able to study how early galaxies affected matter around them – in particular, the reionization of neutral atoms. Unfortunately, most early galaxies are very faint, which makes studying their interiors difficult. But thanks to a recent survey conducted by an international team of astronomers, a more luminous, massive galaxy was spotted that could provide a clear look at how early galaxies led to reionization.

The study which details their findings, titled “ISM Properties of a Massive Dusty Star-forming Galaxy Discovered at z ~ 7“, was recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy  in Bonn, Germany, the team relied on data from the South Pole Telescope (SPT)-SZ survey and ALMA to spot a galaxy that existed 13 billion years ago (just 800 million years after the Big Bang).

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

In accordance with Big Bang model of cosmology, reionization refers to the process that took place after the period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.

Just prior to this period, the “Recombination” occurred, where hydrogen and helium atoms began to form. Initially ionized (with no electrons bound to their nuclei) these molecules gradually captured ions as the Universe cooled, becoming neutral. During the period that followed – i.e. between 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang – the large-scale structure of the Universe began to form.

Intrinsic to this was the process of reionization, where the first stars and quasars formed and their radiation reionized the surrounding Universe. It is therefore clear why astronomers want to probe this era of the Universe. By observing the first stars and galaxies, and what effect they had on the cosmos, astronomers will get a clearer picture of how this early period led to the Universe as we know it today.

Luckily for the research team, the massive, star-forming galaxies of this period are known to contain a great deal of dust. While very faint in the optical band, these galaxies emit strong radiation at submillimeter wavelengths, which makes them detectable using today’s advanced telescopes – including the South Pole Telescope (SPT), the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), and Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study, Strandet and Weiss relied on data from the SPT to detect a series of dusty galaxies from the early Universe. As Maria Strandet and Axel Weiss of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (and the lead author and co-authors on the study, respectively) told Universe Today via email:

“We have used light of about 1 mm wavelength, which can be observed by mm telescopes like SPT, APEX or ALMA. At this wavelength the photons are produced by the thermal radiation of dust. The beauty of using this long wavelength is, that for a large redshift range (look back time), the dimming of galaxies [caused] by increasing distance is compensated by the redshift – so the observed intensity is independent of the redshift. This is because, for higher redshift galaxies, one is looking at intrinsically shorter wavelengths (by (1+z)) where the radiation is stronger for a thermal spectrum like the dust spectrum.”

This was followed by data from ALMA, which the team used to determine the distance of the galaxies by looking at the redshifted wavelength of carbon monoxide molecules in their interstellar mediums (ISM). From all the data they collected, they were able to constrain the properties of one of these galaxies – SPT0311-58 – by observing its spectral lines. In so doing, they determined that this galaxy existed just 760 million years after the Big Bang.

“Since the signal strength at 1mm is independent of the redshift (look back time), we do not have an a priori clue if an object is relatively near (in the cosmological sense) or at the epoch of reionization,” they said. “That is why we undertook a large survey to determine the redshifts via the emission of molecular lines using ALMA. SPT0311-58 turns out to be the highest redshift object discovered in this survey and in fact the most distant massive dusty star-forming galaxy so far discovered.”

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

From their observations, they also determined that SPT0311-58 has a mass of about 330 billion Solar-masses, which is about 66 times as much as the Milky Way Galaxy (which has about 5 billion Solar-masses). They also estimated that it is forming new stars at a rate of several thousand per year, which could as be the case for neighboring galaxies that are dated to this period.

This rare and distant object is one of the best candidates yet for studying what the early Universe looked like and how it has evolved since. This in turn will allow astronomers and cosmologists to test the theoretical basis for the Big Bang Theory. As Strandet and Weiss told Universe Today about their discovery:

“These objects are important to understanding the evolution of galaxies as a whole since the large amounts of dust already present in this source, only 760 million years after the Big Bang, means that it is an extremely massive object. The mere fact that such massive galaxies already existed when the Universe was still so young puts strong constraints on our understanding of galaxy mass buildup. Furthermore the dust needs to form in a very short time, which gives additional insights on the dust production from the first stellar population.”

The ability to look deeper into space, and farther back in time, has led to many surprising discoveries of late. And these have in turn challenged some of our assumptions about what happened in the Universe, and when. And in the end, they are helping scientists to create a more detailed and complete account of cosmic evolution. Someday soon, we might even be able to probe the earliest moments in the Universe, and watch creation in action!

Further Reading: CfA, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

 

We Finally Know why the Boomerang Nebula is Colder than Space Itself

The Boomerang Nebula, a proto-planetary nebula that was created by a dying red giant star (located about 5000 light years from Earth), has been a compelling mystery for astronomers since 1995. It was at this time, thanks to a team using the now-decommissioned 15-meter Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope (SESTI) in Chile, that this nebula came to be known as the coldest object in the known Universe.

And now, over 20 years later, we may know why. According to a team of astronomers who used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) – located in the Atacama desert in northern Chile – the answer may involve a small companion star plunging into the red giant. This process could have ejected most of the larger star’s matter, creating an ultra-cold outflow of gas and dust in the process.

The team’s findings appeared in a paper titled “The Coldest Place in the Universe: Probing the Ultra-cold Outflow and Dusty Disk in the Boomerang Nebula“, which appeared recently in the Astrophysical Journal. Led by Raghvendra Sahai, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they argue that the rapid expansion of this gas is what has caused it to become so cold.

Composite image of the Boomerang Nebula, with ALMA observations (orange) showing the e hourglass-shaped outflow on top of an image from the Hubble Space Telescope (blue). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); NASA/ESA Hubble; NRAO/AUI/NSF

Originally discovered in 1980 by a team of astronomers using the Anglo-Australian telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, the mystery of this nebula became apparent when astronomers noted that it appeared to be absorbing the light of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This background radiation, which is the energy leftover from the Big Bang, provides the natural background temperature of space – 2.725 K (–270.4 °C; -454.7 °F).

For the Boomerang Nebula to absorb that radiation, it had to be even colder than the CMB. Subsequent observations revealed that this was in fact the case, as the nebula has a temperature of less than half a degree K (-272.5 °C; -458.5 °F). The reason for this, according to the recent study, has to do with the gas cloud that extends from the central star to a distance of 21,000 AU (21 thousands times the distance between Earth and the Sun).

The gas cloud – which is the result of a jet that is being fired by the central star – is expanding at a rate that is about 10 times faster than what a single star could produce on its own. After conducting measurements with ALMA that revealed regions of the outflow that were never before seen (out to a distance of about 120,000 AUs), the team concluded that this is what is driving temperatures to levels lower than that of background radiation

They further argue that this was the result of the central star having collided with a binary companion in the past, and were even able to deduce what the primary was like before this took place. The primary, they claim, was a Red Giant Branch (RGB) or early-RGB star – i.e. a star in the final phase of its life cycle – whose expansion caused its binary companion to be pulled in by its gravity.

ALMA image of the Boomerang Nebula, showing its massive outflowCredit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), R. Sahai

The companion star would have eventually merged with its core, which caused the outflow of gas to begin. As Raghvendra Sahai explained in a NRAO press release:

“These new data show us that most of the stellar envelope from the massive red giant star has been blasted out into space at speeds far beyond the capabilities of a single, red giant star. The only way to eject so much mass and at such extreme speeds is from the gravitational energy of two interacting stars, which would explain the puzzling properties of the ultra-cold outflow.”

These findings were made possible thanks to the ALMA’s ability to provide precise measurements on the extent, age, mass and kinetic energy of the nebula. Also, in addition to measuring the rate of outflow, they gathered that it has been taking place for around 1050 to 1925 years. The findings also indicate that the Boomerang Nebula’s days as the coldest object in the known Universe may be numbered.

Looking forward, the red giant star in the center is expected to continue the process of becoming a planetary nebula – where stars shed their outer layers to form an expanding shell of gas. In this respect, it is expected to shrink and get hotter, which will warm up the nebula around it and make it brighter.

As Lars-Åke Nyman, an astronomer at the Joint ALMA Observatory in Santiago, Chile, and co-author on the paper,  said:

“We see this remarkable object at a very special, very short-lived period of its life. It’s possible these super cosmic freezers are quite common in the universe, but they can only maintain such extreme temperatures for a relatively short time.”

These findings could also provide new insights into another cosmological mystery, which is how giant stars and their companions behave. When the larger star in these systems exists its main-sequence phase, it may consume its smaller companion and similarly become a “cosmic freezer”. Herein lies the value of objects like the Boomerang Nebula, which challenges conventional ideas about the interactions of binary systems.

It also demonstrates the value of next-generations instruments like ALMA. Given their superior optical capabilities and ability to obtain more high-resolution information, they can show us some never-before-seen things about our Universe, which can only challenge our preconceived notions of what is possible out there.

Further Reading: NRAO