During the late 1970s, scientists made a rather interesting discovery about the gas giants of the Solar System. Thanks to ongoing observations using improved optics, it was revealed that gas giants like Uranus – and not just Saturn – have ring systems about them. The main difference is, these ring systems are not easily visible from a distance using conventional optics and require exceptional timing to see light being reflected off of them.
Galaxy mergers are not particularly rare, but they are important events. Not only for the galaxies involved, but for scientists trying to piece together how galaxies evolve. Now, astronomers using ALMA have found the earliest example yet of merging galaxies.
There’s a lot going on at the center of our galaxy. A supermassive black hole named Sagittarius A-Star resides there, drawing material in with its inexorable gravitational attraction. In that mind-bending neighbourhood, where the laws of physics are stretched beyond comprehension, astronomers have detected a ring of cool gas.
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.
What exactly is a “normal” solar system? If we thought we had some idea in the past, we definitely don’t now. And a new study led by astronomers at Cambridge University has reinforced this fact. The new study found four gas giant planets, similar to our own Jupiter and Saturn, orbiting a very young star called CI Tau. And one of the planets has an extreme orbit that takes it more than a thousand times more distant from the star than the innermost planet.
There’s something poignant and haunting about ancient astronomers documenting things in the sky whose nature they could only guess at. It’s true in the case of Père Dom Anthelme, who in 1670 saw a star suddenly burst into view near the head of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. The object was visible with the naked eye for two years, as it flared in the sky repeatedly. Then it went dark. We call that object CK Vulpeculae.
Looking deep into the observable Universe – and hence, back to the earliest periods of time – is an immensely fascinating thing. In so doing, astronomers are able to see the earliest galaxies in the Universe and learn more about how they evolved over time. From this, they are not only able to see how large-scale structures (like galaxies and galaxy clusters) formed, but also the role played by dark matter.
As they indicate in their study, this protocluster (designated SPT2349-56) was first observed by the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope. Using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), the team conducted follow-up observations that confirmed that it was an extremely distant galactic source, which was then observed with ALMA. Using ALMA’s superior resolution and sensitivity, they were able to distinguish the individual galaxies.
What they found was that these galaxies were forming stars at rate 1,000 times faster than our galaxy, and were crammed inside a region of space that was about three times the size of the Milky Way. Using the ALMA data, the team was also able to create sophisticated computer simulations that demonstrated how this current collection of galaxies will likely grow and evolve over billion of years.
These simulations indicated that once these galaxies merge, the resulting galaxy cluster will rival some of the most massive clusters we see in the Universe today. As Scott Chapman, and astrophysicist at Dalhousie University and a co-author on the study, explained:
“Having caught a massive galaxy cluster in throes of formation is spectacular in and of itself. But, the fact that this is happening so early in the history of the universe poses a formidable challenge to our present-day understanding of the way structures form in the universe.”
The current scientific consensus among astrophysicists states that a few million years after the Big Bang, normal matter and dark matter began to form larger concentrations, eventually giving rise to galaxy clusters. These objects are the largest structures in the Universe, containing trillions of stars, thousands of galaxies, immense amounts of dark matter and massive black holes.
However, current theories and computer models have suggested that protoclusters – like the one observed by ALMA – should have taken much longer to evolve. Finding one that dates to just 1.4 billion years after the Big Bang was therefore quite the surprise. As Tim Miller, who is currently a doctoral candidate at Yale University, indicated:
“How this assembly of galaxies got so big so fast is a bit of a mystery, it wasn’t built up gradually over billions of years, as astronomers might expect. This discovery provides an incredible opportunity to study how galaxy clusters and their massive galaxies came together in these extreme environments.”
Looking to the future, Chapman and his colleagues hope to conduct further studies of SPT2349-56 to see how this protoclusters eventually became a galaxy cluster. “ALMA gave us, for the first time, a clear starting point to predict the evolution of a galaxy cluster,” he said. “Over time, the 14 galaxies we observed will stop forming stars and will collide and coalesce into a single gigantic galaxy.”
The study of this and other protoclusters will be made possible thanks to instruments like ALMA, but also next-generation observatories like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). Equipped with more sensitive arrays and more advanced computer models, astronomers may be able to create a truly accurate timeline of how our Universe became what it is today.
During the 1970s, scientists confirmed that radio emissions coming from the center of our galaxy were due to the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH). Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellation, this feature came to be known as Sagittarius A*. Since that time, astronomers have come to understand that most massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center.
What’s more, astronomers have come to learn that black holes in these galaxies are surrounded by massive rotating toruses of dust and gas, which is what accounts for the energy they put out. However, it was only recently that a team of astronomers, using the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), were able to capture an image of the rotating dusty gas torus around the supermassive black hole of M77.
Like most massive galaxies, M77 has an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), where dust and gas are being accreted onto its SMBH, leading to higher than normal luminosity. For some time, astronomers have puzzled over the curious relationship that exists between SMBHs and galaxies. Whereas more massive galaxies have larger SMBHs, host galaxies are still 10 billion times larger than their central black hole.
This naturally raises questions about how two objects of vastly different scales could directly affect each other. As a result, astronomers have sought to study AGN is order to determine how galaxies and black holes co-evolve. For the sake of their study, the team conducted high-resolution observations of the central region of M77, a barred spiral galaxy located about 47 million light years from Earth.
Using ALMA, the team imaged the area around M77’s center and were able to resolve a compact gaseous structure with a radius of 20 light-years. As expected, the team found that the compact structure was rotating around the galaxies central black hole. As Masatoshi Imanishi explained in an ALMA press release:
“To interpret various observational features of AGNs, astronomers have assumed rotating donut-like structures of dusty gas around active supermassive black holes. This is called the ‘unified model’ of AGN. However, the dusty gaseous donut is very tiny in appearance. With the high resolution of ALMA, now we can directly see the structure.”
In the past, astronomers have observed the center of M77, but no one has been able to resolve the rotating torus at its center until now. This was made possible thanks to the superior resolution of ALMA, as well as the selection of molecular emissions lines. These emissions lines include hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formyl ions (HCO+), which emit microwaves only in dense gas, and carbon monoxide – which emits microwaves under a variety of conditions.
The observations of these emission lines confirmed another prediction made by the team, which was that the torus would be very dense. “Previous observations have revealed the east-west elongation of the dusty gaseous torus,” said Imanishi. “The dynamics revealed from our ALMA data agrees exactly with the expected rotational orientation of the torus.”
However, their observations also indicated that the distribution of gas around an SMBH is more complicated that what a simple unified model suggests. According to this model, the rotation of the torus would follow the gravity of the black hole; but what Imanishi and his team found indicated that gas and dust in the torus also exhibit signs of highly random motion.
These could be an indication that the AGN at the center of M77 had a violent history, which could include merging with a small galaxy in the past. In short, the team’s observations indicate that galactic mergers may have a significant impact on how AGNs form and behave. In this respect, their observations of M77s torus are already providing clues as to the galaxy’s history and evolution.
The study of SMBHs, while intensive, is also very challenging. On the one hand, the closest SMBH (Sagitarrius A*) is relatively quiet, with only a small amount of gas accreting onto it. At the same time, it is located at the center of our galaxy, where it is obscured by intervening dust, gas and stars. As such, astronomers are forced to look to other galaxies to study how SMBHs and their galaxies co-exist.
And thanks to decades of study and improvements in instrumentation, scientists are beginning to get a clear glimpse of these mysterious regions for the first time. By being able to study them in detail, astronomers are also gaining valuable insight into how such massive black holes and their ringed structures could coexist with their galaxies over time.
An angry monster lurks in the shoulder of the Hunter. We’re talking about the red giant star Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis in the constellation Orion. Recently, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) gave us an amazing view of Betelgeuse, one of the very few stars that is large enough to be resolved as anything more than a point of light.
Located 650 light years distant, Betelgeuse is destined to live fast, and die young. The star is only eight million years old – young as stars go. Consider, for instance, our own Sun, which has been shining as a Main Sequence star for more than 500 times longer at 4.6 billion years – and already, the star is destined to go supernova at anytime in the next few thousand years or so, again, in a cosmic blink of an eye.
An estimated 12 times as massive as Sol, Betelgeuse is perhaps a staggering 6 AU or half a billion miles in diameter; plop it down in the center of our solar system, and the star might extend out past the orbit of Jupiter.
As with many astronomical images, the wow factor comes from knowing just what you’re seeing. The orange blob in the image is the hot roiling chromosphere of Betelgeuse, as viewed via ALMA at sub-millimeter wavelengths. Though massive, the star only appears 50 milliarcseconds across as seen from the Earth. To give you some idea just how small a milliarcsecond is, there’s a thousand of them in an arc second, and 60 arc seconds in an arc minute. The average Full Moon is 30 arc minutes across, or 1.8 million milliarcseconds in apparent diameter. Betelgeuse has one of the largest apparent diameters of any star in our night sky, exceeded only by R Doradus at 57 milliarcseconds.
The apparent diameter of Betelgeuse was first measured by Albert Michelson using the Mount Wilson 100-inch in 1920, who obtained an initial value of 240 million miles in diameter, about half the present accepted value, not a bad first attempt.
You can see hints of an asymmetrical bubble roiling across the surface of Betelgeuse in the ALMA image. Betelgeuse rotates once every 8.4 years. What’s going on under that uneasy surface? Infrared surveys show that the star is enveloped in an enormous bow-shock, a powder-keg of a star that will one day provide the Earth with an amazing light show.
Thankfully, Betelgeuse is well out of the supernova “kill zone” of 25 to 100 light years (depending on the study). Along with Spica at 250 light years distant in the constellation Virgo, both are prime nearby supernovae candidates that will on day give astronomers a chance to study the anatomy of a supernova explosion up close. Riding high to the south in the northern hemisphere nighttime sky in the wintertime, +0.5 magnitude Betelgeuse would most likely flare up to negative magnitudes and would easily be visible in the daytime if it popped off in the Spring or Fall. This time of year in June would be the worst, as Alpha Orionis only lies 15 degrees from the Sun!
Of course, this cosmic spectacle could kick off tomorrow… or thousands of years from now. Maybe, the light of Betelgeuse gone supernova is already on its way now, traversing the 650 light years of open space. Ironically, the last naked eye supernova in our galaxy – Kepler’s Star in the constellation Ophiuchus in 1604 – kicked off just before Galileo first turned his crude telescope towards the heavens in 1610.
Dr. Jeffrey Forshaw is a British particle physicist with an interest in quantum chromodynamics (QCD) which is the study of the behavior of subatomic particles. Dr. Forshaw is the co-author (with Brian Cox) of Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos, which sends readers on an inspirational journey of scientific exploration.
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