A Protoplanetary Disc Has Been Found… in Another Galaxy!

With the combined capabilities of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a disc around a young massive star in another galaxy has been observed. The image at the centre shows the jets that accompany it. The top part of the jet is aimed slightly towards us and thus blueshifted; the bottom one is receding from us and thus redshifted. Observations from ALMA, right, then revealed the rotating disc around the star, similarly with sides moving towards and away from us. Credit: ESO/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/A. McLeod et al.

Astronomers have imaged dozens of protoplanetary discs around Milky Way stars, seeing them at all stages of formation. Now, one of these discs has been found for the first time — excitingly — in another galaxy. The discovery was made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile along with the , which detected the telltale signature of a spinning disc around a massive star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, located 160,000 light-years away.

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A New Technique Has Dramatically Improved ALMA’s Resolution

Image showing two of the receivers of the ALMA array in the Atacama Desert.
Two of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) 12-metre antennas (Credit : Iztok Bon?ina/ESO)

To those familiar with optical telescopes, the idea of doing something to achieve higher resolution with their telescope may seem alien, if not, then practically impossible. A telescopes resolution is determined by among other things, its aperture – diameter of the thing that collects light (or electromagnetic radiation) and of course you can’t easily change that. Enter the team at ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array who have become the first to use the Band 10 receiver and extreme separation of the receivers to boosting its resolution so they can see detail equivalent of detecting a 10 meter long bus on the Moon!

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Strong Evidence that Supermassive Black Holes Affect Their Host Galaxy’s Chemistry

This is a composite image of the spiral galaxy Messier 77 (NGC 1068), as observed by ALMA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Red and blue are different chemicals. Red are cyanide radicals concentrated mostly in the center and a large-scale ring-shaped gas structure, but also along the bipolar jets extending from the center towards the northeast (upper left) and southwest (lower right). Blue is carbon monoxide isotopes which avoid the central region. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, T. Nakajima et al.

Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) are impossible to ignore. They can be billions of times more massive than the Sun, and when they’re actively consuming stars and gas, they become luminous active galactic nuclei (AGN.) A galaxy’s center is a busy place, with the activity centred on the SMBH.

New research provides strong evidence that while going about their business, SMBHs alter their host galaxy’s chemistry.

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Astronomers Find a Newly-Forming Quadruple-Star System

This artist’s impression shows the orbits of the objects in the HR 6819 triple system. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

In a surprising find, the international ALMA Survey of Orion Planck Galactic Cold Clumps (ALMASOP) team recently observed a young quadruple star system within a star-forming region in the Orion constellation. The discovery was made during a high-resolution survey of 72 dense cores in the Orion Giant Molecular Clouds (GMCs) using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. These observations provide a compelling explanation for the origins and formation mechanisms of binary and multiple-star systems.

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Is This The First Exoplanet Trojan, or the Result of an Epic Collision Between Worlds?

This image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, shows the young planetary system PDS 70, located nearly 400 light-years away from Earth. The system features a star at its centre, around which the planet PDS 70b (highlighted with a solid yellow circle) is orbiting. On the same orbit as PDS 70b, indicated by a solid yellow ellipse, astronomers have detected a cloud of debris (circled by a yellow dotted line) that could be the building blocks of a new planet or the remnants of one already formed. The ring-like structure that dominates the image is a circumstellar disc of material, out of which planets are forming. There is in fact another planet in this system: PDS 70c, seen at 3 o’clock right next to the inner rim of the disc.

It seems like every week, researchers are finding more and more interesting exoplanets. Many of them have analogs in our own solar system – hot Jupiter or Super Earth are commonly used as descriptions. However, there is a feature of a solar system that doesn’t exist in our solar system but might somewhere out in the galaxy – a Trojan planet. Now researchers from the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid and colleagues in the UK, EU, and US have found what they believe to be the first possible evidence of a Trojan planet.

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Star Birth and Death Seen Near the Beginning of Time

An artist's illustration of the Universe's first stars, called Population 3 stars. Pop 3 stars would have been much more massive than most stars today, and would have burned hot and blue. Their lifetimes would've been much shorter than stars like our Sun. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Until recently, astronomers could not observe the first stars and galaxies that formed in the Universe. This occurred during what is known as the “Cosmic Dark Ages,” a period that took place between 380,000 and 1 billion years after the Big Bang. Thanks to next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), improved methods and software, and updates to existing observatories, astronomers are finally piercing the veil of this era and getting a look at how the Universe as we know it began.

This includes new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which obtained images of a stellar nursery inside a galaxy roughly 13.2 billion light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. This galaxy has a redshift value of more than 8.3, corresponding to when the Universe was less than 1 billion years old. The images discerned the sites of star formation and possible star death inside a nebula (MACS0416_Y1) located within this galaxy. This represents a major milestone for astronomy as this is the farthest distance such structures have been observed in our Universe.

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A Tadpole-Shaped Cloud of Gas is Whirling Around a Black Hole

Artist’s Impression of the “Tadpole” Molecular Cloud and the black hole at the gravitational center of its orbit. Credit: Keio University

In the 1930s, astrophysicists theorized that at the end of their life cycle, particularly massive stars would collapse, leaving behind remnants of infinite mass and density. As a proposed resolution to Einstein’s field equations (for his Theory of General Relativity), these objects came to be known as “black holes” because nothing (even light) could escape them. By the 1960s, astronomers began to infer the existence of these objects based on the observable effects they have on neighboring objects and their surrounding environment.

Despite improvements in instruments and interferometry (which led to the first images of M87 and Sagittarius A*), the study of black holes still relies on indirect methods. In a recent study, a team of Japanese researchers identified an unusual cloud of gas that appears to have been elongated by a massive, compact object that it orbits. Since there are no massive stars in its vicinity, they theorize that the cloud (nicknamed the “Tadpole” because of its shape) orbits a black hole roughly 27,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius.

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A Very Young Star is Forming Near the Milky Way's Supermassive Black Hole

Artist's impression of a young, massive star orbiting Sagittarius A*. Credit: University of Cologne

Since the 1930s, physicists and radio engineer Karl Jansky reported discovering a persistent radio source coming from the center of our galaxy. This source came to be known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), and by the 1970s, astronomers determined that it was a supermassive black hole (SMBH) roughly four million times the mass of our Sun. Since then, astronomers have used increasingly-advanced radio telescopes to study Sgr A* and its surrounding environment. This has led to many exotic discoveries, such as the many “Stars stars” and gaseous “G objects” that orbit it.

The study of these objects and how the powerful gravity of Sgr A* has allowed scientists to test the laws of physics under the most extreme conditions. In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by the University of Cologne made a startling discovery. Based on data collected by multiple observatories, they observed what appears to be a newly-formed star (X3a) in the vicinity of Sgr A*. This discovery raises significant questions about how young stellar objects (YSOs) can form and survive so close to an SMBH, where they should be torn apart by violent gravitational forces.

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Machine Learning is a Powerful Tool When Searching for Exoplanets

Three young planets in orbit around an infant star known as HD 163296 Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello

Astronomy has entered the era of big data, where astronomers find themselves inundated with information thanks to cutting-edge instruments and data-sharing techniques. Facilities like the Vera Rubin Observatory (VRO) are collecting about 20 terabytes (TB) of data on a daily basis. Others, like the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), are expected to gather up to 90 TB once operational. As a result, astronomers are dealing with 100 to 200 Petabytes of data every year, and astronomy is expected to reach the “exabyte era” before long.

In response, observatories have been crowdsourcing solutions and making their data open-access so citizen scientists can assist with the time-consuming analysis process. In addition, astronomers have been increasingly turning to machine learning algorithms to help them identify objects of interest (OI) in the Universe. In a recent study, a team led by the University of Georgia revealed how artificial intelligence could distinguish between false positives and exoplanet candidates simultaneously, making the job of exoplanet hunters that much easier.

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Quasars Produce Giant Jets That Focus Like Lasers. Why They Focus is Still a Mystery, but it’s not Coming From the Galaxy Itself

New technologies bring new astronomical insights, which is especially satisfying when they help answer debates that have been ongoing for decades. One of those debates is why exactly the plasma emitted from pulsars “collimates” or is brought together in a narrow beam. While it doesn’t provide a definitive answer to that question, a new paper from an international group of scientists points to a potential solution, but it will require even more advanced technologies.

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