Update: Possible ‘Nearby’ Gamma Ray Burst Alert Was False Alarm

Following the late night news yesterday of a possible gamma ray burst in our next door neighboring galaxy Andromeda, it was an “Oh darn!” moment this morning to find out the big event was likely a false alarm. The false alert — and the ensuing false excitement — was due to an unlikely combination of Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) detecting what was a previously known object and a power outage at Goddard Space Flight Center and Swift Data Center, so that the data couldn’t be analyzed by the regular team of astronomers around the world.

Also, according to a blog post by Phil Evans, a post-doctoral research assistant from the University of Leicester and a member of the support team for Swift, the Swift team never actually announced a claim of such an event, and it turns out that the tentative data that triggered this story was overstated.

“Interestingly, the Swift team never claimed it was [a GRB]; indeed, I haven’t seen any professional communication claiming that this was a GRB,” Evans wrote on his blog. “Why it has been reported throughout the web as a GRB is something I can only speculate on, but Swift has been fabulously successful studying GRBs.”

Definitely read Evans’ entire analysis of the event.

A circular posted from the Swift-XRT team” on NASA’s Gamma-ray Coordinates Network (GCN) system at says that the astronomers “do not believe this source to be in outburst”. On the Nature blog, Alexandra Witze spoke with Swift team member Kim Page, also from the University of Leicester, who told Nature “that the source had been initially mistaken for a new outburst, and that its intensity had been overestimated due to measurement error. Instead, she says, it was a relatively common, persistent x-ray source — possibly a globular cluster — that had previously been catalogued.”

Here’s the circular in its entirety:

We have re-analysed the prompt XRT data on Swift trigger 600114 (GCN Circ.
16332), taking advantage of the event data.

The initial count rate given in GCN Circ. 16332 was based on raw data from
the full field of view, without X-ray event detection, and therefore may
have been affected by other sources in M31, as well as background hot
pixels. Analysis of the event data (not fully available at the time of the
initial circular) shows the count rate of the X-ray source identified in
GCN Circ. 16332 to have been 0.065 +/- 0.012 count s^-1, consistent with
the previous observations of this source [see the 1SXPS catalogue (Evans
et al. 2014): http://www.swift.ac.uk/1SXPS/1SXPS%20J004143.1%2B413420].

We therefore do not believe this source to be in outburst. Instead, it was
a serendipitous constant source in the field of view of a BAT subthreshold

This circular is an official product of the Swift-XRT team.

The event caused a tweet-storm last night on Twitter (see #GRBM31) and as many have said, the excitement was magnified because of the ability to spread news quickly via social media:

Astronomer Robert Rutledge, who publishes the Astronomer’s Telegram has given a Tweet-by-Tweet analysis of what happened with the false alarm:

Is Andromeda Drifting Towards Us?

In a Universe that’s expanding apart, isn’t it strange that Andromeda is actually drifting towards us? Dr. Thad Szabo from Cerritos College explains why this is happening.

“I’m Thad Szabo, and I teach astronomy and physics at Cerritos College.”

Is Andromeda drifting towards us?

“The reason that we see Andromeda moving toward us is because it’s nearby enough, and the Milky Way is massive enough and Andromeda is massive enough that they’re gravity is strong enough that there is not enough space between them that the space was able to expand and push them apart against the force of gravity. So if you take the Milky Way, all of its stars and all of its gas and dust, all of its dark matter, you’re looking at something that’s a trillion times the mass of the sun. You have the same for Andromeda, and they’re less than a mega parsec apart – to Andromeda, its about 2.2 billion light years. And so with that distance and that much mass, that’s close enough that gravity is drawing them together. Most galaxies, because they’re so distant, you do see them moving away due to the expansion of the universe.”

“But actually M81, which is about 12 million light years away, is also moving towards the Milky Way. It’s the most distant galaxy that doesn’t show red shift. So there’s enough gravity in this local group – I guess the local group is typically the Milky Way galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, the Triangulum galaxy, and however many tens of dwarf galaxies that we’ve either discovered or haven’t discovered yet. But there’s also a bubble of about ten to twenty major size galaxies extending out to about fifteen million light years or so, and that’s kind of right on the border between where the expansion of the universe would drive things apart and where the gravity is strong enough to hold things together.”

How Giant Galaxies Bind The Milky Way’s Neighborhood With Gravity

Artist's conception of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Nick Risinger

Is it stretching it too far to think of a Lord of the Rings-esque “Entmoot” when reading the phrase “Council of Giants”? In this case, however, it’s not trees gathering in a circle, but galaxies.

A new map of the galactic neighborhood shows how the Milky Way may be restricted by a bunch of galaxies surrounding and constricting us with gravity.

“All bright galaxies within 20 million light years, including us, are organized in a ‘Local Sheet’ 34-million light years across and only 1.5 million light years thick,” stated Marshall McCall of York University in Canada, who is the sole author of a paper on the subject.

“The Milky Way and Andromeda are encircled by twelve large galaxies arranged in a ring about 24-million light years across. This ‘Council of Giants’ stands in gravitational judgment of the Local Group by restricting its range of influence.”

The "Council of Giants" is shown in this diagram based on 2014 research from York University. It shows the brightest galaxies within 20 million light-years of the Milky Way. The galaxies in yellow are the "Council." (You can see a larger image if you click on this.) Credit: Marshall McCall / York University.
The “Council of Giants” is shown in this diagram based on 2014 research from York University. It shows the brightest galaxies within 20 million light-years of the Milky Way. The galaxies in yellow are the “Council.” (You can see a larger image if you click on this.) Credit: Marshall McCall / York University.

Here’s why McCall thinks this is the case. Most of the Local Sheet galaxies (the Milky Way, Andromeda, and 10 more of the 14 galaxies) are flattened spiral galaxies with stars still forming. The other other two galaxies are elliptical galaxies where star-forming ceased long ago, and of note, this pair lie on opposite sides of the “Council.”

“Winds expelled in the earliest phases of their development might have shepherded gas towards the Local Group, thereby helping to build the disks of the Milky Way and Andromeda,” the Royal Astronomical Society stated. The spin in this group of galaxies, it added, is unusually aligned, which could have occurred due to the influence of the Milky Way and Andromeda “when the universe was smaller.”

The larger implication is the Local Sheet and Council likely came to be in “a pre-existing sheet-like foundation composed primarily of dark matter”, or a mysterious substance that is not measurable by conventional instruments but detectable on how it influences other objects. McCall stated that on a small scale, this could help us understand more about how the universe is constructed.

You can read the study in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Nearby Stream of Stars Reveals Past Cosmic Collision

The tangled remains of vast cosmic collisions can be seen across the universe, such as the distant Whirlpool Galaxy’s past close encounter with a nearby galaxy, which resulted in the staggering beauty we see today.

Such colossal collisions between galaxies appear to be common. It’s likely giant galaxies, such as our own, originated long ago after smaller dwarf galaxies crashed together. Unfortunately, Hubble has yet to peer into the early Universe and catch two dwarf galaxies merging by chance. And they’re extremely rare to catch in the present nearby universe.

But for the first time, astronomers have uncovered evidence of a similar collision much closer to home.

The Milky Way is part of a large cosmic neighborhood. A collection of more than 35 galaxies compose the Local Group. While the largest and heavier members are the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, there are many smaller satellite galaxies orbiting the two.  Anyone who has looked at the southern sky should be familiar with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds: two satellite galaxies of the Milky Way less than 200,000 light years away.

Andromeda has over 20 satellite galaxies circling its nearly a trillion stars. A team of European astronomers has analyzed measurements of the stars in the dwarf galaxy Andromeda II — the second largest dwarf galaxy in the Local Group — and made a surprising discovery: an odd stream of stars that simply doesn’t belong.

The team led by Dr. Nicola C. Amorisco from the Dark Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen used the Deep Imaging Multi-Object (DEIMOS) spectrograph onboard the Keck II telescope in Hawaii in order to measure the velocities of more than 700 stars in the Andromeda II dwarf galaxy.

Stars in a large spiral galaxy will move, on average, with the rotation of the galaxy. On one side of the galaxy’s spinning disk, the stars will be moving away from the Earth, and their light waves will be stretched to redder wavelengths. On the opposite side, the stars will be moving toward the Earth, and their light waves will be compressed to bluer wavelengths.

But the stars in dwarf galaxies don’t exhibit such a pattern. Instead they move around entirely at random.

Amorisco and colleagues, however, found a rather different case present in Andromeda II. They observed a stream of stars — roughly 16,000 light years in length and 980 light years in thickness — that didn’t exhibit random motions at all. They orbit the center of the galaxy in a very coherent fashion.

But it gets better: the stars in this stream are also much colder than the stars outside the stream. In astronomy this is the equivalent of saying that the stars in this stream are much older. Amorisco’s team now believes they once belonged to a different galaxy entirely and remain only as a remnant of the past collision, which likely occurred over 3 billion years ago.

Streams of stars often result from collisions. As two galaxies begin to interact, the stars nearest the approaching galaxy feel a much stronger gravitational pull than the stars further away. Eventually the gravitational pull on the closer side of the galaxy will pull the stars from their initial galaxy, creating a stream of stars, dust and gas.

This is the smallest known example of two galaxies merging. The finding adds further evidence that mergers between dwarf galaxies plays a fundamental role in creating the large and beautiful galaxies we see today.

The paper has been published in Nature and is available for download here.

Can Stars Collide?

Imagine a really bad day. Perhaps you’re imagining a day where the Sun crashes into another star, destroying most of the Solar System.

No? Well then, even in your imagination things aren’t so bad… It’s all just matter of perspective.

Fortunately for us, we live in out the boring suburbs of the Milky Way. Out here, distances between stars are so vast that collisions are incredibly rare. There are places in the Milky Way where stars are crowded more densely, like globular clusters, and we get to see the aftermath of these collisions. These clusters are ancient spherical structures that can contain hundreds of thousands of stars, all of which formed together, shortly after the Big Bang.

Within one of these clusters, stars average about a light year apart, and at their core, they can get as close to one another as the radius of our Solar System. With all these stars buzzing around for billions of years, you can imagine they’ve gotten up to some serious mischief.

Within globular clusters there are these mysterious blue straggler stars. They’re large hot stars, and if they had formed with the rest of the cluster, they would have detonated as supernovae billions of years ago. So scientists figure that they must have formed recently.

How? Astronomers think they’re the result of a stellar collision. Perhaps a binary pair of stars merged, or maybe two stars smashed into one another.

Professor Mark Morris of the University of California at Los Angeles in the Department of Physics and Astronomy helps to explain this idea.

“When you see two stars colliding with each other, it depends on how fast they’re moving. If they’re moving at speeds like we see at the center of our galaxy, then the collision is extremely violent. If it’s a head-on collision, the stars get completely splashed to the far corners of the galaxy. If they’re merging at slower velocities than we see at our neck of the woods in our galaxy, then stars are more happy to merge with us and coalesce into one single, more massive object.”

There’s another place in the Milky Way where you’ve got a dense collection of stars, racing around at breakneck speeds… near the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

This monster black hole contains the mass of 4 million times the Sun, and dominates the region around the center of the Milky Way.

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The core of the Milky Way is one of those places where you find the extremes of nature. The density of stars there is higher than anywhere else in the galaxy,”Professor Morris continues. “Overall, in the center of our galaxy on scales of hundreds of light years, there is much more gas present than anywhere else in the galaxy. The magnetic field is stronger there than anywhere else in the galaxy, and it has it’s own geometry there. So it’s an unusual place, an energetic place, a violent place, because everything else is moving so much faster there than you see elsewhere.”

“We study the stars in the immediate vicinity of the black hole, and we find that there’s not as many stars as one might have expected, and one of the explanations for that is that stars collide with each other and either eliminate one another or merge, and two stars become one, and both of those processes are probably occurring.”

Stars whip around it, like comets dart around our Sun, and interactions are commonplace.

There’s another scenario that can crash stars together.

The Milky Way mostly has multiple star systems. Several stars can be orbiting a common center of gravity. Many are great distances, but some can have orbits tighter than the planets around our Sun.

When one star reaches the end of its life, expanding into a red giant, It can consume its binary partner. The consumed star then strips away 90% of the mass of the red giant, leaving behind a rapidly pulsating remnant.

What about when galaxies collide? That sounds like a recipe for mayhem.
Surprisingly, not so much.

“That’s actually a very interesting question, because if you imagine two galaxies colliding, you’d imagine that to be an exceptionally violent event,’ Professor Morris explains. “But in fact, the stars in those two galaxies are relatively unaffected. The number of stars that will collide when two galaxies collide is possibly counted on the fingers of one or two hands. Stars are so few and far between that they just aren’t going to meet each other with any significance in a field like that.”

Galaxy mergers, such as the Mice Galaxies will be part of Galaxy Zoo's newest project.  Credit: Hubble Space Telescope
The Mice galaxies merging. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

“What you see when you see two galaxies collide, however, on the large scale, is that the tidal forces of the two galaxies will rip each of the galaxies apart in terms of what it will look like. Streams of stars will be strewn out in various directions depending on the precise history of the interaction between the two galaxies. And so, eventually over time, the galaxies will merge, the whole configuration of stars will settle down into something that looks unlike either of the two initially colliding galaxies. Perhaps something more spheroidal or spherical, and it might look more like an elliptical galaxy than the spiral galaxy that these two galaxies now are.”

Currently, we’re on a collision course with the Andromeda Galaxy, and it’s expected we’ll smash into it in about 4 billion years. The gas and dust will collide and pile up, igniting an era of furious star formation. But the stars themselves? They’ll barely notice. The stars in the two galaxies will just streak past each other, like a swarm of angry bees.


So, good news! When you’re imagining a worse day, you won’t have to worry about our Sun colliding with another star. We’re going to be safe and sound for billions of years. But if you live in a globular cluster or near the center of the galaxy, you might want to check out some property here in the burbs.

Thanks to Professor Mark Morris at UCLA – visit their Physics and Astronomy program homepage here.

What is the Milky Way?

Artist's conception of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Nick Risinger

When you look up at the night sky, assuming conditions are just right, you might just catch a glimpse of a faint, white band reaching across the heavens. This band, upon closer observation, looks speckled and dusty, filled with a million tiny points of light and halos of glowing matter. What you are seeing is the Milky Way, something that astronomers and stargazers alike have been staring up at since the beginning of time.

But just what is the Milky Way? Well, simply put, it is the name of the barred spiral galaxy in which our solar system is located. The Earth orbits the Sun in the Solar System, and the Solar System is embedded within this vast galaxy of stars. It is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, and ours is called the Milky Way because the disk of the galaxy appears to be spanning the night sky like a hazy band of glowing white light. Continue reading “What is the Milky Way?”

Astronomers Refine Distances to our Closest Spiral-Galaxy Neighbors

M31 and M33 are two of the nearest spiral galaxies, and can form the basis for determining distances to more remote spiral galaxies and constraining the expansion rate of the Universe (the Hubble constant).  Hence the relevance and importance of several new studies that employed near-infrared data to establish solid distances for M31 (Andromeda) and M33 (Triangulum) (e.g., Gieren et al. 2013), and aimed to reduce existing uncertainties tied to the fundamental parameters for those galaxies.  Indeed, reliable distances for M31 and M33 are particularly important in light of the new Hubble constant estimate from the Planck satellite, which is offset relative to certain other results, and that difference hinders efforts to ascertain the nature of dark energy (the mysterious force theorized as causing the Universe’s accelerated expansion).

Gieren et al. remarked that, “a number of new distance determinations to M33 … span a surprisingly large interval … which is a cause of serious concern. As the second-nearest spiral galaxy, an accurate determination of [M33’s] distance is a crucial step in the process of building the cosmic distance ladder.”  Concerning M31, Riess et al. 2012 likewise remarked that “M31, the nearest analogue of the Milky Way Galaxy, has long provided important clues to understanding the scale of the Universe.

 The new Gieren and Riess et al. distances are based on near-infrared observations, which are pertinent because radiation from that part of the electromagnetic spectrum is less sensitive than optical data to absorption by dust located along our sight-line (see the figure below).  Properly accounting for the impact of dust is a principal problem in cosmic distance scale work, since it causes targets to appear dimmer.  “different assumptions about [dust obscuration] are a prime source for the discrepancies among the various distance determinations for M33.” noted Gieren et al., and the same is true for the distance to M31 (see Riess et al.).

Optical and near-infrared images highlight how dust obscures light emitted from a target along the line-of-sight.  The near-infrared observations are less sensitive to that obscuration (image credit: Alves et al. 2001).
Optical and near-infrared images highlight how dust obscures light emitted from targets along the sight-line, and that the level of obscuration is wavelength dependent. New distances established for M31 and M33 are based on near-infrared observations, which are less sensitive to that obscuration (image credit: Alves et al. 2001).

The Gieren and Riess et al. distances to M33 and M31, respectively, were inferred from observations of Cepheids.   Cepheids are a class of variable stars that exhibit periodic brightness variations (they pulsate radially).  Cepheids can be used as distance indicators because their pulsation period and mean luminosity are correlated.  That relationship was discovered by Henrietta Leavitt in the early 1900s.  A pseudo period-luminosity relation derived for M31 Cepheids is presented below.

Gieren et al. observed 26 Cepheids in M33 and established a distance of ~2,740,000 lightyears.  The team added that, “As the first modern near-infrared Cepheid study [of] M33 since … some 30 years … we consider this work as long overdue …”  Astronomers often cite distances to objects in lightyears, which defines the time required for light emitted from the source to reach the observer. Despite the (finite) speed of light being 300,000,000 m/s, the rays must traverse “astronomical” distances.   Gazing into space affords one the unique opportunity to peer back in time.

A relation exists between a Cepheid's a periodic brightness variations and its luminosity.  Astronomers use that relation, which was discovered in the early 1900s by Henrietta Leavitt, to establish distances to galaxies.  In the above figure the horizontal axis features the pulsation period, and the vertical axis a proxy  for luminosity (image credit: Fig 2 in Riess et al., 2013 arXiv/ApJ).
A relation exists between a Cepheid’s periodic brightness variations and its mean luminosity. Astronomers use that trend, which was discovered in the early 1900s by Henrietta Leavitt, to establish distances to galaxies hosting Cepheids. In the above figure the horizontal axis features the pulsation period, and the vertical axis defines a proxy for luminosity (image credit: Fig 2 from Riess et al., arXiv/ApJ).

The distances to M33 shown below convey seminal points in the evolution of humanity’s knowledge.  The scatter near the 1920s stems partly from a debate concerning whether the Milky Way and the Universe are synonymous.  In other words, do galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way?  The topic is immortalized in the famed great debate (1920) featuring H. Shapley and H. Curtis (the latter argued for an extragalactic scale).  The offset between the pre-1930 and post-1980 data result in part from a nearly two-fold increase in the cosmic distance scale recognized circa 1950 (see also Feast 2000).   Also evident is the scatter associated with the post-1980 distances, which merely reinforces the importance of the new high-precision distance estimates.

Riess et al. obtained data for some 70 Cepheids and determined a distance for M31 of ~2,450,000 lightyears.  The latter is corroborated by a new study by Contreras Ramos et al. 2013 (d~2,540,000 ly), whose distance estimate relied on data for stars in a M31 globular cluster.

A subset of the distances estimated for M33, as compiled from estimates featured in the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (Steer & Madore). On the vertical axis is the distance to the galaxy in units of lightyears, and  the year is cited on the horizontal axis.  The red arrow and black datum indicate the new near-infrared based distance from Gieren et al. 2013 (image credit: DM).
A subset of the distances deduced for M33, as compiled from estimates featured in the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (Steer & Madore). On the vertical axis is the distance to the galaxy in units of lightyears, and the year is cited on the horizontal axis.  The red arrow and black datum indicate the new near-infrared based distance from Gieren et al. (image credit: DM).

Top-class instruments and telescopes are needed to obtain reliable measurements of stars in galaxies nearly 3,000,000 million lightyears away.  Gieren et al. utilized the 8.2-m Very Large Telescope (Yepun) instrument shown below, while Riess and Contreras Ramos et al. analyzed observations from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Riess et al. acquired images of M31 via the new Wide-field Camera 3, which replaced the Wide-field and Planetary Camera 2 (“The Camera That Saved Hubble“) during the famed 2009 servicing mission.

The new results mark the culmination of a century’s worth of effort aimed at securing precise distances for our Galaxy’s local spiral kin (M31 and M33).  However, the offset between the Planck and certain Cepheid/SN-based determinations of the Hubble constant demands that research continue in order to identify uncertainties associated with the methods.

Gieren et al. used the 8.2-m Very Large Telescope (Yepun) to image M33, and deduce the distance to that galaxy (image credit: ESO).
Gieren et al. used the 8.2-m Very Large Telescope (Yepun) to image stars in M33, and deduce the distance to that galaxy (image credit: G. Hüdepohl/ESO).

The Gieren et al. findings have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ), and a preprint is available on arXiv.   Both the Riess and Contreras Ramos et al. studies are likewise published in ApJ.  The interested reader desiring additional information on the cosmic distance scale and Cepheids will find the following resources pertinent: the AAVSO’s article on Delta Cephei (the namesake for the class of Cepheid variables), Freedman & Madore (2010)Tammann & Reindl 2012, Fernie 1969, the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database, G. Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe, D. Fernie’s Setting Sail for the Universe: Astronomers and their Discoveries, Nick Allen’s The Cepheid Distance Scale: A History, D. Turner’s Classical Cepheids After 228 Years of Study, J. Percy’s Understanding Variable Stars.