Look at This Fascinating Variety of Planet-Forming Disks Around Other Stars

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released a stunning collection of images of the circumstellar discs that surround young stars. The images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. We’ve been looking at images of circumstellar disks for quite some time, but this collection reveals the fascinating variety of shapes an sizes that these disks can take.

New images from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty discs surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. They show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming. Image: ESO/H. Avenhaus et al./E. Sissa et al./DARTT-S and SHINE collaborations

We have a widely-accepted model of star formation supported by ample evidence, including images like these ones from the ESO. The model starts with a cloud of gas and dust called a giant molecular cloud. Within that cloud, a pocket of gas and dust begins to coalesce. Eventually, as gravity causes material to fall inward, the pocket becomes more massive, and exerts even more gravitational pull. More gas and dust continues to be drawn in.

The material that falls in also gives some angular momentum to the pocket, which causes rotation. Once enough material is accumulated, fusion ignites and a star is born. At that point, there is a proto-star inside the cloud, with unused gas and dust remaining in a rotating ring around the proto-star. That left over rotating ring is called a circumstellar disc, out of which planets eventually form.

There are other images of circumstellar discs, but they’ve been challenging to capture. To image any amount of detail in the disks requires blocking out the light of the star at the center of the disk. That’s where SPHERE comes in.

A detailed view of the SPHERE instrument and its main subsystems. SPHERE is installed on the ESO’s VLT and saw first light in 2014. Image: ESO

SPHERE was added to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2014. It’s primary job is to directly image exoplanets, but it also has the ability to capture images of circumstellar discs. To do that, it separates two types of light: polarized, and non-polarized.

Light coming directly from a star—in these images, a young star still surrounded by a circumstellar disc—is non-polarized. But once that starlight is scattered by the material in the disk itself, the light becomes polarized. SPHERE, as its name suggests, is able to separate the two types of light and isolate just the light from the disk. That is how the instrument captures such fascinating images of the disks.

An edge-on view of the disc surrounding the star GSC 07396-00759. The disc extends from the lower-left to the upper-right and the central grey region shows where the star was masked out. Credit:
ESO/E. Sissa et al.

Ever since it became clear that exoplanets are not rare, and that most stars—maybe all stars—have planets orbiting them, understanding solar system formation has become a hot topic. The problem has been that we can’t really see it happening in real time. We can look at our own Solar System, and other fully formed ones, and make guesses about how they formed. But planet formation is hidden inside those circumstellar disss. Seeing into those disks is crucial to understanding the link between the properties of the disk itself and the planets that form in the system.

The discs imaged in this collection are mostly from a study called the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. T Tauri stars are young stars less than 10 million years old. At that age, planets are still in the process of forming. The stars range from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close. But the blinding bright light of the stars still makes it very difficult to capture the faint light of the discs.

One of the images is not a T Tauri star and is not from the DARTTS-S study. The disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, in the image above, is actually from the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey, though the images itself was captured with SPHERE. GSC 07396-00759 is a red star that’s part of a multiple star system that was part of the DARTTS-S study. The puzzling thing is that red star is the same age as the T TAURI star in the same system, but the ring around the red star is much more evolved. Why the two discs around two stars the same age are so different from each other in terms of time-scale and evolution is a puzzle, and is one of the reasons why astronomers want to study these discs much more closely.

We can study our own Solar System, and look at the positions and characteristics of the planets and the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt. From that we can try to guess how it all formed, but our only chance to understand how it all came together is to look at other younger solar systems as they form.

The SPHERE instrument, and other future instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to look into the circumstellar discs around other stars, and to tease out the details of planetary formation. These new images from SPHERE are a tantalizing taste of the detail and variety we can expect to see.

70,000 Years Ago a Nearby Star Messed With the Orbits Of Comets and Asteroids in our Solar System

70,000 years ago, our keen-eyed ancestors may have noticed something in the sky: a red dwarf star that came as close as 1 light year to our Sun. They would’ve missed the red dwarf’s small, dim companion—a brown dwarf—and in any case they would’ve quickly returned to their hunting and gathering. But that star’s visit to our Solar System had an impact astronomers can still see today.

The star in question is called Scholz’s star, after astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz, the man who discovered it in 2013. A new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society by astronomers at the Complutense University of Madrid, and at the University of Cambridge, shows the impact Scholz’s star had. Though the star is now almost 20 light years away, its close approach to our Sun changed the orbits of some comets and asteroids in our Solar System.

When it came to our Solar System 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s star entered the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a reservoir of mostly-icy objects that spans the range from about 0.8 to 3.2 light years from the Sun. Its visit to the Oort Cloud was first explained in a paper in 2015. This new paper follows up on that work, and shows what impact the visit had.

“Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come.” – Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, Complutense University of Madrid.

In this new paper, the astronomers studied almost 340 objects in our Solar System with hyperbolic orbits, which are V-shaped rather than elliptical. Their conclusion is that a significant number of these objects had their trajectories shaped by the visit from Scholz’s star. “Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come,” explains Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, a co-author of the study now published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They found that there’s a cluster of these objects in the direction of the Gemini Constellation.

A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)

“In principle,” he adds, “one would expect those positions to be evenly distributed in the sky, particularly if these objects come from the Oort cloud. However, what we find is very different—a statistically significant accumulation of radiants. The pronounced over-density appears projected in the direction of the constellation of Gemini, which fits the close encounter with Scholz’s star.”

There are four ways that objects like those in the study can gain hyperbolic orbits. They might be interstellar, like the asteroid Oumuamua, meaning they gained those orbits from some cause outside our Solar System. Or, they could be natives of our Solar System, originally bound to an elliptical orbit, but cast into a hyperbolic orbit by a close encounter with one of the planets, or the Sun. For objects originally from the Oort Cloud, they could start on a hyperbolic orbit because of interactions with the galactic disc. Finally, again for objects from the Oort Cloud, they could be cast into a hyperbolic orbit by interactions with a passing star. In this study, the passing star is Scholz’s star.

In this image the blue is a hyperbolic orbit while the green is a parabolic orbit. Image: By ScottAlanHill [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
The timing of Scholz’s star’s visit to the Oort Cloud and our Solar System strongly coincides with the data in this study. It’s very unlikely to be coincidental. “It could be a coincidence, but it is unlikely that both location and time are compatible,” says De la Fuente Marcos. In fact, De la Fuente Marcos points out that their simulations suggest that Scholz’s star approached even closer than the 0.6 light-years pointed out in the 2015 study.

The one potentially weak area of this study is pointed out by the authors themselves. As they say in their summary, “…due to their unique nature, the orbital solutions of hyperbolic minor bodies are based on relatively brief arcs of observation and this fact has an impact on their reliability. Out of 339 objects in the sample, 232 have reported uncertainties and 212 have eccentricity with statistical significance.” Translated, it means that some of the computed orbits of individual objects may have errors. But the team expects the overall conclusions of their study to be correct.

The study of minor objects with hyperbolic orbits has heated up since the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua made its visit. This new study successfully connects one population of hyperbolic objects with a pre-historic visit to our Solar System by another star. The team behind the study expects that follow up studies will confirm their results.

Scientists Propose An Asteroid Nuke Mission To Save Earth From Potential Destruction

Some might say it’s paranoid to think about an asteroid hitting Earth and wiping us out. But the history of life on Earth shows at least 5 major extinctions. And at least one of them, about 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid.

Preparing for an asteroid strike, or rather preparing to prevent one, is rational thinking at its finest. Especially now that we can see all the Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) out there. The chances of any single asteroid striking Earth may be small, but collectively, with over 15,000 NEAs catalogued by NASA, it may be only a matter of time until one comes for us. In fact, space rocks strike Earth every day, but they’re too small to cause any harm. It’s the ones large enough to do serious damage that concern NASA.

NASA has been thinking about the potential for an asteroid strike on Earth for a long time. They even have an office dedicated to it, called the Office of Planetary Defense, and minds there have been putting a lot of thought into detecting hazardous asteroids, and deflecting or destroying any that pose a threat to Earth.

Computer generated simulation of an asteroid strike on the Earth. Credit: Don Davis/AFP/Getty Images

One of NASA’s proposals for dealing with an incoming asteroid is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s called the Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER. HAMMER is just a concept right now, but it’s worth talking about. It involves the use of a nuclear weapon to destroy any asteroid heading our way.

The use of a nuclear weapon to destroy or deflect an asteroid seems a little risky at first glance. They’re really a weapon of last resort here on Earth, because of their potential to wreck the biosphere. But out in space, there is no biosphere. If scientists sound a little glib when talking about HAMMER, the reality is they’re not. It makes perfect sense. In fact, it may be the only sensible use for a nuclear weapon.

The idea behind HAMMER is pretty simple; it’s a spacecraft with an 8.8 ton tip. The tip is either a nuclear weapon, or an 8.8 ton kinetic impactor. Once we detect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, we use space-based and ground-based systems to ascertain its size. If its small enough, then HAMMER will not require the nuclear option. Just striking a small asteroid with sufficient mass will divert it away from Earth.

If the incoming asteroid is larger, or if we don’t detect it early enough, then the nuclear option is chosen. HAMMER would be launched with an atomic warhead on it, and the incoming offender would be destroyed. It sounds like a pretty tidy solution, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

A lot depends on the size of the object and when it’s detected. If we’re threatened by an object we’ve been aware of for a long time, then we might have a pretty good idea of its size, and of its trajectory. In that case, we can likely divert it with a kinetic impactor.

Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid, “Oumuamua”. This unique object was discovered on 19 October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

But for larger objects, we might require a fleet of impactors already in space, ready to be sent on a collision course. Or we might use the nuclear option. The ER in HAMMER stands for Emergency Response for a reason. If we don’t have enough time to plan or respond, then a system like HAMMER could be built and launched relatively quickly. (In this scenario, relatively quickly means years, not months.)

One of the problems is with the asteroids themselves. They have different orbits and trajectories, and the time to travel to different NEO‘s can vary widely. And things in space aren’t static. We share a region of space with a lot of moving rocks, and their trajectories can change as a result of gravitational interactions with other bodies. Also, as we learned from the arrival of Oumuamua last year, not all threats will be from our own Solar System. Some will take us by surprise. How will we deal with those? Could we deploy HAMMER quickly enough?

Another cautionary factor around using nukes to destroy asteroids is the risk of fracturing them into multiple pieces without destroying them. If an object larger than 1 km in diameter threatened Earth, and we aimed a nuclear warhead at it but didn’t destroy it, what would we do? How would we deal with one or more fragments heading towards Earth?

HAMMER and the whole issue of dealing with threatening asteroids is a complicated business. We’ll have to prepare somehow, and have a plan and systems in place for preventing collisions. But our best bet might lie in better detection.

We’ve gotten a lot better at detecting Near Earth Objects,(NEOs), Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHOs), and Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) lately. We have telescopes and projects dedicated to cataloguing them, like Pan-STARRS, which discovered Oumuamua. And in the next few years, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will come online, boosting our detection capabilities even further.

It’s not just extinctions that we need to worry about. Asteroids also have the potential to cause massive climate change, disrupt our geopolitical order, and generally de-stabilize everything going on down here on Earth. At some point in time, an object capable of causing massive damage will speed toward us, and we’ll either need HAMMER, or another system like it, to protect ourselves and the planet.

Gaze in Wonder at Jupiter’s Mysterious Geometric Polar Storms

When the Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter in July 2016, it quickly got to work. Among the multitude of stunning images of the planet were our first ever images of Jupiter’s poles. And what we saw there was a huge surprise: geometric arrangements of cyclones in persistent patterns.

Jupiter’s polar regions have always been a mystery to Earth-bound observers. The planet isn’t tilted much, which means the poles are always tantalizingly out of view. Other spacecraft visiting Jupiter have focused on the equatorial regions, but Juno’s circumpolar orbit is giving us good, close-up views of Jupiter’s poles.

“They are extraordinarily stable arrangements of such chaotic elements. We’d never seen anything like it.” – Morgan O’Neill, University of Chicago

Juno has a whole suite of instruments designed to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding Jupiter, including an infrared imager and a visible light camera. The polar regions are a particular focus for the mission, and astronomers were looking forward to their first views of Jupiter’s hidden poles. They were not disappointed when they got them.

Each of Jupiter’s poles is a geometric array of large cyclones arranged in persistent, polygonal patterns. At the north pole, eight storms are arranged around a single polar cyclone. In the south, one storm is encircled by five others.

Jupiter’s north pole is an arrangement of 8 cyclones around one central cyclone. Image: NASA/SWRI/JPL/ASI/INAF/IAPS

This was a stunning discovery, and quickly led to questions around the why and the how of these storm arrangements. Jupiter’s atmosphere is dominated by storm activity, including the well-known horizontal storm bands in the equatorial regions, and the famous Great Red Spot. But these almost artful arrangements of polar storms were something else.

The persistent arrangement of the storms is a puzzle. Our current understanding tells us that the storms should drift around and merge, but these storms do neither. They just turn in place.

A new paper published in Nature is looking deeper into these peculiar arrangements of storms. The paper is by scientists from an international group of institutions including the University of Chicago. It’s one of four papers dedicated to new observations from the Juno spacecraft.

One of the paper’s co-authors is Morgan O’Neill, a University of Chicago postdoctoral scholar. Remarking on the storms, she had this to say: “They are extraordinarily stable arrangements of such chaotic elements. We’d never seen anything like it.”

This image from Juno’s JunoCam captured the south pole in visible light only. It’s a puzzle why the north and south poles are so similar, yet have a different number of cyclones. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

The strange geometrical arrangement of Jupiter’s polar storms reminded O’Neill of something from the library of strange physical phenomena only observed under laboratory conditions. Back in the ’90s, scientists had used electrons to simulate a frictionless, turbulent 2-D fluid as it cools. In those conditions, they observed similar behaviour. Rather than merging like expected, small vortices clumped together and formed equally spaced arrays around a center. They called these arrays “vortex crystals.”

This could help explain what’s happening at Jupiter’s poles, but it’s too soon to be certain. “The next step is: Can you create a model that builds a virtual planet and predicts these flows?” O’Neill said. That’ll be the next step in understanding the phenomenon.

Maybe it’s not surprising that these delicate-looking storms at the poles are so persistent. After all, the Great Red Spot on Jupiter has been visible for over 200 years. Maybe Jupiter is just huge and stable.

But the polar cyclones still require an explanation. And whatever that explanation is, understanding what’s happening on Jupiter will help us understand other planets better.

Hubble Sees a Huge Dust Cloud Around a Newly Forming Star

Younger stars have a cloud of dusty debris encircling them, called a circumstellar disk. This disk is material left over from the star’s formation, and it’s out of this material that planets form. But scientists using the Hubble have been studying an enormous dust structure some 150 billion miles across. Called an exo-ring, this newly imaged structure is much larger than a circumstellar disk, and the vast structure envelops the young star HR 4796A and its inner circumstellar disk.

Discovering a dust structure around a young star is not new, and the star in this new paper from Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona is probably our most (and best) studied exoplanetary debris system. But Schneider’s paper, along with capturing this new enormous dust structure, seems to have uncovered some of the interplay between the bodies in the system that has previously been hidden.

Schneider used the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the Hubble to study the system. The system’s inner disk was already well-known, but studying the larger structure has revealed more complexity.

The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a vast, complex dust structure surrounding the star HR 4769A. The bright, inner ring is well-known to astronomers, but the huge dust structure surrounding the whole system is a new discovery. Image: NASA/ESA/G. Schneider (Univ. of Arizona)

The origin of this vast structure of dusty debris is likely collisions between newly forming planets within the smaller inner ring. Outward pressure from the star HR 4769A then propelled the dust outward into space. The star is 23 times more luminous than our Sun, so it has the necessary energy to send the dust such a great distance.

A press release from NASA describes this vast exo-ring structure as a “donut-shaped inner tube that got hit by a truck.” It extends much further in one direction than the other, and looks squashed on one side. The paper presents a couple possible causes for this asymmetric extension.

It could be a bow wave caused by the host star travelling through the interstellar medium. Or it could be under the gravitational influence of the star’s binary companion (HR 4796B), a red dwarf star located 54 billion miles from the primary star.

“The dust distribution is a telltale sign of how dynamically interactive the inner system containing the ring is'” – Glenn Schneider, University of Arizona, Tucson.

The asymmetrical nature of the vast exo-structure points to complex interactions between all of the stars and planets in the system. We’re accustomed to seeing the radiation pressure from the host star shape the gas and dust in a circumstellar disk, but this study presents us with a new level of complexity to account for. And studying this system may open a new window into how solar systems form over time.

Artist’s impression of circumstellar disk of debris around a distant star. These disk are common around younger stars, but the star in this study has a massive dust cloud that envelops and dwarfs the smaller, inner ring. Credit: NASA/JPL

“We cannot treat exoplanetary debris systems as simply being in isolation. Environmental effects, such as interactions with the interstellar medium and forces due to stellar companions, may have long-term implications for the evolution of such systems. The gross asymmetries of the outer dust field are telling us there are a lot of forces in play (beyond just host-star radiation pressure) that are moving the material around. We’ve seen effects like this in a few other systems, but here’s a case where we see a bunch of things going on at once,” Schneider further explained.

The paper suggests that the location and brightness of smaller rings within the larger dust structure places constraints on the masses and orbits of planets within the system, even when the planets themselves can’t be seen. But that will require more work to determine with any specificity.

This paper represents a refinement and advancement of the Hubble’s imaging capabilities. The paper’s author is hopeful that the same methods using in this study can be used on other similar systems to better understand these larger dust structures, how they form, and what role they play.

As he says in the paper’s conclusion, “With many, if not most, technical challenges now understood and addressed, this capability should be used to its fullest, prior to the end of the HST mission, to establish a legacy of the most robust images of high-priority exoplanetary debris systems as an enabling foundation for future investigations in exoplanetary systems science.”

Rosetta’s 67P Is The Result Of A Collision Of Two Comets

Ever since we’ve been able to get closer looks at comets in our Solar System, we’ve noticed something a little puzzling. Rather than being round, they’re mostly elongated or multi-lobed. This is certainly true of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P or Chury for short.) A new paper from an international team coordinated by Patrick Michel at France’s CNRS explains how they form this way.

The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft Rosetta visited 67P in 2014, end even placed its lander Philae on the surface. Rosetta spent 17 months orbiting 67P, and at its closest approach, Rosetta was only 10 km (6 mi) from 67P’s surface. Rosetta’s mission ended with its guided impact into 67P’s surface in September, 2016, but the attempt to understand the comet and its brethren didn’t end then.

An artist’s illustration of the spacecraft Rosetta and the Philae lander at comet 67P C-G. Image: By European Space Agency – Rosetta and Philae at comet, CC BY-SA 3.0-igo,

Though Rosetta’s pictures of 67P are the most detailed comet pictures we have, other spacecraft have visited other comets. And most of those other comets appear elongated or multi-lobed, too. Scientists explain these shapes with a “comet merger theory.” Two comets collide, creating the multi-lobed appearance of comets like 67P. But there’s been a problem with that theory.

In order for comets to merge and come out looking the way they do, they would have to merge very slowly, or else they would explode. They would also have to be very low-density, and be very rich in volatile elements. The “comet merger theory” also says that these types of gentle mergers between comets would have to have happened billions of years ago, in the early days of the Solar System.

The problem with this theory is, how could bodies like 67P have survived for so long? 67P is fragile, and subjected to repeated collisions in its part of the Solar System. How could it have retained its volatiles?

Geysers of dust and gas shooting off the comet’s nucleus are called jets. The volatile material they deliver outside the nucleus builds the comet’s coma. Credit: ESA/Rostta/NAVCAM

In the new paper, the research team ran a simulation that answers these questions.

The simulation showed that when two comets meet in a destructive collision, only a small portion of their material is pulverized and reduced to dust. On the sides of the comets opposite from the impact point, materials rich in volatiles withstand the collision. They’re still ejected into space, but their relative speed is low enough for them to join together in accretion. This process forms many smaller bodies, which keep clumping up until they form just one, larger body.

The most surprising part of this simulation is that this entire process may only take a few days, or even a few hours. The whole process explains how comets like 67P can keep their low density, and their abundant volatiles. And why they appear multi-lobed.

This image from the simulation shows how the ejected material from two bodies colliding re-accretes into a bilobal comet. Image: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

The simulation also answered another question: how can comets like 67P survive for so long?

The team behind the simulation thinks that the process can take place at speeds of 1 km/second. These speeds are typical in the Kuiper Belt, which is the disc of comets where 67P has its origins. In this belt, collisions between comets are a regular occurrence, which means that 67P didn’t have to form in the early days of the Solar System as previously thought. It could have formed at any time.

The team’s work also explains the surface appearance of 67P and other comets. They often have holes and stratified layers, and these features could have formed during re-accretion, or sometime after its formation.

Smooth terrain in the Imhotep region on 67P C-G, showing layering (B) and circular structures or pits (circled). Credit: ESA/Rosetta

One final point from the study concerns the composition of comets. One reason they’re a focus of such intense interest is their age. Scientists have always thought of them as ancient objects, and that studying them would allow us to look back into the primordial Solar System.

Though 67P—and other comets—may have formed much more recently than we used to believe, this process shows that there is no significant amount of heating or compaction during the collision. As a result, their original composition from the the early days of the Solar System is retained intact. No matter when 67P formed, it’s still a messenger from the formative days.

You can watch a video from the simulation here: http://www.dropbox.com/s/u7643hanvva57rp/Catastrophic%20disruptions.mp4?dl=0

Astronomers See A Dead Star Come Back To Life Thanks To A Donor Star

It’s not exactly an organ donor, but a star in the direction of the hyper-populated core of the Milky Way donating some of its mass to a dormant neighbor. The result? The dormant neighbor sprung back to life with an X-ray burst captured by the ESA‘s INTEGRAL (INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory) space observatory.

“INTEGRAL caught a unique moment in the birth of a rare binary system” – Enrico Bozzo, University of Geneva.

The neighbors have likely been paired together for billions of years, which is not in itself noteworthy: stars often live in binary pairs. But the pair spotted by INTEGRAL on August 13th 2017 is very unusual. The donor star is a red giant, and the recipient is a neutron star. So far, astronomers only know of 10 of these pairs, called ‘symbiotic X-ray binaries’.

To understand what’s happening between these neighbors, we have to look at stellar evolution.

The donor star is in its red giant phase. That’s when a star in the same mass range as our star reaches the later stage of its life. As its mass is depleted, gravity can’t hold the star together in the same way it has for the early part of its life. The star expands outwards by millions of kilometers. As it does so, it sheds stellar material from its outer layers in a solar wind that travels several hundreds of km/sec.

The red giant and the neutron star may have traveled different evolutionary pathways, but proximity made them partners. Image: ESA

Its neighbor is in a different state. It’s a star that had an initial mass of about 25 to 30 times the Sun. When a star this big approaches the end of its life, it suffers a different fate. Stars this large live fast, and burn through their fuel quickly. Then, they explode as supernovae, in this case leaving a corpse behind. In the binary system captured by INTEGRAL, the corpse is a spinning neutron star with a magnetic field.

Neutron stars are dense. In fact, they’re some of the densest stellar objects we know of, packing as much mass as one-and-a-half of our Suns into an object that’s only about 10 km across.
When the red giant’s stellar wind met the neutron star, the neutron star slowed its rate of spin, and burst into life, emitting high-energy x-rays.

“INTEGRAL caught a unique moment in the birth of a rare binary system,” says Enrico Bozzo from University of Geneva and lead author of the paper that describes the discovery. “The red giant released a sufficiently dense slow wind to feed its neutron star companion, giving rise to high-energy emission from the dead stellar core for the first time.”

After INTEGRAL spotted the x-ray burst from the binary, other observations quickly followed. The ESA’s XMM Newton and NASA’s NuSTAR and Swift space telescopes got to work, along with ground-based telescopes. These observations confirmed what initial observations showed: this is a very peculiar pair of stars.

“…we believe we saw the X-rays turning on for the first time.” – Erik Kuulkers, ESA INTEGRAL Project Scientist.

The neutron star spins very slowly, taking about 2 hours to revolve, which is remarkable since other neutron stars can spin many times per second. The magnetic field of the neutron star was also much stronger than expected. But the magnetic field around a neutron star is thought to weaken over time, making this a relatively young neutron star. And a red giant is old, so this is a very odd pairing of old red giant with young neutron star.

One possible explanation is that the neutron star didn’t form from a supernova, but from a white dwarf. In that scenario, the white dwarf would’ve collapsed into a neutron star after a very long period of feeding on material from the red giant. That would explain the disparity in ages of the two stars in the system.

An artist’s illustration of ESA’s INTEGRAL space observatory. INTEGRAL was launched in 2002 to study some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe. Image: ESA.

“These objects are puzzling,” says Enrico. “It might be that either the neutron star magnetic field does not decay substantially with time after all, or the neutron star actually formed later in the history of the binary system. That would mean it collapsed from a white dwarf into a neutron star as a result of feeding off the red giant over a long time, rather than becoming a neutron star as a result of a more traditional supernova explosion of a short-lived massive star.”

The next question is how long will this process go on? Is it short-lived, or the beginning of a long-term relationship?

“We haven’t seen this object before in the past 15 years of our observations with INTEGRAL, so we believe we saw the X-rays turning on for the first time,” says Erik Kuulkers, ESA’s INTEGRAL project scientist. “We’ll continue to watch how it behaves in case it is just a long ‘burp’ of winds, but so far we haven’t seen any significant changes.”

The INTEGRAL space observatory was launched in 2002 to study some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe. It focuses on things like black holes, neutron stars, active galactic nuclei and supernovae. INTEGRAL is a European Space Agency mission in cooperation with the United States and Russia. Its projected end date is December, 2018.

22 Years Of The Sun From Soho

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is celebrating 22 years of observing the Sun, marking one complete solar magnetic cycle in the life of our star. SOHO is a joint project between NASA and the ESA and its mission is to study the internal structure of the sun, its extensive outer atmosphere, and the origin of the solar wind.

The activity cycle in the life of the Sun is based on the increase and decrease of sunspots. We’ve been watching this activity for about 250 years, but SOHO has taken that observing to a whole new level.

Though sunspot cycles work on an 11-year period, they’re caused by deeper magnetic changes in the Sun. Over the course of 22 years, the Sun’s polarity gradually shifts. At the 11 year mark, the orientation of the Sun’s magnetic field flips between the northern and southern hemispheres. At the end of the 22 year cycle, the field has shifted back to its original orientation. SOHO has now watched that cycle in its entirety.

The magnetic field of the Sun operates on a 22 year cycle. It takes 11 years for the orientation of the field to flip between the northern and southern hemisphere, and another 11 years to flip back to its original orientation. This composite image is made up of snapshots of the Sun taken with the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope on SOHO. Image: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

SOHO is a real success story. It was launched in 1995 and was designed to operate until 1998. But it’s been so successful that its mission has been prolonged and extended several times.

An artist’s illustration of the SOHO spacecraft. Image: NASA

SOHO’s 22 years of observation has turbo-charged our space weather forecasting ability. Space weather is heavily influenced by solar activity, mostly in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). SOHO has observed well over 20,000 of these CMEs.

Space weather affects key aspects of our modern technological world. Space-based telecommunications, broadcasting, weather services and navigation are all affected by space weather. So are things like power distribution and terrestrial communications, especially at northern latitudes. Solar weather can also degrade not only the performance, but the lifespan, of communication satellites.

Besides improving our ability to forecast space weather, SOHO has made other important discoveries. After 40 years of searching, it was SOHO that finally found evidence of seismic waves in the Sun. Called g-modes, these waves revealed that the core of the Sun is rotating 4 times faster than the surface. When this discovery came to light, Bernhard Fleck, ESA SOHO project scientist said, “This is certainly the biggest result of SOHO in the last decade, and one of SOHO’s all-time top discoveries.”

Data from SOHO revealed that the core of the Sun rotates 4 times faster than the surface. Image: ESA

SOHO also has a front row seat for comet viewing. The observatory has witnessed over 3,000 comets as they’ve sped past the Sun. Though this was never part of SOHO’s mandate, its exceptional view of the Sun and its surroundings allows it to excel at comet-finding. It’s especially good at finding sun-grazer comets because it’s so close to the Sun.

“But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 (comets) a year.” – Joe Gurman, mission scientist for SOHO.

“SOHO has a view of about 12-and-a-half million miles beyond the sun,” said Joe Gurman in 2015, mission scientist for SOHO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “So we expected it might from time to time see a bright comet near the sun. But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 a year.”

A front-row seat for sun-grazing comets allows SOHO to observe other aspects of the Sun’s surface. Comets are primitive relics of the early Solar System, and observing them with SOHO can tell scientists quite a bit about where they formed. If a comet has made other trips around the Sun, then scientists can learn something about the far-flung regions of the Solar System that they’ve traveled through.

Watching these sun-grazers as they pass close to the Sun also teaches scientists about the Sun. The ionized gas in their tails can illuminate the magnetic fields around the Sun. They’re like tracers that help observers watch these invisible magnetic fields. Sometimes, the magnetic fields have torn off these tails of ionized gas, and scientists have been able to watch these tails get blown around in the solar wind. This gives them an unprecedented view of the details in the movement of the wind itself.

It’s hard to make out, but the dot in the cross-hairs is a comet streaming toward the Sun. This image is from 2015, and the comet is the 3,000th one discovered by SOHO since it was launched. Image: SOHO/ESA/NASA

SOHO is still going strong, and keeping an eye on the Sun from its location about 1.5 million km from Earth. There, it travels in a halo orbit around LaGrange point 1. (It’s orbit is adjusted so that it can communicate clearly with Earth without interference from the Sun.)

Beyond the important science that SOHO provides, it’s also a source of amazing images. There’s a whole gallery of images here, and a selection of videos here.

In 2003, SOHO captured this image of a massive solar flare, the third most powerful ever observed in X-ray wavelengths. Very spooky. Image: NASA/ESA/SOHO

You can also check out daily views of the Sun from SOHO here.

Astronomers Find The Most Distant Supernova Ever: 10.5 Billion Light-Years Away

Astronomers have discovered the most distant supernova yet, at a distance of 10.5 billion light years from Earth. The supernova, named DES16C2nm, is a cataclysmic explosion that signaled the end of a massive star some 10.5 billion years ago. Only now is the light reaching us. The team of astronomers behind the discovery have published their results in a new paper available at arXiv.

“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.

The supernova was discovered by astronomers involved with the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a collaboration of astronomers in different countries. The DES’s job is to map several hundred million galaxies, to help us find out more about dark energy. Dark Energy is the mysterious force that we think is causing the accelerated expansion of the Universe.

DES16C2nm was first detected in August 2016. Its distance and extreme brightness were confirmed in October that year with three of our most powerful telescopes – the Very Large Telescope and the Magellan Telescope in Chile, and the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii.

This image from 2015 shows the same area of sky before DES16C2nm exploded. Image: Mat Smith and DES collaboration.

DES16C2nm is what’s known as a superluminous supernova (SLSN), a type of supernova only discovered 10 years ago. SLSNs are the rarest—and the brightest—type of supernova that we know of. After the supernova exploded, it left behind a neutron star, which is the densest type of object in the universe. The extreme brightness of SLSNs, which can be 100 times brighter than other supernovae, are thought to be caused by material falling into the neutron star.

“It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova.” – Dr Mathew Smith, lead author, University of Southampton

Lead author of the study Dr Mathew Smith, of the University of Southampton, said: “It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova. DES16C2nm is extremely distant, extremely bright, and extremely rare – not the sort of thing you stumble across every day as an astronomer.”

Dr. Smith went on to say that not only is the discovery exciting just for being so distant, ancient, and rare. It’s also providing insights into the cause of SLSNs: “The ultraviolet light from SLSN informs us of the amount of metal produced in the explosion and the temperature of the explosion itself, both of which are key to understanding what causes and drives these cosmic explosions.”

“Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.” – Co-author Mark Sullivan, University of Southampton.

Now that the international team behind the Dark Energy Survey has found one of the SLSNs, they want to find more. Co-author Mark Sullivan, also of the University of Southampton, said: “Finding more distant events, to determine the variety and sheer number of these events, is the next step. Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.”

The instrument used by DES is the newly constructed Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in the Chilean Andes. DECam is an extremely sensitive 570-megapixel digital camera designed and built just for the Dark Energy Survey.

The DECam in operation at its home in the Chilean Andes. The extremely sensitive, 570 megapixel camera is mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Image: DES/CTIO

The Dark Energy Survey involves more than 400 scientists from over 40 international institutions. It began in 2013, and will wrap up its five year mission sometime in 2018. The DES is using 525 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. DES is designed to help us answer a burning question.

According to Einstein’s General Relativity Theory, gravity should be causing the expansion of the universe to slow down. And we thought it was, until 1998 when astronomers studying distant supernovae found that the opposite is true. For some reason, the expansion is speeding up. There are really only two ways of explaining this. Either the theory of General Relativity needs to be replaced, or a large portion of the universe—about 70%—consists of something exotic that we’re calling Dark Energy. And this Dark Energy exerts a force opposite to the attractive force exerted by “normal” matter, causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.

To help answer this question, the DES is imaging 5,000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each of the 300 million galaxies. A small amount of the survey time is also used to observe smaller patches of sky once a week or so, to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients. And this is how DES16C2nm was discovered.

Study co-author Bob Nichol, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, commented: “Such supernovae were not thought of when we started DES over a decade ago. Such discoveries show the importance of empirical science; sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.”

Neptune’s Huge Storm Is Shrinking Away In New Images From Hubble

Back in the late 1980’s, Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to capture images of the giant storms in Neptune’s atmosphere. Before then, little was known about the deep winds cycling through Neptune’s atmosphere. But Hubble has been turning its sharp eye towards Neptune over the years to study these storms, and over the past couple of years, it’s watched one enormous storm petering out of existence.

“It looks like we’re capturing the demise of this dark vortex, and it’s different from what well-known studies led us to expect.” – Michael H. Wong, University of California at Berkeley.

When we think of storms on the other planets in our Solar System, we automatically think of Jupiter. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a fixture in our Solar System, and has lasted 200 years or more. But the storms on Neptune are different: they’re transient.

Voyager 2 captured this image of Neptune in 1982, when it was over 7 million km (4.4 million miles) away from the planet. The Great Dark Spot in the middle of the image was the first storm ever seen on Neptune. Image: By NASA (JPL image) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The storm on Neptune moves in an anti-cyclonic direction, and if it were on Earth, it would span from Boston to Portugal. Neptune has a much deeper atmosphere than Earth—in fact it’s all atmosphere—and this storm brings up material from deep inside. This gives scientists a chance to study the depths of Neptune’s atmosphere without sending a spacecraft there.

The first question facing scientists is ‘What is the storm made of?’ The best candidate is a chemical called hydrogen sulfide (H2S). H2S is a toxic chemical that stinks like rotten eggs. But particles of H2S are not actually dark, they’re reflective. Joshua Tollefson from the University of California at Berkeley, explains: “The particles themselves are still highly reflective; they are just slightly darker than the particles in the surrounding atmosphere.”

“We have no evidence of how these vortices are formed or how fast they rotate.” – Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, University of the Basque Country in Spain.

But beyond guessing what chemical the spot might me made of, scientists don’t know much else. “We have no evidence of how these vortices are formed or how fast they rotate,” said Agustín Sánchez-Lavega from the University of the Basque Country in Spain. “It is most likely that they arise from an instability in the sheared eastward and westward winds.”

There’ve been predictions about how storms on Neptune should behave, based on work done in the past. The expectation was that storms like this would drift toward the equator, then break up in a burst of activity. But this dark storm is on its own path, and is defying expectations.

“We thought that once the vortex got too close to the equator, it would break up and perhaps create a spectacular outburst of cloud activity.” – Michael H. Wong, University of California at Berkeley.

“It looks like we’re capturing the demise of this dark vortex, and it’s different from what well-known studies led us to expect,” said Michael H. Wong of the University of California at Berkeley, referring to work by Ray LeBeau (now at St. Louis University) and Tim Dowling’s team at the University of Louisville. “Their dynamical simulations said that anticyclones under Neptune’s wind shear would probably drift toward the equator. We thought that once the vortex got too close to the equator, it would break up and perhaps create a spectacular outburst of cloud activity.”

Rather than going out in some kind of notable burst of activity, this storm is just fading away. And it’s also not drifting toward the equator as expected, but is making its way toward the south pole. Again, the inevitable comparison is with Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS).

The GRS is held in place by the prominent storm bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere. And those bands move in alternating directions, constraining the movement of the GRS. Neptune doesn’t have those bands, so it’s thought that storms on Neptune would tend to drift to the equator, rather than toward the south pole.

Jupiter’s prominent storm, the Great Red Spot, is held in place by the alternating storm bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Image: By NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t the first time that Hubble has been keeping an eye on Neptune’s storms. The Space Telescope has also looked at storms on Neptune in 1994 and 1996. The video below tells the story of Hubble’s storm watching mission.

The images of Neptune’s storms are from the Hubble Outer Planets Atmosphere Legacy (OPAL) program. OPAL gathers long-term baseline images of the outer planets to help us understand the evolution and atmospheres of the gas giants. Images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are being taken with a variety of filters to form a kind of time-lapse database of atmospheric activity on the four gas planets.