Astronomers Used a Fast Radio Burst to Probe the Structure of the Milky Way

Artist's impression of the huge halo of hot gas surrounding the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA

In the past decade and a half, hundreds of Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have been detected by astronomers. These transient energetic bursts occur suddenly, typically last for just a few milliseconds, and are rarely seen again (except in the rare case of repeating bursts). While astronomers are still not entirely sure what causes this phenomenon, FRBs have become a tool for astronomers hoping to map out the cosmos. Based on the way radio emissions are dispersed as they travel through space, astronomers can measure the structure and distribution of matter in and around galaxies.

Using the Deep Synoptic Array (DSA) at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), a team of astronomers from Caltech and Cornell University used an intense FRB from a nearby galaxy to probe the halo of hot gas that surrounds the Milky Way. Their results show that our galaxy has significantly less visible (“baryonic” or “normal”) matter than previously expected. These findings support theories that matter is regularly ejected from our galaxy due to stellar winds, supernovae, and accreting supermassive black holes (SMBHs).

Continue reading “Astronomers Used a Fast Radio Burst to Probe the Structure of the Milky Way”

Three NASA Telescopes Begin Hunt For Earliest Galaxies

A grouping of galaxies, known as J0717 (center) is visible in this Spitzer Space Telescope image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/P. Capak (Caltech)

Talk about turning back time. Three NASA observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope — are all working together to look for the universe’s first galaxies. The project is called “Frontier Fields” and aims to examine these galaxies through a technique called gravitational lensing, which allows astronomers to peer at more distant objects when massive objects in front bend their light.

“Our overall science goal with the Frontier Fields is to understand how the first galaxies in the universe assembled,” stated Peter Capak, a research scientist with the NASA/JPL Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology and the Spitzer lead for the Frontier Fields.

“This pursuit is made possible by how massive galaxy clusters warp space around them, kind of like when you look through the bottom of a wine glass.”

Using the three observatories allows investigators to peer at the galaxies in different light wavelengths (namely, infrared for Spitzer, shorter infrared and optical for Hubble, and X-rays for Chandra). The teams also plan to learn more about how the foreground clusters influence the “warping” of the galaxies behind.

The Hubble and Spitzer telescopes are designed to locate where the galaxies are (and if they are indeed early galaxies) while Chandra can map out the X-ray emissions to better determine the galaxies’ masses. An early example of this project at work was examination of Abell 2744, which yielded a distant find: Abell2744 Y1, one of the earliest known galaxies, which was born about 650 million years after the Big Bang.

Source: California Institute Of Technology

Star’s Dying Gasp May Signal Black Hole’s Birth

Where is the Nearest Black Hole
Artist concept of matter swirling around a black hole. (NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital)

A distinctive flash of light emanating from a dying star may make it possible for astronomers to watch a black hole being born, according to new research.

This burst of light, which might last three to 10 days, could be visible in optical light and also in infrared, which shows the heat signature of cosmic objects. While not as bright as a supernova — an exploding star — this signal could occur somewhere in the sky as often as once a year, according to simulations performed at the California Institute of Technology.

“That flash is going to be very bright, and it gives us the best chance for actually observing that this event occurred,” stated Caltech postdoctoral scholar Tony Piro, who led the research that is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. “This is what you really want to look for.”

A big star essentially turns into a black hole when it falls into itself due to its large mass. The collapse shoots out protons and electrons from the core, creating neutrons and temporarily turning the core into a neutron star (a really, really dense object). This process also makes up neutrinos, which are infinitesimal but also extremely fast, moving nearly as fast as light does and bleeding the star of energy.

Combining observations done with ESO's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope, astronomers have uncovered the most powerful pair of jets ever seen from a stellar black hole. The black hole blows a huge bubble of hot gas, 1,000 light-years across or twice as large and tens of times more powerful than the other such microquasars. The stellar black hole belongs to a binary system as pictured in this artist's impression.  Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Combining observations done with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope, astronomers have uncovered the most powerful pair of jets ever seen from a stellar black hole. The black hole blows a huge bubble of hot gas, 1,000 light-years across or twice as large and tens of times more powerful than the other such microquasars. The stellar black hole belongs to a binary system as pictured in this artist’s impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

A 1980 paper, CalTech stated, showed that “this rapid loss of mass means that the gravitational strength of the dying star’s core would abruptly drop.” Hydrogen-filled layers at the top of the star would then fall outward and create a shock wave moving at more than two million miles an hour.

More recently, astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz discovered that the shock wave’s friction against the gas would heat up the plasma and make it glow, potentially for as long as a year. But that would be very faint from Earth-borne telescopes.

This is where the new CalTech research comes in. The university is already involved in black hole research, including the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). You can check out a video about NuSTAR below.

Piro’s simulations focus on when shock waves hit the surface of the star. It’s this process that would produce a burst of light, perhaps 10 to 100 times brighter than the other glow that astronomers foresaw.

The next step will be trying to observe these events as soon as they happen. Caltech advertised several survey possibilities related to its research: the Palomar Transient Factory, the  intermediate Palomar Transient Factory that started work in February and the even more advanced Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) that  is expected to start up in 2015.

Of course, it’s quite possible that other telescopes on the ground or orbit could work to confirm this signal.

Source: California Institute of Technology

Sifting Starlight, Finding New Worlds

These two images show HD 157728, a nearby star 1.5 times larger than the sun. The star is centered in both images, and its light has been mostly removed by an adaptive optics system and coronagraph belonging to Project 1640, which uses new technology on the Palomar Observatory’s 200-inch Hale telescope near San Diego, Calif., to spot planets. Credit: Project 1640

Looking directly at stars is a bad way to find planets orbiting faraway suns but using a new technique, scientists can now sift the starlight to find new exoplanets millions of times dimmer than their parent stars.

“We are blinded by this starlight,” says Ben R. Oppenheimer, a curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics and principal investigator for Project 1640. “Once we can actually see these exoplanets, we can determine the colors they emit, the chemical compositions of their atmospheres, and even the physical characteristics of their surfaces. Ultimately, direct measurements, when conducted from space, can be used to better understand the origin of Earth and to look for signs of life in other worlds.”

Using indirect detection methods, astronomers have found hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. The light stars emit, however, is tens of millions to billions of times brighter than the light reflected by planets.

Project 1640 is an advanced telescope imaging system, made up of the world’s most advanced adaptive optics system, instruments and software. The project operates at the 200-inch Hale Telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory. Engineers at the American Museum of Natural History, California Institute of Technology, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked more than six years developing the new system.

Earth’s atmosphere wreaks havoc with starlight. The heating and cooling of the atmosphere produces turbulence that creates a twinkling effect on the point-like light from a star. Optics within a telescope also warp light. The instruments that make up Project 1640 manipulate starlight by deforming a mirror more than 7 million times a second to counteract the twinkling. This produces a crystal clear infrared image of the star with a precision smaller than one nanometer; about 100 times smaller than a typical bacteria.

“Imaging planets directly is supremely challenging,” said Charles Beichman, executive director of the NASA ExoPlanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology. “Imagine trying to see a firefly whirling around a searchlight more than a thousand miles away.”

A coronagraph, built by the American Museum of Natural History, optically dims the star leaving other celestial objects in the field of view. Other instruments help create an “artificial eclipse” inside Project 1640. Only about half a percent of the original light remains in the form of a speckled background. These speckles can still be hundreds of times brighter than the dim planets. The instruments control the light from the speckles to further dim their brightness. What the instrument creates is a dark hole where the star had been while leaving the light reflected from any planets. Coordination of the system is extremely important, say the researchers. Even the smallest light leak would drown out the incredibly faint light from planets orbiting a star.

For now Project 1640, the world’s most advanced and highest contrast imaging system, is focusing on bright stars relatively close to Earth; about 200 light-years away. Their three-year survey includes plans to image hundreds of young stars. The planets they may find are likely to be very large, Jupiter-sized bodies.

“The more we learn about them, the more we realize how vastly different planetary systems can be from our own,” said Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Gautam Vasisht. “All indications point to a tremendous diversity of planetary systems, far beyond what was imagined just 10 years ago. We are on the verge of an incredibly rich new field.”

Read more about Project 1640:

Image Caption: Two images of HD 157728, a nearby star 1.5 times larger than the Sun. The star is centered in both images, and its light has been mostly removed by the adaptive optics system and coronagraph. The remaining starlight leaves a speckled background against which fainter objects cannot be seen. On the left, the image was made without the ultra-precise starlight control that Project 1640 is capable of. On the right, the wavefront sensor was active, and a darker square hole formed in the residual starlight, allowing objects up to 10 million times fainter than the star to be seen. Images were taken on June 14, 2012 with Project 1640 on the Palomar Observatory’s 200-inch Hale telescope. (Courtesy of Project 1640)