Orion Revisited: Astronomers Find New Star Cluster in Front of the Orion Nebula

The well-known star-forming region of the Orion Nebula.  Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope / Coelum (J.-C. Cuillandre & G. Anselmi)

Precise distances are difficult to gauge in space, especially within the relatively local regions of the Galaxy. Stars which appear close together in the night sky may actually be separated by many hundreds or thousands of light-years, and since there’s only a limited amount of space here on Earth with which to determine distances using parallax, astronomers have to come up with other ways to figure out how far objects are, and what exactly is in front of or “behind” what.

Recently, astronomers using the 340-megapixel MegaCam on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) observed the star-forming region of the famous Orion nebula — located only about 1,500 light-years away — and determined that two massive groupings of the nebula’s stars are actually located in front of the cluster as completely separate structures… a finding that may ultimately force astronomers to rethink how the many benchmark stars located there had formed.

Although the Orion nebula is easily visible with the naked eye (as the hazy center “star” in Orion’s three-star sword, hanging perpendicular below his belt) its true nebulous nature wasn’t identified until 1610. As a vast and active star-forming region of bright dust and gas located a mere 1,500 light-years distant, the various stars within the Orion Nebula Cluster (ONC) has given astronomers invaluable benchmarks for research on many aspects of star formation.

[Read more: Astrophoto – Orion’s Bloody Massacre]

Now, CFHT observations of the Orion nebula conducted by Dr. Hervé Bouy of the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) and Centre for Astrobiology (CSIC) and Dr. João Alves of the Institut für Astronomie (University of Vienna) have shown that a massive cluster of stars known as NGC 1980 is actually in front of the nebula, and is an older group of approximately 2,000 stars that is separate from the stars found within the ONC… as well as more massive than once thought.

“It is hard to see how these new observations fit into any existing theoretical model of cluster formation, and that is exciting because it suggests we might be missing something fundamental.”

– Dr. João Alves, Institut für Astronomie, University of Vienna

In addition their observations with CFHT — which were combined with previous observations with ESA’s Herschel and XMM-Newton and NASA’s Spitzer and WISE — have led to the discovery of another smaller cluster, L1641W.

According to the team’s paper, “We find that there is a rich stellar population in front of the Orion A cloud, from B-stars to M-stars, with a distinct 1) spatial distribution; 2) luminosity function; and 3) velocity dispersion from the reddened population inside the Orion A cloud. The spatial distribution of this population peaks strongly around NGC 1980 (iota Ori) and is, in all likelihood, the extended stellar content of this poorly studied cluster.”

The findings show that what has been known as Orion Nebula Cluster is actually a combination of older and newer groups of stars, possibly calling for a “revision of most of the observables in the benchmark ONC region (e.g., ages, age spread, cluster size, mass function, disk frequency, etc.)”

[Read more: Astronomers See Stars Changing Right Before Their Eyes in Orion Nebula]

“We must untangle these two mixed populations, star by star, if we are to understand the region, and star formation in clusters, and even the early stages of planet formation,” according to co-author Dr. Hervé Bouy.

The team’s article “Orion Revisited” was published in the November 2012 Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. Read the CFHT press release here.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope’s Mauna Kea summit dome in September 2009. Credit: CFHT/Jean-Charles Cuillandre

Inset image: Orion nebula seen in optical – where the molecular cloud is invisible – and infrared, which shows the cloud. Any star detected in the optical in the line of sight over the region highlighted in the right panel must therefore be located in the foreground of the molecular cloud. Credit: J. Alves & H. Bouy.

Rare Supernova Pair are Most Distant Ever

High-resolution simulation of a galaxy hosting a super-luminous supernova and its chaotic environment in the early Universe. Credit: Adrian Malec and Marie Martig (Swinburne University)

Some of the earliest stars were massive and short-lived, destined to end their lives in huge explosions. Astronomers have detected some of the earliest and most distant of these exploding stars, called ‘super-luminous’ supernovae — stellar explosions 10–100 times brighter than other supernova types. The duo sets a record for the most distant supernova yet detected, and offers clues about the very early Universe.

“The light of these supernovae contains detailed information about the infancy of the Universe, at a time when some of the first stars are still condensing out of the hydrogen and helium formed by the Big Bang,” said Dr. Jeffrey Cooke, an astrophysicist from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, whose team made the discovery.

The team used a combination of data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the Keck 1 Telescope, both located in Hawaii.

“The type of supernovae we’ve found are extremely rare,” Cooke said. “In fact, only one has been discovered prior to our work. This particular type of supernova results from the death of a very massive star (about 100 – 250 times the mass of our Sun) and explodes in a completely different way compared to other supernovae. Discovering and studying these events provides us with observational examples to better understand them and the chemicals they eject into the Universe when they die.”

Super-luminous supernovae were discovered only a few years ago, and are rare in the nearby Universe. Their origins are not well understood, but a small subset of them are thought to occur when extremely massive stars, 150 to 250 times more massive than our Sun, undergo a nuclear explosion triggered by the conversion of photons into electron-positron pairs. This process is completely different compared to all other types of supernovae. Such events are expected to have occurred more frequently in the early Universe, when massive stars were more common.

This, and the extreme brightness of these events, encouraged Cooke and colleagues to search for super-luminous supernovae at redshifts, z, greater than 2, when the Universe was less than one-quarter of its present age.

“We used LRIS (Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer) on Keck I to get the deep spectroscopy to confirm the host redshifts and to search for late-time emission from the supernovae,” Cooke said. “The initial detections were found in the CFHT Legacy Survey Deep fields. The light from the supernovae arrived here on Earth 4 to 6 years ago. To confirm their distances, we need to get a spectrum of their host galaxies which are very faint because of their extreme distance. The large aperture of Keck and the high sensitivity of LRIS made this possible. In addition, some supernovae have bright enough emission features that persist for years after they explode. The deep Keck spectroscopy is able to detect these lines as a further means of confirmation and study.”

Cooke and co-workers searched through a large volume of the Universe at z greater than or equal to 2, and found two super-luminous supernovae, at redshifts of 2.05 and 3.90 — breaking the previous supernova redshift record of 2.36, and implying a production rate of super-luminous supernovae at these redshifts at least 10 times higher than in the nearby Universe. Although the spectra of these two objects make it unlikely that their progenitors were among the first generation of stars, the present results suggest that detection of those stars may not be far from our grasp.

Detecting the first stars allows us much greater understanding of the first stars in the Universe, Cooke said.

“Shortly after the Big Bang, there was only hydrogen and helium in the Universe,” he said. “All the other elements that we see around us today, such as carbon, oxygen, iron, and silicon, were manufactured in the cores of stars or during supernova explosions. The first stars to form after the Big Bang laid the framework for the long process of enriching the Universe that eventually produced the diverse set of galaxies, stars, and planets we see around us today. Our discoveries probe an early time in the Universe that overlaps with the time we expect to see the first stars.”

Sources: Keck Observatory, Nature

Astronomers Witness a Web of Dark Matter

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We can’t see it, we can’t feel it, we can’t even interact with it… but dark matter may very well be one of the most fundamental physical components of our Universe. The sheer quantity of the stuff – whatever it is – is what physicists have suspected helps gives galaxies their mass, structure, and motion, and provides the “glue” that connects clusters of galaxies together in vast networks of cosmic webs.

Now, for the first time, this dark matter web has been directly observed.

An international team of astronomers, led by Dr. Catherine Heymans of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Associate Professor Ludovic Van Waerbeke of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, used data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Legacy Survey to map images of about 10 million galaxies and study how their light was bent by gravitational lensing caused by intervening dark matter.

Inside the dome of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. (CFHT)

The images were gathered over a period of five years using CFHT’s 1×1-degree-field, 340-megapixel MegaCam. The galaxies observed in the survey are up to 6 billion light-years away… meaning their observed light was emitted when the Universe was only a little over half its present age.

The amount of distortion of the galaxies’ light provided the team with a visual map of a dark matter “web” spanning a billion light-years across.

“It is fascinating to be able to ‘see’ the dark matter using space-time distortion,” said Van Waerbeke. “It gives us privileged access to this mysterious mass in the Universe which cannot be observed otherwise. Knowing how dark matter is distributed is the very first step towards understanding its nature and how it fits within our current knowledge of physics.”

This is one giant leap toward unraveling the mystery of this massive-yet-invisible substance that pervades the Universe.

The densest regions of the dark matter cosmic web host massive clusters of galaxies. Credit: Van Waerbeke, Heymans, and CFHTLens collaboration.

“We hope that by mapping more dark matter than has been studied before, we are a step closer to understanding this material and its relationship with the galaxies in our Universe,” Dr. Heymans said.

The results were presented today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. Read the release here.