Chandra Observatory Checks to Make Sure Alpha Centauri is Safe, You Know, in Case We Decide to Visit

At distance of just 4.367 light years, the triple star system of Alpha Centauri (Alpha Centauri A+B and Proxima Centauri) is the closest star system to our own. In 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet located within the star’s habitable zone and the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. However, whether or not Alpha Centauri has any potentially habitable planets remains a mystery.

Between 2012 and 2015, three possible candidates were announced in this system, but follow-up studies cast doubt on their existence. Looking to resolve this mystery, Tom Ayres – a senior research associate and Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy – conducted a study of Alpha Centauri based on over a decade’s worth of observations, with encouraging results!

The results of this study were presented at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which took place in Denver, Colorado, from June 3rd to June 7th. The study was based on ten years worth of monitoring of Alpha Centauri, which was provided the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This data indicated that any planets that orbit Alpha Centauri A and B are not likely to be bombarded by large amounts of X-ray radiation.

The two brightest stars of the Centaurus constellation – (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Skatebiker

This is good news as far as Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability goes since X-rays and related Space Weather effects are harmful to unprotected life. Not only can high doses of radiation be lethal to living creatures, they can also strip away planetary atmospheres. According to data provided by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, this  is precisely what happened to Mars between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago.

As Tom Ayres explained in a recent Chandra press release:

“Because it is relatively close, the Alpha Centauri system is seen by many as the best candidate to explore for signs of life. The question is, will we find planets in an environment conducive to life as we know it?”

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system (A and B) are quite similar to our Sun and orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Centauri A, a G2 V (yellow dwarf) star, is the most Sun-like of the two, being 1.1 times the mass and 1.519 times the luminosity of the Sun. Alpha Centauri B is somewhat smaller and cooler, at 0.907 times the Sun’s mass and 0.445 times its visual luminosity.

As such, the odds that the system could support an Earth-like planet are pretty good, especially around Alpha Centauri A. According to the Chandra data, the prospects for life (based on X-ray bombardment) are actually better for any planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A than for the Sun, and Alpha Centauri B is only slightly worse. This is certainly good news for those who are hoping that a potentially habitable exoplanet is found in close proximity to the Solar System.

The respective habitable zones around Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory

When the existence of Proxima b was first announced, there was naturally much excitement. Not only did this planet orbit within it’s star’s habitable zone, but it was the closest known exoplanet to Earth. Subsequent studies, however, revealed that Proxima Centauri is variable and unstable by nature, which makes it unlikely that Proxima b could maintain an atmosphere or life on its surface. As Ayers explained:

“This is very good news for Alpha Cen AB in terms of the ability of possible life on any of their planets to survive radiation bouts from the stars. Chandra shows us that life should have a fighting chance on planets around either of these stars.”

Meanwhile, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B, but without success. The problem with this system is the orbit of the pair, which has drawn the two bright stars close together in the sky over the past decade. To help determine if Alpha Centauri was hospitable to life, astronomers began conducting a long-term observation campaign with Chandra in 2005.

As the only X-ray observatory capable of resolving Alpha Centauri A and B during its current close orbital approach, Chandra observed these two main stars every six months for the past thirteen years. These long-term measurements captured a full cycle of increases and decreases in X-ray activity, in much the same way that the Sun has an 11-year sunspot cycle.

What these observations showed was that any planet orbiting within the habitable zone of A would receive (on average) a lower dose of X-rays compared to similar planets around the Sun. For planets orbiting withing the habitable zone of B, the X-ray dose they received would be about five times higher. Meanwhile, planets orbiting within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone would get an average of 500 times more X-rays, and 50,000 times more during a big flare.

In addition to providing encouraging hints about Alpha Centauri’s possible habitability, the X-ray observations provided by Chandra could also go a long way towards informing astronomers about our Sun’s X-ray activity. Understanding this is key to learning more about space weather and the threat they can pose to human infrastructure, as well as other technologically-advanced civilizations.

In the meantime, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B. Knowing that they have a good chance of supporting life will certainly make any future exploration of this system (like Project Starshot) all the more lucrative!

Some of the study’s results also appeared in the January issue in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, titled “Alpha Centauri Beyond the Crossroads“. And be sure to enjoy this video about Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory

Okay, Last Year’s Kilonova Did Probably Create a Black Hole

In August of 2017, another major breakthrough occurred when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger. Shortly thereafter, scientists at LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were able to determine where in the sky this event (known as a kilonova) occurred.

This source, known as GW170817/GRB, has been the target of many follow-up surveys since it was believed that the merge could have led to the formation of a black hole. According to a new study by a team that analyzed data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory since the event, scientists can now say with greater confidence that the merger created a new black hole in our galaxy.

The study, titled “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by David Pooley, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy at Trinity University, San Antonio, and included members from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Berkeley, and Nazarbayev University’s Energetic Cosmos Laboratory in Kazakhstan.

Illustration of the kilonova merger (top), and the resulting object (left and right) over time. Credit: NASA/CXC/Trinity University/D. Pooley et al. Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

For the sake of their study, the team analyzed X-ray data from Chandra taken in the days, weeks, and months after the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO and gamma rays by NASA’s Fermi mission. While nearly every telescope in the world had observed the source, X-ray data was critical to understanding what happened after the two neutron stars collided.

While a Chandra observation two to three days after the event failed to detect an X-ray source, subsequent observations taken 9, 15, and 16 days after the event resulted in detections. The source disappeared for a time as GW170817 passed behind the Sun, but additional observations were made about 110 and 160 days after the event, both of which showed significant brightening.

While the LIGO data provided astronomers with a good estimate of the resulting object’s mass after the neutron stars merged (2.7 Solar Masses), this was not enough to determine what it had become. Essentially, this amount of mass meant that it was either the most massive neutron star ever found or the lowest-mass black hole ever found (the previous record holders being four or five Solar Masses). As Dave Pooley explained in a NASA/Chandra press release:

“While neutron stars and black holes are mysterious, we have studied many of them throughout the Universe using telescopes like Chandra. That means we have both data and theories on how we expect such objects to behave in X-rays.”

Illustration of the resulting black hole caused by GW170817. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

If the neutron stars merged to form a heavier neutron star, then astronomers would expect it to spin rapidly and generate and very strong magnetic field. This would have also created an expanded bubble of high-energy particles that would result in bright X-ray emissions. However, the Chandra data revealed X-ray emissions that were several hundred times lower than expected from a massive, rapidly-spinning neutron star.

By comparing the Chandra observations with those by the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), Pooley and his team were also able to deduce that the X-ray emission were due entirely to the shock wave caused by the merger smashing into surrounding gas. In short, there was no sign of X-rays resulting from a neutron star.

This strongly implies that the resulting object was in fact a black hole. If confirmed, these results would indicate that the formation process of a blackhole can sometimes be complicated. Essentially, GW170817 would have been the result of two stars undergoing a supernova explosion that left behind two neutron stars in a sufficiently tight orbit that they eventually came together. As Pawan Kumar explained:

“We may have answered one of the most basic questions about this dazzling event: what did it make? Astronomers have long suspected that neutron star mergers would form a black hole and produce bursts of radiation, but we lacked a strong case for it until now.”

Simulated view of a black hole. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke, Radboud University

Looking ahead, the claims put forward by Pooley and his colleagues could be tested by future X-ray and radio observations. Next-generation instruments – like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) currently under construction in South Africa and Australia, and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (Athena+) – would be especially helpful in this regard.

If the remnant turns out to be a massive neutron star with a strong magnetic field after all, then the source should get much brighter in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the coming years as the high-energy bubble catches up with the decelerating shock wave. As the shock wave weakens, astronomers expect that it will continue to become fainter than it was when recently observed.

Regardless, future observations of GW170817 are bound to provide a wealth of information, according to J. Craig Wheeler, a co-author on the study also from the University of Texas. “GW170817 is the astronomical event that keeps on giving,” he said. “We are learning so much about the astrophysics of the densest known objects from this one event.”

If these follow-up observations find that a heavy neutron star is what resulted from the merger, this discovery would challenge theories about the structure of neutron stars and how massive they can get. On the other hand, if they find that it formed a tiny black hole, then it will challenge astronomers notions about the lower mass limits of black holes. For astrophysicists, it’s basically a win-win scenario.

As co-author Bruce Grossan of the University of California at Berkeley added:

“At the beginning of my career, astronomers could only observe neutron stars and black holes in our own galaxy, and now we are observing these exotic stars across the cosmos. What an exciting time to be alive, to see instruments like LIGO and Chandra showing us so many thrilling things nature has to offer.”

Indeed, looking farther out into the cosmos and deeper back in time has revealed much about the Universe that was previously unknown. And with improved instruments being developed for the sole purpose of studying astronomical phenomena in greater detail and at even greater distances, there seems to be no limit to what we might learn. And be sure to check out this video of the GW170817 merger, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

A Magnetar Just Woke Up After Three Years of Silence

When stars reach the end of their main sequence, they undergo a gravitational collapse, ejecting their outermost layers in a supernova explosion. What remains afterward is a dense, spinning core primarily made up of neutrons (aka. a neutron star), of which only 3000 are known to exist in the Milky Way Galaxy. An even rarer subset of neutron stars are magnetars, only two dozen of which are known in our galaxy.

These stars are especially mysterious, having extremely powerful magnetic fields that are almost powerful enough to rip them apart. And thanks to a new study by a team of international astronomers, it seems the mystery of these stars has only deepened further. Using data from a series of radio and x-ray observatories, the team observed a magnetar last year that had been dormant for about three years, and is now behaving somewhat differently.

The study, titled “Revival of the Magnetar PSR J1622–4950: Observations with MeerKAT, Parkes, XMM-Newton, Swift, Chandra, and NuSTAR“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. The team was led by Dr Fernando Camilo – the Chief Scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) – and included over 200 members from multiple universities and research institutions from around the world.

Magnetars are so-named because their magnetic fields are up to 1000 times stronger than those of ordinary pulsating neutron stars (aka. pulsars). The energy associated with these these fields is so powerful that it almost breaks the star apart, causing them to be unstable and display great variability in terms of their physical properties and electromagnetic emissions.

Whereas all magnetars are known to emit X-rays, only four have been known to emit radio waves. One of these is PSR J1622-4950 – a magnetar located about 30,000 light years from Earth. As of early 2015, this magnetar had been in a dormant state. But as the team indicated in their study, astronomers using the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia noted that it was becoming active again on April 26th, 2017.

At the time, the magnetar was emitting bright radio pulses every four seconds. A few days later, Parkes was shut down as part of a month-long planned maintenance routine. At about the same time, South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope began monitoring the star, despite the fact that it was still under construction and only 16 of its 64 radio dishes were available. Dr Fernando Camilo describes the discovery in a recent SKA South Africa press release:

“[T]he MeerKAT observations proved critical to make sense of the few X-ray photons we captured with NASA’s orbiting telescopes – for the first time X-ray pulses have been detected from this star, every 4 seconds. Put together, the observations reported today help us to develop a better picture of the behaviour of matter in unbelievably extreme physical conditions, completely unlike any that can be experienced on Earth”.

Artist’s rendering of an outburst on an ultra-magnetic neutron star, also called a magnetar. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

After the initial observations were made by the Parkes and MeerKAT observatories, follow-up observations were conducted using the XMM-Newton x-ray space observatory, Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). With these combined observations, the team noted some very interesting things about this magnetar.

For one, they determined that PSR J1622-4950’s radio flux density, while variable, was approximately 100 times greater than it was during its dormant state. In addition, the x-ray flux was at least 800 times larger one month after reactivation, but began decaying exponentially over the course of a 92 to 130 day period. However, the radio observations noted something in the magnetar’s behavior that was quite unexpected.

While the overall geometry that was inferred from PSR J1622-4950’s radio emissions was consistent with what had been determined several years prior, their observations indicated that the radio emissions were now coming from a different location in the magnetosphere. This above all indicates how radio emissions from magnetars could differ from ordinary pulsars.

This discovery has also validated the MeerKAT Observatory as a world-class research instrument. This observatory is part of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the multi-radio telescope project that is building the world’s largest radio telescope in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. For its part, MeerKAT uses 64 radio antennas to gather radio images of the Universe to help astronomers understand how galaxies have evolved over time.

Aerial image of the South African MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo, South Africa. Credit: SKA

Given the sheer volume of data collected by these telescopes, MeerKAT relies on both cutting edge-technology and a highly-qualified team of operators. As Abbott indicated, “we have a team of the brightest engineers and scientists in South Africa and the world working on the project, because the problems that we need to solve are extremely challenging, and attract the best”.

Prof Phil Diamond, the Director-General of the SKA Organization leading the development of the Square Kilometer Array, was also impressed by the contribution of the MeerKAT team. As he stated in an SKA press release:

“Well done to my colleagues in South Africa for this outstanding achievement. Building such telescopes is extremely difficult, and this publication shows that MeerKAT is becoming ready for business. As one of the SKA precursor telescopes, this bodes well for the SKA. MeerKAT will eventually be integrated into Phase 1 of SKA-mid telescope bringing the total dishes at our disposal to 197, creating the most powerful radio telescope on the planet”.

When the SKA goes online, it will be one of the most powerful ground-based telescopes in the world and roughly 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument. Along with other next-generation ground-based and space-telescopes, the things it will reveal about our Universe and how it evolved over time are expected to be truly groundbreaking.

Further Reading: SKA Africa, SKA, The Astrophysical Journal

Here’s Something Strange, the Afterglow From Last Year’s Kilonova is Continuing to Brighten

In August of 2017, a major breakthrough occurred when scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the collision of two neutron stars. This source, known as GW170817/GRB, was the first gravitational wave (GW) event that was not caused by the merger of two black holes, and was even believed to have led to the formation of one.

As such, scientists from all over the world have been studying this event ever since to learn what they can from it. For example, according to a new study led by the McGill Space Institute and Department of Physics, GW170817/GRB has shown some rather strange behavior since the two neutron stars colliding last August. Instead of dimming, as was expected, it has been gradually growing brighter.

The study that describes the team’s findings, titled “Brightening X-Ray Emission from GW170817/GRB 170817A: Further Evidence for an Outflow“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by John Ruan of McGill University’s Space Institute and included members from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), Northwestern University, and the Leicester Institute for Space and Earth Observation.

Chandra images showing the X-ray afterglow of the GW170817/GRB event. Credit: NASA/CXC/McGill University/J. Ruan et al.

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data obtained by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which showed that the remnant has been brightening in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the months since the collision took place. As Daryl Haggard, an astrophysicist with McGill University whose research group led the new study, said in a recent Chandra press release:

“Usually when we see a short gamma-ray burst, the jet emission generated gets bright for a short time as it smashes into the surrounding medium – then fades as the system stops injecting energy into the outflow. This one is different; it’s definitely not a simple, plain-Jane narrow jet.”

What’s more, these X-ray observations are consistent with radiowave data reported last month by another team of scientists, who also indicated that it was continuing to brighten during the three months since the collision. During this same period, X-ray and optical observatories were unable to monitor GW170817/GRB because it was too close to the Sun at the time.

However, once this period ended, Chandra was able to gather data again, which was consistent with these other observations. As John Ruan explained:

“When the source emerged from that blind spot in the sky in early December, our Chandra team jumped at the chance to see what was going on. Sure enough, the afterglow turned out to be brighter in the X-ray wavelengths, just as it was in the radio.”

Collisions of neutron stars produce powerful gamma-ray bursts – and heavy elements like gold (Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.)

This unexpected behavior has led to a serious buzz in the scientific community, with astronomers trying to come up with explanations as to what type of physics could be driving these emissions. One theory is a complex model for neutron star mergers known as “cocoon theory”. In accordance with this theory, the merger of two neutron stars could trigger the release of a jet that shock-heats the surrounding gaseous debris.

This hot “cocoon” around the jet would glow brightly, which would explain the increase in X-ray and radiowave emissions. In the coming months, additional observations are sure to be made for the sake of confirming or denying this explanation. Regardless of whether or not the “cocoon theory” holds up, any and all future studies are sure to reveal a great deal more about this mysterious remnant and its strange behavior.

As Melania Nynka, another McGill postdoctoral researcher and a co-author on the paper indicated, GW170817/GRB presents some truly unique opportunities for astrophysical research. “This neutron-star merger is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” she said. “For astrophysicists, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving.”

It is no exaggeration to say that the first-ever detection of gravitational waves, which took place in February of 2016, has led to a new era in astronomy. But the detection of two neutron stars colliding was also a revolutionary accomplishment. For the first time, astronomers were able to observe such an event in both light waves and gravitational waves.

In the end, the combination of improved technology, improved methodology, and closer cooperation between institutions and observatories is allowing scientists to study cosmic phenomena that was once merely theoretical. Looking ahead, the possibilities seem almost limitless!

Further Reading: Chandra X-Ray Observatory, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

That’s Strange. Jupiter’s Northern and Southern Auroras Pulse Independently

In addition to being the largest and most massive planet in our Solar system, Jupiter is also one of its more mysterious bodies. This is certainly apparent when it comes to Jupiter’s powerful auroras, which are similar in some ways to those on Earth. In recent years, astronomers have sought to study patterns in Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere to explain how aurora activity on this planet works..

For instance, an international team led by researchers from University College London recently combined data from the Juno probe with X-ray observations to discern something interesting about Jupiter’s northern and southern auroras. According to their study, which was published  in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature – Jupiter’s intense, Jupiter’s X-ray auroras have been found to pulsate independently of each other.

The study, titled “The independent pulsations of Jupiter’s northern and southern X-ray auroras“, was led by William Richard Dunn – a physicist with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory and The Center for Planetary Science at UCL . The team also consisted of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and multiple research institutions.

Jupiter has spectacular aurora, such as this view captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)

As already noted, Jupiter’s auroras are somewhat similar to Earth’s, in that they are also the result of charged particles from the Sun (aka. “solar wind”) interacting with Jupiter’s magnetic field. Because of the way Jupiter and Earth’s magnetic fields are structured, these particles are channeled to the northern and southern polar regions, where they become ionized in the atmosphere. This results in a beautiful light display that can be seen from space.

In the past, auroras have been spotted around Jupiter’s poles by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and by the Hubble Space Telescope. Investigating this phenomena and the mechanisms behind it has also been one of the goals of the Juno mission, which is currently in an ideal position to study Jupiter’s poles. With every orbit the probe makes, it passes from one of Jupiter’s poles to the other – a maneuver known as a perijove.

For the sake of their study, Dr. Dunn and his team were forced to consult data from the ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatories. This is due to the fact that while it has already acquired magnificent images and data on Jupiter’s atmosphere, the Juno probe does not have an X-ray instrument aboard. Once they examined the X-ray data, Dr. Dunn and his team noticed a difference between Jupiter’s northern and southern auroras.

Whereas the X-ray emissions at the north pole were erratic, increasing and decreasing in brightness, the ones at the south pole consistently pulsed once every 11 minutes. Basically, the auroras happened independently of each other, which is different from how auroras on Earth behave – i.e. mirroring each other in terms of their activity. As Dr. Dunn explained in a recent UCL press release:

“We didn’t expect to see Jupiter’s X-ray hot spots pulsing independently as we thought their activity would be coordinated through the planet’s magnetic field. We need to study this further to develop ideas for how Jupiter produces its X-ray aurora and NASA’s Juno mission is really important for this.”

The X-ray observations were conducted between May and June of 2016 and March of 2017. Using these, the team produced maps of Jupiter’s X-ray emissions and identified hot spots at each pole. The hot spots cover an area that is larger than the surface area of Earth. By studying them, Dr. Dunn and his colleagues were able to identify patterns of behavior which indicated that they behaved differently from each other.

Naturally, the team was left wondering what could account for this. One possibility they suggest is that Jupiter’s magnetic field lines vibrate, producing waves that carry charged particles towards the poles. The speed and direction of these particles could be subject to change over time, causing them to eventually collide with Jupiter’s atmosphere and generate X-ray pulses.

As Dr Licia Ray, a physicist from Lancaster University and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“The behavior of Jupiter’s X-ray hot spots raises important questions about what processes produce these auroras. We know that a combination of solar wind ions and ions of Oxygen and Sulfur, originally from volcanic explosions from Jupiter’s moon, Io, are involved. However, their relative importance in producing the X-ray emissions is unclear.”

And as Graziella Branduardi-Raymont- a professor from UCL’s Space & Climate Physics department and another co-author on the study – indicated, this research owes its existence to multiple missions. However, it was the perfectly-timed nature of the Juno mission, which has been in operation around Jupiter since July 5th, 2016, that made this study possible.

Composite images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope show the hyper-energetic x-ray auroras at Jupiter. The image on the left is of the auroras when the coronal mass ejection reached Jupiter, the image on the right is when the auroras subsided. The auroras were triggered by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun that reached the planet in 2011. Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STScI
Composite images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope show the hyper-energetic x-ray auroras at Jupiter. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/STScI/W.Dunn et al.

“What I find particularly captivating in these observations, especially at the time when Juno is making measurements in situ, is the fact that we are able to see both of Jupiter’s poles at once, a rare opportunity that last occurred ten years ago,” he said. “Comparing the behaviours at the two poles allows us to learn much more of the complex magnetic interactions going on in the planet’s environment.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Dunn and his team hope to combine X-ray data from XMM-Newton and Chandra with data collected by Juno in order to gain a better understanding of how X-ray auroras are produced. The team also hopes to keep tracking the activity of Jupiter’s poles for the next two years using X-ray data in conjunction with Juno. In the end, they hope to see if these auroras are commonplace or an unusual event.

“If we can start to connect the X-ray signatures with the physical processes that produce them, then we can use those signatures to understand other bodies across the Universe such as brown dwarfs, exoplanets or maybe even neutron stars,” said Dr. Dunn. “It is a very powerful and important step towards understanding X-rays throughout the Universe and one that we only have while Juno is conducting measurements simultaneously with Chandra and XMM-Newton.”

In the coming decade, the ESA’s proposed JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) probe is also expected to provide valuable information on Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere. Once it arrives in the Jovian system in 2029, it too will observe the planet’s auroras, mainly so that it can study the effect these have on the Galilean Moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto).

Further Reading: UCL, ESA, Nature Astronomy

X-ray Study Shows Older Stars May be More Supportive to Life

Astronomers have long understood that there is a link between a star’s magnetic activity and the amount of X-rays it emits. When stars are young, they are magnetically active, due to the fact that they undergo rapid rotation. But over time, the stars lose rotational energy and their magnetic fields weaken. Concurrently, their associated X-ray emissions also begin to drop.

Interestingly, this relationship between a star’s magnetic activity and X-ray emissions could be a means for finding potentially-habitable star systems. Hence why an international team led by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast conducted a study where they cataloged the X-ray activity of 24 Sun-like stars. In so doing, they were able to determine just how hospitable these star systems could be to life.

This study, titled “An Improved Age-Activity Relationship for Cool Stars Older than a Gigayear“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Rachel Booth, a PhD student from the Astrophysics Research Center at Queen’s University Belfast, the team used data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the ESA’s XMM-Newton to examine how the X-ray brightness of 24 Sun-like stars changed over time.

This artist’s impression shows the magnetar in the very rich and young star cluster Westerlund 1. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

To understand how stellar magnetic activity (and hence, X-ray activity) changes over time, astronomers require accurate age assessments for many different stars. This has been difficult in the past, but thanks to mission like NASA’s Kepler Space Observatory and the ESA’s Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits (CoRoT) mission, new and precise age estimates have become available in recent years.

Using these age estimates, Booth and her colleagues relied on data from the Chandra X-ray observatory and the XMM-Newton obervatory to examine 24 nearby stars. These stars were all similar in mass to our Sun (a main sequence G-type yellow dwarf star) and at least 1 billion years of age. From this, they determined that there was a clear link between the star’s age and their X-ray emissions. As they state in their study:

“We find 14 stars with detectable X-ray luminosities and use these to calibrate the age-activity relationship. We find a relationship between stellar X-ray luminosity, normalized by stellar surface area, and age that is steeper than the relationships found for younger stars…”

In short, of the 24 stars in their sample, the team found that 14 had X-ray emissions that were discernible. From these, they were able to calculate the star’s ages and determine that there was a relationship between their longevity and luminosity. Ultimately, this demonstrated that stars like our Sun are likely to emit less high-energy radiation as they exceed 1 billion years in age.

And while the reason for this is not entirely clear, astronomers are currently exploring various possible causes. One possibility is that for older stars, the reduction in spin rate happens more quickly than it does for younger stars. Another possibility is that the X-ray brightness declines more quickly for older, more slowly-rotating stars than it does for younger, faster ones.

Regardless of the cause, the relationship between a star’s age and its X-ray emissions could provide astronomers and exoplanet hunters with another tool for gauging the possible habitability of a system. Wherever a G-type or K-type star is to be found, knowing the age of the star could help place constraints on the potential habitability of any planets that orbit it.

Further Reading: Chandra, MNRAS

Researchers Tackle Question of How the Universe Became Filled With Light

In accordance with the Big Bang model of cosmology, shortly after the Universe came into being there was a period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists have therefore been pondering how the Universe could go from being in this dark, cloudy state to one where it was filled with light. According to a new study by a team of researchers from the University of Iowa and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, it may be that black holes violently ejected matter from the early Universe, thus allowing light to escape.

Their study, titled “Resolving the X-ray emission from the Lyman continuum emitting galaxy Tol 1247-232“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Phillip Kaaret, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa – and supported by an award from the Chandra X-ray Observatory – the research team arrived at this conclusion by observing a nearby galaxy from which ultraviolet light is escaping.

Milestones in the history of the Universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. Credit: NAOJ/NOAO

This galaxy, known as Tol 1247-232, is a small (and possibly elliptical) galaxy located 652 million light-years away, in the direction of the southern Hydra constellation. This galaxy is one of just nine in the local Universe (and one of only three galaxies close to the Milky Way) that has been shown to emit Lyman continuum photons – a type of radiation in the ultraviolet band.

Back in May of 2016, the team spotted a single X-ray source coming from a star-forming region in this galaxy, using the Chandra X-ray observatory. Based on their observations, they determined that it was not caused by the formation of a new star. For one, new stars do not experience sudden changes in brightness, as this x-ray source did. In addition, the radiation emitted by new stars does not come in the form of a point-like source.

Instead, they determined that what they were seeing had to be the result of a very small object, which left only one likely explanation: a black hole. As Philip Kaaret, a professor in the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy and the lead author on the study, explained:

“The observations show the presence of very bright X-ray sources that are likely accreting black holes. It’s possible the black hole is creating winds that help the ionizing radiation from the stars escape. Thus, black holes may have helped make the universe transparent.”

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

However, this also raised the question of how a black hole could be emitting matter. This is something that astrophysicists have puzzled over for quite some time. Whereas all black holes have tendency to consume all that is in their path, a small number of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) have been found to have high-speed jets of charged particles streaming from their cores.

These SMBHs are what power Active Galactic Nuclei, which are compact, bright regions that has been observed at the centers of particularly massive galaxies. At present, no one is certain how these SMBHs manage to fire off jets of hot matter. But it has been theorized that they could be caused by the accelerated rotational energy of the black holes themselves.

In keeping with this, the team considered the possibility that accreting X-ray sources could explain the escape of matter from a black hole. In other words, as a black hole’s intense gravity pulls matter inward, the black hole responds by spinning faster. As the hole’s gravitational pull increases, the speed creates energy, which inevitably causes charged particles to be pushed out. As Kaaret explained:

“As matter falls into a black hole, it starts to spin and the rapid rotation pushes some fraction of the matter out. They’re producing these strong winds that could be opening an escape route for ultraviolet light. That could be what happened with the early galaxies.”

Depiction of the tidal disruption event in F01004-2237. The release of gravitational energy as the debris of the star is accreted by the black hole leads to a flare in the optical light of the galaxy. Credit and copyright: Mark Garlick

Taking this a step further, the team hypothesized that this could be what was responsible for light escaping the “Dark Ages”. Much like the jets of hot material being emitted by SMBHs today, similarly massive black holes in the early Universe could have sped up due to the accretion of matter, spewing out light from the cloudiness and allowing for the Universe to become a clear, bright place.

In the future, the UI team plans to study Tol 1247-232 in more detail and locate other nearby galaxies that are also emitting ultraviolet light. This will corroborate their theory that black holes could be responsible for the observed point source of high-energy X-rays. Combined with studies of the earliest periods of the Universe, it could also validate the theory that the “Dark Ages” ended thanks to the presence of black holes.

Further Reading: Iowa Now, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Did you Know There are X-rays Coming from Pluto? That’s Strange, What’s Causing it?

Once held to be the outermost planet of the Solar System, Pluto‘s designation was changed by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, owing to the discovery of many new Kuiper Belt Objects that were comparable in size. In spite of this, Pluto remains a source of fascination and a focal point of much scientific interest. And even after the historic flyby conducted by the New Horizons probe in July of 2015, many mysteries remain.

What’s more, ongoing analysis of the NH data has revealed new mysteries. For instance, a recent study by a team of astronomers indicated that a survey by the Chandra X-ray Observatory revealed the presence of some rather strong x-rays emissions coming from Pluto. This was unexpected, and is causing scientists to rethink what they thought they knew about Pluto’s atmosphere and its interaction with solar wind.

In the past, many Solar bodies have been observed emitting x-rays, which were the result of interaction between solar wind and neutral gases (like argon and nitrogen). Such emissions have been detected from planets like Venus and Mars (due to the presence of argon and/or nitrogen in their atmospheres), but also with smaller bodies like comets – which acquire halos due to outgassing.

Artist’s impression of New Horizons’ close encounter with the Pluto–Charon system. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

Ever since the NH probe conducted its flyby of Pluto in 2015, astronomers have been aware that Pluto has an atmosphere which changes size and density with the seasons. Basically, as the planet reaches perihelion during its 248 year orbital period – a distance of 4,436,820,000 km, 2,756,912,133 mi from the Sun – the atmosphere thickens due to the sublimation of frozen nitrogen and methane on the surface.

The last time Pluto was at perihelion was on September 5th, 1989, which means that it was still experiencing summer when NH made its flyby. While studying Pluto, the probe detected an atmosphere that was primarily composed of nitrogen gas (N²) along with methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO²). Astronomers therefore decided to look for signs of x-ray emissions coming from Pluto’s atmosphere using the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Prior to the NH mission’s flyby, most models of Pluto’s atmosphere expected it to be quite extended. However, the probe found that the atmosphere was less extended and that its rate of loss was hundreds of times lower than what these models predicted. Therefore, as the team indicated in their study, they expected to find x-ray emissions that were consistent with what the NH flyby observed:

“Given that most pre-encounter models of Pluto’s atmosphere had predicted it to be much more extended, with an estimated loss rate to space of ~1027 to 1028 mol/sec of N² and CH4… we attempted to detect X-ray emission created by [solar wind] neutral gas charge exchange interactions in the low density neutral gas surrounding Pluto,” they wrote.

Images sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the streaky patch at right. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR

However, after consulting data from the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) aboard Chandra, they found that x-ray emissions coming from Pluto were greater than what this would allow for.  In some cases, strong x-ray emissions have been noted coming from other smaller objects in the Solar System, which is due to the scattering of solar x-rays by small dust grains composed of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

But the energy distribution they noted with Pluto’s x-rays were not consistent with this explanation. Another possibility that the team offered is that they could be due to some process (or processes) that focus the solar wind near Pluto, which would enhance the effect of its modest atmosphere. As they indicate in their conclusions:

“The observed emission from Pluto is not aurorally driven. If due to scattering, it would have to be sourced by a unique population of nanoscale haze grains composed of C, N, and O atoms in Pluto’s atmosphere resonantly fluorescing under the Sun’s insolation. If driven by charge exchange between [solar wind] minor ions and neutral gas species (mainly CH4) escaping from Pluto, then density enhancement and adjustment of the [solar wind] minor ion relative abundance in the interaction region near Pluto is required versus naïve models.”

For the time being, the true cause of these x-ray emissions is likely to remain a mystery. They also highlight the need for more research when it comes to this distant and most massive of Kuiper Belt Objects. Luckily, the data provided by the NH mission is likely to be poured over for decades, revealing new and interesting things about Pluto, the outer Solar System, and how the most distant worlds from our Sun behave.

The study – which was accepted for publication in the journal Icarus – was conducted by astronomers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Southwest Research Institute (SwI), the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSCC), and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center.

Further Reading: CfA, arXiv

Astronomers Find a Rogue Supermassive Black Hole, Kicked out by a Galactic Collision

When galaxies collide, all manner of chaos can ensue. Though the process takes millions of years, the merger of two galaxies can result in Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs, which reside at their centers) merging and becoming even larger. It can also result in stars being kicked out of their galaxies, sending them and even their systems of planets into space as “rogue stars“.

But according to a new study by an international team of astronomers, it appears that in some cases, SMBHs could  also be ejected from their galaxies after a merger occurs. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, the team detected what could be a “renegade supermassive black hole” that is traveling away from its galaxy.

According to the team’s study – which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal under the title A Potential Recoiling Supermassive Black Hole, CXO J101527.2+625911 – the renegade black hole was detected at a distance of about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. It appears to have come from within an elliptical galaxy, and contains the equivalent of 160 million times the mass of our Sun.

Hubble data showing the two bright points near the middle of the galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

The team found this black hole while searching through thousands of galaxies for evidence of black holes that showed signs of being in motion. This consisted of sifting through data obtained by the Chandra X-ray telescope for bright X-ray sources – a common feature of rapidly-growing SMBHs – that were observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

They then looked at Hubble data of all these X-ray bright galaxies to see if it would reveal two bright peaks at the center of any. These bright peaks would be a telltale indication that a pair of supermassive black holes were present, or that a recoiling black hole was moving away from the center of the galaxy. Last, the astronomers examined the SDSS spectral data, which shows how the amount of optical light varies with wavelength.

From all of this, the researchers invariably found what they considered to be a good candidate for a renegade black hole. With the help data from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii, they determined that this candidate was located near, but visibly offset from, the center of its galaxy. They also noted that it had a velocity that was different from the galaxy – properties which suggested that it was moving on its own.

The image below, which was generated from Hubble data, shows the two bright points near the center of the galaxy. Whereas the one on the left was located within the center, the one on the right (the renegade SMBH) was located about 3,000 light years away from the center. Between the X-ray and optical data, all indications pointed towards it being a black hole that was kicked from its galaxy.

The bright X-ray source detected with Chandra (left), and data obtained from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

In terms of what could have caused this, the team ventured that the back hole might have “recoiled” when two smaller SMBHs collided and merged. This collision would have generated gravitational waves that could have then pushed the black hole out of the galaxy’s center. They further ventured that the black hole may have formed and been set in motion by the collision of two smaller black holes.

Another possible explanation is that two SMBHs are located in the center of this galaxy, but one of them is not producing detectable radiation – which would mean that it is growing too slowly. However, the researchers favor the explanation that what they observed was a renegade black hole, as it seems to be more consistent with the evidence. For example, their study showed signs that the host galaxy was experiencing some disturbance in its outer regions.

This is a possible indication that the merger between the two galaxies occurred in the relatively recent past. Since SMBH mergers are thought to occur when their host galaxies merge, this reservation favors the renegade black hole theory. In addition, the data showed that in this galaxy, stars were forming at a high rate. This agrees with computer simulations that predict that merging galaxies experience an enhanced rate of star formation.

But of course, additional researches is needed before any conclusions can be reached. In the meantime, the findings are likely to be of particular interest to astronomers. Not only does this study involve a truly rare phenomenon – a SMBH that is in motion, rather than resting at the center of a galaxy – but the unique properties involved could help us to learn more about these rare and enigmatic features.

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

For one, the study of SMBHs could reveal more about the rate and direction of spin of these enigmatic objects before they merge. From this, astronomers would be able to better predict when and where SMBHs are about to merge. Studying the speed of recoiling black holes could also reveal additional information about gravitational waves, which could unlock additional secrets about the nature of space time.

And above all, witnessing a renegade black hole is an opportunity to see some pretty amazing forces at work. Assuming the observations are correct, there will no doubt be follow-up surveys designed to see where the SMBH is traveling and what effect it is having on the surrounding cosmic environment.

Ever since the 1970s, scientists have been of the opinion that most galaxies have SMBHs at their center. In the years and decades that followed, research confirmed the presence of black holes not only at the center of our galaxy – Sagittarius A* – but at the center of all almost all known massive galaxies. Ranging in mass from the hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, these objects exert a powerful influence on their respective galaxies.

Be sure to enjoy this video, courtesy of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory, arXiv

Stunning View of the Crab Nebula Just Got Five Times Better

Images of the Crab Nebula are always a treat because it has such intriguing and varied structure. Also, just knowing that this stellar explosion was witnessed and recorded by people on Earth more than 900 years ago (with the supernova visible to the naked eye for about two years) gives this nebula added fascination.

A new image just might be the biggest Crab Nebula treat ever, as five different observatories combined forces to create an incredibly detailed view, with stunning details of the nebula’s interior region.

Data from the five telescopes span nearly the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves seen by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to the powerful X-ray glow as seen by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory. And, in between that range of wavelengths, the Hubble Space Telescope’s crisp visible-light view, and the infrared perspective of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Astronomers have produced a highly detailed image of the Crab Nebula, by combining data from telescopes spanning nearly the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum. This image combines data from five different telescopes: the VLA (radio) in red; Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared) in yellow; Hubble Space Telescope (visible) in green; XMM-Newton (ultraviolet) in blue; and Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-ray) in purple. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Dubner (IAFE, CONICET-University of Buenos Aires) et al.; A. Loll et al.; T. Temim et al.; F. Seward et al.; VLA/NRAO/AUI/NSF; Chandra/CXC; Spitzer/JPL-Caltech; XMM-Newton/ESA; and Hubble/STScI.

The Crab is 6,500 light-years from Earth and spans about 10 light-years in diameter. The supernova that created it was first witnessed in 1054 A. D. At its center is a super-dense neutron star that is as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town. This pulsar rotates every 33 milliseconds, shooting out spinning lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light. The pulsar can be seen as the bright dot at the center of the image.

Scientists say the nebula’s intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.

A new x-ray image of the Crab Nebula by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO.

For this new image, the VLA, Hubble, and Chandra observations all were made at nearly the same time in November of 2012. A team of scientists led by Gloria Dubner of the Institute of Astronomy and Physics (IAFE), the National Council of Scientific Research (CONICET), and the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina then made a thorough analysis of the newly revealed details in a quest to gain new insights into the complex physics of the object. They are reporting their findings in the Astrophysical Journal (see the pre-print here).

About the central region, the team writes, “The new HST NIR [near infrared] image of the central region shows the well-known elliptical torus around the pulsar, composed of a series of concentric narrow features of variable intensity and width… The comparison of the radio and the X-ray emission distributions in the central region suggests the existence of a double-jet system from the pulsar, one detected in X-rays and the other in radio. None of them starts at the pulsar itself but in its environs.”

“Comparing these new images, made at different wavelengths, is providing us with a wealth of new detail about the Crab Nebula. Though the Crab has been studied extensively for years, we still have much to learn about it,” Dubner said.

A multi-wavelength layout of the Crab Nebula. Credit: (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL/Caltech; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA; Ultraviolet: ESA/XMM-Newton).

Read the team’s paper: Morphological properties of the Crab Nebula: a detailed multiwavelength study based on new VLA, HST, Chandra and XMM-Newton images
Sources: Chandra, Hubble