Observing Alert: Distant Blazar 3C 454.3 in Outburst, Visible in Amateur Telescopes

Have an 8-inch or larger telescope? Don’t mind staying up late? Excellent. Here’s a chance to stare deeper into the known fabric of the universe than perhaps you’ve ever done before. The violent blazer  3C  454.3 is throwing a fit again, undergoing its most intense outburst seen since 2010. Normally it sleeps away the months around 17th magnitude but every few years, it can brighten up to 5 magnitudes and show in amateur telescopes. While magnitude +13 doesn’t sound impressive at first blush, consider that 3C 454.3 lies 7 billion light years from Earth. When light left the quasar, the sun and planets wouldn’t have skin in the game for another  two billion years. 

If we could see the blazar 3C 354.3 up close it would look something like this. A bright accretion disk surrounds a black hole. Twin jets of radiation beam from the center. Credit: Cosmovision
If we could see the blazar 3C 354.3 up close it would look something like this. A bright accretion disk surrounds a black hole. Twin jets of radiation beam from the center. Credit: Cosmovision

Blazars form in the the cores of active galaxies where supermassive black holes reside. Matter falling into the black hole spreads into a spinning accretion disk before spiraling down the hole like water down a bathtub drain.

Superheated to millions of degrees by gravitational compression the disk glows brilliantly across the electromagnetic spectrum. Powerful spun-up magnetic fields focus twin beams of light and energetic particles called jets that blast into space perpendicular to the disk.

Blazars and quasars are thought to be one and the same, differing only by the angle at which we see them. Quasars – far more common – are actively- munching supermassive black holes seen from the side, while in blazars – far more rare – we stare directly or nearly so into the jet like looking into the beam of a flashlight.

An all-sky view in gamma ray light made with the Fermi gamma ray telescope shows bright gamma-ray emission in the plane of the Milky Way (center), bright pulsars and super-massive black holes including the active blazar 3C 454.3 at lower left. Credit: NASA/DOE/International LAT Team
An all-sky view in gamma ray light made with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope shows bright gamma-ray emission in the plane of the Milky Way (center), bright pulsars and super-massive black holes including the active blazar 3C 454.3 at lower left. Credit: NASA/DOE/International LAT Team

3C 454.3 is one of the top ten brightest gamma ray sources in the sky seen by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. During its last major flare in 2005, the blazar blazed with the light of 550 billion suns. That’s more stars than the entire Milky Way galaxy! It’s still not known exactly what sets off these periodic outbursts but possible causes include radiation bursts from shocked particles within the jet or precession (twisting) of the jet bringing it close to our line of sight.

3c 454.3 is near the magnitude 2.5 magnitude star Alpha Pegasi just to the west of the Great Square. Use this chart to star hop from Alpha to IM Peg (mag. ~ 5.7). Once there, the detailed map below will guide you to the blazar. Stellarium
3c 454.3 is near the star Alpha Pegasi just to the west of the Great Square. Use this chart to star hop from Alpha to IM Peg (mag. ~ 5.7). Once there, the detailed map below will guide you to the blazar. Stellarium

The current outburst began in late May when the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite detected an increase in gamma rays from the blazar. Now it’s bright visually at around magnitude +13.6 and fortunately not difficult to find, located in the constellation Pegasus near the bright star Alpha Pegasi (Markab) in the lower right corner of the Great Square asterism.

Using the wide view map, find your way to IM Peg via Markab and then make a copy of the detailed map below to use at the telescope to star hop to 3C 454.3. The blazar lies immediately south of a star of similar magnitude. If you see what looks like a ‘double star’ at the location, you’ve nailed it. Incredible isn’t it to look so far into space back to when the universe was just a teenager? Blows my mind every time.

Detailed map showing the location of the blazar 3C 454.3. I've created a small asterism with a group of brighter stars with their magnitudes marked. A scale showing 30 arc minutes (1/2 degree) is at right. Stars shown to about magnitude +15. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Detailed map showing the location of the blazar 3C 454.3. I’ve drawn a small asterism using a group of brighter stars with their magnitudes marked. A scale showing 30 arc minutes (1/2 degree) is at right. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

To further explore 3C 454.3 and blazars vs. quasars I encourage you to visit check out Stefan Karge’s excellent Frankfurt Quasar Monitoring site.  It’s packed with great information and maps for finding the best and brightest of this rarified group of observing targets. Karge suggests that flickering of the blazar may cause it to appear somewhat brighter or fainter than the current magnitude. You’re watching a violent event subject to rapid and erratic changes. For an in-depth study of 3C 454.3, check out the scientific paper that appeared in the 2010 Astrophysical Journal.


Learn more about quasars and blazers with a bit of great humor

Finally, I came across a wonderful video while doing research for this article I thought you’d enjoy as well.

A Gamma-Ray Burst as Music

This is awesome.

What would a gamma-ray burst sound like? No one really knows, but members of the team that work with the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) have translated gamma-ray measurements into musical notes and have created a “song” from the photons from one of the most energetic of these powerful explosions, GRB 080916C which occurred in September of 2008.

“In translating the gamma-ray measurements into musical notes we assigned the photons to be “played” by different instruments (harp, cello, or piano) based on the probabilities that they came from the burst,” the team wrote in the Fermi blog. “By converting gamma rays into musical notes, we have a new way of representing the data and listening to the universe.”
Continue reading “A Gamma-Ray Burst as Music”

Fermi Telescope Catches Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space

From a NASA press release:

Scientists using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth, a phenomenon never seen before.

Scientists think the antimatter particles were formed in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), a brief burst produced inside thunderstorms and shown to be associated with lightning. It is estimated that about 500 TGFs occur daily worldwide, but most go undetected.

“These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams,” said Michael Briggs, a member of Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). He presented the findings Monday, during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.
Continue reading “Fermi Telescope Catches Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space”

Fermi Telescope Finds Giant Structure in the Milky Way

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From a NASA press release:

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has unveiled a previously unseen structure centered in the Milky Way. The feature spans 50,000 light-years and may be the remnant of an eruption from a supersized black hole at the center of our galaxy.

“What we see are two gamma-ray-emitting bubbles that extend 25,000 light-years north and south of the galactic center,” said Doug Finkbeiner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who first recognized the feature. “We don’t fully understand their nature or origin.”

The structure spans more than half of the visible sky, from the constellation Virgo to the constellation Grus, and it may be millions of years old. A paper about the findings has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Finkbeiner and Harvard graduate students Meng Su and Tracy Slatyer discovered the bubbles by processing publicly available data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT). The LAT is the most sensitive and highest-resolution gamma-ray detector ever launched. Gamma rays are the highest-energy form of light.

Other astronomers studying gamma rays hadn’t detected the bubbles partly because of a fog of gamma rays that appears throughout the sky. The fog happens when particles moving near the speed of light interact with light and interstellar gas in the Milky Way. The LAT team constantly refines models to uncover new gamma-ray sources obscured by this so-called diffuse emission. By using various estimates of the fog, Finkbeiner and his colleagues were able to isolate it from the LAT data and unveil the giant bubbles.

Scientists now are conducting more analyses to better understand how the never-before-seen structure was formed. The bubble emissions are much more energetic than the gamma-ray fog seen elsewhere in the Milky Way. The bubbles also appear to have well-defined edges. The structure’s shape and emissions suggest it was formed as a result of a large and relatively rapid energy release — the source of which remains a mystery.

One possibility includes a particle jet from the supermassive black hole at the galactic center. In many other galaxies, astronomers see fast particle jets powered by matter falling toward a central black hole. While there is no evidence the Milky Way’s black hole has such a jet today, it may have in the past. The bubbles also may have formed as a result of gas outflows from a burst of star formation, perhaps the one that produced many massive star clusters in the Milky Way’s center several million years ago.

“In other galaxies, we see that starbursts can drive enormous gas outflows,” said David Spergel, a scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Whatever the energy source behind these huge bubbles may be, it is connected to many deep questions in astrophysics.”

Hints of the bubbles appear in earlier spacecraft data. X-ray observations from the German-led Roentgen Satellite suggested subtle evidence for bubble edges close to the galactic center, or in the same orientation as the Milky Way. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe detected an excess of radio signals at the position of the gamma-ray bubbles.

The Fermi LAT team also revealed Tuesday the instrument’s best picture of the gamma-ray sky, the result of two years of data collection.

“Fermi scans the entire sky every three hours, and as the mission continues and our exposure deepens, we see the extreme universe in progressively greater detail,” said Julie McEnery, Fermi project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
NASA’s Fermi is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

“Since its launch in June 2008, Fermi repeatedly has proven itself to be a frontier facility, giving us new insights ranging from the nature of space-time to the first observations of a gamma-ray nova,” said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These latest discoveries continue to demonstrate Fermi’s outstanding performance.”

Even ‘Weakling’ Magnetars are Strong and Powerful

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The name alone, “magnetar” elicits a magnificent, powerful and strong astronomical object, and most of these “magnetic stars” are whirling, X-ray blasting dynamos, shooting out strong bursts of energy. But there are some magnetars which seem to have a softer, quieter side, and are called soft gamma repeaters and anomalous X-ray pulsars. However, they might not be as soft as they appear. A team of astronomers using the several different space- and Earth-based observatories have found a supposed ‘weakling’ was only masking its superpowers. The new findings indicate the presence of a huge internal magnetic field in these seemingly less powerful pulsars, which is not matched by their surface magnetic field.

Magnetars are a type of neutron stars, which are the collapsed remains of massive, rapidly rotating stars. They collapses down to tiny cores, with the hot neutron liquid rising and falling from the center to the crust setting up a dynamo effect, creating that incredible magnetic field. Although they are on average only about 30km in diameter, a magnetar can have a magnetic field billions of times that of our Sun.

It was thought that dramatic flares and bursts of energy came from only the strong class of magnetars, but these same features have been observed emanating from a weakly magnetized, slowly rotating pulsar.

“We have now discovered bursts and flares, i.e. magnetar-like activity, from a new pulsar whose magnetic field is very low,” said Dr Silvia Zane, from UCL’s (University College London) Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and an author of the research.

The neutron star, SGR 0418+5729, was discovered on June 5, 2009 when the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected bursts of gamma-rays from this object. Follow-up observations four days later with the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) showed that, in addition to sporadic X-ray bursts, the neutron star exhibits persistent X-ray emission with regular pulsations that indicate that the star has a rotational period of 9.1 seconds.

What makes SGR 0418 different from similar neutron stars is that, unlike those stars that are observed to be gradually rotating more slowly, continued monitoring of SGR 0418 over a span of 490 days has revealed no evidence that its rotation is decreasing.

“It is the very first time this has been observed and the discovery poses the question of where the powering mechanism is in this case. At this point, we are also interested in how many of the other normal, low field neutron stars that populate the galaxy can at some point wake up and manifest themselves as a flaring source,” said Zane.

The team of astronomers, led by Dr. Nanda Rea of Institut de Ciencies de l’Espai (ICE-CSIC, IEEC) in Barcelona, wonder how large an imbalance can be maintained between the surface and interior magnetic fields. SGR 0418 represents an important test case.

“If further observations by Chandra and other satellites push the surface magnetic field limit lower, then theorists may have to dig deeper for an explanation of this enigmatic object,” said Rea.

Sources: Chandra Blog, University College, London (via Eurekalert)

Sources of Cosmic Rays Found? Fermi Telescope Closes In

The origin of cosmic rays has been a mystery since their discovery nearly a century ago. But new images from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope may bring astronomers a step closer to understanding the source of the Universe’s most energetic particles. The images show where supernova remnants emit radiation a billion times more energetic than visible light. “Fermi now allows us to compare emission from remnants of different ages and in different environments,” said Stefan Funk, an astrophysicist at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC).

Cosmic rays are made up of electrons, positrons and atomic nuclei and they constantly bombard the Earth. In their near-speed-of-light journey across the galaxy, the particles are deflected by magnetic fields, which scramble their paths and mask their origins. When cosmic rays collide with interstellar gas, they produce gamma rays. While instruments can infer the presence of cosmic rays by looking for the glow of gamma ray emissions, so far, no specific sources have been located. .

“Understanding the sources of cosmic rays is one of Fermi’s key goals,” said said Funk, who presented the new images and findings at the American Physical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. on Monday.

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Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) mapped billion-electron-volt (GeV) gamma rays from three middle-aged supernova remnants — known as W51C, W44, and IC 443 — that were never before resolved at these energies. (The energy of visible light is between 2 and 3 electron volts.) Each remnant is the expanding debris of a massive star that blew up between 4,000 and 30,000 years ago.

In addition, Fermi’s LAT also spied GeV gamma rays from Cassiopeia A (Cas A), a supernova remnant only 330 years old. Ground-based observatories, which detect gamma rays thousands of times more
energetic than the LAT was designed to see, have previously detected Cas A.

“Older remnants are extremely bright in GeV gamma rays, but relatively faint at higher energies. Younger remnants show a different behavior,” explained Yasunobu Uchiyama, a Panofsky Fellow at SLAC. “Perhaps the highest-energy cosmic rays have left older remnants, and Fermi sees emission from trapped particles at lower energies.”

Fermi mapped GeV-gamma-ray emission regions (magenta) in the W44 supernova remnant. The features clearly align with filaments detectable in other wavelengths. This composite merges X-ray data (blue) from the Germany/U.S./UK ROSAT mission, infrared (red) from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and radio (orange) from the Very Large Array near Socorro, N.M. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration, NASA/ROSAT, NASA/JPL-Caltech, and NRAO/AUI

In 1949, physicist Enrico Fermi — for whom the Fermi telescope was named –suggested that the highest-energy cosmic rays were accelerated in the magnetic fields of gas clouds. In the decades that followed,
astronomers showed that supernova remnants are the galaxy’s best candidate sites for this process.

Young supernova remnants seem to possess both stronger magnetic fields and the highest-energy cosmic rays. Stronger fields can keep the highest-energy particles in the remnant’s shock wave long enough to speed them to the energies observed.

The Fermi observations show GeV gamma rays coming from places where the remnants are known to be interacting with cold, dense gas clouds.

“We think that protons accelerated in the remnant are colliding with gas atoms, causing the gamma-ray emission,” Funk said. An alternative explanation is that fast-moving electrons emit gamma rays as they fly past the nuclei of gas atoms. “For now, we can’t distinguish between these possibilities, but we expect that further observations with Fermi will help us to do so,” he added.

Either way, these observations validate the notion that supernova remnants act as enormous accelerators for cosmic particles.

“How fitting it is that Fermi seems to be confirming the bold idea advanced over 60 years ago by the scientist after whom it was named,” noted Roger Blandford, director of KIPAC.

Source: Fermi/Sonoma State University