Gaia Sees Stars Out in Deep Space, Flying Between Galaxies

In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission. Since that time, this space observatory has been busy observing over 1 billion astronomical objects in our galaxy and beyond – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – all for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

The ESA has also issued two data releases since then, both of which have led to some groundbreaking discoveries. The latest comes from the Leiden Observatory, where a team of astronomers used Gaia data to track what they thought were high-velocity stars being kicked out of the Milky Way, but which actually appeared to be moving into our galaxy.

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Astronomers are Tracking the Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua to its Home System

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine the asteroid’s origin, what it encountered in interstellar space, its true nature (is it a comet or an asteroid?), and whether or not it is an alien spacecraft (it’s not).

In all this time, the question of  ‘Oumuamua’s origin has remained unanswered. Beyond theorizing that it came from the direction of the Lyra Constellation, possibly from the Vega system, there have been no definitive answers. Luckily, an international team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) have tracked ‘Oumuamua and narrowed down its point of origin to four possible star systems.

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Narrowing Down the Mass of the Milky Way

Since the birth of modern astronomy, scientists have sought to determine the full extent of the Milky Way galaxy and learn more about its structure, formation and evolution. At present, astronomers estimate that it is 100,000 to 180,000 light-years in diameter and consists of 100 to 400 billion stars – though some estimates say there could be as many as 1 trillion.

And yet, even after decades of research and observations, there is still much about our galaxy astronomers do not know. For example, they are still trying to determine how massive the Milky Way is, and estimates vary widely. In a new study, a team of international scientists presents a new method for weighing the galaxy based the dynamics of the Milky Way’s satellites galaxies.

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This is a 3D map of 400,000 Hot Massive Stars Located Within 10,000 Light-Years From the Sun, Thanks to Gaia!

In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission, a space observatory designed to measure the positions of movements of celestial bodies. Over the course of its five-year mission, this observatory has been studying a total of 1 billion objects – including distant stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

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Gaia Turns Up 13,928 White Dwarfs Nearby the Sun, Including Several Formed Through Mergers

In 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) deployed the Gaia mission, a space observatory designed to measure the positions of movements of celestial bodies. For the past four years, Gaia has been studying distant stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars and other astronomical objects, and the data it has acquired will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made, totaling 1 billion objects.

The second release of Gaia data, which took place on April 25th, 2018, has already resulted in a number of impressive discoveries. The latest was made by an international team of scientists who identified 13,928 white dwarfs within 100 parsecs (326 light-years) of the Sun, many of which were formed through mergers. This is the first time that white dwarf stars have been directly detected within the Solar neighborhood.

The study which describes their findings, “Gaia Reveals Evidence for Merged White Dwarfs“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Dr. Mukremin Kilic, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, and included members from the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Montreal.

Artist impression of colliding white dwarfs. Credit: CfA

Basically, white dwarfs are what become of the majority of stars (with masses less than 8 Solar masses) once they exit the main sequence phase of their lives. This consists of a star exhausting its hydrogen fuel and expanding to several times its size (entering its Red Giant Branch Phase). These stars then blow off their external layers (a supernova) and leaving behind a white dwarf remnant.

By studying them, astronomers can learn far more about the life cycle of stars and how they evolve. As Dr. Kilic explained to Universe Today via email:

“[W]e’re basically doing Galactic archaeology when we study nearby white dwarfs. They tell us about the ages and star formation histories of the Galactic disk and halo. More importantly, white dwarfs explode as a Type Ia supernova when they reach 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. We use these supernovae to study the shape of the Universe and conclude that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. However, we have not yet found the progenitor systems of these supernovae. One of the channels to form Type Ia supernovae is through mergers of white dwarfs. Hence, the direct detection of merged white dwarfs is important for understanding the frequency of these white dwarf mergers.”

However, until recently only a few hundred white stars have been found within the local galactic neighborhood (500 within a 40 parsec radius). In addition, astronomers were only able to obtain accurate parallax (distance) measurements for about half of these. But thanks to the Gaia data, the number of white dwarfs systems that astronomers are able to study has increased exponentially.

Artist’s impression of a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

“Gaia provided distance measurements,” said Kilic. “We can now create complete samples of white dwarfs within a given volume. For example, prior to Gaia, we only knew about 100 white dwarfs within 20 parsecs of the Sun. With Gaia Data Release 2, we identified more than 13,000 white dwarfs within 100 parsecs of the Sun. The difference in numbers is amazing!”

The Gaia data was also helpful in determining the nature of these white dwarf systems and how they formed. As they indicate in their study, previous research has shown that the majority of white dwarf stars in our local galaxy (roughly 56%) are the product of single-star evolution, whereas 7 to 23% were the product of mergers between binaries. The remainder were white dwarf binaries, or binaries with one white dwarf and a main sequence star.

Using the Gaia data – which included the color and distribution data of thousands of white dwarf stars within ~326 light-years of the Sun – the team was able to determine how massive these stars are. This, in turn, provided vital clues as to how they formed, which indicated that mergers were far more common than previous studies suggested. As Kilic explained:

“Massive white dwarfs tend to be smaller, which means that they are also fainter (since they have a smaller surface area). Since Gaia gave us a complete sample of white dwarfs within 100 parsecs of the Sun, for the first time, we were able to derive the magnitude distribution (hence the mass distribution) of thousands of white dwarfs and find a large fraction of massive white dwarfs. We see that the number of massive white dwarfs is significantly higher than expected from single star evolution. Therefore, we concluded that many of these massive white dwarfs actually formed through mergers in previously binary systems.”

Artist’s impression of white dwarf binary pair CSS 41177. Credit: Andrew Taylor.

From this, the team was able to assemble the first reliable Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram for nearby field white dwarf stars, as well as estimates on how often white dwarf binaries merge. As Kilic indicated, this could have significant implications for other areas of astronomical study.

“Based on the frequency of these single white dwarfs that formed through mergers, we can estimate how many white dwarf mergers occur on average and with what mass distribution,” he said. “We can then infer the rate of Type Ia supernovae from these mergers and see if it’s enough to explain part or all of the Ia supernova explosions. This is an ongoing area of research and I’m sure we will some results on these very soon.”

These findings are yet another gem to come from the second Gaia data release, which has proven to be a treasure trove for astronomers. The third release of Gaia data is scheduled to take place in late 2020, with the final catalog being published in the 2020s. Meanwhile, an extension has already been approved for the Gaia mission, which will now remain in operation until the end of 2020 (to be confirmed at the end of this year).

Further Reading: arXiv

Thanks to a Massive Release from Gaia, we now Know Where 1.7 BILLION Stars are in the Milky Way

On December 19th, 2013, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft took to space with one of the most ambitious missions ever. Over the course of its planned 5-year mission (which was recently extended), this space observatory would map over a billion stars, planets, comets, asteroids and quasars in order to create the largest and most precise 3D catalog of the Milky Way ever created.

The first release of Gaia data, which took place in September 2016, contained the distances and motions of over two million stars. But the second data release, which took place on April 25th, 2018, is even more impressive. Included in the release are the positions, distance indicators and motions of more than one billion stars, asteroids within our Solar System, and even stars beyond the Milky Way.

Whereas the first data release was based on just over a year’s worth of observations, the new data release covers a period of about 22 months – which ran from July 25th, 2014, to May 23rd, 2016. Preliminary analysis of this data has revealed fine details about 1.7 billion stars in the Milky Way and how they move, which is essential to understanding how our galaxy evolved over time.

ESA’s Gaia is currently on a five-year mission to map the stars of the Milky Way. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier.

As Günther Hasinger, the ESA Director of Science, explained in a recent ESA press release:

The observations collected by Gaia are redefining the foundations of astronomy. Gaia is an ambitious mission that relies on a huge human collaboration to make sense of a large volume of highly complex data. It demonstrates the need for long-term projects to guarantee progress in space science and technology and to implement even more daring scientific missions of the coming decades.

The precision of Gaia‘s instruments has allowed for measurements that are so accurate that it was possible to separate the parallax of stars – the apparent shift caused by the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – from their movements through the galaxy. Of the 1.7 billion stars cataloged, the parallax and velocity (aka. proper motion) of more than 1.3 billion were measured and listed.

For about 10% of these, the parallax measurements were so accurate that astronomers can directly estimate distances to the individual stars. As Anthony Brown of Leiden University, who is also the chair of the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium Executive Board, explained:

The second Gaia data release represents a huge leap forward with respect to ESAs Hipparcos satellite, Gaias predecessor and the first space mission for astrometry, which surveyed some 118 000 stars almost thirty years agoThe sheer number of stars alone, with their positions and motions, would make Gaias new catalogue already quite astonishing. But there is more: this unique scientific catalogue includes many other data types, with information about the properties of the stars and other celestial objects, making this release truly exceptional.

In addition to the proper motions of stars, the catalog provides information on a wide range of topics that will be of interest to astronomers and astrophysicists. These include brightness and color measurements of nearly all of the 1.7 billion stars cataloged, as well as information on how the brightness and color change for half a million variable stars over time.

It also contains the velocities along the line of sight of seven million stars, the surface temperatures of about 100 million, and the effect interstellar dust has on 87 million. The Gaia data also contains information on objects in our Solar System, which includes the positions of 14,000 known asteroids (which will allow for the precise determination of their orbits).

Beyond the Milky Way, Gaia obtained more accurate measurements of the positions of half a million distant quasars – bright galaxies that emit massive amounts of energy due to the presence of a supermassive black hole at their centers. In the past, quasars have been used as a reference frame for the celestial coordinates of all objects in the Gaia catalogue based on radio waves.

However, this information will now be available at optical wavelengths for the first time. This, and other developments made possible by Gaia, could revolutionize how we study our galaxy and the Universe. As Antonella Vallenari, from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), the Astronomical Observatory of Padua, Italy, and the deputy chair of the Data Processing Consortium Executive Board, indicated:

The new Gaia data are so powerful that exciting results are just jumping at us. For example, we have built the most detailed Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stars ever made on the full sky and we can already spot some interesting trends. It feels like we are inaugurating a new era of Galactic archaeology.

The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which is named after the two astronomers who devised it in the early 20th century, is fundamental to the study of stellar populations and their evolution. Based on four million stars that were selected from the catalog (all of which are withing five thousand light-years from the Sun), scientist were able to reveal many fine details about stars beyond our Solar System for the first time.

Along with measurements of their velocities, the Gaia Hertzsprung-Russell diagram enables astronomers to distinguish between populations of stars that are of different ages, are located in different regions of the Milky Way (i.e. the disk and the halo), and that formed in different ways. These include fast moving stars that were previously thought to belong to the halo, but are actually part of two stellar populations.

“Gaia will greatly advance our understanding of the Universe on all cosmic scales,” said Timo Prusti, a Gaia project scientist at ESA. “Even in the neighborhood of the Sun, which is the region we thought we understood best, Gaia is revealing new and exciting features.”

For instance, for a subset of stars within a few thousand light-years of the Sun, Gaia measured their velocity in all three dimensions. From this, it has been determined that they follow a similar pattern to stars that are orbiting the galaxy at similar speeds. The cause of these patterns will be the subject of future research, as it is unclear whether its caused by our galaxy itself or are the result of interactions with smaller galaxies that merged with us in the past.

Last, but not least, Gaia data will be used to learn more about the orbits of 75 globular clusters and 12 dwarf galaxies that revolve around the Milky Way. This information will shed further light on the evolution of our galaxy, the gravitational forces affecting it, and the role played by dark matter. As Fred Jansen, the Gaia mission manager at ESA, put it:

Gaia is astronomy at its finest. Scientists will be busy with this data for many years, and we are ready to be surprised by the avalanche of discoveries that will unlock the secrets of our Galaxy.

The third release of Gaia data is scheduled to take place in late 2020, with the final catalog being published in the 2020s. Meanwhile, an extension has already been approved for the Gaia mission, which will now remain in operation until the end of 2020 (to be confirmed at the end of this year). A series of scientific papers describing what has been learned from this latest release will also appear in a special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

From the evolution of stars to the evolution of our galaxy, the second Gaia data release is already proving to be a boon for astronomers and astrophysicists. Even after the mission concludes, we can expect scientists will still be analyzing the data and learning a great deal more about the structure and evolution of our Universe.

Further Reading: ESA