Gaia is so Accurate it Can Predict Microlensing Events

ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Acknowledgement: A. Moitinho.

The ESA’s Gaia Observatory continues its astrometry mission, which consists of measuring the positions, distances, and motions of stars (and the positions of orbiting exoplanets) with unprecedented precision. Launched in 2013 and with a five-year nominal mission (2014-2019), the mission is expected to remain in operation until 2025. Once complete, the mission data will be used to create the most detailed 3D space catalog ever, totaling more than 1 billion astronomical objects – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, and quasars.

Another benefit of this data, according to a team of researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is the ability to predict future microlensing events. Similar to gravitational lensing, this phenomenon occurs when light from background sources is deflected and amplified by foreground objects. Using information from Gaia‘s third data release (DR3), the team predicted 4500 microlensing events, 1664 of which are unlike any we have seen. These events will allow astronomers to conduct lucrative research into distant star systems, exoplanets, and other celestial objects.

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Variable Stars can Tell us Where and When to Search for Extraterrestrials

Artist’s impression of the Gaia spacecraft detecting artificial signals from a distant star system. In this synchronization scheme, the star system's inhabitants send the signal shortly after witnessing a supernova, which is also seen by telescopes on Earth. (Credit: Danielle Futselaar / Breakthrough Listen)

The European Space Agency’s Gaia Observatory has been operating steadily at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point for almost a decade. As an astrometry mission, Gaia aims to gather data on the positions, proper motion, and velocity of stars, exoplanets, and objects in the Milky Way and tens of thousands of neighboring galaxies. By the end of its primary mission (scheduled to end in 2025), Gaia will have observed an estimated 1 billion astronomical objects, leading to the creation of the most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

To date, the ESA has conducted three data releases from the Gaia mission, the latest (DR3) released in June 2022. In addition to the breakthroughs these releases have allowed, scientists are finding additional applications for this astrometric data. In a recent study, a team of astronomers suggested that the variable star catalog from the Gaia Data Release 3 could be used to assist in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). By synchronizing the search for transmissions with conspicuous events (like a supernova!), scientists could narrow the search for extraterrestrial transmissions.

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How Old is That Star? Ask a Computer

An open cluster of stars known as IC 4651, a stellar grouping that lies at in the constellation of Ara (The Altar). Credit: ESO

When measuring distances in the Universe, astronomers rely on what is known as the “Distance Ladder” – a succession of methods by which distances are measured to objects that are increasingly far from us. But what about age? Knowing with precision how old stars, star clusters, and galaxies are is also paramount to determining how the cosmos has evolved. Thanks to a new machine learning technique developed by researchers from Keele University, astronomers may have established the first rung on a “cosmic age ladder.”

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What Does the Milky Way Look Like?

Artist's impression of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: ESO

Beginning in 1610, when famed Renaissance polymath Galileo Galilei observed the night sky using a telescope of his own manufacture, astronomers gradually realized that our Solar System is part of a vast collection of stars known today as the Milky Way Galaxy. By the 20th century, astronomers had a good idea of its size and structure, which consisted of a central “bulge” surrounded by an extended disk with spiral arms. Despite all we’ve learned, determining the true morphology of the Milky Way has remained a challenge for astronomers.

Since we, the observers, are embedded in the Milky Way’s disk, we cannot see through the center and observe what’s on the other side. Using various methods, though, astronomers are getting closer to recreating what a “birds-eye” view of the galaxy would look like. For instance, a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) used the precise locations of very young objects in our galaxy (for the first time) to measure the morphology of the Milky Way. This revealed a multiple-arm morphology consisting of two symmetrical arms in the inner region and many irregular ones in the outer region.

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Hypervelocity Stars Teach us About Black Holes and Supernovae

An artist's conception of a hypervelocity star that has escaped the Milky Way. Credit: NASA

Hypervelocity stars (HVS) certainly live up to their name, traveling thousands of kilometers per second or a fraction of the speed of light (relativistic speeds). These speed demons are thought to be the result of galactic or black hole mergers, globular clusters kicking out members, or binary pairs where one star is kicked out when the other goes supernova. Occasionally, these stars are fast enough to escape our galaxy and (in some cases) take their planetary systems along for the ride. This could have drastic implications for our theories of how life could be distributed throughout the cosmos (aka. panspermia theory).

There are thousands of these stars in our galaxy, and tracking them has become the task of cutting-edge astrometry missions (like the ESA’s Gaia Observatory). In previous research, astronomers suggested that these stars could be used to determine the mass of the Milky Way. In a recent study from Leiden University in the Netherlands, Ph.D. candidate Fraser Evans showed how data on HVS could be used to probe the mysteries of the most extreme objects in our Universe – supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and the violent supernovae of massive stars.

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The Mass of a Single Star (other than the Sun) has Been Directly Measured for the First Time

How do you measure an object’s weight from a distance? You could guess at its distance and therefore derive its size. Maybe you could further speculate about its density, which would eventually lead to an estimated weight. But these are far from the exact empirical studies that astrophysicists would like to have when trying to understand the weight of stars. Now, for the first time ever, scientists have empirically discovered the weight of a distant single star, and they did so using gravitational lensing.

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A Monster Black Hole has Been Found Right in our Backyard (Astronomically Speaking)

The cross-hairs mark the location of the newly discovered monster black hole. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey/S. Chakrabart et al.

Black holes are among the most awesome and mysterious objects in the known Universe. These gravitational behemoths form when massive stars undergo gravitational collapse at the end of their lifespans and shed their outer layers in a massive explosion (a supernova). Meanwhile, the stellar remnant becomes so dense that the curvature of spacetime becomes infinite in its vicinity and its gravity so intense that nothing (not even light) can escape its surface. This makes them impossible to observe using conventional optical telescopes that study objects in visible light.

As a result, astronomers typically search for black holes in non-visible wavelengths or by observing their effect on objects in their vicinity. After consulting the Gaia Data Release 3 (DR3), a team of astronomers led by the University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH) recently observed a black hole in our cosmic backyard. As they describe in their study, this monster black hole is roughly twelve times the mass of our Sun and located about 1,550 light-years from Earth. Because of its mass and relative proximity, this black hole presents opportunities for astrophysicists.

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Astronomers Find a Sun-like Star Orbiting a Nearby Black Hole

Gaia BH1 is a Sun-like star co-orbiting with a black hole estimated at 10 times the Sun's mass. Credit: ESO/L. Calcada

In 1916, Karl Schwarzchild theorized the existence of black holes as a resolution to Einstein’s field equations for his Theory of General Relativity. By the mid-20th century, astronomers began detecting black holes for the first time using indirect methods, which consisted of observing their effects on surrounding objects and space. Since the 1980s, scientists have studied supermassive black holes (SMBHs), which reside at the center of most massive galaxies in the Universe. And by April 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration released the first image ever taken of an SMBH.

These observations are an opportunity to test the laws of physics under the most extreme conditions and offer insights into the forces that shaped the Universe. According to a recent study, an international research team relied on data from the ESA’s Gaia Observatory to observe a Sun-like star with strange orbital characteristics. Due to the nature of its orbit, the team concluded that it must be part of a black hole binary system. This makes it the nearest black hole to our Solar System and implies the existence of a sizable population of dormant black holes in our galaxy.

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A Recently Discovered Double Binary System is Unstable. Stars Could Collide, Leading to a Supernova

Artist view of an orbiting binary star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Multiple star systems are very common in the Milky Way. While most of these systems are binary systems consisting of two stars, others contain three, four, or even six stars. These systems tend to be pretty stable since unstable systems tend to break apart or merge fairly quickly, but sometimes you can get a kind of meta-stable system. One that lasts long enough for stars to evolve while still being stable in the end. And that end could be a supernova.

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The Milky Way has an Inner Ring, Just Outside the Core

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals a spiral galaxy named Messier 95 (also known as M95 or NGC 3351). Located about 35 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion), this swirling spiral was discovered by astronomer Pierre Méchain in 1781, and catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier just four days later. Messier was primarily a comet hunter, and was often left frustrated by objects in the sky that resembled comets but turned out not to be. To help other astronomers avoid confusing these objects in the future, he created his famous catalogue of Messier objects. Most definitely not a comet, Messier 95 is actually a barred spiral galaxy. The galaxy has a bar cutting through its centre, surrounded by an inner ring currently forming new stars. Also our own Milky Way is a barred spiral. As well as hosting this stellar nursery, Messier 95 is a known host of the dramatic and explosive final stages in the lives of massive stars: supernovae. In March 2016 a spectacular supernova named SN 2012aw was observed in the outer regions of one of Messier 95’s spiral arms. Once the light from the supernova had faded, astronomers were able to compare observations of the region before and after the explosion to find out which star had “disappeared” — the progenitor star. In this case, the star was an especially huge red supergiant up to 26 times more massive than the Sun.

In the past century, astronomers have learned a great deal about the cosmos and our place in it. From discovering that the Universe is in a constant state of expansion to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and the Big Bang cosmological model, our perception of the cosmos has expanded immensely. And yet, many of the most profound astronomical discoveries still occur within our cosmic backyard – the Milky Way Galaxy.

Compared to other galaxies, which astronomers can resolve with relative ease, the structure and size of the Milky Way have been the subject of ongoing discovery. The most recent comes from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), where scientists have found a previously undiscovered inner ring of metal-rich stars just outside the Galactic Bar. The existence of this ring has revealed new insights into star formation in this region of the galaxy during its early history.

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