Since the mid-20th century, scientists have had a pretty good idea of how the Universe came to be. Cosmic expansion and the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) lent credibility to the Big Bang Theory, and the accelerating rate of expansion led to theories about Dark Energy. Still, there is much about the early Universe that scientists still don’t know, which requires that they rely on simulations on cosmic evolution.
This has traditionally posed a bit of a problem since the limitations of computing meant that simulation could either be large scale or detailed, but not both. However, a team of scientists from Germany and the United States recently completed the most detailed large-scale simulation to date. Known as TNG50, this state-of-the-art simulation will allow researchers to study how the cosmos evolved in both detail and a large scale.
It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around sometimes. Though it might feel stationary, planet Earth is actually moving at an average velocity of 29.78 km/s (107,200 km/h; 66600 mph). And yet, our planet has nothing on the Sun itself, which travels around the center of our galaxy at a velocity of 220 km/s (792,000 km/h; 492,000 mph).
But as is so often the case with our Universe, things only get more staggering the farther you look. According to a new study by an international team of astronomers, the most massive “super spiral” galaxies in the Universe rotate twice as fast as the Milky Way. The cause, they argue, is the massive clouds (or halos) of Dark Matter that surround these galaxies.
This week we welcome Dr. Marina Kounkel, a postdoctoral scholar in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the Western Washington University. Her research focuses on observing the dynamics of young stars.
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. According to current theories, it is widely believed that the Milky Way formed shortly after the Big Bang (roughly 13.51 billion years ago). This was the result of the first stars and star clusters coming together, as well as the accretion of gas directly from the Galactic halo.
A lot of attention has been dedicated to the machine learning technique known as “deep learning”, where computers are capable of discerning patterns in data without being specifically programmed to do so. In recent years, this technique has been applied to a number of applications, which include voice and facial recognition for social media platforms like Facebook.
However, astronomers are also benefiting from deep learning, which is helping them to analyze images of galaxies and understand how they form and evolve. In a new study, a team of international researchers used a deep learning algorithm to analyze images of galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope. This method proved effective at classifying these galaxies based on what stage they were in their evolution.
In the past, Marc Huertas-Company has already applied deep learning methods to Hubble data for the sake of galaxy classification. In collaboration with David Koo and Joel Primack, both of whom are professor emeritus’ at UC Santa Cruz (and with support from Google), Huertas-Company and the team spent the past two summers developing a neural network that could identify galaxies at different stages in their evolution.
“This project was just one of several ideas we had,” said Koo in a recent USCS press release. “We wanted to pick a process that theorists can define clearly based on the simulations, and that has something to do with how a galaxy looks, then have the deep learning algorithm look for it in the observations. We’re just beginning to explore this new way of doing research. It’s a new way of melding theory and observations.”
For the sake of their study, the researchers used computer simulations to generate mock images of galaxies as they would look in observations by the Hubble Space Telescope. The mock images were used to train the deep learning neural network to recognize three key phases of galaxy evolution that had been previously identified in the simulations. The researchers then used the network to analyze a large set of actual Hubble images.
As with previous images anaylzed by Huertas-Company, these images part of Hubble’s Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS) project – the largest project in the history of the Hubble Space Telescope. What they found was that the neural network’s classifications of simulated and real galaxies was remarkably consistent. As Joel Primack explained:
“We were not expecting it to be all that successful. I’m amazed at how powerful this is. We know the simulations have limitations, so we don’t want to make too strong a claim. But we don’t think this is just a lucky fluke.”
The research team was especially interested in galaxies that have a small, dense, star-forming region known as a “blue nugget”. These regions occur early in the evolution of gas-rich galaxies, when big flows of gas into the center of a galaxy cause the formation of young stars that emit blue light. To simulate these and other types of galaxies, the team relied on state-of-the-art VELA simulations developed by Primack and an international team of collaborators.
In both the simulated and observational data, the computer program found that the “blue nugget” phase occurs only in galaxies with masses within a certain range. This was followed by star formation ending in the central region, leading to the compact “red nugget” phase, where the stars in the central region exit their main sequence phase and become red giants.
The consistency of the mass range was exciting because it indicated that the neural network was identifying a pattern that results from a key physical process in real galaxies – and without having to be specifically told to do so. As Koo indicated, this study as a big step forward for astronomy and AI, but a lot of research still needs to be done:
“The VELA simulations have had a lot of success in terms of helping us understand the CANDELS observations. Nobody has perfect simulations, though. As we continue this work, we will keep developing better simulations.”
For instance, the team’s simulations did not include the role played by Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). In larger galaxies, gas and dust is accreted onto a central Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the core, which causes gas and radiation to be ejected in huge jets. Some recent studies have indicated how this may have an arresting effect on star formation in galaxies.
However, observations of distant, younger galaxies have shown evidence of the phenomenon observed in the team’s simulations, where gas-rich cores lead to the blue nugget phase. According to Koo, using deep learning to study galactic evolution has the potential to reveal previously undetected aspects of observational data. Instead of observing galaxies as snapshots in time, astronomers will be able to simulate how they evolve over billions of years.
“Deep learning looks for patterns, and the machine can see patterns that are so complex that we humans don’t see them,” he said. “We want to do a lot more testing of this approach, but in this proof-of-concept study, the machine seemed to successfully find in the data the different stages of galaxy evolution identified in the simulations.”
Since the 1960s, astrophysicists have postulated that in addition to all the matter that we can see, the Universe is also filled with a mysterious, invisible mass. Known as “Dark Matter”, it’s existence was proposed to explain the “missing mass” of the Universe, and is now considered a fundamental part of it. Not only is it theorized to make up about 80% of the Universe’s mass, it is also believed to have played a vital role in the formation and evolution of galaxies.
However, a recent finding may throw this entire cosmological perspective sideways. Based on observations made using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories around the world, astronomers have found a nearby galaxy (NGC 1052-DF2) that does not appear to have any dark matter. This object is unique among galaxies studied so far, and could force a reevaluation of our predominant cosmological models.
For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from the Dragonfly Telephoto Array (DFA), which was used to identify NGC 1052-DF2. Based on data from Hubble, the team was able to determined its distance – 65 million light-years from the Solar System – as well as its size and brightness. In addition, the team discovered that NGC 1052-DF52 is larger than the Milky Way but contains about 250 times fewer stars, which makes it an ultra diffuse galaxy.
As van Dokkum explained, NGC 1052-DF2 is so diffuse that it’s essentially transparent. “I spent an hour just staring at this image,” he said. “This thing is astonishing: a gigantic blob so sparse that you see the galaxies behind it. It is literally a see-through galaxy.”
Using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the Gemini Observatory, and the Keck Observatory, the team studied the galaxy in more detail. By measuring the dynamical properties of ten globular clusters orbiting the galaxy, the team was able to infer an independent value of the galaxy’s mass – which is comparable to the mass of the stars in the galaxy.
This led the team to conclude that either NGC 1052-DF2 contains at least 400 times less dark matter than is predicted for a galaxy of its mass, or none at all. Such a finding is unprecedented in the history of modern astronomy and defied all predictions. As Allison Merritt – an astronomer from Yale University, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and a co-author on the paper – explained:
“Dark matter is conventionally believed to be an integral part of all galaxies — the glue that holds them together and the underlying scaffolding upon which they are built…There is no theory that predicts these types of galaxies — how you actually go about forming one of these things is completely unknown.”
“This invisible, mysterious substance is by far the most dominant aspect of any galaxy. Finding a galaxy without any is completely unexpected; it challenges standard ideas of how galaxies work,” added van Dokkum.
However, it is important to note that the discovery of a galaxy without dark matter does not disprove the theory that dark matter exists. In truth, it merely demonstrates that dark matter and galaxies are capable of being separate, which could mean that dark matter is bound to ordinary matter through no force other than gravity. As such, it could actually help scientists refine their theories of dark matter and its role in galaxy formation and evolution.
In the meantime, the researchers already have some ideas as to why dark matter is missing from NGC 1052-DF2. On the one hand, it could have been the result of a cataclysmic event, where the birth of a multitude of massive stars swept out all the gas and dark matter. On the other hand, the growth of the nearby massive elliptical galaxy (NGC 1052) billions of years ago could have played a role in this deficiency.
However, these theories do not explain how the galaxy formed. To address this, the team is analyzing images that Hubble took of 23 other ultra-diffuse galaxies for more dark-matter deficient galaxies. Already, they have found three that appear to be similar to NGC 1052-DF2, which could indicate that dark-matter deficient galaxies could be a relatively common occurrence.
If these latest findings demonstrate anything, it is that the Universe is like an onion. Just when you think you have it figured out, you peal back an additional layer and find a whole new set of mysteries. They also demonstrate that after 28 years of faithful service, the Hubble Space Telescope is still capable of teaching us new things. Good thing too, seeing as the launch of its successor has been delayed until 2020!
Ever since human beings learned that the Milky Way was not unique or alone in the night sky, astronomers and cosmologists have sought to find out just how many galaxies there are in the Universe. And until recently, our greatest scientific minds believed they had a pretty good idea – between 100 and 200 billion.
However, a new study produced by researchers from the UK has revealed something startling about the Universe. Using Hubble’s Deep Field Images and data from other telescopes, they have concluded that these previous estimates were off by a factor of about 10. The Universe, as it turns out, may have had up to 2 trillion galaxies in it during the course of its history.
Led by Prof. Christopher Conselice of the University of Nottingham, U.K., the team combined images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope with other published data to produced a 3-D map of the Universe. They then incorporated a series of new mathematical models that allowed them to infer the existence of galaxies which are not bright enough to be observed by current instruments.
Using these, they then began reviewing how galaxies have evolved over the past 13 billion years. What they learned was quite fascinating. For one, they observed that the distribution of galaxies throughout the history of the Universe was not even. What’s more, they found that in order for everything in their calculations to add up, there had to be 10 times more galaxies in the early Universe than previously thought.
Most of these galaxies would be similar in mass to the satellite galaxies that have been observed around the Milky Way, and would be too faint to be spotted by today’s instruments. In other words, astronomers have only been able to see about 10% of the early Universe until now, because most of its galaxies were too small and faint to be visible.
As Prof. Conselice explained in a Hubble Science Release, while may help resolve a lingering debate about the structure of the Universe:
“These results are powerful evidence that a significant galaxy evolution has taken place throughout the universe’s history, which dramatically reduced the number of galaxies through mergers between them — thus reducing their total number. This gives us a verification of the so-called top-down formation of structure in the universe.”
To break it down, the “top-down model” of galaxy formation states that galaxies formed from huge gas clouds larger than the resulting galaxies. These clouds began collapsing because their internal gravity was stronger than the pressures in the cloud. Based on the speed at which the gas clouds rotated, they would either form a spiral or an elliptical galaxy.
In contrast, the “bottom-up model” states that galaxies formed during the early Universe due to the merging of smaller clumps that were about the size globular clusters. These galaxies could then have been drawn into clusters and superclusters by their mutual gravity.
In addition to helping to resolve this debate, this study also offers a possible solution to the Olbers’ Paradox (aka. “the dark night sky paradox”). Named after the 18th/19th century German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, this paradox addresses the question of why – given the expanse of the Universe and all the luminous matter in it – is the sky dark at night?
Based on their results, the UK team has surmised that while every point in the night sky contains part of a galaxy, most of them are invisible to the human eye and modern telescopes. This is due to a combination of factors, which includes the effects of cosmic redshift, the fact that the Universe is dynamic (i.e. always expanding) and the absorption of light by cosmic dust and gas.
Needless to say, future missions will be needed to confirm the existence of all these unseen galaxies. And in that respect, Conselice and his colleagues are looking to future missions – ones that are capable of observing stars and galaxies in the non-visible spectrum – to make that happen.
“It boggles the mind that over 90 percent of the galaxies in the universe have yet to be studied,” he added. “Who knows what interesting properties we will find when we discover these galaxies with future generations of telescopes? In the near future, the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to study these ultra-faint galaxies.”
Understanding how many galaxies have existed over time is a fundamental aspect of understanding the Universe as a whole. With every passing study that attempts to resolve what we can see with our current cosmological models, we are getting that much closer!
And be sure to enjoy this video about some of Hubble’s most stunning images, courtesy of HubbleESA:
Maybe we take our beloved Milky Way galaxy for granted. As far as humanity is concerned, it’s always been here. But how did it form? What is its history?
Our Milky Way galaxy has three recognized stellar components. They are the central bulge, the disk , and the halo. How these three were formed and how they evolved are prominent, fundamental questions in astronomy. Now, a team of researchers have used the unique property of a certain type of star to help answer these fundamental questions.
The type of star in question is called the blue horizontal-branch star (BHB star), and it produces different colors depending on its age. It’s the only type of star to do that. The researchers, from the University of Notre Dame, used this property of BHB’s to create a detailed chronographic (time) map of the Milky Way’s formation.
This map has confirmed what theories and models have predicted for some time: the Milky Way galaxy formed through mergers and accretions of small haloes of gas and dust. Furthermore, the oldest stars in our galaxy are at the center, and younger stars and galaxies joined the Milky Way over billions of years, drawn in by the galaxy’s growing gravitational pull.
The team who produced this study includes astrophysicist Daniela Carollo, research assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, and Timothy Beers, Notre Dame Chair of Astrophysics. Research assistant professor Vinicius Placco, and other colleagues rounded out the team.
“We haven’t previously known much about the age of the most ancient component of the Milky Way, which is the Halo System,” Carollo said. “But now we have demonstrated conclusively for the first time that ancient stars are in the center of the galaxy and the younger stars are found at longer distances. This is another piece of information that we can use to understand the assembly process of the galaxy, and how galaxies in general formed.”
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) played a key role in these findings. The team used data from the SDSS to identify over 130,000 BHB’s. Since these stars literally “show their age”, mapping them throughout the Milky Way produced a chronographic map which clearly shows the oldest stars near the center of the galaxy, and youngest stars further away.
“The colors, when the stars are at that stage of their evolution, are directly related to the amount of time that star has been alive, so we can estimate the age,” Beers said. “Once you have a map, then you can determine which stars came in first and the ages of those portions of the galaxy. We can now actually visualize how our galaxy was built up and inspect the stellar debris from some of the other small galaxies being destroyed by their interaction with ours during its assembly.”
Astronomers infer, from various data-driven approaches, that different structural parts of the galaxy have different ages. They’ve assigned ages to different parts of the galaxy, like the bulge. That makes sense, since everything can’t be the same age. Not in a galaxy that’s this old. But this map makes it even clearer.
As the authors say in their paper, “What has been missing, until only recently, is the ability to assign ages to individual stellar populations, so that the full chemo-dynamical history of the Milky Way can be assessed.”
This new map, with over 130,000 stars as data points, is a pretty important step in understanding the evolution of the Milky Way. It takes something that was based more on models and theory, however sound they were, and reinforces it with more constrained data.
Update: The chronographic map, as well as a .gif, can be viewed here.
Only astronomers know for sure… Or do they? In this assembly of images taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, scientists have utilized both visible and infrared light to survey a most unusual galaxy. When looking for a newly formed galaxy in our “cosmic neighborhood”, they spied DDO 68 (a.k.a. UGC 5340). Normally to witness galactic evolution, we have to look over great distances to see back in time… but this particular collection of gas and stars seems to break the rules!
Researching galactic evolution isn’t a new concept. Over the last few decades astronomers have increased our understanding of how galaxies change with time. One of the most crucial players in this game has been the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Through its eyes, scientists can see over almost incomprehensible distances – studying light that has taken billions of years to reach us. We are essentially looking back in time.
While this is great news on its own, studying progressively younger galaxies can sometimes pose more questions than it answers. For example, all the newly created galaxies reside a huge distance from us and thereby appear small and faint when imaged. On the other side of the coin, galaxies which are close to us appear to be far more mature.
This video begins with a ground based view of the night sky, before zooming in on dwarf galaxy DDO 68 as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope sees it. This ragged collection of stars and gas clouds looks at first glance like a recently-formed galaxy in our own cosmic neighbourhood. But, is it really as young as it looks? Credit: NASA/ESA
DDO 68, imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, would seem to be the best example of a nearby newly-formed galaxy. Just how nearby? Estimates place it at about 39 million light years distant. While this might seem like a very long way, it is still roughly 50 times closer than other galactic examples. Studying galaxies of different ages is important to our understanding of how the Universe works. Astronomers have discovered that young galaxies are quite different than those which have aged. In this case, DDO 68 gives off the appearance of being young. These findings come from examining its structure, appearance and composition. However, researchers question their findings. It is possible this galaxy may be considerably older than initial findings indicate.
“All of the available data are consistent with the fact that DDO 68 is a very rare candidate for young galaxies.” says S. A. Pustilnik (et al). “The bulk of its stars were formed during the recent (with the first encounter about 1 Gyr ago) merger of two very gas-rich disks.”
These common events – mergers and collisions – are part of galactic life and are generally responsible for older galaxies being more bulky. These “senior citizens” are normally laced with a wide variety of stellar types – young, old, large and small. The chemistry is also different, too. Very young galaxies are rich in hydrogen and helium, making them tantalizingly similar in composition to the primordial matter created by the Big Bang. Older galaxies have more experiences. Numerous stellar events have happened within them over their lifetimes, making them rich in heavy elements. This is what makes DDO 68 very exciting! It is the best local candidate found so far to be low in heavier elements.
“DDO 68 (UGC 5340) is the second most metal-poor star-forming galaxy,” explains Pustilnik. “Its peculiar optical morphology and its HI distribution and kinematics are indicative of a merger origin. We use the u, g, r, and i photometry based on the SDSS images of DDO 68 to estimate its stellar population ages.”
Step into the light? You bet. The Hubble observations were meant to examine the properties of this mysterious galaxy’s light – determine whether or not it contains any older stars. If they are discovered, which seems to be the case, this would disprove the theory that DDO 68 is singularly comprised of younger stars. If not, it will validate the unique nature of this nearby neighbor. While more computer modeling and studies are needed, we can still enjoy this incredible look at another cosmic enigma!
The tangled remains of vast cosmic collisions can be seen across the universe, such as the distant Whirlpool Galaxy’s past close encounter with a nearby galaxy, which resulted in the staggering beauty we see today.
Such colossal collisions between galaxies appear to be common. It’s likely giant galaxies, such as our own, originated long ago after smaller dwarf galaxies crashed together. Unfortunately, Hubble has yet to peer into the early Universe and catch two dwarf galaxies merging by chance. And they’re extremely rare to catch in the present nearby universe.
But for the first time, astronomers have uncovered evidence of a similar collision much closer to home.
The Milky Way is part of a large cosmic neighborhood. A collection of more than 35 galaxies compose the Local Group. While the largest and heavier members are the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, there are many smaller satellite galaxies orbiting the two. Anyone who has looked at the southern sky should be familiar with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds: two satellite galaxies of the Milky Way less than 200,000 light years away.
Andromeda has over 20 satellite galaxies circling its nearly a trillion stars. A team of European astronomers has analyzed measurements of the stars in the dwarf galaxy Andromeda II — the second largest dwarf galaxy in the Local Group — and made a surprising discovery: an odd stream of stars that simply doesn’t belong.
The team led by Dr. Nicola C. Amorisco from the Dark Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen used the Deep Imaging Multi-Object (DEIMOS) spectrograph onboard the Keck II telescope in Hawaii in order to measure the velocities of more than 700 stars in the Andromeda II dwarf galaxy.
Stars in a large spiral galaxy will move, on average, with the rotation of the galaxy. On one side of the galaxy’s spinning disk, the stars will be moving away from the Earth, and their light waves will be stretched to redder wavelengths. On the opposite side, the stars will be moving toward the Earth, and their light waves will be compressed to bluer wavelengths.
But the stars in dwarf galaxies don’t exhibit such a pattern. Instead they move around entirely at random.
Amorisco and colleagues, however, found a rather different case present in Andromeda II. They observed a stream of stars — roughly 16,000 light years in length and 980 light years in thickness — that didn’t exhibit random motions at all. They orbit the center of the galaxy in a very coherent fashion.
But it gets better: the stars in this stream are also much colder than the stars outside the stream. In astronomy this is the equivalent of saying that the stars in this stream are much older. Amorisco’s team now believes they once belonged to a different galaxy entirely and remain only as a remnant of the past collision, which likely occurred over 3 billion years ago.
Streams of stars often result from collisions. As two galaxies begin to interact, the stars nearest the approaching galaxy feel a much stronger gravitational pull than the stars further away. Eventually the gravitational pull on the closer side of the galaxy will pull the stars from their initial galaxy, creating a stream of stars, dust and gas.
This is the smallest known example of two galaxies merging. The finding adds further evidence that mergers between dwarf galaxies plays a fundamental role in creating the large and beautiful galaxies we see today.
The paper has been published in Nature and is available for download here.