Hubble Finds a Galaxy with Almost no Dark Matter

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.

The study which details their findings, titled “A galaxy lacking dark matter“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. Led by Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University, the study also included members from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, San Jose State University, the University of California Observatories, the University of Toronto, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Image of the ultra diffuse galaxy NGC 1052-DF2, created from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit:ESA/Hubble, NASA, Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin

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!

Further Reading: Hubble Space Telescope

Supermassive Black Holes or Their Galaxies? Which Came First?

Which Came First, Supermassive Black Holes of their Galaxies?

There’s a supermassive black hole at the center of almost every galaxy in the Universe. How did they get there? What’s the relationship between these monster black holes and the galaxies that surround them?

Every time astronomers look farther out in the Universe, they discover new mysteries. These mysteries require all new tools and techniques to understand. These mysteries lead to more mysteries. What I’m saying is that it’s mystery turtles all the way down.

One of the most fascinating is the discovery of quasars, understanding what they are, and the unveiling of an even deeper mystery, where do they come from?

As always, I’m getting ahead of myself, so first, let’s go back and talk about the discovery of quasars.

Molecular clouds scattered by an intermediate black hole show very wide velocity dispersion in this artist’s impression. This scenario well explains the observational features of a peculiar molecular cloud CO-0.40-0.22. Credit: Keio University

Back in the 1950s, astronomers scanned the skies using radio telescopes, and found a class of bizarre objects in the distant Universe. They were very bright, and incredibly far away; hundreds of millions or even billion of light-years away. The first ones were discovered in the radio spectrum, but over time, astronomers found even more blazing in the visible spectrum.

The astronomer Hong-Yee Chiu coined the term “quasar”, which stood for quasi-stellar object. They were like stars, shining from a single point source, but they clearly weren’t stars, blazing with more radiation than an entire galaxy.

Over the decades, astronomers puzzled out the nature of quasars, learning that they were actually black holes, actively feeding and blasting out radiation, visible billions of light-years away.

But they weren’t the stellar mass black holes, which were known to be from the death of giant stars. These were supermassive black holes, with millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun.

As far back as the 1970s, astronomers considered the possibility that there might be these supermassive black holes at the heart of many other galaxies, even the Milky Way.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5194), a classic spiral galaxy located in the Canes Venatici constellation, and its companion NGC 5195. Credit: NASA/ESA

In 1974, astronomers discovered a radio source at the center of the Milky Way emitting radiation. It was titled Sagittarius A*, with an asterisk that stands for “exciting”, well, in the “excited atoms” perspective.

This would match the emissions of a supermassive black hole that wasn’t actively feeding on material. Our own galaxy could have been a quasar in the past, or in the future, but right now, the black hole was mostly silent, apart from this subtle radiation.

Astronomers needed to be certain, so they performed a detailed survey of the very center of the Milky Way in the infrared spectrum, which allowed them to see through the gas and dust that obscures the core in visible light.

They discovered a group of stars orbiting Sagittarius A-star, like comets orbiting the Sun. Only a black hole with millions of times the mass of the Sun could provide the kind of gravitational anchor to whip these stars around in such bizarre orbits.

Further surveys found a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Andromeda Galaxy, in fact, it appears as if these monsters are at the center of almost every galaxy in the Universe.

But how did they form? Where did they come from? Did the galaxy form first, and cause the black hole to form at the middle, or did the black hole form, and build up a galaxy around them?

Until recently, this was actually still one of the big unsolved mysteries in astronomy. That said, astronomers have done plenty of research, using more and more sensitive observatories, worked out their theories, and now they’re gathering evidence to help get to the bottom of this mystery.

Astronomers have developed two models for how the large scale structure of the Universe came together: top down and bottom up.

In the top down model, an entire galactic supercluster formed all at once out of a huge cloud of primordial hydrogen left over from the Big Bang. A supercluster’s worth of stars.

As the cloud came together it, it spun up, kicking out smaller spirals and dwarf galaxies. These could have combined later on to form the more complex structure we see today. The supermassive black holes would have formed as the dense cores of these galaxies as they came together.

Hubble image of Messier 54, a globular cluster located in the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

If you want to wrap your mind around this, think of the stellar nursery that formed our Sun and a bunch of other stars. Imagine a single cloud of gas and dust forming multiple stars systems within it. Over time, the stars matured and drifted away from each other.

That’s top down. One big event that leads to the structure we see today.

In the bottom up model, pockets of gas and dust collected together into larger and larger masses, eventually forming dwarf galaxies, and even the clusters and superclusters we see today. The supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies were grown from collisions and mergers between black holes over eons.

In fact, this is actually how astronomers think the planets in the Solar System formed. By pieces of dust attracting one another into larger and larger grains until the planet-sized objects formed over millions of years.

Bottom up, small parts coming together.

Shortly after the Big Bang, the entire Universe was incredibly dense. But it wasn’t the same density everywhere. Tiny quantum fluctuations in density at the beginning evolved over billions of years of expansion into the galactic superclusters we see today.

Colliding galaxies can force the supermassive black holes in their cores together (NCSA)

I want to stop and let this sink into your brain for a second. There were microscopic variations in density in the early Universe. And these variations became the structures hundreds of millions of light-years across we see today.

Imagine the two forces at play as the expansion of the Universe happened. On the one hand, you’ve got the mutual gravity of the particles pulling one another together. And on the other hand, you’ve got the expansion of the Universe separating the particles from one another. The size of the galaxies, clusters and superclusters were decided by the balance point of those opposing forces.

If small pieces came together, then you’d get that bottom up formation. If large pieces came together, you’d get that top down formation.

When astronomers look out into the Universe at the largest scales, they observe clusters and superclusters as far as they can see – which supports the top down model.

On the other hand, observations show that the first stars formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, which supports bottom up.

So the answer is both?

No, the most modern observations give the edge to the bottom up processes.

The key is that gravity moves at the speed of light, which means that the gravitational interactions between particles spreading away from each other needed to catch up, going the speed of light.

In other words, you wouldn’t get a supercluster’s worth of material coming together, only a star’s worth of material. But these first stars were made of pure hydrogen and helium, and could grow much more massive than the stars we have today. They would live fast and die in supernova explosions, creating much more massive black holes than we get today.

This illustration shows the final stages in the life of a supermassive star that fails to explode as a supernova, but instead implodes to form a black hole. Credit: NASA/ESA/P. Jeffries (STScI)

The first protogalaxies came together, collecting together these first monster black holes and the massive stars surrounding them. And then, over millions and billions of years, these black holes merged again and again, accumulating millions and even billions of times the mass of the Sun. This was how we got the modern galaxies we see today.

There was a recent observation that supports this conclusion. Earlier this year, astronomers announced the discovery of supermassive black holes at the center of relatively tiny galaxies. In our own Milky Way, the supermassive black hole is 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun, but accounts for only .01% of the galaxy’s total mass.

But astronomers from the University of Utah found two ultra compact galaxies with black holes of 4.4 million and 5.8 million times the mass of the Sun respectively. And yet, the black holes account for 13 and 18 percent of the mass of their host galaxies.

The thinking is that these galaxies were once normal, but collided with other galaxies earlier on in the history of the Universe, were stripped of their stars and then were spat out to roam the cosmos.

They’re the victims of those early merging events, evidence of the carnage that happened in the early Universe when the mergers were happening.

We always talk about the unsolved mysteries in the Universe, but this is one that astronomers are starting to puzzle out.

It seems most likely that the structure of the Universe we see today formed bottom up. The first stars came together into protogalaxies, dying as supernova to form the first black holes. The structure of the Universe we see today is the end result of billions of years of formation and destruction. With the supermassive black holes coming together over time.

Once telescopes like James Webb get to work, we should be able to see these pieces coming together, at the very edge of the observable Universe.

This is the One of the Largest Structures We Know of in the Universe

The Milky Way Galaxy, which measures 100,000 to 180,000 light years (31 – 55 kiloparsecs) in diameter and contains 100 to 400 billion stars, is so immense that it boggles the mind. And yet, when it comes to the large-scale structure of the Universe, our galaxy is merely a drop in the bucket. Looking farther, astronomers have noted that galaxies form clusters, which in turn form superclusters – the largest known structures in the Universe.

The supercluster in which our galaxy resides is known as the Laniakea Supercluster, which spans 500 million light-years. But thanks to a new study by a team of Indian astronomers, a new supercluster has just been identified that puts all previously known ones to shame. Known as Saraswati, this supercluster is over 650 million light years (200 megaparsecs) in diameter, making it one the largest large-scale structures in the known Universe.

The study, which recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “Saraswati: An Extremely Massive ~ 200 Megaparsec Scale Supercluster, was conducted by astronomers from the Inter University Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics (IUCAA) and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), with assistance provided by a number of Indian universities.

The distribution of galaxies, from Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), in Saraswati supercluster. Credit: IUCAA

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data obtained by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) to examine the large-scale structure of the Universe. In the past, astronomers have found that the cosmos is hierarchically assembled, with galaxies being arranged in clusters, superclusters, sheets, walls and filaments. These are separated by immense cosmic voids, which together create the vast “Cosmic Web” structure of the Universe.

Superclusters, which are the largest coherent structures in the Cosmic Web, are basically chains of galaxies and galaxy clusters that can extend for hundreds of millions of light years and contain trillions of stars. In the end, the team found a supercluster located about 4 billion (1226 megaparsecs) light-years from Earth – in the constellation Pisces – that is 600 million light-years wide and may contain the mass equivalent of over 20 million billion suns.

They gave this supercluster the name “Saraswati”, the name of an ancient river that played an important role in the emergence of Indian civilization. Saraswait is also the name of a goddess that is worshipped in India today as the keeper of celestial rivers and the goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom and nature. This find was particularly surprising, seeing as how Saraswati was older than expected.

Essentially, the supercluster appeared in the SDSS data as it would have when the Universe was roughly 10 billion years old. So not only is Saraswati one of the largest superclusters discovered to date, but its existence raises some serious questions about our current cosmological models. Basically, the predominant model for cosmic evolution does not predict that such a superstructure could exist when the Universe was 10 billion years old.

Diagram of the Lambda-CDM model, which shows cosmic evolution from the Big Bang/Inflation Era and the subsequent expansion of the universe.  Credit: Alex Mittelmann.

Known as the “Cold Dark Matter” model, this theory predicts that small structures (i.e. galaxies) formed first in the Universe and then congregated into larger structures. While variations within this model exist, none predict that something as large as Saraswati could have existed 4 billion years ago. Because of this, the discovery may require astronomers to rethink their theories of how the Universe became what it is today.

To put it simply, the Saraswati supercluster formed at a time when Dark Energy began to dominate structure formation, replacing gravitation as the main force shaping cosmic evolution. As Joydeep Bagchi, a researcher from IUCAA and the lead author of the paper, and co-author Shishir Sankhyayan (of IISER) explained in a IUCAA press release:

‘’We were very surprised to spot this giant wall-like supercluster of galaxies… This supercluster is clearly embedded in a large network of cosmic filaments traced by clusters and large voids. Previously only a few comparatively large superclusters have been reported, for example the ‘Shapley Concentration’ or the ‘Sloan Great Wall’ in the nearby universe, while the ‘Saraswati’ supercluster is far more distant one. Our work will help to shed light on the perplexing question; how such extreme large scale, prominent matter-density enhancements had formed billions of years in the past when the mysterious Dark Energy had just started to dominate structure formation.’’

As such, the discovery of this most-massive of superclusters may shed light on how and when Dark Energy played an important role in supercluster formation. It also opens the door to other cosmological theories that are in competition with the CDM model, which may offer more consistent explanations as to why Saraswati could exist 10 billion years after the Big Bang.

One thing is clear thought: this discovery represents an exciting opportunity for new research into cosmic formation and evolution. And with the aid of new instruments and observational facilities, astronomers will be able to look at Saraswait and other superclusters more closely in the coming years and study just how they effect their cosmic environment.

Further Reading: IUCAA, The Astrophysical Journal

At the Largest Scales, Our Milky Way Galaxy is in the Middle of Nowhere

The Millenium Simulation created this image of the large-scale structure of the Universe, showing filaments and voids within the cosmic structure. According to a new study from the University of Wisconsin, our Milky Way is situated in a huge void in the cosmic structure. The Millennium Simulation is a project of the Max Planck Supercomputing Center in Germany. Image: Millennium Simulation Project

Ever since Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and saw moons in orbit around that planet, we began to realize we don’t occupy a central, important place in the Universe. In 2013, a study showed that we may be further out in the boondocks than we imagined. Now, a new study confirms it: we live in a void in the filamental structure of the Universe, a void that is bigger than we thought.

In 2013, a study by University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Amy Barger and her student Ryan Keenan showed that our Milky Way galaxy is situated in a large void in the cosmic structure. The void contains far fewer galaxies, stars, and planets than we thought. Now, a new study from University of Wisconsin student Ben Hoscheit confirms it, and at the same time eases some of the tension between different measurements of the Hubble Constant.

The void has a name; it’s called the KBC void for Keenan, Barger and the University of Hawaii’s Lennox Cowie. With a radius of about 1 billion light years, the KBC void is seven times larger than the average void, and it is the largest void we know of.

The large-scale structure of the Universe consists of filaments and clusters of normal matter separated by voids, where there is very little matter. It’s been described as “Swiss cheese-like.” The filaments themselves are made up of galaxy clusters and super-clusters, which are themselves made up of stars, gas, dust and planets. Finding out that we live in a void is interesting on its own, but its the implications it has for Hubble’s Constant that are even more interesting.

Hubble’s Constant is the rate at which objects move away from each other due to the expansion of the Universe. Dr. Brian Cox explains it in this short video.

The problem with Hubble’s Constant, is that you get a different result depending on how you measure it. Obviously, this is a problem. “No matter what technique you use, you should get the same value for the expansion rate of the universe today,” explains Ben Hoscheit, the Wisconsin student who presented his analysis of the KBC void on June 6th at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “Fortunately, living in a void helps resolve this tension.”

There are a couple ways of measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, known as Hubble’s Constant. One way is to use what are known as “standard candles.” Supernovae are used as standard candles because their luminosity is so well-understood. By measuring their luminosity, we can determine how far away the galaxy they reside in is.

Another way is by measuring the CMB, the Cosmic Microwave Background. The CMB is the left over energy imprint from the Big Bang, and studying it tells us the state of expansion in the Universe.

This is a map of the observable Universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Orange areas show higher density of galaxy clusters and filaments. Image: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
This is a map of the observable Universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Orange areas show higher density of galaxy clusters and filaments. Image: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The two methods can be compared. The standard candle approach measures more local distances, while the CMB approach measures large-scale distances. So how does living in a void help resolve the two?

Measurements from inside a void will be affected by the much larger amount of matter outside the void. The gravitational pull of all that matter will affect the measurements taken with the standard candle method. But that same matter, and its gravitational pull, will have no effect on the CMB method of measurement.

“One always wants to find consistency, or else there is a problem somewhere that needs to be resolved.” – Amy Barger, University of Hawaii, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy

Hoscheit’s new analysis, according to Barger, the author of the 2013 study, shows that Keenan’s first estimations of the KBC void, which is shaped like a sphere with a shell of increasing thickness made up of galaxies, stars and other matter, are not ruled out by other observational constraints.

“It is often really hard to find consistent solutions between many different observations,” says Barger, an observational cosmologist who also holds an affiliate graduate appointment at the University of Hawaii’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “What Ben has shown is that the density profile that Keenan measured is consistent with cosmological observables. One always wants to find consistency, or else there is a problem somewhere that needs to be resolved.”

Enjoy The Biggest Infrared Image Ever Taken Of The Small Magellanic Cloud Without All That Pesky Dust In The Way

The Small Magellanic Cloud is one of the highlights of the southern sky. It can be seen with the naked eye. But it is obscured by clouds of interstellar gas and dust, which makes it hard for optical telescopes to get a good look at it. This image, taken with the ESO's VISTA. is the biggest-ever image of the SMC, and shows millions of stars. Credit: ESO/VISTA VMC

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) galaxy. Credit: ESA/VISTA
The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) galaxy. Credit: ESA/VISTA

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is one of the Milky Way’s nearest companions (along with the Large Magellanic Cloud.) It’s visible with the naked eye in the southern hemisphere. A new image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) has peered through the clouds that obscure it and given us our biggest image ever of the dwarf galaxy.

The SMC contains several hundred million stars, is about 7,000 light years in diameter, and is about 200,000 light years away. It’s one of the most distant objects that we can see with the naked eye, and can only be seen from the southern hemisphere (and the lowest latitudes of the northern hemisphere.)

The Small Magellanic Cloud is located in the Tucana constellation (The Toucan) in the southern hemisphere. The SMC is shown in green outline around the word 'Tucana'. Also shown are NGC 104 and NGC 362, unrelated objects that are much closer to Earth. Image: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope
The Small Magellanic Cloud is located in the Tucana constellation (The Toucan) in the southern hemisphere. The SMC is shown in green outline around the word ‘Tucana’. Also shown are NGC 104 and NGC 362, unrelated objects that are much closer to Earth. Image: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

The SMC is a great target for studying how stars form because it’s so close to Earth, relatively speaking. But the problem is, its detail is obscured by clouds of interstellar gas and dust. So an optical survey of the Cloud is difficult.

But the ESO’s VISTA instrument is ideal for the task. VISTA is a near-infrared telescope, and infrared light is not blocked by the dust. VISTA was built at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory, in the Atacama Desert in Chile where it enjoys fantastic observing conditions. VISTA was designed to perform several surveys, including the Vista Magellanic Survey.

Explore the Zoomable image of the Small Magellanic Cloud. (You won’t be disappointed.)

The VISTA Magellanic Survey is focused on 3 main objectives:

  • The study of stellar populations in the Magellanic Clouds
  • The history of star formation in the Magellanic Clouds
  • The three-dimensional structure of the Magellanic Clouds

An international team led by Stefano Rubele of the University of Padova has studied this image, and their work has produced some surprising results. VISTA has shown us that most of the stars in this image are much younger than stars in other neighbouring galaxies. It’s also shown us that the SMC’s morphology is that of a warped disc. These are only early results, and there’s much more work to be done analyzing the VISTA image.

VISTA inside its enclosure at Paranal. VISTA has a 4.1 meter mirror, and its job is to survey large sections of the sky at once. In the background is the ESO's Very Large Telescope. Image: G. Hüdepohl
VISTA inside its enclosure at Paranal. VISTA has a 4.1 meter mirror, and its job is to survey large sections of the sky at once. In the background is the ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Image: G. Hüdepohl (atacamaphoto.com)/ESO

The team presented their research in a paper titled “The VMC survey – XIV. First results on the look-back time star formation rate tomography of the Small Magellanic Cloud“, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

As the authors say in their paper, the SMC is a great target for study because of its “rich population of star clusters, associations, stellar pulsators, primary distance indicators, and stars in shortlived evolutionary stages.” In a way, we’re fortunate to have the SMC so close. But studying the SMC was difficult, until the VISTA came online with its infrared capabilities.

VISTA saw first light on December 11th, 2009. It’s time is devoted to systematic surveys of the sky. In its first five years, it has undertaken large surveys of the entire southern sky, and also studied small patches of the sky to discern extremely faint objects. The leading image in this article is from the Vista Magellanic Survey, a survey covering 184 square degrees of the sky, taking in both the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Large Magellanic Cloud, and their environment.

Source: VISTA Peeks Through the Small Magellanic Cloud’s Dusty Veil

Into The Submillimeter: The Early Universe’s Formation

A new study looked at 52 submillimeter galaxies to help us understand the early ages of our Universe. Image: University of Nottingham/Omar Almaini

In order to make sense of our Universe, astronomers have to work hard, and they have to push observing technology to the limit. Some of that hard work revolves around what are called sub-millimeter galaxies (SMGs.) SMGs are galaxies that can only be observed in the submillimeter range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The sub-millimeter range is the waveband between the far-infrared and microwave wavebands. (It’s also called Terahertz radiation.) We’ve only had the capability to observe in the sub-millimeter range for a couple decades. We’ve also increased the angular resolution of telescopes, which helps us discern separate objects.

The submillimter wavelength is also called Terahertz Radiation, and is between Infrared and Microwave Radiation on the spectrum. Image: By Tatoute, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6884073
The submillimter wavelength is also called Terahertz Radiation, and is between Infrared and Microwave Radiation on the spectrum. Image: By Tatoute, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6884073

SMGs themselves are dim in other wavelengths, because they’re obscured by dust. The optical light is blocked by the dust, and absorbed and re-emitted in the sub-millimeter range. In the sub-millimeter, SMGs are highly luminous; trillions of times more luminous than the Sun, in fact.

This is because they are extremely active star-forming regions. SMGs are forming stars at a rate hundreds of times greater than the Milky Way. They are also generally older, more distant galaxies, so they’re red-shifted. Studying them helps us understand galaxy and star formation in the early universe.

ALMA is an array of dishes located at the Atacama Desert in Chile. Image: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), O. Dessibourg

A new study, led by James Simpson of the University of Edinburgh and Durham University, has examined 52 of these galaxies. In the past, it was difficult to know the exact location of SMGs. In this study, the team relied on the power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter array (ALMA) to get a much more precise measurement of their location. These 52 galaxies were first identified by the Submillimeter Common-User Bolometer Array (SCUBA-2) in the UKIDSS Ultra Deep Survey.

There are four major results of the study:

  1. 48 of the SMGs are non-lensed, meaning that there is no object of sufficient mass between us and them to distort their light. Of these, the team was able to constrain the red-shift (z) for 35 of them to a median range of z-2.65. When it comes to extra-galactic observations like this, the higher the red-shift, the further away the object is. (For comparison, the highest red-shift object we know of is a galaxy called GN-z11, at z=11.1, which corresponds to about 400 million years after the Big Bang.
  2. Another type of galaxy, the Ultra-Luminous Infrared Galaxy (ULIRG) were thought to be evolved versions of SMGs. But this study showed that SMGs are larger and cooler than ULIRGs, which means that any evolutionary link between the two is unlikely.
  3. The team calculated estimates of dust mass in these galaxies. Their estimates suggest that effectively all of the optical-to-near-infrared light from co-located stars is obscured by dust. They conclude that a common method in astronomy used to characterize astronomical light sources, called Spectral Energy Distribution (SED), may not be reliable when it comes to SMGs.
  4. The fourth result is related to the evolution of galaxies. According to their analysis, it seems unlikely that SMGs can evolve into spiral or lenticular galaxies (a lenticular galaxy is midway between a spiral and an elliptical galaxy.) Rather, it appears that SMGs are the progenitors of elliptical galaxies.
The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101, NGC 5457) is a stunning example of a spiral galaxy. This study determines that there likely is no evolutionary link between sub-millimeter galaxies and spiral galaxies. Image: European Space Agency & NASA. CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36216331

This study was a pilot study that the team hopes to extend to many other SMGs in the future.

Researchers Image Dark Matter Bridge Between Galaxies

This false color, composite image shows two galaxies, white, connected by a bridge of dark matter, red. The two galaxies are about 40 light years apart. Image: S. Epps & M. Hudson / University of Waterloo

Dark matter is mysterious stuff, because we can’t really “see” it. But that hasn’t stopped scientists from researching it, and from theorizing about it. One theory says that there should be filament structures of dark matter connecting galaxies. Scientists from the University of Waterloo have now imaged one of those dark matter filaments for the first time.

The two scientists, Seth D. Epps and Michael J. Hudson, present their results in a paper at the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomy Society.

Theory predicts that filaments of dark matter connect galaxies together, by reaching from the dark matter halo of one galaxy to the same halo in another galaxy. Other researchers have found dark matter filaments connecting entire galaxy clusters, but this is the first time that filaments have been imaged between individual galaxies.

“This image moves us beyond predictions to something we can see and measure.” – Mike Hudson, University of Waterloo

“For decades, researchers have been predicting the existence of dark-matter filaments between galaxies that act like a web-like superstructure connecting galaxies together,” said Mike Hudson, a professor of astronomy at the University of Waterloo. “This image moves us beyond predictions to something we can see and measure.”

Dark matter makes up about 25% of the Universe. But it doesn’t shine, reflect, or interact with light in any way, so it’s difficult to study. The only way we can really study it is by observing gravity. In this study, the pair of astronomers used the weak gravitational lensing technique.

Weak gravitational lensing relies on the effect that mass has on light. Enough concentrated mass in the foreground—dark matter in this case—will warp light from distant sources in the background.

When dealing with something as large as a super-massive Black Hole, gravitational lensing is quite pronounced. But galaxy-to-galaxy filaments of dark matter are much less dense than a black hole, so their individual effect is minimal. What the astronomers needed was the combined data from multiple galaxy pairs in order to detect the weak gravitational lensing.

Key to this study is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. It performed a multi-year sky survey that laid the groundwork for this study. The researchers combined lensing images of over 23,000 pairs of galaxies 4.5 billion light years away. The resulting composite image revealed the filament bridge between the two galaxies.

“By using this technique, we’re not only able to see that these dark matter filaments in the universe exist, we’re able to see the extent to which these filaments connect galaxies together.” – Seth D. Epps, University of Waterloo

We still don’t know what dark matter is, but the fact that scientists were able to predict these filaments, and then actually find them, shows that we’re making progress understanding it.

We’ve known about the large scale structure of the Universe for some time, and we know that dark matter is a big part of it. Galaxies tend to cluster together, under the influence of dark matter’s gravitational pull. Finding a dark matter bridge between galaxies is an intriguing discovery. It at least takes a little of the mystery out of dark matter.

Rise of the Super Telescopes: The James Webb Space Telescope

We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.
In this series we’ll look at 6 of the world’s Super Telescopes:

The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope“>James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or the Webb) may be the most eagerly anticipated of the Super Telescopes. Maybe because it has endured a tortured path on its way to being built. Or maybe because it’s different than the other Super Telescopes, what with it being 1.5 million km (1 million miles) away from Earth once it’s operating.

The JWST will do its observing while in what’s called a halo orbit at L2, a sort of gravitationally neutral point 1.5 million km from Earth. Image: NASA/JWST

If you’ve been following the drama behind the Webb, you’ll know that cost overruns almost caused it to be cancelled. That would’ve been a real shame.

The JWST has been brewing since 1996, but has suffered some bumps along the road. That road and its bumps have been discussed elsewhere, so what follows is a brief rundown.

Initial estimates for the JWST were a $1.6 billion price tag and a launch date of 2011. But the costs ballooned, and there were other problems. This caused the House of Representatives in the US to move to cancel the project in 2011. However, later that same year, US Congress reversed the cancellation. Eventually, the final cost of the Webb came to $8.8 billion, with a launch date set for October, 2018. That means the JWST’s first light will be much sooner than the other Super Telescopes.

The business end of the James Webb Space Telescope is its 18-segment primary mirror. The gleaming, gold-coated beryllium mirror has a collecting area of 25 square meters. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The Webb was envisioned as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in operation since 1990. But the Hubble is in Low Earth Orbit, and has a primary mirror of 2.4 meters. The JWST will be located in orbit at the LaGrange 2 point, and its primary mirror will be 6.5 meters. The Hubble observes in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra, while the Webb will observe in long-wavelength (orange-red) visible light, through near-infrared to the mid-infrared. This has some important implications for the science yielded by the Webb.

The Webb’s Instruments

The James Webb is built around four instruments:

  • The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam)
  • The Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec)
  • The Mid-Infrared Instrument(MIRI)
  • The Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS)
This image shows the wavelengths of the infrared spectrum that Webb’s instruments can observe. Image: NASA/JWST

The NIRCam is Webb’s primary imager. It will observe the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies, the population of stars in nearby galaxies, Kuiper Belt Objects, and young stars in the Milky Way. NIRCam is equipped with coronagraphs, which block out the light from bright objects in order to observe dimmer objects nearby.

NIRSpec will operate in a range from 0 to 5 microns. Its spectrograph will split the light into a spectrum. The resulting spectrum tells us about an objects, temperature, mass, and chemical composition. NIRSpec will observe 100 objects at once.

MIRI is a camera and a spectrograph. It will see the redshifted light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars, objects in the Kuiper Belt, and faint comets. MIRI’s camera will provide wide-field, broadband imaging that will rank up there with the astonishing images that Hubble has given us a steady diet of. The spectrograph will provide physical details of the distant objects it will observe.

The Fine Guidance Sensor part of FGS/NIRISS will give the Webb the precision required to yield high-quality images. NIRISS is a specialized instrument operating in three modes. It will investigate first light detection, exoplanet detection and characterization, and exoplanet transit spectroscopy.

The Science

The over-arching goal of the JWST, along with many other telescopes, is to understand the Universe and our origins. The Webb will investigate four broad themes:

  • First Light and Re-ionization: In the early stages of the Universe, there was no light. The Universe was opaque. Eventually, as it cooled, photons were able to travel more freely. Then, probably hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, the first light sources formed: stars. But we don’t know when, or what types of stars.
  • How Galaxies Assemble: We’re accustomed to seeing stunning images of the grand spiral galaxies that exist in the Universe today. But galaxies weren’t always like that. Early galaxies were often small and clumpy. How did they form into the shapes we see today?
  • The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems: The Webb’s keen eye will peer straight through clouds of dust that ‘scopes like the Hubble can’t see through. Those clouds of dust are where stars are forming, and their protoplanetary systems. What we see there will tell us a lot about the formation of our own Solar System, as well as shedding light on many other questions.
  • Planets and the Origins of Life: We now know that exoplanets are common. We’ve found thousands of them orbiting all types of stars. But we still know very little about them, like how common atmospheres are, and if the building blocks of life are common.

These are all obviously fascinating topics. But in our current times, one of them stands out among the others: Planets and the Origins of Life.

The recent discovery the TRAPPIST 1 system has people excited about possibly discovering life in another solar system. TRAPPIST 1 has 7 terrestrial planets, and 3 of them are in the habitable zone. It was huge news in February 2017. The buzz is still palpable, and people are eagerly awaiting more news about the system. That’s where the JWST comes in.

One big question around the TRAPPIST system is “Do the planets have atmospheres?” The Webb can help us answer this.

The NIRSpec instrument on JWST will be able to detect any atmospheres around the planets. Maybe more importantly, it will be able to investigate the atmospheres, and tell us about their composition. We will know if the atmospheres, if they exist, contain greenhouse gases. The Webb may also detect chemicals like ozone and methane, which are biosignatures and can tell us if life might be present on those planets.

You could say that if the James Webb were able to detect atmospheres on the TRAPPIST 1 planets, and confirm the existence of biosignature chemicals there, it will have done its job already. Even if it stopped working after that. That’s probably far-fetched. But still, the possibility is there.

Launch and Deployment

The science that the JWST will provide is extremely intriguing. But we’re not there yet. There’s still the matter of JWST’s launch, and it’s tricky deployment.

The JWST’s primary mirror is much larger than the Hubble’s. It’s 6.5 meters in diameter, versus 2.4 meters for the Hubble. The Hubble was no problem launching, despite being as large as a school bus. It was placed inside a space shuttle, and deployed by the Canadarm in low earth orbit. That won’t work for the James Webb.

This image shows the Hubble Space Telescope being held above the shuttle’s cargo bay by the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) arm, or Canadarm. A complex operation, but not as complex as JWST’s deployment. Image: NASA

The Webb has to be launched aboard a rocket to be sent on its way to L2, it’s eventual home. And in order to be launched aboard its rocket, it has to fit into a cargo space in the rocket’s nose. That means it has to be folded up.

The mirror, which is made up of 18 segments, is folded into three inside the rocket, and unfolded on its way to L2. The antennae and the solar cells also need to unfold.

Unlike the Hubble, the Webb needs to be kept extremely cool to do its work. It has a cryo-cooler to help with that, but it also has an enormous sunshade. This sunshade is five layers, and very large.

We need all of these components to deploy for the Webb to do its thing. And nothing like this has been tried before.

The Webb’s launch is only 7 months away. That’s really close, considering the project almost got cancelled. There’s a cornucopia of science to be done once it’s working.

But we’re not there yet, and we’ll have to go through the nerve-wracking launch and deployment before we can really get excited.

Towards A New Understanding Of Dark Matter

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

Dark matter remains largely mysterious, but astrophysicists keep trying to crack open that mystery. Last year’s discovery of gravity waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) may have opened up a new window into the dark matter mystery. Enter what are known as ‘primordial black holes.’

Theorists have predicted the existence of particles called Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPS). These WIMPs could be what dark matter is made of. But the problem is, there’s no experimental evidence to back it up. The mystery of dark matter is still an open case file.

When LIGO detected gravitational waves last year, it renewed interest in another theory attempting to explain dark matter. That theory says that dark matter could actually be in the form of Primordial Black Holes (PBHs), not the aforementioned WIMPS.

Primordial black holes are different than the black holes you’re probably thinking of. Those are called stellar black holes, and they form when a large enough star collapses in on itself at the end of its life. The size of these stellar black holes is limited by the size and evolution of the stars that they form from.

This artist’s drawing shows a stellar black hole as it pulls matter from a blue star beside it. Could the stellar black hole’s cousin, the primordial black hole, account for the dark matter in our Universe?
Credits: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Unlike stellar black holes, primordial black holes originated in high density fluctuations of matter during the first moments of the Universe. They can be much larger, or smaller, than stellar black holes. PBHs could be as small as asteroids or as large as 30 solar masses, even larger. They could also be more abundant, because they don’t require a large mass star to form.

When two of these PBHs larger than about 30 solar masses merge together, they would create the gravitational waves detected by LIGO. The theory says that these primordial black holes would be found in the halos of galaxies.

If there are enough of these intermediate sized PBHs in galactic halos, they would have an effect on light from distant quasars as it passes through the halo. This effect is called ‘micro-lensing’. The micro-lensing would concentrate the light and make the quasars appear brighter.

A depiction of quasar microlensing. The microlensing object in the foreground galaxy could be a star (as depicted), a primordial black hole, or any other compact object. Credit: NASA/Jason Cowan (Astronomy Technology Center).

The effect of this micro-lensing would be stronger the more mass a PBH has, or the more abundant the PBHs are in the galactic halo. We can’t see the black holes themselves, of course, but we can see the increased brightness of the quasars.

Working with this assumption, a team of astronomers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias examined the micro-lensing effect on quasars to estimate the numbers of primordial black holes of intermediate mass in galaxies.

“The black holes whose merging was detected by LIGO were probably formed by the collapse of stars, and were not primordial black holes.” -Evencio Mediavilla

The study looked at 24 quasars that are gravitationally lensed, and the results show that it is normal stars like our Sun that cause the micro-lensing effect on distant quasars. That rules out the existence of a large population of PBHs in the galactic halo. “This study implies “says Evencio Mediavilla, “that it is not at all probable that black holes with masses between 10 and 100 times the mass of the Sun make up a significant fraction of the dark matter”. For that reason the black holes whose merging was detected by LIGO were probably formed by the collapse of stars, and were not primordial black holes”.

Depending on you perspective, that either answers some of our questions about dark matter, or only deepens the mystery.

We may have to wait a long time before we know exactly what dark matter is. But the new telescopes being built around the world, like the European Extremely Large Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, promise to deepen our understanding of how dark matter behaves, and how it shapes the Universe.

It’s only a matter of time before the mystery of dark matter is solved.

The Magellenic Clouds Stay Connected By A String Of Stars

This image shows the two "bridges" that connect the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The white line traces the bridge of stars that flows between the two dwarf galaxies, and the blue line shows the gas. Image: V. Belokurov, D. Erkal and A. Mellinger

Astronomers have finally observed something that was predicted but never seen: a stream of stars connecting the two Magellanic Clouds. In doing so, they began to unravel the mystery surrounding the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). And that required the extraordinary power of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia Observatory to do it.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) are dwarf galaxies to the Milky Way. The team of astronomers, led by a group at the University of Cambridge, focused on the clouds and on one particular type of very old star: RR Lyrae. RR Lyrae stars are pulsating stars that have been around since the early days of the Clouds. The Clouds have been difficult to study because they sprawl widely, but Gaia’s unique all-sky view has made this easier.

Small and Large Magellanic Clouds over Paranal Observatory Credit: ESO/J. Colosimo

The Mystery: Mass

The Magellanic Clouds are a bit of a mystery. Astronomers want to know if our conventional theory of galaxy formation applies to them. To find out, they need to know when the Clouds first approached the Milky Way, and what their mass was at that time. The Cambridge team has uncovered some clues to help solve this mystery.

The team used Gaia to detect RR Lyrae stars, which allowed them to trace the extent of the LMC, something that has been difficult to do until Gaia came along. They found a low-luminosity halo around the LMC that stretched as far as 20 degrees. For the LMC to hold onto stars that far away means it would have to be much more massive than previously thought. In fact, the LMC might have as much as 10 percent of the mass that the Milky Way has.

The Large Magellanic Cloud. Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57110

The Arrival of the Magellanic Clouds

That helped astronomers answer the mass question, but to really understand the LMC and SMC, they needed to know when the clouds arrived at the Milky Way. But tracking the orbit of a satellite galaxy is impossible. They move so slowly that a human lifetime is a tiny blip compared to them. This makes their orbit essentially unobservable.

But astronomers were able to find the next best thing: the often predicted but never observed stellar stream, or bridge of stars, stretching between the two clouds.

A star stream forms when a satellite galaxy feels the gravitational pull of another body. In this case, the gravitational pull of the LMC allowed individual stars to leave the SMC and be pulled toward the LMC. The stars don’t leave at once, they leave individually over time, forming a stream, or bridge, between the two bodies. This action leaves a luminous tracing of their path over time.

The astronomers behind this study think that the bridge actually has two components: stars stripped from the SMC by the LMC, and stars stripped from the LMC by the Milky Way. This bridge of RR Lyrae stars helps them understand the history of the interactions between all three bodies.

A Bridge of Stars… and Gas

The most recent interaction between the Clouds was about 200 million years ago. At that time, the Clouds passed close by each other. This action formed not one, but two bridges: one of stars and one of gas. By measuring the offset between the star bridge and the gas bridge, they hope to narrow down the density of the corona of gas surrounding the Milky Way.

Mystery #2: The Milky Way’s Corona

The density of the Milky Way’s Galactic Corona is the second mystery that astronomers hope to solve using the Gaia Observatory.

The Galactic Corona is made up of ionised gas at very low density. This makes it very difficult to observe. But astronomers have been scrutinizing it intensely because they think the corona might harbor most of the missing baryonic matter. Everybody has heard of Dark Matter, the matter that makes up 95% of the matter in the universe. Dark Matter is something other than the normal matter that makes up familiar things like stars, planets, and us.

The other 5% of matter is baryonic matter, the familiar atoms that we all learn about. But we can only account for half of the 5% of baryonic matter that we think has to exist. The rest is called the missing baryonic matter, and astronomers think it’s probably in the galactic corona, but they’ve been unable to measure it.

A part of the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy is dazzling in this image from NASA’s Great Observatories. The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light-years way from our own Milky Way spiral galaxy. Credit: NASA.

Understanding the density of the Galactic Corona feeds back into understanding the Magellanic Clouds and their history. That’s because the bridges of stars and gas that formed between the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds initially moved at the same speed. But as they approached the Milky Way’s corona, the corona exerted drag on the stars and the gas. Because the stars are small and dense relative to the gas, they travelled through the corona with no change in their velocity.

But the gas behaved differently. The gas was largely neutral hydrogen, and very diffuse, and its encounter with the Milky Way’s corona slowed it down considerably. This created the offset between the two streams.

Eureka?

The team compared the current locations of the streams of gas and stars. By taking into account the density of the gas, and also how long both Clouds have been in the corona, they could then estimate the density of the corona itself.

When they did so, their results showed that the missing baryonic matter could be accounted for in the corona. Or at least a significant fraction of it could. So what’s the end result of all this work?

It looks like all this work confirms that both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds conform to our conventional theory of galaxy formation.

Mystery solved. Way to go, science.