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.

What is the Closest Galaxy to the Milky Way?

Scientists have known for some time that the Milky Way Galaxy is not alone in the Universe. In addition to our galaxy being part of the Local Group – a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies – we are also part of the larger formation known as the Virgo Supercluster. So you could say the Milky Way has a lot of neighbors.

Of these, most people consider the Andromeda Galaxy to be our closest galactic cohabitant. But in truth, Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy, and not the closest galaxy by a long shot. This distinction falls to a formation that is actually within the Milky Way itself, a dwarf galaxy that we’ve only known about for a little over a decade.

Closest Galaxy:

At present, the closet known galaxy to the Milky Way is the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy – aka. the Canis Major Overdensity. This stellar formation is about 42,000 light years from the galactic center, and a mere 25,000 light years from our Solar System. This puts it closer to us than the center of our own galaxy, which is 30,000 light years away from the Solar System.

Illustration of the Canis Dwarf Dwarf Galaxy, Credit: R. Ibata (Strasbourg Observatory, ULP) et al./2MASS/NASA
Illustration of the Canis Dwarf Galaxy and its associated tidal (shown in red) in relation to our Milky Way. Credit: R. Ibata (Strasbourg Observatory, ULP) et al./2MASS/NASA

Characteristics:

The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy Dwarf Galaxy is believed to contain one billion stars in all, a relatively high-percentage of which are in the Red Giant Branch phase of their lifetimes. It has a roughly elliptical shape and is thought to contain as many stars as the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, the previous contender for closest galaxy to our location in the Milky Way.

In addition to the dwarf galaxy itself, a long filament of stars is visible trailing behind it. This complex, ringlike structure – which is sometimes referred to as the Monoceros Ring – wraps around the galaxy three times. The stream was first discovered in the early 21st century by astronomers conducting the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

It was in the course of investigating this ring of stars, and a closely spaced group of globular clusters similar to those associated with the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, that the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy was first discovered. The current theory is that this galaxy was accreted (or swallowed up) by the Milky Way Galaxy.

Other globular clusters that orbit the center of our Milky Way as a satellite – i.e. NGC 1851, NGC 1904, NGC 2298 and NGC 2808 – are thought to have been part of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy before its accretion. It also has associated open clusters, which are thought to have formed as a result of the dwarf galaxy’s gravity perturbing material in the galactic disk and stimulating star formation.

Images of a few examples of merging galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/A. Evans/NRAO/Caltech

Discovery:

Prior to its discovery, astronomers believed that the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy was the closest galactic formation to our own. At 70,000 light years from Earth, this galaxy was determined in 1994 to be closer to us than the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), the irregular dwarf galaxy that is located 180,000 light years from Earth, and which previously held the title of the closest galaxy to the Milky Way.

All of that changed in 2003 when The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy was discovered by the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS). This collaborative astronomical mission, which took place between 1997 and 2001, relied on data obtained by the Mt. Hopkins Observatory in Arizona (for the Northern Hemisphere) and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile (for the southern hemisphere).

From this data, astronomers were able to conduct a survey of 70% of the sky, detecting about 5,700 celestial sources of infrared radiation. Infrared astronomy takes advantage of advances in astronomy that see more of the Universe, since infrared light is not blocked by gas and dust to the same extent as visible light.

Because of this technique, the astronomers were able to detect a very significant over-density of class M giant stars in a part of the sky occupied by the Canis Major constellation, along with several other related structures composed of this type of star, two of which form broad, faint arcs (as seen in the image close to the top).

An artist depicts the incredibly powerful flare that erupted from the red dwarf star EV Lacertae. Credit: Casey Reed/NASA
An artist depicts the incredibly powerful flare that erupted from the red dwarf star EV Lacertae. Credit: Casey Reed/NASA

The prevalence of M-class stars is what made the formation easy to detect. These cool, “Red Dwarfs” are not very luminous compared to other classes of stars, and cannot even be seen with the naked eye. However, they shine very brightly in the infrared, and appeared in great numbers.

The discovery of this galaxy, and subsequent analysis of the stars associated with it, has provided some support for the current theory that galaxies may grow in size by swallowing their smaller neighbors. The Milky Way became the size it is now by eating up other galaxies like Canis Major, and it continues to do so today. And since stars from the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy are technically already part of the Milky Way, it is by definition the nearest galaxy to us.

As already noted, it was the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy that held the position of closest galaxy to our own prior to 2003. At 75,000 light years away. This dwarf galaxy, which consists of four globular clusters that measure some 10,000 light-years in diameter, was discovered in 1994. Prior to that, the Large Magellanic Cloud was thought to be our closest neighbor.

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is the closest spiral galaxy to us, and though it’s gravitationally bound to the Milky Way, it’s not the closest galaxy by far – being 2 million light years away. Andromeda is currently approaching our galaxy at a speed of about 110 kilometers per second. In roughly 4 billion years, the Andromeda Galaxy is expected to merge with out own, forming a single, super-galaxy.

Future of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy:

Astronomers also believe that the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is in the process of being pulled apart by the gravitational field of the more massive Milky Way Galaxy. The main body of the galaxy is already extremely degraded, a process which will continue as it travels around and through our Galaxy.

In time, the accretion process will likely culminate with the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy merging entirely with the Milky Way, thus depositing its 1 billion stars to the 200 t0 400 billion that are already part of our galaxy.

We have written many interesting articles on galaxies here at Universe Today. Here’s Closest Galaxy Discovered, How did the Milky Way Form?, How Many Galaxies are there in the Universe?, What is the Milky Way Collision, Spiral Galaxies Could eat Dwarfs all over the Universe and The Canis Major Constellation.

For more information, check out this article from the Spitzer Space Telescope‘s website about the galaxies that are closest to the Milky Way Galaxy. And here is a video by the same author on the subject.

Astronomy Cast has some interesting episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 97: Galaxies and Episode 99: The Milky Way.

Sources:

Somebody Get This Supermassive Black Hole A Towel

Most galaxies have a super-massive black hole at their centre. As galaxies collide and merge, the black holes merge too, creating the super-massives we see in the universe today. But one team of astronomers went looking for super-massives that aren’t at the heart of galaxies. They looked at over 1200 galaxies, using the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), and almost all of them had a black hole right where it should be, in the middle of the galaxy itself.

But they did find one hole, in a cluster of galaxies more than two billion light years away from Earth, that was not at the centre of a galaxy. They were surprised too see that this black hole had been stripped naked of surrounding stars. Once they identified this black hole, now called B3 1715+425, they used the Hubble and the Spitzer to follow up. And what they found tells an unusual story.

“We’ve not seen anything like this before.” – James Condon

The super-massive black hole in question, which we’ll call B3 for short, was a curiosity. It was far brighter than anything near it, and it was also more distant than most of the holes they were studying. But a black hole this bright is typically situated at the heart of a large galaxy. B3 had only a remnant of a galaxy surrounding it. It was naked.

James Condon, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) described what happened.

“We were looking for orbiting pairs of supermassive black holes, with one offset from the center of a galaxy, as telltale evidence of a previous galaxy merger,” said Condon. “Instead, we found this black hole fleeing from the larger galaxy and leaving a trail of debris behind it,” he added.

“We concluded that our fleeing black hole was incapable of attracting that many stars on the way out to make it look like it does now.” – James Condon

Condon and his team concluded that B3 was once a super-massive black hole at the heart of a large galaxy. B3 collided with another, larger galaxy, one with an even larger black hole. During this collision B3 had most of its stars stripped away, except for the ones closest to it. B3 is still speeding away, at more than 2000 km per second.

Nearly Naked Black Hole from NRAO Outreach on Vimeo.

B3 and what’s left of its stars will continue to move through space, escaping their encounter with the other galaxy. It probably won’t escape from the cluster of galaxies it’s in though.

“What happens to a galaxy when most of its stars have been stripped away, but it still has an active super-massive black hole at the middle?” – James Condon

Condon outlines the likely end for B3. It won’t have enough stars and gas surrounding it to trigger new star birth. It also won’t be able to attract new stars. So eventually, the remnant stars of B3’s original galaxy will travel with it, growing progressively dimmer over time.

B3 itself will also grow dimmer, since it has no new material to “feed” on. It will eventually be nearly impossible to see. Only its gravitational effect will betray its position.

“In a billion years or so, it probably will be invisible.” – James Condon

How many B3s are there? If B3 itself will eventually become invisible, how many other super-massive black holes like it are there, undetectable by our instruments? How often does it happen? And how important is it in understanding the evolution of galaxies, and of clusters of galaxies. Condon asks these questions near the end of the clip. For now, at least, we have no answers.

Condon and his team used the NRAO‘s VLBA to search for these lonely holes. The VLBA is a radio astronomy instrument made up of 10 identical 25m antennae around the world, and controlled at a center in New Mexico. The array provides super sharp detail in the radio wave part of the spectrum.

Their black hole search is a long term project, making use of filler time available at the VLBA. Future telescopes, like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being built in Chile, will make Condon’s work easier.

Condon worked with Jeremy Darling of the University of Colorado, Yuri Kovalev of the Astro Space Center of the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, and Leonid Petrov of the Astrogeo Center in Falls Church, Virginia. They will report their findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

How Many Galaxies Are There in the Universe?

How Many Galaxies Are There in the Universe?


The wonderful thing about science is that it’s constantly searching for new evidence, revising estimates, throwing out theories, and sometimes discovering aspects of the Universe that we never realized existed.

The best science is skeptical of itself, always examining its own theories to find out where they could be wrong, and seriously considering new ideas to see if they better explain the observations and data.

What this means is that whenever I state some conclusion that science has reached, you can’t come back a few years later and throw that answer in my face. Science changes, it’s not my fault.

I get it, VY Canis Majoris isn’t the biggest star any more, it’s whatever the biggest star is right now. UY Scuti? That what it is today, but I’m sure it’ll be a totally different star when you watch this in a few years.

What I’m saying is, the science changes, numbers update, and we don’t need to get concerned when it happens. Change is a good thing. And so, it’s with no big surprise that I need to update the estimate for the number of galaxies in the observable Universe. Until a couple of weeks ago, the established count for galaxies was about 200 billion galaxies.

Jacinta studies distant galaxies like those shown in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, using the new 'stacking' technique to gather information only available through radio telescope observations. Credit: NASA, STScI, and ESA.
Jacinta studies distant galaxies like those shown in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, using the new ‘stacking’ technique to gather information only available through radio telescope observations. Credit: NASA, STScI, and ESA.

But a new paper published in the Astrophysics Journal revised the estimate for the number of galaxies, by a factor of 10, from 200 billion to 2 trillion. 200 billion, I could wrap my head around, I say billion all the time. But 2 trillion? That’s just an incomprehensible number.

Does that throw all the previous estimates for the number of stars up as well? Actually, it doesn’t.

The observable Universe measures 13.8 billion light-years in all directions. What this means is that at the very edge of what we can see, is the light left that region 13.8 billion years ago. Furthermore, the expansion of the Universe has carried to those regions 46 billion light-years away.

Does that make sense? The light you’re seeing is 13.8 billion light-years old, but now it’s 46 billion light-years away. What this means is that the expansion of space has stretched out the light from all the photons trying to reach us.

What might have been visible or ultraviolet radiation in the past, has shifted into infrared, and even microwaves at the very edge of the observable Universe.

Since astronomers know the volume of the observable Universe, and they can calculate the density of the Universe, they know the mass of the entire Universe. 3.4 x 10^54 kilograms including regular matter and dark matter.  They also know the ratio of regular matter to dark matter, so they can calculate the total amount of regular mass in the Universe.

In the past, astronomers divided that total mass by the number of galaxies they could see in the original Hubble data and determined there were about 200 billion galaxies.

Now, astronomers used a new technique to estimate the galaxies and it’s pretty cool. Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to peer into a seemingly empty part of the sky and identified all the galaxies in it. This is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and it’s one of the most amazing pictures Hubble has ever captured.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

Astronomers painstakingly converted this image of galaxies into a 3-dimensional map of galaxy size and locations. Then, they used their knowledge of galaxy structure closer to home to provide a more accurate estimate of what the galaxies must look like, out there, at the very edge of our observational ability.

For example, the Milky Way is surrounded by about 50 satellite dwarf galaxies, each of which has a fraction of the mass of the Milky Way.

By recognizing which were the larger main galaxies, they could calculate the distribution of smaller, dimmer dwarf galaxies that weren’t visible in the Hubble images.

In other words, if the distant Universe is similar to the nearby Universe, and this is one of the principles of modern astronomy, then the distant galaxies have the same structure as nearby galaxies.

It doesn’t mean that the Universe is bigger than we thought, or that there are more stars, it just means that the Universe contains more galaxies, which have less stars in them. There are the big main galaxies, and then a smooth distribution curve of smaller and smaller galaxies down to the tiny dwarf galaxies. The total number of stars comes out to be the same number.

The Fornax dwarf galaxy is one of our Milky Way’s neighbouring dwarf galaxies. The Milky Way is, like all large galaxies, thought to have formed from smaller galaxies in the early days of the Universe. These small galaxies should also contain many very old stars, just as the Milky Way does, and a team of astronomers has now shown that this is indeed the case. This image was composed from data from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ESO
The Fornax dwarf galaxy is one of our Milky Way’s neighbouring dwarf galaxies. Credit: ESO

The galaxies we can see are just the tip of the galactic iceberg. For every galaxy we can see, there are another 9, smaller fainter galaxies that we can’t see.

Of course, we’re just a few years away from being able to see these dimmer galaxies. When NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches in October, 2018, it’s going to be carrying a telescope mirror with 25 square meters of collecting surface, compared to Hubble’s 4.5 square meters.

Furthermore, James Webb is an infrared telescope, a specialized tool for looking at cooler objects, and galaxies which are billions of light-years away. The kinds of galaxies that Hubble can only hint at, James Webb will be able to see directly.

So, why don’t we see galaxies in all directions with our eyeballs?  This is actually an old conundrum, proposed by Wilhelm Olbers in the 1700, appropriately named Olber’s Paradox.  We did a whole article on it, but the basic idea is that if you look in any direction, you’ll eventually hit a star. It could be close, like the Sun, or very far away, but whatever the case, it should be stars in all directions. Which means that the entire night sky should be as bright as the surface of a star. Clearly it isn’t, but why isn’t it?

In fact, with 10 times the number of galaxies, you could restate the paradox and say that in every direction, you should be looking at a galaxy, but that’s not what you see.

A partial map of the distribution of galaxies in the SDSS, going out to a distance of 7 billion light years. The amount of galaxy clustering that we observe today is a signature of how gravity acted over cosmic time, and allows as to test whether general relativity holds over these scales. (M. Blanton, SDSS)
A partial map of the distribution of galaxies in the SDSS, going out to a distance of 7 billion light years. The amount of galaxy clustering that we observe today is a signature of how gravity acted over cosmic time, and allows as to test whether general relativity holds over these scales. (M. Blanton, SDSS)

Except you are. Everywhere you look, in all directions, you’re seeing galaxies. It’s just that those galaxies are red-shifted from the visible spectrum into the infrared spectrum, so your eyeballs can’t perceive them. But they’re there.

When you see the sky in microwaves, it does indeed glow in all directions. That’s the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, shining behind all those galaxies.

It turns out the Universe has 10 times more galaxies than previously estimated – 2 trillion galaxies. Not 10 times the stars or mass, those numbers have stayed the same.

And, once James Webb launches, those numbers will be fine-tuned again to be even more precise. 1.5 trillion? 3.4 trillion? Stay tuned for the better number.