For decades, astronomers have been trying to see as far as they can into the deep Universe. By observing the cosmos as it was shortly after the Big Bang, astrophysicists and cosmologists hope to learn all they can about the early formation of the Universe and its subsequent evolution. Thanks to instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have been able to see parts of the Universe that were previously inaccessible.
But even the venerable Hubble is incapable of seeing all that was taking place during the early Universe. However, using the combined power of some of the newest astronomical observatories from around the world, a team of international astronomers led by Tokyo University’s Institute of Astronomy observed 39 previously-undiscovered ancient galaxies, a find that could have major implications for astronomy and cosmology.
When it comes to the first galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to understand the formation of those galaxies and their link to the underlying dark matter. In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible (a.k.a. “dark”), but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. A lot of dust.
That’s right: good old-fashioned dust. And thanks to some fancy simulations, we’re beginning to clear up the picture.
For centuries, astronomers have been studying the Milky Way in order to get a better understanding of its size and structure. And while modern instruments have yielded invaluable observations of our galaxy and others (which have allowed astronomers to gain a general picture of what it looks like), a truly accurate model of our galaxy has been elusive.
For example, a recent study by a team of astronomers from National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) has shown that the Milky Way’s disk is not flat (as previously thought). Based on their findings, it appears that the Milky Way becomes increasingly warped and twisted the farther away one ventures from the core.
Since the birth of modern astronomy, scientists have sought to determine the full extent of the Milky Way galaxy and learn more about its structure, formation and evolution. According to current theories, it is widely believed that the Milky Way formed shortly after the Big Bang (roughly 13.51 billion years ago). This was the result of the first stars and star clusters coming together, as well as the accretion of gas directly from the Galactic halo.
Globular clusters have been a source of fascination ever since astronomers first observed them in the 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stars in the Universe, and can be found in the outer regions of most galaxies. Because of their age and the fact that almost all larger galaxies appear to have them, their role in galactic evolution has remained something of a mystery.
Previously, astronomers were of the opinion that globular clusters were some of the earliest stars to have formed in the Universe, roughly 13 billion years ago. However, new research has indicated that these clusters may actually be about 4 billion years younger, being roughly 9 billion years old. These findings may alter our understanding of how the Milky Way and other galaxies formed, and how the Universe itself came to be.
The study, titled “Reevaluating Old Stellar Populations“, recently appeared online and is being evaluated for publication in The Monthly Notices for the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Dr. Elizabeth Stanway, an Associate Professor in the Astronomy group at the University of Warwick, UK, and was assisted by Dr. J.J. Eldridge, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
For the sake of their study, Dr. Stanway and Dr. Eldridge developed a series of new research models designed to reconsider the evolution of stars. These models, known as Binary Population and Spectral Synthesis (BPASS) models, had previously proven effective in exploring the properties of young stellar populations within the Milky Way and throughout the Universe.
Using these same models, Dr. Stanway and Dr. Eldridge studied a sample of globular clusters in the Milky Way and nearby quiescent galaxies. They also took into account the details of binary star evolution within globular clusters and used them to explore the colors of light and spectra from old binary populations. In short, binary star system evolution consists of one star expanding into a giant while the gravitational force of the smaller star strips away the atmosphere of the giant.
What they found was that these binary systems were about 9 billion years old. Since these stars are thought to have formed at the same time as the globular clusters themselves, this demonstrated that globular clusters are not as old as other models have suggested. As Dr. Stanway said of the BPASS models she and Dr. Eldridge developed:
“Determining ages for stars has always depended on comparing observations to the models which encapsulate our understanding of how stars form and evolve. That understanding has changed over time, and we have been increasingly aware of the effects of stellar multiplicity – the interactions between stars and their binary and tertiary companions.
If correct, this study could open up new pathways of research into how massive galaxies and their stars are formed. However, Dr. Stanway admits that much work still lies ahead, which includes looking at nearby star systems where individual stars can be resolved – rather than considering the integrated light of a cluster. Nevertheless, the study could have immense significant for our understanding of how and when galaxies in our Universe formed.
“If true, it changes our picture of the early stages of galaxy evolution and where the stars that have ended up in today’s massive galaxies, such as the Milky Way, may have formed,” she said. “We aim to follow up this research in the future, exploring both improvements in modelling and the observable predictions which arise from them.”
An integral part of cosmology is understanding when the Universe came to be the way it is, not just how. By determining how old globular clusters are, astronomers will have another crucial piece of the puzzle as to how and when the earliest galaxies formed. And these, combined with observations that look to the earliest epochs of the Universe, could just yield a complete model of cosmology.
Since the 1960s, astrophysicists have postulated that in addition to all the matter that we can see, the Universe is also filled with a mysterious, invisible mass. Known as “Dark Matter”, it’s existence was proposed to explain the “missing mass” of the Universe, and is now considered a fundamental part of it. Not only is it theorized to make up about 80% of the Universe’s mass, it is also believed to have played a vital role in the formation and evolution of galaxies.
However, a recent finding may throw this entire cosmological perspective sideways. Based on observations made using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories around the world, astronomers have found a nearby galaxy (NGC 1052-DF2) that does not appear to have any dark matter. This object is unique among galaxies studied so far, and could force a reevaluation of our predominant cosmological models.
For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from the Dragonfly Telephoto Array (DFA), which was used to identify NGC 1052-DF2. Based on data from Hubble, the team was able to determined its distance – 65 million light-years from the Solar System – as well as its size and brightness. In addition, the team discovered that NGC 1052-DF52 is larger than the Milky Way but contains about 250 times fewer stars, which makes it an ultra diffuse galaxy.
As van Dokkum explained, NGC 1052-DF2 is so diffuse that it’s essentially transparent. “I spent an hour just staring at this image,” he said. “This thing is astonishing: a gigantic blob so sparse that you see the galaxies behind it. It is literally a see-through galaxy.”
Using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the Gemini Observatory, and the Keck Observatory, the team studied the galaxy in more detail. By measuring the dynamical properties of ten globular clusters orbiting the galaxy, the team was able to infer an independent value of the galaxy’s mass – which is comparable to the mass of the stars in the galaxy.
This led the team to conclude that either NGC 1052-DF2 contains at least 400 times less dark matter than is predicted for a galaxy of its mass, or none at all. Such a finding is unprecedented in the history of modern astronomy and defied all predictions. As Allison Merritt – an astronomer from Yale University, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and a co-author on the paper – explained:
“Dark matter is conventionally believed to be an integral part of all galaxies — the glue that holds them together and the underlying scaffolding upon which they are built…There is no theory that predicts these types of galaxies — how you actually go about forming one of these things is completely unknown.”
“This invisible, mysterious substance is by far the most dominant aspect of any galaxy. Finding a galaxy without any is completely unexpected; it challenges standard ideas of how galaxies work,” added van Dokkum.
However, it is important to note that the discovery of a galaxy without dark matter does not disprove the theory that dark matter exists. In truth, it merely demonstrates that dark matter and galaxies are capable of being separate, which could mean that dark matter is bound to ordinary matter through no force other than gravity. As such, it could actually help scientists refine their theories of dark matter and its role in galaxy formation and evolution.
In the meantime, the researchers already have some ideas as to why dark matter is missing from NGC 1052-DF2. On the one hand, it could have been the result of a cataclysmic event, where the birth of a multitude of massive stars swept out all the gas and dark matter. On the other hand, the growth of the nearby massive elliptical galaxy (NGC 1052) billions of years ago could have played a role in this deficiency.
However, these theories do not explain how the galaxy formed. To address this, the team is analyzing images that Hubble took of 23 other ultra-diffuse galaxies for more dark-matter deficient galaxies. Already, they have found three that appear to be similar to NGC 1052-DF2, which could indicate that dark-matter deficient galaxies could be a relatively common occurrence.
If these latest findings demonstrate anything, it is that the Universe is like an onion. Just when you think you have it figured out, you peal back an additional layer and find a whole new set of mysteries. They also demonstrate that after 28 years of faithful service, the Hubble Space Telescope is still capable of teaching us new things. Good thing too, seeing as the launch of its successor has been delayed until 2020!
The first results of the IllustrisTNG Project have been published in three separate studies, and they’re shedding new light on how black holes shape the cosmos, and how galaxies form and grow. The IllustrisTNG Project bills itself as “The next generation of cosmological hydrodynamical simulations.” The Project is an ongoing series of massive hydrodynamic simulations of our Universe. Its goal is to understand the physical processes that drive the formation of galaxies.
At the heart of IllustriousTNG is a state of the art numerical model of the Universe, running on one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world: the Hazel Hen machine at the High-Performance Computing Center in Stuttgart, Germany. Hazel Hen is Germany’s fastest computer, and the 19th fastest in the world.
Our current cosmological model suggests that the mass-energy density of the Universe is dominated by dark matter and dark energy. Since we can’t observe either of those things, the only way to test this model is to be able to make precise predictions about the structure of the things we can see, such as stars, diffuse gas, and accreting black holes. These visible things are organized into a cosmic web of sheets, filaments, and voids. Inside these are galaxies, which are the basic units of cosmic structure. To test our ideas about galactic structure, we have to make detailed and realistic simulated galaxies, then compare them to what’s real.
Astrophysicists in the USA and Germany used IllustrisTNG to create their own universe, which could then be studied in detail. IllustrisTNG correlates very strongly with observations of the real Universe, but allows scientists to look at things that are obscured in our own Universe. This has led to some very interesting results so far, and is helping to answer some big questions in cosmology and astrophysics.
How Do Black Holes Affect Galaxies?
Ever since we’ve learned that galaxies host supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at their centers, it’s been widely believed that they have a profound influence on the evolution of galaxies, and possibly on their formation. That’s led to the obvious question: How do these SMBHs influence the galaxies that host them? Illustrious TNG set out to answer this, and the paper by Dr. Dylan Nelson at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics shows that “the primary driver of galaxy color transition is supermassive blackhole feedback in its low-accretion state.”
“The only physical entity capable of extinguishing the star formation in our large elliptical galaxies are the supermassive black holes at their centers.” – Dr. Dylan Nelson, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics,
Galaxies that are still in their star-forming phase shine brightly in the blue light of their young stars. Then something changes and the star formation ends. After that, the galaxy is dominated by older, red stars, and the galaxy joins a graveyard full of “red and dead” galaxies. As Nelson explains, “The only physical entity capable of extinguishing the star formation in our large elliptical galaxies are the supermassive black holes at their centers.” But how do they do that?
Nelson and his colleagues attribute it to supermassive black hole feedback in its low-accretion state. What that means is that as a black hole feeds, it creates a wind, or shock wave, that blows star-forming gas and dust out of the galaxy. This limits the future formation of stars. The existing stars age and turn red, and few new blue stars form.
How Do Galaxies Form and How Does Their Structure Develop?
It’s long been thought that large galaxies form when smaller galaxies join up. As the galaxy grows larger, its gravity draws more smaller galaxies into it. During these collisions, galaxies are torn apart. Some stars will be scattered, and will take up residence in a halo around the new, larger galaxy. This should give the newly-created galaxy a faint background glow of stellar light. But this is a prediction, and these pale glows are very hard to observe.
“Our predictions can now be systematically checked by observers.” – Dr. Annalisa Pillepich (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)
IllustrisTNG was able to predict more accurately what this glow should look like. This gives astronomers a better idea of what to look for when they try to observe this pale stellar glow in the real Universe. “Our predictions can now be systematically checked by observers,” Dr. Annalisa Pillepich (MPIA) points out, who led a further IllustrisTNG study. “This yields a critical test for the theoretical model of hierarchical galaxy formation.”
IllustrisTNG is an on-going series of simulations. So far, there have been three IllustrisTNG runs, each one creating a larger simulation than the previous one. They are TNG 50, TNG 100, and TNG 300. TNG300 is much larger than TNG50 and allows a larger area to be studied which reveals clues about large-scale structure. Though TNG50 is much smaller, it has much more precise detail. It gives us a more detailed look at the structural properties of galaxies and the detailed structure of gas around galaxies. TNG100 is somewhere in the middle.
IllustrisTNG is not the first cosmological hydrodynamical simulation. Others include Eagle, Horizon-AGN, and IllustrisTNG’s predecessor, Illustris. They have shown how powerful these predictive theoretical models can be. As our computers grow more powerful and our understanding of physics and cosmology grow along with them, these types of simulations will yield greater and more detailed results.
In 1926, famed astronomer Edwin Hubble developed his morphological classification scheme for galaxies. This method divided galaxies into three basic groups – Elliptical, Spiral and Lenticular – based on their shapes. Since then, astronomers have devoted considerable time and effort in an attempt to determine how galaxies have evolved over the course of billions of years to become these shapes.
One of th most widely-accepted theories is that galaxies changed by merging, where smaller clouds of stars – bound by mutual gravity – came together, altering the size and shape of a galaxy over time. However, a new study by an international team of researchers has revealed that galaxies could actually assumed their modern shapes through the formation of new stars within their centers.
This involved using ground-based telescopes to study 25 galaxies that were at a distance of about 11 billion light-years from Earth. At this distance, the team was seeing what these galaxies looked like 11 billion years ago, or roughly 3 billion years after the Big Bang. This early epoch coincides with a period of peak galaxy formation in the Universe, when the foundations of most galaxies were being formed. As Dr. Tadaki indicated in a NAOJ press release:
“Massive elliptical galaxies are believed to be formed from collisions of disk galaxies. But, it is uncertain whether all the elliptical galaxies have experienced galaxy collision. There may be an alternative path.”
Whereas the HST captured light from stars to discern the shape of the galaxies (as they existed 11 billion years ago), the ALMA array observed submillimeter waves emitted by the cold clouds of dust and gas – where new stars are being formed. By combining the two, they were able to complete a detailed picture of how these galaxies looked 11 billion years ago when their shapes were still evolving.
What they found was rather telling. The HST images indicated that early galaxies were dominated by a disk component, as opposed to the central bulge feature we’ve come to associate with spiral and lenticular galaxies. Meanwhile, the ALMA images showed that there were massive reservoirs of gas and dust near the centers of these galaxies, which coincided with a very high rate of star formation.
To rule out alternate possibility that this intense star formation was being caused by mergers, the team also used data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) – located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile – to confirm that there were no indications of massive galaxy collisions taking place at the time. As Dr. Tadaki explained:
“Here, we obtained firm evidence that dense galactic cores can be formed without galaxy collisions. They can also be formed by intense star formation in the heart of the galaxy.”
These findings could lead astronomers to rethink their current theories about galactic evolution and howthey came to adopt features like a central bulge and spiral arms. It could also lead to a rethink of our models regarding cosmic evolution, not to mention the history of own galaxy. Who knows? It might even cause astronomers to rethink what might happen in a few billion years, when the Milky Way is set to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy.
As always, the further we probe into the Universe, the more it reveals. With every revelation that does not fit our expectations, our hypotheses are forced to undergo revision.
For the first time, astronomers are able to accurately simulate galaxies from shortly after the big bang to today by including a realistic treatment of the effects stars have on their host galaxies.
For the past few decades astronomers have simulated galaxies by mixing the basic physical ingredients — gravity, gas chemistry and the evolution of the universe — into their models.
For years their simulations have shown that gas cools off quickly and falls to the center of the galaxy. Eventually all of the gas forms stars. But observations show only “10 percent of the gas in the universe actually does so,” CalTech astronomer Dr. Philip Hopkins explained. “And in very small or very large galaxies, the number can go down to well below a percent.”
Models of galaxies create far too many stars and as a result end up weighing more than real galaxies in the observable universe. But in theory the solution is simple: the missing physics is a process known as stellar feedback.
For that, astronomers have to look at how stars help shape the evolution of the galaxies in which they reside. And what they have found is that stars affect their environments drastically.
When stars are very young they are extremely hot and blast off a high amount of radiation into space. This radiation heats up and pushes on the nearby interstellar gas. Later on stellar winds – particles streaming from the surface of stars — also push on the gas, further disrupting nearby star formation. Finally, explosions as supernovae can push the gas to nearly sonic speeds.
While astronomers have understood the missing physics for quite a while, they have not been able to successfully incorporate it a priori into their models. Despite their efforts their simulated galaxies have always weighed more than observed galaxies actually weigh.
Understanding the missing physics is a completely different question than being able to incorporate the missing physics directly into their models.
Instead, astronomers made big assumptions based on what galaxies should look like. At some point in their simulations, they had to go in by hand and tune certain parameters. They would get rid of so much gas until the results roughly matched the galaxies we observe.
“Basically, they (astronomers) said ‘we need there to be winds to explain the observations, so we’re going to insert those winds by hand into our models, and adjust the parameters until it looks like what’s observed,’ ” Hopkins told Universe Today.
At the time tuning their models in this way was the best astronomers could do and their models did help improve our understanding of galaxy evolution. But Hopkins and a team of astronomers from across North America have found a way to incorporate the missing physics — stellar feedback — directly into their models.
The research team is creating simulations that draw from stellar feedback explicitly. The FIRE (Feedback in Realistic Environments) project is a multi-year, multi-institution effort.
While it was no easy task, they incorporated the necessary and dare I say messy physics into their models, allowing for unprecedented accuracy. They tracked the affects radiation and stellar winds have on their environments and included a realistic supernovae rate.
“The result is that we see these stars pushing on the gas, and supernovae explosions sweeping up and ‘blowing out’ large amounts of material from galaxies,” Hopkins explained. “When you follow all of this, the story holds together, and indeed we can explain the observed masses of galaxies just from the input of stars.”
The results have been rewarding — providing some pretty cool videos of galaxies forming across the observable universe — and surprising.
It has become clear that the different types of stellar feedback don’t work alone. While the energy given off by stellar winds can push away interstellar gas, it cannot launch the gas out of the galaxy entirely. The necessary propulsion occurs, instead, when a supernova explosion happens nearby.
But this isn’t to say that supernova explosions play a larger role than stellar winds. If the authors left out any stellar feedback mechanism (the radiation from hot young stars, stellar winds, or supernova explosions) the results were equally poor — with too many stars and masses much too large.
“We’ve just begun to explore these new surprises, but we hope that these new tools will enable us to study a whole host of open questions in the field.”
The paper has been submitted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available for download here.
Hopkins discusses the “Cosmological zoom-in simulation using new stellar feedback” at at workshop at the University of California, Santa Cruz earlier this year:
Night time blast off of 4 stage NASA Black Brant XII suborbital rocket at 11:05 p.m. EDT on June 5, 2013 from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility carrying the CIBER astronomy payload to study when the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe. The Black Brant soars above huge water tower at adjacent Antares rocket launch pad at NASA Wallops. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com Updated with more photos[/caption]
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – The spectacular night time launch of a powerful Black Brant XII suborbital rocket from NASA’s launch range at the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at 11:05 p.m. June 5 turned darkness into day as the rocket swiftly streaked skyward with the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRiment (CIBER) on a NASA mission to shine a bright beacon for science on star and galaxy formation in the early Universe.
A very loud explosive boom shook the local launch area at ignition that was also heard by local residents and tourists at distances over 10 miles away, gleeful spectators told me.
“The data looks good so far,” Jamie Bock, CIBER principal investigator from the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today in an exclusive post-launch interview inside Mission Control at NASA Wallops. “I’m very happy.”
The four stage Black Brant XII is the most powerful sounding rocket in America’s arsenal for scientific research.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with this launch and this is very important for Wallops,” William Wrobel, Director of NASA Wallops Flight Facility, told me in an exclusive interview moments after liftoff.
Wallops is rapidly ramping up launch activities this year with two types of powerful new medium class rockets – Antares and Minotaur V- that can loft heavy payloads to the International Space Station (ISS) and to interplanetary space from the newly built pad 0A and the upgraded, adjacent launch pad 0B.
“We have launched over 16,000 sounding rockets.”
“Soon we will be launching our first spacecraft to the moon, NASA’s LADEE orbiter. And we just launched the Antares test flight on April 21.”
I was delighted to witness the magnificent launch from less than half a mile away with a big group of cheering Wallops employees and Wallops Center Director Wrobel. See my launch photos and time lapse shot herein.
Everyone could hear piercing explosions as each stage of the Black Brant rocket ignited as it soared to the heavens to an altitude of some 358 miles above the Atlantic Ocean.
Seconds after liftoff we could see what looked like a rain of sparkling fireworks showing downward towards the launch pad. It was a fabulous shower of aluminum slag and spent ammonium perchlorate rocket fuel.
The awesome launch took place on a perfectly clear night drenched with brightly shining stars as the Atlantic Ocean waves relentlessly pounded the shore just a few hundred feet away.
The rocket zoomed past the prominent constellation Scorpius above the Atlantic Ocean.
In fact we were so close that we could hear the spent first stage as it was plummeting from the sky and smashed into the ocean, perhaps 10 miles away.
After completing its spectral collection to determine when did the first stars and galaxies form and how brightly did they shine burning their nuclear fuel, the CIBER payload splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was not recovered.
NASA said the launch was seen from as far away as central New Jersey, southwestern Pennsylvania and northeastern North Carolina.
One of my astronomy friends Joe Stieber, did see the launch from about 135 miles away in central New Jersey and captured beautiful time lapse shots (see below).
Everything with the rocket and payload went exactly as planned.
“This was our fourth and last flight of the CIBER payload,” Bock told me. “We are still analyzing data from the last 2 flights.”
“CIBER first flew in 2009 atop smaller sounding rockets launched from White Sands Missile Range, N.M. and was recovered.”
“On this flight we wanted to send the experiment higher than ever before to collect more measurements for a longer period of time to help determine the brightness of the early Universe.”
CIBER is instrumented with 2 cameras and 2 spectrometers.
“The payload had to be cooled to 84 Kelvin with liquid nitrogen before launch in order for us to make the measurements,” Bock told me.
“The launch was delayed a day from June 4 because of difficulty both in cooling the payload to the required temperature and in keeping the temperature fluctuations to less than 100 microkelvins,” Bock explained
The CIBER experiment involves scientists and funding from the US and NASA, Japan and South Korea.
Bock is already thinking about the next logical steps with a space based science satellite.
Space.com has now featured an album of my CIBER launch photos – here
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013