Shiny New Supernova Spotted in Nearby Galaxy


Literally an event of stellar proportions, a new Type Ia supernova has been identified in a spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away! Spotted by Caltech’s Palomar Transit Factory project, this supernova, categorized as PTF11kly, is located 58″.6 west and 270″.7 south of the center of M101. It was first seen yesterday, August 24, 2011.

According to AAVSO Special Notice #250 P. Nugent et al. reported in Astronomical Telegram #3581 that a possible Type-Ia supernova has been discovered by the Palomar Transient Factory shortly after eruption in the galaxy M101 and has been designated “PTF11kly”. The object is currently at a magnitude of 17.2, but may well rise by several magnitudes. The object is well placed within M101 for good photometry, and observations of this potential bright SNIa are strongly encouraged.

There are currently no comparison stars available in VSP for this field; please indicate clearly the comparison stars that you use for photometry when reporting observations to AAVSO. Please retain your images and/or photometry for recalibration when comparison star magnitudes are available.

Need coordinates? The (J2000) coordinates reported for the object are RA: 14:03:05.81 , Dec: +54:16:25.4. Messier 101 is located in the constellation of Ursa Major at RA: 14h 03m 12.6s Dec: +54 20′ 57″

Charts for PTF11kly may be plotted with AAVSO VSP. You should select the DSS option when plotting, as the galaxy will not appear on standard charts. This object has been assigned the name “PTF11kly” for use with AAVSO VSP and WebObs; please use this name when reporting observations until it is conclusively classified as a supernova and a proper SN name is assigned.

Image of M101 and PTF11kly by Joseph Brimacombe.

Type Ia supernovae are the result of a binary pair of mismatched stars, the smaller, denser one feeding on material drawn off its larger companion until it can no longer take in any more material. It then explodes in a catastrophic event that outshines the brightness of its entire galaxy! Astronomers believe that Type Ia supernovae occur in pretty much the same fashion every time and thus, being visible across vast distances, have become invaluable benchmarks for measuring distance in the Universe and gauging its rate of expansion.

The fact that this supernova was spotted literally within a day of its occurrence – visibly speaking, of course, since M101 is 25 million light-years away and thus 25 million years in our past – will be extremely handy for astronomers who will have the opportunity to study the event from beginning to end and learn more about some of the less-understood processes involved in Type Ia events.

“We caught this supernova earlier than we’ve ever discovered a supernova of this type. On Tuesday, it wasn’t there. Then, on Wednesday, boom! There it was – caught within hours of the explosion. As soon as I saw the discovery image I knew we were onto something big.”

– Andy Howell, staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope

It’s a big Universe and there are a lot of stars and therefore a lot of supernovae, but getting a chance to study one occurring so recently in a galaxy so relatively close to our own is something that is getting many astronomers very excited.

So, get those CCD camera out and best of luck!

Keep up with the latest news on PTF11kly on the site, and check out Phil Plait’s informative article on his BadAstronomy blog. Also read the press release from the University of California here.

Tammy Plotner also contributed to this article.


Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor and on Facebook for more astronomy news and images!

What is Galactic Cannibalism?

Galactic Cannibalism

Seattle, January, 2003. Two prestigious astronomers: Puragra GuhaThakurta of UCSC and David Reitzel of UCLA present some new findings to the American Astronomical Society that would seem to indicate that large spiral galaxies grow by gobbling up smaller satellite galaxies. Their evidence, a faint trail of stars in the nearby Andromeda galaxy that are thought to be a vast trail of debris left over from an ancient merger of Andromeda with another, smaller galaxy. This process, known as Galactic Cannibalism is a process whereby a large galaxy, through tidal gravitational interactions with a companion galaxy, merges with that companion, resulting in a larger galaxy.

The most common result of this process is an irregular galaxy of one form or another, although elliptical galaxies may also result. Several examples of this have been observed with the help of the Hubble telescope, which include the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Mice Galaxies, and the Antennae Galaxies, all of which appear to be in one phase or another of merging and cannibalising. However, this process is not to be confused with Galactic Collision which is a similar process where galaxies collide, but retain much of their original shape. In these cases, a smaller degree of momentum or a considerable discrepancy in the size of the two galaxies is responsible. In the former case, the galaxies cease moving after merging because they have no more momentum to spare; in the latter, the larger galaxies shape overtakes the smaller one and their appears to be little in the way of change.

All of this is consistent with the most current, hierarchical models of galaxy formation used by NASA, other space agencies and astronomers. In this model, galaxies are believed to grow by ingesting smaller, dwarf galaxies and the minihalos of dark matter that envelop them. In the process, some of these dwarf galaxies are shredded by the gravitational tidal forces when they travel too close to the center of the “host” galaxy’s enormous halo. This, in turn, leaves streams of stars behind, relics of the original event and one of the main pieces of evidence for this theory. It has also been suggested that galactic cannibalism is currently occurring between the Milky Way and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds that exist beyond its borders. Streams of gravitationally-attracted hydrogen arcing from these dwarf galaxies to the Milky Way is taken as evidence for this theory.

As interesting as all of these finds are, they don’t exactly bode well for those of us who call the Milky Way galaxy, or any other galaxy for that matter, home! Given our proximity to the Andromeda Galaxy and its size – the largest galaxy of the Local Group, boasting over a trillion stars to our measly half a trillion – it is likely that our galaxy will someday collide with it. Given the sheer scale of the tidal gravitational forces involved, this process could prove disastrous for any and all life forms and planets that are currently occupy it!

We have written many articles about galactic cannibalism for Universe Today. Here’s an article about ancient galaxies feeding on gas, and here’s an article about an article, Galactic Ghosts Haunt Their Killers.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies. Listen here, Episode 97: Galaxies.


A Four Cluster Pile-Up


Abell 2744, shown above in a composite of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray  Observatory, is one of the most complex and dramatic collisions ever seen between galaxy clusters.

X-ray image of Abell 2744

Dubbed “Pandora’s Cluster”, this is a region 5.9 million light-years across located 3.5 billion light-years away. Many different kinds of structures are found here, shown in the image as different colors. Data from Chandra are colored red, showing gas with temperatures in the millions of degrees. Dark matter is shown in blue based on data from Hubble, the European Southern Observatory’s VLT array and Japan’s Subaru telescope. Finally the optical images showing the individual galaxies have been added.

Even though there are many bright galaxies visible in the image, most of the mass in Pandora’s Cluster comes from the vast areas of dark matter and extremely hot gas. Researchers made the normally invisible dark matter “visible” by identifying its gravitational effects on light from distant galaxies. By carefully measuring the distortions in the light a map of the dark matter’s mass could be created.

Galaxy clusters are the largest known gravitationally-bound structures in the Universe, and Abell 2744 is where at least four clusters have collided together. The vast collision seems to have separated the gas from the dark matter and the galaxies themselves, creating strange effects which have never been seen together before. By studying the history of events like this astronomers hope to learn more about how dark matter behaves and how the different structures that make up the Universe interact with each other.

Check out this HD video tour of Pandora’s Cluster from the team at Chandra:

Read more on the Chandra web site or in the NASA news release.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ITA/INAF/J.Merten et al, Lensing: NASA/STScI; NAOJ/Subaru; ESO/VLT, Optical: NASA/STScI/R.Dupke.


Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor or on Facebook for the most up-to-date astronomy awesomeness!


Galaxy Shapes

Galaxy Shapes

Science revealed to us that universe as we know it, is composed of billions of galaxies like our own Milky Way. When you consider how many stars are just in our own galaxy you can get just a small idea how big our universe really is. Despite this astronomers have made great strides in learning more about the galaxies and their different characteristics. One aspect that was defined early was their shapes. Thanks to the work of famous astronomer Edwin Hubble we know that just about any galaxy in the universe will have one of 4 different shapes, spiral, elliptical, lenticular, and irregular.

Spiral galaxies are one of the most familiar galaxy shapes. In fact when most people think of a galaxy, this type of galaxy shape is the first to come to mind. This is because the Milky Way is a prime example of a spiral galaxy. A spiral galaxy looks like a pinwheel. It is basically the nucleus with its different “arms” spiraling outwards. Spiral galaxies can be tight or loose to varying degrees. One important fact about spiral galaxies is that young stars are formed in the outer arms while older stars are found near the center.

The next two types of galaxies are elliptical and lenticular shaped galaxies. These types are the kinds that are the most similar. First they have few or no dust lanes and are largely composed of older mature stars. These types seldom have star forming areas. Of the four galaxy shapes this is the most cohesive and organized.

The final galaxy shape is the irregular galaxy shape. Irregulars have an indeterminate shape. These galaxies are often small and don’t have enough gravitational force to organize into a more regular form. The Hubble telescope has taken images of famous irregular galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds. Irregular galaxies can also be large galaxies that have undergone a major gravitational disturbance.

As you now see the four basic galaxy shapes seem to cover just about every type of galaxy out there. Like any classification of shape there are also subcategories. An interesting observation recently made about the shape of galaxies is the role that their formation plays in determining their shape. It is now thought that galaxies get their shape as they naturally develop, merge with other galaxies or disrupt each other’s path. This is another great mystery as we don’t currently have the technology to plot out the complete paths of galaxies in the universe.

We have written many articles about galaxy shapes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about irregular galaxy, and here’s an article about spiral galaxy.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies. Listen here, Episode 97: Galaxies.


Hubble Finds “Oddball” Stars in Milky Way Hub

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to peer deep into the central bulge of our galaxy have found a population of rare and unusual stars. Dubbed “blue stragglers”, these stars seem to defy the aging process, appearing to be much younger than they should be considering where they are located. Previously known to exist within ancient globular clusters, blue stragglers have never been seen inside our galaxy’s core – until now.

The stars were discovered following a seven-day survey in 2006 called SWEEPS – the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search – that used Hubble to search a section of the central portion of our Milky Way galaxy, looking for the presence of Jupiter-sized planets transiting their host stars. During the search, which examined 180,000 stars, Hubble spotted 42 blue stragglers.

Of the 42 it’s estimated that 18 to 37 of them are genuine.

What makes blue stragglers such an unusual find? For one thing, stars in the galactic hub should appear much older and cooler… aging Sun-like stars and old red dwarfs. Scientists believe that the central bulge of the Milky Way stopped making new stars billions of years ago. So what’s with these hot, blue, youthful-looking “oddballs”? The answer may lie in their formation.

Artist's concept of a blue straggler pair. NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

A blue straggler may start out as a smaller member of a binary pair of stars. Over time the larger star ages and gets even bigger, feeding material onto the smaller one. This fuels fusion in the smaller star which then grows hotter, making it shine brighter and bluer – thus appearing similar to a young star.

However they were formed, just finding the blue stragglers was no simple task. The stars’ orbits around the galactic core had to be determined through a confusing mix of foreground stars within a very small observation area. The region of the sky Hubble studied was no larger than the width of a fingernail held at arm’s length! Still, within that small area Hubble could see over 250,000 stars. Incredible.

“Only the superb image quality and stability of Hubble allowed us to make this measurement in such a crowded field.”

– Lead author Will Clarkson, Indiana University in Bloomington and the University of California in Los Angeles

The discovery of these rare stars will help astronomers better understand star formation in the Milky Way’s hub and thus the evolution of our galaxy as a whole.

Read more on the Hubble News Center.

Image credit: NASAESA, W. Clarkson (Indiana University and UCLA), and K. Sahu (STScI)

Lone Planets “More Common Than Stars”


We happen to live in a solar system where everything seems to be tucked neatly in place. Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, comets… all turning and traveling through space in relatively neat and orderly fashions. But that may not always be the case; sometimes planets can get kicked out of their solar systems entirely, banished to roam interstellar space without a sun of their own. And these “orphan planets” may be much more numerous than once thought.

Researchers in a joint Japan-New Zealand study surveyed microlensing events near the central part of our galaxy during 2006 and 2007 and identified up to 10 Jupiter-sized orphan worlds between 10,000 and 20,000 light-years away. Based on the number of planets identified and the area studied they estimate that there could literally be hundreds of billions of these lone planets roaming our galaxy….literally twice as many planets as there are stars.

“Although free-floating planets have been predicted, they finally have been detected, holding major implications for planetary formation and evolution models.”

– Mario Perez, exoplanet program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

From the NASA release:

Previous observations spotted a handful of free-floating, planet-like objects within star-forming clusters, with masses three times that of Jupiter. But scientists suspect the gaseous bodies form more like stars than planets. These small, dim orbs, called brown dwarfs, grow from collapsing balls of gas and dust, but lack the mass to ignite their nuclear fuel and shine with starlight. It is thought the smallest brown dwarfs are approximately the size of large planets.

On the other hand, it is likely that some planets are ejected from their early, turbulent solar systems, due to close gravitational encounters with other planets or stars. Without a star to circle, these planets would move through the galaxy as our sun and other stars do, in stable orbits around the galaxy’s center. The discovery of 10 free-floating Jupiters supports the ejection scenario, though it’s possible both mechanisms are at play.

“If free-floating planets formed like stars, then we would have expected to see only one or two of them in our survey instead of 10. Our results suggest that planetary systems often become unstable, with planets being kicked out from their places of birth.”

– David Bennett, a NASA and National Science Foundation-funded co-author of the study from the University of Notre Dame.

The study wasn’t able to resolve planets smaller than Saturn but it’s believed there are likely many more smaller, Earth-sized worlds than large Jupiter-sized ones.

Read the full NASA news release here.

The study, led by Takahiro Sumi from Osaka University in Japan, appears in the May 19 issue of the journal Nature.

A New Spin on Galactic Evolution


There’s a new concept in the works regarding the evolution of galactic arms and how they move across the structure of spiral galaxies. Robert Grand, a postgraduate student at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, used new computer modeling to suggest that these signature features of spiral galaxies – including our own Milky Way – evolve in different ways than previously thought.

The currently accepted theory is as spiral galaxies rotate, the “arms” are actually transient structures that move across the flattened disc of stars surrounding the galactic bulge, yet don’t directly affect the movement of the individual stars themselves. This would work in much the same way as a “wave” goes across a crowd at a stadium event. The wave moves, but the individual people do not move along with it – rather, they stay seated after it has passed.

However when Grand researched this suggested motion using computer models of galaxies, he and his colleagues found that this was not what tended to happen. Instead the stars actually moved along with the arms, rather than maintaining their positions.

Also it was observed in these models that the arms themselves are not permanent features, but rather break up and reform over the course of 80 to 100 million years. Grand suggests that this may be due to the powerful gravitational shear forces generated by the spinning of the galaxy.

“We simulated the evolution of spiral arms for a galaxy with five million stars over a period of 6 billion years. We found that stars are able to migrate much more efficiently than anyone previously thought. The stars are trapped and move along the arm by their gravitational influence, but we think that eventually the arm breaks up due to the shear forces.”

– Robert Grand

Snapshots of face-on view of a simulated disc galaxy.

The computer models also showed that the stars along the leading edge of the arms tended to move inwards toward the galactic center while the stars lining the trailing ends were carried to the outer edge of the galaxy.

Since it takes hundreds of millions of years for a spiral galaxy to complete even just one single rotation, observing their evolution and morphology is impossible to do in real time. Researchers like Grand and his simulations are key to our eventual understanding of how these islands of stars formed and continue to shape themselves into the vast, varied structures we see today.

“This research has many potential implications for future observational astronomy, like the European Space Agency’s next corner stone mission, Gaia, which MSSL is also heavily involved in.  As well as helping us understand the evolution of our own galaxy, it may have applications for regions of star formation.”

– Robert Grand

The results were presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Wales on April 20. Read the press release on the Royal Astronomical Society’s website here.

Top image: M81, a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, is one of the brightest galaxies that can be seen from Earth. The spiral arms wind all the way down into the nucleus and are made up of young, bluish, hot stars formed in the past few million years, while the central bulge contains older, redder stars. Credit: NASAESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

What Galaxy Do We Live In?

If you are not an astronomy enthusiast you not have thought much about what galaxy do we live in. So depending on that the answer may surprise you. If you know anything about galaxies you know that they are groupings of stars that number in the hundreds of billions. The most famous is the Milky Way. It is from this galaxy that we even have the term. The simple point is that the Earth is part of the Milky Way even though if we see it in the sky it looks like we are observing it from the outside. Why is that? To understand you need to know exactly where we live in neighborhood of the Milky Way Galaxy.

As we are part of the solar system Earth pretty much follows the path of the sun as it goes through its own orbit around the galaxy. The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy type so it has arms sort of like an octopus. The Sun is located near the outward tip of the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way. This makes Earth about 28,000 light years from the galactic core of our home galaxy.

The Solar System also has a galactic year that it follows. It takes around 200 million to 250 million years for the solar system to orbit the Sun. Another indicator of our position is where the galactic equator. While our star system is considered to be on the outskirts of the Milky Way this is only an estimate. It is believed that the Milky Way is larger than first estimated. There is also suspicion that our galaxy is in the process of absorbing other smaller galaxies. However, there is not enough empirical evidence available to support the claim.

So what would be so important about knowing what part of the galaxy we live in? One reason is space exploration. Some time in the future mankind may find a way to achieve faster than light space travel. This can provide a new set of challenges for engineers and astronomers to tackle. For example how would an astronaut keep from getting lost in space? Detailed mapping and computer programming in the future could help galactic wayfarers know where they are going and more importantly how to get home.

The other reason is that it never hurts to know our place in the scheme of things. Just thinking of the challenge of finding earth if we were so far way helps us to understand how truly vast the universe is.

We have written many articles about the Milky Way galaxy for Universe Today. Here are some facts about the Milky Way, and here’s an article about the closest galaxy to the Milky Way.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies. Listen here, Episode 97: Galaxies.

Sources: SEDS, Daily Galaxy

Barred Spiral Galaxy

As its name implies, a barred spiral galaxy is a spiral galaxy with a bar through the center.

Hubble introduced the ‘tuning fork’ scheme for describing the shapes of galaxies (“morphologies” in astronomer-speak) in 1936. In this, the two arms of the fork are barred spirals (from SBa to SBc) and spirals without bars (from Sa to Sc); the S stands for spiral, B for ‘it’s got a bar’, and a/b/c for how tightly wound the spiral arms are. This was later extended to a fourth type, SBm and Sm, for irregular barred spiral galaxies which have no bulge.

In 1959, Gérard de Vaucouleurs extended the scheme to the one perhaps the most commonly used by astronomers today (though there’ve been some mods since). In this scheme spirals without bars are SA, and those which have really weak bars are SAB; barred spirals remain SB. He also added a ‘d’ (SAd, SBd), and a few other things, like rings.

About half of spiral galaxies are barred; examples include M58 (SBc), M61 (SABbc), the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC, Sm), … and our own Milky Way galaxy!

The bars are mostly stars (usually), unlike spiral arms (which have lots of gas and dust besides stars). The formation and evolution of bars is an active area of research in astronomy today; they seem to form from close encounters of the galaxy kind (galaxy near-collisions), funnel gas into the central bulge (where the super-massive black holes there snack on it), and are sustained by the same density waves which keep the arms alive.

Why not join the Galaxy Zoo project, and have some fun classifying spiral galaxies into whether they have bars or not (and getting to see some amazing sights too)?

Hubble Early Release Observation of Barred Spiral NGC 6217, Two Galaxies Walk Into a Bar…, and The Milky Way Has Only Two Spiral Arms; just some of the Universe Today stories on barred spiral galaxies.

Astronomy Casts featuring barred spiral galaxies include The Story of Galaxy Evolution, and Galaxies.

Structure of the Universe

[/caption]The large-scale structure of the Universe is made up of voids and filaments, that can be broken down into superclusters, clusters, galaxy groups, and subsequently into galaxies. At a relatively smaller scale, we know that galaxies are made up of stars and their constituents, our own Solar System being one of them.

By understanding the hierarchical structure of things, we are able to gain a clearer visualization of the roles each individual component plays and how they fit into the larger picture. For example, if we go down to the world of the very small, we know that molecules can be chopped down into atoms; atoms into protons, electrons, and neutrons; then the protons and neutrons into quarks and so on.

But what about the very large? What is the large-scale structure of the universe? What exactly are superclusters and filaments and voids? Let’s start by looking at galaxy groupings and move on to even larger structures.

Although there are some galaxies that are found to stray away by their lonesome, most of them are actually bundled into groups and clusters. Groups are smaller, usually made up of less than 50 galaxies and can have diameters up to 6 million light-years. In fact, the group in which our Milky Way is a member of is made up of only a little over 40 galaxies.

Generally speaking, clusters are bunches of 50 to 1,000 galaxies that can have diameters of up to 2-10 megaparsecs. One very peculiar property of clusters is that the velocities of their galaxies are supposed to be too high for gravity alone to keep them bunched together … and yet they are.

The idea that dark matter exists starts at this scale of structure. Dark matter is believed to provide the gravitational force that keeps them all bunched up.

A great number of groups, clusters and individual galaxies can come together to form the next larger structure – superclusters. Superclusters are among the largest structures ever to be discovered in the universe.

The largest single structure to be identified is the Sloan Great Wall, a vast sheet of galaxies that span a length of 500 million light-years, a width of 200 million light-years and a thickness of only 15 million light-years.

Due to the limitations of today’s measuring devices, there is a maximum level to which we can zoom out. At that level, we see a universe made up of mainly two components. There are the threadlike structures known as filaments that are made up of isolated galaxies, groups, clusters and superclusters. And then there are vast empty bubbles of empty space called voids.

You can read more about structure of the universe here in Universe Today. Want to read about the cosmic void: could we be in the middle of it? We’ve also written about probing the large scale structure of the universe.

There’s more about it at NASA. Here are a couple of sources there:

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:

Sources: NASA WMAP, NASA: Sheets and Voids