Over 13 billion years ago, the first galaxies in the Universe formed. They were elliptical, with intermediate black holes (IMBHs) at their centers surrounded by a halo of stars, gas, and dust. Over time, these galaxies evolved by flattening out into disks with a large bulge in the middle. They were then drawn together by mutual gravitational attraction to form galaxy clusters, massive collections that comprise the large-scale cosmic structure. This force of attraction also led to mergers, where galaxies and their central black holes came together to create larger spiral galaxies with central supermassive black holes (SMBHs).
This process of mergers and assimilation (and their role in galactic evolution) is still a mystery to astronomers today since much of it took place during the early Universe, which is still very difficult to observe with existing telescopes. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the International Gemini Observatory, an international team of astronomers observed a lone distant galaxy that appears to have consumed all of its former companions. Their findings, which recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal, suggest galaxies in the early Universe grew faster than previously thought.
Astronomers have continued to watch this intriguing star system, and now, using observations from the last 12 years, astrophysicist Jason Wang has put together a time lapse video showing the orbital motions of the four planets.
Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are one of the most mysterious transient phenomena facing astronomers today. These incredibly energetic bursts are the most powerful electromagnetic events observed since the Big Bang and can last from a few milliseconds to many hours. Whereas longer bursts are thought to occur during supernovae, when massive stars undergo gravitational collapse and shed their outer layer to become black holes, shorter events have also been recorded when massive binary objects (black holes and neutron stars) merge.
These bursts are characterized by an initial flash of gamma rays and a longer-lived “afterglow” typically emitted in X-ray, ultraviolet, radio, and other longer wavelengths. In the early-morning hours on October 14th, 2022, two independent teams of astronomers using the Gemini South telescope observed the aftermath of a GRB designated GRB221009A. Located 2.4 billion light-years away in the Sagitta constellation, this event was perhaps the closes and most powerful explosion ever recorded and was likely triggered by a supernova that gave birth to a black hole.
Young stars go through a lot as they’re being born. They sometimes emit jets of ionized gas called MHOs—Molecular Hydrogen emission-line Objects. New images of two of these MHOs, also called stellar jets, show how complex they can be and what a hard time astronomers have as they try to understand them.
Earlier this week, we shared an image of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. And now, here are a group of images from the 8.1-metre Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. Like Hubble, Gemini North focused in on the comet’s nucleus and coma, instead of its stunning, gossamer tails. But Gemini zoomed in and caught something Hubble didn’t: Comet NEOWISE was rotating, which created a spiraling stream of molecular gas.
It’s difficult to imagine the magnitude of storms on Jupiter. The gas giant’s most visible atmospheric feature, the Great Red Spot, may be getting smaller, but one hundred years ago, it was about 40,000 km (25,000 miles) in diameter, or three times Earth’s diameter.
Jupiter’s atmosphere also features thunderheads that are five times taller than Earth’s: a whopping 64 km (40 miles) from bottom to top. Its atmosphere is not entirely understood, though NASA’s Juno spacecraft is advancing our understanding. The planet may contain strange things like a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen.
Now a group of scientists are combining the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gemini Observatory and the Juno spacecraft to probe Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the awe-inspiring storms that spawn there.
Some stars die a beautiful death, ejecting their outer layers of gas into space, then lighting it all up with their waning energy. When that happens, we get a nebula. Astronomers working with the Gemini Observatory just shared a new image of one of these spectacular objects.
With the excitement and interest in the newly discovered ‘mini-moon’ found orbiting Earth, astronomers quickly set their sights on trying to get more details, to determine what this object actually is.
Using the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, a group of astronomers captured a clearer view of this so-called Temporarily Captured Object (TCO), named 2020 CD3. The image, above, was obtained on February 24, 2020. It shows a tiny pinpoint of light against trailing stars.
On August 30th, amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov spotted a comet of extrasolar origin passing through our Solar System. This is the second time in as many years that an interstellar object has been observed (the last being ‘Oumuamua 2.0 in 2017). Thanks to the Gemini Observatory, we now have pictures of this comet, making it the first object of its kind to be successfully imaged in multiple colors!
The world’s newest and most powerful exoplanet imaging instrument, the recently-installed Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) on the 8-meter Gemini South telescope, has captured its first-light infrared image of an exoplanet: Beta Pictoris b, which orbits the star Beta Pictoris, the second-brightest star in the southern constellation Pictor. The planet is pretty obvious in the image above as a bright clump of pixels just to the lower right of the star in the middle (which is physically covered by a small opaque disk to block glare.) But that cluster of pixels is really a distant planet 63 light-years away and several times more massive — as well as 60% larger — than Jupiter!
And this is only the beginning.
While many exoplanets have been discovered and confirmed over the past couple of decades using various techniques, very few have actually been directly imaged. It’s extremely difficult to resolve the faint glow of a planet’s reflected light from within the brilliant glare of its star — but GPI was designed to do just that.
“Most planets that we know about to date are only known because of indirect methods that tell us a planet is there, a bit about its orbit and mass, but not much else,” said Bruce Macintosh of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the team that built the instrument. “With GPI we directly image planets around stars – it’s a bit like being able to dissect the system and really dive into the planet’s atmospheric makeup and characteristics.”
And GPI doesn’t just image distant Jupiter-sized exoplanets; it images them quickly.
“Even these early first-light images are almost a factor of ten better than the previous generation of instruments,” said Macintosh. ” In one minute, we were seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect.”
Despite its large size, Beta Pictoris b is a very young planet — estimated to be less than 10 million years old (the star itself is only about 12 million.) Its presence is a testament to the ability of large planets to form rapidly and soon around newly-formed stars.
“Seeing a planet close to a star after just one minute, was a thrill, and we saw this on only the first week after the instrument was put on the telescope!” added Fredrik Rantakyro a Gemini staff scientist working on the instrument. “Imagine what it will be able to do once we tweak and completely tune its performance.”
Another of GPI’s first-light images captured light scattered by a ring of dust that surrounds the young star HR4796A , about 237 light-years away:
The left image shows shows normal light, including both the dust ring and the residual light from the central star scattered by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. The right image shows only polarized light. Leftover starlight is unpolarized and hence removed. The light from the back edge of the disk (to the right of the star) is strongly polarized as it reflects towards Earth, and thus it appears brighter than the forward-facing edge.
It’s thought that the reflective ring could be from a belt of asteroids or comets orbiting HR4796A, and possibly shaped (or “shepherded,” like the rings of Saturn) by as-yet unseen planets. GPI’s advanced capabilities allowed for the full circumference of the ring to be imaged.
GPI’s success in imaging previously-known systems like Beta Pictoris and HR4796A can only indicate many more exciting exoplanet discoveries to come.
“The entire exoplanet community is excited for GPI to usher in a whole new era of planet finding,” says physicist and exoplanet expert Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Each exoplanet detection technique has its heyday. First it was the radial velocity technique (ground-based planet searches that started the whole field). Second it was the transit technique (namely Kepler). Now, it is the ‘direct imaging’ planet-finding technique’s turn to make waves.”
This year the GPI team will begin a large-scale survey, looking at 600 young stars to see what giant planets may be orbiting them.
“Some day, there will be an instrument that will look a lot like GPI, on a telescope in space. And the images and spectra that will come out of that instrument will show a little blue dot that is another Earth.”
– Bruce Macintosh, GPI team leader
The observations above were conducted last November during an “extremely trouble-free debut.” The Gemini South telescope is located near the summit of Cerro Pachon in central Chile, at an altitude of 2,722 meters.