When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program, they will be taking the long view. Rather than being another “footprints and flags” program, the goal is to create a lasting infrastructure that will ensure a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” A major element in this plan is the Lunar Gateway, an orbital habitat that astronauts will use to venture to and from the surface.
Our Milky Way galaxy isn’t just a disk of stars and nebulae – it’s surrounded by a cloud of hot, thin plasma. And recently, researchers at The Ohio State University confirmed that the plasma surrounding our galaxy is much, much hotter than we previously thought.
Astronomers have been watching a nearby pulsar with a strange halo around it. That pulsar might answer a question that’s puzzled astronomers for some time. The pulsar is named Geminga, and it’s one of the nearest pulsars to Earth, about 800 light years away in the constellation Gemini. Not only is it close to Earth, but Geminga is also very bright in gamma rays.
Have you ever looked up on a clear night and noticed there’s a complete ring around the Moon? In fact, if you look closely, the ring can have a rainbow appearance, with bright spots on either side, or above and below. What’s going on with the Moon and the atmosphere to cause this effect?
This ring surrounding the Moon is caused by the refraction of Moonlight (which is really reflected sunlight, of course) through ice crystals suspended in the upper atmosphere between 5-10 km in altitude. It doesn’t have to be winter, since the cold temperatures at high altitudes are below freezing any time of the year. Generally they’re seen with cirrus clouds; the thin, wispy clouds at high altitude.
The ice crystals themselves have a very consistent hexagonal shape, which means that any light passing through them will always refract light – or bend – at the same angle.
Moonlight passes through one facet of the ice crystal, and is then refracted back out at exactly the angle of 22-degrees.
Of course, the atmosphere is filled with an incomprehensible number of crystals, all refracting moonlight off in different directions. But at any moment, a huge number happen to be in just the right position to be refracting light towards your eyes. You just aren’t in a position to see all the other refracted light. In fact, everyone sees their own private halo, because you’re only seeing the crystals that happen to be aligning the light for your specific location. Someone a few meters beside you is seeing their own private version of the halo – just like a rainbow.
The size of the ring is most commonly 22-degrees. This is about the same size as your open hand on your outstretched arm. The Moon itself, for comparison, is the size of your smallest nail when you hold out your hand.
The 22-degree size corresponds to the refraction angle of moonlight.
We see a rainbow because the different colors are refracted at slightly different angles. This is exactly what happens with a rainbow. The moonlight is broken up into its separate colors because they all refract at different angles, and so you see the colors split up like a rainbow.
Moon dogs (or “mock moons”) are seen as bright spots that can appear on either side of the Moon, when the Moon is closer to the horizon, and at its fullest. These are located on either side of the lunar ring, parallel to the horizon.
In certain conditions, especially in the Arctic, where the ice crystals can be close to the surface, you can get a moon pillar. The light from the Moon reflects off the ice crystals near the surface, creating a glow near the horizon.
Don’t be surprised if you look up in the Sun’s direction and squint with itchy, watery eyes. You might be staring into billows of tree pollen wafting through your town. It’s certainly been happening where I live.
When conditions are right, billions of microscopic pollen grains consort to create small, oval-shaped rings around a bright Moon during the peak of the spring and early summer allergy season. With the Full Moon coming up this week, there’s no better time to watch for them.
Because they’re often lost in the glare of the Sun or Moon, the key to finding one is to hide the solar or lunar disk behind a thick tree branch, roof or my favorite, the power pole. Look for a telltale oval glow, sometimes tinted with rainbow colors, right up next to the Moon or Sun’s edge. Common halos, those that form when light is refracted by ice crystals, span 44° compared to pollen coronas, which measure just a few degrees in diameter.
To see or photograph coronas, you need plenty of light. The Sun’s ideal, but so is the Moon around full. Fortunately, that happens on June 2, neatly fitting into the sneezing season. Last night, the same grains — most likely pine tree pollen — also stoked a lunar corona. Once my eyes were dark adapted and the Moon hidden by an arboreal occulting instrument (tree branch), it was easy to see.
One of things you’ll notice right away about these biological bullseyes is that they’re not circular. Pollen coronas are oval because the pollen particles are elongated rather than spherical like water droplets. When light from the moon or sun strikes pollen, the minute grains diffract the light into a series of closely-spaced colored rings. I’ve read that pine and birch produce the best coronas, but spruce, alder and and others will work, too.
And here’s another amazing thing about these coronas. You don’t need a transparent medium to produce them. No ice, no water. All that’s necessary are very small, similarly-shaped objects. Light waves are scattered directly off their surfaces; the waves interfere with one another to create a diffraction pattern of colored rings.
Pollen coronas tend to become more elongated when the Sun or Moon is closer to the horizon, so look be on the lookout during those times for more extreme shapes. For some reason I’ve yet to discover, pollen disks sometimes exhibit “bumps” or extensions at their tops, bottoms and sides.
So many of us suffer from allergies, perhaps the glowing presence of what’s causing all the inflammation will serve as partial compensation for our misery.
The merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy won’t happen for another 4 billion years, but the recent discovery of a massive halo of hot gas around Andromeda may mean our galaxies are already touching. University of Notre Dame astrophysicist Nicholas Lehner led a team of scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope to identify an enormous halo of hot, ionized gas at least 2 million light years in diameter surrounding the galaxy.
The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest member of a ragtag collection of some 54 galaxies, including the Milky Way, called the Local Group. With a trillion stars — twice as many as the Milky Way — it shines 25% brighter and can easily be seen with the naked eye from suburban and rural skies.
Think about this for a moment. If the halo extends at least a million light years in our direction, our two galaxies are MUCH closer to touching that previously thought. Granted, we’re only talking halo interactions at first, but the two may be mingling molecules even now if our galaxy is similarly cocooned.
Lehner describes halos as the “gaseous atmospheres of galaxies”. Despite its enormous size, Andromeda’s nimbus is virtually invisible. To find and study the halo, the team sought out quasars, distant star-like objects that radiate tremendous amounts of energy as matter funnels into the supermassive black holes in their cores. The brightest quasar, 3C273 in Virgo, can be seen in a 6-inch telescope! Their brilliant, pinpoint nature make them perfect probes.
“As the light from the quasars travels toward Hubble, the halo’s gas will absorb some of that light and make the quasar appear a little darker in just a very small wavelength range,” said J. Christopher Howk , associate professor of physics at Notre Dame and co-investigator. “By measuring the dip in brightness, we can tell how much halo gas from M31 there is between us and that quasar.”
Astronomers have observed halos around 44 other galaxies but never one as massive as Andromeda where so many quasars are available to clearly define its extent. The previous 44 were all extremely distant galaxies, with only a single quasar or data point to determine halo size and structure.
Andromeda’s close and huge with lots of quasars peppering its periphery. The team drew from about five years’ worth of observations of archived Hubble data to find many of the 18 objects needed for a good sample.
The halo is estimated to contain half the mass of the stars in the Andromeda galaxy itself, in the form of a hot, diffuse gas. Simulations suggest that it formed at the same time as the rest of the galaxy. Although mostly composed of ionized hydrogen — naked protons and electrons — Andromeda’s aura is also rich in heavier elements, probably supplied by supernovae. They erupt within the visible galaxy and violently blow good stuff like iron, silicon, oxygen and other familiar elements far into space. Over Andromeda’s lifetime, nearly half of all the heavy elements made by its stars have been expelled far beyond the galaxy’s 200,000-light-year-diameter stellar disk.
You might wonder if galactic halos might account for some or much of the still-mysterious dark matter. Probably not. While dark matter still makes up the bulk of the solid material in the universe, astronomers have been trying to account for the lack of visible matter in galaxies as well. Halos now seem a likely contributor.
The next clear night you look up to spy Andromeda, know this: It’s closer than you think!
While he was working on the film Interstellar, executive producer Kip Thorne was tasked with creating the black hole that would be central to the plot. As a theoretical physicist, he also wanted to create something that was truly realistic and as close to the real thing as movie-goers would ever see.
On the other hand, Christopher Nolan – the film’s director – wanted to create something that would be a visually-mesmerizing experience. As you can see from the image above, they certainly succeeded as far as the aesthetics were concerned. But even more impressive was how the creation of this fictitious black hole led to an actual scientific discovery.
Call it a porcine occultation. It took nearly a year but I finally got help from the ornamental pig in my wife’s flower garden. This weekend it became the preferred method for blocking the sun to better see and photograph a beautiful pair of solar halos. We often associate solar and lunar halos with winter because they require ice crystals for their formation, but they happen during all seasons.
Lower clouds, like the puffy cumulus dotting the sky on a summer day, are composed of water droplets. A typical cumulus spans about a kilometer and contains 1.1 million pounds of water. Cirrostratus clouds are much higher (18,000 feet and up) and colder and formed instead of ice crystals. They’re often the first clouds to betray an incoming frontal system.
Cirrostratus are thin and fibrous and give the blue sky a milky look. Most halos and related phenomena originate in countless millions of hexagonal plate and pencil-shaped ice crystals wafting about like diamond dust in these often featureless clouds.
In winter, the sun is generally low in the sky, making it hard to miss a halo. Come summer, when the sun is much higher up, halo spotters have to be more deliberate and make a point to look up more often. The 22-degree halo is the most common; it’s the inner of the two halos in the photo above. With a radius of 22 degrees, an outstretched hand at arm’s length will comfortably fit between sun and circle.
Light refracted or bent through millions of randomly oriented pencil-shaped crystals exits at angles from 22 degrees up to 50 degrees, however most of the light is concentrated around 22 degrees, resulting in the familiar 22-degree radius halo. No light gets bent and concentrated at angles fewer than 22 degrees, which is why the sky looks darker inside the halo than outside. Finally, a small fraction of the light exits the crystals between 22 and 50 degrees creating a soft outer edge to the circle as well as a large, more diffuse disk of light as far as 50 degrees from the sun.
Sundogs, also called mock suns or parhelia, are brilliant and often colorful patches of light that accompany the sun on either side of a halo. Not as frequent as halos, they’re still common enough to spot half a dozen times or more a year. Depending on how extensive the cloud cover is, you might see only one sundog instead of the more typical pair. Sundogs form when light refracts through hexagonal plate-shaped ice crystals with their flat sides parallel to the ground. They appear when the sun is near the horizon and on the same horizontal plane as the ice crystals. As in halos, red light is refracted less than blue, coloring the dog’s ‘head’ red and its hind quarters blue. Mock sun is an apt term as occasionally a sundog will shine with the intensity of a second sun. They’re responsible for some of the daytime ‘UFO’ sightings. Check this one one out on YouTube.
Wobbly crystals make for taller sundogs. Like real dogs, ice crystal sundogs can grow tails. These are part of the much larger parhelic circle, a rarely-seen narrow band of light encircling the entire sky at the sun’s altitude formed when millions of both plate and column crystals reflect light from their vertical faces. Short tails extend from each mock sun in the photo above.
There’s almost no end to atmospheric ice antics. Many are rare like the giant 46-degree halo or the 9 and 18-degree halos formed from pyramidal ice crystals. Oftentimes halos are accompanied by arcs or modified arcs as in the flying pig image. When the sun is low, you’ll occasionally see an arc shaped like a bird in flight tangent to the top of the halo and rarely, to its bottom. When the sun reaches an altitude of 29 degrees, these tangent arcs – both upper and lower – change shape and merge into a circumscribed halowrapped around and overlapping the top and bottom of the main halo. At 50 degrees altitude and beyond, the circumscribed halo disappears … for a time. If the clouds persist, you can watch it return when the sun dips below 29 degrees and the two arcs separate again.
Maybe you’re not a halo watcher, but anyone who keeps an eye on the weather and studies the daytime sky in preparation for a night of skywatching can enjoy these icy appetizers.
Artist’s illustration of a hot gas halo enveloping the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; NASA/CXC/Ohio State/A.Gupta et al.)
Our galaxy — and the nearby Large and Small Magellanic Clouds as well — appears to be surrounded by an enormous halo of hot gas, several hundred times hotter than the surface of the Sun and with an equivalent mass of up to 60 billion Suns, suggesting that other galaxies may be similarly encompassed and providing a clue to the mystery of the galaxy’s missing baryons.
In the artist’s rendering above our Milky Way galaxy is seen at the center of a cloud of hot gas. This cloud has been detected in measurements made with Chandra as well as with the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory and Japan’s Suzaku satellite. The illustration shows it to extend outward over 300,000 light-years — and it may actually be even bigger than that.
While observing bright x-ray sources hundreds of millions of light-years distant, the researchers found that oxygen ions in the immediate vicinity of our galaxy were “selectively absorbing” some of the x-rays. They were then able to measure the temperature of the halo of gas responsible for the absorption.
The scientists determined the temperature of the halo is between 1 million and 2.5 million kelvins — a few hundred times hotter than the surface of the Sun.
But even with an estimated mass anywhere between 10 billion and 60 billion Suns, the density of the halo at that scale is still so low that any similar structure around other galaxies would escape detection. Still, the presence of such a large halo of hot gas, if confirmed, could reveal where the missing baryonic matter in our galaxy has been hiding — a mystery that’s been plaguing astronomers for over a decade.
Unrelated to dark matter or dark energy, the missing baryons issue was discovered when astronomers estimated the number of atoms and ions that would have been present in the Universe 10 billion years ago. But current measurements yield only about half as many as were present 10 billion years ago, meaning somehow nearly half the baryonic matter in the Universe has since disappeared.
Recent studies have proposed that the missing matter is tied up in the comic web — vast clouds and strands of gas and dust that surround and connect galaxies and galactic clusters. The findings announced today from Chandra support this, and suggest that the missing ions could be gathered around other galaxies in similarly hot halos.
Even though previous studies have indicated halos of warm gas existing around our galaxy as well as others, this new research shows a much hotter, much more massive halo than ever detected.
“Our work shows that, for reasonable values of parameters and with reasonable assumptions, the Chandra observations imply a huge reservoir of hot gas around the Milky Way,” said study co-author Smita Mathur of Ohio State University in Columbus. “It may extend for a few hundred thousand light-years around the Milky Way or it may extend farther into the surrounding local group of galaxies. Either way, its mass appears to be very large.”
Read the full news release from NASA here, and learn more about the Chandra mission here. (The team’s paper can be found on arXiv.org.)
NOTE: the initial posting of this story mentioned that this halo could be dark matter. That was incorrect and not implied by the actual research, as dark matter is non-baryonic matter while the hot gas in the halo is baryonic — i.e., “normal” — matter. Edited. – JM