Most ‘Outrageous’ Luminous Galaxies Ever Observed

An artist's conception of an extremely luminous infrared galaxy similar to the ones reported in this paper. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Astronomers might be running out of words when it comes to describing the brightness of objects in the Universe.

Luminous, Super-Luminous, Ultra-Luminous, Hyper-Luminous. Those words have been used to describe the brightest objects we’ve found in the cosmos. But now astronomers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have found galaxies so bright that new adjectives are needed. Kevin Harrington, student and lead author of the study describing these galaxies, says, “We’ve taken to calling them ‘outrageously luminous’ among ourselves, because there is no scientific term to apply.”

The terms “ultra-luminous” and “hyper-luminous” have specific meanings in astronomy. An infrared galaxy is called “ultra-luminous” when it has a rating of about 1 trillion solar luminosities. At 10 trillion solar luminosities, the term “hyper-luminous” is used. For objects greater than that, at around 100 trillion solar luminosities, “we don’t even have a name,” says Harrington.

The size and brightness of these 8 galaxies is astonishing, and their existence comes as a surprise. Professor Min Yun, who leads the team, says, “The galaxies we found were not predicted by theory to exist; they’re too big and too bright, so no one really looked for them before.” These newly discovered galaxies are thought to be about 10 billion years old, meaning they were formed about 4 billion years after the Big Bang. Their discovery will help astronomers understand the early Universe better.

“Knowing that they really do exist and how much they have grown in the first 4 billion years since the Big Bang helps us estimate how much material was there for them to work with. Their existence teaches us about the process of collecting matter and of galaxy formation. They suggest that this process is more complex than many people thought,” said Yun.

Gravitational lensing plays a role in all this though. The galaxies are not as large as they appear from Earth. As their light passes by massive objects on its way to Earth, their light is magnified. This makes them look 10 times brighter than they really are. But event taking gravitational lensing into account, these are still impressive objects.

But it’s not just the brightness of these objects that are significant. Gravitational lensing of a galaxy by another galaxy is rare. Finding 8 of them is unheard of, and could be “another potentially important discovery,” says Yun. The paper highlights these galaxies as being among the most interesting objects for further study “because the magnifying property of lensing allows us to probe physical details of the intense star formation activities at sub-kpc scale…”

The team’s analysis also shows that the extreme brightness of these galaxies is caused solely by star formation.“The Milky Way produces a few solar masses of stars per year, and these objects look like they forming one star every hour,” Yun says. Harrington adds, “We still don’t know how many tens to hundreds of solar masses of gas can be converted into stars so efficiently in these objects, and studying these objects might help us to find out.”

It took a tag team of telescopes to discover and confirm these outrageously luminous galaxies. The team of astronomers, led by Professor Min Yun, used the 50 meter diameter Large Millimeter Telescope for this work. It sits atop an extinct volcano in Mexico, the 15,000 foot Sierra Negra. They also relied on the Herschel Observatory, and the Planck Surveyor.

Teamwork! Two Telescopes Combine Forces To Spot Distant Galaxy Clusters

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

Doing something extraordinary often requires teamwork for humans, and the same can be said for telescopes. Witness the success of the Herschel and Planck observatories, whose data was combined in such a way to spot four galaxy clusters 10 billion years away — an era when the universe was just getting started.

Now that they have the technique down, astronomers believe they’ll be able to find about 2,000 other distant clusters that could show us more about how these collections of galaxies first came together.

Although very far away, the huge clumps of gas and dust coming together into stars is still visible, allowing telescopes to see the process in action.

“What we believe we are seeing in these distant clusters are giant elliptical galaxies in the process of being formed,” stated David Clements, a physicist at Imperial College London who led the research, referring to one of the two kinds of galaxies the universe has today. Elliptical galaxies are dominated by stars that are already formed, while spiral galaxies (like the Milky Way) include much more gas and dust.

Three false-color images of Herschel images identified by Planck. Infrared light is represented in three colors -- blue, green, and red -- that respectively show longer wavelengths. The green circle shows where Planck aimed. The co-ordinates show the location in right ascension and declination. Credit: D. Clements/ESA/NASA
Three false-color images of Herschel images identified by Planck. Infrared light is represented in three colors — blue, green, and red — that respectively show longer wavelengths. The green circle shows where Planck aimed. The co-ordinates show the location in right ascension and declination. Credit: D. Clements/ESA/NASA

This finding is yet another example of how the data from telescopes lives on, and can be used, long after the telescope missions have finished. Both Planck and Herschel finished their operations last year.

“The researchers used Planck data to find sources of far-infrared emission in areas covered by the Herschel satellite, then cross-referenced with Herschel data to look at these sources more closely,” the Royal Astronomical Society stated.

The two telescopes had complementary views, with Planck looking at the entire sky while Herschel surveyed smaller sections in higher resolution. By combining the data, researchers found 16 sources in total. A dozen of them were already discovered single galaxies, but four were the newly discovered galaxy clusters. Fresh observations were then used to figure out the distance.

You can read more details in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society or in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Speedy Science: Here’s Four Years Of Herschel Telescope Work In A Short Video

In just one minute, you can watch the Herschel space telescope painting the sky blue, green and yellow! The colors in this new video represent four years of observations from the European Space Agency telescope, which was active between 2009 and 2013.

“In total, Herschel observed almost a tenth of the entire sky for over 23,500 hours, providing new views into the previously hidden universe, pointing to unseen star birth and galaxy formation, and tracing water through the universe from molecular clouds to newborn stars and to their planet-forming discs and belts of comets,” ESA stated on a video explanation.

As ESA explains, Herschel had two cameras and imaging spectrometers on board, called PACS (Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer, in blue) and SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver, in green). When they worked together, their observations are shown in yellow.

Herschel was officially shut down on June 17 — check out the video of those commands here — but the scientific information the telescope produced is still being plumbed by astronomers.

Source: ESA

 

This Very Old Cosmic Light Has A Bend To It

Leftover radiation from the Big Bang — that expansion that kick-started the universe — can be bent by huge cosmic structures, just like other light that we see in the universe. While the finding seems esoteric at first glance, scientists say the discovery could pave the way for finding a similar kind of signal that indicate the presence of gravitational waves in the moments after the universe was born.

That light is called the cosmic microwave background and is the radiation that was visible when the universe became transparent to radiation, 380,000 years after the Big Bang. A tiny bit of the CMB is polarized. There are two types of polarized light in the CMB: E-modes (first detected in 2002) and B-modes (which were just detected using a telescope in Antarctica and ESA’s Herschel space observatory.

“[B-modes] can arise in two ways,” the European Space Agency wrote in a press release.

“The first involves adding a twist to the light as it crosses the Universe and is deflected by galaxies and dark matter – a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. The second has its roots buried deep in the mechanics of a very rapid phase of enormous expansion of the Universe, which cosmologists believe happened just a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang – ‘inflation’.”

More results are on the way from ESA’s Planck telescope in 2014, at which point scientists hope to see this B-mode of the second type. For now, check out the full study in Physical Review Letters. There is also a preprint version available on Arxiv.

Sources: ESA and ESA Herschel

ALMA Spots a Nascent Stellar Monster

Even though it comprises over 99% of the mass of the Solar System (with Jupiter taking up most of the rest) our Sun is, in terms of the entire Milky Way, a fairly average star. There are lots of less massive stars than the Sun out there in the galaxy, as well as some real stellar monsters… and based on new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, there’s about to be one more.

Early science observations with ALMA have provided astronomers with the best view yet of a monster star in the process of forming within a dark cloud of dust and gas. Located 11,000 light-years away, Spitzer Dark Cloud 335.579-0.292 is a stellar womb containing over 500 times the mass of the Sun — and it’s still growing. Inside this cloud is an embryonic star hungrily feeding on inwardly-flowing material, and when it’s born it’s expected to be at least 100 times the mass of our Sun… a true stellar monster.

The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)
The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)

The star-forming region is the largest ever found in our galaxy.

“The remarkable observations from ALMA allowed us to get the first really in-depth look at what was going on within this cloud,” said Nicolas Peretto of CEA/AIM Paris-Saclay, France, and Cardiff University, UK. “We wanted to see how monster stars form and grow, and we certainly achieved our aim! One of the sources we have found is an absolute giant — the largest protostellar core ever spotted in the Milky Way.”

Watch: What’s the Biggest Star in the Universe?

SDC 335.579-0.292 had already been identified with NASA’s Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel space telescopes, but it took the unique sensitivity of ALMA to observe in detail both the amount of dust present and the motion of the gas within the dark cloud, revealing the massive embryonic star inside.

“Not only are these stars rare, but their birth is extremely rapid and their childhood is short, so finding such a massive object so early in its evolution is a spectacular result.”

– Team member Gary Fuller, University of Manchester, UK

The image above, a combination of data acquired by both Spitzer and ALMA (see below for separate images) shows tendrils of infalling material flowing toward a bright center where the huge protostar is located. These observations show how such massive stars form — through a steady collapse of the entire cloud, rather than through fragmented clustering.

SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.
SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.

“Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its center,” said Peretto. “This object is expected to form a star that is up to 100 times more massive than the Sun. Only about one in ten thousand of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass!”

(Although, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, that means there are still 20 million such giants roaming around out there!)

Read more on the ESO news release here.

Image credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE

A Mega-Merger of Massive Galaxies Caught in the Act

Even though the spacecraft has exhausted its supply of liquid helium coolant necessary to observe the infrared energy of the distant Universe, data collected by ESA’s Herschel space observatory are still helping unravel cosmic mysteries — such as how early elliptical galaxies grew so large so quickly, filling up with stars and then, rather suddenly, shutting down star formation altogether.

Now, using information initially gathered by Herschel and then investigating closer with several other space- and ground-based observatories, researchers have found a “missing link” in the evolution of early ellipticals: an enormous star-sparking merging of two massive galaxies, caught in the act when the Universe was but 3 billion years old.

It’s been a long-standing cosmological conundrum: how did massive galaxies form in the early Universe? Observations of distant large elliptical galaxies full of old red stars (and few bright, young ones) existing when the Universe was only a few billion years old just doesn’t line up with how such galaxies were once thought to form — namely, through the gradual accumulation of many smaller dwarf galaxies.

But such a process would take time — much longer than a few billion years. So another suggestion is that massive elliptical galaxies could have been formed by the collision and merging of large galaxies, each full of gas, dust, and new stars… and that the merger would spark a frenzied formation of even more stars.

Investigation of a bright region first found by Herschel, named HXMM01, has identified such a merger of two galaxies, 11 billion light-years distant.

The enormous galaxies are linked by a bridge of gas and each has a stellar mass of about 100 billion Suns — and they are spawning new stars at the incredible rate of about 2,000 a year.

“We’re looking at a younger phase in the life of these galaxies — an adolescent burst of activity that won’t last very long,” said Hai Fu of the University of California at Irvine, lead author of a new study describing the results.

ESA's Herschel telescope used liquid helium to keep cool while it observed heat from the early Universe
ESA’s Herschel telescope used liquid helium to keep cool while it observed heat from the early Universe
Hidden behind vast clouds of cosmic dust, it took the heat-seeking eyes of Herschel to even spot HXMM01.

“These merging galaxies are bursting with new stars and completely hidden by dust,” said co-author Asantha Cooray, also of the University of California at Irvine. “Without Herschel’s far-infrared detectors, we wouldn’t have been able to see through the dust to the action taking place behind.”

Herschel first spotted the colliding duo in images taken with longer-wavelength infrared light, as shown in the image above on the left side. Follow-up observations from many other telescopes helped determine the extreme degree of star-formation taking place in the merger, as well as its incredible mass.

The image at right shows a close-up view, with the merging galaxies circled. The red data are from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Submillimeter Array atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and show dust-enshrouded regions of star formation. The green data, taken by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array, near Socorro, N.M., show carbon monoxide gas in the galaxies. In addition, the blue shows starlight.

Although the galaxies in HXMM01 are producing thousands more new stars each year than our own Milky Way does, such a high star-formation rate is not sustainable. The gas reservoir contained in the system will be quickly exhausted, quenching further star formation and leading to an aging population of low-mass, cool, red stars — effectively “switching off” star formation, like what’s been witnessed in other early ellipticals.

Dr. Fu and his team estimate that it will take about 200 million years to convert all the gas into stars, with the merging process completed within a billion years. The final product will be a massive red and dead elliptical galaxy of about 400 billion solar masses.

The study is published in the May 22 online issue of Nature.

Read more on the ESA Herschel news release here, as well as on the NASA site here. Also, check out an animation of the galactic merger below:

Main image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UC Irvine/STScI/Keck/NRAO/SAO

Weekly Space Hangout – May. 3, 2013

Another busy episode of the Weekly Space Hangout, with more than a dozen space stories covered by a collection of space journalists. This week’s panel included Alan Boyle, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, Amy Shira Teitel, David Dickinson, Dr. Matthew Francis, and Jason Major. Hosted by Fraser Cain. We discussed:

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Cosmoquest or listen after as part of the Astronomy Cast podcast feed (audio only).

Lighting Up Andromeda’s Coldest Rings

Cold rings of dust are illuminated in this image taken by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) instrument. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Schulz (NHSC)

Looking wispy and delicate from 2.5 million light-years away, cold rings of dust are seen swirling around the Andromeda galaxy in this new image from the Herschel Space Observatory, giving us yet another fascinating view of our galaxy’s largest neighbor.

The colors in the image correspond to increasingly warmer temperatures and concentrations of dust — blue rings are warmer, while pinks and reds are colder lanes of dust only slightly above absolute zero. Dark at shorter wavelengths, these dust rings are revealed by Herschel’s amazing sensitivity to the coldest regions of the Universe.

The image above shows data only from Herschel’s SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver) instrument; below is a mosaic made from SPIRE as well as the Photodetecting Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) instrument:

In this new view of the Andromeda galaxy from the Herschel space observatory, cool lanes of forming stars are revealed in the finest detail yet.

 “Cool Andromeda” Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE Consortium, O. Krause, HSC, H. Linz

Estimated to be 200,000 light-years across — almost double the width of the Milky Way — Andromeda (M31) is home to nearly a trillion stars, compared to the 200–400 billion that are in our galaxy. And within these cold, dark rings of dust even more stars are being born… Andromeda’s star-making days are far from over.

Read more: Star Birth and Death in the Andromeda Galaxy

Herschel’s mission will soon be coming to an end as the telescope runs out of the liquid helium coolant required to keep its temperatures low enough to detect such distant heat signatures. This is expected to occur sometime in February or March.

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes, and with important participation by NASA. Launched May 14, 2009, the telescope orbits the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system (L2), located 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) from Earth. Read more from the Herschel mission here.

The Brightest Galaxies in the Universe Were Invisible… Until Now

Hubble images of six of the starburst galaxies first found by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory (Keck data shown below each in blue)

Many of the brightest, most actively star-forming galaxies in the Universe were actually undetectable by Earth-based observatories, hidden from view by thick clouds of opaque dust and gas. Thanks to ESA’s Herschel space observatory, which views the Universe in infrared, an enormous amount of these “starburst” galaxies have recently been uncovered, allowing astronomers to measure their distances with the twin telescopes of Hawaii’s W.M. Keck Observatory. What they found is quite surprising: at least 767 previously unknown galaxies, many of them generating new stars at incredible rates.

Although nearly invisible at optical wavelengths these newly-found galaxies shine brightly in far-infrared, making them visible to Herschel, which can peer through even the densest dust clouds. Once astronomers knew where the galaxies are located, they were able to target them with Hubble and, most importantly, the two 10-meter Keck telescopes — the two largest optical telescopes in the world.

By gathering literally hundreds of hours of spectral data on the galaxies with the Keck telescopes, estimates of their distances could be determined as well as their temperatures and how often new stars are born within them.

“While some of the galaxies are nearby, most are very distant; we even found galaxies that are so far that their light has taken 12 billion years to travel here, so we are seeing them when the Universe was only a ninth of its current age,” said Dr. Caitlin Casey, Hubble fellow at the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy and lead scientist on the survey. “Now that we have a pretty good idea of how important this type of galaxy is in forming huge numbers of stars in the Universe, the next step is to figure out why and how they formed.”

A representation of the distribution of nearly 300 starbursts in one 1.4 x 1.4 degree field of view.

The galaxies, many of them observed as they were during the early stages of their formation, are producing new stars at a rate of 100 to 500 a year — with a mass equivalent of several thousand Suns — hence the moniker “starburst” galaxy. By comparison the Milky Way galaxy only births one or two Sun-mass stars per year.

The reason behind this explosion of star formation in these galaxies is unknown, but it’s thought that collisions between young galaxies may be the cause.

Another possibility is that galaxies had much more gas and dust during the early Universe, allowing for much higher star formation rates than what’s seen today.

“It’s a hotly debated topic that requires details on the shape and rotation of the galaxies before it can be resolved,” said Dr. Casey.

Still, the discovery of these “hidden” galaxies is a major step forward in understanding the evolution of star formation in the Universe.

“Our study confirms the importance of starburst galaxies in the cosmic history of star formation. Models that try to reproduce the formation and evolution of galaxies will have to take these results into account.”

– Dr. Caitlin Casey, Hubble fellow at the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy

“For the first time, we have been able to measure distances, star formation rates, and temperatures for a brand new set of 767 previously unidentified galaxies,” said Dr. Scott Chapman, a co-author on the studies. “The previous similar survey of distant infrared starbursts only covered 73 galaxies. This is a huge improvement.”

The papers detailing the results were published today online in the Astrophysical Journal.

Sources: W.M. Keck Observatory article and ESA’s news release.

Image credits: ESA–C. Carreau/C. Casey (University of Hawai’i); COSMOS field: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE/HerMES Key Programme; Hubble images: NASA, ESA. Inset image courtesy W. M. Keck Observatory.

Herschel Finds Water Around a Carbon Star

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There’s something strange going on around the red giant star CW Leonis (a.k.a. IRC+10216). Deep within the star’s carbon-rich veil, astronomers have detected water vapor where no water should be.

CW Leonis is similar in mass to the sun, but much older and much larger. It is the nearest red giant to the sun, and in its death throes it has hidden itself in a sooty, expanding cloud of carbon-rich dust. This shroud makes CW Leonis almost invisible to the naked eye, but at some infrared wavelengths it is the brightest object in the sky.

Water was originally discovered around CW Leonis in 2001 when the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS) found the signature of water in the chilly outer reaches of the star’s dusty envelope at a temperature of only 61 K. This water was assumed to be evidence for vaporizing comets and other icy objects around the expanding star. New observations with the SPIRE and PACS spectrometers on the Herschel Space Observatory reveal that there’s something much more surprising going on.

“Thanks to Herschel’s superb sensitivity and spectral resolution, we were able to identify more than 60 lines of water, corresponding to a whole series of energetic levels of the molecule,” explains Leen Decin from the University of Leuven and leader of the study. The newly-detected spectral lines indicate that the water vapor is not all in the cold outer envelope of the star. Some of it is much closer to the star, where temperatures reach 1000 K.

No icy fragments could exist that close to the star, so Decin and colleagues had to come up with a new explanation for the presence of the hot water vapor. Hydrogen is abundant in the envelope of gas and dust surrounding carbon stars like  CW Leonis, but the other building block of water, oxygen, is typically bound up in molecules like carbon monoxide (CO) and silicon monoxide (SiO). Ultraviolet light can split these molecules, releasing their stored oxygen, but red giant stars don’t make much UV light so it has to come from somewhere else.

An illustration of the chemical reactions caused by interstellar UV light interacting with molecules surrounding CW Leonis. ESA. Adapted from L. Decin et al. (2010)

The dusty envelopes around carbon stars are known to be clumpy, and that turns out to be the key to explaining the mysterious water vapor. The patchy structure of the shroud around CW Leonis lets UV light from interstellar space into the depths of the star’s envelope. “Well within the envelope, UV photons trigger a set of reactions that can produce the observed distribution of water, as well as other, very interesting molecules, such as ammonia (NH3),” says Decin. “This is the only mechanism that explains the full range of the water’s temperature.”

In the coming months, astronomers will test this hypothesis by using Herschel to search for evidence of water near other carbon stars.