Monster Black Holes Lurk at the Edge of Time

The reddish object in this infrared image is ULASJ1234+0907, located about 11 billion light-years from Earth. The red color comes from vast amounts of dust, which absorbs bluer light, and obscures the supermassive black hole from view in visible wavelengths. Credit: image created using data from UKIDSS and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) observatory.

As if staring toward the edge of the Universe weren’t fascinating enough, scientists at the University of Cambridge say they see enormous, rapidly growing supermassive black holes barely detectable near the edge of time.

Thick dust shrouds the monster black holes but they emit vast amounts of radiation through violent interactions and collisions with their host galaxies making them visible in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The team published their results in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The most remote object in the study lies at a whopping 11 billion light-years from Earth. Ancient light from the supermassive black hole, named ULASJ1234+0907 and located toward the constellation of Virgo, the Maiden, has traveled (at almost 10 trillion kilometers, or 6 million million miles, per year) across the cosmos for nearly the estimated age of the Universe. The monster black hole is more than 10 billion times the mass of our Sun and 10,000 times more massive than the black hole embedded in the Milky Way Galaxy; making it one of the most massive black holes ever seen. And it’s not alone. Researchers say that there may be as many as 400 giants black holes in the tiny sliver of the Universe that we can observe.

“These results could have a significant impact on studies of supermassive black holes” said Dr Manda Banerji, lead author of the paper, in a press release. “Most black holes of this kind are seen through the matter they drag in. As the neighbouring material spirals in towards the black holes, it heats up. Astronomers are able to see this radiation and observe these systems.”

The team from Cambridge used infrared surveys being carried out on the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) to peer through the dust and locate the giant black holes for the first time.

“These results are particularly exciting because they show that our new infrared surveys are finding super massive black holes that are invisible in optical surveys,” says Richard McMahon, co-author of the study. “These new quasars are important because we may be catching them as they are being fed through collisions with other galaxies. Observations with the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile will allow us to directly test this picture by detecting the microwave frequency radiation emitted by the vast amounts of gas in the colliding galaxies.”

Huge black holes are known to reside at the centers of all galaxies. Astronomers predict the most massive of these cosmic phenomena grow through violent collisions with other galaxies. Galactic interactions trigger star formation which provides more fuel for black holes to devour. And it’s during this process that thick layers of dust hide the munching black holes.

“Although these black holes have been studied for some time,” says Banergi, “the new results indicate that some of the most massive ones may have so far been hidden from our view. The newly discovered black holes, devouring the equivalent of several hundred Suns every year, will shed light on the physical processes governing the growth of all supermassive black holes.”

Astronomers compare the extreme case of ULASJ1234+0907 with the relatively nearby and well-studied Markarian 231. Markarian 231, found just 600 million light-years away, appears to have recently undergone a violent collision with another galaxy producing an example of a dusty, growing black hole in the local Universe. By contrast, the more extreme example of ULASJ1234+0907, shows scientists that conditions in the early Universe were more turbulent and inhospitable than today.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Image Credit: Markarian 231, an example of a galaxy with a dusty rapidly growing supermassive black hole located 600 million light years from Earth. The bright source at the center of the galaxy marks the black hole while rings of gas and dust can be seen around it as well as “tidal tails” left over from a recent impact with another galaxy. Courtesy of NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Blowing a Super-duper Celestial Bubble

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Mich./S.Oey, IR: NASA/JPL, Optical: ESO/WFI/2.2-m. Zoom by John Williams/TerraZoom using Zoomify

When NASA combines images from different telescopes, they create dazzling scenes of celestial wonder and in the process we learn a few more things. Behold this wonder of combined light, known as LHA 120-N 44, or N 44 for short. Zoom into the scene using the toolbar at the bottom of the image. Click the farthest button on the right of the toolbar to see this wonder in full-screen. (Hint: press the “Esc” key to get back to work)

Continue reading “Blowing a Super-duper Celestial Bubble”

Canada Unveils its Contributions to the JWST

Today Canada’s Minister of Industry Christian Paradis unveiled the technologies that comprise Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope, a next-generation infrared observatory that’s seen as the successor to Hubble.


CSA will provide JWST with a two-in-one instrument: a Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). Both were designed, built and tested by COM DEV International in Ottawa and Cambridge, Ontario, with technical contributions from the Université de Montréal and the National Research Council Canada.

Read: Watch the James Webb Being Built via “Webb-Cam”

“Canada has a proud legacy in space and we are once again pushing the frontier of what is possible. These two outstanding technologies are perfect examples of how Canada has secured its world-class reputation. Our Government is committed to ensuring the long-term competitiveness and prosperity of such a vital economic sector.”
– The Honourable Christian Paradis

The FGS consists of two identical cameras that are critical to Webb’s ability to “see.” Their images will allow the telescope to determine its position, locate its celestial targets, and remain pointed to collect high-quality data. The FGS will guide the telescope with incredible precision, with an accuracy of one millionth of a degree.

The NIRISS will have unique capabilities for finding the earliest and most distant objects in the Universe’s history. It will also peer through the glare of nearby young stars to unveil new Jupiter-like exoplanets. It will have the capability of detecting the thin atmosphere of small, habitable, earth-like planets and determine its chemical composition to seek water vapour, carbon dioxide and other potential biomarkers such as methane and oxygen.

The FGS/NIRISS instruments can be seen in this development video from CSA:

“Imagine the challenge at hand here: to design and deliver technology capable of unprecedented levels of precision to conduct breakthrough science on board the largest, most complex and most powerful telescope ever built,” said Steve MacLean, President of the CSA. “The Webb telescope will be located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth— too far to be serviced by astronauts like Hubble was. At that distance, the technology simply has to work. This is the outstanding level of excellence Canadians are capable of achieving. It’s something for all of us to be proud of.”

The instruments will be delivered to NASA on July 30.

Read more on the CSA press release here, and learn more about the James Webb here.

Images/video: CSA and NASA

The Case of the Disappearing Dust

Astronomy has always taught us that planets form from vast clouds of dust and gas orbiting young stars. It’s a gradual process of accretion that takes hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of years… or does it?

During a 1983 sky survey with the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) astronomers identified a young Sun-like star with a large cloud of dust surrounding it. The star, named TYC 8241 2652 1, is 450 light years away and what they had found around it was thought to be the beginnings of a solar system – the protoplanetary disc from which planets form.

Fast forward to 2008. Astronomers observed at the same star with a different infrared telescope, the Gemini South Observatory in Chile. What was observed looked a lot like what was previously seen in ’83.

Then, in 2009, they looked again. Curiously, the brightness of the dust cloud was only a third of what it was the year before. And in WISE observations made the very next year, it had disappeared entirely.

“It’s like the classic magician’s trick: now you see it, now you don’t. Only in this case we’re talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system, and it really is gone.”

– Carl Melis, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego

Abracadabra?

“It’s as if you took a conventional picture of the planet Saturn today and then came back two years later and found that its rings had disappeared,” said study co-author and circumstellar disk expert Ben Zuckerman of UCLA.

It’s always been thought that planets take some time to form, in the order of hundreds of thousands of years. Although that may seem like forever to humans, it’s quick in cosmic time scales. But if what they’ve seen here with TYC 8241 is in fact planetary formation, well… it may happen a lot faster than anyone thought.

On the other hand, the star could have somehow blown all the dust out of the system. More research will be needed to see if that was the case.

The really interesting thing here is that astronomers have traditionally looked for these kinds of dust clouds around stars to spot planetary formation in action. But if planets form quicker than we thought, and the dust clouds are only fleeting features, then there may be a lot more solar systems out there that we can’t directly observe.

“People often calculate the percentage of stars that have a large amount of dust to get a reasonable estimate of the percentage of stars with planetary systems, but if the dust avalanche model is correct, we cannot do that anymore,” said study co-author Inseok Song, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Georgia. “Many stars without any detectable dust may have mature planetary systems that are simply undetectable.”

Read more in the news release from the University of Georgia.

Top image: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook.

WISE Spies a Hunter’s Flame

A vast star-forming cloud of gas and dust in the constellation Orion shines brightly in this image from NASA’s WISE space telescope, where infrared light is represented in visible wavelengths. It’s part of a recent data release from WISE, a trove of infrared images acquired during the telescope’s second sky scan from August to September of 2010 — just as it began to run out of its essential cryogenic coolant.

Shining brightly in infrared radiation, the Flame nebula (NGC 2024) is at the heart of the cloud.  Just below it is the reflection nebula NGC 2023, and the small, bright loop protruding from the edge of the gas and dust cloud just to its lower right is the Horsehead nebula  — whose famous equine profile appears quite different in infrared light than it does in visible.

The two bright blue stars at the upper right portion of the image are both stars in Orion’s belt. Alnitak, the brighter one closer to the Flame nebula, is a multiple star system located 736 light-years away whose stellar wind is responsible for ionizing the Flame nebula and causing it to shine in infrared. Alnilam, the dimmer star at the uppermost corner, is a blue supergiant 24 times the radius of our Sun and 275,000 times as bright, but 1,980 light-years distant.

The red arc at lower right is the bow shock of Sigma Orionis, a multiple-star system that’s hurtling through space at a speed of 5,260,000 mph (2,400 kilometers per second). As its stellar wind impacts the interstellar medium and piles up before it, an arc of infrared-bright radiation is emitted.

Sigma Orionis is also the star responsible for the glow of the Horsehead nebula.

This rich astronomical scene is an expanded view from WISE’s previously-released image of the region (at right) which used data from only three of its four infrared detectors. In contrast, all four detectors were used in the image above, making more of the nebulae’s intricate structures visible as well as providing comparative information for researchers.

“If you’re an astronomer, then you’ll probably be in hog heaven when it comes to infrared data,” said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, the principal investigator of the WISE mission. “Data from the second sky scan are useful for studying stars that vary or move over time, and for improving and checking data from the first scan.”

Read more on the NASA news release here.

Top and right images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE team. Horsehead nebula visible light image was taken with the 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Photo credit & copyright: Nigel Sharp (NOAO), KPNO, AURA, NSF. Comparison by J. Major/Universe Today.

How to Measure a Hot Jupiter

An international team of astronomers has figured out a way to determine details of an exoplanet’s atmosphere from 50 light-years away… even though the planet doesn’t transit the face of its star as seen from Earth.

Tau Boötis b is a “hot Jupiter” type of exoplanet, 6 times more massive than Jupiter. It was the first planet to be identified orbiting its parent star, Tau Boötis, located 50 light-years away. It’s also one of the first exoplanets we’ve known about, discovered in 1996 via the radial velocity method — that is, Tau Boötis b exerts a slight tug on its star, shifting its position enough to be detectable from Earth. But the exoplanet doesn’t pass in front of its star like some others do, which until now made measurements of its atmosphere impossible.

Today, an international team of scientists working with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have announced the success of a “clever new trick” of examining such non-transiting exoplanet atmospheres. By gathering high-quality infrared observations of the Tau Boötis system with the VLT’s CRIRES instrument the researchers were able to differentiate the radiation coming from the planet versus that emitted by its star, allowing the velocity and mass of Tau Boötis b to be determined.

“Thanks to the high quality observations provided by the VLT and CRIRES we were able to study the spectrum of the system in much more detail than has been possible before,” said Ignas Snellen with Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, co-author of the research paper. “Only about 0.01% of the light we see comes from the planet, and the rest from the star, so this was not easy.”

Using this technique, the researchers determined that Tau Boötis b’s thick atmosphere contains carbon monoxide and, curiously, exhibits cooler temperatures at higher altitudes — the opposite of what’s been found on other hot Jupiter exoplanets.

“Maybe one day we may even find evidence for biological activity on Earth-like planets in this way.”

– Ignas Snellen, Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands

In addition to atmospheric details, the team was also able to use the new method to determine Tau Boötis b’s mass and orbital angle — 44 degrees, another detail not previously identifiable.

“The new technique also means that we can now study the atmospheres of exoplanets that don’t transit their stars, as well as measuring their masses accurately, which was impossible before,” said Snellen. “This is a big step forward.

“Maybe one day we may even find evidence for biological activity on Earth-like planets in this way.”

This research was presented in a paper “The signature of orbital motion from the dayside of the planet Tau Boötis b”, to appear in the journal Nature on June 28, 2012.

Read more on the ESO release here.

Added 6/27: The team’s paper can be found on arXiv here.

Top image: artist’s impression of the exoplanet Tau Boötis b. (ESO/L. Calçada). Side image: ESO’s VLT telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert. (Iztok Boncina/ESO)

Astronomers Take “Baby Picture” of an Incredibly Distant Galaxy

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Astronomers from Arizona State University have grabbed an image of a dim, distant galaxy, seeing it as it looked only 800 million years after the birth of the Universe. Visible above as a green blob in the center of a false-color image acquired with the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the galaxy is seen in its infancy and, at 13 billion light-years away, is one of the ten most distant objects ever discovered.

The galaxy, designated LAEJ095950.99+021219.1, was detected by light emitted by ionized hydrogen using the Magellan Telescopes’ IMACS (Inamori-Magellan Areal Camera & Spectrograph) instrument, built at the Carnegie Institute in Washington. In order to even find such a remote object — whose existence had already been suspected — the team had to use a special narrow-band filter on the IMACS instrument designed to isolate specific wavelengths of light.

“Young galaxies must be observed at infrared wavelengths and this is not easy to do using ground-based telescopes, since the Earth’s atmosphere itself glows and large detectors are hard to make,” said team leader Sangeeta Malhotra, an associate professor at ASU who helped develop the technique.

“As time goes by, these small blobs which are forming stars, they’ll dance around each other, merge with each other and form bigger and bigger galaxies. Somewhere halfway through the age of the universe they start looking like the galaxies we see today – and not before.”

– Sangeeta Malhotra, ASU professor 

LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 is seen at a redshift of 7, putting it farther away than any other objects previously discovered using the narrow-band technique.

(What is redshift? Watch “How To Measure The Universe” here.)

“We have used this search to find hundreds of objects at somewhat smaller distances. We have found several hundred galaxies at redshift 4.5, several at redshift 6.5, and now at redshift 7 we have found one,” said James Rhoads, associate professor at ASU and research team leader.

“This image is like a baby picture of this galaxy, taken when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age. Studying these very early galaxies is important because it helps us understand how galaxies form and grow.”

So why does LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 not look much like the galaxies we’re used to seeing in images?

Malhotra explains: “Somewhere halfway through the age of the universe they start looking like the galaxies we see today – and not before. Why, how, when, where that happens is a fairly active area of research.”

The team’s NSF-funded research was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. Read more on Phys.Org News here.

Spitzer Spots Two Galaxies in One

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The Sombrero galaxy has a split personalty, according to recent observations by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared imaging has revealed a hazy elliptical halo of stars enveloping a dual-structured inner disk; before this, the Sombrero galaxy was thought to be only disk-shaped.

Spitzer’s heat-seeking abilities reveal both stars and dust within the Sombrero galaxy, also known as Messier 104 and NGC 4594. The starlight detected at 3.5 and 4.6 microns is represented in blue-green while the dust imaged at 8.0 microns is shown in red.

In addition, Spitzer discerned that the flat disk within the galaxy is made up of two sections — an inner disk composed almost entirely of stars with no dust, and an outer ring containing both dust and stars.

The galaxy’s dual personality couldn’t be so clearly seen in previous visible-light images.

Hubble image of M104. (NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team STScl/AURA)

“The Sombrero is more complex than previously thought,” said Dimitri Gadotti of the European Southern Observatory in Chile and lead author of the report. “The only way to understand all we know about this galaxy is to think of it as two galaxies, one inside the other.”

Although it might seem that the Sombrero is the result of a collision between two separate galaxies, that’s actually not thought to be the case. Such an event would have destroyed the disk structure that’s seen today; instead, it’s thought that the Sombrero accumulated a lot of extra gas billions of years ago when the Universe was populated with large clouds of gas and dust. The extra gas fell into orbit around the galaxy, eventually spinning into a flattened disk and forming new stars.

This is one of the first galaxies to be seen with such a dual structure — even though M104 has been known about since the mid-1700s.

“Spitzer is helping to unravel secrets behind an object that has been imaged thousands of times,” said Sean Carey of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at CalTech. “It is intriguing Spitzer can read the fossil record of events that occurred billions of years ago within this beautiful and archetypal galaxy.”

At a magnitude of +8, the Sombrero galaxy is just beyond the limit of naked-eye visibility but can be seen with small telescopes (4-inch/100 mm or larger). It is 28 million light-years away and can be found in the night sky located 11.5° west of Spica and 5.5° northeast of Eta Corvi.

Read more on the NASA press release here.

 

Keck Observatory Fires Up MOSFIRE

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Last week, on April 4, 2012, the W.M. Keck Observatory’s brand-new MOSFIRE instrument opened its infrared-sensing eyes to the Universe for the first time, capturing the image above of a pair of interacting galaxies known as The Antennae. Once fully commissioned and scientific observations begin, MOSFIRE will greatly enhance the imaging abilities of “the world’s most productive ground-based observatory.”

Installed into the Keck I observatory, MOSFIRE — which stands for Multi-Object Spectrometer For Infra-Red Exploration — is able to gather light in infrared wavelengths. This realm of electromagnetic radiation lies just beyond red on the visible spectrum (the “rainbow” of light that our eyes are sensitive to) and is created by anything that emits heat. By “seeing” in infrared, MOSFIRE can peer through clouds of otherwise opaque dust and gas to observe what lies beyond — such as the enormous black hole that resides at the center of our galaxy.

MOSFIRE can also resolve some of the most distant objects in the Universe, in effect looking back in time toward the period “only” a half-billion years after the Big Bang. Because light from that far back has been so strongly shifted into the infrared due to the accelerated expansion of the Universe (a process called redshift) only instruments like MOSFIRE can detect it.

The instrument itself must be kept at a chilly -243ºF (-153ºC) in order to not contaminate observations with its own heat.

(Watch the installation of the MOSFIRE instrument here.)

Astronomers also plan to use MOSFIRE to search for brown dwarfs — relatively cool objects that never really gained enough mass to ignite fusion in their cores. Difficult to image even in infrared, it’s suspected that our own galaxy is teeming with them.

The impressive new instrument has the ability to survey up to 46 objects at once and then do a quick-change to new targets in just minutes, as opposed to the one to two days it can typically take other telescopes!

Unprocessed image of M82 taken with MOSFIRE on April 5, 2012. (W. M. Keck Observatory)

Images taken on the nights of April 4 and 5 are just the beginning of what promises to be a new heat-seeking era for the Mauna Kea-based observatory!

“The MOSFIRE project team members at Keck Observatory, Caltech, UCLA, and UC Santa Cruz are to be congratulated, as are the observatory operations staff who worked hard to get MOSFIRE integrated into the Keck I telescope and infrastructure,” says Bob Goodrich, Keck Observatory Observing Support Manager. “A lot of people have put in long hours getting ready for this momentous First Light.”

The two Keck 10-meter domes atop Mauna Kea. (Rick Peterson/WMKO)

Read more on the Keck press release here.

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The spectrometer was made possible through funding provided by the National Science Foundation and astronomy benefactors Gordon and Betty Moore.

VISTA View Is Chock Full Of Galaxies

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See all those tiny points of light in this image? Most of them aren’t stars; they’re entire galaxies, seen by the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA survey telescope located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile.

This is a combination of over 6000 images taken with a total exposure time of 55 hours, and is the widest deep view of the sky ever taken in infrared light.

The galaxies in this VISTA image are only visible in infrared light because they are very far away. The ever-increasing expansion rate of the Universe shifts the light coming from the most distant objects (like early galaxies) out of visible wavelengths and into the infrared spectrum.

(See a full-size version — large 253 mb file.)

ESO’s VISTA (Visual and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) telescope is the world’s largest and most powerful infrared observatory, and has the ability to peer deep into the Universe to reveal these incredibly distant, incredibly ancient structures.

By studying such faraway objects astronomers can better understand how the structures of galaxies and galactic clusters evolved throughout time.

The region seen in this deep view is an otherwise “unremarkable” and apparently empty section of sky located in the constellation Sextans.

Read more on the ESO website here.

The VISTA telescope in its dome at sunset. Its primary mirror is 4.1 meters wide. G. Hüdepohl/ESO.