Where are we? Cosmically, we’re in our home galaxy, typically known as the Milky Way. The center of our galaxy is marked by a supermassive black hole, which the Sun orbits at a distance of about 30,000 light-years. The official distance, set by the International Astronomical Union in 1985, is 27,700 light-years. But a new study as confirmed we are actually a bit closer to the black hole.Continue reading “A new measurement puts the Sun 2,000 light-years closer to the center of the Milky Way”
Starting in late 2019, Betelgeuse began drawing a lot of attention after it mysteriously started dimming, only to brighten again a few months later. For a variable star like Betelgeuse, periodic dimming and brightening are normal, but the extent of its fluctuation led to all sorts of theories as to what might be causing it. Similar to Tabby’s Star in 2015, astronomers offered up the usual suspects (minus the alien megastructure theory!)
Whereas some thought that the dimming was a prelude to the star becoming a Type II supernova, others suggested that dust clouds, enormous sunspots, or ejected clouds of gas were the culprit. In any case, the “Great Dimming of Betelgeuse” has motivated an international team of astronomers to propose that a “Betelgeuse Scope” be created that cant monitor the star constantly.Continue reading “What’s Happening with Betelgeuse? Astronomers Propose a Specialized Telescope to Watch the Star Every Night”
In astronomy, the sharpness of your image depends upon the size of your telescope. When Galileo and others began to view the heavens with telescopes centuries ago, it changed our understanding of the cosmos. Objects such as planets, seen as points of light with the naked eye, could now be seen as orbs with surface features. But even under these early telescopes, stars still appeared as a point of light. While Galileo could see Jupiter or Saturn’s size, he had no way to know the size of a star.Continue reading “Gamma-Ray Telescopes Can Measure the Diameters of Other Stars”
Astronomy is advancing to the point where we can see planets forming around young stars. This was an unthinkable development only a few years ago. In fact, it was only two years ago that astronomers captured the first image of a newly-forming planet.
Now there are more and more studies into how planets form, including a new one with fifteen images of planet-forming disks around young stars.Continue reading “More Pictures of Planet-Forming Disks Around Young Stars”
When astronomers talk about an optical telescope, they often mention the size of its mirror. That’s because the larger your mirror, the sharper your view of the heavens can be. It’s known as resolving power, and it is due to a property of light known as diffraction. When light passes through an opening, such as the opening of the telescope, it will tend to spread out or diffract. The smaller the opening, the more the light spreads making your image more blurry. This is why larger telescopes can capture a sharper image than smaller ones.Continue reading “How Interferometry Works, and Why it’s so Powerful for Astronomy”
An almost unimaginably enormous black hole is situated at the heart of the Milky Way. It’s called a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH), and astronomers think that almost all massive galaxies have one at their center. But of course, nobody’s ever seen one (sort of, more on that later): It’s all based on evidence other than direct observation.
The Milky Way’s SMBH is called Sagittarius A* (Sgr. A*) and it’s about 4 million times more massive than the Sun. Scientists know it’s there because we can observe the effect it has on matter that gets too close to it. Now, we have one of our best views yet of Sgr. A*, thanks to a team of scientists using a technique called interferometry.Continue reading “One of Our Best Views of the Supermassive Black Hole at the Heart of the Milky Way”
Telescopes have come a long way in the past few centuries. From the comparatively modest devices built by astronomers like Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, telescopes have evolved to become massive instruments that require an entire facility to house them and a full crew and network of computers to run them. And in the coming years, much larger observatories will be constructed that can do even more.
Unfortunately, this trend towards larger and larger instruments has many drawbacks. For starters, increasingly large observatories require either increasingly large mirrors or many telescopes working together – both of which are expensive prospects. Luckily, a team from MIT has proposed combining interferometry with quantum-teleportation, which could significantly increase the resolution of arrays without relying on larger mirrors.
When searching for extra-solar planets, astronomers most often rely on a number of indirect techniques. Of these, the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) and the Radial Velocity Method (aka. Doppler Spectroscopy) are the two most effective and reliable (especially when used in combination). Unfortunately, direct imaging is rare since it is very difficult to spot a faint exoplanet amidst the glare of its host star.
However, improvements in radio interferometers and near-infrared imaging has allowed astronomers to image protoplanetary discs and infer the orbits of exoplanets. Using this method, an international team of astronomers recently captured images of a newly-forming planetary system. By studying the gaps and ring-like structures of this system, the team was able to hypothesize the possible size of an exoplanet.
The study, titled “Rings and gaps in the disc around Elias 24 revealed by ALMA “, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Giovanni Dipierro, an astrophysicist from the
In the past, rings of dust have been identified in many protoplanetary systems, and their origins and relation to planetary formation are the subject of much debate. On the one hand, they might be the result of dust piling up in certain regions, of gravitational instabilities, or even variations in the optical properties of the dust. Alternately, they could be the result of planets that have already developed, which cause the dust to dissipate as they pass through it.
As Dipierro and his colleagues explained in their study:
“The alternative scenario invokes discs that are dynamically active, in which planets have already formed or are in the act of formation. An embedded planet will excite density waves in the surrounding disc, that then deposit their angular momentum as they are dissipated. If the planet is massive enough, the exchange of angular momentum between the waves created by the planet and the disc results in the formation of a single or multiple gaps, whose morphological features are closely linked to the local disc conditions and the planet properties.”
For the sake of their study, the team used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) Cycle 2 observations – which began back in June of 2014. In so doing, they were able to image the dust around Elias 24 with a resolution of about 28 AU (i.e. 28 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). What they found was evidence of gaps and rings that could be an indication of an orbiting planet.
From this, they constructed a model of the system that took into account the mass and location of this potential planet and how the distribution and density of dust would cause it to evolve. As they indicate in their study, their model reproduces the observations of the dust ring quite well, and predicted the presence of a Jupiter-like gas giant within forty-four thousand years:
“We find that the dust emission across the disc is consistent with the presence of an embedded planet with a mass of ?0.7?MJ at an orbital radius of ? 60?au… The surface brightness map of our disc model provides a reasonable match to the gap- and ring-like structures observed in Elias 24, with an average discrepancy of ?5?per?cent of the observed fluxes around the gap region.”
These results reinforce the conclusion that the gaps and rings that have been observed in a wide variety of young circumstellar discs indicate the presence of orbiting planets. As the team indicated, this is consistent with other observations of protoplanetary discs, and could help shed light on the process of planetary formation.
“The picture that is emerging from the recent high resolution and high sensitivity observations of protoplanetary discs is that gap and ring-like features are prevalent in a large range of discs with different masses and ages,” they conclude. “New high resolution and high fidelity ALMA images of dust thermal and CO line emission and high quality scattering data will be helpful to find further evidences of the mechanisms behind their formation.”
One of the toughest challenges when it comes to studying the formation and evolution of planets is the fact that astronomers have been traditionally unable to see the processes in action. But thanks to improvements in instruments and the ability to study extra-solar star systems, astronomers have been able to see system’s at different points in the formation process.
This in turn is helping us refine our theories of how the Solar System came to be, and may one day allow us to predict exactly what kinds of systems can form in young star systems.
This article is a guest post by Anna Ho, who is currently doing research on stars in the Milky Way through a one-year Fulbright Scholarship at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany.
In the Milky Way, an average of seven new stars are born every year. In the distant galaxy GN20, an astonishing average of 1,850 new stars are born every year. “How,” you might ask, indignant on behalf of our galactic home, “does GN20 manage 1,850 new stars in the time it takes the Milky Way to pull off one?”
To answer this, we would ideally take a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in GN20, and a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in the Milky Way, and see what makes the former so much more productive than the latter.
But GN20 is simply too far away for a detailed look.
This galaxy is so distant that its light took twelve billion years to reach our telescopes. For reference, Earth itself is only 4.5 billion years old and the universe itself is thought to be about 14 billion years old. Since light takes time to travel, looking out across space means looking back across time, so GN20 is not only a distant, but also a very ancient, galaxy. And, until recently, astronomers’ vision of these distant, ancient galaxies has been blurry.
Consider what happens when you try to load a video with a slow Internet connection, or when you download a low-resolution picture and then stretch it. The image is pixelated. What was once a person’s face becomes a few squares: a couple of brown squares for hair, a couple of pink squares for the face. The low-definition picture makes it impossible to see details: the eyes, the nose, the facial expression.
A face has many details and a galaxy has many varied stellar nurseries. But poor resolution, a result simply of the fact that ancient galaxies like GN20 are separated from our telescopes by vast cosmic distances, has forced astronomers to blur together all of this rich information into a single point.
The situation is completely different here at home in the Milky Way. Astronomers have been able to peer deep into stellar nurseries and witness stellar birth in stunning detail. In 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope took this unprecedentedly detailed action shot of stellar birth at the heart of the Orion Nebula, one of the Milky Way’s most famous stellar nurseries:
There are over 3,000 stars in this image: The glowing dots are newborn stars that have recently emerged from their cocoons. Stellar cocoons are made of gas: thousands of these gas cocoons sit nestled in immense cosmic nurseries, which are rich with gas and dust. The central region of that Hubble image, encased by what looks like a bubble, is so clear and bright because the massive stars within have blown away the dust and gas they were forged from. Majestic stellar nurseries are scattered all over the Milky Way, and astronomers have been very successful at uncloaking them in order to understand how stars are made.
Observing nurseries both here at home and in relatively nearby galaxies has enabled astronomers to make great leaps in understanding stellar birth in general: and, in particular, what makes one nursery, or one star formation region, “better” at building stars than another. The answer seems to be: how much gas there is in a particular region. More gas, faster rate of star birth. This relationship between the density of gas and the rate of stellar birth is called the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law. In 1959, the Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt raised the question of how exactly increasing gas density influences star birth, and forty years later, in an illustration of how scientific dialogues can span decades, his American colleague Robert Kennicutt used data from 97 galaxies to answer him.
Understanding the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law is crucial for determining how stars form and even how galaxies evolve. One fundamental question is whether there is one rule that governs all galaxies, or whether one rule governs our galactic neighborhood, but a different rule governs distant galaxies. In particular, a family of distant galaxies known as “starburst galaxies” seems to contain particularly productive nurseries. Dissecting these distant, highly efficient stellar factories would mean probing galaxies as they used to be, back near the beginning of the universe.
Enter GN20. GN20 is one of the brightest, most productive of these starburst galaxies. Previously a pixelated dot in astronomers’ images, GN20 has become an example of a transformation in technological capability.
In December 2014, an international team of astronomers led by Dr. Jacqueline Hodge of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the USA, and comprising astronomers from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Austria, were able to construct an unprecedentedly detailed picture of the stellar nurseries in GN20. Their results were published earlier this year.
The key is a technique called interferometry: observing one object with many telescopes, and combining the information from all the telescopes to construct one detailed image. Dr. Hodge’s team used some of the most sophisticated interferometers in the world: the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in the New Mexico desert, and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer (PdBI) at 2550 meters (8370 feet) above sea level in the French Alps.
With data from these interferometers as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, they turned what used to be one dot into the following composite image:
This is a false color image, and each color stands for a different component of the galaxy. Blue is ultraviolet light, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Green is cold molecular gas, imaged by the VLA. And red is warm dust, heated by the star formation it is shrouding, detected by the PdBI.
Unbundling one pixel into many enabled the team to determine that the nurseries in a starburst galaxy like GN20 are fundamentally different from those in a “normal” galaxy like the Milky Way. Given the same amount of gas, GN20 can churn out orders of magnitude more stars than the Milky Way can. It doesn’t simply have more raw material: it is more efficient at fashioning stars out of it.
This kind of study is currently unique to the extreme case of GN20. However, it will be more common with the new generation of interferometers, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).
Located 5000 meters (16000 feet) high up in the Chilean Andes, ALMA is poised to transform astronomers’ understanding of stellar birth. State-of-the-art telescopes are enabling astronomers to do the kind of detailed science with distant galaxies – ancient galaxies from the early universe – that was once thought to be possible only for our local neighborhood. This is crucial in the scientific quest for universal physical laws, as astronomers are able to test their theories beyond our neighborhood, out across space and back through time.
Stars get pretty sloppy towards the end of their lives. As the nuclear fuels start to wane, the star pulsates – expanding and contracting like a marathon runner catching her breath. With each pulsation, the dying star belches out globs of gas into space that eventually get recycled into a new generation of stars and planets. But accounting for all that lost material is difficult. Like trying to see a wisp of smoke next to a stadium spotlight, observing these tenuous sheets of stellar material swirling just over the surface of the star is considerably challenging. However, using an innovative technique to image starlight scattering off interstellar grains, astronomers have finally succeeded in seeing ripples of dust flowing off dying stars!
The stars – W Hydra, R Doradus, and R Leonis – are all highly variable red giants, stars that are no longer fusing hydrogen in their cores but have moved on to forming heavier elements. Each is completely enveloped by a very thin dust shell most likely made up of minerals like forsterite and enstatite. These grains can only form once the raw ingredients have flowed some distance from the star. At distances roughly equal to the size of the star itself, the gas has cooled enough to allow atoms to start sticking together and forming more complex compounds. Minerals like these will go on to seed asteroids and possibly rocky planets like the Earth in the continual cycle of death and rebirth playing out in the Galaxy.
The paper describing this discovery, accepted to the journal Nature, can be found here.
The astronomers who recently reported this discovery used the eight meter wide Very Large Telescope in the Chilean Atacama Desert – and a suite of clever tools – to tease out the subtle reflections off these dust shells. The trick to seeing light bouncing off interstellar dust particles involves taking advantage of one of light’s wave properties. Imagine you had a length of rope: one end is in your hand, the other tied to a wall. You start to wiggle your end and waves travel down the cord. If you move your arm up and down, the waves are perpendicular to the floor; if you move your arm from side to side, they are parallel to it. The orientation of those waves is known as their “polarization”. If you mixed things up by constantly changing the direction in which your arm was oscillating, the orientation of the waves would be similarly confused. The rope would bounce in all directions. With out a preferred direction of movement, the rope waves are said to be “unpolarized”.
Light waves emitted from the surface of star are just like your chaotic rope flinging. The oscillations in the electric and magnetic fields that make up the propagating light wave have no preferred direction of motion – they are unpolarized. However, when light bounces off a dust grain, all that confusion drops away. The waves now oscillate in roughly the same direction, just as if you decided to only bounce the rope up and down. Astronomers call this light “polarized”.
A polarizing filter only allows light with a specific orientation to pass through. Hold it one way, and only “vertically polarized” light – light where the electric field is oscillating up and down – will pass. Turn the filter ninety degrees, and you’ll only transmit “horizontally polarized” light. If you have polarizing sunglasses, you can try this yourself by rotating the glasses and watching how the the scene through the lenses gets brighter and darker. This is also a nice demonstration of how our atmosphere polarizes incoming sunlight.
A shell of dust around a star will polarize the light that bounces off it. Just like the sky gets brighter and dimmer as you turn your sunglasses, looking at a such star through differently oriented polarizing filters will reveal a halo of polarized light surrounding it. The different orientations will reveal different segments of the halo. By combining polarimetric observations with interferometry – the beating together of light waves from widely separated spots on a telescope mirror to create very high-resolution images – a thin ring of scattered light reveals itself around these three stars.
These new observations represent a milestone in our understanding of not only a star’s end game but also the production of interstellar dust that follows. Like the smokestacks of great factories, red giant stars expel a soot of minerals into space, carried aloft by stellar winds. With meticulous observation, results such as these can help tie together the death of one generation of stars with the birth of another. Unraveling the mysteries of grain formation in space takes us one step closer to piecing together the many steps that lead from stellar death to the creation of rocky planets like our own.