It only makes sense. Sunlight heats a comet and causes ice to vaporize. This leads to changes in the appearance of surface features. For instance, the Sun’s heat can gnaw away at the ice on sunward-facing cliffs, hollowing them out and eventually causing them to collapse in icy rubble. Solar heating can also warm the ice that’s beneath the surface.
When it becomes a vapor, pressure can build up, cracking the ice above and releasing sprays of gas and dust as jets. New images compared to old suggest the comet’s surface is changing as it approaches the Sun.
Recent photos taken by the Rosetta spacecraft reveal possible changes on the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that are fascinating to see and contemplate. In a recent entry of the Rosetta blog, the writer makes mention of horseshoe-shaped features in the smooth neck region of the comet called “Hapi”. An earlier image from Jan. 8 may show subtle changes in the region compared to a more recent image from Jan. 22. We’ll get to those in a minute, but there may be examples of more vivid changes.
I did some digging around and found what appears to be variations in terrain between photos of the same Hapi region on Dec. 9 and Jan.8. Just as the other writer took care to mention, viewing angle and lighting are not identical in the images. That has to be taken into account when deciding whether a change in a feature is real or due to change in lighting or perspective.
But take a look at those cracks in the December image that appear to be missing in January’s. The change, if real, is dramatic. If they did disappear, how? Are they buried in dust released by jets that later drifted back down to the surface?
Now back to those horseshoe features. Again, the viewing angles are somewhat different, but I can’t see any notable changes in the scene. Perhaps you can. While comets are expected to change, it’s exciting when it seems to be happening right before your eyes.
She’s gonna blow! Rosetta’s navigation camera recently grabbed our best view yet of the geyser-like jets spraying from the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. They were taken on September 26 as the spacecraft orbited the comet at a distance of just 16 miles (26 km) and show jets of water vapor and dust erupting from several discrete locations beneath the surface along the neck region of the comet’s nucleus. Mattias Malmer, a 3D technical director, created the spectacular 3D views by draping the navigation camera images over a 3D model of the comet and then photographing it from two slightly different perspectives.
Jets form when the sun warms the comet’s coal-black surface, causing ices beneath to sublimate or change directly from solid to gas without becoming liquid. This is possible because of the near-zero atmospheric pressure at the comet. Pressure builds in the pockets of gas until they find escape through cracks or pores as plume-like jets. Comet dust along with the gas fashions the coma and tail over time. Something similar happens when you shake up a bottle of champagne and then loosen the cork. Trapped carbon dioxide (what makes the “fizz”) blasts the cork across the room.
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko rotating from darkness into light. (Mattias Malmer)
If you liked the still images, check out these videos by Malmer. He used the same draping technique and then animated the stills. Be sure to stop by his Cascade of Light blog for more images and videos when you get a chance.
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko rotating in 3D (Mattias Malmer)
I saved the best for last. What majesty!
3D rotation of Comet 67P/C-G with jets (Mattias Malmer)
Hidden among the four new images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko released by ESA this week are a pair of dusty jets shooting from the nucleus of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The photos were taken September 2, 2014 and posted as a mosaic of four separate images. I re-assembled the four, albeit imperfectly, and added some additional contrast to better show the dual geyser of ice crystals mixed with dust venting from the nucleus.
An earlier Rosetta photo taken of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko from a great distance and deliberately overexposed showed jets of dust-laden vapor shooting from the comet, but this is the first image I’m aware of that shows both the comet’s surface and its much fainter exhalations.
Jets or sprays of vaporizing ice are what gives a comet its lively appearance. Dust released with water vapor is ultimately pushed back by the pressure of sunlight to grow 67P/C-G’s dust tail. Ultraviolet light from the sun causes volatiles within the vapor to fluoresce a pale blue, creating a second ion or gas tail. The coma or comet atmosphere is a mix of both.
We can expect the jets to grow stronger and hopefully more numerous as 67P/C-G approaches perihelion in August 2015. Because the spacecraft is maneuvering into orbit between the comet and sun, we don’t get the best view of jetting activity. The comet nucleus, illuminated by sunlight, drowns out the fainter jets. Rosetta will make an excursion to the nightside on September 24. Assuming the jets remain active, we might see them backlit by the sun as bright beams extending from the darkened nucleus into space.
Jets — narrow beams of matter spat out at a high speed — typically accompany the most enigmatic astronomical objects. We see them wherever gas accretes onto compact objects, such as newborn stars or black holes. But never before have astronomers detected so many at once.
This remarkable discovery is expected to prompt significant changes in our understanding of the planetary nebulae population in the Galaxy, as well as properties of jets ejected from young forming stars.
The results come from a five-year survey (officially dubbed UWISH2) covering approximately 180 degrees of the northern sky, or 1450 times the size of the full moon. The survey utilizes the 3.8-meter UK Infrared Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i.
At these longer wavelengths, any cosmic dust becomes transparent, allowing us to see regions previously hidden from view. This includes jets from protostars and planetary nebulae, as well as supernova remnants, the illuminated edges of vast clouds of gas and dust, and the warm regions that envelope massive stars and their associated clusters of smaller stars.
Based on current estimates using these data, the project expects to identify about 1000 jets from young stars — at least 90 percent of which are new discoveries — as well as 300 planetary nebulae — at least 50 percent of which are also new.
“These discoveries are very exciting,” said lead author Dirk Froebrich from the University of Kent in a press release. “We will ultimately have much better statistics, meaning we will be able to investigate the physical mechanisms that determine the jet lengths, as well as their power. This will bring us much closer to answering some of the fundamental questions of star formation: How are these jets launched and how much energy, mass and momentum do they feed back into the surrounding interstellar medium.”
Have an 8-inch or larger telescope? Don’t mind staying up late? Excellent. Here’s a chance to stare deeper into the known fabric of the universe than perhaps you’ve ever done before. The violent blazer 3C 454.3 is throwing a fit again, undergoing its most intense outburst seen since 2010. Normally it sleeps away the months around 17th magnitude but every few years, it can brighten up to 5 magnitudes and show in amateur telescopes. While magnitude +13 doesn’t sound impressive at first blush, consider that 3C 454.3 lies 7 billion light years from Earth. When light left the quasar, the sun and planets wouldn’t have skin in the game for another two billion years.
Blazars form in the the cores of active galaxies where supermassive black holes reside. Matter falling into the black hole spreads into a spinning accretion disk before spiraling down the hole like water down a bathtub drain.
Superheated to millions of degrees by gravitational compression the disk glows brilliantly across the electromagnetic spectrum. Powerful spun-up magnetic fields focus twin beams of light and energetic particles called jets that blast into space perpendicular to the disk.
Blazars and quasars are thought to be one and the same, differing only by the angle at which we see them. Quasars – far more common – are actively- munching supermassive black holes seen from the side, while in blazars – far more rare – we stare directly or nearly so into the jet like looking into the beam of a flashlight.
3C 454.3 is one of the top ten brightest gamma ray sources in the sky seen by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. During its last major flare in 2005, the blazar blazed with the light of 550 billion suns. That’s more stars than the entire Milky Way galaxy! It’s still not known exactly what sets off these periodic outbursts but possible causes include radiation bursts from shocked particles within the jet or precession (twisting) of the jet bringing it close to our line of sight.
The current outburst began in late May when the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite detected an increase in gamma rays from the blazar. Now it’s bright visually at around magnitude +13.6 and fortunately not difficult to find, located in the constellation Pegasus near the bright star Alpha Pegasi (Markab) in the lower right corner of the Great Square asterism.
Using the wide view map, find your way to IM Peg via Markab and then make a copy of the detailed map below to use at the telescope to star hop to 3C 454.3. The blazar lies immediately south of a star of similar magnitude. If you see what looks like a ‘double star’ at the location, you’ve nailed it. Incredible isn’t it to look so far into space back to when the universe was just a teenager? Blows my mind every time.
To further explore 3C 454.3 and blazars vs. quasars I encourage you to visit check out Stefan Karge’s excellent Frankfurt Quasar Monitoring site. It’s packed with great information and maps for finding the best and brightest of this rarified group of observing targets. Karge suggests that flickering of the blazar may cause it to appear somewhat brighter or fainter than the current magnitude. You’re watching a violent event subject to rapid and erratic changes. For an in-depth study of 3C 454.3, check out the scientific paper that appeared in the 2010 Astrophysical Journal.
Learn more about quasars and blazers with a bit of great humor
Finally, I came across a wonderful video while doing research for this article I thought you’d enjoy as well.
It’s been known since 2005 that Saturn’s 300-mile-wide moon Enceladus has geysers spewing ice and dust out into orbit from deep troughs that rake across its south pole. Now, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope (after 23 years still going strong) we know of another moon with similar jets: Europa, the ever-enigmatic ice-shelled moon of Jupiter. This makes two places in our Solar System where subsurface oceans could be getting sprayed directly into space — and within easy reach of any passing spacecraft.
(Psst, NASA… hint hint.)
The findings were announced today during the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
“The discovery that water vapor is ejected near the south pole strengthens Europa’s position as the top candidate for potential habitability,” said lead author Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. “However, we do not know yet if these plumes are connected to subsurface liquid water or not.”
The 125-mile (200-km) -high plumes were discovered with Hubble observations made in December 2012. Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) detected faint ultraviolet light from an aurora at the Europa’s south pole. Europa’s aurora is created as it plows through Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, which causes particles to reach such high speeds that they can split the water molecules in the plume when they hit them. The resulting oxygen and hydrogen ions revealed themselves to Hubble with their specific colors.
Unlike the jets on Enceladus, which contain ice and dust particles, only water has so far been identified in Europa’s plumes. (Source)
The team suspects that the source of the water is Europa’s long-hypothesized subsurface ocean, which could contain even more water than is found across the entire surface of our planet.
“If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa’s crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice,” Roth said. “And that is tremendously exciting.”
One other possible source of the water vapor could be surface ice, heated through friction.
In addition the Hubble team found that the intensity of Europa’s plumes, like those of Enceladus, varies with the moon’s orbital position around Jupiter. Active jets have been seen only when Europa is farthest from Jupiter. But the researchers could not detect any sign of venting when Europa is closer.
One explanation for the variability is Europa undergoes more tidal flexing as gravitational forces push and pull on the moon, opening vents at larger distances from Jupiter. The vents get narrowed or even seal off entirely when the moon is closest to Jupiter.
Still, the observation of these plumes — as well as their varying intensity — only serves to further support the existence of Europa’s ocean.
“The apparent plume variability supports a key prediction that Europa should tidally flex by a significant amount if it has a subsurface ocean,” said Kurt Retherford, also of SwRI.
(Science buzzkill alert: although exciting, further observations will be needed to confirm these findings. “This is a 4 sigma detection, so a small uncertainly that the signal is just noise in the instruments,” noted Roth.)
“If confirmed, this new observation once again shows the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to explore and opens a new chapter in our search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system.”
– John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science
So. Who’s up for a mission to Europa now?(And unfortunately in this case, Juno doesn’t count.)
“Juno is a spinning spacecraft that will fly close to Jupiter, and won’t be studying Europa,” Kurt Retherford told Universe Today. “The team is looking hard how we can optimize, maybe looking for gases coming off Europa and look at how the plasma interacts with environment, so we really need a dedicated Europa mission.”
We couldn’t agree more.
The findings were published in the Dec. 12 online issue of Science Express.
Image credits: Graphic Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany) Science Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany), J. Saur (University of Cologne, Germany), K. Retherford (Southwest Research Institute), D. Strobel and P. Feldman (Johns Hopkins University), M. McGrath (Marshall Space Flight Center), and F. Nimmo (University of California, Santa Cruz)
It’s long been a mystery for astronomers: why aren’t galaxies bigger? What regulates their rates of star formation and keeps them from just becoming even more chock-full-of-stars than they already are? Now, using a worldwide network of radio telescopes, researchers have observed one of the processes that was on the short list of suspects: one supermassive black hole’s jets are plowing huge amounts of potential star-stuff clear out of its galaxy.
Astronomers have theorized that many galaxies should be more massive and have more stars than is actually the case. Scientists proposed two major mechanisms that would slow or halt the process of mass growth and star formation — violent stellar winds from bursts of star formation and pushback from the jets powered by the galaxy’s central, supermassive black hole.
“With the finely-detailed images provided by an intercontinental combination of radio telescopes, we have been able to see massive clumps of cold gas being pushed away from the galaxy’s center by the black-hole-powered jets,” said Raffaella Morganti, of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Groningen.
The scientists studied a galaxy called 4C12.50, nearly 1.5 billion light-years from Earth. They chose this galaxy because it is at a stage where the black-hole “engine” that produces the jets is just turning on. As the black hole, a concentration of mass so dense that not even light can escape, pulls material toward it, the material forms a swirling disk surrounding the black hole. Processes in the disk tap the tremendous gravitational energy of the black hole to propel material outward from the poles of the disk.
At the ends of both jets, the researchers found clumps of hydrogen gas moving outward from the galaxy at 1,000 kilometers per second. One of the clouds has much as 16,000 times the mass of the Sun, while the other contains 140,000 times the mass of the Sun.
The larger cloud, the scientists said, is roughly 160 by 190 light-years in size.
“This is the most definitive evidence yet for an interaction between the swift-moving jet of such a galaxy and a dense interstellar gas cloud,” Morganti said. “We believe we are seeing in action the process by which an active, central engine can remove gas — the raw material for star formation — from a young galaxy,” she added.
The researchers published their findings in the September 6 issue of the journal Science.
Understanding the formation of stars and galaxies early in the Universe’s history continues to be somewhat of an enigma, and a new study may have turned our current understanding on its head. A recent survey used archival data from four different telescopes to analyze hundreds of galaxies. The results provided overwhelming evidence that radio jets protruding from a galactic center enhance star formation – a result that directly contradicts current models, where star formation is hindered or even stopped.
All early galaxies consist of intensely luminous cores powered by huge black holes. These so-called active galactic nuclei, or AGN for short, are still the topic of intense study. One specific mechanism astronomers are studying is known as AGN feedback.
“Feedback is the astronomer’s slang term for the way in which an AGN – with its large amount of energy release – influences its host galaxy,” Dr. Zinn, lead researcher on this study, recently told Universe Today. He explained there is both positive feedback, in which the AGN will foster the main activity of the galaxy: star formation, and negative feedback, in which the AGN will hinder or even stop star formation.
Current simulations of galaxy growth invoke strong negative feedback.
“In most cosmological simulations, AGN feedback is used to truncate star formation in the host galaxy,” said Zinn. “This is necessary to prevent the simulated galaxies from becoming too bright/massive.”
Zinn et al. found strong evidence that this is not the case for a large number of early galaxies, claiming that the presence of an AGN actually enhances star formation. In such cases the total star formation rate of a galaxy may be boosted by a factor of 2 – 5.
Furthermore the team showed that positive feedback occurs in radio-luminous AGN. There is strong correlation between the far infrared (indicative of star formation) and the radio.
Now, a correlation between the radio and the far infrared is no stranger to galactic astronomy. Stars form in extremely dusty regions. This dust absorbs the starlight and re-emits it in the far infrared. The stars then die in huge supernova explosions, causing powerful shock-fronts, which accelerate electrons and lead to the emission of strong synchrotron radiation in the radio.
This correlation however is a stranger to AGN studies. The key lies in the radio jets, which penetrate far into the host galaxy itself. A “jet which is launched from the AGN hits the interstellar gas of the host galaxy and thereby induces supersonic shocks and turbulence,” explains Zinn. “This shortens the clumping time of gas so that it can condense into stars much more quick and efficiently.”
This new finding conveys that the exact mechanisms in which AGN interact with their host galaxies is much more complicated than previously thought. Future observations will likely shed a new understanding of the evolution of galaxies.
Like very young humans, very young stars also tend to make a big mess out of the stuff around them — except in the case of stars it’s not crayon on the walls and Legos on the floor (ouch!) but rather huge blasts of superheated material that are launched from their poles far out into space.
The image above, acquired by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows one of these young stars caught in the act.
HL Tau is a relatively newborn star, formed “only” within the past several hundred thousand years. During that time it has scooped up vast amounts of gas and dust from the area around itself, forming a disc of hot, accelerated material that surrounds it. While most of this material eventually falls into the star, increasing its mass, some of it gets caught up in the star’s complex, rotating magnetic fields and is thrown out into space as high-speed jets.
As these jets plow thorough surrounding interstellar space they ram into nearby clouds of molecular gas, ionizing the material within them and causing them to glow brightly. These “shocks” are known as Herbig-Haro objects, after researchers George Herbig and Guillermo Haro who each discovered them independently in the early 1950s.
In this Hubble image HH 151 is visible as a multiple-lobed cone of material fired away from HL Tau, with the leftover glows from previous outbursts dimly illuminating the rest of the scene.
The material within these jets can reach speeds of several hundred to a thousand kilometers a second. They can last anywhere from a few years to a few thousand years.
HH 151 is embedded within the larger star-forming region LDN 1551, located about 450 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. LDN 1551 is a stellar nursery full of dust, dark nebulae, newborn stars… and Herbig-Haro objects like HH 151.
(Hey, if baby stars are going to make a mess at least they can do it in the nursery.)
Visible-light Hubble image of the jet emitted by the 3-billion-solar-mass black hole at the heart of galaxy M87 (Feb. 1998) Credit: NASA/ESA and John Biretta (STScI/JHU)
Even though black holes — by their definition and very nature — are the ultimate hoarders of the Universe, gathering and gobbling up matter and energy to the extent that not even light can escape their gravitational grip, they also often exhibit the odd behavior of flinging vast amounts of material away from them as well, in the form of jets that erupt hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of light-years out into space. These jets contain superheated plasma that didn’t make it past the black hole’s event horizon, but rather got “spun up” by its powerful gravity and intense rotation and ended up getting shot outwards as if from an enormous cosmic cannon.
The exact mechanisms of how this all works aren’t precisely known as black holes are notoriously tricky to observe, and one of the more perplexing aspects of the jetting behavior is why they always seem to be aligned with the rotational axis of the actively feeding black hole, as well as perpendicular to the accompanying accretion disk. Now, new research using advanced 3D computer models is supporting the idea that it’s the black holes’ ramped-up rotation rate combined with plasma’s magnetism that’s responsible for shaping the jets.
In a recent paper published in the journal Science, assistant professor at the University of Maryland Jonathan McKinney, Kavli Institute director Roger Blandford and Princeton University’s Alexander Tchekhovskoy report their findings made using computer simulations of the complex physics found in the vicinity of a feeding supermassive black hole. These GRMHD — which stands for General Relativistic Magnetohydrodynamic — computer sims follow the interactions of literally millions of particles under the influence of general relativity and the physics of relativistic magnetized plasmas… basically, the really super-hot stuff that’s found within a black hole’s accretion disk.
What McKinney et al. found in their simulations was that no matter how they initially oriented the black hole’s jets, they always eventually ended up aligned with the rotational axis of the black hole itself — exactly what’s been found in real-world observations. The team found that this is caused by the magnetic field lines generated by the plasma getting twisted by the intense rotation of the black hole, thus gathering the plasma into narrow, focused jets aiming away from its spin axes — often at both poles.
At farther distances the influence of the black hole’s spin weakens and thus the jets may then begin to break apart or deviate from their initial paths — again, what has been seen in many observations.
This “magneto-spin alignment” mechanism, as the team calls it, appears to be most prevalent with active supermassive black holes whose accretion disk is more thick than thin — the result of having either a very high or very low rate of in-falling matter. This is the case with the giant elliptical galaxy M87, seen above, which exhibits a brilliant jet created by a 3-billion-solar-mass black hole at its center, as well as the much less massive 4-million-solar-mass SMBH at the center of our own galaxy, Sgr A*.