Hubble Spots Farthest Lensing Galaxy Yet

Sometimes there’s a chance alignment — faraway in the universe, where objects are separated by unimaginable distances measured in billions of light-years — when a galaxy cluster in the foreground intersects light from an even more distant object. The conjunction plays visual tricks, where the galaxy cluster acts like a lens, appearing to magnify and bend the distant light.

The rare cosmic alignment can bring the distant universe into view. Now, astronomers have stumbled upon a surprise: they’ve detected the most distant cosmic magnifying glass yet.

Seen above as it looked 9.6 billion years ago, this monster elliptical galaxy breaks the previous record holder by 200 million light-years. It’s bending, distorting and magnifying the distant spiral galaxy, whose light has taken 10.7 billion years to reach Earth.

“When you look more than 9 billion years ago in the early universe, you don’t expect to find this type of galaxy-galaxy lensing at all,” said lead researcher Kim-Vy Tran from Texas A&M University in a Hubble press release.

“Imagine holding a magnifying glass close to you and then moving it much farther away. When you look through a magnifying glass held at arm’s length, the chances that you will see an enlarged object are high. But if you move the magnifying glass across the room, your chances of seeing the magnifying glass nearly perfectly aligned with another object beyond it diminishes.”

The team was studying star formation in data collected by the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawai’i, when they came across a strong detection of hot hydrogen gas that appeared to arise form a massive, bright elliptical galaxy. It struck the team as odd. Hot hydrogen is a clear sign of star birth, but it was detected in a galaxy that looked far too old to be forming new stars.

“I was very surprised and worried,” Tran recalled. “I thought we had made a major mistake with our observations.”

So Tran dug through archived Hubble images, which revealed a smeared, blue object next to the larger elliptical. It was the clear signature of a gravitational lens.

“We discovered that light from the lensing galaxy and from the background galaxy were blended in the ground-based data, which was confusing us,” said coauthor Ivelina Momcheva of Yale University. “The Keck spectroscopic data hinted that something interesting was going on here, but only with Hubble’s high-resolution spectroscopy were we able to separate the lensing galaxy from the more distant background galaxy and determine that the two were at different distances. The Hubble data also revealed the telltale look of the system, with the foreground lens in the middle, flanked by a bright arc on one side and a faint smudge on the other — both distorted images of the background galaxy. We needed the combination of imaging and spectroscopy to solve the puzzle.”

By gauging the intensity of the background galaxy’s light, the team was able to measure the giant galaxy’s total mass. All in all it weighs 180 billion times more than our Sun. Although this may seem big, it actually weighs four times less than the Milky Way galaxy.

“There are hundreds of lens galaxies that we know about, but almost all of them are relatively nearby, in cosmic terms,” said lead author Kenneth Wong from the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics. “To find a lens as far away as this one is a very special discovery because we can learn about the dark-matter content of galaxies in the distant past. By comparing our analysis of this lens galaxy to the more nearby lenses, we can start to understand how that dark-matter content has evolved over time.”

Interestingly, the lensing galaxy is underweight in terms of its dark-matter content. In the past, astronomers have assumed that dark matter and normal matter build up equally in a galaxy over time. But this galaxy, suggests this is not the case.

The team’s results appeared in the July 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online.

Watch Live as Astronomers Look for Object ‘G2’ in Observing Run Webcast from the Keck Observatory

Wondering about the latest news on the intriguing object called ‘G2’ that is making its closest approach to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy? You might be able to get the latest update on this object in real time during a rare live-streamed observing run from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Watch live above.

The two 10-meter Keck Observatory telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea will be steered by astronomer Andrea Ghez and her team of observers from the UCLA Galactic Center Group for two nights to study our galaxy’s supermassive black hole, with an attempt to focus in on the enigmatic G2 to see if it is still intact. They’ll also be setting up a test for Einstein’s General Relativity and gathering more data on what they describe as The Paradox of Youth: young objects paradoxically developing around the black hole.

Here’s the time for the livestream in various timezones:

July 3, 2014 @ 9 pm – 10 pm Hawaii
July 4, 2014 @ Midnight – 1 am Pacific
July 4, 2014 @ 3 am – 4 am Eastern

The most previous observations by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, according to an Astronomer’s Telegram from May 2, 2014 show that the gas cloud called ‘G2’ was surprisingly still intact, even during its closest approach to the supermassive black hole. This means G2 is not just a gas cloud, but likely has a star inside.

“We conclude that G2, which is currently experiencing its closest approach, is still intact, in contrast to predictions for a simple gas cloud hypothesis and therefore most likely hosts a central star,” said the May 2 Telegram. “Keck LGSAO observations of G2 will continue in the coming months to monitor how this unusual object evolves as it emerges from periapse passage.”

For additional info, see our two previous articles about G2:

Gas Cloud or Star? Mystery Object Heading Towards our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole is Doomed
Object “G2? Still Intact at Closest Approach to Galactic Center, Astronomers Report

Nearby Brown Dwarf Captured in a Direct Image

A recent find announced by astronomers may go a long ways towards understanding a crucial “missing link” between planets and stars.

The team, led by Friemann Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame’s Justin R. Crepp, recently released an image of a brown dwarf companion to a star 98 light years or 30 parsecs distant. This discovery marks the first time that a T-dwarf orbiting a Sun-like star with known radial velocity acceleration measurement has been directly imaged.

Located in the constellation Eridanus, the object weighs in at about 52 Jupiter masses, and orbits a 0.95 Sol mass star 51 Astronomical Units (AUs) distant once every 320-1900 years. Note that this wide discrepancy stems from the fact that even though we’ve been following the object for some 17 years since 1996, we’ve yet to ascertain whether we’ve caught it near apastron or periastron yet: we just haven’t been watching it long enough.

The T-dwarf, known as HD 19467 B, may become a benchmark in the study of sub-stellar mass objects that span the often murky bridge between true stars shining via nuclear fusion and ordinary high mass planets.

Brown dwarfs are classified as spectral classes M, L, T, and Y and are generally quoted as having a mass of between 13 to 80 Jupiters. Brown dwarfs utilize a portion of the proton-proton chain fusion reaction to create energy, known as deuterium burning. Low mass red dwarf stars have a mass range of 80 to 628 Jupiters or 0.75% to 60% the mass of our Sun. The Sun has just over 1,000 times Jupiter’s mass.

Researchers used data from the TaRgeting bENchmark-objects with Doppler Spectroscopy (TRENDS) high-contrast imaging survey, and backed it up with more precise measurements courtesy of the Keck observatory’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer or HIRES instrument.

An artist's conception of a T-type brown dwarf. (Credit: Tyrogthekreeper under a Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
An artist’s conception of a T-type brown dwarf. (Credit: Tyrogthekreeper under a Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

TRENDS uses adaptive optics, which relies on precise flexing the telescope mirror several thousands of times a second to compensate for the blurring effects of the atmosphere. Brown dwarfs shine mainly in the infrared, and objects such as HD 19467 B are hard to discern due to their close proximity to their host star. In this particular instance, for example, HD 19467 B was over 10,000 times fainter than its primary star, and located only a little over an arc second away.

“This object is old and cold and will ultimately garner much attention as one of the most well-studied and scrutinized brown dwarfs detected to date,” Crepp said in a recent Keck observatory press release. “With continued follow-up observations, we can use it as a laboratory to test theoretical atmospheric models. Eventually we want to directly image and acquire the spectrum of Earth-like planets. Then, from the spectrum, we should be able to tell what the planet is made of, what its mass is, radius, age, etc… basically all of its relevant properties.

Discovery of an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in a star’s habitable zone is currently the “holy grail” of exoplanet science. Direct observation also allows us to pin down those key factors, as well as obtain a spectrum of an exoplanet, where detection techniques such as radial velocity analysis only allow us to peg an upper mass limit on the unseen companion object.

This also means that several exoplanet candidates in the current tally of 1074 known worlds beyond our solar system also push into the lower end of the mass limit for substellar objects, and may in fact be low mass brown dwarfs as well.

Another key player in the discovery was the Near-Infrared Camera (second generation) or NIRC2. This camera works in concert with the adaptive optics system on the Keck II telescope to achieve images in the near infrared with a better resolution than Hubble at optical wavelengths, perfect for brown dwarf hunting. NIRC2 is most well known for its analysis of stellar regions near the supermassive black hole at the core of our galaxy, and has obtained some outstanding images of objects in our solar system as well.

The hexagonal primary mirror of the Keck II telescope. (Credit: SiOwl. A Wikimedia Commons image under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported liscense).
The hexagonal primary mirror of the Keck II telescope. (Credit: SiOwl. A Wikimedia Commons image under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

What is the significance of the find? Free floating “rogue” brown dwarfs have been directly imaged before, such as the pair named WISE J104915.57-531906 which are 6.5 light years distant and were spotted last year. A lone 6.5 Jupiter mass exoplanet PSO J318.5-22 was also found last year by the PanSTARRS survey searching for brown dwarfs.

“This is the first directly imaged T-dwarf (very cold brown dwarf) for which we have dynamical information independent of its brightness and spectrum,” team lead researcher Justin Crepp told Universe Today.

Analysis of brown dwarfs is significant to exoplanet science as well.

“They serve as an essential link between our understanding of stars and planets,” Mr. Crepp said. “The colder, the better.”

And just as there has been a controversy over the past decade concerning “planethood” at the low end of the mass scale, we could easily see the debate applied to the higher end range, as objects are discovered that blur the line… perhaps, by the 23rd century, we’ll finally have a Star Trek-esque classifications scheme in place so that we can make statements such as “Captain, we’ve entered orbit around an M-class planet…”

Something that’s always been fascinating in terms of red and brown dwarf stars is also the possibility that a solitary brown dwarf closer to our solar system than Alpha Centauri could have thus far escaped detection. And no, Nibiru conspiracy theorists need not apply. Mr. Crepp notes that while possible, such an object is unlikely to have escaped detection by infrared surveys such as WISE. But what a discovery that’d be!

 

 

Major Volcanic Eruption Seen on Jupiter’s Moon Io

Recent observations of Jupiter’s moon Io has revealed a massive volcanic eruption taking place 628,300,000 km (390,400,000 miles) from Earth. Io, the innermost of the four largest moons around Jupiter, is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System with about 240 active regions. But this new one definitely caught the eye of Dr. Imke de Pater, Professor of Astronomy and of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California in Berkeley. She was using the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii on August 15, 2013 when it immediately became apparent something big was happening at Io.

“When you are right at the telescope and see the data, this is something you can see immediately, especially with a big eruption like that,” de Pater told Universe Today via phone.

de Pater said this eruption is one of the top 10 most powerful eruptions that have been seen on this moon. “It is a very energetic eruption that covers over a 30 square kilometer area,” she said. “For Earth, that is big, and for Io it is very big too. It really is one of the biggest eruptions we have seen.”

She added the new volcano appears to have a large energy output. “We saw a big eruption in 2001, which was in the Surt region, which is well known as the biggest one anyone has ever seen,” she said. “For this one, the total energy is less but per square meter, it is bigger than the one in 2001, so it is very powerful.”

While Io’s eruptions can’t be seen directly from Earth,infrared cameras on the Keck telescope (looking between 1 and 5 microns) have been able to ascertain there are likely fountains of lava gushing from fissures in the Rarog Patera region of Io, aptly named for a Czech fire deity.

While many regions of Io are volcanically active, de Pater said she’s not been able to find any other previous activity that has been reported in the Rarog Patera area, which the team finds very interesting.

Ashley Davies of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and a member of the observing team told Universe Today that Rarog Patera was identified as a small, relatively innocuous hot spot previously in Galileo PPR data and possibly from Earth, but at a level way, way below what was seen on August 15, and reported in New Scientist.

de Pater and other astronomers will be taking more data soon with Keck and perhaps more telescopes to try and find out more about this massive eruption.

“We never know about eruptions – they can last hours, days months or years, so we have no idea how long it will stay active,” she said, “but we are very excited about it.”

No data or imagery has been released on the new eruption yet since the team is still making their observations and will be writing a paper on this topic.

Scientists think a gravitational tug-of-war with Jupiter is one cause of Io’s intense vulcanism.

Rain is Falling from Saturn’s Rings

Astronomers have known for years there was water in Saturn’s upper atmosphere, but they weren’t sure exactly where it was coming from. New observations have found water is raining down on Saturn, and it is coming from the planet’s rings.

“Saturn is the first planet to show significant interaction between its atmosphere and ring system,” said James O’Donoghue, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leicester and author of a new paper published in the journal Nature. “The main effect of ring rain is that it acts to ‘quench’ the ionosphere of Saturn, severely reducing the electron densities in regions in which it falls.”

Using the Keck Observatory, O’Donoghue and a team of researchers found charged water particles falling from the planet’s rings into Saturn’s atmosphere. They also found the extent of the ring-rain is far greater, and falls across larger areas of the planet, than previously thought. The work reveals the rain influences the composition and temperature structure of parts of Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

O’Donoghue said the ring’s effect on electron densities is important because it explains why, for many decades, observations have shown electron densities to be unusually low at some latitudes at Saturn.

“It turns out a major driver of Saturn’s ionospheric environment and climate across vast reaches of the planet are ring particles located 120,000 miles [200,000 kilometers] overhead,” said Kevin Baines, a co-author on the paper, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The ring particles affect which species of particles are in this part of the atmospheric temperature.”

In the early 1980s, images from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft showed two to three dark bands on Saturn and scientists theorized that water could have been showering down into those bands from the rings. Then astronomers using ESA’s Infrared Observatory discovered the presence of trace amounts of water in Saturn’s atmosphere back in 1997, but couldn’t really find an explanation for why it was there and how it got there.

Then in 2011 observations with the Herschel space observatory determined water ice from geysers on Enceladus formed a giant ring of water vapor around Saturn.

But the bands seen by Voyager were not seen again until 2011 as well, when the team observed the planet with Keck Observatory’s NIRSPEC, a near-infrared spectrograph that combines broad wavelength coverage with high spectral resolution, allowing the observers to clearly see subtle emissions from the bright parts of Saturn.

The ring rain’s effect occurs in Saturn’s ionosphere (Earth has a similar ionosphere), where charged particles are produced when the otherwise neutral atmosphere is exposed to a flow of energetic particles or solar radiation. When the scientists tracked the pattern of emissions of a particular hydrogen molecule consisting of three hydrogen atoms (rather than the usual two), they expected to see a uniform planet-wide infrared glow.

What they observed instead was a series of light and dark bands with a pattern mimicking the planet’s rings. Saturn’s magnetic field “maps” the water-rich rings and the water-free gaps between rings onto the planet’s atmosphere.

They surmised that charged water particles from the planet’s rings were being drawn towards the planet by Saturn’s magnetic field and neutralizing the glowing triatomic hydrogen ions. This leaves large “shadows” in what would otherwise be a planet-wide infrared glow. These shadows cover 30 to 43 percent of the planet’s upper atmosphere surface from around 25 to 55 degrees latitude. This is a significantly larger area than suggested by the Voyager images.

Both Earth and Jupiter have a very uniformly glowing equatorial region. Scientists expected this pattern at Saturn, too, but they instead saw dramatic differences at different latitudes.

“Where Jupiter is glowing evenly across its equatorial regions, Saturn has dark bands where the water is falling in, darkening the ionosphere,” said Tom Stallard, one of the paper’s co-authors at Leicester. “We’re now also trying to investigate these features with an instrument on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. If we’re successful, Cassini may allow us to view in more detail the way that water is removing ionized particles, such as any changes in the altitude or effects that come with the time of day.”

Sources: Keck Observatory
, Nature.

Exoplanet Atmospheres Provide Clues to Solar System Formation

The most detailed look yet at the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet has revealed a mixture of water vapor and carbon monoxide blanketing a world ten times the size of Jupiter about 130 light years away from Earth. But even with water present on this world, it is incredibly hostile to life. Like Jupiter, it has no solid surface, and it has a temperature of more than a thousand degree. Additionally, no tell-tale methane signals were detected in the atmosphere. But this solar system is still of great interest, as three other giant worlds orbit the same star and scientists said studying this system will not only help solve mysteries of how it was formed, but also how our own solar system formed as well.

The observations were made at the Keck II telescope in Hawaii, using an infrared imaging spectrograph called OSIRIS, which was able to uncover the chemical fingerprints of specific molecules.

“This is the sharpest spectrum ever obtained of an extrasolar planet,” said Dr. Bruce Macintosh, from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “This shows the power of directly imaging a planetary system. It is the exquisite resolution afforded by these new observations that has allowed us to really begin to probe planet formation.”

“With this level of detail,” said co-author Travis Barman from the Lowell Observatory, “we can compare the amount of carbon to the amount of oxygen present in the atmosphere, and this chemical mix provides clues as to how the planetary system formed.”

Artist’s rendering of HR 8799c at an early stage in the evolution of the planetary system, showing the planet, a disk of gas and dust, rocky inner planets, and HR 8799. Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
Artist’s rendering of HR 8799c at an early stage in the evolution of the planetary system, showing the planet, a disk of gas and dust, rocky inner planets, and HR 8799.
Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

The planets around the star, known as HR 8799, weigh in between five to 10 times the mass of Jupiter and are still glowing in infrared with the heat of their formation. The research team says their observations suggest the solar system was created in a similar way to our own, with gas giants forming far away from their parent star and smaller, rocky planets closer in. However, no Earth-like rocky planets have yet been detected in this system.

“The results suggest the HR 8799 system is like a scaled-up Solar System,” said Quinn Kanopacky, an astronomer from the University of Toronto in Canada. “Once the solid cores grew large enough, their gravity quickly attracted surrounding gas to become the massive planets we see today. Since that gas had lost some of its oxygen, the planet ends up with less oxygen and less water than if it had formed through a gravitational instability.”

There are two leading models of planetary formation: core accretion and gravitational instability. When stars form, a planet-forming disk surrounds them. With core accretion, planets form gradually as solid cores slowly grow big enough to start acquiring gas from the disk, while in the gravitational instability model, planets form almost instantly as the disk collapses on itself.

Properties such as the composition of a planet’s atmosphere are clues to how the planet formed, and in this case core accretion seems to win out. Although there was evidence of water vapor, that signature is weaker than would be expected if the planet shared the composition of its parent star. Instead, the planet has a high ratio of carbon to oxygen – a fingerprint of its formation in the gaseous disk tens of millions of years ago. As the gas cooled with time, grains of water ice formed, depleting the remaining gas of oxygen. Planetary formation then began when ice and solids collected into planetary cores.

“Once the solid cores grew large enough, their gravity quickly attracted surrounding gas to become the massive planets we see today,” said Konopacky. “Since that gas had lost some of its oxygen, the planet ends up with less oxygen and less water than if it had formed through a gravitational instability.”

“Spectral information of this quality not only provides clues about the formation of the HR8799 planets but also provides the guidance we need to improve our theoretical understanding of exoplanet atmospheres and their early evolution,” said Barman. “The timing of this work could not be better as it comes on the heels of new instruments that will image dozens more exoplanets, orbiting other stars, that we can study in similar detail.”

This system was also the study as part of remote reconnaissance imaging with Project 1640. The video below explains more:

Source: Keck Observatory

Evidence for a Deep Ocean on Europa Might be Found on its Surface

Astronomer Mike Brown and his colleague Kevin Hand might be suffering from “Pump Handle Phobia,” as radio personality Garrison Keillor calls it, where those afflicted just can’t resist putting their tongues on something frozen to see if it will stick. But Brown and Hand are doing it all in the name of science, and they may have found the best evidence yet that Europa has a liquid water ocean beneath its icy surface. Better yet, that vast subsurface ocean may actually shoot up to Europa’s surface, on occasion.

In a recent blog post, Brown pondered what it would taste like if he could lick the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. “The answer may be that it would taste a lot like that last mouthful of water that you accidentally drank when you were swimming at the beach on your last vacation. Just don’t take too long of a taste. At nearly 300 degrees (F) below zero your tongue will stick fast.”

His ponderings were based on a new paper by Brown and Hand which combined data from the Galileo mission (1989 to 2003) to study Jupiter and its moons, along with new spectroscopy data from the 10-meter Keck II telescope in Hawaii.

The study suggests there is a chemical exchange between the ocean and surface, making the ocean a richer chemical environment.

“We now have evidence that Europa’s ocean is not isolated—that the ocean and the surface talk to each other and exchange chemicals,” said Brown, who is an astronomer and professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech. “That means that energy might be going into the ocean, which is important in terms of the possibilities for life there. It also means that if you’d like to know what’s in the ocean, you can just go to the surface and scrape some off.”

“The surface ice is providing us a window into that potentially habitable ocean below,” said Hand, deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration at JPL.

Europa’s ocean is thought to cover the moon’s whole globe and is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) thick under a thin ice shell. Since the days of NASA’s Voyager and Galileo missions, scientists have debated the composition of Europa’s surface.

Salts were detected in the Galileo data – “Not ‘salt’ as in the sodium chloride of your table salt,” Brown wrote in his blog, “Mike Brown’s Planets,” “but more generically ‘salts’ as in ‘things that dissolve in water and stick around when the water evaporates.’”

That idea was enticing, Brown said, because if the surface is covered by things that dissolve in water, that strongly implies that Europa’s ocean water has flowed on the surface, evaporated, and left behind salts.

But there were other explanations for the Galileo data, as Europa is constantly bombarded by sulfur from the volcanoes on Io, and the spectrograph that was on the Galileo spacecraft wasn’t able to tell the difference between salts and sulfuric acid.

But now, with data from the Keck Observatory, Brown and Hand have identified a spectroscopic feature on Europa’s surface that indicates the presence of a magnesium sulfate salt, a mineral called epsomite, that could have formed by oxidation of a mineral likely originating from the ocean below.

This view of Jupiter's moon Europa features several regional-resolution mosaics overlaid on a lower resolution global view for context. The regional views were obtained during several different flybys of the moon by NASA's Galileo mission.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.
This view of Jupiter’s moon Europa features several regional-resolution mosaics overlaid on a lower resolution global view for context. The regional views were obtained during several different flybys of the moon by NASA’s Galileo mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

Brown and Hand started by mapping the distribution of pure water ice versus anything else. The spectra showed that even Europa’s leading hemisphere contains significant amounts of non-water ice. Then, at low latitudes on the trailing hemisphere — the area with the greatest concentration of the non-water ice material — they found a tiny, never-before-detected dip in the spectrum.

The two researchers tested everything from sodium chloride to Drano in Hand’s lab at JPL, where he tries to simulate the environments found on various icy worlds. At the end of the day, the signature of magnesium sulfate persisted.

The magnesium sulfate appears to be generated by the irradiation of sulfur ejected from the Jovian moon Io and, the authors deduce, magnesium chloride salt originating from Europa’s ocean. Chlorides such as sodium and potassium chlorides, which are expected to be on the Europa surface, are in general not detectable because they have no clear infrared spectral features. But magnesium sulfate is detectable. The authors believe the composition of Europa’s ocean may closely resemble the salty ocean of Earth.

While no one is going to be traveling to Europa to lick its surface, for now, astronomers will continue to use the modern giant telescopes on Earth to continue to “take spectral fingerprints of increasing detail to finally understand the mysterious details of the salty ocean beneath the ice shell of Europa,” Brown said.

Also, NASA is looking into options to explore Europa further. (Universe Today likes the idea of a big drill or submarine!)

But in the meantime what happens next? “We look for chlorine, I think,” Brown wrote. “The existence of chlorine as one of the main components of the non-water-ice surface of Europa is the strongest prediction that this hypothesis makes. We have some ideas on how we might look; we’re working on them now. Stay tuned.”

Read Brown & Hand’s paper.

Sources: Mike Brown’s Planets, Keck Observatory, JPL

Rare Supernova Pair are Most Distant Ever

High-resolution simulation of a galaxy hosting a super-luminous supernova and its chaotic environment in the early Universe. Credit: Adrian Malec and Marie Martig (Swinburne University)

Some of the earliest stars were massive and short-lived, destined to end their lives in huge explosions. Astronomers have detected some of the earliest and most distant of these exploding stars, called ‘super-luminous’ supernovae — stellar explosions 10–100 times brighter than other supernova types. The duo sets a record for the most distant supernova yet detected, and offers clues about the very early Universe.

“The light of these supernovae contains detailed information about the infancy of the Universe, at a time when some of the first stars are still condensing out of the hydrogen and helium formed by the Big Bang,” said Dr. Jeffrey Cooke, an astrophysicist from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, whose team made the discovery.

The team used a combination of data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the Keck 1 Telescope, both located in Hawaii.

“The type of supernovae we’ve found are extremely rare,” Cooke said. “In fact, only one has been discovered prior to our work. This particular type of supernova results from the death of a very massive star (about 100 – 250 times the mass of our Sun) and explodes in a completely different way compared to other supernovae. Discovering and studying these events provides us with observational examples to better understand them and the chemicals they eject into the Universe when they die.”

Super-luminous supernovae were discovered only a few years ago, and are rare in the nearby Universe. Their origins are not well understood, but a small subset of them are thought to occur when extremely massive stars, 150 to 250 times more massive than our Sun, undergo a nuclear explosion triggered by the conversion of photons into electron-positron pairs. This process is completely different compared to all other types of supernovae. Such events are expected to have occurred more frequently in the early Universe, when massive stars were more common.

This, and the extreme brightness of these events, encouraged Cooke and colleagues to search for super-luminous supernovae at redshifts, z, greater than 2, when the Universe was less than one-quarter of its present age.

“We used LRIS (Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer) on Keck I to get the deep spectroscopy to confirm the host redshifts and to search for late-time emission from the supernovae,” Cooke said. “The initial detections were found in the CFHT Legacy Survey Deep fields. The light from the supernovae arrived here on Earth 4 to 6 years ago. To confirm their distances, we need to get a spectrum of their host galaxies which are very faint because of their extreme distance. The large aperture of Keck and the high sensitivity of LRIS made this possible. In addition, some supernovae have bright enough emission features that persist for years after they explode. The deep Keck spectroscopy is able to detect these lines as a further means of confirmation and study.”

Cooke and co-workers searched through a large volume of the Universe at z greater than or equal to 2, and found two super-luminous supernovae, at redshifts of 2.05 and 3.90 — breaking the previous supernova redshift record of 2.36, and implying a production rate of super-luminous supernovae at these redshifts at least 10 times higher than in the nearby Universe. Although the spectra of these two objects make it unlikely that their progenitors were among the first generation of stars, the present results suggest that detection of those stars may not be far from our grasp.

Detecting the first stars allows us much greater understanding of the first stars in the Universe, Cooke said.

“Shortly after the Big Bang, there was only hydrogen and helium in the Universe,” he said. “All the other elements that we see around us today, such as carbon, oxygen, iron, and silicon, were manufactured in the cores of stars or during supernova explosions. The first stars to form after the Big Bang laid the framework for the long process of enriching the Universe that eventually produced the diverse set of galaxies, stars, and planets we see around us today. Our discoveries probe an early time in the Universe that overlaps with the time we expect to see the first stars.”

Sources: Keck Observatory, Nature

Uranus has Bizarre Weather

New infrared images of Uranus show details not seen before. Credit: NASA/ESA/L. A. Sromovsky/P. M. Fry/H. B. Hammel/I. de Pater/K. A. Rages

Here’s the scene: a thick, tempestuous atmosphere with winds blowing at a clip of 900 km/h (560 mph); massive storms that would engulf continents here on Earth, and temperatures in the -220 C (-360 degree F) range. Sounds like a cold Hell, but this is the picture emerging of the planet Uranus, revealed in new high-resolution infrared images from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, exposing in incredible detail the bizarre weather of a planet that was once thought to be rather placid.

“My first reaction to these images was ‘wow’ and then my second reaction was ‘WOW,'” said Heidi Hammel, a co-investigator on the new observations. “These images reveal an astonishing amount of complexity in Uranus’ atmosphere. We knew the planet was active, but until now much of the activity was masked by noise in our data.”

Voyager 2’s view of Uranus. Credit: NASA

With its beautiful blue atmosphere, Uranus can seem rather tranquil at first glance. Even the flyby of Voyager 2 in 1986 revealed a rather “bland” blue ball. But coming into focus now with the new are large weather systems, and even though they are probably much less violent than storms on Earth, the weather on Uranus is just…bizarre.

“Some of these weather systems,” said Larry Sromovsky, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the new study using the Keck II telescope, “stay at fixed latitudes and undergo large variations in activity. Others are seen to drift toward the planet’s equator while undergoing great changes in size and shape. Better measures of the wind fields that surround these massive weather systems are the key to unraveling their mysteries.”

Sromovsky, Hammel and their colleagues are using new infrared techniques to deliver some of the “most richly detailed views of Uranus yet obtained by any instrument on any observatory. No other telescope could come close to producing this result,” Sromovsky said.

What they are seeing are previously undetected, small but widely distributed weather feature, and they hope the movements of these features can help make sense of the planet’s odd pattern of winds.

They observed a scalloped band of clouds just south of Uranus’ equator and a swarm of small convective features in the north polar regions of the planet. Features like this don’t seem to be in the southern polar regions, but are similar to the types of “popcorn” –type clouds seen on Saturn. Uranus’ north pole is not visible from Earth night now, but when it does come into view, the researchers wouldn’t be surprised to see a polar vortex feature similar to what has been seen at Saturn’s south pole.

The driver of these features must be solar energy because there is no other detectable internal energy source.

“But the Sun is 900 times weaker there than on Earth because it is 30 times further from the Sun, so you don’t have the same intensity of solar energy driving the system,” said Sromovsky. “Thus the atmosphere of Uranus must operate as a very efficient machine with very little dissipation. Yet the weather variations we see seem to defy that requirement.”

One possible explanation, is that methane is pushed north by an atmospheric conveyor belt toward the pole where it wells up to form the convective features visible in the new images. The phenomena may be seasonal, the team said, but they are still working on trying to put together a clear seasonal trend in the winds of Uranus.

“Uranus is changing,” he said, “and there is certainly something different going on in the two polar regions.”

The images were released at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting taking place this week.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Behind the Scenes at the Keck Telescope

Who knew there were so many moving parts to operate a telescope? This is a great behind the scenes video of what really takes place up at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. About 125 people work full-time at the Keck Observatory to operate the two ten-meter telescopes. The intricate fine-tuning and elaborate attention to detail is amazing. “Keeping those telescopes on-sky every night is the summit crew of the Operations Department. This video is dedicated to the guys of the Keck daycrew who make it possible,” wrote Keck engineer Andrew Cooper, who compiled this unique and must-watch video. He details the techniques he used at his Vimeo page for this video.