Since the 1950s, astronomers have known of galaxies that have particularly bright centers – aka. Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) or quasars. This luminosity is the result of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at their centers consuming matter and releasing electromagnetic energy. Further studies revealed that there are some quasars that appear particularly bright because their relativistic jets are directed towards Earth.
In 1978, astronomer Edward Speigel coined the term “blazar” to describe this particular class of object. Using the telescopes at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO) in Arizona, a research team recently observed a blazar located 13 billion light-years from Earth. This object, designated PSO J030947.49+271757.31 (or PSO J0309+27), is the most distant blazar ever observed and foretells the existence of many more!
Sometimes the popular names given to an astronomical object hit the mark of describing its features. Other times…. not so much. Case in point, the Ring Nebula. While the distinctive loop shape and colorful beauty have made it one of the most famous celestial discs, it is not really a classic “ring.” And this recent image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows an amazing new level of detail in this iconic nebula.
“The nebula is not like a bagel, but rather, it’s like a jelly doughnut, because it’s filled with material in the middle,” said C. Robert O’Dell of Vanderbilt University, who led a research team that used Hubble and several ground-based telescopes to obtain the best view yet of the Ring nebula. The images show a more complex structure than astronomers once thought and have allowed them to construct the most precise 3-D model of the nebula.
“With Hubble’s detail, we see a completely different shape than what’s been thought about historically for this classic nebula,” O’Dell said. “The new Hubble observations show the nebula in much clearer detail, and we see things are not as simple as we previously thought.”
The Ring Nebula is about 2,000 light-years from Earth and measures roughly 1 light-year across. Located in the constellation Lyra, the nebula is a popular target for amateur astronomers.
Previous observations by several telescopes had detected the gaseous material in the ring’s central region. But the new view by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 shows the nebula’s structure in more detail. O’Dell’s team suggests the ring wraps around a blue, football-shaped structure. Each end of the structure protrudes out of opposite sides of the ring.
This video zooms into the constellation Lyra to the location of the Ring Nebula and the new image from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Large Binocular Telescope:
In the analysis, the research team also obtained images from the Large Binocular Telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona and spectroscopic data from the San Pedro Martir Observatory in Baja California, Mexico.
The nebula is tilted toward Earth so that astronomers see the ring face-on. In the Hubble image, the blue structure is the glow of helium. Radiation from the white dwarf star, the white dot in the center of the ring, is exciting the helium to glow. The white dwarf is the stellar remnant of a sun-like star that has exhausted its hydrogen fuel and has shed its outer layers of gas to gravitationally collapse to a compact object.
O’Dell’s team was surprised at the detailed Hubble views of the dark, irregular knots of dense gas embedded along the inner rim of the ring, which look like spokes in a bicycle wheel. These gaseous tentacles formed when expanding hot gas pushed into cool gas ejected previously by the doomed star. The knots are more resistant to erosion by the wave of ultraviolet light unleashed by the star. The Hubble images have allowed the team to match up the knots with the spikes of light around the bright, main ring, which are a shadow effect. Astronomers have found similar knots in other planetary nebulae.
All of this gas was expelled by the central star about 4,000 years ago. The original star was several times more massive than our sun. After billions of years converting hydrogen to helium in its core, the star began to run out of fuel. It then ballooned in size, becoming a red giant. During this phase, the star shed its outer gaseous layers into space and began to collapse as fusion reactions began to die out. A gusher of ultraviolet light from the dying star energized the gas, making it glow.
The outer rings were formed when faster-moving gas slammed into slower-moving material. The nebula is expanding at more than 43,000 miles an hour, but the center is moving faster than the expansion of the main ring. O’Dell’s team measured the nebula’s expansion by comparing the new Hubble observations with Hubble studies made in 1998.
The Ring Nebula will continue to expand for another 10,000 years, a short phase in the lifetime of the star. The nebula will become fainter and fainter until it merges with the interstellar medium.
Studying the Ring Nebula’s fate will provide insight into the sun’s demise in another 6 billion years. The sun is less massive than the Ring Nebula’s progenitor star, so it will not have an opulent ending.
“When the sun becomes a white dwarf, it will heat more slowly after it ejects its outer gaseous layers,” O’Dell said. “The material will be farther away once it becomes hot enough to illuminate the gas. This larger distance means the sun’s nebula will be fainter because it is more extended.”
[/caption] This past year has given both backyard and professional astronomers a rare treat – a very visible supernova event. Hosted in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), these stellar death throes may have been clued to us by a rather ordinary binary star system. In a recent study done by researchers at Ohio State University, a galaxy survey may have captured evidence of a “stellar signal” just before it went supernova!
Employing the Large Binocular Telescope located in Arizona, the OSU team was undertaking a survey of 25 galaxies for stars that changed their magnitude in usual ways. Their goal was to find a star just before it ended its life – a three-year undertaking. As luck would have it, a binary star system located in M51 produced just the results they were looking for. One star dropped amplitude just a short period of time before the other exploded. While the probability factor of them getting the exact star might be slim, chances are still good they caught its brighter partner. Despite that, principal investigator Christopher Kochanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State and the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology, remains optimistic as their results prove a theory.
“Our underlying goal is to look for any kind of signature behavior that will enable us to identify stars before they explode,” he said. “It’s a speculative goal at this point, but at least now we know that it’s possible.”
“Maybe stars give off a clear signal of impending doom, maybe they don’t,” said study co-author Krzystof Stanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, “But we’ll learn something new about dying stars no matter the outcome.”
Postdoctoral researcher Dorota Szczygiel, the leader of the supernova study tells us why the galaxy survey remains paramount.
“The odds are extremely low that we would just happen to be observing a star for several years before it went supernova. We would have to be extremely lucky,” she said. “With this galaxy survey, we’re making our own luck. We’re studying all the variable stars in 25 galaxies, so that when one of them happens go supernova, we’ve already compiled data on it.”
On May 31, 2011, the whole astronomy world was abuzz when SN2011dh gave both amateurs and professionals a real thrill as an easily observable event. As luck would have it, it was a binary star system being studied by the OSU team, and consisted of both a blue and red star. At this point, the astronomers surmise the red star was the one that dimmed significantly over the three-year period while the blue one blew its top. When reviewing the LBT data, the Ohio team found that when compared with Hubble images, the red star dimmed at about 10% over the final three-year period at an estimated 3% per previous years. As a curiosity, the researchers surmise the red star may have actually survived the supernova event.
“After the light from the explosion fades away, we should be able to see the companion that did not explode,” Szczygiel said.
As the team continues to collect valuable information, they estimate they could also detect another candidate set of stars at a rate of about one per year. There is also a strong possibility these detections could act as a type of test bed to predict future supernova events… looking for signals of impending doom. However, according to the news release, the Sun won’t be one to bother with.
“There’ll be no supernova for the Sun – it’ll just fizzle out,” Kochanek said. “But that’s okay – you don’t want to live around an exciting star.”