Hypervelocity Stars Teach us About Black Holes and Supernovae

An artist's conception of a hypervelocity star that has escaped the Milky Way. Credit: NASA

Hypervelocity stars (HVS) certainly live up to their name, traveling thousands of kilometers per second or a fraction of the speed of light (relativistic speeds). These speed demons are thought to be the result of galactic or black hole mergers, globular clusters kicking out members, or binary pairs where one star is kicked out when the other goes supernova. Occasionally, these stars are fast enough to escape our galaxy and (in some cases) take their planetary systems along for the ride. This could have drastic implications for our theories of how life could be distributed throughout the cosmos (aka. panspermia theory).

There are thousands of these stars in our galaxy, and tracking them has become the task of cutting-edge astrometry missions (like the ESA’s Gaia Observatory). In previous research, astronomers suggested that these stars could be used to determine the mass of the Milky Way. In a recent study from Leiden University in the Netherlands, Ph.D. candidate Fraser Evans showed how data on HVS could be used to probe the mysteries of the most extreme objects in our Universe – supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and the violent supernovae of massive stars.

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Hubble’s New View of the Tarantula Nebula

A snapshot of the Tarantula Nebula (also known as 30 Doradus) is the most recent Picture of the Week from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, C. Murray, E. Sabbi; Acknowledgment: Y. -H. Chu

The Tarantula Nebula, also called 30 Doradus, is the brightest star-forming region in our part of the galaxy. It’s in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and contains the most massive and hottest stars we know of. The Tarantula Nebula has been a repeat target for the Hubble since the telescope’s early years.

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Hubble Spots Two Open Clusters. One is Also an Emission Nebula

The open cluster NGC 1858, seen in this Hubble image, contains stars of different ages. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Gilmore (University of Cambridge); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

Open star clusters are groups of stars in loosely-bound gravitational associations. The stars are further apart than the stars in their cousins, the globular clusters. The weak gravity from the loose clusters means open clusters take on irregular shapes. They usually contain only a few thousand stars.

The Hubble Space Telescope captured images of two clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

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A Totally new View of the Large Magellanic Cloud (and more!) From Retired Telescopes

The Large Magellanic Cloud, as seen by the Herschel Space Telescope, Planck, COBE and IRAS. Credit: ESA and NASA.

ESA and NASA dusted off some old data from four retired space telescopes and combined forces to reveal new images of the four galaxies that our closest to our own Milky Way galaxy. One thing is common among the four new images: they are full of dust!

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Webb is Almost Ready. There’s One Last Thing To Do

Artist impression of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.

The James Webb Space Telescope is now in the final phase of commissioning as it readies for science observations. Of the more than 1,000 milestones the observatory has needed to reach since launch to become fully operational, the team said today they are down to about two hundred activities to go. But those 200 are all part of the final phase of commissioning the instruments.

“I call it the home stretch,” said Michael McElwain, Webb observatory project scientist in a media briefing on May 9. “There are 17 scientific modes we need to bring online in the next two months, and we need to demonstrate the telescope’s operational capabilities before we are ready to turn the science instruments loose on the Universe.”

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An Incredible View Into the Heart of the Small Magellanic Cloud

A radio-telescope image of the Small Magellanic Cloud reveals more detail than ever seen before. Image Credit: N. Pingel et al.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is over 200,000 light-years away, yet it’s still one of our galaxy’s closest neighbours in space. Ancient astronomers knew of it, and modern astronomers have studied it intensely. But the SMC still holds secrets.

By studying it and revealing its structure in more detail, astronomers at The Australian National University hope to grow our understanding of the SMC and galaxies in general.

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A Black Hole has been Found Lurking Just Outside the Milky Way

This artist’s impression shows a compact black hole 11 times as massive as the Sun and the five-solar-mass star orbiting it. The two objects are located in NGC 1850, a cluster of thousands of stars roughly 160 000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a Milky Way neighbour. The distortion of the star’s shape is due to the strong gravitational force exerted by the black hole.  Not only does the black hole’s gravitational force distort the shape of the star, but it also influences its orbit. By looking at these subtle orbital effects, a team of astronomers were able to infer the presence of the black hole, making it the first small black hole outside of our galaxy to be found this way. For this discovery, the team used the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers have found a smaller, stellar-mass black hole lurking in a nearby satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way.  The black hole has been hiding in a star cluster named NGC 1850, which is one of the brightest star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The black hole is 160,000 light-years away from Earth, and is estimated to be about 11 times the mass of our Sun.

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The Large Magellanic Cloud Stole one of its Globular Clusters

The Milky Way with the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds on the left. Image Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky. CC 4.0

Astronomers have known for years that galaxies are cannibalistic. Massive galaxies like our own Milky Way have gained mass by absorbing smaller neighbours.

Now it looks like smaller galaxies like the Large Magellanic Cloud have also feasted on smaller neighbours.

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New All-Sky Map of the Milky Way’s Galactic Halo

The outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy are a different place.  Stars are much harder to come by, with most of this “galactic halo” being made up of empty space.  But scientists theorize that there is an abundance of one particular thing in this desolate area – dark matter.  Now, a team from Harvard and the University of Arizona (UA) spent some time studying and modeling one of the galaxy’s nearest neighbors to try to tease out more information about that dark matter, and as a result came up with an all new way to look at the halo itself.

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It Took 50 Nights of Observations to Capture New Data on the Magellanic Clouds

Part of the SMASH dataset showing an unprecedented wide-angle view of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Image Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/SMASH/D. Nidever (Montana State University) Acknowledgment: Image processing: Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin

The Magellanic Clouds are two of our closest neighbours, in galactic terms. The pair of irregular dwarf galaxies were drawn into the Milky Way’s orbit in the distant past, and we’ve been looking up at them since the dawn of humanity. Some of our ancestors even gathered pigments and created images of them in petroglyphs and cave paintings.

Following in the footsteps of those ancient artists, astronomers recently used the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) to capture an in-depth portrait of the pair of galaxies.

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