In the past century, astronomers have learned a great deal about the cosmos and our place in it. From discovering that the Universe is in a constant state of expansion to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and the Big Bang cosmological model, our perception of the cosmos has expanded immensely. And yet, many of the most profound astronomical discoveries still occur within our cosmic backyard – the Milky Way Galaxy.
Compared to other galaxies, which astronomers can resolve with relative ease, the structure and size of the Milky Way have been the subject of ongoing discovery. The most recent comes from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), where scientists have found a previously undiscovered inner ring of metal-rich stars just outside the Galactic Bar. The existence of this ring has revealed new insights into star formation in this region of the galaxy during its early history.
Spiral galaxies are one of the most commonly known types of galaxy. Most people think of them as large round disks, and know that our Milky Way is counted among their number. What most people don’t realize is that many spiral galaxies have a type of warping effect that, when you look at them edge on, can make it seem like they are forming a wave. Now scientists, led by Xinlun Chen at the University of Virginia, have studied millions of stars in the Milky Way and begun to develop a picture of a “wave” passing through our own galaxy.
For almost a century, astronomers have understood that the Universe is in a state of expansion. Since the 1990s, they have come to understand that as of four billion years ago, the rate of expansion has been speeding up. As this progresses, and the galaxy clusters and filaments of the Universe move farther apart, scientists theorize that the mean temperature of the Universe will gradually decline.
But according to new research led by the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP) at Ohio State University, it appears that the Universe is actually getting hotter as time goes on. After probing the thermal history of the Universe over the last 10 billion years, the team concluded that the mean temperature of cosmic gas has increased more than 10 times and reached about 2.2 million K (~2.2 °C; 4 million °F) today.
Atop the summit of Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui sits the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS1 (PS1). As part of the Haleakala Observatory overseen by the University of Hawaii, Pan-STARRS1 relies on a system of cameras, telescopes, and a computing facility to conduct an optical imaging survey of the sky, as well as astrometry and photometry of know objects.
Once I accidentally took a photo of one of the most important stars in the Universe…
That star highlighted in the photo is called M31_V1 and resides in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda – AKA M31- is the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way. But before it was known as a galaxy, it was called the Andromeda Nebula. Before this particular star in Andromeda was studied by Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope, we didn’t actually know if other galaxies even existed. Think about that! As recently as a hundred years ago, we thought the Milky Way might be the ENTIRE Universe. Even then…that’s pretty big. The Milky Way is on the order of 150,000 light years across. A light year is about 10 TRILLION kilometers so even at the speed of light it would take nearly the same length of time to cross the Milky Way as humans have existed on planet Earth. M31_V1 changed all that.
One of the greatest challenges of astronomy is locating objects in space that are obscured by the light of nearby, brighter objects. In addition to making extra-solar planets very difficult to directly image, this problem also intrudes on surveys of the local Universe, where astronomers are unable to detect dwarf and isolated galaxies because of all the brighter ones surrounding them.
Because of this, astronomers are unable to do a full inventory of small galaxies in the volume of space surrounding the Milky Way (aka. the Local Volume). However, thanks to the efforts of an amateur astronomer and an international team of scientists, a dwarf spheroidal galaxy was recently discovered lurking behind the Andromeda Galaxy. The discovery of this object, named Donatiello I, could help astronomers learn more about the process of galaxy formation.
For decades, astronomers have known that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of most massive galaxies. These black holes, which range from being hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, exert a powerful influence on surrounding matter and are believed to be the cause of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). For as long as astronomers have known about them, they have sought to understand how SMBHs form and evolve.
In two recently published studies, two international teams of researchers report on the discovery of five newly-discovered black hole pairs at the centers of distant galaxies. This discovery could help astronomers shed new light on how SMBHs form and grow over time, not to mention how black hole mergers produce the strongest gravitational waves in the Universe.
The second study, which reported the fifth dual black hole candidate, was led by Sarah Ellison – an astrophysics professor at the University of Victoria. It was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “Discovery of a Dual Active Galactic Nucleus with ~8 kpc Separation“. The discovery of these five black hole pairs was very fortuitous, given that pairs are a very rare find.
“Astronomers find single supermassive black holes all over the universe. But even though we’ve predicted they grow rapidly when they are interacting, growing dual supermassive black holes have been difficult to find.“
For the sake of their studies, Satyapal, Ellison, and their respective teams sought to detect dual AGNs, which are believed to be a consequence of galactic mergers. They began by consulting optical data from the SDSS to identify galaxies that appeared to be in the process of merging. Data from the all-sky WISE survey was then used to identify those galaxies that displayed the most powerful AGNs.
From the combined data, they found that five out of the seven merging galaxies hosted possible dual AGNs, which were separated by less than 10 kiloparsecs (over 30,000 light years). This was evidenced by the infrared data provided by WISE, which was consistent with what is predicated of rapidly growing supermassive black holes.
In addition, the Chandra data showed closely-separated pairs of x-ray sources, which is also consistent with black holes that have matter slowly being accreted onto them. This infrared and x-ray data also suggested that the supermassive black holes are buried in large amounts of dust and gas. As Ellison indicated, these findings were the result of painstaking work that consisted of sorting through multiple wavelengths of data:
“Our work shows that combining the infrared selection with X-ray follow-up is a very effective way to find these black hole pairs. X-rays and infrared radiation are able to penetrate the obscuring clouds of gas and dust surrounding these black hole pairs, and Chandra’s sharp vision is needed to separate them”.
Before this study, less than ten pairs of growing black holes had been confirmed based on X-ray studies, and these were mostly by chance. This latest work, which detected five black hole pairs using combined data, was therefore both fortunate and significant. Aside from bolstering the hypothesis that supermassive black holes form from the merger of smaller black holes, these studies also have serious implications for gravitational wave research.
“It is important to understand how common supermassive black hole pairs are, to help in predicting the signals for gravitational wave observatories,” said Satyapa. “With experiments already in place and future ones coming online, this is an exciting time to be researching merging black holes. We are in the early stages of a new era in exploring the universe.”
Since 2016, a total of four instances of gravitational waves have been detected by instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the VIRGO Observatory. However, these detections were the result of black hole mergers where the black holes were all smaller and less massive – between eight and 36 Solar masses.
Supermassive Black Holes, on the other hand, are much more massive and will likely produce a much larger gravitational wave signature as they continue to draw closer together. And in a few hundred million years, when these pairs eventually do merge, the resulting energy produced by mass being converted into gravitational waves will be incredible.
At present, detectors like LIGO and Virgo are not able to detect the gravitational waves created by Supermassive Black Hole pairs. This work is being done by arrays like the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which relies on high-precision millisecond pulsars to measure the influence of gravitational waves on space-time.
The proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will be the first dedicated space-based gravitational wave detector, is also expected to help in the search. In the meantime, gravitational wave research has already benefited immensely from collaborative efforts like the one that exists between Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo.
In the future, scientists also anticipate that they will be able to study the interiors of supernovae through gravitational wave research. This is likely to reveal a great deal about the mechanisms behind black hole formation. Between all of these ongoing efforts and future developments, we can expect to “hear” a great deal more of the Universe and the most powerful forces at work within it.
Be sure to check out this animation that shows what the eventual merger of two of these black hole pairs will look like, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:
Understanding how the Universe came to be is one of the greater challenges of being an astrophysicist. Given the observable Universe’s sheer size (46.6 billion light years) and staggering age (13.8 billion years), this is no easy task. Nevertheless, ongoing observations, calculations and computer simulations have allowed astrophysicists to learn a great deal about how galaxies and larger structures have changed over time.
For example, a recent study by a team from the University of Kentucky (UK) has challenged previously-held notions about how our galaxy has evolved to become what we see today. Based on observations made of the Milky Way’s stellar disk, which was previously thought to be smooth, the team found evidence of asymmetric ripples. This indicates that in the past, our galaxy may have been shaped by ancient impacts.
This study evolved from Ferguson’s senior thesis, which was overseen by Prof. Gardner. At the time, Ferguson sought to expand on previous research by Gardner and Yanny, which also sought to understand the presence of ripples in our galaxy’s stellar disk. For the sake of this new study, the team relied on data obtained by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey‘s (SDSS) 2.5m Telescope, located at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.
This allowed the team to examine the spatial distribution of 3.6 million stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, from which they confirmed the presence of asymmetric ripples. These, they claim, can be interpreted as evidence of the Milky Way’s ancient impacts – in other words, that these ripples resulted from our galaxy coming into contact with other galaxies in the past.
“These impacts are thought to have been the ‘architects’ of the Milky Way’s central bar and spiral arms. Just as the ripples on the surface of a smooth lake suggest the passing of a distant speed boat, we search for departures from the symmetries we would expect in the distributions of the stars to find evidence of ancient impacts. We have found extensive evidence for the breaking of all these symmetries and thus build the case for the role of ancient impacts in forming the structure of our Milky Way.”
As noted, Gardner’s previous work also indicated that when it came to north/south symmetry of stars in the Milky Way’s disk, there was a vertical “ripple”. In other words, the number of stars that lay above or below the stellar disk would increase from one sampling to the next the farther they looked from the center of the galactic disk. But thanks to the most recent data obtained by the SDSS, the team had a much larger sample to base their conclusions on.
And ultimately, these findings confirmed the observations made by Ferguson and Lally, and also turned up evidence of an asymmetry in the plane of the galactic disk as well. As Ferguson explained:
“Having access to millions of stars from the SDSS allowed us to study galactic structure in an entirely new way by breaking the sky up into smaller regions without loss of statistics. It has been incredible watching this project evolve and the results emerge as we plotted the stellar densities and saw intriguing patterns across the footprint. As more studies are being done in this field, I am excited to see what we can learn about the structure of our galaxy and the forces that helped to shape it.”
Understanding how our galaxy evolved and what role ancient impact played is essential to understanding the history and evolution of the Universe as a whole. And in addition to helping us confirm (or update) our current cosmological models, studies like this one can also tell us much about what lies in store for our galaxy billions of years from now.
For decades, astronomers have been of the opinion that in roughly 4 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda. This event is likely to have tremendous repercussions, leading to the merger of both galaxy’s supermassive black holes, stellar collisions, and stars being ejected. While it’s doubtful humanity will be around for this event, it would still be worthwhile to know how this process will shape our galaxy and the local Universe.
The hunt for exoplanet has revealed some very interesting things about our Universe. In addition to the many gas giants and “Super-Jupiters” discovered by mission like Kepler, there have also been the many exoplanet candidate that comparable in size and structure to Earth. But while these bodies may be terrestrial (i.e. composed of minerals and rocky material) this does not mean that they are “Earth-like”.
For example, what kind of minerals go into a rocky planet? And what could these particular compositions mean for the planet’s geological activity, which is intrinsic to planetary evolution? According to new study produced by a team of astronomers and geophysicists, the composition of an exoplanet depends on the chemical composition of its star – which can have serious implications for its habitability.
As Teske explained during the course of the presentation, this information could help scientists to place further constraints on what it takes for a planet to be habitable. “[O]ur study combines new observations of stars with new models of planetary interiors,” she said. “We want to better understand the diversity of small, rocky exoplanet composition and structure — how likely are they to have plate tectonics or magnetic fields?”
Focusing on two star systems in particular – Kepler 102 and Kepler 407 – Teske demonstrated how the composition of a planet has a great deal to do with the composition of its star. Whereas Kepler 102 has five known planets, Kepler 407, has two different planets – one gaseous and the other terrestrial. And while Kepler 102 is quite similar to our Sun (slightly less luminous), Kepler 407 has close to the same mass (but a lot more silicon).
In order to understand what consequences these differences could have for planetary formation, the SDSS team turned to a team of geophysicists. Led by Cayman Unterborn from Arizona State University, this team ran computer models to see what kinds of planets each system would have. As Unterborn explained:
“We took the star compositions found by APOGEE and modeled how the elements condensed into planets in our models. We found that the planet around Kepler 407, which we called ‘Janet,” would likely be rich in the mineral garnet. The planet around Kepler 102, which we called ‘Olive,’ is probably rich in olivine, like Earth.”
This difference would have considerable impact on planetary tectonics. For one, garnet is lot more rigid than olivine, which would mean “Janet” would experience less in the way of long-term plate tectonics. This in turn would mean that processes that are believed to be essential to life on Earth – like volcanic activity, atmospheric recycling, and mineral exchanges between the crust and mantle – would be less common.
This raises additional questions about the habitability of “Earth-like” planets in other star systems. In addition to being rocky and having strong magnetic fields and viable atmospheres, it seems that exoplanets also need to have the right mix of minerals in order to support life – life as we know it, at any rate. What’s more, this kind of research also helps us to understand how life came to emerge on Earth in the first place.
Looking forward, the research team hopes to extend their study to include all the 200,000 stars surveyed by APOGEE to see which could host terrestrial planets. This will allow astronomers to determine the mineral composition of more rocky worlds, thus helping them to determine which rocky exoplanets are “Earth-like”, and which are just “Earth-sized”.
Imagine a single mission that would allow you to explore the Milky Way and beyond, investigating cosmic chemistry, hunting planets, mapping galactic structure, probing dark energy and analyzing the expansion of the wider Universe. Enter the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a massive scientific collaboration that enables one thousand astronomers from 51 institutions around the world to do just that.
At Tuesday’s AAS briefing in Seattle, researchers announced the public release of data collected by the project’s latest incarnation, SDSS-III. This data release, termed “DR12,” represents the survey’s largest and most detailed collection of measurements yet: 2,000 nights’ worth of brand-new information about nearly 500 million stars and galaxies.
One component of SDSS is exploring dark energy by “listening” for acoustic oscillation signals from the the acceleration of the early Universe, and the team also shared a new animated “fly-through” of the Universe that was created using SDSS data.
The SDSS-III collaboration is based at the powerful 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The project itself consists of four component surveys: BOSS, APOGEE, MARVELS, and SEGUE. Each of these surveys applies different trappings to the parent telescope in order to accomplish its own, unique goal.
BOSS (the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey) visualizes the way that sound waves produced by interacting matter in the early Universe are reflected in the large-scale structure of our cosmos. These ancient imprints, which date back to the first 500,000 years after the Big Bang, are especially evident in high-redshift objects like luminous-red galaxies and quasars. Three-dimensional models created from BOSS observations will allow astronomers to track the expansion of the Universe over a span of 9 billion years, a feat that, later this year, will pave the way for rigorous assessment of current theories regarding dark energy.
At the press briefing, Daniel Eistenstein from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained how BOSS requires huge volumes of data and that so far 1.4 million galaxies have been mapped. He indicated the data analyzed so far strongly confirm dark energy’s existence.
APOGEE (the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) employs a sophisticated, near-infrared spectrograph to pierce through thick dust and gather light from 100,000 distant red giants. By analyzing the spectral lines that appear in this light, scientists can identify the signatures of 15 different chemical elements that make up the faraway stars – observations that will help researchers piece together the stellar history of our galaxy.
MARVELS (the Multi-Object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-Area Survey) identifies minuscule wobbles in the orbits of stars, movements that betray the gravitational influence of orbiting planets. The technology itself is unprecedented. “MARVELS is the first large-scale survey to measure these tiny motions for dozens of stars simultaneously,” explained the project’s principal investigator Jian Ge, “which means we can probe and characterize the full population of giant planets in ways that weren’t possible before.”
At the press briefing, Ge said that MARVELS observed 5,500 stars repeatedly, looking for giant exoplanets around these stars. So far, the data has revealed 51 giant planet candidates as well as 38 brown dwarf candidates. Ge added that more will be found with better data processing.
SEGUE (the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration) rounds out the quartet by analyzing visible light from 250,000 stars in the outer reaches of our galaxy. Coincidentally, this survey’s observations “segue” nicely into work being done by other projects within SDSS-III. Constance Rockosi, leader of the SDSS-III domain of SEGUE, recaps the importance of her project’s observations of our outer galaxy: “In combination with the much more detailed view of the inner galaxy from APOGEE, we’re getting a truly holistic picture of the Milky Way.”
One of the most exceptional attributes of SDSS-III is its universality; that is, every byte of juicy information contained in DR12 will be made freely available to professionals, amateurs, and lay public alike. This philosophy enables interested parties from all walks of life to contribute to the advancement of astronomy in whatever capacity they are able.
As momentous as the release of DR12 is for today’s astronomers, however, there is still much more work to be done. “Crossing the DR12 finish line is a huge accomplishment by hundreds of people,” said Daniel Eisenstein, director of the SDSS-III collaboration, “But it’s a big universe out there, so there is plenty more to observe.”
DR12 includes observations made by SDSS-III between July 2008 and June 2014. The project’s successor, SDSS-IV, began its run in July 2014 and will continue observing for six more years.
Here is the video animation of the fly-through of the Universe: