Ancient Impacts Shaped the Structure of the Milky Way

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.

The study, titled “Milky Way Tomography with K and M Dwarf Stars: The Vertical Structure of the Galactic Disk“, recently appeared in the The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Deborah Ferguson, a 2016 UK graduate, the team consisted of Professor Susan Gardner – from the UK College of Arts and Sciences – and Brian Yanny, an astrophysicist from the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics (FCPA).

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 could include a merger between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy roughly 0.85 billion years ago, as well as our galaxy’s current merger with the Canis Major dwarf galaxy. As Prof. Gardner explained in a recent UK press release:

“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.”

Illustration showing a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger

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.

Further Reading: University of Kentucky, The Astrophysical Journal

Astronomers Find a Rogue Supermassive Black Hole, Kicked out by a Galactic Collision

When galaxies collide, all manner of chaos can ensue. Though the process takes millions of years, the merger of two galaxies can result in Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs, which reside at their centers) merging and becoming even larger. It can also result in stars being kicked out of their galaxies, sending them and even their systems of planets into space as “rogue stars“.

But according to a new study by an international team of astronomers, it appears that in some cases, SMBHs could  also be ejected from their galaxies after a merger occurs. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, the team detected what could be a “renegade supermassive black hole” that is traveling away from its galaxy.

According to the team’s study – which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal under the title A Potential Recoiling Supermassive Black Hole, CXO J101527.2+625911 – the renegade black hole was detected at a distance of about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. It appears to have come from within an elliptical galaxy, and contains the equivalent of 160 million times the mass of our Sun.

Hubble data showing the two bright points near the middle of the galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

The team found this black hole while searching through thousands of galaxies for evidence of black holes that showed signs of being in motion. This consisted of sifting through data obtained by the Chandra X-ray telescope for bright X-ray sources – a common feature of rapidly-growing SMBHs – that were observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

They then looked at Hubble data of all these X-ray bright galaxies to see if it would reveal two bright peaks at the center of any. These bright peaks would be a telltale indication that a pair of supermassive black holes were present, or that a recoiling black hole was moving away from the center of the galaxy. Last, the astronomers examined the SDSS spectral data, which shows how the amount of optical light varies with wavelength.

From all of this, the researchers invariably found what they considered to be a good candidate for a renegade black hole. With the help data from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii, they determined that this candidate was located near, but visibly offset from, the center of its galaxy. They also noted that it had a velocity that was different from the galaxy – properties which suggested that it was moving on its own.

The image below, which was generated from Hubble data, shows the two bright points near the center of the galaxy. Whereas the one on the left was located within the center, the one on the right (the renegade SMBH) was located about 3,000 light years away from the center. Between the X-ray and optical data, all indications pointed towards it being a black hole that was kicked from its galaxy.

The bright X-ray source detected with Chandra (left), and data obtained from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

In terms of what could have caused this, the team ventured that the back hole might have “recoiled” when two smaller SMBHs collided and merged. This collision would have generated gravitational waves that could have then pushed the black hole out of the galaxy’s center. They further ventured that the black hole may have formed and been set in motion by the collision of two smaller black holes.

Another possible explanation is that two SMBHs are located in the center of this galaxy, but one of them is not producing detectable radiation – which would mean that it is growing too slowly. However, the researchers favor the explanation that what they observed was a renegade black hole, as it seems to be more consistent with the evidence. For example, their study showed signs that the host galaxy was experiencing some disturbance in its outer regions.

This is a possible indication that the merger between the two galaxies occurred in the relatively recent past. Since SMBH mergers are thought to occur when their host galaxies merge, this reservation favors the renegade black hole theory. In addition, the data showed that in this galaxy, stars were forming at a high rate. This agrees with computer simulations that predict that merging galaxies experience an enhanced rate of star formation.

But of course, additional researches is needed before any conclusions can be reached. In the meantime, the findings are likely to be of particular interest to astronomers. Not only does this study involve a truly rare phenomenon – a SMBH that is in motion, rather than resting at the center of a galaxy – but the unique properties involved could help us to learn more about these rare and enigmatic features.

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

For one, the study of SMBHs could reveal more about the rate and direction of spin of these enigmatic objects before they merge. From this, astronomers would be able to better predict when and where SMBHs are about to merge. Studying the speed of recoiling black holes could also reveal additional information about gravitational waves, which could unlock additional secrets about the nature of space time.

And above all, witnessing a renegade black hole is an opportunity to see some pretty amazing forces at work. Assuming the observations are correct, there will no doubt be follow-up surveys designed to see where the SMBH is traveling and what effect it is having on the surrounding cosmic environment.

Ever since the 1970s, scientists have been of the opinion that most galaxies have SMBHs at their center. In the years and decades that followed, research confirmed the presence of black holes not only at the center of our galaxy – Sagittarius A* – but at the center of all almost all known massive galaxies. Ranging in mass from the hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, these objects exert a powerful influence on their respective galaxies.

Be sure to enjoy this video, courtesy of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory:

Further Reading:

Confirmed: We Really are ‘Star Stuff’

Scientist Carl Sagan said many times that “we are star stuff,” from the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, and the iron in our blood.

It is well known that most of the essential elements of life are truly made in the stars. Called the “CHNOPS elements” – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur – these are the building blocks of all life on Earth. Astronomers have now measured of all of the CHNOPS elements in 150,000 stars across the Milky Way, the first time such a large number of stars have been analyzed for these elements.

“For the first time, we can now study the distribution of elements across our Galaxy,” says Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University. “The elements we measure include the atoms that make up 97% of the mass of the human body.”

Astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey made their observations with the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph on the 2.5m Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. This instrument looks in the near-infrared to reveal signatures of different elements in the atmospheres of stars.

Quote from Carl Sage. Credit: Pinterest

While the observations were used to create a new catalog that is helping astronomers gain a new understanding of the history and structure of our galaxy, the findings also “demonstrates a clear human connection to the skies,” said the team.

While humans are 65% oxygen by mass, oxygen makes up less than 1% of the mass of all of elements in space. Stars are mostly hydrogen, but small amounts of heavier elements such as oxygen can be detected in the spectra of stars. With these new results, APOGEE has found more of these heavier elements in the inner part of the galaxy. Stars in the inner galaxy are also older, so this means more of the elements of life were synthesized earlier in the inner parts of the galaxy than in the outer parts.

So what does that mean for those of us out on the outer edges of one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, about 25,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy?

“I think it’s hard to say what the specific implications are for when life could arise,” said team member Jon Holtzman, also from New Mexico State, in an email to Universe Today. “We measure typical abundance of CHNOPS elements at different locations, but it’s not so easy to determine at any given location the time history of the CHNOPS abundances, because it’s hard to measure ages of stars. On top of that, we don’t know what the minimum amount of CHNOPS would need to be for life to arise, especially since we don’t really know how that happens in any detail!”

Holtzman added it is likely that, if there is a minimum required abundance, that minimum was probably reached earlier in the inner parts of the Galaxy than where we are.

The team also said that while it’s fun to speculate how the composition of the inner Milky Way Galaxy might impact how life might arise, the SDSS scientists are much better at understanding the formation of stars in our Galaxy.

“These data will be useful to make progress on understanding Galactic evolution,” said team member Jon Bird of Vanderbilt University, “as more and more detailed simulations of the formation of our galaxy are being made, requiring more complex data for comparison.”

Sloan Foundation 2.5m Telescope at Apache Point Observatory. Credit: SDSS.

“It’s a great human interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way,” said Jennifer Johnson of The Ohio State University. “This allows us to place constraints on when and where in our galaxy life had the required elements to evolve, a sort ‘temporal Galactic habitable zone’”.

The catalog is available at the SDSS website, so take a look for yourself at the chemical abundances in our portion of the galaxy.

Source: SDSS

Either Stars are Strange, or There Are 234 Aliens Trying to Contact Us

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope stands out against the breaktaking backdrop of the Sacramento Mountains. 234 stars out of the Sloan's catalogue of over 2.5 million stars are producing an unexplained pulsed signal. Image: SDSS, Fermilab Visual Media Services

We all want there to be aliens. Green ones, pink ones, brown ones, Greys. Or maybe Vulcans, Klingons, even a being of pure energy. Any type will do.

That’s why whenever a mysterious signal or energetic fluctuation arrives from somewhere in the cosmos and hits one of our many telescopes, headlines erupt across the media: “Have We Finally Detected An Alien Signal?” or “Have Astronomers Discovered An Alien Megastructure?” But science-minded people know that we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves.

Skepticism still rules the day when it comes to these headlines, and the events that spawn them. That’s the way it should be, because we’ve always found a more prosaic reason for whatever signal from space we’re talking about. But, being skeptical is a balancing act; it doesn’t mean being dismissive.

What we’re talking about here is a new study from E.F. Borra and E. Trottier, two astronomers at Laval University in Canada. Their study, titled “Discovery of peculiar periodic spectral modulations in a small fraction of solar type stars” was just published at arXiv.org. ArXiv.org is a pre-print website, so the paper itself hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. But it is generating interest.

The two astronomers used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and analyzed the spectra of 2.5 million stars. Of all those stars, they found 234 stars that are producing a puzzling signal. That’s only a tiny percentage. And, they say, these signals “have exactly the shape of an ETI signal” that was predicted in a previous study by Borra.

A portion of the 234 stars that are sources of the pulsed ETI-like signal. Note that all the stars are in the narrow spectral range F2 to K1, very similar to our own Sun. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier
A portion of the 234 stars that are sources of the pulsed ETI-like signal. Note that all the stars are in the narrow spectral range F2 to K1, very similar to our own Sun. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier

Prediction is a key part of the scientific method. If you develop a theory, your theory looks better and better the more you can use it to correctly predict some future events based on it. Look how many times Einstein’s predictions based on Relativity have been proven correct.

The 234 stars in Borra and Trottier’s study aren’t random. They’re “overwhelmingly in the F2 to K1 spectral range” according to the abstract. That’s significant because this is a small range centred around the spectrum of our own Sun. And our own Sun is the only one we know of that has an intelligent species living near it. If ours does, maybe others do too?

The authors acknowledge five potential causes of their findings: instrumental and data reduction effects, rotational transitions in molecules, the Fourier transform of spectral lines, rapid pulsations, and finally the ETI signal predicted by Borra (2012). They dismiss molecules or pulsations as causes, and they deem it highly unlikely that the signals are caused by the Fourier analysis itself. This leaves two possible sources for the detected signals. Either they’re a result of the Sloan instrument itself and the data reduction, or they are in fact a signal from extra-terrestrial intelligences.

This graph shows the number of detected signals by Spectral Type of star. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier
This graph shows the number of detected signals by Spectral Type of star. Image: Ermanno F. Borra and Eric Trottier

The detected signals are pulses of light separated by a constant time interval. These types of signals were predicted by Borra in his 2012 paper, and they are what he and Trottier set out to find in the Sloan data. It may be a bit of a red flag when scientist’s find the very thing they predicted they would find. But Trottier and Borra are circumspect about their own results.

As the authors say in their paper, “Although unlikely, there is also a possibility that the signals are due to highly peculiar chemical compositions in a small fraction of galactic halo stars.” It may be unlikely, but lots of discoveries seem unlikely at first. Maybe there is a tiny subset of stars with chemical peculiarities that make them act in this way.

To sum it all up, the two astronomers have found a tiny number of stars, very similar to our own Sun, that seem to be the source of pulsed signals. These signals are the same as predicted if a technological society was using powerful lasers to communicate with distant stars.

We all want there to be aliens, and maybe the first sign of them will be pulsed light signals from stars like our own Sun. But it’s all still very preliminary, and as the authors acknowledge, “…at this stage, this hypothesis needs to be confirmed with further work.”

That further work is already being planned by the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, a project that searches for intelligent life in the cosmos. They plan to use the Automated Planet Finder telescope at the Lick Observatory to further observe some of Borra’s 234 stars.

The Breakthrough team don’t seem that excited about Borra’s findings. They’ve already poured cold water on it, trotting out the old axiom that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in a statement on Borra’s paper. They also give Borra’s findings a score of 0 to 1 on the Rio Scale. The Rio Scale is something used by the international SETI community to rank detections of phenomena that could indicate advanced life beyond Earth. A rating of 0 to 1 means its insignificant.

Better reign in the headline writers.

What Are Cosmic Voids?

What Are Cosmic Voids?


Clearly I need to learn to be more specific when I write these articles. Everything time I open my mouth, I need to prepare for the collective imagination of the viewers.

We did a whole article about the biggest things in the Universe, and identified superclusters of galaxies as the best candidate. Well, the part of superclusters actually gravitationally bound enough to eventually merge together in the future. But you had other ideas, including dark energy, or the Universe itself as the biggest thing. Even love? Aww.

One intriguing suggestion, though, is the idea of the vast cosmic voids between galaxies. Hmm, is the absence of something a thing? Whoa, time to go to art school and talk about negative space.

Ah well, who cares? It’s a super interesting topic, so let’s go ahead and talk about voids.

When most people imagine the expansion of the Universe after the Big Bang, they probably envision an equally spaced smattering of galaxies zipping away from one another. And that’s pretty accurate at the smallest scales.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

But at the largest scales, like when you can see billions of light-years in a cube that fits on your computer screen, then a larger structure starts to take shape.

It looks less like an explosion, and more like a tasty tasty sponge cake, with huge filaments, walls, and the vast gaps in between. The gaps, the voids, the supervoids, are the point of today’s article, but to understand the gaps, we’ve got to understand why the Universe is clumped up the way it is.

Run the Universe clock backwards, all the way to the beginning, to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. When the entire cosmos was compressed down into a tiny region of superheated plasma.

Although it was mostly uniform in density, there were slight variations – quantum fluctuations in spacetime itself. And as the Universe expanded, those differences were magnified. What started out as tiny differences in the density of matter at the smallest scale, turned into regions of higher and lower density of matter in the Universe.

Here we are, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and we can see how the microscopic variations at the beginning of time were magnified to the largest scales. Instead of individual galaxies, we see huge walls containing thousands of galaxies; filaments of galaxies connect in nodes. These structures are huge; hundreds of millions of light-years across, containing thousands of galaxies. But the gaps, the voids, between these clusters can be even larger.

Astronomers first started thinking about these voids back in the 1970s, when the first large-scale surveys of the Universe were made. By measuring the redshift of galaxies, and determining how fast they were speeding away from us, astronomers started to realize that the distribution of galaxies wasn’t even.

Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO
Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO

Some galaxies were relatively close, but then there were huge gaps in distance, and then another cluster of galaxies collected together.

Over the last few decades, astronomers have built sophisticated 3-dimensional models that map out the Universe in the largest scales. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, updated in 2009, has provided the most accurate map so far. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, destined for first light in a few years will take this to the next level.

The largest void that we currently know of is known as the Giant Void (original, I know), and it’s located about 1.5 billion light-year away. It has a diameter of 1 billion to 1.3 billion light-years across.

To be fair, these regions aren’t really completely empty. They just have less density than the regions with galaxies. In general, they’ve got about a tenth the density of matter that’s average for the Universe.

Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Which means that there’s still gas and dust in these regions, as well as dark matter. There will still be stars and galaxies out in the middle of those voids. Even the Giant Void has 17 separate galaxy clusters inside it.

You might imagine continuing to scale outward. Maybe you’re wondering if the this spongy distribution of matter is actually just the next step to an even larger structure, and so on, and so on. But it isn’t. In fact, astronomers call this “the End of Greatness”, because it doesn’t seem like there’s any larger structure to the Universe.

As the expansion of the Universe continues, these voids are going to get even larger. The walls and filaments connecting clusters of galaxies will stretch and break. The voids will merge with each other, and only gravitationally bound galaxy clusters will remain as islands, adrift in the expanding emptiness.

The full scale of the observable Universe is truly mind boggling. We’re here in this tiny corner of the Local Group, which is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is perched on the precipice of vast cosmic voids. So much to explore, so let’s get to work.

Best Picture Yet Of Milky Way’s Formation 13.5 Billion Years Ago

The Milky Way is like NGC 4594 (pictured), a disc shaped spiral galaxy with around 200 billion stars. The three main features are the central bulge, the disk, and the halo. Credit: ESO

Maybe we take our beloved Milky Way galaxy for granted. As far as humanity is concerned, it’s always been here. But how did it form? What is its history?

Our Milky Way galaxy has three recognized stellar components. They are the central bulge, the disk , and the halo. How these three were formed and how they evolved are prominent, fundamental questions in astronomy. Now, a team of researchers have used the unique property of a certain type of star to help answer these fundamental questions.

The type of star in question is called the blue horizontal-branch star (BHB star), and it produces different colors depending on its age. It’s the only type of star to do that. The researchers, from the University of Notre Dame, used this property of BHB’s to create a detailed chronographic (time) map of the Milky Way’s formation.

This map has confirmed what theories and models have predicted for some time: the Milky Way galaxy formed through mergers and accretions of small haloes of gas and dust. Furthermore, the oldest stars in our galaxy are at the center, and younger stars and galaxies joined the Milky Way over billions of years, drawn in by the galaxy’s growing gravitational pull.

The team who produced this study includes astrophysicist Daniela Carollo, research assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, and Timothy Beers, Notre Dame Chair of Astrophysics. Research assistant professor Vinicius Placco, and other colleagues rounded out the team.

“We haven’t previously known much about the age of the most ancient component of the Milky Way, which is the Halo System,” Carollo said. “But now we have demonstrated conclusively for the first time that ancient stars are in the center of the galaxy and the younger stars are found at longer distances. This is another piece of information that we can use to understand the assembly process of the galaxy, and how galaxies in general formed.”

This dazzling infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This dazzling infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) played a key role in these findings. The team used data from the SDSS to identify over 130,000 BHB’s. Since these stars literally “show their age”, mapping them throughout the Milky Way produced a chronographic map which clearly shows the oldest stars near the center of the galaxy, and youngest stars further away.

“The colors, when the stars are at that stage of their evolution, are directly related to the amount of time that star has been alive, so we can estimate the age,” Beers said. “Once you have a map, then you can determine which stars came in first and the ages of those portions of the galaxy. We can now actually visualize how our galaxy was built up and inspect the stellar debris from some of the other small galaxies being destroyed by their interaction with ours during its assembly.”

Astronomers infer, from various data-driven approaches, that different structural parts of the galaxy have different ages. They’ve assigned ages to different parts of the galaxy, like the bulge. That makes sense, since everything can’t be the same age. Not in a galaxy that’s this old. But this map makes it even clearer.

As the authors say in their paper, “What has been missing, until only recently, is the ability to assign ages to individual stellar populations, so that the full chemo-dynamical history of the Milky Way can be assessed.”

This new map, with over 130,000 stars as data points, is a pretty important step in understanding the evolution of the Milky Way. It takes something that was based more on models and theory, however sound they were, and reinforces it with more constrained data.

Update: The chronographic map, as well as a .gif, can be viewed here.

Dark Energy Illuminated By Largest Galactic Map Ten Years In The Making

In 1929, Edwin Hubble forever changed our understanding of the cosmos by showing that the Universe is in a state of expansion. By the 1990s, astronomers determined that the rate at which it is expanding is actually speeding up, which in turn led to the theory of “Dark Energy“. Since that time, astronomers and physicists have sought to determine the existence of this force by measuring the influence it has on the cosmos.

The latest in these efforts comes from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS III), where an international team of researchers have announced that they have finished creating the most precise measurements of the Universe to date. Known as the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), their measurements have placed new constraints on the properties of Dark Energy.

The new measurements were presented by Harvard University astronomer Daniel Eisenstein at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society. As the director of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), he and his team have spent the past ten years measuring the cosmos and the periodic fluctuations in the density of normal matter to see how galaxies are distributed throughout the Universe.

An illustration of the concept of baryon acoustic oscillations, which are imprinted in the early universe and can still be seen today in galaxy surveys like BOSS (Illustration courtesy of Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield).
An illustration of baryon acoustic oscillations, which are imprinted in the early universe and can still be seen today in galaxy surveys like BOSS. Credit: Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield

And after a decade of research, the BOSS team was able to produce a three-dimensional map of the cosmos that covers more than six billion light-years. And while other recent surveys have looked further afield – up to distances of 9 and 13 billion light years – the BOSS map is unique in that it boasts the highest accuracy of any cosmological map.

In fact, the BOSS team was able to measure the distribution of galaxies in the cosmos, and at a distance of 6 billion light-years, to within an unprecedented 1% margin of error. Determining the nature of cosmic objects at great distances is no easy matter, due the effects of relativity. As Dr. Eisenstein told Universe Today via email:

“Distances are a long-standing challenge in astronomy. Whereas humans often can judge distance because of our binocular vision, galaxies beyond the Milky Way are much too far away to use that. And because galaxies come in a wide range of intrinsic sizes, it is hard to judge their distance. It’s like looking at a far-away mountain; one’s judgement of its distance is tied up with one’s judgement of its height.”

In the past, astronomers have made accurate measurements of objects within the local universe (i.e. planets, neighboring stars, star clusters) by relying on everything from radar to redshift – the degree to which the wavelength of light is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. However, the greater the distance of an object, the greater the degree of uncertainty.

 An artist's concept of the latest, highly accurate measurement of the Universe from BOSS. The spheres show the current size of the "baryon acoustic oscillations" (BAOs) from the early universe, which have helped to set the distribution of galaxies that we see in the universe today. Galaxies have a slight tendency to align along the edges of the spheres — the alignment has been greatly exaggerated in this illustration. BAOs can be used as a "standard ruler" (white line) to measure the distances to all the galaxies in the universe. Credit: Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
An artist’s concept of the latest, highly accurate measurement of the Universe from BOSS. Credit: Zosia Rostomian/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

And until now, only objects that are a few thousand light-years from Earth – i.e. within the Milky Way galaxy – have had their distances measured to within a one-percent margin of error. As the largest of the four projects that make up the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III), what sets BOSS apart is the fact that it relies primarily on the measurement of what are called “baryon acoustic oscillations” (BAOs).

These are essentially subtle periodic ripples in the distribution of visible baryonic (i.e. normal) matter in the cosmos. As Dr. Daniel Eisenstein explained:

“BOSS measures the expansion of the Universe in two primary ways. The first is by using the baryon acoustic oscillations (hence the name of the survey). Sound waves traveling in the first 400,000 years after the Big Bang create a preferred scale for separations of pairs of galaxies. By measuring this preferred separation in a sample of many galaxies, we can infer the distance to the sample. 

“The second method is to measure how clustering of galaxies differs between pairs oriented along the line of sight compared to transverse to the line of sight. The expansion of the Universe can cause this clustering to be asymmetric if one uses the wrong expansion history when converting redshifts to distance.”

With these new, highly-accurate distance measurements, BOSS astronomers will be able to study the influence of Dark Matter with far greater precision. “Different dark energy models vary in how the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe proceeds over time,” said Eisenstein. “BOSS is measuring the expansion history, which allows us to infer the acceleration rate. We find results that are highly consistent with the predictions of the cosmological constant model, that is, the model in which dark energy has a constant density over time.”

An international team of researchers have produced the largest 3-D map of the universe to date, which validates Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Credit: NAOJ/CFHT/ SDSS
Discerning the large-scale structure of the universe, and the role played by Dark Energy, is key to unlocking its mysteries. Credit: NAOJ/CFHT/ SDSS

In addition to measuring the distribution of normal matter to determine the influence of Dark Energy, the SDSS-III Collaboration is working to map the Milky Way and search for extrasolar planets. The BOSS measurements are detailed in a series of articles that were submitted to journals by the BOSS collaboration last month, all of which are now available online.

And BOSS is not the only effort to understand the large-scale structure of our Universe, and how all its mysterious forces have shaped it. Just last month, Professor Stephen Hawking announced that the COSMOS supercomputing center at Cambridge University would be creating the most detailed 3D map of the Universe to date.

Relying on data obtained by the CMB data obtained by the ESA’s Planck satellite and information from the Dark Energy Survey, they also hope to measure the influence Dark Energy has had on the distribution of matter in our Universe. Who knows? In a few years time, we may very well come to understand how all the fundamental forces governing the Universe work together.

Further Reading: SDSIII

Dwarf Galaxies That Dance? Andromeda Observations Reveal A Larger Cosmic Mystery

Astrophoto: Andromeda Galaxy by Fabio Bortoli

What is up with these dwarf galaxies? A survey of thousands of galaxies using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey reveals something interesting, which was first revealed by looking at the massive Andromeda Galaxy nearby Earth: dwarf galaxies orbiting larger ones are often in disc-shaped orbits and not distributed randomly, as astronomers expected.

The finding follows on from research in 2013 that showed that 50% of Andromeda’s dwarf galaxies are in a single plane about a million light-years in diameter, but only 300,000 light-years thick. Now with the larger discovery, scientists suspect that perhaps there is a yet-to-be found process that is controlling gas flow in the cosmos.

“We were surprised to find that a large proportion of pairs of satellite galaxies have oppositely directed velocities if they are situated on opposite sides of their giant galaxy hosts,” stated lead author Neil Ibata of Lycée International in France.

“Everywhere we looked, we saw this strangely coherent coordinated motion of dwarf galaxies,” added Geraint Lewis, a University of Sydney physicist. “From this we can extrapolate that these circular planes of dancing dwarfs are universal, seen in about 50 percent of galaxies. This is a big problem that contradicts our standard cosmological models. It challenges our understanding of how the universe works, including the nature of dark matter.”

The astronomers also speculated this could show something unexpected in the laws of physics, such as motion and gravity, but added it would take far more investigation to figure that out.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

Source: University of Sydney

Quasars Tell The Story Of How Fast The Young Universe Expanded

For those who saw the Cosmos episode on William Herschel describing telescopes as time machines, here is a clear example of that. By examining 140,000 objects called quasars (galaxies with an active black hole at their centers), astronomers have charted the expansion rate of the universe — not now, but 10.8 billion years ago.

This is the most precise measurement ever of the universe’s expansion rate at any point in time, the science teams said, with the calculation showing the universe was expanding by 1% every 44 million years at that time. (That figure is to 2% precision, the researchers added.)

“If we look back to the Universe when galaxies were three times closer together than they are today, we’d see that a pair of galaxies separated by a million light-years would be drifting apart at a speed of 68 kilometers per second as the Universe expands,” stated Andreu Font-Ribera of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led one of the two analyses.

The researchers used a telescope called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The discovery was made during Sloan’s Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, or BOSS, whose aim has been to figure out the expansion and acceleration of the universe.

The accelerating, expanding Universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP
The accelerating, expanding Universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP

“BOSS determines the expansion rate at a given time in the Universe by measuring the size of baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO), a signature imprinted in the way matter is distributed, resulting from sound waves in the early Universe,” the Sloan Digital Sky Survey stated. “This imprint is visible in the distribution of galaxies, quasars, and intergalactic hydrogen throughout the cosmos.”

Font-Ribera and his collaborators examined how quasars are distributed compared to hydrogen gas to calculate distance. The other analysis, led by Timothée Delubac (Centre de Saclay, France), examined the hydrogen gas to see patterns and measure mass distribution.

You can read more about Font-Ribera’s team’s research in preprint version on Arxiv. Delubac’s research does not appear to be available online, but the title is “Baryon Acoustic Oscillations in the Ly-alpha forest of BOSS DR11 quasars” and it has been submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Source: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Dusty Galaxies Shine Across The Universe In New Herschel Survey

While dust is easy to ignore in small quantities (says the writer looking at her desk), across vast reaches of space this substance plays an important role. Stick enough grains together, the theory goes, and you’ll start to form rocks and eventually planets. On a galaxy-size scale, dust may even effect how the galaxy evolves.

A new survey of 323 galaxies reveals that dust is not only affected by the kinds of stars in the vicinity, but also what the galaxy is made of.

“These dust grains are believed to be fundamental ingredients for the formation of stars and planets, but until now very little was known about their abundance and physical properties in galaxies other than our own Milky Way,” stated lead author Luca Cortese, who is from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.

“The properties of grains vary from one galaxy to another – more than we originally expected,” he added. “As dust is heated by starlight, we knew that the frequencies at which grains emit should be related to a galaxy’s star formation activity. However, our results show that galaxies’ chemical history plays an equally important role.”

Galaxies in the Herschel Reference Survey in infrared/submillimeter wavelengths (with the Herschel space telescope, at left) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (right). Herschel's false-color image shows galaxies with cold dust (blue) and warm dust (red). Sloan highlights young stars (blue) and old stars (red). "Together, the observations plot young, dust-rich spiral/irregular galaxies in the top left, with giant dust-poor elliptical galaxies in the bottom right," the European Space Agency stated. Credit: ESA/Herschel/HRS-SAG2 and HeViCS Key Programmes/Sloan Digital Sky Survey/ L. Cortese (Swinburne University)
Galaxies in the Herschel Reference Survey in infrared/submillimeter wavelengths (with the Herschel space telescope, at left) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (right). Herschel’s false-color image shows galaxies with cold dust (blue) and warm dust (red). Sloan highlights young stars (blue) and old stars (red). “Together, the observations plot young, dust-rich spiral/irregular galaxies in the top left, with giant dust-poor elliptical galaxies in the bottom right,” the European Space Agency stated. Credit: ESA/Herschel/HRS-SAG2 and HeViCS Key Programmes/Sloan Digital Sky Survey/ L. Cortese (Swinburne University)

Data was captured with two cameras on the just-retired Herschel space telescope: Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) and Photodetecting Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS). These instruments examined different frequencies of dust emission, which shows what the grains are made of. You can see a few of those galaxies in the image above.

“The dust-rich galaxies are typically spiral or irregular, whereas the dust-poor ones are usually elliptical,” the European Space Agency stated. “Dust is gently heated across a range of temperatures by the combined light of all of the stars in each galaxy, with the warmest dust being concentrated in regions where stars are being born.”

Astronomers initially expected that a galaxy with speedy star formation would display more massive and warmer stars in it, corresponding to warmer dust in the galaxy emitting light in short wavelengths.

“However, the data show greater variations than expected from one galaxy to another based on their star formation rates alone, implying that other properties, such as its chemical enrichment, also play an important role,” ESA said.

You can read more about the research in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society or in preprint version on Arxiv.

Sources: Royal Astronomical Society and European Space Agency