Farthest Galaxy Ever Seen Viewed By Hubble Telescope

Since it was first launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided people all over the world with breathtaking views of the Universe. Using its high-tech suite of instruments, Hubble has helped resolve some long-standing problems in astronomy, and helped to raise new questions. And always, its operators have been pushing it to the limit, hoping to gaze farther and farther into the great beyond and see what’s lurking there.

And as NASA announced with a recent press release, using the HST, an international team of astronomers just shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. In so doing, they have not only looked deeper into the cosmos than ever before, but deeper into it’s past. And what they have seen could tell us much about the early Universe and its formation.

Due to the effects of special relativity, astronomers know that when they are viewing objects in deep space, they are seeing them as they were millions or even billions of years ago. Ergo, an objects that is located 13.4 billions of light-years away will appear to us as it was 13.4 billion years ago, when its light first began to make the trip to our little corner of the Universe.

An international team of scientists has used the Hubble Space Telescope to spectroscopically confirm the farthest galaxy to date. Credits: NASA/ESA/B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz)/A. Feild (STScI)
An international team of scientists has used the Hubble Space Telescope to spectroscopically confirm the farthest galaxy to date. Credits: NASA/ESA/B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz)/A. Feild (STScI)

This is precisely what the team of astronomers witnessed when they gazed upon GN-z11, a distant galaxy located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. With this one galaxy, the team of astronomers – which includes scientists from Yale University, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of California – were able to see what a galaxy in our Universe looked like just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

Prior to this, the most distant galaxy ever viewed by astronomers was located 13.2 billion light years away. Using the same spectroscopic techniques, the Hubble team confirmed that GN-z11 was nearly 200 million light years more distant. This was a big surprise, as it took astronomers into a region of the Universe that was thought to be unreachable using the Hubble Space Telescope.

In fact, astronomers did not suspect that they would be able to probe this deep into space and time without using Spitzer, or until the deployment the James Webb Space Telescope – which is scheduled to launch in October 2018. As Pascal Oesch of Yale University, the principal investigator of the study, explained:

“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age. Hubble and Spitzer are already reaching into Webb territory.”

The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It's about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. Credit: NASA

In addition, the findings also have some implications for previous distance estimates. In the past, astronomers had estimated the distance of GN-z11 by relying on Hubble and Spitzer’s color imaging techniques. This time, they relied on Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to spectroscopically measure the galaxies redshift for the first time. In so doing, they determined that GN-z11 was farther way than they thought, which could mean that some particularly bright galaxies who’s distanced have been measured using Hubble could also be farther away.

The results also reveal surprising new clues about the nature of the very early universe. For starters, the Hubble images (combined with data from Spitzer) showed that GN-z11 is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way is today, and has just one percent of our galaxy’s mass in stars. At the same time, it is forming stars at a rate that is 20 times greater than that of our own galaxy.

As Garth Illingworth – one of the team’s investigator’s from the University of California, Santa Cruz – explained:

“It’s amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form. It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon. This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Last, but not least, they provide a tantalizing clue as to what future missions – like the James Webb Space Telescope – will be finding. Once deployed, astronomers will likely be looking ever farther into space, and farther into the past. With every step, we are closing in on seeing what the very first galaxies that formed in our Universe looked like.

Further Reading: NASA

How Do We Know How Old Everything Is?

We hear that rocks are a certain age, and stars are another age. And the Universe itself is 13.7 billion years old. But how do astronomers figure this out?

I know it’s impolite to ask, but, how old are you? And how do you know? And doesn’t comparing your drivers license to your beautiful and informative “Year In Space” calendar feel somewhat arbitrary? How do we know old how everything is when what we observe was around long before calendars, or the Earth, or even the stars?

Scientists have pondered about the age of things since the beginning of science. When did that rock formation appear? When did that dinosaur die? How long has the Earth been around? When did the Moon form? What about the Universe? How long has that party been going on? Can I drink this beer yet, or will I go blind? How long can Spam remain edible past its expiration date?

As with distance, scientists have developed a range of tools to measure the age of stuff in the Universe. From rocks, to stars, to the Universe itself. Just like distance, it works like a ladder, where certain tools work for the youngest objects, and other tools take over for middle aged stuff, and other tools help to date the most ancient.

Let’s start with the things you can actually get your hands on, like plants, rocks, dinosaur bones and meteorites. Scientists use a technique known as radiometric dating. The nuclear age taught us how to blow up stuff real good, but it also helped understand how elements transform from one element to another through radioactive decay.

For example, there’s a version of carbon, called carbon-14. If you started with a kilo of it, after about 5,730 years, half of it would have turned into carbon-12. And then by 5,730 more years, you’d have about ¼ carbon-14 and ¾ carbon-12.

A list of the elements with their corresponding visible light emission spectra. Image Credit: MIT Wavelength Tables, NIST Atomic Spectrum Database, umop.net
A list of the elements with their corresponding visible light emission spectra. Image Credit: MIT Wavelength Tables, NIST Atomic Spectrum Database, umop.net

This is known as an element’s half-life. And so, if you measure the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in a dead tree, for example, you can calculate how long ago it lived. Different elements work for different ages. Carbon-14 works for the last 50,000 years or so, while Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, and will let you date the most ancient of rocks. But what about the stuff we can’t touch, like stars?

When you use a telescope to view a star, you can break up its light into different colors, like a rainbow. This is known as a star’s spectra, and if you look carefully, you can see black lines, or gaps, which correspond to certain elements. Since they can measure the ratios of different elements, astronomers can just look at a star to see how old it is. They can measure the ratio of uranium-238 to lead-206, and know how long that star has been around. How astronomers know the age of the Universe itself is one of my favorites, and we did a whole episode on this.

Artist's conception of Planck, a space observatory operated by the European Space Agency, and the cosmic microwave background. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration - D. Ducros
Artist’s conception of Planck, a space observatory operated by the European Space Agency, and the cosmic microwave background. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration – D. Ducros

The short answer is, they measure the wavelength of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Since they know this used to be visible light, and has been stretched out by the expansion of the Universe, they can extrapolate back from its current wavelength to what it was at the beginning of the Universe. This tells them the age is about 13.8 billion years. Radiometric dating was a revolution for science. It finally gave us a dependable method to calculate the age of anything and everything, and finally figure out how long everything has been around.

So, fan of our videos. How old are you? Tell us in the comments below.
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Spectroscopy: The Key to Humanity’s Future in Space

Imagine, if you would, a potential future for humanity… Imagine massive space-elevators lifting groups of men, women, and children skyward off Earth’s surface. These passengers are then loaded onto shuttles and ferried to the Moon where interstellar starships are docked, waiting to rocket to the stars. These humans are about to begin the greatest journey humanity has ever embarked upon, as they will be the first interstellar colonists to leave our home Solar System in order to begin populating other worlds around alien stars.

There are many things we must tackle first before we can make this type of science-fiction scene a reality. Obviously much faster methods of travel are needed, as well as some sort of incredible material that can serve to anchor the aforementioned space elevators. These are all scientific and engineering questions that humanity will need to overcome in the face of such a journey into the cosmos.

But there is one particular important feature that we can begin to tackle today: where do we point these starships? Towards which system of exoplanets are we to send our brave colonists?

Of all of the amazing things we need to discover or invent to make this scene a reality, discovering which worlds to aim our ships at is something that is actually being worked on today.

Artistic view of a possible space elevator. Image Credit: NASA
Artistic view of a possible space elevator. Image Credit: NASA

It’s an exciting era in astronomy, as astronomers are currently discovering that many of the stars that we view in the night sky have their own planets in orbit around them. Many of them are massive worlds, all orbiting at varying distances from their parent star. It is no surprise that we are discovering a vast majority of these Jupiter-sized worlds first; larger worlds are much easier to detect than the smaller worlds would be. Imagine a bright spotlight pointing at you some 500 yards away (5 football fields). Your job is to detect something the size of a period on this page that is orbiting around it that emits no light of its own. As you can see, the task would be daunting. But nevertheless, our planet hunters have been utilizing methods that enable us to accurately find these tiny specks of gas and rock despite their rather large and luminous companion suns.

However, it is not the method of finding these planets that this article is about; but rather what we do to figure out which of these worlds are worthy of our limited resources and attention. We very well cannot point those starships in random directions and just hope that they happen across an earth-sized planet that has a nitrogen-oxygen rich atmosphere with drinkable water. We need to identify which planets appear to have these mentioned characteristics before we go launching ourselves into the vast universe.

How can we do this? How is it possible that we are able to say with any level of certainty what a planet’s atmosphere is composed of when this planet is so small and so very far away? Spectroscopy is the answer, and it just might be the key to our future in the cosmos.

Artistic impression of what Kepler-186f may look like. Image Credit:  NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech
Artistic impression of what Kepler-186f may look like. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

Just so I may illustrate how remarkable our scientific methods are for this very field of research, I will first need to show you the distances we are talking about. Let’s take Kepler 186f. This is the first planet we have discovered that is very similar to Earth. It is around 1.1 times larger than Earth and orbits within the habitable zone of its star which is very similar to our own star.

Let’s do the math, to show you just how distant this planet is. Kepler 186f is around 490 lightyears from Earth.

Kepler 186f = 490 lightyears away

Light moves at 186,282 miles/ 1 second.

186,282 mi/s x 60s/1min x 60min/1hr x 24hrs/1day x 356days/1year = 5.87 x 1012 mi/yr

Kepler 186f: 490 Lyrs x 5.87 x 1012miles/ 1 Lyr = 2.88 x 1015 miles or 2.9 QUADRILLION MILES from Earth.

Just to put this distance into perspective, let’s suppose we utilize the fastest spacecraft we have to get there. The Voyager 1 spacecraft is moving at around 38,500 mi/hr. If we left on that craft today and headed towards this possible future Earth, it would take us roughly 8.5 MILLION YEARS to get there. That’s around 34 times longer than the time between when the first proto-humans began to appear on earth 250,000 years ago until today. So the entire history of human evolution from then till now replayed 34 times BEFORE you would arrive at this planet. Knowing these numbers, how is it even possible that we can know what this planet’s atmosphere, and others like it, are made of?

First, here’s a bit of chemistry in order for you to understand the field that is spectroscopy, and then how we apply it to the astronomical sciences. Different elements are composed of a differing number of protons, neutrons, and electrons. These varying numbers are what set the elements apart from one another on the periodic table. It is the electrons, however, that are of particular interest in the majority of what chemistry studies. These different electron configurations allow for what we call spectral signatures to exist among the elements. This means that since every single element has a specific electron configuration, the light that it both absorbs and emits acts as a sort of photon fingerprint; a unique identifier to that element.

A list of the elements with their corresponding visible light emission spectra. Image Credit: MIT Wavelength Tables, NIST Atomic Spectrum Database, umop.net
A list of the elements with their corresponding visible light emission spectra. Image Credit: MIT Wavelength Tables, NIST Atomic Spectrum Database, umop.net

 

The standard equation for determining the characteristics of light is:

c= v λ

c is the speed of light in a vacuum (3.00 x 108 m/s)

v  is the frequency of the light wave (in Hertz)

λ (lambda) represents the wavelength (in meters, but will usually be converted to nanometers) which will determine what color of light will be emitted from the element(s), or simply where the wavelength of light falls on the electromagnetic spectrum (infrared, visible, ultraviolet, etc.)

If you have either the frequency or the wavelength, you can determine the rest. You can even start with the energy of the light being detected by your instruments and then work backwards with the following equations:

The energy of a photon can be described mathematically as this:

Ephoton = h v
OR
Ephoton = h c / λ

What these mean is that the energy of a photon is the product of the frequency (v) of the light wave emitted multiplied by Planck’s Constant (h), which is 6.63 x 10-34 Joules x seconds. Or in the case of the second equation, the energy of the photon is equal to Planck’s Constant x the speed of light divided by the wavelength. This will give you the amount of energy that a specific wavelength of light contains. This equation is also known as the Planck-Einstein Relation. So, if you take a measurement and you are given a specific energy reading of the light coming from a distant star, you can then deduce what information you need about said light and determine which element(s) are either emitting or absorbing these wavelengths. It’s all mathematical detective work.

So, the electrons that orbit around the nucleus of atoms exist in what we call orbitals. Depending on the atom (and the electrons associated with it), there are many different orbitals. You have the “ground” orbital for the electron, which means that the electron(s) there are closest to the nucleus. They are “non-excited”. However, there are “higher” quantum orbitals that exist that the electron(s) can “jump” to when the atom is excited. Each orbital can have different quantum number values associated with it. The main value we will use is the Principle Quantum Number. This is denoted by the letter “n”, and has an assigned integer value of 1, 2, 3, etc. The higher the number, the further from the nucleus the electron resides, and the more energy is associated with it. This is best described with an example:

A hydrogen atom has 1 electron. That electron is whipping around its 1 proton nucleus in its ground state orbital. Suddenly, a burst of high energy light hits the hydrogen. This energy is transferred throughout the hydrogen atom, and the electron reacts. The electron will instantaneously “vanish” from the n1 orbital and then reappear on a higher quantum orbital (say n4). This means that as that light wave passed over this hydrogen atom, a specific wavelength was absorbed by the hydrogen (this is an important feature to remember for later).

Diagram of an electron dropping from a higher orbital to a lower one and emitting a photon. Image Credit: Wikicommons
Diagram of an electron dropping from a higher orbital to a lower one and emitting a photon. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, the “excited” electron will drop from its higher quantum orbital (n4) back down to the n1 orbital. When this happens, a specific wavelength of light is emitted by the hydrogen atom. When the electron “drops”, it emits a photon of specific energy or wavelength (dependent upon many factors, including the state the electron was in prior to its “excitement”, the amount of levels the electron dropped, etc.) We can then measure this energy (or wavelength, or frequency,) to determine what element the photon is coming from (in this case, hydrogen). It is in this feature that each element has its own light signature. Each atom can absorb and emit specific wavelengths of light, and they are all tied together by the equations listed above.

So how does this all work? Well, in reality, there are many factors that go into this sort of astronomical study. I am simply describing the basic principle behind the work. I say this so that the many scientists that are doing this sort of work do not feel as though I have discredited their research and hard work; I promise you, it is painstakingly difficult and tedious and involves many more details that I am not mentioning here. That being said, the basic concept works like this:

We find a star that gives off the telltale signs that it has a planet orbiting around it. We do this with a few methods, but how it all first started was by detecting a “wobble” in the star’s apparent position. This “wobble” is caused by a planet orbiting around its parent star. You see, when a planet orbits a star (and when anything orbits anything else), the planet isn’t really orbiting the star, the planet AND the star are orbiting a common focal point. Usually with this type of orbital system, that common focal point is fairly close to the center of the star, and thus it’s safe to say that the planet orbits the star. However, this causes the star to move ever so slightly. We can measure this.

Once we determine that there are planets orbiting the star in question, we can study it more closely. When we do, we turn our instruments towards it and begin taking highly detailed measurements, and then we wait. What we are waiting for is a dimming of the star at a regular interval. What we are hoping for is this newly-found exoplanet to transit our selected star. When a planet transits a star, it moves in front of the star relative to us (this also means we are incredibly lucky, as not all planets will orbit “in front” of the star relative to our view). This will cause the star’s brightness to dip ever so slightly at a regular interval. Now we have identified a prime exoplanet candidate for study.

Diagram of how we can use aborbstion specral reading to determine the atmosphere of an exoplanet. Image Credit: A. Feild, STScl, NASA
Diagram of how we can use absorption spectral reading to determine the atmosphere of an exoplanet. Image Credit: A. Feild, STScl, NASA

We can now introduce the spectroscopic principles to this hunt. We can take all sorts of measurements of the light that is coming from this star. Its brightness, the energy it’s kicking out per second, and even what that star is made of (the emission spectrum I discussed earlier). Then what we do is wait for the planet to transit the start, and begin taking readings. What we are doing is reading the light passing THROUGH the exoplanet’s atmosphere, and then studying what we can call an Absorption Spectrum reading. As I mentioned earlier, specific elements will absorb specific wavelengths of light. What we get back is a spectral reading of the star’s light signature (the emission spectra of the star), but with missing wavelengths that show up as very tiny black lines where there used to be color. These are called Fraunhofer lines, named after the “father” of astrophysics Joseph Fraunhofer, who discovered these lines in the 19th century.

The dark lines represent the light frequencies that were absorbed by specific chemicals that this particular light passed through. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The dark lines represent the light frequencies that were absorbed by specific chemicals that this particular light passed through. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What we now have in our possession is a chemical fingerprint of what this exoplanet’s atmosphere is composed of. The star’s spectrum is splayed out before us, but the barcode of the planet’s atmospheric composition lay within the light. We can then take those wavelengths that are missing and compare them to the already established absorption/emission spectra of all of the known elements. In this way, we can begin to piece together what this planet has to offer us. If we get high readings of sulfur and hydrogen, we have probably just discovered a gas giant. However if we discover a good amount of nitrogen and oxygen, we may have found a world that has liquid water on its surface (provided that this planet resides within its host star’s “habitable” zone: a distance that is just far enough from the star to allow for liquid water). If we find a planet that has carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, we may just have discovered alien life (CO2 being a waste product of both cellular respiration and a lot of industrial processes, but it can also be a product of volcanism and other non-organic phenomena).

What this all means is that by being able to read the light from any given object, we can narrow our search for the next Earth. Regardless of distance, if we can obtain an accurate measurement of the light moving through an exoplanet’s atmosphere, we can tell what it is made of.

We have discovered some 2000 exoplanets thus far, and that number will only increase in the coming decades. With so many candidates, it will be a wonder if we do not find a planet that we humans can live on without the help of technology. Obviously our techniques will further be refined, and as new technologies, methods, and instruments become available, our ability to pinpoint planets that we can someday colonize will become increasingly more accurate.

With such telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope launching soon, we will be able to image these exoplanets and get even better spectroscopic readings from them. This type of science is on the leading edge of humanity’s journey into the cosmos. Astrophysicists and astrochemists that work in this field are the necessary precursors to the brave men and women who will one day board those interstellar spacecraft and launch our civilization into the Universe to truly become an interstellar species.

Possible glimpse into our future... Image Credit: Battlestar Wiki Media
Possible glimpse into our future… Image Credit: Battlestar Wiki Media

Subaru Telescope Reveals Orderly Massive Galaxy Evolution

Nobody likes a sloppy COSMOS (Cosmological Evolution Survey) and astronomers utilizing the Fiber-Multi-Object Spectrograph (FMOS) mounted on the Subaru Telescope have put order into chaos through their studies. The survey has found that some nine billion years ago galaxies were capable of producing new stars in a fashion as orderly as game of checkers. Despite their young cosmological age, the galaxies show signs containing high amounts of dust enriched by heavier elements – a mature state.

“These findings center on a major question: What was the universe like when it was maximally forming its stars?” says John Silverman, the principal investigator of the FMOS-COSMOS project at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU).

These “universal” questions are just what the COSMOS team seeks to answer. Their research goals are to enlighten the scales of cosmic time in relationship with the environment, formation and evolution of massive galactic structures. When studying individual galaxies, they may be able to tell if their rate of growth can be attributed to large-scale environments. Information of this type can clarify what factors the early Universe structure may have contributed to the current form of local galaxies. One of the data sets the team is focusing on is using the FMOS on the Subaru Telescope to chart out the distribution of more than a thousand galaxies which formed over nine billion years ago – a time when the Universe was hitting its star-formation peak.

“One key to generating fruitful results is collaboration between COSMOS researchers to maximize optimal use of FMOS.” Silverman continues, “In this project, researchers from Kavli IPMU in Japan and the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii (principal investigator: David Sanders) formed an effective collaboration to implement their goal.” The observations spanned 10 clear nights starting in March 2012.

Why choose spectroscopy? This advanced fiber optics technology speaks for itself, collecting light over an area of sky equal in size to that of the Moon. The FMOS focuses on the near-infrared, filtering out unwanted emissions caused by warm temperatures and can acquire spectra from 400 galaxies simultaneously with a wide field of coverage of 30 arc minutes at prime-focus. By employing such a wide field of view, astronomers can squeeze in a wide range of objects in their local environments. This enables researchers to maximize information on star-forming regions, cluster formation, and cosmology.

As David Sanders, the principal investigator of the FMOS-COSMOS project at IfA, puts it, “FMOS has clearly revolutionized our ability to study how galaxies form and evolve across cosmic time. It is currently the most powerful instrument we have to study the large numbers of objects needed to understand galaxies of all sizes, shapes and masses — from the largest ellipticals to the smallest dwarfs. We are extremely fortunate that the Kavli IPMU-IfA collaboration is giving us this unique opportunity to study the distant universe in such exquisite detail.”

FMOS will soon be famous by revealing its true potential. It has been collecting copious amounts of data in a high spectral resolution mode and at a very successful rate. So far it has accomplished nearly half of its goal – to examine over a thousand galaxies with redshifts to map the large-scale structure. The current survey consists of mapping an area of sky which spans a square degree in high-resolution mode and future plans for FMOS will involve enlarging the area. This expanded coverage will complement other instruments on alternative telescopes which have a wider spectral imaging system or a higher resolution which is limited to a smaller area. These combined findings may one day result in showing us some of the very first structures that eventually evolved into the massive galaxy clusters we see today!

Original Story Source: Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe News Release.

Flicker… A Bright New Method of Measuring Stellar Surface Gravity

A simple, yet elegant method of measuring the surface gravity of a star has just been discovered. These computations are important because they reveal stellar physical properties and evolutionary state – and that’s not all. The technique works equally well for estimating the size of hundreds of exoplanets. Developed by a team of astronomers and headed by Vanderbilt Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Keivan Stassun, this new technique measures a star’s “flicker”. Continue reading “Flicker… A Bright New Method of Measuring Stellar Surface Gravity”

Hubble Observes Planet-“Polluted” Dead Stars In Hyades

For those of us who practice amateur astronomy, we’re very familiar with the 150 light-year distant Hyades star cluster – one of the jewels in the Taurus crown. We’ve looked at it countless times, but now the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken its turn observing and spotted something astronomers weren’t expecting – the debris of Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarf stars. Are these “burn outs” being polluted by detritus similar to asteroids? According to researchers, this new observation could mean that rocky planet creation is commonplace in star clusters.

“We have identified chemical evidence for the building blocks of rocky planets,” said Jay Farihi of the University of Cambridge in England. He is lead author of a new study appearing in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “When these stars were born, they built planets, and there’s a good chance they currently retain some of them. The material we are seeing is evidence of this. The debris is at least as rocky as the most primitive terrestrial bodies in our solar system.”

So what makes this an uncommon occurrence? Research tells us that all stars are formed in clusters, and we know that planets form around stars. However, the equation doesn’t go hand in hand. Out of the hundreds of known exoplanets, only four are known to have homes in star clusters. As a matter of fact, that number is a meager half percent, but why? As a rule, the stars contained within a cluster are young and active. They are busy producing stellar flares and similar brilliant activity which may mask signs of emerging planets. This new research is looking to the “older” members of the cluster stars – the grandparents which may be babysitting.

To locate possible candidates, astronomers have employed Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and focused on two white dwarf stars. Their return showed evidence of silicon and just slight levels of carbon in their atmospheres. This observation was important because silicon is key in rocky materials – a prime ingredient on Earth’s list and other similar solid planets. This silicon signature may have come from the disintegration of asteroids as they wandered too close to the stars and were torn apart. A lack of carbon is equally exciting because, while it helps shape the properties and origins of planetary debris, it becomes scarce when rocky planets are formed. This material may have formed a torus around the defunct stars which then drew the matter towards them.

“We have identified chemical evidence for the building blocks of rocky planets,” said Farihi. “When these stars were born, they built planets, and there’s a good chance they currently retain some of them. The material we are seeing is evidence of this. The debris is at least as rocky as the most primitive terrestrial bodies in our solar system.”

Ring around the rosie? You bet. This leftover material swirling around the white dwarf stars could mean that planet formation happened almost simultaneously as the stars were born. At their collapse, the surviving gas giants may have had the gravitational “push” to relocate asteroid-like bodies into “star-grazing orbits”.

This image shows the region around the Hyades star cluster, the nearest open cluster to us. The Hyades cluster is very well-studied due to its location, but previous searches for planets have produced only one. A new study led by Jay Farihi of the University of Cambridge, UK, has now found the atmospheres of two burnt-out stars in this cluster — known as white dwarfs — to be “polluted” by rocky debris circling the star. Inset, the locations of these white dwarf stars are indicated — stars known as WD 0421+162, and WD 0431+126.  Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and Z. Levay (STScI)
This image shows the region around the Hyades star cluster, the nearest open cluster to us. The Hyades cluster is very well-studied due to its location, but previous searches for planets have produced only one. A new study led by Jay Farihi of the University of Cambridge, UK, has now found the atmospheres of two burnt-out stars in this cluster — known as white dwarfs — to be “polluted” by rocky debris circling the star.
Inset, the locations of these white dwarf stars are indicated — stars known as WD 0421+162, and WD 0431+126. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and Z. Levay (STScI)

“We have identified chemical evidence for the building blocks of rocky planets,” explains Farihi. “When these stars were born, they built planets, and there’s a good chance that they currently retain some of them. The signs of rocky debris we are seeing are evidence of this — it is at least as rocky as the most primitive terrestrial bodies in our Solar System. The one thing the white dwarf pollution technique gives us that we won’t get with any other planet detection technique is the chemistry of solid planets. Based on the silicon-to-carbon ratio in our study, for example, we can actually say that this material is basically Earth-like.”

What of future plans? According to Farihi and the research team, by continuing to observe with methods like those employed by Hubble, they can take an even deeper look at the atmospheres around white dwarf stars. They will be searching for signs of solid planet “pollution” – exploring the white dwarf chemistry and analyzing stellar composition. Right now, the two “polluted” Hyades white dwarfs are just a small segment of more than a hundred future candidates which will be studied by a team led by Boris Gansicke of the University of Warwick in England. Team member Detlev Koester of the University of Kiel in Germany is also contributing by using sophisticated computer models of white dwarf atmospheres to determine the abundances of various elements that can be traced to planets in the Hubble spectrograph data.

“Normally, white dwarfs are like blank pieces of paper, containing only the light elements hydrogen and helium,” Farihi said. “Heavy elements like silicon and carbon sink to the core. The one thing the white dwarf pollution technique gives us that we just won’t get with any other planet-detection technique is the chemistry of solid planets.”

The team also plans to look deeper into the stellar composition as well. “The beauty of this technique is that whatever the Universe is doing, we’ll be able to measure it,” Farihi said. “We have been using the Solar System as a kind of map, but we don’t know what the rest of the Universe does. Hopefully with Hubble and its powerful ultraviolet-light spectrograph COS, and with the upcoming ground-based 30- and 40-metre telescopes, we’ll be able to tell more of the story.”

And we’ll be listening…

Original Story Source: Hubble News Release.

The Moon’s Water Comes From the Sun

An image of water-filled debris ejected from Cabeus crater about 20 seconds after the 2009 LCROSS impact. Courtesy of Science/AAAS.

Comets? Asteroids? The Earth? The origins of water now known to exist within the Moon’s soil — thanks to recent observations by various lunar satellites and the impact of the LCROSS mission’s Centaur rocket in 2009 — has been an ongoing puzzle for scientists. Now, new research supports that the source of at least some of the Moon’s water is the Sun, with the answer blowing in the solar wind.


Spectroscopy research conducted on Apollo samples by a team from the University of Tennessee, University of Michigan and Caltech has revealed “significant amounts” of hydroxyl within microscopic glass particles found inside lunar soil, the results of micrometeorite impacts.

According to the research team, the hydroxyl “water” within the lunar glass was likely created by interactions with protons and hydrogen ions from the solar wind.

“We found that the ‘water’ component, the hydroxyl, in the lunar regolith is mostly from solar wind implantation of protons, which locally combined with oxygen to form hydroxyls that moved into the interior of glasses by impact melting,” said Youxue Zhang, Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Michigan.

Hydroxyl is the pairing of a single oxygen atom to a single hydrogen atom (OH). Each molecule of water contains two hydroxyl groups.

Although such glass particles are widespread on the surface of the Moon — the researchers studied samples returned from Apollo 11, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions — the water in hydroxyl form is not something that could be easily used by future lunar explorers. Still, the findings suggest that solar wind-derived hydroxyl may also exist on the surface of other airless worlds, like Mercury, Vesta or Eros… especially within permanently-shadowed craters and depressions.

“These planetary bodies have very different environments, but all have the potential to produce water,” said Yang Liu, University of Tennessee scientist and lead author of the team’s paper.

The discovery of hydroxyl within lunar glasses presents an “unanticipated, abundant reservoir” of water on the Moon, and possibly throughout the entire Solar System.

The study was published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Source: University of Michigan news release.

Inset image: a grain of lunar agglutinate glass from samples returned by Apollo astronauts (Yang Liu)

JPL Wants To FINESSE Info From Exoplanets


Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposed FINESSE space telescope may not hunt for exoplanets, but it will find out what they’re made of.

Part of NASA’s Explorers program, FINESSE — which stands for (take a deep breath) Fast INfrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer — would gather spectroscopic data from 200 known exoplanets over a two-year period, helping scientists to determine the composition of their atmospheres, surfaces, and even their weather.

While huge discoveries have been made by both ground- and space-based telescopes like Kepler and Corot over the past several years, identifying thousands of exoplanetary candidates, FINESSE will be the first mission dedicated to finding out what the atmospheres are like on worlds outside our solar system.

Using a sensitive spectrograph covering 0.7-5.0 microns, FINESSE will be able to identify molecular bands of water, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other molecules. Its sensitivity and stability will even allow it to detect the differences between an exoplanet’s day and night side, allowing wind flow and weather to be determined.

Known as an Offner spectrometer, the design of the FINESSE detector is derived from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument, which was designed at JPL and flew to the Moon aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft.

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Touted as “the next step” in exoplanetary exploration, FINESSE is proposed for launch in October 2016.

Learn more at JPL’s FINESSE site here.

“FINESSE is the next step in humankind’s journey of understanding our place in the cosmos.”

– Mark Swain, principal investigator for FINESSE

Hubble Captures Giant Lensed Galaxy Arc

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Less than a year ago, the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 captured an amazing image – a giant lensed galaxy arc. Gravitational lensing produces a natural “zoom” to observations and this is a look at one of the brightest distant galaxies so far known. Located some 10 billion light years away, the galaxy has been magnified as a nearly 90-degree arc of light against the galaxy cluster RCS2 032727-132623 – which is only half the distance. In this unusual case, the background galaxy is over three times brighter than typically lensed galaxies… and a unique look back in time as to what a powerful star-forming galaxy looked like when the Universe was only about one third its present age.

A team of astronomers led by Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland are the parties responsible for this incredible look back into time. It is one of the most detailed looks at an incredibly distant object to date and their results have been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, in a paper led by Keren Sharon of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. Professor Michael Gladders and graduate student Eva Wuyts of the University of Chicago were also key team members.

“The presence of the lens helps show how galaxies evolved from 10 billion years ago to today. While nearby galaxies are fully mature and are at the tail end of their star-formation histories, distant galaxies tell us about the universe’s formative years. The light from those early events is just now arriving at Earth.” says the team. “Very distant galaxies are not only faint but also appear small on the sky. Astronomers would like to see how star formation progressed deep within these galaxies. Such details would be beyond the reach of Hubble’s vision were it not for the magnification made possible by gravity in the intervening lens region.”

This graphic shows a reconstruction (at lower left) of the brightest galaxy whose image has been distorted by the gravity of a distant galaxy cluster. The small rectangle in the center shows the location of the background galaxy on the sky if the intervening galaxy cluster were not there. The rounded outlines show distinct, distorted images of the background galaxy resulting from lensing by the mass in the cluster. The image at lower left is a reconstruction of what the lensed galaxy would look like in the absence of the cluster, based on a model of the cluster's mass distribution derived from studying the distorted galaxy images. Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI) Science Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Rigby (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), K. Sharon (Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago), and M. Gladders and E. Wuyts (University of Chicago)

But the Hubble isn’t the only eye on the sky examining this phenomenon. A little over 10 years ago a team of astronomers using the Very Large Telescope in Chile also measured and examined the arc and reported the distant galaxy seems to be more than three times brighter than those previously discovered. However, there’s more to the picture than meets the eye. Original images show the magnified galaxy as hugely distorted and it shows itself more than once in the foreground lensing cluster. The challenge was to create a image that was “true to life” and thanks to Hubble’s resolution capabilities, the team was able to remove the distortions from the equation. In this image they found several incredibly bright star-forming regions and through the use of spectroscopy, they hope to better understand them.

Original Story Source: Hubble News Release.

Supernova Primo – Out To Far Frontiers

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Its nickname is SN Primo and it’s the farthest Type Ia supernova to have its distance spectroscopically confirmed. When the progenitor star exploded some 9 billion years ago, Primo sent its brilliant beacon of light across time and space to be captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s all part and parcel of a three-year project dealing specifically with Type Ia supernovae. By splitting its light into constituent colors, researchers can verify its distance by redshift and help astronomers better understand not only the expanding Universe, but the constraints of dark energy.

“For decades, astronomers have harnessed the power of Hubble to unravel the mysteries of the Universe,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This new observation builds upon the revolutionary research using Hubble that won astronomers the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, while bringing us a step closer to understanding the nature of dark energy which drives the cosmic acceleration.”

Type Ia supernovae are theorized to have originated from white dwarf stars which have collected an excess of material from their companions and exploded. Because of their remote nature, they have been used to measure great distances with acceptable accuracy. Enter the CANDELS+CLASH Supernova Project… a type of census which utilizes the sharpness and versatility of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to aid astronomers in the search for supernovae in near- infrared light and verify their distance with spectroscopy. CANDELS is the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and CLASH is the Cluster Lensing and Supernova Survey with Hubble.

“In our search for supernovae, we had gone as far as we could go in optical light,” said Adam Riess, the project’s lead investigator, at the Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. “But it’s only the beginning of what we can do in infrared light. This discovery demonstrates that we can use the Wide Field Camera 3 to search for supernovae in the distant Universe.”

However, discovering a supernova like Primo just doesn’t happen overnight. It took the research team several months of work and a huge amount of near-infrared images to locate the faint signature. After capturing the elusive target in October 2010, it was time to employ the WFC3’s spectrometer to validate SN Primo’s distance and analyze the spectra for confirmation of a Type Ia supernova event. Once verified, the team continued to image SN Primo for the next eight months – collecting data as it faded away. By engaging the Hubble in this type of census, astronomers hope to further their understanding of how such events are created. If they should discover that Type Ia supernova don’t always appear the same, it may lead to a way of categorizing those changes and aid in measuring dark energy. Riess and two other astronomers shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering dark energy 13 years ago, using Type Ia supernova to plot the Universe’s expansion rate.

“If we look into the early Universe and measure a drop in the number of supernovae, then it could be that it takes a long time to make a Type Ia supernova,” said team member Steve Rodney of The Johns Hopkins University. “Like corn kernels in a pan waiting for the oil to heat up, the stars haven’t had enough time at that epoch to evolve to the point of explosion. However, if supernovae form very quickly, like microwave popcorn, then they will be immediately visible, and we’ll find many of them, even when the Universe was very young. Each supernova is unique, so it’s possible that there are multiple ways to make a supernova.”

Original Story Source: Hubble Site News Release.