How Do Galaxies Die?

Everything eventually dies, even galaxies. So how does that happen? Time to come to grips with our galactic mortality. Not as puny flesh beings, or as a speck of rock, or even the relatively unassuming ball of plasma we orbit.

Today we’re going to ponder the lifespan of the galaxy we inhabit, the Milky Way. If we look at a galaxy as a collection of stars, some are like our Sun, and others aren’t.

The Sun consumes fuel, converting hydrogen into helium through fusion. It’s been around for 5 billion years, and will probably last for another 5 before it bloats up as a red giant, sheds its outer layers and compresses down into a white dwarf, cooling down until it’s the background temperature of the Universe.

So if a galaxy like the Milky Way is just a collection of stars, isn’t that it? Doesn’t a galaxy die when its last star dies?

But you already know a galaxy is more than just stars. There’s also vast clouds of gas and dust. Some of it is primordial hydrogen left from the formation of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago.

All stars in the Milky Way formed from this primordial hydrogen. It and other similar sized galaxies produce 7 bouncing baby stars every year. Sadly, ours has used up 90% of its hydrogen, and star formation will slow down until it both figuratively, and literally, runs out of gas.

The Milky Way will die after it’s used all its star-forming gas, when all of the stars we have, and all those stars yet to be born have died. Stars like our Sun can only last for 10 billion years or so, but the smallest, coolest red dwarfs can last for a few trillion years.

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans
The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: Adam Evans

That should be the end, all the gas burned up and every star burned out. And that’s how it would be if our Milky Way existed all alone in the cosmos.

Fortunately, we’re surrounded by dozens of dwarf galaxies, which get merged into our Milky Way. Each merger brings in a fresh crop of stars and more hydrogen to stoke the furnaces of star formation.

There are bigger galaxies out there too. Andromeda is bearing down on the Milky Way right now, and will collide with us in the next few billion years.

When that happens, the two will merge. Then there’ll be a whole new era of star formation as the unspent gas in both galaxies mix together and are used up.

Eventually, all galaxies gravitationally bound to each other in this vicinity will merge together into a giant elliptical galaxy.

We see examples of these fossil galaxies when we look out into the Universe. Here’s M49, a supermassive elliptical galaxy. Who knows how many grand spiral galaxies stoked the fires of that gigantic cosmic engine?

Eta Carinae shines brightly in X-rays in this image from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
Eta Carinae shines brightly in X-rays in this image from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Elliptical galaxies are dead galaxies walking. They’ve used up all their reserves of star forming gas, and all that’s left are the longer lasting stars. Eventually, over vast lengths of time, those stars will wink out one after the other, until the whole thing is the background temperature of the Universe.

As long as galaxies have gas for star formation, they’ll keep thriving. Once it’s gonzo, or a dramatic merger uses all the gas in one big party, they’re on their way out.

What could we do to prolong the life of our galaxy? Let’s hear some wild speculation in the comments below.

What Part of the Milky Way Can We See?

When you look up and see the Milky Way, you’re gazing into the heart of our home galaxy. What, exactly, are we looking at?

Anyone who’s ever been in truly dark skies has seen the Milky Way. The bright band across the sky is unmistakable. It’s a view of our home galaxy from within.

As you stare out into the skies and see that splash of stars, have you ever wondered, what are you looking at? Which parts are towards the inside of the galaxy and which parts are looking out? Where’s that supermassive black hole you’ve heard so much about?

In order to see the Milky Way at all, you need seriously dark skies, away from the light polluted city. As the skies darken, the Milky Way will appear as a hazy fog across the sky.

Imagine it as this vast disk of stars, with the Sun embedded right in it, about 27,000 light-years from the core. We’re seeing the galaxy edge on, from the inside, and so we see the galactic disk as a band that forms a complete circle around the sky.

Which parts you can see depend on your location on Earth and the time of year, but you can always see some part of the disk.

The galactic core of the Milky Way is located in the constellation Sagittarius, which is located to the South of me in Canada, and only really visible during the Summer. In really faint skies, the Milky Way is clearly thicker and brighter in that region.

Want to know the exact point of the galactic core? It’s right… there.

During the Winter, we’re looking away from the galactic core to the outer regions of the galaxy. It still has the same band of stars, but it’s thinner and without the darker clouds of dust that obscure our view to the galactic core.

How do astronomers even know that we’re in a spiral galaxy anyway?

There are two major types of galaxies, spiral galaxies and elliptical galaxies.

Elliptical galaxies are made up of so many galactic collisions, they’re nothing more than vast balls of trillions of stars, with no structure. Because we can see a distinct band in the sky, we know we’re in some kind of spiral.

The differences between elliptical and spiral galaxies is easy to see. M87 at left and M74, both photographed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA
The differences between elliptical and spiral galaxies is easy to see. M87 at left and M74, both photographed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA

Astronomers map the arms by looking at the distribution of gas, which pulls together in star forming spiral arms. They can tell how far the major arms are from the Sun and in which direction.

The trick is that half the Milky Way is obscured by gas and dust. So we don’t really know what structures are on the other side of the galactic disk. With more powerful infrared telescopes, we’ll eventually be able to see though the gas and dust and map out all the spiral arms.

If you’ve never seen the Milky Way with your own eyes, you need to. Get far enough away from city lights to truly see the galaxy you live in.

The best resource is “The Dark Sky Finder”, we’ll put a link in the show notes.

Have you ever seen the Milky Way? If not, why not? Let’s hear a story of a time you finally saw it.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Teamwork! Two Telescopes Combine Forces To Spot Distant Galaxy Clusters

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

Doing something extraordinary often requires teamwork for humans, and the same can be said for telescopes. Witness the success of the Herschel and Planck observatories, whose data was combined in such a way to spot four galaxy clusters 10 billion years away — an era when the universe was just getting started.

Now that they have the technique down, astronomers believe they’ll be able to find about 2,000 other distant clusters that could show us more about how these collections of galaxies first came together.

Although very far away, the huge clumps of gas and dust coming together into stars is still visible, allowing telescopes to see the process in action.

“What we believe we are seeing in these distant clusters are giant elliptical galaxies in the process of being formed,” stated David Clements, a physicist at Imperial College London who led the research, referring to one of the two kinds of galaxies the universe has today. Elliptical galaxies are dominated by stars that are already formed, while spiral galaxies (like the Milky Way) include much more gas and dust.

Three false-color images of Herschel images identified by Planck. Infrared light is represented in three colors -- blue, green, and red -- that respectively show longer wavelengths. The green circle shows where Planck aimed. The co-ordinates show the location in right ascension and declination. Credit: D. Clements/ESA/NASA
Three false-color images of Herschel images identified by Planck. Infrared light is represented in three colors — blue, green, and red — that respectively show longer wavelengths. The green circle shows where Planck aimed. The co-ordinates show the location in right ascension and declination. Credit: D. Clements/ESA/NASA

This finding is yet another example of how the data from telescopes lives on, and can be used, long after the telescope missions have finished. Both Planck and Herschel finished their operations last year.

“The researchers used Planck data to find sources of far-infrared emission in areas covered by the Herschel satellite, then cross-referenced with Herschel data to look at these sources more closely,” the Royal Astronomical Society stated.

The two telescopes had complementary views, with Planck looking at the entire sky while Herschel surveyed smaller sections in higher resolution. By combining the data, researchers found 16 sources in total. A dozen of them were already discovered single galaxies, but four were the newly discovered galaxy clusters. Fresh observations were then used to figure out the distance.

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

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Mapping Molecular Clouds Changes Astronomers Outlook On Starbirth

It didn’t happen overnight. By studying the properties of giant molecular clouds in the Whirlpool Galaxy for several years with the millimeter telescopes of IRAM, the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique, astronomers have been given a whole, new look at star formation. Encompassing 1,500 maps of molecular clouds, this new research has found these building blocks of future suns to be encased in a sort of molecular hydrogen mist. This ethereal mixture appears to be far denser than speculated and is found throughout the galactic disc. What’s more, it would appear the pressure created by the molecular fog is a critical factor in determining whether or not stars are able to form within the clouds.

Stars form in the molecular clouds housed within all galaxies. These formations are vast areas of hydrogen molecules with masses which total from a thousand to several million times that of the Sun. When an area of the cloud folds under the weight of its own gravity, it collapses. Pressure and temperature rise and nuclear fusion begins. A star is born.

This exciting new research is changing the way astronomers think about starbirth regions. Study leader Eva Schinnerer (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy) explains: “Over the past four years, we have created the most complete map yet of giant molecular clouds in another spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, reconstructing the amounts of hydrogen molecules and correlating them with the presence of new or older stars. The picture that is emerging is quite different from what astronomers thought these clouds should be like.” The survey, known as PAWS, targeted the Whirlpool galaxy, also known as M51, at a distance of about 23 million light-years in the constellation Canes Venatici – the Hunting Dogs.

Annie Hughes, a post-doctoral researcher at MPIA involved in the study, says: “We used to think of giant molecular clouds as solitary objects, drifting within the surrounding interstellar medium of rarified gas in isolated splendor; the main repository of a galaxy’s supply of hydrogen molecules. But our study shows that 50% of the hydrogen is outside the clouds, in a diffuse, disk-shaped hydrogen fog permeating the galaxy!”

Not only does the enveloping gas play a critical part in star formation, but galaxy structure does as well. One galactic feature in particular is key – spiral arm structure. They sweep slowly around the core area like hands on a clock and are more populated with stars than the remainder of the galactic disk. Sharon Meidt, another MPIA post-doctoral researcher involved in the study, says: “These clouds are definitely not isolated. On the contrary, interactions between clouds, fog, and overall galactic structure appear to hold the key to whether or not a cloud will form new stars. When the molecular fog moves relative to the galaxy’s spiral arms, the pressure it exerts on any clouds within is reduced, in line with a physical law known as Bernoulli’s principle. Clouds feeling this reduced pressure are unlikely to form new stars. According to the press release, Bernoulli’s law is also thought to be responsible for part of the well-known shower-curtain effect: shower curtains blowing inward when one takes a hot shower, another display of reduced pressure.

Jerome Pety of the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM), which operates the telescopes used for the new observations, says: “It’s good to see our telescopes live up to their full potential. A study that needed such extensive observation time, and required both an interferometer to discern vital details and our 30 m antenna to put those details into a larger context, would not have been possible at any other observatory.”

Schinnerer concludes: “So far, the Whirlpool galaxy is one example which we have studied in depth. Next, we need to check that what we have found also applies to other galaxies. For our next steps, we hope to profit from both the extension NOEMA of the compound telescope on the Plateau de Bure and from the newly opened compound telescope ALMA in Chile, which will allow in-depth studies of more distant spiral galaxies.”

Original Story Source: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy News Release.

What is the Milky Way?

Artist's conception of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Nick Risinger

When you look up at the night sky, assuming conditions are just right, you might just catch a glimpse of a faint, white band reaching across the heavens. This band, upon closer observation, looks speckled and dusty, filled with a million tiny points of light and halos of glowing matter. What you are seeing is the Milky Way, something that astronomers and stargazers alike have been staring up at since the beginning of time.

But just what is the Milky Way? Well, simply put, it is the name of the barred spiral galaxy in which our solar system is located. The Earth orbits the Sun in the Solar System, and the Solar System is embedded within this vast galaxy of stars. It is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, and ours is called the Milky Way because the disk of the galaxy appears to be spanning the night sky like a hazy band of glowing white light. Continue reading “What is the Milky Way?”

Wrapping Around The Mystery Of Spiral Galaxy Arms

How disk galaxies form their spiral arms have been puzzling astrophysicists for almost as long as they have been observing them. With time, they have come to two conclusions… either this structure is caused by differences in gravity sculpting the gas, dust and stars into this familiar shape, or its just a random occurrence which comes and goes with time.

Now researchers are beginning to wrap their conclusions around findings based on new supercomputer simulations – simulations which involve the motion of up to 100 million “stellar particles” that mimic gravitational and astrophysical forces which shape them into natural spiral structure. The research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are excited about these conclusions and report the simulations may hold the essential clues of how spiral arms are formed.

“We show for the first time that stellar spiral arms are not transient features, as claimed for several decades,” says UW-Madison astrophysicist Elena D’Onghia, who led the new research along with Harvard colleagues Mark Vogelsberger and Lars Hernquist.

“The spiral arms are self-perpetuating, persistent, and surprisingly long lived,” adds Vogelsberger.

When it comes to spiral structure, it’s probably the most widely occurring of universal shapes. Our own Milky Way galaxy is considered to be a spiral galaxy and around 70% of the galaxies near to us are also spiral structured. When we think in a broader sense, just how many things take on this common formation? Whisking up dust with a broom causes particles to swirl into a spiral shape… draining water invokes a swirling pattern… weather formations go spiral. It’s a universal happening and it happens for a reason. Apparently that reason is gravity and something to perturb it. In the case of a galaxy, it’s a giant molecular cloud – the star-forming regions. Introduced into the simulation, the clouds, says D’Onghia, a UW-Madison professor of astronomy, act as “perturbers” and are enough to not only initiate the formation of spiral arms but to sustain them indefinitely.

“We find they are forming spiral arms,” explains D’Onghia. “Past theory held the arms would go away with the perturbations removed, but we see that (once formed) the arms self-perpetuate, even when the perturbations are removed. It proves that once the arms are generated through these clouds, they can exist on their own through (the influence of) gravity, even in the extreme when the perturbations are no longer there.”

So, what of companion galaxies? Can spiral structure be caused by proximity? The new research also takes that into account and models for “stand alone” galaxies as well. However, that’s not all the study included. According to Vogelsberger and Hernquist, the new computer-generated simulations are focusing on clarifying observational data. They are taking a closer look at the high-density molecular clouds and the “gravitationally induced holes in space” which act as ” the mechanisms that drive the formation of the characteristic arms of spiral galaxies.”

Until then, we know spiral structure isn’t just a chance happening and – to wrap things up – it’s probably the most common form of galaxy in our Universe.

Original Story Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Hubble Uncovers Hidden Mysteries in Messier 77

Discovered on October 29, 1780 by Pierre Mechain, this active Seyfert galaxy is magnificent to behold in amateur equipment and even more so in NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope photographs. Located in the constellation of Cetus and positioned about 45 million light years away, this spiral galaxy has a claim to fame not only for being strong in star formation, but as one of the most studied galaxies of its type. Cutting across its face are red hued pockets of gas where new suns are being born and dark dustlanes twist around its powerful nucleus.

When Mechain first observed this incredible visage, he mistook it for a nebula and Messier looked at it, but did not record it. (However, do not fault Messier for lack of interest at this time. His wife and newly born son had just died and he was mourning.) In 1783, Sir William Herschel saw it as an “Ill defined star surrounded by nebulousity.” but would change his tune some 8 years later when he reported: “A kind of much magnified stellar cluster; it contains some bright stars in the centre.” His son, John Herschel, would go on to catalog it – not being very descriptive either.

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This video zooms in on spiral galaxy Messier 77. The sequence begins with a view of the night sky near the constellation of Cetus. It then zooms through observations from the Digitized Sky Survey 2, and ends with a view of the galaxy obtained by Hubble. Credit:NASA, ESA, Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: A. van der Hoeven

At almost double the size of the Milky Way, we now know it is a barred spiral galaxy. According to spectral analysis, Messier 77 has very broad emission lines, indicating that giant gas clouds are rapidly moving out of this galaxy’s core, at several hundreds of kilometers per second. This makes M77 a Seyfert Type II galaxy – one with an expanding core of starbirth. In itself, that’s quite unique considering the amount of energy needed to expand at that rate and further investigations found a 12 light-year diameter, point-like radio source at its core enveloped in a 100 light year swath of interstellar matter. A miniature quasar? Perhaps… But whatever it is has a measurement of 15 million solar masses!

Deep at its heart, Messier 77 is beating out huge amounts of radiation – radiation suspected to be from an intensely active black hole. Here the “galaxy stuff” is constantly being drawn towards the center, heating and lighting up the frequencies. Just this area alone can shine tens of thousands of times brighter than most galaxies… but is there anything else hiding there?

“Active galactic nuclei (AGNs) display many energetic phenomena—broad emission lines, X-rays, relativistic jets, radio lobes – originating from matter falling onto a supermassive black hole. It is widely accepted that orientation effects play a major role in explaining the observational appearance of AGNs.” says W. Jaffe (et al). “Seen from certain directions, circum-nuclear dust clouds would block our view of the central powerhouse. Indirect evidence suggests that the dust clouds form a parsec-sized torus-shaped distribution. This explanation, however, remains unproved, as even the largest telescopes have not been able to resolve the dust structures.”

Before you leave, look again. Clustered about Messier 77’s spiral arms are deep red pockets – a sign of newly forming stars. Inside the ruby regions, neophyte stars are ionising the gas. The dust lanes also appear crimson as well – a phenomenon called “reddening” – where the dust absorbs the blue light and highlights the ruddy color. A version of this image won second place in the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Image Processing Competition, entered by contestant Andre van der Hoeven.

Twistin’ the night away…

Oldest Spiral Galaxy in the Universe Discovered

Caption: An artist’s rendering of galaxy BX442 and its companion dwarf galaxy (upper left). Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics/Joe Bergeron

Ancient starlight traveling for 10.7 billion years has brought a surprise – evidence of a spiral galaxy long before other spiral galaxies are known to have formed.

“As you go back in time to the early universe, galaxies look really strange, clumpy and irregular, not symmetric,” said Alice Shapley, a UCLA associate professor of physics and astronomy, and co-author of a study reported in today’s journal Nature. “The vast majority of old galaxies look like train wrecks. Our first thought was, why is this one so different, and so beautiful?”

Galaxies today come in a variety of unique shapes and sizes. Some, like our Milky Way Galaxy, are rotating disks of stars and gas called spiral galaxies. Other galaxies, called elliptical galaxies, resemble giant orbs of older reddish stars moving in random directions. Then there are a host of smaller irregular shaped galaxies bound together by gravity but lacking in any visible structure. A great, diverse population of these types of irregular galaxies dominated the early Universe, says Shapely.

Light from this incredibly distant spiral galaxy, traveling at nearly six trillion miles per year, took 10.7 billion years to reach Earth; just 3 billion years after the Universe was created in an event called the Big Bang.

According to a press release from UCLA, astronomers used the sharp eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope to spy on 300 very distant galaxies in the early Universe. The scientists originally thought their galaxy, one of the most massive in their survey going by the unglamorous name of BX442, was an illusion, perhaps two galaxies superimposed on each other.

“The fact that this galaxy exists is astounding,” said David Law, lead author of the study and Dunlap Institute postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Current wisdom holds that such ‘grand-design’ spiral galaxies simply didn’t exist at such an early time in the history of the universe.” A ‘grand design’ galaxy has prominent, well-formed spiral arms.

To understand their image further, astronomers used a unique, state-of-the-art instrument called the OSIRIS spectrograph at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano. The instrument, built by UCLA professor James Larkin, allowed them to study light from about 3,600 locations in and around BX442. This spectra gave them the clues they needed to show they were indeed looking at a single, rotating spiral galaxy.

While spiral galaxies are abundant throughout the current cosmos, that wasn’t always the case. Spiral galaxies in the early Universe were rare because of frequent interactions. “BX442 looks like a nearby galaxy, but in the early universe, galaxies were colliding together much more frequently,” says Shapely. “Gas was raining in from the intergalactic medium and feeding stars that were being formed at a much more rapid rate than they are today; black holes grew at a much more rapid rate as well. The universe today is boring compared to this early time.”

Shapely and Law think the gravitational tug-of-war between a dwarf galaxy companion and BX442 may be responsible for its futuristic look. The companion appears as just a small blob in their image. Computer simulations conducted by Charlotte Christensen, a postdoctoral student at the University of Arizona and co-author of the paper, lends evidence to this idea. Eventually, BX442 and the smaller galaxy likely will merge.

Shapley said BX442 represents a link between early galaxies that are much more turbulent and the rotating spiral galaxies that we see around us. “Indeed, this galaxy may highlight the importance of merger interactions at any cosmic epoch in creating grand design spiral structure,” she said.

Studying BX442 is likely to help astronomers understand how spiral galaxies like the Milky Way form, she added.

Caption 2: HST/Keck false color composite image of galaxy BX442. Credit: David Law/Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – April 16-22, 2012


Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s International Dark Skies Week and a great time to enjoy astronomy! We’ll start off with an impressive galaxy for even small optics and enjoy two meteor showers. There are planets and planetary nebula to explore, as well as some awesome globular clusters. If you’re in the mood, there’s some history to learn and plenty of astronomy facts! Whenever you’re ready, meet me in the back yard…

Monday, April 16 – Before binocular observers begin to feel that we have deserted them, let’s drop in on a binocular and very small telescope galaxy that resides roughly a handspan below Spica – M83 (Right Ascension: 13 : 37.0 – Declination: -29 : 52). Starhop instructions are not easy for this one, but look for a pair of twin stars just west of the easily recognized “box” of Corvus – Gamma and R Hydrae. You’ll find it about four fingerwidths further south of R.

As one of the brightest galaxies around, the “Southern Pinwheel” was discovered by Lacaille in 1752. Roughly 10 million light-years distant, M83 has been home to a large number of supernova events – one of which was even detected by an amateur observer. To binoculars it will appear as a fairly large, soft, round glow with a bright core set in a delightful stellar field. As aperture increases, so do details – revealing three well defined spiral arms, a dense nucleus and knots of stars. It is truly a beauty and will become an observing favorite!

Tuesday, April 17 – Today in 1976, the joint German and NASA probe Helios 2 came closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft so far. One of its most important contributions helped us to understand the nature of gamma ray bursts.

Are you ready for even more meteors? Tonight is the peak of the Sigma Leonids. The radiant is located at the Leo/Virgo border, but has migrated to Virgo in recent years. Thanks to Jupiter’s gravity, this shower may eventually become part of the Virginid Complex as well. The fall rate is very low at around one to two per hour. While you’re watching this region of sky, be sure to check out the close pairing of Saturn and Spica!

With tonight’s dark skies, this would be a perfect time for larger telescopes to discover an unusual galaxy grouping in Hydra about 5 degrees due west of the Xi pairing (RA 10 36 35.72 Dec -27 31 03.2).

Centralmost are two fairly easy ellipticals, NGC 3309 and NGC 3311, accompanied by spiral NGC 3322. Far fainter are other group members, such as NGC 3316 and NGC 3314 to the east of the 7th magnitude star and NGC 3305 north of the 5th magnitude star. While such galaxy clusters are not for everyone, studying those very faint fuzzies is a rewarding experience for those with large aperture telescopes.

Wednesday, April 18 – Before we have any Moon to contend with, let’s head out in search of an object that is one royal navigation pain for the northern hemisphere, but makes up for it in beauty. Start with the southernmost star in Crater – Beta. If you have difficulty identifying it, it’s the brightest star east of the Corvus rectangle. Now hop a little more than a fistwidth southeast to reddish Alpha Antilae. Less than a fistwidth below, you will see a dim 6th magnitude star that may require binoculars in the high north. Another binocular field further southwest and about 4 degrees northwest of Q Velorum is our object – NGC 3132 (RA 10 07 01.76 – Dec -40 26 11.1). If you still have no luck, try waiting until Regulus has reached your meridian and head 52 degrees south.

More commonly known as the “Southern Ring” or the “Eight Burst Planetary,” this gem is brighter than the northern “Ring” (M57) and definitely shows more details. It can be captured in even small instruments, larger ones will reveal a series of overlapping shells, giving this unusual nebula its name.

Thursday, April 19 – Today in 1971, the world’s first space station was launched – the Soviet research vessel Salyut 1. Six weeks later, Soyuz 11 and its crew of three docked with the station, but a mechanism failed denying them entry. The crew carried out their experiments, but were sadly lost when their re-entry module separated from the return spacecraft and depressurized. Although the initial phase of Salyut 1 seemed doomed, the mission continued to enjoy success through the early 1980s and paved the way for Mir.

Tonight let’s try picking up a globular cluster in Hydra that is located about 3 fingerwidths southeast of Beta Corvus and just a breath northeast of double star A8612 – M68 (Right Ascension: 12 : 39.5 – Declination: -26 : 45).

This class X globular was discovered in 1780 by Charles Messier and first resolved into individual stars by William Herschel in 1786. At a distance of approximately 33,000 light-years, it contains at least 2000 stars, including 250 giants and 42 variables. It will show as a faint, round glow in binoculars, and small telescopes will perceive individual members. Large telescopes will fully resolve this small globular to the core!

Friday, April 20 – By 1850, Lord Rosse had used the 72 inch speculum-mirrored “Leviathon at Parsontown” (Birr Castle, Ireland) to catalogue fourteen previously indecipherable glowing clouds in deep space as “spiral nebulae.” The very first one resolved was originally a discovery of Charles Messier – found while chasing a comet on the night of October 13, 1773. That discovery, M51, had to wait 72 years until large reflecting telescopes unveiled its spiral form. It would take another 75 years before M51’s extragalactic nature became an indisputable fact. Interestingly, observers have now become so accustomed to seeing spiral structure in brighter galaxies that even mid-sized scopes can see M51 (Right Ascension: 13 : 29.9 – Declination: +47 : 12) – the Whirlpool Galaxy – as a “Grand Spiral.” Tonight see what Rosse saw for yourself.

Start in Ursa Major by locating Mizar (Zeta) and Alkaid (Eta), then rotate the line between these two 90 degrees south using Eta as the pivot. With the line oriented to the southwest, cut it in half. With good conditions and a mid-sized scope, you can be initiated into the mystery of the spiral nebulae – nebulae whose individual stars had to await the development of very large professional scopes and long-exposure photography to reveal their stellar nature to the questing human imagination!

Saturday, April 21 – It’s Saturday night and we’ve got New Moon! Tonight, let’s use our binoculars and telescopes and take a look at a spectacular stellar sphere. Let’s find one of the best northern hemisphere globular clusters – M3! You can locate M3 (Right Ascension: 13 : 42.2 – Declination: +28 : 23) easily by identifying Cor Caroli (Alpha Canes Venatici) and Arcturus. Sweep your binoculars along a line halfway between the two and you will uncover this condensed beauty just east of Beta Comae. With added inches and magnification, the stars are out to play!

Discovered by Charles Messier on May 3, 1764, this condensed ball of approximately a half million stars is one of the oldest formations in our galaxy. At 35-40,000 light years distant, this awesome globular cluster spans 220 light years and is believed to be 10 billion years old.

Now let’s check out a dandy little group of stars that are about a fistwidth southeast of Procyon and just slightly more than a fingerwidth northeast of M48. Called C Hydrae, this group isn’t truly gravitationally bound, but is a real pleasure to large binoculars and telescopes of all sizes. While they share similar spectral types, this mixed magnitude collection will be sure to delight you!

Sunday, April 22 – Today celebrates the birthday of Sir Harold Jeffreys, who was born in 1891. Jeffreys was an astrogeophysicist and the first person to envision Earth’s fluid core. He also helped in our understanding of tidal friction, general planetary structure, and the origins of our solar system.

Start your moonless morning off before dawn with a chance to view the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. Since the radiant is near Vega, you will improve your chances of spotting them when the constellation of Lyra is as high as possible. This stream’s parent is Comet Thatcher, and it produces around 15 bright, long-lasting meteors per hour!

Before you begin your observations tonight, be sure to check out the cool triangulation of Theta Leonis, Regulus and Mars!

Let’s begin tonight in eastern Hydra and pick up another combination Messier/Herschel object. You’ll find M48 (Right Ascension: 8 : 13.8 – Declination: -05 : 48) easily just a little less than a handspan southeast of Procyon.

Often called a “missing Messier,” Charles discovered this one in 1711, but cataloged its position incorrectly. Even the smallest of binoculars will enjoy this rich galactic cluster filled with more than 50 members including some yellow giants. Look for a slight triangle shape with a conspicuous chain of stars across its center. Larger telescopes should use lowest power since this will fill the field of view and resolve splendidly. Be sure to mark your notes for both a Messier object and Herschel catalog H VI 22!

Until next week? Dreams really do come true when you keep on reaching for the stars!

The Genesis of Galaxy Eris…


In as much time as it takes to give birth to human life, a supercomputer and a team of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Zurich have given rise to the first simulation of the physics involved in galaxy formation that produced the Milky Way. They named their child Eris…

“Previous efforts to form a massive disk galaxy like the Milky Way had failed, because the simulated galaxies ended up with huge central bulges compared to the size of the disk,” said Javiera Guedes, who recently earned her Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and is first author of a paper which has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

This comparison shows the Eris simulation (top) and the Milky Way (bottom). Credit: S. Callegari, J. Guedes, and the 2MASS collaboration.
Like the Milky Way, Eris is a lovely barred spiral galaxy – her figure and star content as identical as modeling can make it. By studying our own galaxy and others like it, this simulation fits the mold from every angle. “We dissected the galaxy in many different ways to confirm that it fits with observations,” Guedes said.

And “seven sisters” were involved in the project, too. NASA’s state-of-the-art Pleiades supercomputer took on the task of 1.4 million processor-hours. But the calculations didn’t stop there. Simulations on supercomputers at UCSC and the Swiss National Supercomputing Center were involved, too. “We took some risk spending a huge amount of supercomputer time to simulate a single galaxy with extra-high resolution,” Madau said.

For over two decades, attempts at creating the evolution of a Milky Way type galaxy have been just outside the grasp of researchers. They just weren’t able to produce the proper shape, size and population to fit known properties. Thanks to this new breakthrough, support for the “cold dark matter” theory has predominated and the Big Bang theory supported. What gave Eris the edge? Try our now better understanding star formation.

“Star formation in real galaxies occurs in a clustered fashion, and to reproduce that out of a cosmological simulation is hard,” Madau said. “This is the first simulation that is able to resolve the high-density clouds of gas where star formation occurs, and the result is a Milky Way type of galaxy with a small bulge and a big disk. It shows that the cold dark matter scenario, where dark matter provides the scaffolding for galaxy formation, is able to generate realistic disk-dominated galaxies.”

Giving birth to Eris wasn’t an easy task. Through low-resolution simulations, researchers began assembling clumps of dark matter – shaping them into galactic halos. From there they selected information on a halo with similar mass and merger history to our own and “rewound the tape” to its infancy. By focusing on a small area, they were able to add additional particle information and step up the resolution.

“The simulation follows the interactions of more than 60 million particles of dark matter and gas. A lot of physics goes into the code–gravity and hydrodynamics, star formation and supernova explosions–and this is the highest resolution cosmological simulation ever done this way,” said Guedes, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich).

What sets Eris apart from its predecessors is the ability to “see” in high resolution / high density. This allows for a more pragmatic approach to star formation and placement. It’s an important consideration, because supernova occur in high density regions and high resolution allows them to be taken into account.

“Supernovae produce outflows of gas from the inner part of the galaxy where it would otherwise form more stars and make a large bulge,” Madau said. “Clustered star formation and energy injection from supernovae are making the difference in this simulation.”

Arise, Eris… Your time has come!

Original Story Source: University of Santa Cruz News. For Further Reading: Forming Realistic Late-Type Spirals in a LCDM Universe: The Eris Simulation.