ALMA Spots a Nascent Stellar Monster

Even though it comprises over 99% of the mass of the Solar System (with Jupiter taking up most of the rest) our Sun is, in terms of the entire Milky Way, a fairly average star. There are lots of less massive stars than the Sun out there in the galaxy, as well as some real stellar monsters… and based on new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, there’s about to be one more.

Early science observations with ALMA have provided astronomers with the best view yet of a monster star in the process of forming within a dark cloud of dust and gas. Located 11,000 light-years away, Spitzer Dark Cloud 335.579-0.292 is a stellar womb containing over 500 times the mass of the Sun — and it’s still growing. Inside this cloud is an embryonic star hungrily feeding on inwardly-flowing material, and when it’s born it’s expected to be at least 100 times the mass of our Sun… a true stellar monster.

The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)
The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)

The star-forming region is the largest ever found in our galaxy.

“The remarkable observations from ALMA allowed us to get the first really in-depth look at what was going on within this cloud,” said Nicolas Peretto of CEA/AIM Paris-Saclay, France, and Cardiff University, UK. “We wanted to see how monster stars form and grow, and we certainly achieved our aim! One of the sources we have found is an absolute giant — the largest protostellar core ever spotted in the Milky Way.”

Watch: What’s the Biggest Star in the Universe?

SDC 335.579-0.292 had already been identified with NASA’s Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel space telescopes, but it took the unique sensitivity of ALMA to observe in detail both the amount of dust present and the motion of the gas within the dark cloud, revealing the massive embryonic star inside.

“Not only are these stars rare, but their birth is extremely rapid and their childhood is short, so finding such a massive object so early in its evolution is a spectacular result.”

– Team member Gary Fuller, University of Manchester, UK

The image above, a combination of data acquired by both Spitzer and ALMA (see below for separate images) shows tendrils of infalling material flowing toward a bright center where the huge protostar is located. These observations show how such massive stars form — through a steady collapse of the entire cloud, rather than through fragmented clustering.

SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.
SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.

“Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its center,” said Peretto. “This object is expected to form a star that is up to 100 times more massive than the Sun. Only about one in ten thousand of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass!”

(Although, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, that means there are still 20 million such giants roaming around out there!)

Read more on the ESO news release here.

Image credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE

NASA’s Great Observatories Provide a Sparkly New View of the Small Magellanic Cloud

This is just pretty! NASA’s Great Observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Infrared Telescope — have combined forces to create this new image of the Small Magellanic Cloud. The SMC is one of the Milky Way’s closest galactic neighbors. Even though it is a small, or so-called dwarf galaxy, the SMC is so bright that it is visible to the unaided eye from the Southern Hemisphere and near the equator.

What did it take to create this image? Let’s take a look at the images from each of the observatories:

The Small Magellenic Cloud in X-Ray from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud in X-Ray from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud in infrared, from the Spitzer Infrared Telescope. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud in infrared, from the Spitzer Infrared Telescope. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud as seen in optical wavelengths from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.
The Small Magellenic Cloud as seen in optical wavelengths from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.

The various colors represent wavelengths of light across a broad spectrum. X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory are shown in purple; visible-light from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is colored red, green and blue; and infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope are also represented in red.

The three telescopes highlight different aspects of this lively stellar community. Winds and radiation from massive stars located in the central, disco-ball-like cluster of stars, called NGC 602a, have swept away surrounding material, clearing an opening in the star-forming cloud.

Find out more at this page from Chandra, and this one from JPL.

Clouds of Sand and Iron Swirl in a Failed Star’s Extreme Atmosphere

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026. NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes observed the object to learn more about its turbulent atmosphere. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become sizzling stars. Their atmospheres can be similar to the giant planet Jupiter's. Spitzer and Hubble simultaneously observed the object as it rotated every 1.4 hours. The results suggest wind-driven, planet-size clouds. Image credit:

Artist’s concept of brown dwarf  2MASSJ22282889-431026 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The complex weather patterns within the atmosphere of a rapidly-rotating brown dwarf have been mapped in the highest detail ever by researchers using the infrared abilities of NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes… talk about solar wind!

Sometimes referred to as failed stars, brown dwarfs form from condensing gas and dust like regular stars but never manage to gather enough mass to ignite full-on hydrogen fusion in their cores. As a result they more resemble enormous Jupiter-like planets, radiating low levels of heat while possessing bands of wind-driven eddies in their upper atmospheric layers.

Although brown dwarfs are by their nature very dim, and thus difficult to observe in visible wavelengths of light, their heat can be detected by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope — both of which can “see” just fine in near- and far-infrared, respectively.

Led by researchers from the University of Arizona, a team of astronomers used these orbiting observatories on July 7, 2011 to measure the light curves from a brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026 (2M2228 for short.) What they found was that while 2M2228 exhibited periodic brightening in both near- and far-infrared over the course of its speedy 1.43-hour rotation, the amount and rate of brightening varied between the different wavelengths detected by the two telescopes.

ssc2013-01a_Inline

“With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at different atmospheric layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body.”

– Daniel Apai, principal investigator, University of Arizona

This unexpected variance — or phase shift — most likely indicates different layers of cloud material and wind velocities surrounding 2M2228, swirling around the dwarf star in very much the same way as the stormy cloud bands seen on Jupiter or Saturn.

But while the clouds on Jupiter are made of gases like ammonia and methane, the clouds of 2M2228 are made of much more unusual stuff.

ssc2013-01b_Inline“Unlike the water clouds of Earth or the ammonia clouds of Jupiter, clouds on brown dwarfs are composed of hot grains of sand, liquid drops of iron, and other exotic compounds,” said Mark Marley, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and co-author of the paper. “So this large atmospheric disturbance found by Spitzer and Hubble gives a new meaning to the concept of extreme weather.”

While it might seem strange to think about weather on a star, remember that brown dwarfs are much more gas planet-like than “real” stars. Although the temperatures of 1,100–1,600 ºF (600–700 ºC) found on 2M2228 might sound searingly hot, it’s downright chilly compared to even regular stars like our Sun, which has an average temperature of nearly 10,000 ºF (5,600 ºC). Different materials gather at varying layers of its atmosphere, depending on temperature and pressure, and can be penetrated by different wavelengths of infrared light — just like gas giant planets.

“What we see here is evidence for massive, organized cloud systems, perhaps akin to giant versions of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter,” said Adam Showman, a theorist at the University of Arizona involved in the research. “These out-of-sync light variations provide a fingerprint of how the brown dwarf’s weather systems stack up vertically. The data suggest regions on the brown dwarf where the weather is cloudy and rich in silicate vapor deep in the atmosphere coincide with balmier, drier conditions at higher altitudes — and vice versa.”

The team’s results were presented today, January 8, during the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, CA.

Read more on the Spitzer site, and find the team’s paper in PDF form here.

Inset image: the anatomy of a brown dwarf’s atmosphere (NASA/JPL).

Dark Matter Halos May Contain Stars

The image on the left shows a portion of our sky, called the Boötes field, in infrared light, while the image on the right shows a mysterious, background infrared glow captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in the same region of sky.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What causes the mysterious glow of radiation seen across the entire sky by infrared telescopes? The answer may lie in a combination of concepts that are relatively new to the field of astronomy, and are somewhat controversial, too. Rogue stars that have been kicked out of galaxies may be embedded in dark matter halos that have been theorized to surround galaxies. While these dark matter halos have previously only been detected indirectly by observing their gravitational effects, they may also hold the source of the enigmatic background glow of radiation.

“The infrared background glow in our sky has been a huge mystery,” said Asantha Cooray of the University of California at Irvine, lead author of the new research published today in the journal Nature. “We have new evidence this light is from the stars that linger between galaxies. Individually, the stars are too faint to be seen, but we think we are seeing their collective glow.”

The collective glow is from the “interhalo” of dark matter halos that pervade the Universe, and may answer the big question of why the amount of light observed exceeds the amount of light emitted from known galaxies.

“Galaxies exist in dark matter halos that are much bigger than the galaxies; when galaxies form and merge together, the dark matter halo gets larger and the stars and gas sink to the middle of the halo,” said Edward L. (Ned) Wright from UCLA and a member of the team that used the Spitzer Space Telescope to seek out the source of the infrared light. “What we’re saying is one star in a thousand does not do that and instead gets distributed like dark matter. You can’t see the dark matter very well, but we are proposing that it actually has a few stars in it — only one-tenth of 1 percent of the number of stars in the bright part of the galaxy. One star in a thousand gets stripped out of the visible galaxy and gets distributed like the dark matter.”

The dark matter halo is not totally dark, Wright said. “A tiny fraction, one-tenth of a percent, of the stars in the central galaxy has been spread out into the halo, and this can produce the fluctuations that we see.”

In large clusters of galaxies, astronomers have found much higher percentages of intra-halo light, as large as 20 percent, Wright said.

For this study, Cooray, Wright and colleagues used the Spitzer Space Telescope to produce an infrared map of a region of the sky in the constellation Boötes. The light has been travelling to us for 10 billion years.

“Presumably this light in halos occurs everywhere in the sky and just has not been measured anywhere else,” said Wright, who is also principal investigator of NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

“If we can really understand the origin of the infrared background, we can understand when all of the light in the universe was produced and how much was produced,” Wright said. “The history of all the production of light in the universe is encoded in this background. We’re saying the fluctuations can be produced by the fuzzy edges of galaxies that existed at the same time that most of the stars were created, about 10 billion years ago.”

The light appears at a blotchy pattern in the Spitzer images.

The new finding are at odds with a study that came out this summer. Alexander “Sasha” Kashlinsky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and his team looked at this same patch of sky with Spitzer and proposed the light making the unusual pattern was coming from the very first stars and galaxies.

In the new study, Cooray and colleagues looked at data from a larger portion of the sky, called the Bootes field, covering an arc equivalent to 50 full Earth moons. These observations were not as sensitive as those from the Kashlinsky group’s studies, but the larger scale allowed researchers to analyze better the pattern of the background infrared light.

“We looked at the Bootes field with Spitzer for 250 hours,” said co-author Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Studying the faint infrared background was one of the core goals of our survey, and we carefully designed the observations in order to directly address the important, challenging question of what causes the background glow.”

The team concluded the light pattern of the infrared glow is not consistent with theories and computer simulations of the first stars and galaxies. Researchers say the glow is too bright to be from the first galaxies, which are thought not to have been as large or as numerous as the galaxies we see around us today. Instead, the scientists propose a new theory to explain the blotchy light, based on theories of “intracluster” or “intrahalo” starlight.

The team said more research is needed to confirm these findings, adding that the James Webb Space Telescope should help.

“The keen infrared vision of the James Webb Telescope will be able to see some of the earliest stars and galaxies directly, as well as the stray stars lurking between the outskirts of nearby galaxies,” said Eric Smith, JWST’s deputy program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The mystery objects making up the background infrared light may finally be exposed.”

Sources: NASA, UCLA

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 4, 2012

It was a slow week on Space news except for the massive announcement that an ancient riverbed was discovered on the surface of Mars. We took a look at this as well as the historic 55th anniversary of Sputnik, a precise measurement of the expansion of the Universe, and more!

Stories:

Panel: Amy Shira Teitel, Nicole Gugliucci, Nancy Atkinson

Host: Fraser Cain

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Thursday at 10am PDT / 1 pm EDT. You can watch us live on Google+, Cosmoquest, or at the Universe Today YouTube channel, or listen after as part of the Astronomy Cast podcast feed (audio only).

Click here to put the next event right into your calendar.

Mysterious Arc of Light Spotted with Spitzer Telescope

From a JPL press release:

Seeing is believing, except when you don’t believe what you see. Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have found a puzzling arc of light behind an extremely massive cluster of galaxies residing 10 billion light-years away. The galactic grouping, discovered by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, was observed as it existed when the universe was roughly a quarter of its current age of 13.7 billion years.

The giant arc is the stretched shape of a more distant galaxy whose light is distorted by the monster cluster’s powerful gravity, an effect called gravitational lensing. The trouble is, the arc shouldn’t exist.

“When I first saw it, I kept staring at it, thinking it would go away,” said study leader Anthony Gonzalez of the University of Florida in Gainesville, whose team includes researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “According to a statistical analysis, arcs should be extremely rare at that distance. At that early epoch, the expectation is that there are not enough galaxies behind the cluster bright enough to be seen, even if they were ‘lensed,’ or distorted by the cluster. The other problem is that galaxy clusters become less massive the further back in time you go. So it’s more difficult to find a cluster with enough mass to be a good lens for gravitationally bending the light from a distant galaxy.”

Galaxy clusters are collections of hundreds to thousands of galaxies bound together by gravity. They are the most massive structures in our universe. Astronomers frequently study galaxy clusters to look for faraway, magnified galaxies behind them that would otherwise be too dim to see with telescopes. Many such gravitationally lensed galaxies have been found behind galaxy clusters closer to Earth.

The surprise in this Hubble observation is spotting a galaxy lensed by an extremely distant cluster. Dubbed IDCS J1426.5+3508, the cluster is the most massive found at that epoch, weighing as much as 500 trillion suns. It is 5 to 10 times larger than other clusters found at such an early time in the history of the universe. The team spotted the cluster in a search using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in combination with archival optical images taken as part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s Deep Wide Field Survey at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, Ariz. The combined images allowed them to see the cluster as a grouping of very red galaxies, indicating they are far away.

This unique system constitutes the most distant cluster known to “host” a giant gravitationally lensed arc. Finding this ancient gravitational arc may yield insight into how, during the first moments after the Big Bang, conditions were set up for the growth of hefty clusters in the early universe.

The arc was spotted in optical images of the cluster taken in 2010 by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The infrared capabilities of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 helped provide a precise distance, confirming it to be one of the farthest clusters yet discovered.

Once the astronomers determined the cluster’s distance, they used Hubble, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) radio telescope, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to independently show that the galactic grouping is extremely massive.

“The chance of finding such a gigantic cluster so early in the universe was less than one percent in the small area we surveyed,” said team member Mark Brodwin of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It shares an evolutionary path with some of the most massive clusters we see today, including the Coma cluster and the recently discovered El Gordo cluster.”

An analysis of the arc revealed that the lensed object is a star-forming galaxy that existed 10 billion to 13 billion years ago. The team hopes to use Hubble again to obtain a more accurate distance to the lensed galaxy.

The team’s results are described in three papers, which will appear online today and will be published in the July 10, 2012 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Gonzalez is the first author on one of the papers; Brodwin, on another; and Adam Stanford of the University of California at Davis, on the third. Daniel Stern and Peter Eisenhardt of JPL are co-authors on all three papers.

Lead image caption: These images, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, show an arc of blue light behind an extremely massive cluster of galaxies residing 10 billion light-years away. Image credit: NASA/ESA/University of Florida, Gainsville/University of Missouri-Kansas City/UC Davis

Spitzer Captures Ancient Fireworks of First Objects in the Universe

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The Spitzer Space Telescope has looked back in time to see what scientists called the “faint, lumpy glow” given off by the very first objects in the Universe, and these ancient objects obviously provided some early cosmic fireworks. While they are too faint and distant to figure out what the individual objects are – they may be massive stars or voracious black holes – Spitzer has captured what appears to be the collective pattern of their infrared light, revealing these first objects were numerous and furiously burned cosmic fuel.

“These objects would have been tremendously bright,” said Alexander “Sasha” Kashlinsky from the Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of a new paper appearing in The Astrophysical Journal. “We can’t yet directly rule out mysterious sources for this light that could be coming from our nearby universe, but it is now becoming increasingly likely that we are catching a glimpse of an ancient epoch. Spitzer is laying down a roadmap for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Telescope, which will tell us exactly what and where these first objects were.”

This isn’t the first time astronomers have used Spitzer to search for the very first stars and black holes, and back in 2005 they saw hints of this remote pattern of light, known as the cosmic infrared background, and again with more precision in 2007. Now, Spitzer is in the extended phase of its mission, during which it performs more in-depth studies on specific patches of the sky. Kashlinsky and his colleagues used Spitzer to look at two patches of sky for more than 400 hours each.

The team then carefully subtracted all the known stars and galaxies in the images. Rather than being left with a black, empty patch of sky, they found faint patterns of light with several telltale characteristics of the cosmic infrared background. The lumps in the pattern observed are consistent with the way the very distant objects are thought to be clustered together.

Kashlinsky likens the observations to looking for Fourth of July fireworks in New York City from Los Angeles. First, you would have to remove all the foreground lights between the two cities, as well as the blazing lights of New York City itself. You ultimately would be left with a fuzzy map of how the fireworks are distributed, but they would still be too distant to make out individually.

“We can gather clues from the light of the Universe’s first fireworks,” said Kashlinsky. “This is teaching us that the sources, or the “sparks,” are intensely burning their nuclear fuel.”

The Universe formed roughly 13.7 billion years ago in a fiery, explosive Big Bang. With time, it cooled and, by around 500 million years later, the first stars, galaxies and black holes began to take shape. Astronomers say some of that “first light” might have traveled billions of years to reach the Spitzer Space Telescope. The light would have originated at visible or even ultraviolet wavelengths and then, because of the expansion of the universe, stretched out to the longer, infrared wavelengths observed by Spitzer.

The new study improves on previous observations by measuring this cosmic infrared background out to scales equivalent to two full moons — significantly larger than what was detected before. Imagine trying to find a pattern in the noise in an old-fashioned television set by looking at just a small piece of the screen. It would be hard to know for certain if a suspected pattern was real. By observing a larger section of the screen, you would be able to resolve both small- and large-scale patterns, further confirming your initial suspicion.

Likewise, astronomers using Spitzer have increased the amount of sky examined to obtain more definitive evidence of the cosmic infrared background. The researchers plan to explore more patches of sky in the future to gather more clues hidden in the light of this ancient era.

“This is one of the reasons we are building the James Webb Space Telescope,” said Glenn Wahlgren, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Spitzer is giving us tantalizing clues, but James Webb will tell us what really lies at the era where stars first ignited.”

Read the team’s paper.
Source: NASA

Watch Live Webcast from the Keck Observatory

On Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, Keck Observatory will be hosting a live webcast of an astronomy talk by Dr. Tom Soifer of Caltech, who is the Director of the Spitzer Science Center. The title of the talk is “Seeing the Invisible Universe,” and Soifer will discuss the latest exciting results from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The webcast begins at 7 pm Hawaiian Time, 9 pm Pacific Time (5 am GMT, Feb 10) and will be streamed from the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea-Kamuela, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Watch in the window above (click the play button) or watch on the Keck website.

New Research Suggests Fomalhaut b May Not Be a Planet After All

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When the Hubble Space Telescope photographed the apparent exoplanet Fomalhaut b in 2008, it was regarded as the first visible light image obtained of a planet orbiting another star. The breakthrough was announced by a research team led by Paul Kalas of the University of California, Berkeley. The planet was estimated to be approximately the size of Saturn, but no more than three times Jupiter’s mass, or perhaps smaller than Saturn according to some other studies, and might even have rings. It resides within a debris ring which encircles the star Fomalhaut, about 25 light-years away.

Another team at Princeton, however, has just announced that they believe the original findings are in error, and that the planet is actually a dust cloud, based on new observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Their paper has just been accepted by the Astrophysical Journal.

According to the abstract:

The nearby A4-type star Fomalhaut hosts a debris belt in the form of an eccentric ring, which is thought to be caused by dynamical influence from a giant planet companion. In 2008, a detection of a point-source inside the inner edge of the ring was reported and was interpreted as a direct image of the planet, named Fomalhaut b. The detection was made at ~600–800 nm, but no corresponding signatures were found in the near-infrared range, where the bulk emission of such a planet should be expected. Here we present deep observations of Fomalhaut with Spitzer/IRAC at 4.5 µm, using a novel PSF subtraction technique based on ADI and LOCI, in order to substantially improve the Spitzer contrast at small separations. The results provide more than an order of magnitude improvement in the upper flux limit of Fomalhaut b and exclude the possibility that any flux from a giant planet surface contributes to the observed flux at visible wavelengths. This renders any direct connection between the observed light source and the dynamically inferred giant planet highly unlikely. We discuss several possible interpretations of the total body of observations of the Fomalhaut system, and find that the interpretation that best matches the available data for the observed source is scattered light from transient or semi-transient dust cloud.

Kalas has responded to the new study, saying that they considered the dust cloud possibility but ruled it out for various reasons. For one thing, Spitzer lacks the light sensitivity to detect a Saturn-sized planet, and bright rings could also explain the optical characteristics observed. He says, “We welcome the new Spitzer data, but we don’t really agree with this interpretation.”

The Princeton team, interestingly, thinks that there may be a real planet orbiting Fomalhaut, but still hiding from detection. From the paper:

In particular, we find that there is almost certainly no direct flux from a planet contributing to the visible-light signature. This, in combination with the existing body of data for the Fomalhaut system, strongly implies that the dynamically inferred giant planet companion and the visible-light point source are physically unrelated. This in turn implies that the ‘real’ Fomalhaut b still hides in the system. Although we do find a tentative point source in our images that could in principle correspond to this object, its significance is too low to distinguish whether it is real or not at this point.

A resolution to the debate may come from the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.

Of course it will be disappointing if Fomalhaut b does turn out to not be a planet after all, but let’s not forget that thousands of other ones are being discovered and confirmed. There may occasionally be hits-and-misses, but so far the planetary hunt overall has been nothing short of a home run…

The paper is available here.

Citizen Scientist Project Finds Thousands of ‘Star Bubbles’

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Remember when you were a kid and blowing bubbles was such great fun? Well, stars kind of do that too. The “bubbles” are partial or complete rings of dust and gas that occur around young stars in active star-forming regions, known as stellar nurseries. So far, over 5,000 bubbles have been found, but there are many more out there awaiting discovery. Now there is a project that you can take part in yourself, to help find more of these intriguing objects.

The Milky Way Project, part of Zooniverse, has been cataloguing these cosmic bubbles thanks to assistance from the public, or “citizen scientists” – anyone can help by examining images from the Spitzer Space Telescope, specifically the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey (MIPSGAL).

They have been seen before, but now the task is to find as many as possible in the newer, high-resolution images from Spitzer. A previous catalogue of star bubbles in 2007 listed 269 of them. Four other researchers had found about 600 of them in 2006. Now they are being found by the thousands. As of now, the new catalogue lists 5,106 bubbles, after looking at almost half a million images so far. As it turns out, humans are more skilled at identifying them in the images than a computer algorithm would be. People are better at pattern recognition and then making a judgment based on the data as to what actually is a bubble and what isn’t.

The bubbles form around hot, young massive stars where it is thought that the intense light being emitted causes a shock wave, blowing out a space, or bubble, in the surrounding gas and dust.

Eli Bressert, of the European Southern Observatory and Milky Way Project team member, stated that our galaxy “is basically like champagne, there are so many bubbles.” He adds, “We thought we were going to be able to answer a lot of questions, but it’s going to be bringing us way more questions than answers right now. This is really starting something new in astronomy that we haven’t been able to do.”

There are currently about 35,000 volunteers in the project; if you would like to take part, you can go to The Milky Way Project for more information.