Twinkle, twinkle little star, I wonder just how old you are.
It isn’t an easy question to answer. Stars are notoriously difficult to age. We know the age of the Sun because we happen to live on one of its orbiting rocks, and we know very well how old the rock is. Without that information, things become a bit more fuzzy. But that could change thanks to a new study.
When measuring distances in the Universe, astronomers rely on what is known as the “Distance Ladder” – a succession of methods by which distances are measured to objects that are increasingly far from us. But what about age? Knowing with precision how old stars, star clusters, and galaxies are is also paramount to determining how the cosmos has evolved. Thanks to a new machine learning technique developed by researchers from Keele University, astronomers may have established the first rung on a “cosmic age ladder.”
If we want to know what it’ll look like in about 4.5 billion years when our galaxy merges with Andromeda, we might take a look at ARP 220. ARP 220 is a pair of galaxies that are in the process of merging. The merging galaxies emit brilliant infrared light, and the James Webb Space Telescope captured that light in a vivid portrait.
In December of 2013, the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission took to space. Since that time, this space observatory has been studying a billion astronomical objects – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids and galaxies – for the sake of creating the most precise 3D space catalog ever made. By the time the mission wraps up (later this year, barring extensions), it is expected to reveal some truly amazing things about our Universe.
In fact, with the first release of its data, the Gaia probe revealed something that has gone completely unnoticed until now. While viewing Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, Gaia revealed a stellar cluster that had previously been obscured by Sirius’ bright light. This cluster – now known as the Gaia 1 Cluster – is now available to the public thanks to a picture that was taken by an amateur astronomer from Germany.
Given its brightness and the fact that it is visible from just about anywhere on the planet, Sirius has been known since antiquity, and was featured prominently in the astrological and astronomical traditions of many cultures. To the ancient Egyptians, the star was used to keep track of time and agriculture, since its return to the sky was linked to the annual flooding of the Nile.
In Ancient Greek mythology, Sirius represented the eye of the Canis Major constellation. Along with Canis Minor, it formed the Great Dog that diligently followed Orion, the Hunter. In Chinese astronomy, the star is known as the star of the “celestial wolf” and lies in the Mansion of Jing. And when Ptolemy created his influential astronomical tract in the 3rd century CE (the Almagest), he used Sirius as the location for the globe’s central meridian.
By the mid-19th century, astronomers determined that Sirius is actually a binary star system. Essentially, the star system consists of a main sequence white dwarf that is roughly two Solar masses and a white dwarf that is slightly more massive than our Sun. Sirius’ bright appearance means that astronomers have had plenty of light to study the star’s properties, but also causes it to outshine other celestial objects in its vicinity.
However, in the course of counting the stars around Sirius, Gaia’s sophisticated instruments managed to detect the Gaia 1 Cluster for the first time. News of both this cluster and another newly-discovered one (the Gaia 2 Cluster) became public after the first release of Gaia data, which took place in September 2016. News of this discovery sent ripples through the astronomical community and has led to much research into this cluster and its companion.
News of the discovery also prompted attempts to visually capture the cluster. Roughly a year ago, Harald Kaiser – an amateur astronomer from Karlsruhe, Germany – attended a public talk about the Gaia mission, where he learned about the Gaia 1 Cluster being spotted near Sirius. Kaiser then eagerly waited for the next clear night so he could find the cluster himself using his 30 cm telescope.
After snapping a picture of Sirius and correcting for its bright glare, he was able to capture some of the brightest stars in the cluster. As you can see from the image he took (at top), the cluster lies slightly to the left of Sirius and shows a smattering of some of its largest and brightest stars. In addition to revealing the location of this cluster, Kaiser’s efforts are also part of a larger effort to capitalize on the Gaia mission’s progress.
According to a study released in February of last year – led by Sergey Kopsov of Carnegie Melon University – Gaia 1 is a particularly massive cluster. In essence, it weighs in at an impressive 22,000 Solar Masses, is about 29 light-years (9 parsecs) in diameter, and is located 15,000 light years (4.6 kiloparsecs) from Earth. In addition to its size and the fact that it was previously undiscovered, it’s proximity also makes it an opportune target for future research.
The announcement of this cluster has also caused a fair degree of excitement in the scientific community since it validates the capabilities of Gaia and serves as an example of the kinds of things it is expected to reveal. Astronomers are now looking forward to Gaia’s second data release (planned for April 25th) which is expected to provide even more possibilities for new and exciting discoveries.
And be sure to check out this video about the Gaia mission, courtesy of the ESA:
Images from space don’t get any prettier than this. A new image from the Hubble Space Telescope was released today to commemorate a quarter century of exploring the Solar System and beyond since the launch of the telescope on April 24, 1990. It shows a giant cluster of about 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2, located 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Carina. NASA describes the new image as a “brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resemble a glittering fireworks display.”
The Hubble Teams are giving away a few “gifts” to everyone to celebrate this silver anniversary — see below!
“Hubble has completely transformed our view of the universe, revealing the true beauty and richness of the cosmos” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “This vista of starry fireworks and glowing gas is a fitting image for our celebration of 25 years of amazing Hubble science.”
The cluster is named after Swedish astronomer Bengt Westerlund who discovered the grouping in the 1960s.
Brazilian astronomers have discovered some 300+ star clusters that were largely overlooked owing to sizable obscuration by dust. The astronomers, from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, used data obtained by NASA’s WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) space telescope to detect the clusters.
“WISE is a powerful tool to probe … young clusters throughout the Galaxy”, remarked the group. The clusters discovered were previously overlooked because the constituent stars are deeply embedded in their parent molecular cloud, and are encompassed by dust. Stars and star clusters can emerge from such environments.
The group added that, “The present catalog of new clusters will certainly become a major source for future studies of star cluster formation.” Indeed, WISE is well-suited to identify new stars and their host clusters because infrared radiation is less sensitive to dust obscuration. The infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum is sampled by WISE.
Historically, new star clusters were often identified while inspecting photographic plates imaged at (or near) visible wavelengths (i.e., the same wavelengths sampled by the eye). Young embedded clusters were consequently under-sampled since the amount of obscuration by dust is wavelength dependent. As indicated in the figure above, the infrared observations penetrate the dust by comparison to optical observations.
The latest generation of infrared survey telescopes (e.g., Spitzer and WISE) are thus excellent instruments for detecting clusters embedded in their parent cloud, or hidden from detection because of dust lying along the sight-line. The team notes that, “The Galaxy appears to contain 100000 open clusters, but only some 2000 have established astrophysical parameters.” It is hoped that continued investigations using WISE and Spitzer will help astronomers minimize that gap.
We’ve discovered dozens of so-called “hypervelocity stars” — single stars that break the stellar speed limit. But today astronomers multiplied the number of these ‘runaway’ stars by hundreds of thousands. The Virgo Cluster galaxy, M87, has ejected an entire star cluster, throwing it toward us at more than two million miles per hour.
“Astronomers have found runaway stars before, but this is the first time we’ve found a runaway star cluster,” said lead author Nelson Caldwell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a press release.
About one in a billion stars travel at a speed roughly three times greater than our Sun (which clocks in at 220 km/s with respect to the galactic center). At a speed that fast, these stars can easily escape the galaxy entirely, traveling rapidly throughout intergalactic space.
But this is the first time an entire star cluster has broken free.
What would cause an entire cluster — hundreds of thousands of stars packed together a million times more closely than in the neighborhood of our Sun — to reach such a tremendous speed?
Single hypervelocity stars have puzzled astronomers for years. But by observing their speed and direction, astronomers can trace these stars backward, finding that some began moving quickly in the Galactic Center. Here, an interaction with the supermassive black hole can kick a star away at an alarming speed. Another option is that a supernova explosion propelled a nearby star to a huge speed.
Caldwell and colleagues think M87 might have two supermassive black holes at its center. The star cluster wandered too close to the pair, which picked off many of the cluster’s outer stars while the inner core remained intact. The black holes then acted like a slingshot, flinging the cluster away at a tremendous speed.
The star cluster is moving so fast it should soon by sailing into intergalactic space. It may already be, but its distance remains unknown.
The team found the globular cluster — dubbed HVGC-1 — with a stroke of luck. They had been analyzing 2,500 globular cluster candidates for years. While a computer algorithm automatically calculated the speed of every cluster, any oddity was analyzed by hand.
Over 1,000 candidates have measured velocities between 500 and 3000 km/s. These speeds are typical for Virgo Cluster members. But HVGC-1 has a radial velocity of -1026 km/s. “This is the most negative, bulk velocity ever measured for an astronomical object not orbiting another object,” writes Caldwell.
“We didn’t expect to find anything moving that fast,” said coauthor Jay Strader of Michigan State University.
Future measurements pinpointing the exact distance to the globular cluster will help shed light on its exact origins.
The paper will be published in The Astrophysics Journal Letters and is available for download here.
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”.
“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.”
It takes time to understand the life of stars. A star like our Sun takes tens of millions of years to form, and so much like archeologists who reconstruct ancient cities from shards of debris strewn over time, astronomers must reconstruct the birth process of stars indirectly, by observing stars in different stages of the process and inferring the changes that take place.
One of the best places to study the lives of stars is in star clusters. These regions that are rich with young stars provide astronomers much information that is relevant to the study of stars in general, but within a cluster, stars can form during a wide range of time, as a new study of the star cluster named Cep OB3b has shown.
“By studying nearby massive young clusters like Cep OB3b, we can gain a greater understanding of the environments out of which planets form,” said Thomas Allen from the University of Toledo, who is one of the authors of the new paper.
Located in the northern constellation of Cepheus, CepOB3b is similar in some ways to the famous cluster found in the Orion Nebula. But unlike the Orion Nebula, there is relatively little dust and gas obscuring our view of Cep OB3b. Its massive, hot stars have blown out cavities in the gaseous cloud with their intense ultraviolet radiation which mercilessly destroys everything in its path. Cep OB3b may show us what the Orion Nebular Cluster will look like in the future.
Allen and an international team of astronomers have found that the total number of young stars in the cluster is as high as 3,000. Infrared observations of the stars from the NASA Spitzer satellite show about 1,000 stars that are surrounded by disks of gas and dust from which solar systems may form. As the stars age, the disks disappear as the dust and gas get converted into planets or are dispersed into space.
But these observations pointed to a new mystery. Although the stars in Cep OB3b are thought to be about three million years old, in some parts of the cluster most of the stars had lost their disks, suggesting that the stars in those parts were older. This suggests that the cluster is surrounded by older stars, potential relics of previous clusters that have since expanded and dispersed.
To search for evidence for these relic clusters, Allen used the Mosaic camera on the 0.9 meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory to observe wide field images of CepOB3b. These images show hot gas and its interaction with the stars and permit the team to study a curious cavity in the gas for evidence of older, yet still juvenile, stars that have lost their disks of gas and dust.
With these data, the team is searching for the previous generations of star formation in the region surrounding Cep OB3b, and piecing together the history of star formation in this magnificent region. When finished, this may provide clues how previous generations may have influenced the current generation of stars and planets forming in Cep OB3b.