What Does It Mean To Be ‘Star Stuff’?

At one time or another, all science enthusiasts have heard the late Carl Sagan’s infamous words: “We are made of star stuff.” But what does that mean exactly? How could colossal balls of plasma, greedily burning away their nuclear fuel in faraway time and space, play any part in spawning the vast complexity of our Earthly world? How is it that “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies” could have been forged so offhandedly deep in the hearts of these massive stellar giants?

Unsurprisingly, the story is both elegant and profoundly awe-inspiring.

All stars come from humble beginnings: namely, a gigantic, rotating clump of gas and dust. Gravity drives the cloud to condense as it spins, swirling into an ever more tightly packed sphere of material. Eventually, the star-to-be becomes so dense and hot that molecules of hydrogen in its core collide and fuse into new molecules of helium. These nuclear reactions release powerful bursts of energy in the form of light. The gas shines brightly; a star is born.

The ultimate fate of our fledgling star depends on its mass. Smaller, lightweight stars burn though the hydrogen in their core more slowly than heavier stars, shining somewhat more dimly but living far longer lives. Over time, however, falling hydrogen levels at the center of the star cause fewer hydrogen fusion reactions; fewer hydrogen fusion reactions mean less energy, and therefore less outward pressure.

At a certain point, the star can no longer maintain the tension its core had been sustaining against the mass of its outer layers. Gravity tips the scale, and the outer layers begin to tumble inward on the core. But their collapse heats things up, increasing the core pressure and reversing the process once again. A new hydrogen burning shell is created just outside the core, reestablishing a buffer against the gravity of the star’s surface layers.

While the core continues conducting lower-energy helium fusion reactions, the force of the new hydrogen burning shell pushes on the star’s exterior, causing the outer layers to swell more and more. The star expands and cools into a red giant. Its outer layers will ultimately escape the pull of gravity altogether, floating off into space and leaving behind a small, dead core – a white dwarf.

Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel
Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel

Heavier stars also occasionally falter in the fight between pressure and gravity, creating new shells of atoms to fuse in the process; however, unlike smaller stars, their excess mass allows them to keep forming these layers. The result is a series of concentric spheres, each shell containing heavier elements than the one surrounding it. Hydrogen in the core gives rise to helium. Helium atoms fuse together to form carbon. Carbon combines with helium to create oxygen, which fuses into neon, then magnesium, then silicon… all the way across the periodic table to iron, where the chain ends. Such massive stars act like a furnace, driving these reactions by way of sheer available energy.

But this energy is a finite resource. Once the star’s core becomes a solid ball of iron, it can no longer fuse elements to create energy. As was the case for smaller stars, fewer energetic reactions in the core of heavyweight stars mean less outward pressure against the force of gravity. The outer layers of the star will then begin to collapse, hastening the pace of heavy element fusion and further reducing the amount of energy available to hold up those outer layers. Density increases exponentially in the shrinking core, jamming together protons and electrons so tightly that it becomes an entirely new entity: a neutron star.

At this point, the core cannot get any denser. The star’s massive outer shells – still tumbling inward and still chock-full of volatile elements – no longer have anywhere to go. They slam into the core like a speeding oil rig crashing into a brick wall, and erupt into a monstrous explosion: a supernova. The extraordinary energies generated during this blast finally allow the fusion of elements even heavier than iron, from cobalt all the way to uranium.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements. Massive stars can fuse elements up to Iron (Fe), atomic number 26. Elements with atomic numbers 27 through 92 are produced in the aftermath of a massive star’s core collapse.

The energetic shock wave produced by the supernova moves out into the cosmos, disbursing heavy elements in its wake. These atoms can later be incorporated into planetary systems like our own. Given the right conditions – for instance, an appropriately stable star and a position within its Habitable Zone – these elements provide the building blocks for complex life.

Today, our everyday lives are made possible by these very atoms, forged long ago in the life and death throes of massive stars. Our ability to do anything at all – wake up from a deep sleep, enjoy a delicious meal, drive a car, write a sentence, add and subtract, solve a problem, call a friend, laugh, cry, sing, dance, run, jump, and play – is governed mostly by the behavior of tiny chains of hydrogen combined with heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus.

Other heavy elements are present in smaller quantities in the body, but are nonetheless just as vital to proper functioning. For instance, calcium, fluorine, magnesium, and silicon work alongside phosphorus to strengthen and grow our bones and teeth; ionized sodium, potassium, and chlorine play a vital role in maintaining the body’s fluid balance and electrical activity; and iron comprises the key portion of hemoglobin, the protein that equips our red blood cells with the ability to deliver the oxygen we inhale to the rest of our body.

So, the next time you are having a bad day, try this: close your eyes, take a deep breath, and contemplate the chain of events that connects your body and mind to a place billions of lightyears away, deep in the distant reaches of space and time. Recall that massive stars, many times larger than our sun, spent millions of years turning energy into matter, creating the atoms that make up every part of you, the Earth, and everyone you have ever known and loved.

We human beings are so small; and yet, the delicate dance of molecules made from this star stuff gives rise to a biology that enables us to ponder our wider Universe and how we came to exist at all. Carl Sagan himself explained it best: “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return; and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Radio Telescopes Resolve Pleiades Distance Debate

Fall will soon be at our doorstep. But before the leaves change colors and the smell of pumpkin fills our coffee shops, the Pleiades star cluster will mark the new season with its earlier presence in the night sky.

The delicate grouping of blue stars has been a prominent sight since antiquity. But in recent years, the cluster has also been the subject of an intense debate, marking a controversy that has troubled astronomers for more than a decade.

Now, a new measurement argues that the distance to the Pleiades star cluster measured by ESA’s Hipparcos satellite is decidedly wrong and that previous measurements from ground-based telescopes had it right all along.

The Pleiades star cluster is a perfect laboratory to study stellar evolution. Born from the same cloud of gas, all stars exhibit nearly identical ages and compositions, but vary in their mass. Accurate models, however, depend greatly on distance. So it’s critical that astronomers know the cluster’s distance precisely.

A well pinned down distance is also a perfect stepping stone in the cosmic distance ladder. In other words, accurate distances to the Pleiades will help produce accurate distances to the farthest galaxies.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth's orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. CREDIT: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.
With the parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO / AUI / NSF

But accurately measuring the vast distances in space is tricky. A star’s trigonometric parallax — its tiny apparent shift against background stars caused by our moving vantage point — tells its distance more truly than any other method.

Originally the consensus was that the Pleiades are about 435 light-years from Earth. However, ESA’s Hipparcos satellite, launched in 1989 to precisely measure the positions and distances of thousands of stars using parallax, produced a distance measurement of only about 392 light-years, with an error of less than 1%.

“That may not seem like a huge difference, but, in order to fit the physical characteristics of the Pleiades stars, it challenged our general understanding of how stars form and evolve,” said lead author Carl Melis, of the University of California, San Diego, in a press release. “To fit the Hipparcos distance measurement, some astronomers even suggested that some type of new and unknown physics had to be at work in such young stars.”

If the cluster really was 10% closer than everyone had thought, then the stars must be intrinsically dimmer than stellar models suggested. A debate ensued as to whether the spacecraft or the models were at fault.

To solve the discrepancy, Melis and his colleagues used a new technique known as very-long-baseline radio interferometry. By linking distant telescopes together, astronomers generate a virtual telescope, with a data-gathering surface as large as the distances between the telescopes.

The network included the Very Long Baseline Array (a system of 10 radio telescopes ranging from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands), the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the William E. Gordon Telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Effelsberg Radio Telescope in Germany.

“Using these telescopes working together, we had the equivalent of a telescope the size of the Earth,” said Amy Miouduszewski, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). “That gave us the ability to make extremely accurate position measurements — the equivalent of measuring the thickness of a quarter in Los Angeles as seen from New York.”

After a year and a half of observations, the team determined a distance of 444.0 light-years to within 1% — matching the results from previous ground-based observations and not the Hipparcos satellite.

“The question now is what happened to Hipparcos?” Melis said.

The spacecraft measured the position of roughly 120,000 nearby stars and — in principle — calculated distances that were far more precise than possible with ground-based telescopes. If this result holds up, astronomers will grapple with why the Hipparcos observations misjudged the distances so badly.

ESA’s long-awaited Gaia observatory, which launched on Dec. 19, 2013, will use similar technology to measure the distances of about one billion stars. Although it’s now ready to begin its science mission, the mission team will have to take special care, utilizing the work of ground-based radio telescopes in order to ensure their measurements are accurate.

The findings have been published in the Aug. 29 issue of Science and is available online.

Deep Astrophoto of LDN 673: The Place Where Stars are Born

What a stunning view of this dark region of space! This image, by astrophotographer Callum Hayton shows LDN 673, a molecular cloud complex that lies in the constellation Aquila. This region is massive — around 67 trillion kilometers (42 trillion miles across), and it is between 300-600 light years from Earth. Observers in the northern hemisphere can find this region in the summer skies near the bright star Altair and the Summer Triangle.

Because the cloud lies on the galactic plane, the dark dust is back-lit by millions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. This dusty cloud likely contains enough raw material to form hundreds of thousands of stars. Hayton explained on Flickr how the dust gets “eroded” away by stellar formation:

“When some of these clouds reach a certain mass they begin to collapse and fragment creating protostars,” Hayton wrote. “As the temperature and pressure at the centre of the protostar rises, sometimes it becomes so great that nuclear fusion begins and a star is born. In this image you can see where at least two young stars have eroded the dust around them and are now above the clouds casting light down on to the dust below.”

Gorgeous!

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A Protostar’s Age Gleaned Only From Sound Waves

Precisely dating a star can have important consequences for understanding stellar evolution and any circling exoplanets. But it’s one of the toughest plights in astronomy with only a few existing techniques.

One method is to find a star with radioactive elements like uranium and thorium, whose half-lives are known and can be used to date the star with certainty. But only about 5 percent of stars are thought to have such a chemical signature.

Another method is to look for a relationship between a star’s age and its ‘metals,’ the astronomer’s slang term for all elements heavier than helium. Throughout cosmic history, the cycle of star birth and death has steadily produced and dispersed more heavy elements leading to new generations of stars that are more heavily seeded with metals than the generation before. But the uncertainties here are huge.

The latest research is providing a new technique, showing that protostars can easily be dated by measuring the acoustic vibrations — sound waves — they emit.

Stars are born deep inside giant molecular clouds of gas. Turbulence within these clouds gives rise to pockets of gas and dust with enough mass to collapse under their own gravitational contraction. As each cloud — protostar — continues to collapse, the core gets hotter, until the temperature is sufficient enough to begin nuclear fusion, and a full-blown star is born.

Our Sun likely required about 50 million years to mature from the beginning of collapse.

Theoretical physicists have long posited that protostars vibrate differently than stars. Now, Konstanze Zwintz from KU Leuven’s Institute for Astronomy, and colleagues have tested this prediction.

The team studied the vibrations of 34 protostars in NGC 2264, all of which are less than 10 million years old. They used the Canadian MOST satellite, the European CoRoT satellite, and ground-based facilities such as the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

“Our data show that the youngest stars vibrate slower while the stars nearer to adulthood vibrate faster,” said Zwintz in a press release. “A star’s mass has a major impact on its development: stars with a smaller mass evolve slower. Heavy stars grow faster and age more quickly.”

Each stars’ vibrations are indirectly seen by their subtle changes in brightness. Bubbles of hot, bright gas rise to the star’s surface and then cool, dim, and sink in a convective loop. This overturn causes small changes in the star’s brightness, revealing hidden information about the sound waves deep within.

You can actually hear this process when the stellar light curves are converted into sound waves. Below is a video of such singing stars, produced by Nature last year.

“We now have a model that more precisely measures the age of young stars,” said Zwintz. “And we are now also able to subdivide young stars according to their various life phases.”

The results were published in Science.

Astronomers Find Evidence of a Strange Type of Star

One has never been spotted for sure in the wild jungle of strange stellar objects out there, but astronomers now think they have finally found a theoretical cosmic curiosity: a Thorne-Zytkow Object, or TZO, hiding in the neighboring Small Magellanic Cloud. With the outward appearance of garden-variety red supergiants, TZOs are actually two stars in one: a binary pair where a super-dense neutron star has been absorbed into its less dense supergiant parter, and from within it operates its exotic elemental forge.

First theorized in 1975 by physicist Kip Thorne and astronomer Anna Zytkow, TZOs have proven notoriously difficult to find in real life because of their similarity to red supergiants, like the well-known Betelgeuse at the shoulder of Orion. It’s only through detailed spectroscopy that the particular chemical signatures of a TZO can be identified.

Infrared portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud, made by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope
Portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud, made by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope

Observations of the red supergiant HV 2112 in the Small Magellanic Cloud*, a dwarf galaxy located a mere 200,000 light-years away, have revealed these signatures — unusually high concentrations of heavy elements like molybdenum, rubidium, and lithium.

While it’s true that these elements are created inside stars — we are all star-stuff, like Carl Sagan said — they aren’t found in quantity within the atmospheres of lone supergiants. Only by absorbing a much hotter star — such as a neutron star left over from the explosive death of a more massive partner — is the production of such elements presumed to be possible.

“Studying these objects is exciting because it represents a completely new model of how stellar interiors can work,”said Emily Levesque, team leader from the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author on the paper. “In these interiors we also have a new way of producing heavy elements in our universe.”

Definitive detection of a TZO would provide direct evidence for a completely new model of stellar interiors, as well as confirm a theoretically predicted fate for massive star binary systems and the existence of nucleosynthesis environments that offer a new channel for heavy-element and lithium production in our universe.
– E.M. Levesque et al., Discovery of a Thorne-Zytkow object candidate in the Small Magellanic Cloud

One of the original proposers of TZOs, Dr. Anna Zytkow, is glad to see her work resulting in new discoveries.

“I am extremely happy that observational confirmation of our theoretical prediction has started to emerge,” Zytkow said. “Since Kip Thorne and I proposed our models of stars with neutron cores, people were not able to disprove our work. If theory is sound, experimental confirmation shows up sooner or later. So it was a matter of identification of a promising group of stars, getting telescope time and proceeding with the project.”

The findings were first announced in January at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The paper has now been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters, and is co-authored by Philip Massey, of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; Anna Zytkow of the University of Cambridge in the U.K.; and Nidia Morrell of the Carnegie Observatories in La Serena, Chile. Read the team’s paper here.

Source: University of Colorado, Boulder. Illustration by ‘Digital Drew.’
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*In the paper the team notes that it’s not yet confirmed that HV 2112 is part of the SMC and could be associated with our own galaxy. If so it would rule out it being a TZO, but would still require an explanation of its observed spectra.

Stars Boil Before They Blow Up, Says NuSTAR

Supernovas are some of the most energetic and powerful events in the observable Universe. Briefly outshining entire galaxies, they are the final, dying  outbursts of stars several times more massive than our Sun. And while we know supernovas are responsible for creating the heavy elements necessary for everything from planets to people to power tools,  scientists have long struggled to determine the mechanics behind the sudden collapse and subsequent explosion of massive stars.

Now, thanks to NASA’s NuSTAR mission, we have our first solid clues to what happens before a star goes “boom.”

The image above shows the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (or Cas A for short) with NuSTAR data in blue and observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory in red, green, and yellow. It’s the shockwave left over from the explosion of a star about 15 to 25 times more massive than our Sun over 330 years ago*, and it glows in various wavelengths of light depending on the temperatures and types of elements present.

Artist's concept of NuSTAR in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of NuSTAR in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Previous observations with Chandra revealed x-ray emissions from expanding shells and filaments of hot iron-rich gas in Cas A, but they couldn’t peer deep enough to get a better idea of what’s inside the structure. It wasn’t until NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array — that’s NuSTAR to those in the know — turned its x-ray vision on Cas A that the missing puzzle pieces could be found.

And they’re made of radioactive titanium.

Many models have been made (using millions of hours of supercomputer time) to try to explain core-collapse supernovas. One of the leading ones has the star ripped apart by powerful jets firing from its poles — something that’s associated with even more powerful (but focused) gamma-ray bursts. But it didn’t appear that jets were the cause with Cas A, which doesn’t exhibit elemental remains within its jet structures… and besides, the models relying on jets alone didn’t always result in a full-blown supernova.

As it turns out, the presence of asymmetric clumps of radioactive titanium deep within the shells of Cas A, revealed in high-energy x-rays by NuSTAR, point to a surprisingly different process at play: a “sloshing” of material within the progenitor star that kickstarts a shockwave, ultimately tearing it apart.

Watch an animation of how this process occurs:

The sloshing, which occurs over a time span of a mere couple hundred milliseconds — literally in the blink of an eye — is likened to boiling water on a stove. When the bubbles break through the surface, the steam erupts.

Only in this case the eruption leads to the insanely powerful detonation of an entire star, blasting a shockwave of high-energy particles into the interstellar medium and scattering a periodic tableful of heavy elements into the galaxy.

In the case of Cas A, titanium-44 was ejected, in clumps that echo the shape of the original sloshing asymmetry. NuSTAR was able to image and map the titanium, which glows in x-ray because of its radioactivity (and not because it’s heated by expanding shockwaves, like other lighter elements visible to Chandra.)

“Until we had NuSTAR we couldn’t really see down into the core of the explosion,” said Caltech astronomer Brian Grefenstette during a NASA teleconference on Feb. 19.

Illustration of the pre-supernova star in Cassiopeia A. It's thought that its layers were "turned inside out" just before it detonated. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Illustration of the pre-supernova star in Cassiopeia A. It’s thought that its layers were “turned inside out” just before it detonated. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

“Previously, it was hard to interpret what was going on in Cas A because the material that we could see only glows in X-rays when it’s heated up. Now that we can see the radioactive material, which glows in X-rays no matter what, we are getting a more complete picture of what was going on at the core of the explosion.”

– Brian Grefenstette, lead author, Caltech

Okay, so great, you say. NASA’s NuSTAR has found the glow of titanium in the leftovers of a blown-up star, Chandra saw some iron, and we know it sloshed and ‘boiled’ a fraction of a second before it exploded. So what?

“Now you should care about this,” said astronomer Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Supernovae make the chemical elements, so if you bought an American car, it wasn’t made in Detroit two years ago; the iron atoms in that steel were manufactured in an ancient supernova explosion that took place five billion years ago. And NuSTAR shows that the titanium that’s in your Uncle Jack’s replacement hip were made in that explosion too.

“We’re all stardust, and NuSTAR is showing us where we came from. Including our replacement parts. So you should care about this… and so should your Uncle Jack.”

And it’s not just core-collapse supernovas that NuSTAR will be able to investigate. Other types of supernovas will be scrutinized too — in the case of SN2014J, a Type Ia that was spotted in M82 in January, even right after they occur.

“We know that those are a type of white dwarf star that detonates,” NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison responded to Universe Today during the teleconference. “This is very exciting news… NuSTAR has been looking at [SN2014J] for weeks, and we hope to be able to say something about that explosion as well.”

Previous imaging with Chandra (left, middle) is combined with new data from NuSTAR (right) to make a complete image of a supernova remnant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO)
Previous imaging with Chandra (left, middle) is combined with new data from NuSTAR (right) to make a complete image of a supernova remnant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO)

One of the most valuable achievements of the recent NuSTAR findings is having a new set of observed constraints to place on future models of core-collapse supernovas… which will help provide answers — and likely new questions — about how stars explode, even hundreds or thousands of years after they do.

“NuSTAR is pioneering science, and you have to expect that when you get new results, it’ll open up as many questions as you answer,” said Kirshner.

Launched in June of 2012, NuSTAR is the first focusing hard X-ray telescope to orbit Earth and the first telescope capable of producing maps of radioactive elements in supernova remnants.

Read more on the JPL news release here, and listen to the full press conference here.

*As Cas A resides 11,000 light-years from Earth, the actual date of the supernova would be about 11,330 years ago. Give or take a few.

Is Eta Carinae Heading Toward Another Eruption?

Massive stars can devastate their surroundings, unleashing hot winds and blasting radiation. With a mass over 100 times heavier than the Sun and a luminosity a million times brighter than the Sun, Eta Carinae clocks in as one of the biggest and brightest stars in our galaxy.

The enigmatic object walks a thin line between stellar stability and tumultuous explosions. But now a team of international astronomers is growing concerned that it’s leaning toward instability and eruption.

In the 19th Century the star mysteriously threw off unusually bright light for two decades in an event that became known as the “Great Eruption,” the causes of which are still up for debate. John Herschel and others watched as Eta Carinae’s brightness oscillated around that of Vega — rivaling a supernova explosion.

We now know the star ejected material in the form of two big globes. “During the eruption the star threw off more than 10 solar masses, which can now be observed as the surrounding bipolar nebula,” said lead author Dr. Andrea Mehner from the European Southern Observatory. Miraculously the star survived, but the nebula has been expanding into space ever since.

Eta Carinae has been observed at the South African Astronomical Observatory — a 0.75m telescope outside of Cape Town — for more than 40 years, providing a wealth of data. From the start of observations in 1976 until 1998, astronomers saw an increase across the J, H, K and L bands — filters, which allow certain wavelength ranges of infrared light to pass through.

“This data set is unique for its consistency over a timespan of more than 40 years,” Mehner told Universe Today. “It provides us with the opportunity to analyze long-term changes in the system as Eta Carinae still recovers from its Great Eruption.”

In order to understand the longterm overall increase in light we have to look at a more recent discovery noted in 2005 when scientists discovered that Eta Carinae is actually two stars: a massive blue star and a smaller companion. The temperature increased for 15 years until the companion came very close to the massive star, reaching periastron.

This increase in brightness is likely due to an overall increase in temperature of some component of the Eta Carinae system (which includes the massive blue star, its smaller companion, and the shells of gas and dust that now enshroud the system).

After 1998, however, the linear trend changed significantly and the star’s brightness increased much more rapidly in the J and H bands. It’s getting bluer, which in astronomy, typically means it’s getting hotter.

However, it’s unlikely the star itself is getting hotter. Instead we are seeing the effect of dust around the star being destroyed rapidly. Dust absorbs blue light. So if the dust is getting destroyed, more blue light will be able to pass through the nebulous globes surrounding the system. If this is the case, then we’re really seeing the star as it truly is, without dust absorbing certain wavelengths of its light.

While the nebula is slowly expanding and the dust is therefore dissipating, the authors do not think it’s enough to account for the recent brightening. Instead Eta Carinae is likely rotating at a different speed or losing mass at a different rate. “The changes observed may imply that the star is becoming more unstable and may head towards another eruptive phase,” Mehner told Universe Today.

Perhaps Eta Carinae is heading toward another “Great Eruption.” Only time will tell. But in a field where most events occur on a timescale of millions of years, it’s a great opportunity to watch the system evolve on a human time scale. And when Eta Carinae reaches periastron in the middle of this year, tens of telescopes will be collecting its light, hoping to see a sudden turn of events that may help us explain this exotic system.

The paper has been accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics and is available for download here.

Dazzling New Views of a Familiar Cluster

Wow. It’s always amazing to get new views of familiar sky targets. And you always know that a “feast for the eyes” is in store when astronomers turn a world-class instrument towards a familiar celestial object.

Such an image was released this morning from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Astronomers turned ESO’s 2.2-metre telescope towards Messier 7 in the constellation Scorpius recently, and gave us the star-studded view above.

Also known as NGC 6475, Messier 7 (M7) is an open cluster comprised of over 100 stars located about 800 light years distant. Located in the curved “stinger” of the Scorpion, M7 is a fine binocular object shining at a combined magnitude of about +3.3. M7 is physically about 25 light years across and appears about 80 arc minutes – almost the span of three Full Moons – in diameter from our Earthly vantage point.

One of the most prominent open clusters in the sky, M7 lies roughly in the direction of the galactic center in the nearby astronomical constellation of Sagittarius. When you’re looking towards  M7 and the tail of Scorpius you’re looking just south of the galactic plane in the direction of the dusty core of our galaxy. The ESO image reveals the shining jewels of the cluster embedded against the more distant starry background.

Messier 7 is middle-aged as open clusters go, at 200 million years old. Of course, that’s still young for the individual stars themselves, which are just venturing out into the galaxy. The cluster will lose about 10% of its stellar population early on, as more massive stars live their lives fast and die young as supernovae. Our own solar system may have been witness to such nearby cataclysms as it left its unknown “birth cluster” early in its life.

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Other stars in Messier 7 will eventually mature, “join the galactic car pool” in the main sequence as they disperse about the plane of the galaxy.

But beyond just providing a pretty picture, studying a cluster such as Messier 7 is crucial to our understanding stellar evolution. All of the stars in Messier 7 were “born” roughly around the same time, giving researchers a snapshot and a chance to contrast and compare how stars mature over there lives. Each open cluster also has a unique spectral “fingerprint,” a chemical marker that can even be used to identify the pedigree of a star.

For example, there’s controversy that the open cluster Messier 67 may actually be the birth place of our Sun. It is interesting to note that the spectra of stars in this cluster do bear a striking resemblance in terms of metallicity percentage to Sol. Remember, metals in astronomer-speak is any element beyond hydrogen and helium. A chief objection to the Messier 67 “birth-place hypothesis” is the high orbital inclination of the open cluster about the core of our galaxy: our Sun would have had to have undergone a series of improbable stellar encounters to have ended up its current sedate quarter of a billion year orbit about the Milky Way galaxy.

Still, this highlights the value of studying clusters such as Messier 6. It’s also interesting to note that there’s also data in what you can’t see in the above image – dark gaps are thought to be dust lanes and globules in the foreground. Though there is some thought that this dust is debris that may also be related to the cluster and may give us clues as to its overall rotation, its far more likely that these sorts of “dark spirals” related to the cluster have long since dispersed. M7 has completed about one full orbit about the Milky Way since its formation.

Another famous binocular object, the open cluster Messier 6 (M6) also known as the Butterfly Cluster lies nearby. Messier 7 also holds the distinction as being the southernmost object in Messier’s catalog. Compiled from Parisian latitudes, Charles Messier entirely missed southern wonders such as Omega Centauri in his collection of deep sky objects that were not to be mistaken for comets. We also always thought it curious that he included such obvious “non-comets” such as the Pleiades, but missed fine northern sky objects as the Double Cluster in the northern constellation Perseus.

Finding Messier 6: the view from latitude 30 degrees north before dawn in mid-February. Credit: Stellarium.
Finding Messier 6: the view from latitude 30 degrees north before dawn in mid-February. Credit: Stellarium.

Messier 7 is also sometimes called Ptolemy’s Cluster after astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who first described it in 130 A.D. as the “nebula following the sting of Scorpius.” The season for hunting all of Messier’s objects in an all night marathon is coming right up in March, and Messier 7 is one of the last targets on the list, hanging high due south in the early morning sky.

Interested in catching how Messier 7 will evolve, or might look like up close?  Check out Messier 45 (the Pleiades) and the V-shaped Hyades high in the skies in the constellation Taurus at dusk to see what’s in store as Messier 7 disperses, as well as the Ursa Major Moving Group.

And be sure to enjoy the fine view today of Messier 7 from the ESO!

Got pics of Messier 7 or any other deep sky objects? Send ’em, in to Universe Today!

When Is a Star Not a Star?

When it’s a brown dwarf — but where do we draw the line?

Often called “failed stars,” brown dwarfs are curious cosmic creatures. They’re kind of like swollen, super-dense Jupiters, containing huge amounts of matter yet not quite enough to begin fusing hydrogen in their cores. Still, there has to be some sort of specific tipping point, and astronomers (being the scientists that they are) would like to know: when does a brown dwarf stop and a star begin?

Researchers from Georgia State University now have the answer.

From a press release issued Dec. 9 from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO):

For most of their lives, stars obey a relationship referred to as the main sequence, a relation between luminosity and temperature – which is also a relationship between luminosity and radius. Stars behave like balloons in the sense that adding material to the star causes its radius to increase: in a star the material is the element hydrogen, rather than air which is added to a balloon. Brown dwarfs, on the other hand, are described by different physical laws (referred to as electron degeneracy pressure) than stars and have the opposite behavior. The inner layers of a brown dwarf work much like a spring mattress: adding additional weight on them causes them to shrink. Therefore brown dwarfs actually decrease in size with increasing mass.

Read more: The Secret Origin Story of Brown Dwarfs

As Dr. Sergio Dieterich, the lead author, explained, “In order to distinguish stars from brown dwarfs we measured the light from each object thought to lie close to the stellar/brown dwarf boundary. We also carefully measured the distances to each object. We could then calculate their temperatures and radii using basic physical laws, and found the location of the smallest objects we observed (see the attached illustration, based on a figure in the publication). We see that radius decreases with decreasing temperature, as expected for stars, until we reach a temperature of about 2100K. There we see a gap with no objects, and then the radius starts to increase with decreasing temperature, as we expect for brown dwarfs. “

Dr. Todd Henry, another author, said: “We can now point to a temperature (2100K), radius (8.7% that of our Sun), and luminosity (1/8000 of the Sun) and say ‘the main sequence ends there’ and we can identify a particular star (with the designation 2MASS J0513-1403) as a representative of the smallest stars.”

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin (based on a figure from the publication) Image credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF.
The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin (based on a figure from the publication) Image credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF.

“We can now point to a temperature (2100K), radius (8.7% that of our Sun), and luminosity (1/8000 of the Sun) and say ‘the main sequence ends there’.”

Dr. Todd Henry, RECONS Director

Aside from answering a fundamental question in stellar astrophysics about the cool end of the main sequence, the discovery has significant implications in the search for life in the universe. Because brown dwarfs cool on a time scale of only millions of years, planets around brown dwarfs are poor candidates for habitability, whereas very low mass stars provide constant warmth and a low ultraviolet radiation environment for billions of years. Knowing the temperature where the stars end and the brown dwarfs begin should help astronomers decide which objects are candidates for hosting habitable planets.

The data came from the SOAR (SOuthern Astrophysical Research) 4.1-m telescope and the SMARTS (Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System) 0.9-m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile.

Read more here.

Nearby Ancient Star is Almost as Old as the Universe

A metal-poor star located merely 190 light-years from the Sun is 14.46+-0.80 billion years old, which implies that the star is nearly as old as the Universe!  Those results emerged from a new study led by Howard Bond.  Such metal-poor stars are (super) important to astronomers because they set an independent lower limit for the age of the Universe, which can be used to corroborate age estimates inferred by other means.

In the past, analyses of globular clusters and the Hubble constant (expansion rate of the Universe) yielded vastly different ages for the Universe, and were offset by billions of years! Hence the importance of the star (designated HD 140283) studied by Bond and his coauthors.

“Within the errors, the age of HD 140283 does not conflict with the age of the Universe, 13.77 ± 0.06 billion years, based on the microwave background and Hubble constant, but it must have formed soon after the big bang.” the team noted.

Metal-poor stars can be used to constrain the age of the Universe because metal-content is typically a proxy for age. Heavier metals are generally formed in supernova explosions, which pollute the surrounding interstellar medium. Stars subsequently born from that medium are more enriched with metals than their predecessors, with each successive generation becoming increasingly enriched.  Indeed, HD 140283 exhibits less than 1% the iron content of the Sun, which provides an indication of its sizable age.

HD 140283 had been used previously to constrain the age of the Universe, but uncertainties tied to its estimated distance (at that time) made the age determination somewhat imprecise.  The team therefore decided to obtain a new and improved distance for HD 140283 using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), namely via the trigonometric parallax approach. The distance uncertainty for HD 140283 was significantly reduced by comparison to existing estimates, thus resulting in a more precise age estimate for the star.

Age estimate for HD 140283 is 14.46+-0.80 Gyr.  On the y-axis is the star's pseudo-luminosity, on the x-axis its temperature.  An evolutionary track was applied to infer the age (credit: adapted by D. Majaess from Fig 1 in Bond et al. 2013, arXiv).
HD 140283 is estimated to be 14.46+-0.80 billion years old. On the y-axis is the star’s pseudo-luminosity, on the x-axis its temperature. Computed evolutionary tracks (solid lines ranging from 13.4 to 14.4 billion years) were applied to infer the age (image credit: adapted from Fig 1 in Bond et al. 2013 by D. Majaess, arXiv).

The team applied the latest evolutionary tracks (basically, computer models that trace a star’s luminosity and temperature evolution as a function of time) to HD 140283 and derived an age of 14.46+-0.80 billion years (see figure above).  Yet the associated uncertainty could be further mitigated by increasing the sample size of (very) metal-poor stars with precise distances, in concert with the unending task of improving computer models employed to delineate a star’s evolutionary track.  An average computed from that sample would provide a firm lower-limit for the age of the Universe.  The reliability of the age determined is likewise contingent on accurately determining the sample’s metal content.  However, we may not have to wait long, as Don VandenBerg (UVic) kindly relayed to Universe Today to expect, “an expanded article on HD 140283, and the other [similar] targets for which we have improved parallaxes [distances].”

As noted at the outset, analyses of globular clusters and the Hubble constant yielded vastly different ages for the Universe.  Hence the motivation for the Bond et al. 2013 study, which aimed to determine an age for the metal-poor star HD 140283 that could be compared with existing age estimates for the Universe.  The discrepant ages stemmed partly from uncertainties in the cosmic distance scale, as the determination of the Hubble constant relied on establishing (accurate) distances to galaxies.  Historical estimates for the Hubble constant ranged from 50-100 km/s/Mpc, which defines an age spread for the Universe of ~10 billion years.

Age estimates for globular clusters were previously larger than that inferred for the Age of the Universe from the Hubble constant (NASA, R. Gilliland (STScI), D. Malin (AAO))
Age estimates for the Universe as inferred from globular clusters and the Hubble constant were previously in significant disagreement (image credit: NASA, R. Gilliland (STScI), D. Malin (AAO)).

The aforementioned spread in Hubble constant estimates was certainly unsatisfactory, and astronomers recognized that reliable results were needed.  One of the key objectives envisioned for HST was to reduce uncertainties associated with the Hubble constant to <10%, thus providing an improved estimate for the age of the Universe. Present estimates for the Hubble constant, as tied to HST data, appear to span a smaller range (64-75 km/s/Mpc), with the mean implying an age near ~14 billion years.

Determining a reliable age for stars in globular clusters is likewise contingent on the availability of a reliable distance, and the team notes that “it is still unclear whether or not globular cluster ages are compatible with the age of the Universe [predicted from the Hubble constant and other means].” Globular clusters set a lower limit to the age of the Universe, and their age should be smaller than that inferred from the Hubble constant (& cosmological parameters).

In sum, the study reaffirms that there are old stars roaming the solar neighborhood which can be used to constrain the age of the Universe (~14 billion years). The Sun, by comparison, is ~4.5 billion years old.

The team’s findings will appear in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and a preprint is available on arXiv.  The coauthors on the study are E. Nelan, D. VandenBerg, G. Schaefer, and D. Harmer.  The interested reader desiring complete information will find the following works pertinent: Pont et al. 1998, VandenBerg 2000, Freedman & Madore (2010), Tammann & Reindl 2012.