Just in Time for the Holidays – Galactic Encounter Puts on Stunning Display

At this time of year, festive displays of light are to be expected. This tradition has clearly not been lost on the galaxies NHC 2207 and IC 2163. Just in time for the holidays, these colliding galaxies, which are located within the Canis Major constellation (some 130 million light-years from Earth,) were seen putting on a spectacular lights display for us folks here on Earth!

And while this galaxy has been known to produce a lot of intense light over the years, the image above is especially luminous. A composite using data from the Chandra Observatory and the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, it shows the combination of visible, x-ray, and infrared light coming from the galactic pair.

In the past fifteen years, NGC 2207 and IC 2163 have hosted three supernova explosions and produced one of the largest collections of super bright X-ray lights in the known universe. These special objects – known as “ultraluminous X-ray sources” (ULXs) – have been found using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

While the true nature of ULXs is still being debated, it is believed that they are a peculiar type of star X-ray binary. These consist of a star in a tight orbit around either a neutron star or a black hole. The strong gravity of the neutron star or black hole pulls matter from the companion star, and as this matter falls toward the neutron star or black hole, it is heated to millions of degrees and generates X-rays.

 the core of galaxy Messier 82 (M82), where two ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, reside (X-1 and X-2). Credit: NASA
The core of galaxy Messier 82 (M82), where two ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, reside (X-1 and X-2). Credit: NASA

Data obtained from Chandra has determined that – much like the Milky Way Galaxy – NGC 2207 and IC 2163 are sprinkled with many star X-ray binaries. In the new Chandra image, this x-ray data is shown in pink, which shows the sheer prevalence of x-ray sources within both galaxies.

Meanwhile, optical light data from the Hubble Space Telescope is rendered in red, green, and blue (also appearing as blue, white, orange, and brown due to color combinations,) and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope is shown in red.

The Chandra observatory spent far more time observing these galaxies than any previous ULX study, roughly five times as much. As a result, the study team – which consisted of researchers from Harvard University, MIT, and Sam Houston State University – were able to confirm the existence of 28 ULXs between NGC 2207 and IC 2163, seven of which had never before been seen.

In addition, the Chandra data allowed the team of scientists to observe the correlation between X-ray sources in different regions of the galaxy and the rate at which stars are forming in those same regions.

Galaxy mergers, such as the Mice Galaxies will be part of Galaxy Zoo's newest project. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope
The Mice galaxies, seen here well into the process of merging. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

As the new Chandra image shows, the spiral arms of the galaxies – where large amounts of star formation is known to be occurring – show the heaviest concentrations of ULXs, optical light, and infrared. This correlation also suggests that the companion star in the star X-ray binaries is young and massive.

This in turn presents another possibility which has to do with star formation during galactic mergers. When galaxies come together, they produce shock waves that cause clouds of gas within them to collapse, leading to periods of intense star formation and the creation of star clusters.

The fact that the ULXs and the companion stars are young (the researchers estimate that they are only 10 million years old) would seem to confirm that they are the result of NGC 2207 and IC 2163 coming together. This seem a likely explanation since the merger between these two galaxies is still in its infancy, which is attested to by the fact that the galaxies are still separate.

They are expected to collide soon, a process which will make them look more like the Mice Galaxies (pictured above). In about one billion years time, they are expected to finish the process, forming a spiral galaxy that would no doubt resemble our own.

A paper describing the study was recently published on online with The Astrophysical Journal.

Further Reading: NASA/JPL, Chandra, arXiv Astrophysics

Chandra Witnesses Big Blast from an Old Black Hole


Astronomers keeping an eye out for a supernova explosion in the nearby galaxy M83 instead witnessed a prodigious blast of another type: a new ultraluminous X-ray source, or ULX. In what scientists are calling an “extraordinary outburst,” the ULX in M83 increased in X-ray brightness by at least 3,000 times, one of the largest changes in X-rays ever seen for this type of object.

“The flaring up of this ULX took us by surprise and was a sure sign we had discovered something new about the way black holes grow,” said Roberto Soria of Curtin University in Australia, who led the new study.

The researchers say this blast provides direct evidence for a population of old, volatile stellar black holes and gives new insight into the nature of a mysterious class of black holes that can produce as much energy in X-rays as a million suns radiate at all wavelengths.

Astrophysicist Bill Blair of Johns Hopkins University, writing in the Chandra Blog, “A Funny Thing Happened While Waiting for the Next Supernova in M83,” said this galaxy, also known as the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, “is an amazing gift of nature. At 15 million light years away, it is actually one of the closer galaxies (only 7-8 times more distant than the Andromeda galaxy), but it appears as almost exactly face-on, giving earthlings a fantastic view of its beautiful spiral arms and active star-forming nucleus.”

M83 has generated six observed supernovas since 1923, but the last one seen was in 1983. “We are overdue for a new supernova!” Blair wrote.

So, many astronomers have been observing M83, hoping to spot a new supernova, but instead saw a dramatic jump in X-ray brightness, which according to the researchers, likely occurred because of a sudden increase in the amount of material falling into the black hole.

A ULX can give off more X-rays than most “normal” binary systems in which a companion star is in orbit around a neutron star or black hole. The super-sized X-ray emission suggests ULXs contain black holes that might be much more massive than the ones found elsewhere in our galaxy.

Composite image of spiral galaxy M83. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/Curtin University/R. Soria et al., Optical: NASA/STScI/ Middlebury College/F. Winkler et al.)

The companion stars to ULXs, when identified, are usually young, massive stars, implying their black holes are also young. The latest research, however, provides direct evidence that ULXs can contain much older black holes and some sources may have been misidentified as young ones.

The observations of M83 were made over a several year period with Chandra. No sign of the ULX was found in historical X-ray images made with Einstein Observatory in 1980, ROSAT in 1994, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton in 2003 and 2008, NASA’s Swift observatory in 2005, the Magellan Telescope observations in April 2009 or in a Hubble image obtained in August 2009.

But in 2011, Soria and his colleagues used optical images from the Gemini Observatory and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and saw a bright blue source at the position of the X-ray source.

The lack of a blue source in the earlier images indicates the black hole’s companion star is fainter, redder and has a much lower mass than most of the companions that previously have been directly linked to ULXs. The bright, blue optical emission seen in 2011 must have been caused by a dramatic accumulation of more material from the companion star.

“If the ULX only had been observed during its peak of X-ray emission in 2010, the system easily could have been mistaken for a black hole with a massive, much younger stellar companion, about 10 to 20 million years old,” said co-author Blair.

The companion to the black hole in M83 is likely a red giant star at least 500 million years old, with a mass less than four times the sun’s. Theoretical models for the evolution of stars suggest the black hole should be almost as old as its companion.

Another ULX containing a volatile, old black hole recently was discovered in the Andromeda galaxy by a team led by Amanpreet Kaur from Clemson University, published in the February 2012 issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Matthew Middleton and colleagues from the University of Durham reported more information in the March 2012 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They used data from Chandra, XMM-Newton and HST to show the ULX is highly variable and its companion is an old, red star.

“With these two objects, it’s becoming clear there are two classes of ULX, one containing young, persistently growing black holes and the other containing old black holes that grow erratically,” said Kip Kuntz, a co-author of the new M83 paper, also of Johns Hopkins University. “We were very fortunate to observe the M83 object at just the right time to make the before and after comparison.”

A paper describing these results will appear in the May 10th issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Sources: NASA, Chandra Blog

X-rays Reveal a Stellar-Mass Black Hole in Andromeda


An ultraluminous x-ray source (ULX) previously spotted in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy by NASA’s Chandra observatory has now been revealed to be a stellar-mass black hole, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

The black hole was the first ULX seen in Andromeda, as well as the closest ever observed.

Ultraluminous x-ray sources are rare objects, observed in the near and distant Universe in the outer regions of galaxies. Typically only one or two ULXs are seen in any one particular galaxy — if there are any seen at all.

The large distances to ULXs makes detailed observations difficult, and so their exact causes have been hard to nail down.

This particular x-ray source was first identified in late 2009 by Chandra and was followed up with observations by Swift and Hubble. Classified by researchers at the Max Planck Institute as a low-luminosity source, it actually outshined the entire Andromeda galaxy in x-ray luminosity!

Continued observations with Chandra and ESA’s XMM-Newton showed behavior similar to known x-ray sources in our own Milky Way galaxy: actively feeding black holes.

“We were very lucky that we caught the ULX early enough to see most of its lightcurve, which showed a very similar behavior to other X-ray sources from our own galaxy,” said Wolfgang Pietsch from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The emission decayed exponentially with a characteristic timescale of about one month, which is a common property of stellar mass X-ray binaries. “This means that the ULX in Andromeda likely contains a normal, stellar black hole swallowing material at very high rates.”

It’s estimated that the black hole is at least 13 times the mass of the Sun.

(Related: Stellar-Mass Black Hole Blows Record-Speed Winds)

Continued observations of the ULX/black hole will attempt to observe another outburst similar to the 2009 event, although if this black hole is anything like those observed in our galaxy it could be years before another such event occurs. Still, our relatively clear view of the Andromeda galaxy unobscured by intervening dust  and gas offers a chance to perhaps spot other potential x-ray sources residing there.

Read the report from the AlphaGalileo Foundation here, or on ScienceDaily here.

The first MPE team’s paper can be found here.