Project Lyra, a Mission to Chase Down that Interstellar Asteroid

Back in October, the announcement of the first interstellar asteroid triggered a flurry of excitement. Since that time, astronomers have conducted follow-up observations of the object known as 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua) and noted some rather interesting things about it. For example, from rapid changes in its brightness, it has been determined that the asteroid is rocky and metallic, and rather oddly-shaped.

Observations of the asteroid’s orbit have also revealed that it made its closest pass to our Sun back in September of 2017, and it is currently on its way back to interstellar space. Because of the mysteries this body holds, there are those who are advocating that it be intercepted and explored. One such group is Project Lyra, which recently released a study detailing the challenges and benefits such a mission would present. Continue reading “Project Lyra, a Mission to Chase Down that Interstellar Asteroid”

That Interstellar Asteroid is Probably Pretty Strange Looking

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii picked up the first interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua). After originally being mistaken for a comet, observations performed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other astronomers indicated that it was actually an asteroid that measures about 400 meters (1312 ft) long.

Thanks to data obtained by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, the brightness, color and orbit of this asteroid have been precisely determined. And according to a new study led by Dr. Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, `Oumuamua is unlike any other asteroid we’ve ever seen, in that its shape is highly elongated (i.e. very long and thin).

The study, titled “A Brief Visit From a Red and Extremely Elongated Interstellar Asteroid“, appeared today (Nov. 20th) in the scientific journal Nature. Led by Dr. Meech, the team included members from the European Southern Observatory, the Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, the European Space Agency’s SSA-NEO Coordination Center, and the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

The VLT was intrinsic to the combined effort to characterize the fast-moving asteroid rapidly, as it needed to be observed before it passed back into interstellar space again. Based on initial calculations of `Oumuamua’s orbit, astronomers had determined that it had already passed the closest point in its orbit to the Sun in September of 2017. Together with other large telescopes, the VLT captured images of the asteroid using its FORS instrument.

What these revealed was that `Oumuamua varies dramatically in terms of brightness (by a factor of ten) as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. As Dr. Meech explained in an ESO press release, this was both surprising and highly significant:

This unusually large variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape. We also found that it has a dark red colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.

These observations also allowed Dr. Meech and her team to constrain Oumuamua’s composition and basic properties. Essentially, the asteroid is now believed to be a dense and rocky asteroid with a high metal content and little in the way of water ice. It’s dark and reddened surface is also an indication of tholins, which are the result of organic molecules (like methane) being irradiated by cosmic rays for millions of years.

Unlike other asteroids that have been studied in Near-Earth space and the Solar System at large, `Oumuamua is unique in that it is not bound by the Sun’s gravity. In addition to originating outside of our Solar System, its hyperbolic orbit – which has an eccentricity of 1.2 – means that it will head back out into interstellar space after its brief encounter with our Solar System.

Based on preliminary calculations of its orbit, astronomers have deduced that it came from the general direction of Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra. Traveling at a whopping speed of 95,000 km/hour (59,000 mph), `Oumuamua would have left the Vega system about 300,000 years ago. However, it is also possible that the asteroid may have originated somewhere else entirely, wandering the Milky Way for millions of years.

Astronomers estimate that interstellar asteroids like `Oumuamua pass through the inner Solar System at a rate of about once a year. But until now, they have been too faint and difficult to detect in visible light, and have therefore gone unnoticed. It is only recently that survey telescopes like Pan-STARRS have been powerful enough to have a chance at detecting them.

Hence what makes this discovery so significant in the first place. As the first asteroid of its kind to be detected, further improvements in our instruments will it make it easier to spot the others that are sure to be on the way. And as Olivier Hainaut – a researcher with the ESO and a co-author on the study – indicated, there’s plenty more to be learned from `Oumuamua as well:

“We are continuing to observe this unique object, and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy,” he said. “And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones!”

And be sure to enjoy this ESOcast video about `Oumuamua, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Nature

Astronomers Spot Hellish World with Titanium in its Atmosphere

The hunt for exoplanets has turned up many fascinating case studies. For example, surveys have turned up many “Hot Jupiters”, gas giants that are similar in size to Jupiter but orbit very close to their suns. This particular type of exoplanet has been a source of interest to astronomers, mainly because their existence challenges conventional thinking about where gas giants can exist in a star system.

Hence why an international team led by researchers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to get a better look at WASP-19b, a Hot Jupiter located 815 light-years from Earth. In the course of these observations, they noticed that the planet’s atmosphere contained traces of titanium oxide, making this the first time that this compound has been detected in the atmosphere of a gas giant.

The study which describes their findings, titled “Detection of titanium oxide in the atmosphere of a hot Jupiter“, recently appeared in the science journal Nature. Led by Elyar Sedaghati – a recent graduate from the Technical University of Berlin and a fellow at the European Southern Observatory – the team used data collected by the VLT array over the course of a year to study WASP-19b.

Like all Hot Jupiters, WASP-19b has about the same mass as Jupiter and orbits very close to its sun. In fact, its orbital period is so short  – just 19 hours – that temperatures in its atmosphere are estimated to reach as high as 2273 K (2000 °C; 3632 °F). That’s over four times as hot as Venus, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead! In fact, temperatures on WASP-19b are hot enough to melt silicate minerals and platinum!

The study relied on the FOcal Reducer/low dispersion Spectrograph 2 (FORS2) instrument on the VLT, a multi-mode optical instrument capable of conducting imaging, spectroscopy and the study of polarized light (polarimetry). Using FORS2, the team observing the planet as it passed in front of its star (aka. made a transit), which revealed valuable spectra from its atmosphere.

After carefully analyzing the light that passed through its hazy clouds, the team was surprised to find trace amounts of titanium oxide (as well as sodium and water). As Elyar Sedaghati, who spent 2 years as a student with the ESO to work on this project, said of the discovery in an ES press release:

Detecting such molecules is, however, no simple feat. Not only do we need data of exceptional quality, but we also need to perform a sophisticated analysis. We used an algorithm that explores many millions of spectra spanning a wide range of chemical compositions, temperatures, and cloud or haze properties in order to draw our conclusions.

Titanium oxide is a very rare compound which is known to exist in the atmospheres of cool stars. In small quantities, it acts as a heat absorber, and is therefore likely to be partly responsible for WASP-19b experiencing such high temperatures. In large enough quantities, it can prevent heat from entering or escaping an atmosphere, causing what is known as thermal inversion.

This is a phenomena where temperatures are higher in the upper atmosphere and lower further down. On Earth, ozone plays a similar role, causing an inversion of temperatures in the stratosphere. But on gas giants, this is the opposite of what usually happens. Whereas Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune experience colder temperatures in their upper atmospheres, temperatures are much hotter closer to the core due to increases in pressure.

The team believes that the presence of this compound could have a substantial effect on the atmosphere’s temperature, structure and circulation. What’s more, the fact that the team was able to detect this compound (a first for exoplanet researchers) is an indication of how exoplanet studies are achieving new levels of detail. All of this is likely to have a profound impact on future studies of exoplanet atmospheres.

The study would also have not been possible were it not for the FORS2 instrument, which was added to the VLT array in recent years. As Henri Boffin, the instrument scientist who led the refurbishment project, commented:

This important discovery is the outcome of a refurbishment of the FORS2 instrument that was done exactly for this purpose. Since then, FORS2 has become the best instrument to perform this kind of study from the ground.

Looking ahead, it is clear that the detection of metal oxides and other similar substances in exoplanet atmospheres will also allow for the creation of better atmospheric models. With these in hand, astronomers will be able to conduct far more detailed and accurate studies on exoplanet atmospheres, which will allow them to gauge with greater certainty whether or not any of them are habitable.

So while this latest planet has no chance of supporting life – you’d have better luck finding ice cubes in the Gobi desert! – its discovery could help point the way towards habitable exoplanets in the future. On step closer to finding a world that could support life, or possibly that elusive Earth 2.0!

Further Reading: ESO, Nature

Hubble Finds a Dead Galaxy that was Finished Making Stars Just a Few Billion Years After the Big Bang

Thanks to recent improvements in space-based and ground-based telescopes, astronomers have been able to probe deeper into the Universe than ever before. By looking billions of years back in time, we are able to test our theories about the history of galactic formation and evolution. Unfortunately, studying the very early Universe is a daunting task, and one that is beyond the capabilities of our current instruments.

But by combining the power of the Hubble Space Telescope with a technique known as gravitational lensing, a team of astronomers made the first discovery of a compact galaxy that stopped making stars just a few billion years after the Big Bang. The discovery of such a galaxy existing so early in the Universe is unprecedented and represents a major challenge to \theories of how massive galaxies form and evolve.

Their findings were reported in a study titled “A Massive, Dead Disk Galaxy in the Early Universe“, which appeared in the June 22 issue of the journal Nature. As is indicated in the study, the team relied on data from Hubble which they combined with gravitational lensing – where a massive cluster of galaxies magnifies and stretches images of more distant galaxies beyond them – to study the distant galaxy known as MACS 2129-1.

Image of the Galaxy Cluster MACS J2129-0741, as part of CLASH. Credit: hubblesite.org

What they found was completely unexpected. Given the age of the galaxy – dated to just three billion years after the Big Bang – they expected to see a chaotic ball of stars that were forming due to early galaxies merging. Instead, they noticed that the galaxy, which was disk-shaped (like the Milky Way), was effectively dead – meaning that star formation had already ceased within it.

This was a surprise, seeing as how astronomers did not expect to see this so early in the Universe. What’s more, it was the first time that direct evidence has been obtained that shows how at least some of the earliest “dead” galaxies in the Universe evolved from disk-shaped objects to become the giant elliptical galaxies that we regularly see in the Universe today.

As Sune Toft – a researcher from the Dark Cosmology Center at the Niels Bohr Institute and the lead author on the study – explained, this may force a rethink of how galaxies evolved in the early Universe:

“This new insight may force us to rethink the whole cosmological context of how galaxies burn out early on and evolve into local elliptical-shaped galaxies, Perhaps we have been blind to the fact that early “dead” galaxies could in fact be disks, simply because we haven’t been able to resolve them.”

In previous studies, it was assumed that distant dead galaxies were similar in structure to the local elliptical galaxies they eventually evolved into. Prior to this study, confirmation of this hypothesis was not possible since current instruments are not powerful enough to see that far into space. But by combining the power of gravitational lensing with Hubble’s high resolution, Toft and his team were able to see this dead galaxy clearly.

Galaxy Cluster MACS J2129-0741 and Lensed Galaxy MACS2129- Credit: hubblesite.org

Combining rotational velocity measurements from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) with archival data from the Cluster Lensing And Supernova survey with Hubble (CLASH), they were able to determine the size of the galaxy, mass, and age as well as its (defunct) rate of star formation. Ultimately, they found that the remote galaxy is three times as massive as the Milky Way, though only half its size, and is spinning more than twice as fast.

Why this galaxy stopped forming stars is still unknown, and will require follow-up surveys using more sophisticated instruments. But in the meantime, there are some possible theories. For instance, it could be the result of an active galactic nucleus, where a supermassive black hole at the center of MACS 2129-1 inhibited star formation by heating the galaxy’s gas and expelling it from the galaxy.

Or it may be the result of cold gas being streamed into the galaxy’s center where it was rapidly heated and compressed, thereby preventing it from cooling and forming star-forming clouds. But when it comes to how these types of early, dead galaxies could have led to the elliptical galaxies we see today, Toft and his colleagues think they know the answer. As he explained, it could be through mergers:

“If these galaxies grow through merging with minor companions, and these minor companions come in large numbers and from all sorts of different angles onto the galaxy, this would eventually randomize the orbits of stars in the galaxies. You could also imagine major mergers. This would definitely also destroy the ordered motion of the stars.”

In the coming years, Toft and his team hope to take advantage of the James Webb Telescope (which will be launching in 2018) to search for more early dead galaxies, in the hopes that it can shed light on the unresolved questions this discover raises. And with the ability to probe deeper into space, astronomers anticipate that a great deal more will be revealed about the early Universe.

Further Reading: Hubblesite, Nature

Hubble Watches Spinning Black Hole Swallow a Star

In 2015, the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (aka. ASAS-SN, or Assassin) detected something rather brilliant in a distant galaxy. At the time, it was thought that the event (named ASASSN-15lh) was a superluminous supernova – an extremely bright explosion caused by a massive star reaching the end of its lifepsan. This event was thought to be brightest supernova ever witnessed, being twice as bright as the previous record-holder.

But new observations provided by an international team of astronomers have provided an alternative explanation that is even more exciting. Relying on data from several observatories – including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope – they have proposed that the source was a star being ripped apart by a rapidly spinning black hole, an event which is even more rare than a superluminous supernova.

According to the ASAS-SN’s findings – which were published in January of 2016 in Science – the superluminous light source appeared in a galaxy roughly 4 billion light-years from Earth. The luminous source was twice as bright as the brightest superluminous supernova observed to date, and its peak luminosity was 20 times brighter than the total light output of the entire Milky Way.

Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser
This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesse

What seemed odd about it was the fact that the superluminous event appeared within a massive, red (i.e. “quiescent”) galaxy, where star formation has largely ceased. This was in contrast to most super-luminous supernovae that have been observed in the past, which are typically located in blue, star-forming dwarf galaxies. In addition, the star (which is Sun-like in size) is not nearly massive enough to become an extreme supernova.

As such, the international team of astronomers – led by Giorgos Leloudas of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Dark Cosmology Center in Denmark – conducted follow-up observations using space-based and Earth-based observatories. These included the Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory and the New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory.

With information from these facilities, they arrived at a much different conclusion. As Dr. Leloudas explained in a Hubble press release:

“We observed the source for 10 months following the event and have concluded that the explanation is unlikely to lie with an extraordinary bright supernova. Our results indicate that the event was probably caused by a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole as it destroyed a low-mass star.”

The process is colloquially known as “spaghettification”, where an object is ripped apart by the extreme tidal forces of a black hole. In this case, the team postulated that the star drifted too close to the supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of the distant galaxy. The resulting heat and the shocks created by colliding debris led to a massive burst of light – which was mistakenly believed to be a very bright supernova.

Multiple lines of evidence support this theory. As they explain in their paper, this included the fact that over the ten-months that they observed it, the star went through three distinct spectroscopic phases. This included a period of substanial re-brightening, where the star emitted a burst of UV light that accorded with a sudden increase in its temperature.

Combined with the unlikely location and the mass of the star, this all pointed towards tidal disruption rather than a massive supernova event. But as Dr. Leloudas admits, they cannot be certain of this just yet. “Even with all the collected data we cannot say with 100% certainty that the ASASSN-15lh event was a tidal disruption event.” he said. “But it is by far the most likely explanation.”

As always, additional observations are necessary before anyone can say for sure what caused this record-breaking luminous event. But in the meantime, the mere fact that something so rare was witnessed should be enough to cause some serious excitement! Speaking of which, be sure to check out the simulation videos (above and below) to see what such an event would look like:

Further Reading: Hubble Space Telescope

Very Large Telescope Images Of Jupiter Prepare Us For Juno Arrival

In preparation for the arrival of Juno, the ESO's released stunning IR images of Jupiter, taken by the VLT. Credit: ESO

Launching back in 2011, NASA’s Juno mission has spent the past five years traversing the gulf that lies between Earth and Jupiter. When it arrives (in just a few days time!), it will be the second long-term mission to the gas giant in history. And in the process, it will obtain information about its composition, weather patterns, magnetic and gravitational fields, and history of formation.

With just days to go before this historic rendezvous takes place, the European Southern Observatory is taking the opportunity to release some spectacular infrared images of Jupiter. Taken with the Very Large Telescope (VLT), these images are part of a campaign to create high-resolutions maps of the planet, and provide a preview of the work that Juno will be doing in the coming months.

Using the VTL Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared (VISIR) instrument, the ESO team – led by Dr. Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester – hopes that their efforts to map the planet will improve our understanding of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Naturally, with the upcoming arrival of Juno, some may wonder if these efforts are necessary.

The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it's adaptive optics laser. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl
Using images obtained by the Very Large Telescope, an ESO team managed to obtain detailed IR images of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl

After all, ground-based telescopes like the VLT are forced to contend with limitations that space-based probes are not. These include interference from our constantly-shifting atmosphere, not to mention the distances between Earth and the object in question. But in truth, the Juno mission and ground-based campaigns like these are often highly complimentary.

For one, in the past few months, while Juno was nearing in on its destination, Jupiter’s atmosphere has undergone some significant shifts. Mapping these is important to Juno‘s upcoming arrival, at which point it will be attempting to peer beneath Jupiter’s thick clouds to discern what is going on beneath. In short, the more we know about Jupiter’s shifting atmosphere, the easier it will be to interpret the Juno data.

As Dr. Fletcher described the significance of his team’s efforts:

These maps will help set the scene for what Juno will witness in the coming months. Observations at different wavelengths across the infrared spectrum allow us to piece together a three-dimensional picture of how energy and material are transported upwards through the atmosphere.”

Like all ground-based efforts, the ESO campaign – which has involved the use of several telescopes based in Hawaii and Chile, as well as contributions from amateur astronomers around the world – faced some serious challenges (like the aforementioned interference). However, the team used a technique known as “lucky imaging” to take the breathtaking snapshots of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere.

This view compares a lucky imaging view of Jupiter from VISIR (left) at infrared wavelengths with a very sharp amateur image in visible light from about the same time (right). Credit: ESO/L.N. Fletcher/Damian Peach
This view compares a lucky imaging view of Jupiter from VISIR (left) at infrared wavelengths with a very sharp amateur image in visible light from about the same time (right). Credit: ESO/L.N. Fletcher/Damian Peach

What this comes down to is taking many sequences of images with very short exposures, thus producing thousands of individual frames. The lucky frames, those where the image are least affected by the atmosphere’s turbulence, are then selected while the rest discarded. These selected frames are aligned and combined to produce final pictures, like the one shown above.

In addition to providing information that would be of use to the Juno mission, the ESO’s campaign has value that extends beyond the space-based mission. As Glenn Orton, the leader of ESO’s ground-based campaign, explained, observations like these are valuable because they help to advance our understanding of planets as a whole, and provide opportunities for astronomers from all over the world to collaborate.

“The combined efforts of an international team of amateur and professional astronomers have provided us with an incredibly rich dataset over the past eight months,” he said. “Together with the new results from Juno, the VISIR dataset in particular will allow researchers to characterize Jupiter’s global thermal structure, cloud cover and distribution of gaseous species.”

The Juno probe will be arriving at Jupiter this coming Monday, July 4th. Once there, it will spend the next two years orbiting the gas giant, sending information back to Earth that will help to advance our understanding of not only Jupiter, but the history of the Solar System as well.

Further Reading: ESO

A Star Is About To Go 2.5% The Speed Of Light Past A Black Hole

Since it was first discovered in 1974, astronomers have been dying to get a better look at the Supermassive Black Hole (SBH) at the center of our galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A*, scientists have only been able to gauge the position and mass of this SBH by measuring the effect it has on the stars that orbit it. But so far, more detailed observations have eluded them, thanks in part to all the gas and dust that obscures it.

Luckily, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) recently began work with the GRAVITY interferometer, the latest component in their Very Large Telescope (VLT). Using this instrument, which combines near-infrared imaging, adaptive-optics, and vastly improved resolution and accuracy, they have managed to capture images of the stars orbiting Sagittarius A*. And what they have observed was quite fascinating.

One of the primary purposes of GRAVITY is to study the gravitational field around Sagittarius A* in order to make precise measurements of the stars that orbit it. In so doing, the GRAVITY team – which consists of astronomers from the ESO, the Max Planck Institute, and multiple European research institutes – will be able to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity like never before.

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)
Spitzer image of the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

In what was the first observation conducted using the new instrument, the GRAVITY team used its powerful interferometric imaging capabilities to study S2, a faint star which orbits Sagittarius A* with a period of only 16 years. This test demonstrated the effectiveness of the GRAVITY instrument – which is 15 times more sensitive than the individual 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes the VLT currently relies on.

This was an historic accomplishment, as a clear view of the center of our galaxy is something that has eluded astronomers in the past. As GRAVITY’s lead scientist, Frank Eisenhauer – from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany – explained to Universe Today via email:

“First, the Galactic Center is hidden behind a huge amount of interstellar dust, and it is practically invisible at optical wavelengths. The stars are only observable in the infrared, so we first had to develop the necessary technology and instruments for that. Second, there are so many stars concentrated in the Galactic Center that a normal telescope is not sharp enough to resolve them. It was only in the late 1990′ and in the beginning of this century when we learned to sharpen the images with the help of speckle interferometry and adaptive optics to see the stars and observe their dance around the central black hole.”

But more than that, the observation of S2 was very well timed. In 2018, the star will be at the closest point in its orbit to the Sagittarius A*  – just 17 light-hours from it. As you can see from the video below, it is at this point that S2 will be moving much faster than at any other point in its orbit (the orbit of S2 is highlighted in red and the position of the central black hole is marked with a red cross).

When it makes its closest approach, S2 will accelerate to speeds of almost 30 million km per hour, which is 2.5% the speed of light. Another opportunity to view this star reach such high speeds will not come again for another 16 years – in 2034. And having shown just how sensitive the instrument is already, the GRAVITY team expects to be able make very precise measurements of the star’s position.

In fact, they anticipate that the level of accuracy will be comparable to that of measuring the positions of objects on the surface of the Moon, right down to the centimeter-scale. As such, they will be able to determine whether the motion of the star as it orbits the black hole are consistent with Einstein’s theories of general relativity.

“[I]t is not the speed itself to cause the general relativistic effects,” explained Eisenhauer, “but the strong gravitation around the black hole. But the very  high orbital speed is a direct consequence and measure of the gravitation, so we refer to it in the press release because the comparison with the speed of light and the ISS illustrates so nicely the extreme conditions.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com
Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space-time. Credit: space.com

As recent simulations of the expansion of galaxies in the Universe have shown, Einstein’s theories are still holding up after many decades. However, these tests will offer hard evidence, obtained through direct observation. A star traveling at a portion of the speed of light around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy will certainly prove to be a fitting test.

And Eisenhauer and his colleagues expect to see some very interesting things. “We hope to see a “kick” in the orbit.” he said. “The general relativistic effects increase very strongly when you approach the black hole, and when the star swings by, these effects will slightly change the direction of the
orbit.”

While those of us here at Earth will not be able to “star gaze” on this occasion and see R2 whipping past Sagittarius A*, we will still be privy to all the results. And then, we just might see if Einstein really was correct when he proposed what is still the predominant theory of gravitation in physics, over a century later.

Further Reading: eso.org

Einstein Right Again! Rapidly Spinning Pulsar Follows General Relativity

A unique and exotic laboratory about 6,800 light-years from Earth is helping Earth-based astronomers test Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity in ways not possible until now. And the observations exactly match predictions from general relativity, say scientists in a paper to be published in the April 26 issue of the journal Science.

Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope along with other radio telescopes, John Antoniadis, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn and lead author of the paper, says the bizarre pair of stars makes for an excellent test case for physics.

“I was observing the system with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, looking for changes in the light emitted from the white dwarf caused by its motion around the pulsar,” says Antoniadis. “A quick on-the-spot analysis made me realize that the pulsar was quite a heavyweight. It is twice the mass of the Sun, making it the most massive neutron star that we know of and also an excellent laboratory for fundamental physics.”

The strange pair consists of a tiny and unusually heavy neutron star that spins 25 times per second. The pulsar, named PSR J0348+0432 is the remains of a supernova explosion. Twice as heavy as our Sun, the pulsar would fit within the confines of the Denver metropolitan area; it’s just 20 kilometers across or about 12 miles. The gravity on this strange star is more than 300 billion times stronger than on Earth. At its center, where the intense gravity squeezes matter even more tightly together, a sugar-cubed-sized block of star stuff would weight more than one billion tons. Only three other pulsars outside globular clusters spin faster and have shorter periods.

J0348+0432 could easily fit within the confines of most American cities, including Denver, Colo. Want to see how big J0348+0432 is compared to your city? Check out this map tool. Zoom into or search for your city, enter 10 km into the radius distance field, and click on a point on the map.)
J0348+0432 could easily fit within the confines of most American cities, including Denver, Colo. Want to see how big J0348+0432 is compared to your city? Check out this map tool. Zoom into or search for your city, enter 10 km into the radius distance field, and click on a point on the map. Credit: Google Maps
In addition, a much larger white dwarf, the extremely hot, burned-out core of a Sun-like star, whips around J0348+0432 every 2.5 hours.

As a consequence, radio astronomers Ryan Lynch and colleagues who discovered the pulsar in 2011, realized the pair would enable scientists to test theories of gravity that were not possible before. Einstein’s general theory of relativity describes gravity as a curvature in spacetime. Like a bowling ball nestled in a stretched bedsheet, spacetime bends and warps in the presence of mass and energy. The theory, published in 1916, has withstood all tests so far as the simplest explanation for observed astronomical phenomena. Other theories of gravity make different predictions but these differences would reveal themselves only in extremely strong gravitational fields not found within our solar system. J0348+0432 offered the opportunity to study Einstein’s theory in detail.

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This video shows an artist’s impression of the exotic double object known as PSR J0348+0432. This system is radiating gravitational radiation, or ripples, in spacetime. Although these waves cannot be yet detected directly by astronomers on Earth they can be detected indirectly by measuring the change in the orbit of the system as it loses energy. Credit: ESO/L.Calçada

Antoniadis’ team combined observations of the white dwarf from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope with the precise timing of the pulsar from other radio telescopes, including the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, Effelsberg 100 meter radio telescope in Germany, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Astronomers predict such close pulsar binaries radiate gravity waves and lose minute amounts of energy over time causing the orbital period of the white dwarf companion to change slightly. The astronomers found that predictions for this change closely matched those of general relativity while competing theories were different.

“Our radio observations were so precise that we have already been able to measure a change in the orbital period of 8 millionths of a second per year, exactly what Einstein’s theory predicts,” states Paulo Freire, another team member, in the press release.

Sources:
ESO: Einstein Was Right – So Far
Astrophysical Journal: The Green Bank Telescope 350 MHz Drift-scan Survey II: Data Analysis and the Timing of 10 New Pulsars, Including a Relativistic Binary
Aspen Center for Physics Physical Application of Millisecond Pulsars meeting January 2013: The Compact Relativistic Binary PSR J0348+0432

A Primer on Cosmic Sprinklers

The planetary nebula Fleming 1, as seen with ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/H. Boffin

The neat thing about planetary nebulae is that they are like snowflakes: no two are quite the same. Some look like pools of hot water, some look like glowing eyes in the night and others, like this image of Fleming 1, have twin jets of material spiraling outward from the center resembling a huge cosmic sprinkler.

And for the first time, astronomers with the European Southern Observatory have paired new Very Large Telescope images of Fleming 1 with computer models to explain how the intricate dance between two dead stars result in these bizarre nebulae that appear to be flinging material out into space. The team’s findings were published in the November 9, 2012 issue of the journal Science.

“The origin of the beautiful and intricate shapes of Fleming 1 and similar objects has been controversial for many decades,” says team leader Henri Boffin in a press release. “Astronomers have suggested a binary star before, but it was always thought that in this case the pair would be well separated, with an orbital period of tens of years or longer. Thanks to our models and observations, which let us examine this unusual system in great detail and peer right into the heart of the nebula, we found the pair to be several thousand times closer.”

The team using ESO’s VLT to study Fleming 1’s central star, toward the constellation Centaurus, found not one but two white dwarfs at its core. The two white-hot dead stars slightly smaller than our Sun circle each other every 1.2 days. Binary stars have been found at the heart of planetary nebulae before, but two white dwarfs circling each other is very rare, say the scientists.

Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. Astronomers in the eighteenth century likened these glowing bubbles of light to planets because they resembled the distant orbs Uranus and Neptune in their small telescopes. Planetary nebulae are actually a brief stage at the end of a sun-like star’s life. As a star with a mass up to eight times that of our Sun nears the end of its life, it sloughs off its outer shells in an immense bubble. As more and more mass is lost to space, the white-hot stellar core is exposed. This white dwarf gives off a stiff solar wind that pushes the bubble ever wider. Blistering ultraviolet radiation from the dead star excites atoms in the expanding cloud causing it to glow.

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This animation shows how the two stars at the heart of a planetary nebula like Fleming 1 can control the creation of the spectacular jets of material ejected from the object. Credit:ESO/L. Calçada. Music: delmo “acoustic”

Gazing into a planetary nebulae rarely reveals a quiet environment. Complex knots and filaments form intricate patterns. For cosmic sprinklers like Fleming 1 material seems to be shooting from both poles with an S-shaped pattern between the star and the outermost wavefront. Scientists say that as the stars aged, they expanded and one sucked material from its companion; a kind of starry vampire, forming a spinning disk of material. As they rapidly orbited each other, the pair began to wobble like a spinning top, a type of motion called precession. The team’s study shows that precessing accretion disks within binary star systems form the symmetrical arcs of material in planetary nebulae like Fleming 1.

The VLT images revealed even more surprises about Fleming 1, named after Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming in 1910. Scientists found a knotted ring of material within the inner nebula of Fleming 1. Scientists look for these rings as a sign of a binary system.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Watch Live: A Day in the Life of the Very Large Telescope

Ever wonder what takes place on a daily basis at one of the premier ground-based observatories? The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and on October 5, 2012, they will host a free, live event on the web, “A Day in the Life of ESO.” There will be live observations from ESO’s flagship observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT), on Cerro Paranal in Chile’s Atacama Desert, as well as talks from astronomers at ESO’s Headquarters in Germany. Members of the public are invited to ask questions in advance of the event, or during the stream, by Facebook, Twitter, and email.

The webcast will be streamed through Livestream.

For the first time in ESO’s history, the VLT will be pointed towards an object in the sky selected by members of the public — the Thor’s Helmet Nebula (NGC 2359). This striking nebula was selected as part of the Choose What the VLT Observes competition. Brigitte Bailleul, from France, won the Tweet Your Way to the VLT! competition, and will travel to the Paranal Observatory in Chile to help make the observations. The live link to Paranal will show the observations and the telescopes on the mountaintop, in the stunning landscape of the Atacama Desert, letting viewers join Brigitte on her trip of a lifetime.

The webcast will run from 9:00 to 15:00 UTC on October 5. It will be hosted by astronomer — and host of the ESOcasts — “Dr J” — Dr. Joe Liske, from ESO. There will also be talks from astronomers at ESO’s Headquarters in Germany, on topics ranging from ESO’s state-of-the-art telescopes, via the latest news from the frontiers of astronomy, to what the life of an astronomer is like. Throughout the day there will be question and answer sessions, and the chance to test your ESO knowledge in a quiz to win some astronomical prizes.

Members of the public are invited to ask questions about the activities at the Paranal Observatory, the talks of the day, or general questions about ESO. You can send us your questions before the event, or during the webcast, in English in the following ways:

Send a tweet @ESO, also using the hashtag #ESO50years.

Write a question on your Facebook wall in which you tag ESO’s Facebook page.

Send an email to [email protected] with the subject ESO50years. Optionally, please include your name and country.

See this ESO webpage for more info and schedule of the webcast.