Surprise! Brown Dwarf Star Has Dusty Skies, Appearing Strangely Red

Dust clouds on a brown dwarf or “failed star” are making it appear redder than its counterparts, new research reveals. Better studying this phenomenon could improve the weather forecast on these objects, which are larger than gas giant planets but not quite big enough to ignite nuclear fusion processes to become stars.

“These are not the type of clouds that we are used to seeing on Earth. The thick clouds on this particular brown dwarf are mostly made of mineral dust, like enstatite and corundum,” stated Federico Marocco, who led the research team and is an astrophysicist at the United Kingdom’s University of Hertfordshire.

Using the Very Large Telescope in Chile as well as data analysis, “not only have we been able to infer their presence, but we have also been able to estimate the size of the dust grains in the clouds,” he added.

The brown dwarf (known as ULAS J222711-004547) has an unusual concoction in its atmosphere of water vapor, methane, (likely) ammonia and these mineral particles. While scientists are only beginning to wrap their head around what’s going on in the atmosphere, they noted that the size of the dust grains can influence the color of the sky and make it turn redder.

Size comparison of stellar vs substellar objects. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).
Size comparison of stellar vs substellar objects. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).

“Being one of the reddest brown dwarfs ever observed, ULAS J222711-004547 makes an ideal target for multiple observations to understand how the weather is in such an extreme atmosphere,” stated Avril Day-Jones, an astrophysicist at the University of Hertfordshire who co-authored the paper.

“By studying the composition and variability in luminosity and colours of objects like this, we can understand how the weather works on brown dwarfs and how it links to other giant planets.”

You can read more about the research in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society or in preprint version on Arxiv.

And by the way, there’s been other exciting work lately in brown dwarfs; another group recently released the first weather map of another failed star (and we have some information on Universe Today on how that was done, too!) Also, there are other weird brown star atmospheres out there, as this 2013 find shows.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Forging Stars – Peering Into Starbirth and Death

Some 160,000 light years away towards the constellation of Dorado (the Swordfish), is an amazing area of starbirth and death. Located in our celestial neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud, this huge stellar forge sculpts vast clouds of gas and dust into hot, new stars and carves out ribbons and curls of nebulae. However, in this image taken by ESO’s Very Large Telescope, there’s more. Stellar annihilation also awaits and shows itself as bright fibers left over from a supernova event.

For southern hemisphere observers, one of our nearest galactic neighbors, the Large Magellanic Cloud, is a well-known sight and holds many cosmic wonders. While the image highlights just a very small region, try to grasp the sheer size of what you are looking at. The fiery forge you see is several hundred light years across, and the factory in which it is contained spans 14,000 light years. Enormous? Yes. But compared to the Milky Way, it’s ten times smaller.

Even at such a great distance, the human eye can see many bright regions where new stars are actively forming, such as the Tarantula Nebula. This new image, taken by ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, explores an area cataloged as NGC 2035 (right), sometimes nicknamed the Dragon’s Head Nebula. But, just what are we looking at?

The Dragon’s Head is an HII region, more commonly referred to as an emission nebula. Here, young stars pour forth energetic radiation and illuminate the surrounding clouds. The radiation tears electrons away from the atoms contained within the gas. These atoms then gel again with other atoms and release light. Swirling in the mix is dark dust, which absorbs the light and creates deep shadows and create contrast in the nebula’s structure.

However, as we look deep into this image, there’s even more… a fiery finale. At the left of the photo you’ll see the results of one of the most violent events in the Universe – a supernova explosion. These troubled tendrils are all that’s left of what once was a star and its name is SNR 0536-67.6. Perhaps when it exploded, it was so bright that it was capable of outshining the Magellanic Cloud… fading away over the weeks or months that followed. However, it left a lasting impression!

Original Story Source: ESO Image Release.

Gorgeous Telescope Timelapse Makes You Feel Like You’re Standing In Chile

Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

As the chill of winter settles into the northern hemisphere, fantasies of down-south travel pervade a lot of people’s dreams. Well, here’s a virtual journey to warm climes for astronomy buffs: a beautiful, music-filled timelapse of several European Southern Observatory telescopes gazing at the heavens in Chile.

Uploaded in 2011 (but promoted this morning on ESO’s Twitter feed), the timelapse was taken by astrophotographers Stéphane Guisard (also an ESO engineer) and José Francisco Salgado (who is also an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.) Telescopes include:

We’ve covered their work before on Universe Today. In 2009, Guisard  participated in GigaGalaxy Zoom, which produced a 360-degree panorama of the entire sky. He also released a 3-D view of several telescopes that same year. Also, Guisard and Salgado collaborated on another 2011 timelapse of the Very Large Telescope and nearby sites.

Future Supernova Is Surrounded By Hydrogen Clouds

The faint green glow you see in that picture is not an early harbringer of Hallowe’en spooks. It’s hydrogen gas clouds found recently nearby W26, a future supernova in the star cluster Westerlund 1.

The European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope in Chile spotted the hydrogen in the cluster, which has hundreds of huge stars that are only believed to be a few million years old. (Our solar system, by comparison, is about 4.5 billion years old.)

“Such glowing clouds around massive stars are very rare, and are even rarer around a red supergiant— this is the first ionised nebula discovered around such a star,” the European Southern Observatory stated.

“W26 itself would be too cool to make the gas glow; the astronomers speculate that the source of the ionizing radiation may be either hot blue stars elsewhere in the cluster, or possibly a fainter, but much hotter, companion star to W26.”

Funny enough, the nebula that surrounds the red supergiant is similar to the one surrounding SN1987A, a star that exploded as a fairly bright supernova in 1987. “Studying objects like this new nebula around W26 will help astronomers to understand the mass loss processes around these massive stars, which eventually lead to their explosive demise,” ESO added.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Double Vision: Scientists Spot An Elder ‘Twin’ To the Sun

If you want a picture of how you’ll look in 30 years, youngsters are told, look at your parents. The same principle is true of astronomy, where scientists compare similar stars in different age groups to see how they progress.

We have a special interest in learning how the Sun will look in a few billion years because, you know, it’s the main source of energy and life on Earth. Newly discovered HIP 102152 could give us some clues. The star is four billion years older than the sun, but so close in composition that researchers consider it almost like a twin.

Telescopes have only been around for a few centuries, making it hard to project what happens during the billions upon billions of years for a star’s lifetime. We have about 400 years of observations on the sun, for example, which is a minute fraction of its 4.6 billion-year-old lifespan so far.

The Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack
Today, we take telescopic observations of the Sun for granted, but the technology only became available about 400 years ago. This picture shows the Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack

“It is very hard to study the history and future evolution of our star, but we can do this by hunting for rare stars that are almost exactly like our own, but at different stages of their lives,” stated the European Southern Observatory.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope — guided by a team led by the University of Sao Paulo’s Jorge Melendez — examined HIP 102152 with a spectrograph that broke up the light into various colors, revealing properties such as chemical composition. Around the same time, they scrutinized 18 Scorpii, also considered to be a twin but one that is younger than the sun (2.9 billion years old)

So what can we predict about the Sun’s future? One thing puzzling scientists has been the amount of lithium in our closest stellar companion. Although the Big Bang (the beginning of the universe) created hydrogen, helium and lithium, only the first two elements are abundant in the Sun.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements

HIP 102152, it turns out, also has low levels of lithium. Why isn’t clear yet, ESO notes, although “several processes have been proposed to transport lithium from the surface of a star into its deeper layers, where it is then destroyed.” Previous observations of young Sun-like stars also show higher levels of lithium, implying something changes between youth and middle age.

The elder twin to our Sun may host another discovery: there could be Earth-sized planets circling the star. Chemical properties of HIP 102152 show that it has few elements that you see in meteorites and rocky planets, implying the elements are “locked up” in bodies close to the star. “This is a strong hint that HIP 102152 may host terrestrial rocky planets,” ESO stated.

Better yet, separate observations showed that there are no giant planets close to the star — leaving room for Earth-sized planets to flourish.

The research is available in a recent edition of Astrophysical Letters.

Source: European Southern Observatory

What Happens When Stars Collide? In This Case, A Newly Observed Kind of Pulsating Star

It sure would be interesting to watch two stars run into each other — from a safe distance, of course. One can imagine there would be quite the titanic battle going on between their competing gravitational forces, throwing off gas and matter as they collide.

They also leave behind interesting echoes, at least according to new research. A European team looked at the leftovers of one collision and found a type of pulsating star that has never been seen before.

It’s common for stars to form in groups or to be paired up, since they form from immense gas clouds. Sometimes, a red giant star in a binary system gets so big that it will bump into a companion star orbiting nearby. This crash could shave 90% of the red giant star’s mass off, but astronomers are still trying to get their heads around what happens.

Eclipsing Binaries
Artists impression of a binary star system (courtesy NASA)

“Only a few stars that have recently emerged from a stellar collision are known, so it has been difficult to study the connection between stellar collisions and the various exotic stellar systems they produce,” Keele University, which led the research, stated.

Researchers who made the find were actually on the hunt for alien planets. They turned up what is called an “eclipsing” binary system, meaning that one of the stars passes in front of the other from the perspective of Earth.

The scientists then used a high-speed camera on the Very Large Telescope in Chile called ULTRACAM. The camera is capable of taking up to 500 pictures a second to track fast-moving astronomical events.

Observations revealed that “the remnant of the stripped red giant is a new type of pulsating star,” Keele stated.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO's Cerro Paranal observing site in the Atacama Desert of Chile, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors 8.2-m in diameter and four movable 1.8-m diameter Auxiliary Telescopes. The telescopes can work together, in groups of two or three, to form a giant interferometer, allowing astronomers to see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes. Credit: Iztok Boncina/ESO
The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO’s Cerro Paranal observing site in the Atacama Desert of Chile, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors 8.2-m in diameter and four movable 1.8-m diameter Auxiliary Telescopes. The telescopes can work together, in groups of two or three, to form a giant interferometer, allowing astronomers to see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes. Credit: Iztok Boncina/ESO

“We have been able to find out a lot about these stars, such as how much they weigh, because they are in a binary system,” stated Pierre Maxted, an astrophysicist at Keele.

“This will really help us to interpret the pulsation signal and so figure out how these stars survived the collision and what will become of them over the next few billion years.”

The next step for the researchers will be to calculate when the star will begin cooling down and become a white dwarf, which is what is left behind after a star runs out of fuel to burn.

Check out more details of the find in Nature.

Source: Keele University

Smile! This Could Be The Lightest Alien Planet Ever Captured On Camera

We’ve found hundreds of planets outside the solar system, but taking a picture of one is still something quite special. The light of the parent star tends to greatly overwhelm the faint light of the alien planet. (So usually we learn about planets by tracking the effects each planet has on its star, like dimming light when it passes in front or making the star slightly wobble.)

This picture (above) shows HD95086 b, which astronomers believe is one of only about a dozen exoplanets ever imaged. It’s 300 light-years from Earth. The planet candidate is about four to five times the mass of Jupiter and orbiting a very young star that is probably only 10 million to 17 million years old. That’s a baby compared to our own solar system, estimated at 4.5 billion years old.

We still have a lot to learn about this object (and the observations from the Very Large Telescope will need to be confirmed independently), but so far astronomers say they figure that planet formed in the gas and dust surrounding star HD 95086. But the planet is actually very far away from the star now, about twice the distance as the Sun-Neptune orbital span in our own solar system.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO's Cerro Paranal observing site.  Located in the Atacama Desert of Chile, the site is over 2600 metres  above sea level, providing incredibly dry, dark viewing conditions. The  VLT is the worldâ??s most advanced optical  instrument, consisting         of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors 8.2-m in diameter and   four movable 1.8-m diameter Auxiliary        Telescopes. The telescopes  can work together, in groups of two or  three, to form a giant  interferometer, allowing astronomers to see  details up to 25 times  finer than with  the individual telescopes. Credit: European Southern Observatory
The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO’s Cerro Paranal observing site. Credit: European Southern Observatory

“Its current location raises questions about its formation process,” stated team member Anne-Marie Lagrange, who is with the Grenoble Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in France.

“It either grew by assembling the rocks that form the solid core and then slowly accumulated gas from the environment to form the heavy atmosphere, or started forming from a gaseous clump that arose from gravitational instabilities in the disc.

“Interactions between the planet and the disc itself,” she added, “or with other planets may have also moved the planet from where it was born.”

Astronomers estimate the planet candidate has a surface temperature of 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius), which could allow water vapor or methane to stick around in the atmosphere. It will take more VLT observations to figure this out, though.

The results from this study will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper is also available on prepublishing site Arxiv.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Combining Light to Reveal Monster Black Holes

NGC 3627 glows in the combined light of Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer and the Very Large Telescope in this image. Astronomers conducted a survey of 62 galaxies, including NGC 3627 to study monster black holes at their centers.

It’s not just pretty, it’s science. Like a starry watercolor, astronomers combining light from Earth and space-based observatories found 37 new supermassive black hole candidates lurking in nearby galaxies.

Included in that survey is NGC 3627 pictured above. Astronomers combined X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope. The other images give the galaxy context but it’s the ghostly blue images from Chandra that show super bright in the X-ray images; X-ray light powered by material falling into a monster black hole.

Gas and dust slowly spins around the black hole creating a flattened disk, or accretion disk. As material falls inward, it heats up and releases large amounts of energy that shine brightly in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.

NGC 3627, located about 30 million light-years from Earth, was just one of a survey of 62 nearby galaxies using archived data from Chandra and data from the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxy Survey. Of those, 37 galaxies contained bright X-ray sources, indicating active black holes at their cores. Scientists believe that seven of those sources are new supermassive black hole candidates.

The paper describing the survey results was published in the April 10, 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Combining ultraviolet and infrared observations confirm previous Chandra results that found that there may be many more galaxies powered by monster black holes than believed previously through optical surveys. Scientists say in the paper that low-levels of black hole activity previously may have been hidden by dust or washed out by the bright light of the galaxy.

Image caption: Bright X-ray sources glow a ghostly blue in this image in NGC 3627 from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. A study confirms previous Chandra results that indicate that more galaxies powered by monster black holes populate the cosmos.

Source: Chandra X-ray Observatory website

A Close-up Look at the War and Peace Nebula

Take a trip out to the constellation of Scorpius get a close-up look at the War and Peace nebula, courtesy of the Very Large Telescope. This is the most detailed visible-light image so far of this spectacular stellar nursery, which is within NGC 6357. The view shows many hot young stars, glowing clouds of gas and weird dust formations sculpted by ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds.

The unusual name of “War and Peace” was given to this nebula not because of the famous novel by Tolstoy, but because in infrared light, the bright, western part of the nebula resembles a dove, while the eastern part looked like a skull. Unfortunately this effect cannot be seen in this visible-light image, but instead we can see dark disks of gas and young stars wrapped in expanding cocoons of dust.

In fact, the whole image is covered with dark trails of cosmic dust, but some of the most fascinating dark features appear at the lower right and on the right hand edge of the picture. Here the radiation from the bright young stars has created huge columns, similar to the famous “pillars of creation” in the Eagle Nebula and other fascinating structures revealed by the awesome power of the VLT.

Lead image caption: The War and Peace Nebula inside NGC 6357, as seen by the Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

Source: ESO

Dust Shells Seen for the First Time Around Dying Stars

The Helix Nebula


Stars get pretty sloppy towards the end of their lives.  As the nuclear fuels start to wane, the star pulsates – expanding and contracting like a marathon runner catching her breath.  With each pulsation, the dying star belches out globs of gas into space that eventually get recycled into a new generation of stars and planets.  But accounting for all that lost material is difficult.  Like trying to see a wisp of smoke next to a stadium spotlight, observing these tenuous sheets of stellar material swirling just over the surface of the star is considerably challenging.  However, using an innovative technique to image starlight scattering off interstellar grains, astronomers have finally succeeded in seeing ripples of dust flowing off dying stars!

The stars – W Hydra, R Doradus, and R Leonis – are all highly variable red giants, stars that are no longer fusing hydrogen in their cores but have moved on to forming heavier elements.  Each is completely enveloped by a very thin dust shell most likely made up of minerals like forsterite and enstatite.  These grains can only form once the raw ingredients have flowed some distance from the star.  At distances roughly equal to the size of the star itself, the gas has cooled enough to allow atoms to start sticking together and forming more complex compounds.  Minerals like these will go on to seed asteroids and possibly rocky planets like the Earth in the continual cycle of death and rebirth playing out in the Galaxy.

The paper describing this discovery, accepted to the journal Nature, can be found here.

The astronomers who recently reported this discovery used the eight meter wide Very Large Telescope in the Chilean Atacama Desert – and a suite of clever tools – to tease out the subtle reflections off these dust shells.  The trick to seeing light bouncing off interstellar dust particles involves taking advantage of one of light’s wave properties.  Imagine you had a length of rope: one end is in your hand, the other tied to a wall.  You start to wiggle your end and waves travel down the cord.  If you move your arm up and down, the waves are perpendicular to the floor; if you move your arm from side to side, they are parallel to it.  The orientation of those waves is known as their “polarization”.  If you mixed things up by constantly changing the direction in which your arm was oscillating, the orientation of the waves would be similarly confused.  The rope would bounce in all directions.  With out a preferred direction of movement, the rope waves are said to be “unpolarized”.

Light waves emitted from the surface of star are just like your chaotic rope flinging. The oscillations in the electric and magnetic fields that make up the propagating light wave have no preferred direction of motion – they are unpolarized.  However, when light bounces off a dust grain, all that confusion drops away.  The waves now oscillate in roughly the same direction, just as if you decided to only bounce the rope up and down.  Astronomers call this light “polarized”.

A polarizing filter only allows light with a specific orientation to pass through.  Hold it one way, and only “vertically polarized” light – light where the electric field is oscillating up and down – will pass. Turn the filter ninety degrees, and you’ll only transmit “horizontally polarized” light.  If you have polarizing sunglasses, you can try this yourself by rotating the glasses and watching how the the scene through the lenses gets brighter and darker.  This is also a nice demonstration of how our atmosphere polarizes incoming sunlight.

A shell of dust around a star will polarize the light that bounces off it.  Just like the sky gets brighter and dimmer as you turn your sunglasses, looking at a such star through differently oriented polarizing filters will reveal a halo of polarized light surrounding it.  The different orientations will reveal different segments of the halo.  By combining polarimetric observations with interferometry – the beating together of light waves from widely separated spots on a telescope mirror to create very high-resolution images – a thin ring of scattered light reveals itself around these three stars.

These new observations represent a milestone in our understanding of not only a star’s end game but also the production of interstellar dust that follows. Like the smokestacks of great factories, red giant stars expel a soot of minerals into space, carried aloft by stellar winds.  With meticulous observation, results such as these can help tie together the death of one generation of stars with the birth of another.  Unraveling the mysteries of grain formation in space takes us one step closer to piecing together the many steps that lead from stellar death to the creation of rocky planets like our own.