A Galaxy Grows Fat on Nearby Gas

If you live in the U.S. you may be enjoying a sultry summer day off in honor of Independence Day, or at least have plans to get together with friends and family at some point to partake in some barbecued goodies and a favorite beverage (or three). And as you saunter around the picnic table scooping up platefuls of potato salad, cole slaw, and deviled eggs, you can also draw a correlation between your own steady accumulation of mayonnaise-marinated mass and a distant hungry galaxy located over 11 billion light-years away.

Astronomers have always suspected that galaxies grow by pulling in material from their surroundings, but this process has proved very difficult to observe directly. Now, ESO’s Very Large Telescope has been used to study a very rare alignment between a distant galaxy and an even more distant quasar — the extremely bright center of a galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole. The light from the quasar passes through the material around the foreground galaxy before reaching Earth, making it possible to explore in detail the properties of the in-falling gas and giving the best view so far of a galaxy in the act of feeding.

“This kind of alignment is very rare and it has allowed us to make unique observations,” said Nicolas Bouché of the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, lead author of the new paper. “We were able to use ESO’s Very Large Telescope to peer at both the galaxy itself and its surrounding gas. This meant we could attack an important problem in galaxy formation: how do galaxies grow and feed star formation?”

A beam from the Laser Star Guide on one of the VLT's four Unit Telescopes helps to correct the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere before making observations (ESO/Y. Beletsky)
A beam from the Laser Star Guide on one of the VLT’s four Unit Telescopes helps to correct the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere before making observations (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

Galaxies quickly deplete their reservoirs of gas as they create new stars and so must somehow be continuously replenished with fresh gas to keep going. Astronomers suspected that the answer to this problem lay in the collection of cool gas from the surroundings by the gravitational pull of the galaxy. In this scenario, a galaxy drags gas inwards which then circles around it, rotating with it before falling in.

Although some evidence of such accretion had been observed in galaxies before, the motion of the gas and its other properties had not been fully explored up to now.

Astronomers have already found evidence of material around galaxies in the early Universe, but this is the first time that they have been able to show clearly that the material is moving inwards rather than outwards, and also to determine the composition of this fresh fuel for future generations of stars. And in this particular instance, without the quasar’s light to act as a probe the surrounding gas would be undetectable.

“In this case we were lucky that the quasar happened to be in just the right place for its light to pass through the infalling gas. The next generation of extremely large telescopes will enable studies with multiple sightlines per galaxy and provide a much more complete view,” concluded co-author Crystal Martin of the University of California Santa Barbara.

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Signatures of Cool Gas Fueling a Star-Forming Galaxy at Redshift 2.3”, to appear in the July 5, 2013 issue of the journal Science.

Source: ESO news release

An Amazing Anniversary Image from the VLT

This Saturday will mark 15 years that the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) first opened its eyes on the Universe, and ESO is celebrating its first-light anniversary with a beautiful and intriguing new image of the stellar nursery IC 2944, full of bright young stars and ink-black clouds of cold interstellar dust.

This is the clearest ground-based image yet of IC 2944, located 6,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Centaurus.

Emission nebulae like IC 2944 are composed mostly of hydrogen gas that glows in a distinctive shade of red, due to the intense radiation from the many brilliant newborn stars. Clearly revealed against this bright backdrop are mysterious dark clots of opaque dust, cold clouds known as Bok globules. They are named after Dutch-American astronomer Bart Bok, who first drew attention to them in the 1940s as possible sites of star formation. This particular set is nicknamed the Thackeray Globules.

Larger Bok globules in quieter locations often collapse to form new stars but the ones in this picture are under fierce bombardment from the ultraviolet radiation from nearby hot young stars. They are both being eroded away and also fragmenting, like lumps of butter dropped into a hot frying pan. It is likely that Thackeray’s Globules will be destroyed before they can collapse and form stars.

This new picture celebrates an important anniversary for the the VLT – it will be fifteen years since first light on the first of its four Unit Telescopes on May 25, 1998. Since then the four original giant telescopes have been joined by the four small Auxiliary Telescopes that form part of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) – one of the most powerful and productive ground-based astronomical facilities in existence.

The selection of images below — one per year — gives a taste of the VLT’s scientific productivity since first light in 1998:

A selection of images from 15 years of the VLT
A selection of images from 15 years of the VLT (Credits: ESO/P.D. Barthel/M. McCaughrean/M. Andersen/S. Gillessen et al./Y. Beletsky/R. Chini/T. Preibisch)

Read more on the ESO site here, and watch an ESOCast video below honoring the VLT’s fifteen-year milestone:

Happy Anniversary VLT!

Source: ESO

The Paranal and the Shadow of the Earth

This beautiful photo, taken by ESO photo ambassador Babak Tafreshi, shows the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope array and VISTA telescope atop the peaks of the Cerro Paranal in Chile’s Atacama Desert. In the distance the Earth’s shadow extends outward toward the horizon, divided from the bluer daytime sky by the dusky pink “Belt of Venus.”

At an altitude of 2,635 meters (8,645 feet) the Paranal looks down onto a sea of clouds covering the Pacific Ocean, visible at right, whose shores lie 12 km in the distance.

Image credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org

How to Measure a Hot Jupiter

An international team of astronomers has figured out a way to determine details of an exoplanet’s atmosphere from 50 light-years away… even though the planet doesn’t transit the face of its star as seen from Earth.

Tau Boötis b is a “hot Jupiter” type of exoplanet, 6 times more massive than Jupiter. It was the first planet to be identified orbiting its parent star, Tau Boötis, located 50 light-years away. It’s also one of the first exoplanets we’ve known about, discovered in 1996 via the radial velocity method — that is, Tau Boötis b exerts a slight tug on its star, shifting its position enough to be detectable from Earth. But the exoplanet doesn’t pass in front of its star like some others do, which until now made measurements of its atmosphere impossible.

Today, an international team of scientists working with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have announced the success of a “clever new trick” of examining such non-transiting exoplanet atmospheres. By gathering high-quality infrared observations of the Tau Boötis system with the VLT’s CRIRES instrument the researchers were able to differentiate the radiation coming from the planet versus that emitted by its star, allowing the velocity and mass of Tau Boötis b to be determined.

“Thanks to the high quality observations provided by the VLT and CRIRES we were able to study the spectrum of the system in much more detail than has been possible before,” said Ignas Snellen with Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, co-author of the research paper. “Only about 0.01% of the light we see comes from the planet, and the rest from the star, so this was not easy.”

Using this technique, the researchers determined that Tau Boötis b’s thick atmosphere contains carbon monoxide and, curiously, exhibits cooler temperatures at higher altitudes — the opposite of what’s been found on other hot Jupiter exoplanets.

“Maybe one day we may even find evidence for biological activity on Earth-like planets in this way.”

– Ignas Snellen, Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands

In addition to atmospheric details, the team was also able to use the new method to determine Tau Boötis b’s mass and orbital angle — 44 degrees, another detail not previously identifiable.

“The new technique also means that we can now study the atmospheres of exoplanets that don’t transit their stars, as well as measuring their masses accurately, which was impossible before,” said Snellen. “This is a big step forward.

“Maybe one day we may even find evidence for biological activity on Earth-like planets in this way.”

This research was presented in a paper “The signature of orbital motion from the dayside of the planet Tau Boötis b”, to appear in the journal Nature on June 28, 2012.

Read more on the ESO release here.

Added 6/27: The team’s paper can be found on arXiv here.

Top image: artist’s impression of the exoplanet Tau Boötis b. (ESO/L. Calçada). Side image: ESO’s VLT telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert. (Iztok Boncina/ESO)

Gas Cloud Will Collide with our Galaxy’s Black Hole in 2013

Scientists have determined a giant gas cloud is on a collision course with the black hole in the center of our galaxy, and the two will be close enough by mid-2013 to provide a unique opportunity to observe how a super massive black hole sucks in material, in real time. This will give astronomers more information on how matter behaves near a black hole.

“The next few years will be really fantastic and exciting because we are probing new territory,” said Reinhard Genzel, leading a team from the ESO in observations with the Very Large Telescope. “Here this cloud comes in gets disrupted and now it will begin to interact with the hot gas right around the black hole. We have never seen this before.”

By June of 2013, the gas cloud is expected to be just 36 light-hours (equivalent to 40,000,000,000 km) away from our galaxy’s black hole, which is extremely close in astronomical terms.

Astronomers have determined the speed of the gas cloud has increased, doubling over the past seven years, and is now reaching more than 8 million km per hour. The cloud is estimated to be three times the mass of Earth and the density of the cloud is much higher than that of the hot gas surrounding black hole. But the black hole has a tremendous gravitational force, and so the gas cloud will fall into the direction of the black hole, be elongated and stretched and look like spaghetti, said Stefan Gillessen, astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich, Germany, who has been observing our galaxy’s black hole, known as Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), for 20 years.

“So far there were only two stars that came that close to Sagittarius A*,” Gillessen said. “They passed unharmed, but this time will be different: the gas cloud will be completely ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole.”

Watch a video of observations of the cloud for the past 10 years:

No one really knows how the collision will unfold, but the cloud’s edges have already started to shred and it is expected to break up completely over the coming months. As the time of actual collision approaches, the cloud is expected to get much hotter and will probably start to emit X-rays as a result of the interaction with the black hole.

Although direct observations of black holes are impossible, as they do not emit light or matter, astronomers can identify a black hole indirectly due to the gravitational forces observed in their vicinity.

A black hole is what remains after a super massive star dies. When the “fuel” of a star runs low, it will first swell and then collapse to a dense core. If this remnant core has more than three times the mass of our Sun, it will transform to a black hole. So-called super massive black holes are the largest type of black holes, as their mass equals hundreds of thousands to a billion times the mass of our Sun.

Black holes are thought to be at the center of all galaxies, but their origin is not fully understood and astrophysicists can only speculate as to what happens inside them. And so this upcoming collision just 27,000 light years away will likely provide new insights on the behavior of black holes.

Lead image caption: Images taken over the last decade using the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope show the motion of a cloud of gas that is falling towards the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. This is the first time ever that the approach of such a doomed cloud to a supermassive black hole has been observed and it is expected to break up completely during 2013. Credit: ESO/MPE

Read our previous article about this topic, from Dec. 2011.

Source: European Research Media Center

How Do The Biggest Telescopes Work?

[/caption]

Located high in the mountains of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the enormous telescopes of the European Southern Observatory have been providing astronomers with unprecedented views of the night sky for 50 years. ESO’s suite of telescopes take advantage of the cold, clear air over the Atacama, which is one of the driest places on Earth. But as clear as it is, there is still some turbulence and variations to contend with — especially when peering billions of light-years out into the Universe.

So how do they do it?

Thanks to adaptive optics and advanced laser calibration, ESO can negate the effects of atmospheric turbulence, bringing the distant Universe into focus. It’s an impressive orchestration of innovation and engineering and the ESO team has put together a video to show us how it’s done.

We all love the images (and the science) so here’s a look behind the scenes!

Video: ESO

The Care And Feeding Of Teenage Galaxies… And By The Way, They Need Gas

[/caption]

Got a teenager? Then you know the story. Go to look for your favorite bag of chips and they’re gone. You eat one portion of meat and they need three. If you like those cookies, then you better have a darn good place to stash them. And, while you’re at it, their car needs gas. Apparently there’s a reason for the word “universal”, because teenage galaxies aren’t much different. Thanks to some new studies done by ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have been able to take a much closer look at adolescent galaxies and their “feeding habits” during their evolution. Some 3 to 5 billion years after the Big Bang they were happiest when just provided with gas, but later on they developed a voracious appetite… for smaller galaxies!

Scientists have long been aware that early galaxy structures were much smaller than the grand spirals and hefty ellipticals which fill the present Universe. However, figuring out exactly how galaxies put on weight – and where the bulk supply comes from – has remained an enigma. Now an international group of astronomers have taken on more than a hundred hours of observations taken with the VLT to help determine how gas-rich galaxies developed.

“Two different ways of growing galaxies are competing: violent merging events when larger galaxies eat smaller ones, or a smoother and continuous flow of gas onto galaxies.” explains team leader, Thierry Contini (IRAP, Toulouse, France). “Both can lead to lots of new stars being created.”

The undertaking is is MASSIV – the Mass Assembly Survey with the VIsible imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph, a powerful camera and spectrograph on the VLT. It’s incredible equipment used to measure distance and properties of the surveyed galaxies Not only did the survey observe in the near infrared, but also employed a integral field spectrograph and adaptive optics to refine the images. This enables astronomers to map inner galaxy movements and content, as well as leaving room for some very surprising results.

“For me, the biggest surprise was the discovery of many galaxies with no rotation of their gas. Such galaxies are not observed in the nearby Universe. None of the current theories predict these objects,” says Benoît Epinat, another member of the team.

“We also didn’t expect that so many of the young galaxies in the survey would have heavier elements concentrated in their outer parts — this is the exact opposite of what we see in galaxies today,” adds Thierry Contini.

These results point towards a major change during the galactic “teenage years”. At some time during the young Universe state, smooth gas flow was a considerable building block – but mergers would later play a more important role.

“To understand how galaxies grew and evolved we need to look at them in the greatest possible detail. The SINFONI instrument on ESO’s VLT is one of the most powerful tools in the world to dissect young and distant galaxies. It plays the same role that a microscope does for a biologist,” adds Thierry Contini.

The team plans on continuing to study these galaxies with future instruments on the VLT as well as using ALMA to study the cold gas in these galaxies. However, their work with gas isn’t the only “station” on the block. In a separate study led by Kate Rubin (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), the Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, has been used to examine gas associated with a hundred galaxies at distances between 5 and 8 billion light-years – the older teens. They have found initial evidence of gas flowing back into distant galaxies that are actively forming new stars.

Images of the six galaxies with detected inflows taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope. Most of these galaxies have a disk-like, spiral structure, similar to that of the Milky Way. Star formation activity occurring in small knots is evident in several of the galaxies' spiral arms. Because the spirals appear tilted in the images, Rubin et al. concluded that we are viewing them from the side, rather than face-on. This orientation meshes well with a scenario of 'galactic recycling' in which gas is blown out of a galaxy perpendicular to its disk, and then falls back in at different locations along the edge of the disk. Credit: K. Rubin, MPIA

Apparently, like a teenager with the munchies, matter finds its way into those galactic tummies. One feeding theory is an inflow from huge low-density gas reservoirs filling the intergalactic voids… another is huge cosmic matter cycle. While there is very little evidence to support either hypothesis, gases have been observed to flow away from some galaxies and may be moshed around by several different sources – such as supernovae events or peer pressure from gigantic stars.

“As this gas drifts away, it is pulled back by the galaxy’s gravity, and could re-enter the same galaxy in time scales of one to several billion years. This process might solve the mystery: the gas we find inside galaxies may only be about half of the raw material that ends up as fuel for star formation.” says Dr. Rubin. “Large amounts of gas are caught in transit, but will re-enter the galaxy in due time. Add up the galaxy’s gas and the gas currently undergoing cosmic recycling, and there is a sufficient amount of raw matter to account for the observed rates of star formation.”

It might very well be a case of cosmic recycling… but I’d feel safer hiding my cookies.

Original Story Sources: ESO News Release and MPIA Science News Release. For Further Reading: Research Paper 1, Research Paper 2, Research Paper 3 and Research Paper 4.

Erasure and VLT Team Up for ESO’s 50th Anniversary

[/caption]

British synthpop band Erasure released a video today featuring lead singer Andy Bell in front of the telescopes of ESO’s Paranal Observatory, located high in the mountains of Chile’s Atacama Desert. The new single “Fill Us With Fire” honors ESO’s 50th anniversary this year. Watch the full video below!

The video features the Very Large Telescope as well as some of ESO’s stunning images of the night sky. This is the third single to be released from their 2011 album Tomorrow’s World.

According to ESO’s press announcement:

Andy spent one day at Paranal in February 2012, during which time footage was shot of him singing Erasure’s latest single. The footage was edited with some of ESO’s best astronomical images. Andy, thrilled with the result, decided to dedicate it to ESO’s 50th Anniversary and make it the exclusive video for the single.

Shooting the Fill Us With Fire video. (F. Huber/Erasure/ESO)

Standing on a 20-foot-high platform in front of the VLT, Andy didn’t have a lot of room to move around during the shooting of the video. Say what you will about the choreography, I think it’s awesome to see the observatory and some of its amazing images featured in a new music video!

Personally, I would have wanted to be standing on top of one of the telescope domes but I’m not sure if that’s allowed.

Credit: Erasure/ESO (S. Lowery)

Directed by: Simon Lowery

Editing: Simon Lowery, Lars Lindberg Christensen & Patrick Geeraert

Music: Erasure/Andy Bell

Footage and photos: ESO, Guillaume Blanchard & Simon Lowery

Is There Life on Earth?

[/caption]

It may seem like a silly question — of course there’s life on Earth — but what if we didn’t know that? What if we were looking at Earth from another vantage point, from another planet in another star system, perhaps? Would we be able to discern then if Earth were in fact teeming with life? All we’d have to go on would be the tiniest bit of light reflected off Earth, nearly lost in the intense glare of the Sun.

Researchers have found that the secret is knowing what kind of light to look for. And they discovered this with a little help from the Moon.

How Earthshine works. (ESO/L. Calçada)

By using Earthshine — sunlight light reflected off Earth onto the Moon — astronomers with the European Southern Observatory have been able to discern variations that correlate with identifying factors of our planet as being a happy home for life.

In observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the presence of oceans, clouds, atmospheric gases and even plants could be detected in the reflected Earthshine.

The breakthrough method was the use of spectropolarimetry, which measures polarized light reflected from Earth. Like polarized sunglasses are able to filter out reflected glare to allow you to see clearer, spectropolarimetry can focus on light reflected off a planet, allowing scientists to more clearly identify important biological signatures.

“The light from a distant exoplanet is overwhelmed by the glare of the host star, so it’s very difficult to analyze — a bit like trying to study a grain of dust beside a powerful light bulb,” said Stefano Bagnulo of the Armagh Observatory, Northern Ireland, and co-author of the study. “But the light reflected by a planet is polarized, while the light from the host star is not. So polarimetric techniques help us to pick out the faint reflected light of an exoplanet from the dazzling starlight.”

Since we have fairly reliable proof that life does in fact exist on Earth, this provides astronomers with a process and a benchmark for locating evidence of life on other distant worlds — life as we know it, anyway.

Read more on the ESO website here.

Main image credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi/TWAN (twanight.org). This research was presented in a paper, “Biosignatures as revealed by spectropolarimetry of Earthshine”, by M. Sterzik et al. to appear in the journal Nature on 1st March 2012. The team is composed of Michael F. Sterzik (ESO, Chile), Stefano Bagnulo (Armagh Observatory, Northern Ireland, UK) and Enric Palle (Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain).

Incredible Spinning Star Rotates At A Million Miles Per Hour!

[/caption]

Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a star named VFTS 102 is spinning its heart out… Literally. Rotating at a mind-numbing speed of a million miles per hour (1.6 million kph), this hot blue giant has reached the edge where centrifugal forces could tear it apart. It’s the fastest ever recorded – 300 times faster than our Sun – and may have been split off from a double star system during a violent explosion.

Thanks to ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, an international team of astronomers studying the heaviest and brightest stars in the Tarantula Nebula made quite a discovery – a huge blue star 25 times the mass of the Sun and about one hundred thousand times brighter was cruising through space at a speed which drew their attention.

“The remarkable rotation speed and the unusual motion compared to the surrounding stars led us to wonder if this star had an unusual early life. We were suspicious.” explains Philip Dufton (Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK), lead author of the paper presenting the results.

ESO's Very Large Telescope has picked up the fastest rotating star found so far. This massive bright young star lies in our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 160 000 light-years from Earth. Astronomers think that it may have had a violent past and has been ejected from a double star system by its exploding companion. Credit: ESO

What they’ve discovered could possibly be a “runaway star” – one that began life as a binary, but may have been ejected during a supernova event. Further evidence which supports their theory also exists: the presence of a pulsar and a supernova remnant nearby. But what made this crazy star spin so fast? It’s possible that if the two stars were very close that streaming gases could have started the incredible rotation. Then the more massive of the pair blew its stack – expelling the star into space. So what would be left? It’s elementary, Watson… A supernova remnant, a pulsar and a runaway!

Even though this is a rather tidy conclusion, there’s always room for doubt. As Dufton concludes, “This is a compelling story because it explains each of the unusual features that we’ve seen. This star is certainly showing us unexpected sides of the short but dramatic lives of the heaviest stars.”

Original Story Source: HubbleSite News Release and ESO News Release. For Further Reading: he VLT-FLAMES Tarantula Survey I. Introduction and observational overview.