Too Big, Too Soon. Monster Black Hole Seen Shortly After the Big Bang

It is a well known fact among astronomers and cosmologists that the farther into the Universe you look, the further back in time you are seeing. And the closer astronomers are able to see to the Big Bang, which took place 13.8 billion years ago, the more interesting the discoveries tend to become. It is these finds that teach us the most about the earliest periods of the Universe and its subsequent evolution.

For instance, scientists using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Magellan Telescopes recently observed the earliest Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) to date. According to the discovery team’s study, this black hole is roughly 800 million times the mass of our Sun and is located more than 13 billion light years from Earth. This makes it the most distant, and youngest, SMBH observed to date.

The study, titled “An 800-million-solar-mass black hole in a significantly neutral Universe at a redshift of 7.5“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. Led by Eduardo Bañados, a researcher from the Carnegie Institution for Science, the team included members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Las Cumbres Observatory, and multiple universities.

Artist’s impression of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As with other SMBHs, this particular discovery (designated J1342+0928) is a quasar, a class of super bright objects that consist of a black hole accreting matter at the center of a massive galaxy. The object was discovered during the course of a survey for distant objects, which combined infrared data from the WISE mission with ground-based surveys. The team then followed up with data from the Carnegie Observatory’s Magellan telescopes in Chile.

As with all distant cosmological objects,  J1342+0928’s distance was determined by measuring its redshift. By measuring how much the wavelength of an object’s light is stretched by the expansion of the Universe before it reaches Earth, astronomers are able to determine how far it had to travel to get here. In this case, the quasar had a redshift of 7.54, which means that it took more than 13 billion years for its light to reach us.

As Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory (and a co-author on the study) explained in a Carnegie press release:

“This great distance makes such objects extremely faint when viewed from Earth. Early quasars are also very rare on the sky. Only one quasar was known to exist at a redshift greater than seven before now, despite extensive searching.”

Given its age and mass, the discovery of this quasar was quite the surprise for the study team. As Daniel Stern, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the study, indicated in a NASA press release, “This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form.”

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Image: NASA

Essentially, this quasar existed at a time when the Universe was just beginning to emerge from what cosmologists call the “Dark Ages”. During this period, which began roughly 380,000 years to 150 million years after the Big Bang, most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.

The Universe remained in this state, without any luminous sources, until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies. This period is known as the “Reinozation Epoch”, which lasted from 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang and was characterized by the first stars, galaxies and quasars forming. It is so-named because the energy released by these ancient galaxies caused the neutral hydrogen of the Universe to get excited and ionize.

Once the Universe became reionzed, photons could travel freely throughout space and the Universe officially became transparent to light. This is what makes the discovery of this quasar so interesting. As the team observed, much of the hydrogen surrounding it is neutral, which means it is not only the most distant quasar ever observed, but also the only example of a quasar that existed before the Universe became reionized.

In other words, J1342+0928 existed during a major transition period for the Universe, which happens to be one of the current frontiers of astrophysics. As if this wasn’t enough, the team was also confounded by the object’s mass. For a black hole to have become so massive during this early period of the Universe, there would have to be special conditions to allow for such rapid growth.

A billion years after the big bang, hydrogen atoms were mysteriously torn apart into a soup of ions. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Felid (STScI)).

What these conditions are, however, remains a mystery. Whatever the case may be, this newly-found SMBH appears to be consuming matter at the center of a galaxy at an astounding rate. And while its discovery has raised many questions, it is anticipated that the deployment of future  telescopes will reveal more about this quasar and its cosmological period. As Stern said:

“With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities currently being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years.”

These next-generation missions include the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Whereas Euclid will study objects located 10 billion years in the past in order to measure how dark energy influenced cosmic evolution, WFIRST will perform wide-field near-infrared surveys to measure the light coming from a billion galaxies.

Both missions are expected to reveal more objects like J1342+0928. At present, scientists predict that there are only 20 to 100 quasars as bright and as distant as J1342+0928 in the sky. As such, they were most pleased with this discovery, which is expected to provide us with fundamental information about the Universe when it was only 5% of its current age.

Further Reading: NASA, Carnegie Science, Nature

NASA’s NEOWISE Missions Spots New Comets

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) accomplished much during its first mission, which ran from December of 2009 to September of 2010. During the many months that it was active, the orbital telescope conducted an all-sky astronomical survey in the infrared band and discovered thousands of minor planets and numerous star clusters.

The extension of its mission, NEOWISE, has brought new life to the telescope as a comet and asteroid hunter. And since its re-activation in December of 2013, the orbiting telescope has spotted hundreds of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and thousands of Main Belt asteroids. Most recently, it has detected two new objects (both possibly comets) which could be observable from Earth very soon.

The most recent object to be detected – 2016 WF9 – was first observed by NEOWISE on November 27th, 2016. This comet’s path through the Solar System takes it on a circuitous route, taking it from Jupiter to just inside the orbit of Earth over the course of 4.9 years. Much like other objects of its kind, 2016 WF9 may have once been a comet, or part of a  population of dark objects in the Main Asteroid Belt.

Artist’s rendition of the comet 2016 WF9 as it passes Jupiter’s orbit and moves toward the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In any case, 2016 WF9 will approach Earth’s orbit on February 25th, 2017, passing Earth at a minimum distance of almost 51 million km (32 million mi). This will place it well outside the orbit of the Moon, so the odds of it threatening Earth are negligible. But for those keen observers hoping to catch sight of the object, it will be close enough that it might be visible with just a pair of binoculars.

Since its discovery, 2016 WF9 has been of interest to astronomers, mainly because it straddles the already blurry line between asteroids and comets. While its proportions are known – roughly 0.5 to 1 kilometer in diameter (0.3 to 0.6 miles) – its other characteristics have led to some confusion as to where it came from. For one, its appearance (which is quite dark) and its orbit are consistent with what one expects from a comet.

But on the other hand, it lacks the characteristic cloud of dust and gas that comets are known for. As James Bauer, NEOWISE’s Deputy Principal Investigator at JPL, said in a NASA press release:

“2016 WF9 could have cometary origins. This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one; perhaps over time this object has lost the majority of the volatiles that linger on or just under its surface.”

Graphic showing the asteroids and comets observed by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/JHU

The other object, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, was discovered about a month prior to 2016 WF9. Its orbit, which can you see by checking out the 3D Solar System Simulator, takes it from the outer Solar System to within Mercury’s orbit over the course of thousands of years. According to NASA scientists, this object is very clearly a comet, as evidenced by the dust it has been releasing as it gets closer to our Sun.

During the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is also likely to be visible in the night sky – in this case, in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn (for those looking from the northern hemisphere). It will reach its closest point to the Sun on January 14th (where it will be passing within Mercury’s orbit) before heading back out towards the outer Solar System.

Once again, it is believed that comet-hunters should be able to see it, though that is open to question. Paul Chodas, the manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, thinks that this object “has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable.”

A mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Credit: NASA/JPL

In any case, NASA will be continuing to monitor 2016 WF9 to see if they can’t sort out what it is. Should it prove to be a comet, it would be the tenth discovered by NEOWISE since it was reactivated in December of 2013. If it turns out to be an asteroid, it would be the one-hundredth discovered since its reactivation.

As of November 2016, the orbital telescope has conducted over 562,000 infrared measurements have been made of 24,024 different solar system objects, including 613 NEOs and 110 comets. It has also been responsible for discovering 249 new near-Earth objects and comets, as well as more than 34,000 asteroids during its original mission.

At present, NEOWISE’s science team is currently reprocessing all its primary mission data to extend the search for asteroids and comets. It is hoped that by taking advantage of the latest in photometric and astrometric calibrations, they will be able to push the limits of what the telescope can detect, thereby adding many more minor planets and objects to its suite of discoveries.

And be sure to enjoy this video, detailing the first two years of asteroid data collected by the NEOWISE mission:

Further Reading: NASA

The Next Generation of Exploration: The NEOCam Mission

In February of 2014, NASA put out the call for submissions for the thirteenth mission of their Discovery Program. In keeping with the program’s goal of mounting low-cost, highly focused missions to explore the Solar System, the latest program is focused on missions that look beyond Mars to new research goals. On September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, which included proposals for sending probes back to Venus, to sending orbiters to study asteroids and Near-Earth Objects.

Among the proposed NEO missions is the Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam. Consisting of a space-based infrared telescope designed to survey the Solar System for potentially hazardous asteroids, the NEOCam would be responsible for discovering and characterizing ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs that have discovered to date.

If deployed, NEOCam will begin discovering approximately one million asteroids in the Main Belt and thousands of comets in the course of its 4 year mission. However, the primary scientific goal of NEOCam is to discover and characterize over two-thirds of the asteroids that are larger that 140 meters, since it is possible some of these might pose a threat to Earth someday.

The NEOCam space telescope will survey the regions of space closest to the Earth's orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids are most likely to be found. NEOCam will use infrared light to characterize their physical properties such as their diameters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the NEOCam spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA’s Discovery program that would search for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The technical term is Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO), and it applies to near-Earth asteroids/comets that have an orbit that will allow them to make close approaches to Earth. And measuring more than 140 meters in diameter, they are of sufficient size that they could cause significant regional damage if they struck Earth.

In fact, a study conducted in 2010 through the Imperial College of London and Purdue University found that an asteroid measuring 50-meters across with a density of 2.6 grams per cubic centimeter and a speed of 12.7 kps could generate 2.9 Megatons of airburst energy once it passed through our atmosphere. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about nine W87 thermonuclear warheads!

By comparison, the meteor that appeared over the small Russian community of Chelyabinsk in 2013 measured only 20 meters across. Nevertheless, the explosive airbust caused by it entering our atmosphere generated only 500 kilotons of energy,  creating a zone of destruction tens of kilometers wide and injuring 1,491 people. One can imagine without much effort how much worse it would have been had the explosion been six times as big!

What’s more, as of August 1st, 2015, NASA has listed a total of 1,605 potentially hazardous asteroids and 85 near-Earth comets. Among these, there are 154 PHAs believed to be larger than one kilometer in diameter. This represents a tenfold increase in discoveries since the end of the 1990s, which is due to several astronomical surveys being performed (as well as improvements in detection methods) over the past two and a half decades.

The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As a result, monitoring and characterizing which of these objects is likely to pose a threat to Earth in the future has been a scientific priority in recent years. It is also why the U.S. Congress passed the “George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act” in 2005. Also known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2005”, this Act of Congress mandated that NASA identify 90% of all NEOs that could pose a threat to Earth.

If deployed, NEOCam will monitor NEOs from the Earth–Sun L1 Lagrange point, allowing it to look close to the Sun and see objects inside Earth’s orbit. To this, NEOCam will rely on a single scientific instrument: a 50 cm diameter telescope that operates at two heat-sensing infrared wavelengths, to detect the even the dark asteroids that are hardest to find.

By using two heat-sensitive infrared imaging channels, NEOCam can also make accurate measurements of NEO and gain valuable information about their sizes, composition, shapes, rotational states, and orbits. As Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Principal Investigator of the NEOCam mission,  explained:

“Everyone wants to know about asteroids hitting the Earth; NEOCam is designed to tackle this issue. We expect that NEOCam will discover about ten times more asteroids than are currently known, plus millions of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. By conducting a comprehensive asteroid survey, NEOCam will address three needs: planetary defense, understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system, and finding new destinations for future exploration.”

Dr. Mainzer is no stranger to infrared imaging for the sake of space exploration. In addition to being the Principal Investigator on this mission and a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she is also the Deputy Project Scientist for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Principal Investigator for the NEOWISE project to study minor planets.

She has also appeared many times on the History Channel series The Universe, the documentary featurette “Stellar Cartography: On Earth”, and serves as the science consultant and host for the live-action PBS Kids series Ready Jet Go!, which will be debuting in the winter of 2016. Under her direction, the NEOCam mission will also study the origin and ultimate fate of our solar system’s asteroids, and finding the most suitable NEO targets for future exploration by robots and humans.

Proposals for NEOCam have been submitted a total of three times to the NASA Discovery Program – in 2006, 2010, and 2015, respectively. In 2010, NEOCam was selected to receive technology development funding to design and test new detectors optimized for asteroid and comet detection and discovery. However, the mission was ultimately overruled in favor of the Mars InSight Lander, which is scheduled for launch in 2016.

As one of the semifinalists for Discovery Mission 13, the NEOCam mission has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. In September of 2016, one or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations), and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

In related news, NASA has confirmed that the asteroid known as 86666 (2000 FL10) will be passing Earth tomorrow. No need to worry, though. At its closest approach, the asteroid will still be at a distance of 892,577 km (554,000 mi) from Earth. Still, every passing rock underlines the need for knowing more about NEOs and where they might be headed one day!

Here’s How You Can Help With Searching Out Planet Nurseries Beyond The Solar System

With a big universe around us, where the heck do you point your telescope when looking for planets? Bigger observatories are set to head to orbit in the next decade, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars). Telling them where to look will be a challenge.

But it’s less of an issue thanks to the dedicated efforts of amateurs. Volunteers sifting through data from a NASA mission called WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) have now classified an astounding one million potential debris disks and disks surrounding young stars.

“Combing through objects identified by WISE during its infrared survey of the entire sky, Disk Detective aims to find two types of developing planetary environments,” NASA stated in a press release touting the achievement.

“The first, known as a YSO disk, typically is less than 5 million years old, contains large quantities of gas, and often is found in or near young star clusters. The second planetary habitat, known as a debris disk, tends to be older than 5 million years, holds little or no gas, and possesses belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts found in our own solar system.”

What’s more astounding is how little time it took — the program Disk Detective was only launched in January 2014. These are ripe environments in which young planets can form, providing plenty of spots for telescopes to turn their eyes. The search is expected to go on through 2018.

Want to contribute? Check out the website and see if you can help with the search!

Source: NASA

Astronomers Stress the Need for Characterizing the Population of Nearby Potential Earth-Impactors

The meteor explosion over Russia in February 2013 raised concerns that even small asteroid impactors may wreak some havoc given our heavily populated cities.  A new study by NASA scientists aims to improve our understanding of such asteroids that are lurking in Earth’s vicinity.  The team, led by Amy Mainzer, noted that only a mere fraction of asteroids comparable in size to the object that exploded over Russia have been discovered, and their physical properties are poorly characterized.

The team derived fundamental properties for over a hundred near-Earth objects, and determined that many are smaller than 100 meters.  Indeed, the team notes that, “In general … [asteroids] smaller than 100-m are only detected when they are quite close … and the smallest … were detected when they were only 2-3 lunar distances away from Earth.”  

Essentially, a large fraction of these bodies may go undetected until they strike Earth, analogous to the case of the asteroid that exploded over Russia in February.

The team’s results rely partly on observations from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which is a space-based telescope that mapped the entire sky in the mid-infrared. Observations taken in the infrared, in concert with those taken in the optical, can be used to infer the fundamental properties of asteroids (e.g., their diameter and chemical composition).

On a somewhat positive note, Mainzer remarks that 90% of near-Earth asteroids larger than 1-km are known, and those potential impactors are most worrisome as they may cause widespread fatalities.  The dinosaurs suffered a mass-extinction owing, at least in large part, to a 10-km impactor that struck Earth 65 million years ago.   However, Mainzer notes that the survey completeness drops to 25% for nearby 100-m asteroids, and it is likely to be less than 1% for 20-m asteroids like that which exploded over Russia (Chelyabinsk).  The Tunguska event (see the image below) is likewise speculated to have been on the order of that latter size.

In 1908 the Tunguska impactor toppled millions of trees in a rather remote part of Siberia.  The new study by Mainzer and coauthors aimed to better characterize the population of Tunguska-sized asteroids lurking in the vicinity of the Earth.
In 1908 the Tunguska meteor explosion toppled millions of trees in a rather remote part of Siberia. A new study by Mainzer et al. 2013 characterized 100+ objects lurking in the vicinity of the Earth that are on the order of the Tunguska impactor.

The team highlights that approximately 10,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered to date, 900 of which are 1-km or larger, and 3500 objects appear to be 100-m or smaller.  “Because their small sizes usually make them undetectable until they are very nearby the Earth, it is often difficult for the current suite of asteroid surveys and follow-up telescopes to track them for very long.

Consequently, the fraction of the total population at small sizes that has been discovered to date remains very low,” noted Mainzer.

In closing, Mainzer emphasizes that, “It is, however, clear that much work remains to be done to discover and characterize the population of very small NEOs [near-Earth objects].”


The Mainzer et al. 2013 findings have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ), and a preprint is available on arXiv.  Coauthors on the study are J. Bauer, T. Grav, J. Masiero, R. M. Cutri, E. L. Wright, C. R. Nugent, R. Stevenson, E. Clyne, G. Cukrov, and F. Masci.

WISE Spacecraft Re-Activated to Hunt for Potentially Hazardous Asteroids

WISE

A hibernating spacecraft has been called back into service. The WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer”) spacecraft that has been sleeping in a polar orbit around Earth for two years will be turned back on next month to hunt for more potentially hazardous asteroids, and perhaps search for an asteroid that NASA could capture and explore in the future.

“The WISE mission achieved its mission’s goals and as NEOWISE extended the science even further in its survey of asteroids. NASA is now extending that record of success, which will enhance our ability to find potentially hazardous asteroids, and support the new asteroid initiative,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “Reactivating WISE is an excellent example of how we are leveraging existing capabilities across the agency to achieve our goal.”

WISE originally was launched in December 2009 and scanned the entire celestial sky in infrared light about 1.5 times, searching for the coolest stars, the universe’s most luminous galaxies and some of the darkest near-Earth asteroids and comets. It captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids and comets close to Earth.

However, in early October 2010, after completing its prime science mission, the spacecraft ran out of the frozen coolant that keeps its instrumentation cold. But two of its four infrared cameras remained operational, which were still optimal for asteroid hunting, so NASA extended the NEOWISE portion of the WISE mission by four months, with the primary purpose of hunting for more asteroids and comets, and to finish one complete scan of the main asteroid belt.

The NEOWISE mission completed a full sweep of the main asteroid belt, and during 2010, NEOWISE observed about 158,000 rocky bodies out of approximately 600,000 known objects. Discoveries included 21 comets, more than 34,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 135 near-Earth objects.

“The data collected by NEOWISE two years ago have proven to be a gold mine for the discovery and characterization of the NEO population,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s NEOWISE program executive in Washington. “It is important that we accumulate as much of this type of data as possible while the WISE spacecraft remains a viable asset.”

Now WISE will again search for asteroids with a new extra-extended three year mission to search for more PHAs as well as suitable asteroids for future human exploration missions.

Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.
Concept of NASA spacecraft with Asteroid capture mechanism deployed to redirect a small space rock to a stable lunar orbit for later study by astronauts aboard Orion crew capsule. Credit: NASA.

NASA said they anticipate WISE will use its 16-inch (40-centimeter) telescope and infrared cameras to discover about 150 previously unknown NEOs and characterize the size, albedo and thermal properties of about 2,000 others — including some of which could be candidates for the agency’s recently announced asteroid initiative.

“The team is ready and after a quick checkout, we’re going to hit the ground running,” said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “NEOWISE not only gives us a better understanding of the asteroids and comets we study directly, but it will help us refine our concepts and mission operation plans for future, space-based near-Earth object cataloging missions.”

Source: NASA

How A New Family Tree of Space Rocks Could Better Protect Earth

An artist's conception of an asteroid collision, which leads to how "families" of these space rocks are made in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In perhaps the neatest astronomical application of geneology yet, astronomers found 28 “hidden” families of asteroids that could eventually show them how some rocks get into orbits that skirt the Earth’s path in space.

From scanning millions of snapshots of asteroid heat signatures in the infrared, these groups popped out in an all-sky survey of asteroids undertaken by NASA’s orbiting Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer. This survey took place in the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, where most near-Earth objects (NEOs) come from.

NEOs, to back up for a second, are asteroids and comets that approach Earth’s orbit from within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers). Sometimes, a gravitational push can send a previously unthreatening rock closer to the planet’s direction. The dinosaurs’ extinction roughly 65 million years ago, for example, is widely attributed to a massive rock collision on Earth.

Part of NASA’s job is to keep an eye out for potentially hazardous asteroids and consider approaches to lessen the threat.

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA

There are about 600,000 known asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and the survey looked at about 120,000 of them. Astronomers then attempted to group some of them into “families”, which are best determined by the mineral composition of an asteroid and how much light it reflects.

While it’s hard to measure reflectivity in visible light — a big, dark asteroid reflects a similar amount of light as a small shiny one — infrared observations are harder to fool. Bigger objects give off more heat.

This allowed astronomers to reclassify some previously studied asteroids (which were previously grouped by their orbits), and come up with 28 new families.

“This will help us trace the NEOs back to their sources and understand how some of them have migrated to orbits hazardous to the Earth,” stated Lindley Johnson, NASA’s program executive for the Near-Earth Object Observation Program.

This diagram illustrates the differences between orbits of a typical near-Earth asteroid (blue) and a potentially hazardous asteroid, or PHA (orange). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This diagram illustrates the differences between orbits of a typical near-Earth asteroid (blue) and a potentially hazardous asteroid, or PHA (orange). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The astronomers next hope to study these different families to figure out their parent bodies. Astronomers believe that many asteroids we see today broke off from something much larger, most likely through a collision at some point in the past.

While Earthlings will be most interested in how NEOs came from these larger bodies and threaten the planet today, astronomers are also interested in learning how the asteroid belt formed and why the rocks did not coalesce into a planet.

The prevailing theory today says that was due to influences from giant Jupiter’s strong gravity, which to this day pulls many incoming comets and asteroids into different orbits if they swing too close. (Just look at what happened to Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994, for example.)

Source: NASA

Eye-Like Helix Nebula Turns Blue in New Image

A combined image of the Helix Nebula from the Spitzer Space Telescope,the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).. Credit: NASA/Caltech

The Helix Nebula has been called the “Eye of God,” or the “Eye of Sauron,” and there’s no denying this object appears to be a cosmic eye looking down on us all. And this new image – a combined view from Spitzer and GALEX — gives a blue tint to the eye that we’ve seen previously in gold, green and turquoise hues from other telescopes. But really, this eye is just a dying star. And it is not going down without a fight. The Helix Nebula continues to glow from the intense ultraviolet radiation being pumped out by the hot stellar core from the white dwarf star, which, by the way, is just a tiny white pinprick right at the center of the nebula.

The Helix nebula, or NGC 7293, lies 650 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius. Planetary nebulae are the remains of Sun-like stars, and so one day – in about five billion years – our own Sun may look something like this — from a distance. Earth will be toast.

The team from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) that cooperated to create this image describe what is going on:

When the hydrogen fuel for the fusion reaction runs out, the star turns to helium for a fuel source, burning it into an even heavier mix of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Eventually, the helium will also be exhausted, and the star dies, puffing off its outer gaseous layers and leaving behind the tiny, hot, dense core, called a white dwarf. The white dwarf is about the size of Earth, but has a mass very close to that of the original star; in fact, a teaspoon of a white dwarf would weigh as much as a few elephants!

The intense ultraviolet radiation from the white dwarf heats up the expelled layers of gas, which shine brightly in the infrared. GALEX has picked out the ultraviolet light pouring out of this system, shown throughout the nebula in blue, while Spitzer has snagged the detailed infrared signature of the dust and gas in red, yellow and green. Where red Spitzer and blue GALEX data combine in the middle, the nebula appears pink. A portion of the extended field beyond the nebula, which was not observed by Spitzer, is from NASA’s all-sky Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

Source: JPL

Zoom Into the Entire Infrared Sky from WISE

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Love all the great things you can see in infrared? Then zoom on into the big view of the entire sky from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. WISE has collected more than 15 trillion bytes of data with 2.7 million images of the sky at infrared light. It’s captured everything from nearby asteroids to distant galaxies, finding “Y-dwarfs,” a Trojan asteroid sharing Earth’s orbit, and stars and galaxies that had never been seen before, as well as showing astronomers that there are significantly fewer mid-size asteroids than previously thought.

Today NASA released a new atlas and catalog of the entire sky in infrared, and now even more discoveries are expected since anyone can have access to the whole sky as seen by the spacecraft.

“With the release of the all-sky catalog and atlas, WISE joins the pantheon of great sky surveys that have led to many remarkable discoveries about the universe,” said Roc Cutri, who leads the WISE data processing and archiving effort at the Infrared and Processing Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “It will be exciting and rewarding to see the innovative ways the science and educational communities will use WISE in their studies now that they have the data at their fingertips.”

Thanks to John Williams at Starry Critters, you can now zoom into WISE’s entire map of the infrared sky. John notes some interesting things in the image: “The bright swath across the center is the Milky Way Galaxy; our home galaxy. The view is toward the center of the galaxy with the spiral arms stretching to the edges. Some arti­facts were left in such as bright red spots off the plane of the galaxy. These are Saturn, Jupiter and Mars.”

An introduction and quick guide to accessing the WISE all-sky archive for astronomers is online at: http://wise2.ipac.caltech.edu/docs/release/allsky/

Click here for a collection of WISE images released to date.

More information about WISE.

Clusters of Stars Crackle and Pop to Tell the Story of Star Formation

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Astronomers trying to understand the formation of massive clusters of stars are getting a better idea of how the process works from the latest images and data from the WISE spacecraft. NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer has captured a vast stretch of nearly a dozen nebulae popping with new star birth, which is helping to narrow the field of possible star-forming scenarios.

“We are trying to understand how huge clusters of stars form at the same time from a large cloud of gas,” said Xavier Koenig from Goddard Space Flight Center, speaking at a press briefing from the American Astronomical Society meeting this week. “We have two possible pictures of how this process works and WISE is helping us piece together the chain of events.”

WISE has mapped the entire sky two times in infrared light, and the astronomers selected a sample of regions to find young stars and map their distributions to try and determine how these large clusters formed. For both possible scenarios, a cluster of stars begin to form at the center of a huge cloud of gas. But what happens next? The first potential situation, called Model 1, is “collect and collapse,” Koenig said, where the stars create a hot bubble of gas which surrounds the stars. “This bubble gathers up material and after a time enough gas builds up that the next generation of stars appears.”

Model 2 is called “chain reaction,” where as bubble of gas progresses outward, stars are continually formed, and there is no gap between the births of stars.

In looking at several of the star-forming nebulae, Koenig and his colleagues noticed a pattern in the spatial arrangement of newborn stars. Some were found lining the blown-out cavities, a phenomenon that had been seen before, but other new stars were seen sprinkled throughout the cavity interiors. The results suggest that stars are born in a successive fashion, one after the other, starting from a core cluster of massive stars and moving steadily outward. This lends support to “chain reaction” star formation theory, and offers new clues about the physics of the process.

The astronomers also found evidence that the bubbles seen in the star-forming clouds can spawn new bubbles. In this scenario, a massive star blasts away surrounding material, which eventually triggers the birth of another star massive enough to carve out its own bubble. A few examples of what may be first- and second-generation bubbles can be seen in the new WISE image.

“Massive stars sweep up and destroy their natal clouds, but they continuously spark new stars to form along the way,” said co-author Dave Leisawitz, the WISE Mission Scientist. “Occasionally a new, massive star forms, perpetuating the sequence of events and giving rise to the dazzling fireworks display seen in this WISE mosaic.”

Since young stars are brighter in infrared, WISE is the perfect telescope to be searching for these massive star-forming regions.
“WISE data is good for this kind of study because the infrared lights up right where these star-forming regions are doing their work – they pop out immediately to your eye,” said Koenig. “I can’t wait to look at more of the WISE sky coverage.”

See a larger version of the new WISE mosaic here.

Sources: JPL, AAS press briefing