NASA Launches a New X-ray Observatory

A new mission has launched to study some the most intriguing secrets of the universe. No, not THAT spacecraft (JWST is scheduled for launch on December 22). Another new and exciting mission is called Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) and it will allow scientists to explore the hidden details of some of the most extreme and high-energy objects in the cosmos, such as black holes, neutron stars, pulsars and dozens of other objects.

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Astronomers Might Have Found a Planet in Another Galaxy

Not that long ago,, astronomers weren’t sure that exoplanets even existed. Now we know that there are thousands of them and that most stars probably harbour exoplanets. There could be hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way, by some estimates. So there’s no reason to think that stars in other galaxies don’t host planets.

But to find one of those planets in another galaxy? That is a significant scientific achievement.

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Ions Surf Through Jupiter’s Magnetic Field, Triggering its Auroras

Auroras come in many shapes and sizes.  Jupiter is well known for its spectacular complement of bright polar lights, which also have the distinction of appearing in the X-ray band.  These auroras are also extreme power sources, emitting almost a gigawatt of energy in a few minutes. But what exactly causes them has been a mystery for the last 40 years.  Now, a team used data from a combination of satellites to identify what is causing these powerful emissions.  The answer appears to be charged ions surfing on a kind of wave.

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Uranus X-Rays are Probably Reflected Sunlight, but There Could be Another Source as Well

X-rays offer a unique insight into the astronomical world.  Invisible to the naked eye, most commonly they are thought of as the semi-dangerous source of medical scans.  However, X-ray observatories, like the Chandra X-ray Observatory are capable of seeing astronomical features that no other telescope can.  Recently scientists found some of those X-rays coming from a relatively unexpected source – Uranus.

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If Dark Matter is Made of Sterile Neutrinos, a new Survey has Narrowed Down What to Look for

We don’t know what dark matter is. We do know what it isn’t, and that’s a problem. Matter is made of elementary particles, from the quarks and electrons that make up atoms and molecules, to primordial neutrinos spread throughout the cosmos. But none of the known elementary particles can comprise dark matter, so what is it?

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Even older red dwarf stars are pumping out a surprising amount of deadly radiation at their planets

Most of the potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve discovered orbit small red dwarf stars. Red dwarfs make up about 75% of the stars in our galaxy. Only about 7.5% of stars are g-type like our Sun. As we look for life on other worlds, red dwarfs would seem to be their most likely home. But red dwarfs pose a serious problem for habitable worlds.

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A Single Wave, Bigger Than the Milky Way, is Rolling Through the Perseus Galaxy Cluster

NASA has discovered a wave of hot gas larger than the Milky Way rolling through the Perseus galaxy cluster. This X-ray image is the result of 16 days of observing with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The image was filtered to make details easier to see.Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.

NASA has discovered a wave of hot gas larger than the Milky Way  rolling through the Perseus galaxy cluster. This X-ray image is the result of 16 days of observing with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The image was filtered to make details easier to see. Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.
NASA has discovered a wave of hot gas larger than the Milky Way rolling through the Perseus galaxy cluster. This X-ray image is the result of 16 days of observing with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The image was filtered to make details easier to see. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.

An international team of scientists has discovered an enormous wave of hot gas rolling its way through the Perseus galaxy cluster. The wave is a giant version of what’s called a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave. They’re created when two fluids intersect at different velocities: for example, when wind blows over water.

In this instance, the wave was caused by a small galaxy cluster grazing the Perseus cluster, and setting off a chain of events lasting billions of years. The findings appear in a paper in the June 2017 issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“The wave we’ve identified is associated with the flyby of a smaller cluster, which shows that the merger activity that produced these giant structures is still ongoing.” – Stephen Walker, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Perseus is one of the most massive nearby clusters and the brightest one in X-rays, so Chandra data provide us with unparalleled detail,” said lead scientist Stephen Walker at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The wave we’ve identified is associated with the flyby of a smaller cluster, which shows that the merger activity that produced these giant structures is still ongoing.”

The Perseus galaxy cluster, also known as Abell 426, is 240 million light years away, and is about 11 million light years across. It’s one of the most massive objects we know of, and it’s named after the Perseus constellation, which appears in the same part of the sky.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally-bound objects in the Universe. Most of the observable matter in galaxy clusters is gas. But the gas is super hot—tens of millions of degrees hot—which means it emits x-rays.

X-Ray observations of Perseus have revealed several features and structures in the gas structure of the cluster. Some of them are bubble-like features caused by the super-massive black hole (SMBH) in NGC 1275, the Perseus cluster’s central galaxy. Another of these features is known as “the bay.” The bay is a concave feature which couldn’t have been formed by the SMBH.

This Hubble image shows NGC 1275, the Super-Massive Black Hole at the center of the Perseus cluster. NGC 1275 could not have been responsible for the "bay" feature found in Perseus. Image: By NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration - http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2008/28/image/a/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4634173
This Hubble image shows NGC 1275, the Super-Massive Black Hole at the center of the Perseus cluster. NGC 1275 could not have been responsible for the “bay” feature found in Perseus. Image: By NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration – http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2008/28/image/a/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4634173

The bay is a puzzle because it doesn’t produce any emissions, which would be expected of something formed by a SMBH. The bay also doesn’t conform to models of how gas should behave in this situation.

The lead scientist behind the study is Stephen Walker at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Walker turned to the Chandra X-ray Observatory to help solve this puzzle. Existing Chandra images of the Perseus cluster were filtered in order to highlight the edges of structures, and to make any subtle details more visible.

These filtered and processed images were then compared to computer simulations of galaxy clusters merging. John ZuHone, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has created an online catalog of these simulations.

“Galaxy cluster mergers represent the latest stage of structure formation in the cosmos.” -John ZuHone, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“Galaxy cluster mergers represent the latest stage of structure formation in the cosmos. Hydrodynamic simulations of merging clusters allow us to produce features in the hot gas and tune physical parameters, such as the magnetic field. Then we can attempt to match the detailed characteristics of the structures we observe in X-rays.” -John ZuHone, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

This alternate image of the Perseus galaxy cluster shows the wave at the 7 o'clock position. Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.
This alternate image of the Perseus galaxy cluster shows the wave at the 7 o’clock position. Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al.

One of the simulations matched what astronomers were seeing in Perseus. In it, a large cluster like Perseus had settled itself into two regions: a colder region of gas around 30 million degrees Celsius, and a hotter region of gas at almost 100 million degrees Celsius. In this model, a cluster smaller than Perseus, but about a thousand times more massive than the Milky Way passes close to Perseus, missing its center by about 650,000 light years.

That happened about 2.5 billion years ago, and it set off a chain of events still playing itself out.

The near miss caused a gravitational disturbance that created an expanding spiral of the colder gas. An enormous wave of gas has formed at the edge of the spiral of colder gas, where it intersects with the hotter gas. This is the Kelvin-Helmholtz wave seen in the images.

“We think the bay feature we see in Perseus is part of a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave, perhaps the largest one yet identified, that formed in much the same way as the simulation shows,” Walker said. “We have also identified similar features in two other galaxy clusters, Centaurus and Abell 1795.”

The study provided another benefit besides just spotting an impossibly enormous wave. It allowed the team to measure the magnetic properties of the Perseus cluster. The researchers discovered that the strength of the magnetic field in the cluster affected the size of the wave of gas. It the field is too strong, the waves don’t form at all, and if the magnetic field is too weak, then the waves would be even larger.

According to the team, there is no other known way to measure the magnetic field.

Source: Scientists Find Giant Wave Rolling Through the Perseus Galaxy Cluster

Deepest X-ray Image Ever Made Contains Mysterious Explosion

For over sixty years, astronomers have been exploring the Universe for x-ray sources. Known to be associated with stars, clouds of super heated gas, interstellar mediums, and destructive events, the detection of cosmic x-rays is challenging work. In recent decades, astronomers have been benefited immensely from by the deployment of orbital telescopes like the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Since it was launched on July 23rd, 1999, Chandra has been NASA’s flagship mission for X-ray astronomy. And this past week (on Thurs. March 30th, 2017), the Observatory accomplished something very impressive. Using its suite of advanced instruments, the observatory captured a mysterious flash coming from deep space. Not only was this the deepest X-ray source ever observed, it also revealed what could be an entirely new phenomenon.

Located in the region of the sky known as the Chandra Deep Field-South (CDF-S), this X-ray emission source appeared to have come from a small galaxy located approximately 10.7 billion light-years from Earth. It also had some remarkable properties, producing more energy in the space of a few minutes that all the stars in the galaxy combined.

Artist illustration of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the most sensitive X-ray telescope ever built. Credit: NASA/CXC/NGST

Originally detected in 2014 by a team of researchers from Penn State University and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, Chile, this source was not even detected in the X-ray band at first. However, it quickly caught the team’s attention as it erupted and became 1000 brighter in the space of a few hours. At this point, the researchers began gathering data using Chandra’s Advanced CCD Imaging Spectronomer.

A day after the flare-up, the X-ray source had faded to the point that Chandra was no longer able to detect it. As Niel Brandt – the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and part of the team that first observed it – described the discovery in a Penn State press release:

“This flaring source was a wonderful surprise bonus that we accidentally discovered in our efforts to explore the poorly understood realm of the ultra-faint X-ray universe. We definitely ‘lucked out’ with this find and now have an exciting new transient phenomenon to explore in future years.”

Thousands of hours of legacy data from the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes was then consulted in order to determine the location of the CDF-S X-ray source. And though scientists were able to determine that the image of the X-ray source placed it beyond any that had been observed before, they are not entirely clear as to what could have caused it.

X-ray (left) and optical (right) images of the space around the X-ray source, made with Chandra and the Hubble Space Telescope, respectively. Credit: NASA/CXC/F. Bauer et al.

On the one hand, it could be the result of some sort of destructive event, or something scientists have never before seen. The reason for this has to do with the fact that X-ray bursts also come with a gamma-ray burst (GRB), which appears to be missing here. Essentially, GRBs are jetted explosions that are triggered by the collapse of a massive star or by the merger of two neutron stars (or a neutron star with a black hole).

Because of this, three possible explanations have been suggested. In the first, the CDF-S X-ray source is indeed the result of a collapsing star or merger, but the resulting jets are not pointed towards Earth. In the second, the same scenario is responsible for the x-ray source, but the GRB lies beyond the small galaxy. The third possible explanation is that the event was caused by a medium-sized black hole shredding a white dwarf star.

Unfortunately, none of these explanations seem to fit the data. However, these research team also noted that these possibilities are not that well understood, since none have been witnessed in the Universe. As Franz Bauer – an astronomer from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile – said: “Ever since discovering this source, we’ve been struggling to understand its origin. It’s like we have a jigsaw puzzle but we don’t have all of the pieces.”

Not only has Chandra not observed any other X-ray sources like this one during the 17 years it has surveyed the CDF-S region, but no similar events have been observed by the space telescope anywhere in the Universe during its nearly two decades of operation. On top of that, this event was brighter, more short-lived, and occurred in a smaller, younger host galaxy than other unexplained X-ray sources.

Still image of the X-ray source observed by Chandra, showing the captured flare up at bottom Credit: NASA/CXC/Pontifical Catholic Univ./F.Bauer et al.

From all of this, the only takeaway appears to be that the event was likely the result of a cataclysmic event, like a neutron star or a white dwarf being torn apart. But the fact that none of the more plausible explanations seem to account for it’s peculiar characteristics would seem to suggest that astronomers may have witnessed an entirely new kind of cataclysmic event.

The team’s study – “A New, Faint Population of X-ray Transient“- is available online and will be published in the June 2017 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the meantime, astronomers will be sifting through the data acquired by Chandra and other X-ray observatories – like the ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission – to see if they can find any other instances of this kind of event.

And of course, future surveys conducted using Chandra and next-generation X-ray telescopes will also be on the lookout for these kind of short-lived, high-energy X-ray bursts. It’s always good when the Universe throws us a curve ball. Not only does it show us that we have more to learn, but it also teaches us that we must never grow complacent in our theories.

Be sure to check out this animation of the CDF-S X-ray source too, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading:  Chandra, PennState