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

Nearby Galaxy Holds First Ultraluminous X-Ray Source that is a Pulsar

A research team led by Caltech astronomers of Pasadena California have discovered an ultraluminous X-ray (ULX) source that is pulsating. Their analysis concluded that the source in a nearby galaxy – M82 – is from a rotating neutron star, a pulsar. This is the first ULX source attributed to a pulsar.

Matteo Bachetti of the Université de Toulouse in France first identified the pulsating source and is the lead author of the paper, “An ultraluminous X-ray source powered by an accreting neutron star” in the journal Nature. Caltech astronomer Dr. Fiona Harrison, the team leader, stated “This compact little stellar remnant is a real powerhouse. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. We all thought an object with that much energy had to be a black hole.”

What is most extraordinary is that this discovery places even more strain on theories already hard pressed to explain the existence of ultraluminous X-Ray sources. The burden falls on the shoulder of the theorists.

The NuStar Space Telescope launched into Earth orbit by a Orbital Science Corp. Pegasus rocket, 2012. The Wolter telescope design images throughout a spectral range from 5 to 80 KeV. (Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL)
The NuStar Space Telescope launched into Earth orbit by a Orbital Science Corp. Pegasus rocket, 2012. The Wolter telescope design images throughout a spectral range from 5 to 80 KeV. (Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL)

The source of the observations is the NuSTAR space telescope, a SMEX class NASA mission. It is a Wolter telescope that uses grazing incidence optics, not glass (refraction) or mirrors (reflection) as in visible light telescopes. The incidence angle of the X-rays must be very shallow and consequently the optics are extended out on a 10 meter (33 feet) truss. NuSTAR records its observations with a time stamp such as taking a video of the sky. The video recording in high speed is not in visible everyday light but what is called hard x-rays. Only gamma rays are more energetic. X-rays emanate from the most powerful sources and events in the Universe. NuStar observes in the energy range of X-Rays from 5 to 80 KeV (electron volt)while the famous Chandra space telescope observes in the .1 to 10 KeV range. Chandra is one NASA’s great space telescope, was launched by the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-93) in 1999. Chandra has altered our view of the Universe as dramatically as the first telescope constructed by Galileo. NuSTAR carries on the study of X-rays to higher energies and with greater acuity.

ULX sources are rare in the Universe but this is the first pulsating ULX. After analysis, they concluded that this is not a black hole but rather its little brother, a spinning neutron star as the source. More specifically, this is an accreting binary pulsar; matter from a companion star is being  gravitationally attracted by and accreting onto the pulsar.

The Crab Nebula Pulsar, M1. Both are sequences of observations that show the expansion of shock waves emanating from the Pulsar interacting with the surrounding nebula. The Crab Pulsar actually pulsates 30 times per second a result of its rotation rate and the relative offset of the magnetic pole. Charndra X-Rays (left), Hubble Visible light (right). (Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech)
The prime example of a pulsar – the Crab Nebula Pulsar, M1. These actual observations show the expansion of shock waves emanating from the Pulsar interacting with the surrounding nebula. The Crab Pulsar actually pulsates 30 times per second, not seen here, a result of its rotation rate and the relative offset of the magnetic pole. Charndra X-Rays (left), Hubble Visible light (right). (Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech)

Take a neutron star and spin it up to anywhere from 700 rotations per second to a mere one  rotation every 10 seconds. Now you have a neutron star called a pulsar. Spinning or not, these are the remnants of supernovae, stellar explosions that can outshine a galaxy of 300 billion stars. Just one teaspoon of neutron star material weighs 10 million tons (9,071,847,400 kg). That is the same weight as 900 Great Pyramids of Giza all condensed to one teaspoon. As incredible a material and star that a neutron star is, they were not thought to be the source of any ultraluminous X-Ray sources. This view has changed with the analysis of observations by this research team utilizing NuSTAR. The telescope name – NuSTAR – stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array.

There is nothing run of the mill about black holes. Dr. Stephen Hawking only conceded after 25 years, in 2004 (the Thorne-Hawking Bet)  that Black Holes exist. And still today it is not absolutely certain. Recall the Universe Today weekly – Space Hangout on September 26 – “Do Black Holes exist?” and the article by Jason Major, “There are no such things as Black Holes.

Pulsars stars are nearly as exotic as black holes, and all astronomers accept the existence of these spinning neutron stars. There are three final states of a dying star. Stars like our Sun at the end of their life become very dense White Dwarf stars, about the size of the Earth. Neutron stars are the next “degenerate” state of a dying exhausted star. All the electrons have merged with the protons in the material of the star to become neutrons. A neutron star is a degenerate form of matter effectively made up of all neutron particles. Very dense, these stars are really small, the size of cities, about 16 miles in diameter. The third type of star in its final state is the Black Hole.

The Crab Nebula was first  observed in the 1700s and is catalogued Messier object, M1. The remant explosion of a SuperNova, Chinese astronomers observed in 1054 A.D and holds the second Pular discovered (1968).
The Crab Nebula was first observed in the 1700s and is catalogued Messier object, M1. The remant explosion of a SuperNova that Chinese astronomers observed in 1054 A.D, it holds the second Pulsar discovered (1968).

A spinning neutron star creates a magnetic field, the most powerful of such fields in the Universe. They are like a dipole of a bar magnet and because of how magnetic fields confine the hot gases – plasma – of the neutron star, constant streams of material flow down and light streams out from the magnetic poles.

Recently, the Earth has had incredible northern lights, aurora. These lights are also from hot gases — a plasma — at the top of our atmosphere. Likewise, hot energetic particles from the Sun are funneled down into the magnetic poles of the Earth’s field that creates the northern lights. For spinning neutron stars – pulsars – the extreme light from the magnetic poles are like beacons. Just like our Earth, the magnetic poles and the spin axis poles do not coincide. So the intense beacon of light will rotate around and periodically point at the Earth. The video of the first illustration describes this action.

Messier object - M82, the Cigar Nebula, nicknamed for the shape seen through telescopes of the 1800s. This is the location of the newly discovered Pulsar.
Messier object – M82, the Cigar Nebula, nicknamed for the shape seen through telescopes of the 1800s. This is the location of the newly discovered Pulsar.

The light beacons from pulsars are very bright but theory, until now, has been supported by observations. No ultraluminous X-ray sources should be pulsars. The newly discovered pulsar is outputting 100 times more energy than any other. Discoveries like the one by these astronomers utilizing NuSTAR is proof that there remains more to discover and understand and new telescopes will be conceived to help resolve questions raised by NuSTAR or Chandra.

Further reading: JPL

Intriguing X-Ray Signal Might be Dark Matter Candidate

Could a strange X-ray signal coming from the Perseus galaxy cluster be a hint of the elusive dark matter in our Universe?

Using archival data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the XMM-Newton mission, astronomers found an unidentified X-ray emission line, or a spike of intensity at a very specific wavelength of X-ray light. This spike was also found in 73 other galaxy clusters in XMM-Newton data.

The scientists propose that one intriguing possibility is that the X-rays are produced by the decay of sterile neutrinos, a hypothetical type of neutrino that has been proposed as a candidate for dark matter and is predicted to interact with normal matter only via gravity.

“We know that the dark matter explanation is a long shot, but the pay-off would be huge if we’re right,” said Esra Bulbul of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the study. “So we’re going to keep testing this interpretation and see where it takes us.”

Astronomers estimate that roughly 85 percent of all matter in the Universe is dark matter, invisible to even the most powerful telescopes, but detectable by its gravitational pull.

Galaxy clusters are good places to look for dark matter. They contain hundreds of galaxies as well as a huge amount of hot gas filling the space between them. But measurements of the gravitational influence of galaxy clusters show that the galaxies and gas make up only about one-fifth of the total mass. The rest is thought to be dark matter.

Bulbul explained in a post on the Chandra blog that she wanted try hunting for dark matter by “stacking” (layering observations on top of each other) large numbers of observations of galaxy clusters to improve the sensitivity of the data coming from Chandra and XMM-Newton.

“The great advantage of stacking observations is not only an increased signal-to-noise ratio (that is, the amount of useful signal compared to background noise), but also the diminished effects of detector and background features,” wrote Bulbul. “The X-ray background emission and instrumental noise are the main obstacles in the analysis of faint objects, such as galaxy clusters.”

Her primary goal in using the stacking technique was to refine previous upper limits on the properties of dark matter particles and perhaps even find a weak emission line from previously undetected metals.

“These weak emission lines from metals originate from the known atomic transitions taking place in the hot atmospheres of galaxy clusters,” said Bulbul. “After spending a year reducing, carefully examining, and stacking the XMM-Newton X-ray observations of 73 galaxy clusters, I noticed an unexpected emission line at about 3.56 kiloelectron volts (keV), a specific energy in the X-ray range.”

In theory, a sterile neutrino decays into an active neutrino by emitting an X-ray photon in the keV range, which can be detectable through X-ray spectroscopy. Bulbul said that her team’s results are consistent with the theoretical expectations and the upper limits placed by previous X-ray searches.

Bulbul and her colleagues worked for a year to confirm the existence of the line in different subsamples, but they say they still have much work to do to confirm that they’ve actually detected sterile neutrinos.

“Our next step is to combine data from Chandra and JAXA’s Suzaku mission for a large number of galaxy clusters to see if we find the same X-ray signal,” said co-author Adam Foster, also of CfA. “There are lots of ideas out there about what these data could represent. We may not know for certain until Astro-H launches, with a new type of X-ray detector that will be able to measure the line with more precision than currently possible.”

Astro-H is another Japanese mission scheduled to launch in 2015 with a high-resolution instrument that should be able to see better detail in the spectra, and Bulbul said they hope to be able to “unambiguously distinguish an astrophysical line from a dark matter signal and tell us what this new X-ray emission truly is.”

Since the emission line is weak, this detection is pushing the capabilities Chandra and XMM Newton in terms of sensitivity. Also, the team says there may be explanations other than sterile neutrinos if this X-ray emission line is deemed to be real. There are ways that normal matter in the cluster could have produced the line, although the team’s analysis suggested that all of these would involve unlikely changes to our understanding of physical conditions in the galaxy cluster or the details of the atomic physics of extremely hot gases.

The authors also note that even if the sterile neutrino interpretation is correct, their detection does not necessarily imply that all of dark matter is composed of these particles.

The Chandra press release shared an interesting behind-the-scenes look into how science is shared and discussed among scientists:

Because of the tantalizing potential of these results, after submitting to The Astrophysical Journal the authors posted a copy of the paper to a publicly accessible database, arXiv. This forum allows scientists to examine a paper prior to its acceptance into a peer-reviewed journal. The paper ignited a flurry of activity, with 55 new papers having already cited this work, mostly involving theories discussing the emission line as possible evidence for dark matter. Some of the papers explore the sterile neutrino interpretation, but others suggest different types of candidate dark matter particles, such as the axion, may have been detected.

Only a week after Bulbul et al. placed their paper on the arXiv, a different group, led by Alexey Boyarsky of Leiden University in the Netherlands, placed a paper on the arXiv reporting evidence for an emission line at the same energy in XMM-Newton observations of the galaxy M31 and the outskirts of the Perseus cluster. This strengthens the evidence that the emission line is real and not an instrumental artifact.

Further reading:
Paper by Bulbul et al.
Chandra press release
ESA press release
Chandra blog

New Findings from NuSTAR: A New X-Ray View of the “Hand of God” and More

One star player in this week’s findings out of the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society has been the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array Mission, also known as NuSTAR. On Thursday, researchers revealed some exciting new results and images from the mission, as well as what we can expect from NuSTAR down the road.

NuSTAR was launched on June 13th, 2012 on a Pegasus XL rocket deployed from a Lockheed L-1011 “TriStar” aircraft flying near the Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Part of a new series of low-cost missions, NuSTAR is the first of its kind to employ a space telescope focusing on the high energy X-ray end of the spectrum centered around 5-80 KeV.

Daniel Stern, part of the NuSTAR team at JPL Caltech, revealed a new X-ray image of the now-famous supernova remnant dubbed “The Hand of God.” Discovered by the Einstein X-ray observatory in 1982, the Hand is home to pulsar PSR B1509-58 or B1509 for short, and sits about 18,000 light years away in the southern hemisphere constellation Circinus. B1509 spins about 7 times per second, and the supernova that formed the pulsar is estimated to have occurred 20,000 years ago and would’ve  been visible form Earth about 2,000 years ago.

A diagram of the NuSTAR satellite. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)
A diagram of the NuSTAR satellite. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

While the Chandra X-ray observatory has scrutinized the region before, NuSTAR can peer into its very heart. In fact, Stern notes that views from NuSTAR take on less of an appearance of a “Hand” and more of a “Fist”. Of course, the appearance of any nebula is a matter of perspective. Pareidolia litter the deep sky, whether it’s the Pillars of Creation to the Owl Nebula.  We can’t help but being reminded of the mysterious “cosmic hand” that the Guardians of Oa of Green Lantern fame saw when they peered back at the moment of creation. Apparently, the “Hand” is also rather Simpson-esque, sporting only three “fingers!”

Credit:
An diagram of the Hand of God. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/McGill).

NuSTAR is the first, and so far only, focusing hard X-ray observatory deployed in orbit. NuSTAR employs what’s known as grazing incidence optics in a Wolter telescope configuration, and the concentric shells of the detector look like layers on an onion. NuSTAR also requires a large focal length, and employs a long boom that was deployed shortly after launch.

The hard X-ray regime that NuSTAR monitors is similar to what you encounter in your dentist’s office or in a TSA body scanner. Unlike the JEM-X monitor aboard ESA’s INTERGRAL or the Swift observatory, which have a broad resolution of about half a degree to a degree, NuSTAR has an unprecedented resolution of about 18 arc seconds.

The first data release from NuSTAR was in late 2013. NuSTAR is just begging to show its stuff, however, in terms of what researchers anticipate that it’s capable of.

“NuSTAR is uniquely able to map the Titanium-44 emission, which is a radioactive tracer of (supernova) explosion physics,” Daniel Stern told Universe Today.

NuSTAR will also be able to pinpoint high energy sources at the center of our galaxy. “No previous high-energy mission has had the imaging resolution of NuSTAR,” Stern told Universe Today. ”Our order-of-magnitude increase in image sharpness means that we’re able to map out that very rich region of the sky, which is populated by supernovae remnants, X-ray binaries, as well as the big black hole at the center of our Galaxy, Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star).”

NuSTAR identifies new black hole canidates (in blue) in the COSMOS field. Overlayed on previous black holes spotted by Chandra in the same field denoted in red and green. (Credit-NASA/JPL-Caltech/Yale University).
NuSTAR identifies new black hole candidates (in blue) in the COSMOS field. The discoveries in the image above are overlayed on previous black holes spotted by Chandra in the same field, which are denoted in red and green. (Credit-NASA/JPL-Caltech/Yale University).

Yale University researcher Francesca Civano also presented a new image from NuSTAR depicting black holes that were previously obscured from view.  NuSTAR is especially suited for this, gazing into the hearts of energetic galaxies that are invisible to observatories such Chandra or XMM-Newton. The image presented covers the area of Hubble’s Cosmic Evolution Survey, known as COSMOS in the constellation Sextans. In fact, Civano notes that NuSTAR has already seen the highest number of obscured black hole candidates to date.

“This is a hot topic in astronomy,” Civano said in a recent press release. “We want to understand how black holes grew and the degree to which they are obscured.”

To this end, NuSTAR researchers are taking a stacked “wedding cake” approach, looking at successively larger slices of the sky from previous surveys. These include looking at the quarter degree field of the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOOD-S) for 18 days, the two degree wide COSMOS field for 36 days, and the large four degree Swift-BAT fields for 40 day periods hunting for serendipitous sources.

Interestingly, NuSTAR has also opened the window on the hard X-ray background that permeates the universe as well. This peaks in the 20-30 KeV range, and is the combination of the X-ray emissions of millions of black holes.

“For several decades already, we’ve known what the sum total emission of the sky is across the X-ray regime,” Stern told Universe Today. “The shape of this cosmic X-ray background peaks strongly in the NuSTAR range. The most likely interpretation is that there are a large number of obscured black holes out there, objects that are hard to find in other energy bands. NuSTAR should find these sources.”

And NuSTAR may just represent the beginning of a new era in X-ray astronomy. ESA is moving ahead with its next generation flagship X-ray mission, known as Athena+, set to launch sometime next decade. Ideas abound for wide-field imagers and X-ray polarimeters, and one day, we may see a successor to NuSTAR dubbed the High-Energy X-ray Probe or (HEX-P) make it into space.

But for now, expect some great science out of NuSTAR, as it unlocks the secrets of the X-ray universe!

Fluorescent and Starry: New Zinger Space Images From Chandra’s X-Ray Archives

You know that moment when you’re flipping through old digital pictures (on your computer or phone or whatever) and you realize there are some pretty awesome ones in there that you should share on social media? The Chandra X-Ray Observatory team also decided to plumb THEIR archive of astrophysical image magic, and came up with several beauties. Such as the one above this text.

Chandra has been in space since July 23, 1999 — yes, that’s well over 14 years ago — and is considered one of NASA’s telescopes under the “Great Observatories” programs. The other telescopes, by the way, are the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Hubble and Spitzer are also still active today.

Check out more from the new set of images below. There are eight all told, representing a tiny fraction of the unprocessed thousands of images available to the public in the Chandra Source Catalog.

The Elephant Trunk Nebula (IC 1396A) in X-ray, optical and infrared light. Astronomers believe they are seeing winds from large, young stars hitting cooler gas around it, possibly triggering new starbirth. X-ray data from Chandra is in purple, with optical data (red, green and blue) and infrared (orange and cyan). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/Getman et al, Optical: DSS, Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Elephant Trunk Nebula (IC 1396A) in X-ray, optical and infrared light. Astronomers believe they are seeing winds from large, young stars hitting cooler gas around it, possibly triggering new starbirth. X-ray data from Chandra is in purple, with optical data (red, green and blue) and infrared (orange and cyan). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/Getman et al, Optical: DSS, Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
3C353 looks a bit like a tadpole. In the center of this image is a galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole, which is transmitting energy across the expanse. Radiation is visible in X-rays from Chandra (purple) and radio from the Very Large Array (orange.) Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Tokyo Institute of Technology/J.Kataoka et al, Radio: NRAO/VLA
3C353 looks a bit like a tadpole. In the center of this image is a galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole, which is transmitting energy across the expanse. Radiation is visible in X-rays from Chandra (purple) and radio from the Very Large Array (orange.) Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Tokyo Institute of Technology/J.Kataoka et al, Radio: NRAO/VLA
SNR B0049-73.6 in X-ray and infrared light.  Chandra's observations (purple) revealed that the explosion seen here was likely from a star's central core collapse. Infrared data from the 2MASS survey is also visible in red, green and blue. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Drew Univ/S.Hendrick et al, Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF
SNR B0049-73.6 in X-ray and infrared light. Chandra’s observations (purple) revealed that the explosion seen here was likely from a star’s central core collapse. Infrared data from the 2MASS survey is also visible in red, green and blue. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Drew Univ/S.Hendrick et al, Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF
NGC 4945, a galaxy 13 million light years from Earth. This galaxy is similar to the Milky Way, but has a more active supermassive black hole in the center (visible in white). Chandra X-ray data is in blue, overlaid on European Space Observatory optical information. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ degli Studi Roma Tre/A.Marinucci et al, Optical: ESO/VLT & NASA/STScI
NGC 4945, a galaxy 13 million light years from Earth. This galaxy is similar to the Milky Way, but has a more active supermassive black hole in the center (visible in white). Chandra X-ray data is in blue, overlaid on European Space Observatory optical information. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ degli Studi Roma Tre/A.Marinucci et al, Optical: ESO/VLT & NASA/STScI
3C 397, sometimes called G41.1-0.3, is a supernova leftover that looks a little funny. It's possible that the shape comes from heated remains of the star's shell bump into cooler gas surrounding it. X-ray data from Chandra is purple, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope is yellow, and optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey is in red, green and blue. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Manitoba/S.Safi-Harb et al, Optical: DSS, Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
3C 397, sometimes called G41.1-0.3, is a supernova leftover that looks a little funny. It’s possible that the shape comes from heated remains of the star’s shell bump into cooler gas surrounding it. X-ray data from Chandra is purple, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope is yellow, and optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey is in red, green and blue. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Manitoba/S.Safi-Harb et al, Optical: DSS, Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NGC 3576, a nebula 9,000 light-years from Earth, in X-ray (blue) and optical data. Chandra spotted evidence of strong winds coming from young stars in the nebula. Optical data from the European Space Observatory is shown in orange and yellow. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State/L.Townsley et al, Optical: ESO/2.2m telescope
NGC 3576, a nebula 9,000 light-years from Earth, in X-ray (blue) and optical data. Chandra spotted evidence of strong winds coming from young stars in the nebula. Optical data from the European Space Observatory is shown in orange and yellow. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State/L.Townsley et al, Optical: ESO/2.2m telescope
G266.2-1.2 in X-ray (purple) and optical light. Chandra spotted high-energy particles shooting out from this supernova leftover. The optical data comes from the Digitized Sky Survey and is available in red, green, and blue. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Morehead State Univ/T.Pannuti et al, Optical: DSS
G266.2-1.2 in X-ray (purple) and optical light. Chandra spotted high-energy particles shooting out from this supernova leftover. The optical data comes from the Digitized Sky Survey and is available in red, green, and blue. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Morehead State Univ/T.Pannuti et al, Optical: DSS

First Light Image for NuSTAR

Here is the first image taken by the newest space mission, NuSTAR, or the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, the first space telescope with the ability to see the highest energy X-rays in our universe and produce crisp images of them.

“Today, we obtained the first-ever focused images of the high-energy X-ray universe,” said Fiona Harrison, the mission’s principal investigator. “It’s like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing aspects of the world around us clearly for the first time.”

With the successful “first light” images, the mission will begin its exploration of the most elusive and energetic black holes — as well as other areas of extreme physics in our cosmos — to help in our understanding of the structure of the universe.

The first images show Cygnus X-1, a black hole in our galaxy that is siphoning gas off a giant-star companion. This particular black hole was chosen as a first target because it is extremely bright in X-rays, allowing the NuSTAR team to easily see where the telescope’s focused X-rays are falling on the detectors.

NuSTAR launched on June 13 and its lengthy mast, which provides the telescope mirrors and detectors with the distance needed to focus X-rays, was deployed on June 21. The NuSTAR team spent the next week verifying the pointing and motion capabilities of the satellite, and fine-tuning the alignment of the mast.

The mission’s primary observing program is expected to start in about two weeks. But before it does, the team will continue tests and point the NuSTAR at two other bright calibration targets: G21.5-0.9, the remnant of a supernova explosion that occurred several thousand years ago in our own Milky Way galaxy; and 3C273, an actively feeding black hole, or quasar, located 2 billion light-years away at the center of another galaxy. These targets will be used to make a small adjustment to place the X-ray light at the optimum spot on the detector, and to further calibrate and understand the telescope in preparation for future science observations.

Other targets for the mission include the burnt-out remains of dead stars, such as those that exploded as supernovae; high-speed jets; the temperamental surface of our sun; and the structures where galaxies cluster together like mega-cities.

“This is a really exciting time for the team,” said Daniel Stern, the NuSTAR project scientist. “We can already see the power of NuSTAR to crack open the high-energy X-ray universe and reveal secrets that were impossible to get at before.”

Lead image caption: NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has taken its first snapshots of the highest-energy X-rays in the cosmos (lower right), producing images that are much crisper than previous high-energy telescopes (example in upper right). NuSTAR chose a black hole in the constellation Cygnus (shown in the skymap on the left) as its first target due to its brightness. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NuSTAR Successfully Deploys Huge Mast

Nine days after launch — and right on schedule — the newest space mission has deployed its unique mast, giving it the ability to see the highest energy X-rays in our universe. The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, successfully deployed its lengthy 10-meter (33-foot) mast on June 21, and mission scientists say they are one step closer to beginning its hunt for black holes hiding in our Milky Way and other galaxies.

“It’s a real pleasure to know that the mast, an accomplished feat of engineering, is now in its final position,” said Yunjin Kim, the NuSTAR project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Kim was also the project manager for the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which flew a similar mast on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2000 and made topographic maps of Earth.

NuSTAR will search out the most elusive and most energetic black holes, to help in our understanding of the structure of the universe.

NuSTAR has many innovative technologies to allow the telescope to take the first-ever crisp images of high-energy X-ray, and the long mast separates the telescope mirrors from the detectors, providing the distance needed to focus the X-rays.

This is the first deployable mast ever used on a space telescope; the mast was folded up in a small canister during launch.

At 10:43 a.m. PDT (1:43 p.m. EDT) engineers at NuSTAR’s mission control at UC Berkeley in California sent a signal to the spacecraft to start extending the mast, a stable, rigid structure consisting of 56 cube-shaped units. Driven by a motor, the mast steadily inched out of a canister as each cube was assembled one by one. The process took about 26 minutes. Engineers and astronomers cheered seconds after they received word from the spacecraft that the mast was fully deployed and secure.

The NuSTAR team will now begin to verify the pointing and motion capabilities of the satellite, and fine-tune the alignment of the mast. In about five days, the team will instruct NuSTAR to take its “first light” pictures, which are used to calibrate the telescope.
Less than 20 days later, science operations are scheduled to begin.

“With its unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution to the previously poorly explored hard X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum, NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division Director.

NuSTAR launched on an Orbital Science Corporation’s Pegasus rocket, which was dropped from a carrier plane, the L-1011 “Stargazer,” also from Orbital.

Lead image caption: Artist’s concept of NuSTAR in orbit. NuSTAR has a 33-foot (10-meter) mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Source: JPL

Black Hole Hunter Drops from a Plane, Zooms to Orbit

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The newest mission to hunt for black holes soared to orbit today after first dropping from an aircraft. NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) launched 16:00 UTC (12 noon EDT, 9 a.m. PDT). NuSTAR was strapped to an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket, both of which strapped to an L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft. The plane left Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean one hour before launch. Then at 9:00:35 a.m. PDT the rocket dropped, free-falling for five seconds before firing its first-stage motor.

“NuSTAR will help us find the most elusive and most energetic black holes, to help us understand the structure of the universe,” said Fiona Harrison, the mission’s principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Watch the video of the launch below.

About 13 minutes after the rocket dropped, NuSTAR separated from the rocket, reaching its final low Earth orbit. The first signal from the spacecraft was received at 9:14 a.m. PDT via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.

“NuSTAR spread its solar panels to charge the spacecraft battery and then reported back to Earth of its good health,” said Yunjin Kim, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We are checking out the spacecraft now and are excited to tune into the high-energy X-ray sky.”

The mission’s unique telescope design includes a 33-foot (10-meter) mast, which was folded up in a small canister during launch. In about seven days, engineers will command the mast to extend, enabling the telescope to focus properly. About 23 days later, science operations are scheduled to begin.
“With its unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution to the previously poorly explored hard X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum, NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division Director.

Combining all the data from the telescopes together will provide a more complete picture of the most energetic and exotic objects in space, such as black holes, dead stars and jets traveling near the speed of light.

NuSTAR will use a unique set of eyes to see the highest energy X-ray light from the cosmos. The observatory can see through gas and dust to reveal black holes lurking in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as those hidden in the hearts of faraway galaxies.

In addition to black holes and their powerful jets, NuSTAR will study a host of high-energy objects in our universe, including the remains of exploded stars; compact, dead stars; and clusters of galaxies. The mission’s observations, in coordination with other telescopes such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which detects lower-energy X-rays, will help solve fundamental cosmic mysteries. NuSTAR also will study our Sun’s fiery atmosphere, looking for clues as to how it is heated.

Learn more about NuStar at the mission website.

Newest X-Ray Observatory Will Hunt for Black Holes and More

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The next launch of a NASA space mission is the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR. It study wide range of objects in space, from massive black holes to our own Sun, and will be the first space telescope to create focused images of cosmic X-rays with the highest energies.

“We will see the hottest, densest and most energetic objects with a fundamentally new, high-energy X-ray telescope that can obtain much deeper and crisper images than before,” said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator, who has been working on this project for 20 years.

Meanwhile, NASA has cancelled another X-ray telescope, the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer (GEMS) X-ray telescope, an astrophysics mission that was going to launch in 2014 to observe the space near neutron stars and black holes. GEMS failed meet a the qualifications of a confirmation review and was heading to go over budget.

“The decision was made to non-confirm GEMS,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysic Division, at a meeting of the National Research Council’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics. “The rationale was that the pre-confirmation cost and schedule growth was too large.” The project was going well over the initial cost of $105 million and was facing a delay in launch.

But NuSTAR is scheduled to launch on June 13 from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. The X-ray space telescope will initially take off on a L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft, and then launch in midair into orbit on a Pegasus XL rocket from Orbital Sciences.

The mission has been awaiting launch since March, when NASA delayed its liftoff pending a review of the rocket.

NuSTAR will work with other telescopes in space now, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which observes lower-energy X-rays. Together, they will provide a more complete picture of the most energetic and exotic objects in space, such as black holes, dead stars and jets traveling near the speed of light.

This new observatory looks with X-rays similar to the X-rays used in hospitals and airports, but the telescope will have more than 10 times the resolution and more than 100 times the sensitivity of previous telescopes.

“NuSTAR uses several innovations for its unprecedented imaging capability and was made possible by many partners,” said Yunjin Kim, the project manager for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We’re all really excited to see the fruition of our work begin its mission in space.”

NuSTAR has an innovative design using a nested shell of mirrors to provide better focus. It also has state-of-the-art detectors and a large 33-foot (10-meter) mast, which connects the detectors to the nested mirrors, providing the long distance required to focus the X-rays. This mast is folded up into a canister small enough to fit atop the Pegasus launch vehicle. It will unfurl about seven days after launch. About 23 days later, science operations will begin.
The mission will focus on studying the formation of black holes and investigate how exploding stars forge the elements that make up planets and people, along with study the Sun’s atmosphere.

Sources: JPL Space News (GEMS)