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)

New Image Shows Beautiful Violence in Centaurus A

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The mysterious galaxy Centaurus A is a great place to study the extreme processes that occur near super-massive black holes, scientists say, and this beautiful new image from the combined forces of the Herschel Space Observatory and the XMM-Newton x-ray satellite reveals energetic processes going on deep in the galaxy’s core. This beautiful image tells a tale of past violence that occurred here.

The twisted disc of dust near the galaxy’s heart shows strong evidence that Centaurus A underwent a cosmic collision with another galaxy in the distant past. The colliding galaxy was ripped apart to form the warped disc, and the formation of young stars heats the dust to cause the infrared glow.

This multi-wavelength view of Centaurus A shows two massive jets of material streaming from a immense black hole in the center. When observed by radio telescopes, the jets stretch for up to a million light years, though the Herschel and XMM-Newton results focus on the inner regions.

At a distance of around 12 million light years from Earth, Centaurus A is the closest large elliptical galaxy to our own Milky Way.

“Centaurus A is the closest example of a galaxy to us with massive jets from its central black hole,” said Christine Wilson of McMaster University, Canada, who is leading the study of Centaurus A with Herschel. “Observations with Herschel, XMM-Newton and telescopes at many other wavelengths allow us to study their effects on the galaxy and its surroundings.”

Find more information on this image at ESA’s website.

Supernova G350 Kicks Up Some X-Ray Dust

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Located some 14,700 light years from the Earth toward the center of our galaxy, a newly photographed supernova remnant cataloged as G350.1+0.3 is making astronomers scratch their heads. The star which created this unusual visage is suspected to have blown its top some 600 to 1,200 years ago. Although it would have been as bright as the event which created the “Crab”, chances are no one saw it due to the massive amounts of gas and dust at the Milky Way’s heart. Now NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the ESA’s XMM-Newton telescope has drawn back the curtain and we’re able to marvel at what happens when a supernova imparts a powerful X-ray “kick” to a neutron star!

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/I.Lovchinsky et al, IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Photographic proof from Chandra and XMM-Newton are full of clues which give rise to the possibility that a compact object located in the influence of G350.1+0.3 may be the core region of a shattered star. Since it is off-centered from the X-ray emissions, it must have received a powerful blast of energy during the supernova event and has been moving along at a speed of 3 million miles per hour ever since. This information agrees with an “exceptionally high speed derived for the neutron star in Puppis A and provides new evidence that extremely powerful ‘kicks’ can be imparted to neutron stars from supernova explosions.”

As you look at the photo, you’ll notice one thing in particular… the irregular shape. The Chandra data in this image appears as gold while the infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is colored light blue. According to the research team, this unusual configuration may have been caused by the stellar debris field imparting itself into the surrounding cold molecular gas.

These results appeared in the April 10, 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The scientists on this paper were Igor Lovchinsky and Patrick Slane (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Bryan Gaensler (University of Sydney, Australia), Jack Hughes (Rutgers University), Stephen Ng (McGill University), Jasmina Lazendic (Monash University Clayton, Australia), Joseph Gelfand (New York University, Abu Dhabi), and Crystal Brogan (National Radio Astronomy Observatory).

Original Story Source: NASA Chandra News Release.

NASA’s New Eyes in the Sky

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On March 14, NASA will launch the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array or NuSTAR. This is the first time a telescope will focus on high energy X-rays, effectively opening up the sky for more sensitive study. The telescope will target black holes, supernova explosions, and will study the most extreme active galaxies. NuSTAR’s use of high-energy X-rays have an added bonus: it will be able to capture and compose the most detailed images ever taken in this end of the electromagnetic spectrum. 

NuSTAR’s eyes are two Wolter-I optic units; once in orbit each will ‘look’ at the same patch of sky. The Wolter-I mirror works by reflecting an X-ray twice, once off of an upper mirror shaped like a parabola and again off a lower mirror shaped like a hyperbola. The mirrors are nearly parallel to the direction of the incoming X-ray, reflecting most of the X-ray instead of absorbing it, but the slight angle allows for a very small collection area per surface. To get a full picture, mirrors of varying size are nested together.

Technicians work on NuSTAR this month at the Orbital Science Corporation in Dulles, Virginia. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Orbital

Each of NuSTAR’s eyes, each unit, are made of 133 concentric shells of mirrors shaped from flexible glass like that found in laptop computer screens. This is an improvement over past missions like Chandra and XMM-Newton that both used high density materials such as Platinum, Iridium and Gold as mirror coatings. These materials achieve great reflectivity for low energy X-rays but can’t capture high energy X-rays.

Like human eyes, NuSTAR’s optical units are co-aligned to give the telescope a wider field of view and enable the capture of more sensitive images. These images will be made into detailed composites by scientists on the ground.

Also like human eyes, NuSTAR’s optical units need to be distanced from one another since X-ray telescopes require long focal lengths. In other words, the optics must be separated by several meters from the detectors. NuSTAR does this with a 33 foot (10 metre) long mast or boom between units.

Previous X-ray missions have accommodated these long focal lengths by launching fully deployed observatories on large rockets. NuSTAR won’t. It has a unique deployable mast that will extend once the payload is in orbit. This allows for a launch on the small Pegasus rocket. Undeployed, the telescope measures just 2 metres in length and one metre in diameter.

During its two-year primary mission, NuSTAR will map the celestial sky focussing on black holes, supernova remnants, and particle jets traveling near the speed of light. It will also look at the Sun. Observations of microflares could explain the temperature of the Sun’s corona. It will also search the Sun for evidence of a hypothesized dark matter particle to test a theory about dark matter.

NuSTAR's mast. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Orbital

“NuSTAR will provide an unprecedented capability to discover and study some of the most exotic objects in the universe, from the corpses of exploded stars in the Milky Way to supermassive black holes residing in the hearts of distant galaxies,” said Lou Kaluzienski, NuSTAR program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The telescope shipped from the Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Virginia to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on January 27. There, it will be mated to its Pegasus launch vehicle on February 17. It will launch from underneath the L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft on March 14 after taking off near the equator from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.

Source: NASA

A Pegasus rocket launches from underneath a L-1011 "Stargazer" aircraft, just like NuSTAR will do in March. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Orbital

Different Supernovae; Different Neutron Stars

Artist concept of a neutron star. Credit: NASA

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Astronomers have recognized various ways that stars can collapse to undergo a supernova. In one situation, an iron core collapses. The second involves a lower mass star with oxygen, neon, and magnesium in the core which suddenly captures electrons when the conditions are just right, removing them as a support mechanism and causing the star to collapse. While these two mechanisms make good physical sense, there has never been any observational support showing that both types occur. Until now that is. Astronomers led yb Christian Knigge and Malcolm Coe at the University of Southampton in the UK announced that they have detected two distinct sub populations in the neutron stars that result from these supernova.

To make the discovery, the team studied a large number of a specific sub-class of neutron stars known as Be X-ray binaries (BeXs). These objects are a pair of stars formed by a hot B spectral class stars with hydrogen emission in their spectrum in a binary orbit with a neutron star. The neutron star orbits the more massive B star in an elliptical orbit, siphoning off material as it makes close approaches. As the accreted material strikes the neutron star’s surface it glows brightly in the X-rays, becoming, for a time, an X-ray pulsar allowing astronomers to measure the spin period of the neutron star.

Such systems are common in the Small Magellanic Cloud which appears to have a burst of star forming activity about 60 million years ago, allowing for the massive B stars to be in the prime of their stellar lives. It is estimated that the Small Magellanic Cloud alone has as many BeXs as the entire Milky Way galaxy, despite being 100 times smaller. By studying these systems as well the Large Magellanic Cloud and Milky Way, the team found that there are two overlapping but distinct populations of BeX neutron stars. The first had a short period, averaging around 10 seconds. A second group had an average of around 5 minutes. The team surmises that the two populations are a result of the different supernova formation mechanisms.

The two different formation mechanisms should also lead to another difference. The explosion is expected to give the star a “kick” that can change the orbital characteristics. The electron-captured supernovae are expected to give a kick velocity of less than 50 km/sec whereas the iron core collapse supernovae should be over 200 km/sec. This would mean the iron core collapse stars should have preferentially longer and more eccentric orbits. The team attempted to discern whether this too was supported by their evidence, but only a small fraction of the stars they examined had determined eccentricities. Although there was a small difference, it is too early to determine whether or not it was due to chance.

According to Knigge, “These findings take us back to the most fundamental processes of stellar evolution and lead us to question how supernovae actually work. This opens up numerous new research areas, both on the observational and theoretical fronts.

More Details on the Black Hole that Swallowed a Screaming Star

Back in June we reported on the black hole that devoured a star and then hurled the x-ray energy across billions of light years, right at Earth. It was such a spectacular and unprecedented event, that more studies have been done on the source, known as Swift J1644+57, and the folks at the Goddard Space Flight Center mulitmedia team have produced an animation (above) of what the event may have looked like. Two new papers were published yesterday in Nature; one from a group at NASA studying the data from the Swift satellite and the Japanese Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) instrument aboard the International Space Station, and the other from scientists using ground-based observatories.

They have confirmed what happened was the result of a truly extraordinary event — the awakening of a distant galaxy’s dormant black hole as it shredded, sucked and consumed a star, and the X-ray burst was akin to the death screams of the star.

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In the new studies, detailed analysis of MAXI and Swift observations revealed this was the first time that a nucleus with no previous X-ray emission had ever suddenly started such activity. The strong X-ray and rapid variation indicated that the X-ray came from a jet that was pointed right at Earth.

“Incredibly, this source is still producing X-rays and may remain bright enough for Swift to observe into next year,” said David Burrows, professor of astronomy at Penn State University and lead scientist for Swift’s X-Ray Telescope instrument. “It behaves unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

The galaxy is so far away, it took the light from the event approximately 3.9 billion years to reach Earth (that distance was updated from the 3.8 billion light years reported in June).

The black hole in the galaxy hosting Swift J1644+57, located in the constellation Draco, may be twice the mass of the four-million-solar-mass black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. As a star falls toward a black hole, it is ripped apart by intense tides. The gas is corralled into a disk that swirls around the black hole and becomes rapidly heated to temperatures of millions of degrees.

The innermost gas in the disk spirals toward the black hole, where rapid motion and magnetism create dual, oppositely directed “funnels” through which some particles may escape. Jets driving matter at velocities greater than 90 percent the speed of light form along the black hole’s spin axis.

This illustration steps through the events that scientists think likely resulted in Swift J1644+57. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift

The Swift satellite detected flares from this region back on March 28, 2011, and the flares were initially assumed to signal a gamma-ray burst, one of the nearly daily short blasts of high-energy radiation often associated with the death of a massive star and the birth of a black hole in the distant universe. But as the emission continued to brighten and flare, astronomers realized that the most plausible explanation was the tidal disruption of a sun-like star seen as beamed emission.

“The radio emission occurs when the outgoing jet slams into the interstellar environment, and by contrast, the X-rays arise much closer to the black hole, likely near the base of the jet,” said Ashley Zauderer, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass, lead author of a study of the event from numerous ground-based radio observatories, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) near Socorro, N.M.

“Our observations show that the radio-emitting region is still expanding at more than half the speed of light,” said Edo Berger, an associate professor of astrophysics at Harvard and a coauthor of the radio paper. “By tracking this expansion backward in time, we can confirm that the outflow formed at the same time as the Swift X-ray source.”

Swift launched in November 2004 and MAXI is mounted on the Japanese Kibo module on the ISS (installed in July 2009) and has been monitoring the whole sky since August 2009.

See more images and animations at the Goddard Space Flight Center Multimedia page.

Sources: Nature, JAXA, NASA

Companion Stars Could Cause Unexpected X-Rays

Many types of main sequence stars emit in the X-ray portion of the spectra. In massive stars, strong stellar winds ripping through the extended atmosphere of the star create X-ray photons. On lower mass stars, magnetic fields twisting through the photosphere heat it sufficiently to produce X-rays. But between these two mechanisms, in the late B to mid A classes of stars, neither of these mechanisms should be sufficient to produce X-rays. Yet when X-ray telescopes examined these stars, many were found to produce X-rays just the same.

The first exploration into the X-ray emission of this class of stars was the Einstein Observatory, launched in 1978 and deorbited in 1982. While the telescoped confirmed that these B and A stars had significantly less X-ray emission overall, seven of the 35 A type stars still had some emission. Four of these were confirmed as being in binary systems in which the secondary stars could be the source of the emission, leaving three of seven with unaccounted for X-rays.

The German ROSAT satellite found similar results, detecting 232 X-ray stars in this range. Studies explored connections with irregularities in the spectra of these stars and rotational velocities, but found no correlation with either. The suspicion was that these stars simply hid undetected, lower mass companions.

In recent years, some studies have begun exploring this, using telescopes equipped with adaptive optics to search for companions. In some cases, as with Alcor (member of the popular visual binary in the handle of the big dipper), companion stars have been detected, absolving the primary from the expectation of being the cause. However, in other cases, the X-rays still appear to be coming from the primary star when the resolution is sufficient to spatially resolve the system. The conclusion is that either the main star truly is the source, or there are even more elusive, sub-arcsecond binaries skewing the data.

Another new study has taken up the challenge of searching for hidden companions. The new study examined 63 known X-ray stars in the range not predicted to have X-ray emission to search for companions. As a control, they also searched 85 stars without the anomalous emission. This gave a total sample size of 148 target stars. When the images were taken and processed, it uncovered 68 candidate companions to 59 of the total objects. The number of companions was greater than the number of parent stars since some look to exist in trinary star systems or greater.

Comparing the percent of companions around X-ray stars to those that didn’t, 43% of the X-ray stars appeared to have companions, while only 12% of normal stars were discovered to have them. Some of the candidates may be the result of chance alignments and not actual binary systems giving an error of about ±5%.

While this study leaves some cases unresolved, the increased likelihood of X-ray stars to have companions suggests that the majority of cases are caused by companions. Further studies by X-ray telescopes like Chandra could provide the angular resolution necessary to ensure that the emissions are indeed coming from the partner objects as well as search for companions to even greater resolution.

Perseus Cluster Thicker Around the Middle Than Thought

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The Japanese Suzaku X-ray telescope has just taken a close look at the Perseus galaxy cluster, and revealed it’s got a bit of a spare tire.

Suzaku explored faint X-ray emission of hot gas across two swaths of the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. The resulting images, which record X-rays with energies between 700 and 7,000 electron volts in a combined exposure of three days, are shown in the two false-color strips above. Bluer colors indicate less intense X-ray emission. The dashed circle is 11.6 million light-years across and marks the so-called virial radius, where cold gas is now entering the cluster. Red circles indicate X-ray sources not associated with the cluster.

The results appear in today’s issue of Science.

The Perseus cluster (03hh 18m +41° 30) is the brightest extragalactic source of extended X-rays.

Lead author Aurora Simionescu, an astrophysicist at Stanford, and her colleagues note that until now, most observations of galaxy clusters have focused on their bright interiors. The Suzaku telescope was able to peer more closely at the outskirts of the Perseus cluster. The resulting census of baryonic matter (protons and neutrons of gas and metals) compared to dark matter offers some surprising observations.

It turns out the fraction of baryonic matter to dark matter at Perseus’s center was consistent with measurements for the universe as a whole, but the baryonic fraction unexpectedly exceeds the universal average on the cluster’s outskirts.

“The apparent baryon fraction exceeds the cosmic mean at larger radii, suggesting a clumpy distribution of the gas, which is important for understanding the ongoing growth of clusters from the surrounding cosmic web,” the authors write in the new paper.

Source: Science. See also JAXA’s Suzaku site

Dark Matter in Distant Galaxy Groups Mapped for the First Time

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Galaxy density in the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS) field, with colors representing the redshift of the galaxies, ranging from redshift of 0.2 (blue) to 1 (red). Pink x-ray contours show the extended x-ray emission as observed by XMM-Newton.

Dark matter (actually cold, dark – non-baryonic – matter) can be detected only by its gravitational influence. In clusters and groups of galaxies, that influence shows up as weak gravitational lensing, which is difficult to nail down. One way to much more accurately estimate the degree of gravitational lensing – and so the distribution of dark matter – is to use the x-ray emission from the hot intra-cluster plasma to locate the center of mass.

And that’s just what a team of astronomers have recently done … and they have, for the first time, given us a handle on how dark matter has evolved over the last many billion years.

COSMOS is an astronomical survey designed to probe the formation and evolution of galaxies as a function of cosmic time (redshift) and large scale structure environment. The survey covers a 2 square degree equatorial field with imaging by most of the major space-based telescopes (including Hubble and XMM-Newton) and a number of ground-based telescopes.

Understanding the nature of dark matter is one of the key open questions in modern cosmology. In one of the approaches used to address this question astronomers use the relationship between mass and luminosity that has been found for clusters of galaxies which links their x-ray emissions, an indication of the mass of the ordinary (“baryonic”) matter alone (of course, baryonic matter includes electrons, which are leptons!), and their total masses (baryonic plus dark matter) as determined by gravitational lensing.

To date the relationship has only been established for nearby clusters. New work by an international collaboration, including the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Marseilles (LAM), and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), has made major progress in extending the relationship to more distant and smaller structures than was previously possible.

To establish the link between x-ray emission and underlying dark matter, the team used one of the largest samples of x-ray-selected groups and clusters of galaxies, produced by the ESA’s x-ray observatory, XMM-Newton.

Groups and clusters of galaxies can be effectively found using their extended x-ray emission on sub-arcminute scales. As a result of its large effective area, XMM-Newton is the only x-ray telescope that can detect the faint level of emission from distant groups and clusters of galaxies.

“The ability of XMM-Newton to provide large catalogues of galaxy groups in deep fields is astonishing,” said Alexis Finoguenov of the MPE and the University of Maryland, a co-author of the recent Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) paper which reported the team’s results.

Since x-rays are the best way to find and characterize clusters, most follow-up studies have until now been limited to relatively nearby groups and clusters of galaxies.

“Given the unprecedented catalogues provided by XMM-Newton, we have been able to extend measurements of mass to much smaller structures, which existed much earlier in the history of the Universe,” says Alexie Leauthaud of Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division, the first author of the ApJ study.

COSMOS-XCL095951+014049 (Subaru/NAOJ, XMM-Newton/ESA)

Gravitational lensing occurs because mass curves the space around it, bending the path of light: the more mass (and the closer it is to the center of mass), the more space bends, and the more the image of a distant object is displaced and distorted. Thus measuring distortion, or ‘shear’, is key to measuring the mass of the lensing object.

In the case of weak gravitational lensing (as used in this study) the shear is too subtle to be seen directly, but faint additional distortions in a collection of distant galaxies can be calculated statistically, and the average shear due to the lensing of some massive object in front of them can be computed. However, in order to calculate the lens’ mass from average shear, one needs to know its center.

“The problem with high-redshift clusters is that it is difficult to determine exactly which galaxy lies at the centre of the cluster,” says Leauthaud. “That’s where x-rays help. The x-ray luminosity from a galaxy cluster can be used to find its centre very accurately.”

Knowing the centers of mass from the analysis of x-ray emission, Leauthaud and colleagues could then use weak lensing to estimate the total mass of the distant groups and clusters with greater accuracy than ever before.

The final step was to determine the x-ray luminosity of each galaxy cluster and plot it against the mass determined from the weak lensing, with the resulting mass-luminosity relation for the new collection of groups and clusters extending previous studies to lower masses and higher redshifts. Within calculable uncertainty, the relation follows the same straight slope from nearby galaxy clusters to distant ones; a simple consistent scaling factor relates the total mass (baryonic plus dark) of a group or cluster to its x-ray brightness, the latter measuring the baryonic mass alone.

“By confirming the mass-luminosity relation and extending it to high redshifts, we have taken a small step in the right direction toward using weak lensing as a powerful tool to measure the evolution of structure,” says Jean-Paul Kneib a co-author of the ApJ paper from LAM and France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The origin of galaxies can be traced back to slight differences in the density of the hot, early Universe; traces of these differences can still be seen as minute temperature differences in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – hot and cold spots.

“The variations we observe in the ancient microwave sky represent the imprints that developed over time into the cosmic dark-matter scaffolding for the galaxies we see today,” says George Smoot, director of the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics (BCCP), a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a member of Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division. Smoot shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for measuring anisotropies in the CMB and is one of the authors of the ApJ paper. “It is very exciting that we can actually measure with gravitational lensing how the dark matter has collapsed and evolved since the beginning.”

One goal in studying the evolution of structure is to understand dark matter itself, and how it interacts with the ordinary matter we can see. Another goal is to learn more about dark energy, the mysterious phenomenon that is pushing matter apart and causing the Universe to expand at an accelerating rate. Many questions remain unanswered: Is dark energy constant, or is it dynamic? Or is it merely an illusion caused by a limitation in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity?

The tools provided by the extended mass-luminosity relationship will do much to answer these questions about the opposing roles of gravity and dark energy in shaping the Universe, now and in the future.

Sources: ESA, and a paper published in the 20 January, 2010 issue of the Astrophysical Journal (arXiv:0910.5219 is the preprint)

NASA Satellite Will Provide New Look At Cosmic X-Ray Sources

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NASA has announced the development of a space-based observatory to give astronomers a new way to view X-rays from exotic objects such as black holes, neutron stars, and supernovae.  Called the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer (GEMS), the mission is part of NASA’s Small Explorer (SMEX) series of cost-efficient and highly productive space-science satellites, and will be the first satellite to measure the polarization of X-rays sources beyond the solar system.

Polarization is the direction of the vibrating electric field in an electromagnetic wave. An everyday example of polarization is the attenuating effect of some types of sunglasses, which pass light that vibrates in one direction while blocking the rest.  Astronomers frequently measure the polarization of radio waves and visible light to get insight into the physics of stars, nebulae, and the interstellar medium, but few measurements have every been made of polarized X-rays from cosmic sources.

“To date, astronomers have measured X-ray polarization from only a single object outside the solar system — the famous Crab Nebula, the luminous cloud that marks the site of an exploded star,” said Jean Swank, a Goddard astrophysicist and the GEMS principal investigator. “We expect that GEMS will detect dozens of sources and really open up this new frontier.”

Black holes will be high on the list of objects for GEMS to observe.  The extreme gravitational field near a spinning black hole not only bends the paths of X-rays, it also alters the directions of their electric fields. Polarization measurements can reveal the presence of a black hole and provide astronomers with information on its spin. Fast-moving electrons emit polarized X-rays as they spiral through intense magnetic fields, providing GEMS with the means to explore another aspect of extreme environments.

“Thanks to these effects, GEMS can probe spatial scales far smaller than any telescope can possibly image,” Swank said. Polarized X-rays carry information about the structure of cosmic sources that isn’t available in any other way.

“GEMS will be about 100 times more sensitive to polarization than any previous X-ray observatory, so we’re anticipating many new discoveries,” said Sandra Cauffman, GEMS project manager and the Assistant Director for Flight Projects at Goddard.

Some of the fundamental questions scientists hope GEMS will answer include: Where is the energy released near black holes? Where do the X-ray emissions from pulsars and neutron stars originate? What is the structure of the magnetic fields in supernova remnants?

GEMS will have innovative detectors that efficiently measure X-ray polarization. Using three telescopes, GEMS will detect X-rays with energies between 2,000 and 10,000 electron volts. (For comparison, visible light has energies between 2 and 3 electron volts.) The telescope optics will be based on thin-foil X-ray mirrors developed at Goddard and already proven in the joint Japan/U.S. Suzaku orbital observatory.

GEMS will launch no earlier than 2014 on a mission lasting up to two years.  GEMS is expected to cost $105 million, excluding launch vehicle.

Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Va., will provide the spacecraft bus and mission operations. ATK Space in Goleta, Calif., will build a 4-meter deployable boom that will place the X-ray mirrors at the proper distance from the detectors once GEMS reaches orbit. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., will partner in the science, provide science data processing software and assist in tracking the spacecraft’s development.

Source: NASA Goddard

Also see Proposed Mission Could Study Space-Time Around Black Holes