What caused a huge explosion nearly 2,000 years ago, seen by early Chinese astronomers? Scientists have long known that a “guest star” that had mysteriously appeared in the sky and stayed for about 8 months in the year 185 was the first documented supernova. But now the combined efforts of four space observatories have provided insight into this stellar explosion and why it was so huge – and why its shattered remains — the object known as RCW 86 – is now spread out to great distances.
“This supernova remnant got really big, really fast,” said Brian Williams, an astronomer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “It’s two to three times bigger than we would expect for a supernova that was witnessed exploding nearly 2,000 years ago. Now, we’ve been able to finally pinpoint the cause.”
By studying new infrared observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope and data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, and previous data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory, astronomers were able to determine that the ancient supernova was a Type Ia supernova. And doing some “forensics” on the stellar remains, the astronomers could piece together that prior to exploding, winds from the white dwarf cleared out a huge “cavity,” a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion into this cavity was able to expand much faster than it otherwise would have. The ejected material would have traveled into the cavity, unimpeded by gas and dust and spread out quickly.
This is the first time that astronomers have been able to deduce that this type of cavity was created, and scientists say the results may have significant implications for theories of white-dwarf binary systems and Type Ia supernovae.
At about 85 light-years in diameter, RCW occupies a region of the sky that is slightly larger than the full moon. It lies in the southern constellation of Circinus.
“The world is a vampire, sent to drain… Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames…” Ah, yes. It’s the biggest vampire of all – the supermassive black hole. In this instance, it’s not any average, garden-variety black hole, but one that’s 300 million times the mass of the Sun and growing. Bullet with butterfly wings? No. This is more a case of butterfly wings with bullets.
An international team of astronomers using five different telescopes set their sites on 460 million light-year distant Markarian 509 to check out the action surrounding its huge black hole. The imaging team included ESA’s XMM-Newton, Integral, NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Chandra and Swift satellites, and the ground-based telescopes WHT and PARITEL. For a hundred days they monitored Markarian 509. Why? Because it is known to have brightness variations which could mean turbulent inflow. In turn, the inner radiation then drives an outflow of gas – faster than a speeding bullet.
“XMM-Newton really led these observations because it has such a wide X-ray coverage, as well as an optical monitoring camera,” says Jelle Kaastra, SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, who coordinated an international team of 26 astronomers from 21 institutes on four continents to make these observations.
And the vampire reared its ugly head. Instead of the previously documented 25% changes, it jumped to 60%. The hot corona surrounding the black hole was spattering out cold gas “bullets” at speeds in excess of one million miles per hour. These projectiles are torn away from the dusty torus, but the real surprise is that they are coming from an area just 15 light years away from the center. This is a lot further than most astronomers speculate could happen.
“There has been a debate in astronomy for some time about the origin of the outflowing gas,” says Kaastra.
But there’s more than just bullets here. These new observations at multiple wavelengths are showing the coolest gas in the line of sight toward Markarian 509 has 14 different velocity components – all from different locations at the galaxy’s heart. What’s more, there’s indications the black hole accretion disc may have a shield of gas harboring temperatures ranging in the millions of degrees – the motivating force behind x-rays and gamma rays.
“The only way to explain this is by having gas hotter than that in the disc, a so-called ‘corona’, hovering above the disc,” Jelle Kaastra says. “This corona absorbs and reprocesses the ultraviolet light from the disc, energising it and converting it into X-ray light. It must have a temperature of a few million degrees. Using five space telescopes, which enabled us to observe the area in unprecedented detail, we actually discovered a very hot ‘corona’ of gas hovering above the disc. This discovery allows us to make sense of some of the observations of active galaxies that have been hard to explain so far.”
To make things even more entertaining, the study has also found the signature of interstellar gas which may have been the result of a one-time galaxy collision. Although the evidence may be hundreds of thousands of light years away from Mrk 509, it may have initially triggered this activity.
“The results underline how important long-term observations and monitoring campaigns are to gain a deeper understanding of variable astrophysical objects. XMM-Newton made all the necessary organisational changes to enable such observations, and now the effort is paying off,” says Norbert Schartel, ESA XMM-Newton Project Scientist.
Ah, Markarian 509… “Despite all my rage… I am still just a rat in cage.”
To the naked eye, the Andromeda galaxy appears as a smudge of light in the night sky. But to the combined powers of the Herschel and XMM-Newton space observatories, these new images put Andromeda in a new light! Together, the images provide some of the most detailed looks at the closest galaxy to our own. In infrared wavelengths, Herschel sees rings of star formation and XMM-Newton shows dying stars shining X-rays into space.
During Christmas 2010, the two ESA space observatories targeted Andromeda, a.k.a. M31.
Andromeda is about twice as big as the Milky Way but very similar in many ways. Both contain several hundred billion stars. Currently, Andromeda is about 2.2 million light years away from us but the gap is closing at 500,000 km/hour. The two galaxies are on a collision course! In about 3 billion years, the two galaxies will collide, and then over a span of 1 billion years or so after a very intricate gravitational dance, they will merge to form an elliptical galaxy.
Let’s look at each of the images:
Herschel’s view in far-infrared:
Sensitive to far-infrared light, Herschel sees clouds of cool dust and gas where stars can form. Inside these clouds are many dusty cocoons containing forming stars, each star pulling itself together in a slow gravitational process that can last for hundreds of millions of years. Once a star reaches a high enough density, it will begin to shine at optical wavelengths. It will emerge from its birth cloud and become visible to ordinary telescopes.
Many galaxies are spiral in shape but Andromeda is interesting because it shows a large ring of dust about 75,000 light-years across encircling the center of the galaxy. Some astronomers speculate that this dust ring may have been formed in a recent collision with another galaxy. This new Herschel image reveals yet more intricate details, with at least five concentric rings of star-forming dust visible.
XMM Newton’s view in X-rays
Superimposed on the infrared image is an X-ray view taken almost simultaneously by ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory. Whereas the infrared shows the beginnings of star formation, X-rays usually show the endpoints of stellar evolution.
XMM-Newton highlights hundreds of X-ray sources within Andromeda, many of them clustered around the centre, where the stars are naturally found to be more crowded together. Some of these are shockwaves and debris rolling through space from exploded stars, others are pairs of stars locked in a gravitational fight to the death.
In these deadly embraces, one star has already died and is pulling gas from its still-living companion. As the gas falls through space, it heats up and gives off X-rays. The living star will eventually be greatly depleted, having much of its mass torn from it by the stronger gravity of its denser partner. As the stellar corpse wraps itself in this stolen gas, it could explode.
Together, the infrared and X-ray images show information that is impossible to collect from the ground because these wavelengths are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. Visible light shows us the adult stars, whereas infrared gives us the youngsters and X-rays show those in their death throes.
Scanning the sky in microwaves, the Planck mission has obtained its very first images of galaxy clusters, and found a previously unknown supercluster which is among one of the largest objects in the Universe. The supercluster is having an effect on the Cosmic Microwave Background, and the observed distortions of the CMB spectrum are used to detect the density perturbations of the universe, using what is called the Sunyaev–Zel’dovich effect (SZE). This is the first time that a supercluster has been discovered using the SZE. In a collaborative effort, the XMM Newton spacecraft has confirmed the find in X-rays.
Sunyaev-Zel’dovich Effect (SZE) effect describes the change of energy experienced by CMB photons when they encounter a galaxy cluster as they travel towards us, in the process imprinting a distinctive signature on the CMB itself. The SZE represents a unique tool to detect galaxy clusters, even at high redshift. Planck is able to look across nine different microwave frequencies (from 30 to 857 GHz) to remove all sources of contamination from the CMB, and over time, will provide what is hoped to be the sharpest image of the early Universe ever.
“As the fossil photons from the Big Bang cross the Universe, they interact with the matter that they encounter: when travelling through a galaxy cluster, for example, the CMB photons scatter off free electrons present in the hot gas that fills the cluster,” said Nabila Aghanim of the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay, France, a leading member of the group of Planck scientists investigating SZE clusters and secondary anisotropies. “These collisions redistribute the frequencies of photons in a particular way that enables us to isolate the intervening cluster from the CMB signal.”
Since the hot electrons in the cluster are much more energetic than the CMB photons, interactions between the two typically result in the photons being scattered to higher energies. This means that, when looking at the CMB in the direction of a galaxy cluster, a deficit of low-energy photons and a surplus of more energetic ones is observed.
The SZE signal from the newly discovered supercluster arises from the sum of the signal from the three individual clusters, with a possible additional contribution from an inter-cluster filamentary structure. This provides important clues about the distribution of gas on very large scales which is, in turn, crucial also for tracing the underlying distribution of dark matter.
“The XMM-Newton observations have shown that one of the candidate clusters is in fact a supercluster composed of at least three individual, massive clusters of galaxies, which Planck alone could not have resolved,” said Monique Arnaud, who leads the Planck group following up sources with XMM-Newton.
“This is the first time that a supercluster has been discovered via the SZE,” said Aghanim. “This important discovery opens a brand new window on superclusters, one which complements the observations of the individual galaxies therein.”
Superclusters are large assemblies of galaxy groups and clusters, located at the intersections of sheets and filaments in the wispy cosmic web. As clusters and superclusters trace the distribution of both luminous and dark matter throughout the Universe, their observation is crucial to probe how cosmic structures formed and evolved.
The first Planck all-sky survey began in mid-August 2009 and was completed in June 2010. Planck will continue to gather data until the end of 2011, during which time it will complete over four all-sky scans.
The Planck team is currently analyzing the data from the first all-sky survey to identify both known and new galaxy clusters for the early Sunyaev-Zel’dovich catalogue, which will be released in January of 2011.
Scientists have used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton to detect a vast reservoir of gas lying along a wall-shaped structure of galaxies about 400 million light years from Earth. In this artist’s impression, a close-up view of the so-called Sculptor Wall is depicted. Spiral and elliptical galaxies are shown in the wall along with the newly detected intergalactic gas, part of the so-called Warm Hot Intergalactic Medium (WHIM), shown in blue. This discovery is the strongest evidence yet that the “missing matter” in the nearby Universe is located in an enormous web of hot, diffuse gas.
The X-ray emission from WHIM in this wall is too faint to be detected, so instead a search was made for absorption spectrum of light from a bright background source by the WHIM, using deep observations with Chandra and XMM. This background source is a rapidly growing supermassive black hole located far beyond the wall at a distance of about two billion light years. This is shown in the illustration as a star-like source, with light traveling through the Sculptor Wall towards the Earth. The relative location of the background source, the Sculptor Wall, and the Milky Way galaxy are shown in a separate plot, where the view instead looks down on the source and the Wall from above.
An X-ray spectrum of the background source is given in the inset, where the yellow points show the Chandra data and the red line shows the best model for the spectrum after including all of the Chandra and XMM data. The dip in X-rays towards the right side of the spectrum corresponds to absorption by oxygen atoms in the WHIM contained in the Sculptor Wall. The characteristics of the absorption are consistent with the distance of the Sculptor Wall as well as the predicted temperature and density of the WHIM. This result gives scientists confidence that the WHIM will also be found in other large-scale structures.
This result supports predictions that about half of the normal matter in the local Universe is found in a web of hot, diffuse gas composed of the WHIM. Normal matter — which is different from dark matter — is composed of the particles, such as protons and electrons, that are found on the Earth, in stars, gas, and so on. A variety of measurements have provided a good estimate of the amount of this “normal matter” present when the Universe was only a few billion years old. However, an inventory of the nearby Universe has turned up only about half as much normal matter, an embarrassingly large shortfall.
Like a location from Star Wars, this galaxy cluster is far, far away and with origins a long, long time ago. With the ungainly name of SXDF-XCLJ0218-0510, this cluster is actually the most distant cluster of galaxies ever seen. It is a whopping 9.6 billion light years away, and X-ray and infrared observations show that the cluster hosts predominantly old, massive galaxies. This means the galaxies formed when the universe was still very young, so finding this cluster and being able to see it is providing new information not only about early galaxy evolution but also about history of the universe as a whole.
An international team of astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the University of Tokyo and the Kyoto University discovered this cluster using the Subaru telescope along with the XMM-Newton space observatory to look in different wavelengths.
Using the Multi-Object Infrared Camera and Spectrometer (MOIRCS) on the Subaru telescope, the team was able to look in near-infrared wavelengths, where the galaxies are most luminous.
“The MOIRCS instrument has an extremely powerful capability of measuring distances to galaxies. This is what made our challenging observation possible,” said Masayuki Tanaka from the University of Tokyo. “Although we confirmed only several massive galaxies at that distance, there is convincing evidence that the cluster is a real, gravitationally bound cluster.”
Like a contour map, the arrows in the image above indicate galaxies that are likely located at the same distance, clustered around the center of the image. The contours indicate the X-ray emission of the cluster. Galaxies with confirmed distance measurements of 9.6 billion light years are circled. The combination of the X-ray detection and the collection of massive galaxies unequivocally proves a real, gravitationally bound cluster.
That the individual galaxies are indeed held together by gravity is confirmed by observations in a very different wavelength regime: The matter between the galaxies in clusters is heated to extreme temperatures and emits light at much shorter wavelengths than visible to the human eye. The team therefore used the XMM-Newton space observatory to look for this radiation in X-rays.
“Despite the difficulties in collecting X-ray photons with a small effective telescope size similar to the size of a backyard telescope, we detected a clear signature of hot gas in the cluster,” said Alexis Finoguenov from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.
The combination of these different observations in what are invisible wavelengths to the human eye led to the pioneering discovery of the galaxy cluster at a distance of 9.6 billion light years – some 400 million light years further into the past than the previously most distant cluster known.
An analysis of the data collected about the individual galaxies shows that the cluster contains already an abundance of evolved, massive galaxies that formed some two billion years earlier. As the dynamical processes for galaxy aging are slow, presence of these galaxies requires the cluster assembly through merger of massive galaxy groups, each nourishing its dominant galaxy. The cluster is therefore an ideal laboratory for studying the evolution of galaxies, when the universe was only about a third of its present age.
As distant galaxy clusters are also important tracers of the large scale structure and primordial density fluctuations in the universe, similar observations in the future will lead to important information for cosmologists. The results obtained so far demonstrate that current near infrared facilities are capable of providing a detailed analysis of distant galaxy populations and that the combination with X-ray data is a powerful new tool. The team therefore is continuing the search for more distant clusters.
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.
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)
XMM-Newton, the ESA’s premiere space-based X-ray observatory, will celebrate 10 years of spectacular X-ray imaging of our Universe today. On the 10th of December 1999 at 14:32 GMT, XMM-Newton was launched by the European Space Agency, and tasked with the mission of observing some of the most interesting objects in the Universe with its X-ray eyes. Many objects such as black holes and neutron stars have been studied using the telescope, because these energetic objects emit light in the X-ray spectrum.
To date, over 2000 published articles have utilized information from the XMM-Newton telescope. X-rays, a very energetic form of photons, are created in extreme celestial events, such as the disks that surround black holes and the intense magnetic fields surrounding stars. By studying the X-rays emitted by a variety of celestial objects, astronomers have been able to get detailed information about the workings of the Universe.
XMM-Newton has also been crucial to the study of galaxy clusters and supermassive black holes, and has helped to create the largest catalog of cosmic X-ray sources, with over a quarter of a million entries. It has even been enlisted in the hunt for dark matter, as one theory of the substance suggests that a decayed dark matter particle would potentially emit X-rays. Exotic objects far away aren’t the only target for the observatory, though; it’s helped astronomers detect the outer edges of the atmosphere of Mars and icy comets at the outer limits of our Solar System.
Here are just a few of the stories on Universe Today that feature observations by XMM-Newton:
Our Milky Way’s black hole is quiet – too quiet – some astronomers might say. But according to a team of Japanese astronomers, the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy might be just as active as those in other galaxies, it’s just taking a little break. Their evidence? The echoes from a massive outburst that occurred 300 years ago.
The astronomers found evidence of the outburst using ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope, as well as NASA and Japanese X-ray satellites. And it helps solve the mystery about why the Milky Way’s black hole is so quiet. Even though it contains 4 million times the mass of our Sun, it emits a fraction of the radiation coming from other galactic black holes.
“We have wondered why the Milky Wayâ€™s black hole appears to be a slumbering giant,” says team leader Tatsuya Inui of Kyoto University in Japan. “But now we realize that the black hole was far more active in the past. Perhaps itâ€™s just resting after a major outburst.”
The team gathered their observations from 1994 to 2005. They watched how clouds of gas near the central black hole brightened and dimmed in X-ray light as pulses of radiation swept past. These are echoes, visible long after the black hole has gone quiet again.
One large gas cloud is known as Sagittarius B2, and it’s located 300 light-years away from the central black hole. In other words, radiation reflecting off of Sagittarius B2 must have come from the black hole 300 years previously.
By watching the region for more than 10 years, the astronomers were able to watch an event wash across the cloud. Approximately 300 years ago, the black hole unleashed a flare that made it a million times brighter than it is today.
It’s hard to explain how the black hole could vary in its radiation output so greatly. It’s possible that a supernova in the region plowed gas and dust into the vicinity of the black hole. This led to a temporary feeding frenzy that awoke the black hole and produced the great flare.