Saturday, February 23, 2008

Light echoes in RS Pup

Nebula around Cepheid Star RS Pup. Credit: ESO

Astronomers calibrate the distance scale of the Universe
Taking advantage of the presence of light echoes, a team of astronomers have used an ESO telescope to measure, at the 1% precision level, the distance of a Cepheid - a class of variable stars that constitutes one of the first steps in the cosmic distance ladder.

Cepheids are pulsating stars that have been used as distance indicators since almost a hundred years. The new accurate measurement is important as, contrary to many others, it is purely geometrical and does not rely on hypotheses about the physics at play in the stars themselves.

The team of astronomers studied RS Pup, a bright Cepheid star located towards the constellation of Puppis ('the Stern') and easily visible with binoculars. RS Pup varies in brightness by almost a factor of five every 41.4 days. It is 10 times more massive than the Sun, 200 times larger, and on average 15 000 times more luminous.

RS Pup is the only Cepheid to be embedded in a large nebula, made of very fine dust that reflects some of the light emitted by the star.

Because the luminosity of the star changes in a very distinctive pattern, the presence of the nebula allows the astronomers to see light echoes and use them to measure the distance of the star.

"The light that travelled from the star to a dust grain and then to the telescope arrives a bit later than the light that comes directly from the star to the telescope," explains Kervella, lead-author of the paper reporting the result. "As a consequence, if we measure the brightness of a particular, isolated dust blob in the nebula, we will obtain a brightness curve that has the same shape as the variation of the Cepheid, but shifted in time."

This delay is called a 'light echo', by analogy with the more traditional echo, the reflection of sound by, for example, the bottom of a well.

The Principle of the Light Echo By monitoring the evolution of the brightness of the blobs in the nebula, the astronomers can derive their distance from the star: it is simply the measured delay in time, multiplied by the velocity of light (300 000 km/s). Knowing this distance and the apparent separation on the sky between the star and the blob, one can compute the distance of RS Pup.

From the observations of the echoes on several nebular features, the distance of RS Pup was found to be 6500 light years, plus or minus 90 light years.

"Knowing the distance to a Cepheid star with such an accuracy proves crucial to the calibration of the period-luminosity relation of this class of stars," says Kervella. "This relation is indeed at the basis of the distance determination of galaxies using Cepheids."

RS Pup is thus distant by about a quarter of the distance between the Sun and the Centre of the Milky Way. RS Pup is located within the Galactic plane, in a very populated region of our Galaxy.

The long-period Galactic Cepheid RS Puppis.I. A geometric distance from its light echoes. Author(s): P. Kervella, A. Mérand, L. Szabados, P. Fouqué, D. Bersier, E. Pompei, and G. Perrin

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Monday, February 18, 2008

The Formax Galaxy

The center of the Fornax galaxy cluster is shown in this Chandra image. The galaxy NGC 1404 is shown below and to the left of the center. Hot gas is clearly visible in the center of the cluster and around NGC 1404. (Credit: NASA/CXC/Columbia U./C.Scharf et al.)

Using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, scientists have reported the possible detection of a binary star system that was later destroyed in a supernova explosion. The new method they used provides great future promise for finding the detailed origin of these important cosmic events.

In an article on the February 14th issue of the journal Nature, Rasmus Voss of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany and Gijs Nelemans of Radboud University in the Netherlands searched Chandra images for evidence of a much sought after, but as yet unobserved binary system - one that was about to go supernova. Near the position of a recently detected supernova, they discovered an object in Chandra images taken more than four years before the explosion.

The supernova, known as SN 2007on, was identified as a Type Ia supernova. Astronomers generally agree that Type Ia supernovas are produced by the explosion of a white dwarf star in a binary star system. However, the exact configuration and trigger for the explosion is unclear. Is the explosion caused by a collision between two white dwarfs, or because a white dwarf became unstable by pulling too much material off a companion star?
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Answering such questions is a high priority because Type Ia supernovas are major sources of iron in the Universe. Also, because of their nearly uniform intrinsic brightness, Type Ia supernova are used as important tools by scientists to study the nature of dark energy and other cosmological issues.

"Right now these supernovas are used as black boxes to measure distances and derive the rate of expansion of the universe," said Nelemans. "What we're trying to do is look inside the box."

If the supernova explosion is caused by material being pulled off a companion star onto the white dwarf, fusion of this material on the surface of the star should heat the star and produce a strong source of X-radiation prior to the explosion. Once the supernova explosion occurs, the white dwarf is expected to be completely destroyed and then would be undetectable in X-rays. In the merger scenario, the intensity of X-ray emission prior to the explosion is expected to be much weaker.

Based on the detection of a fairly strong X-ray source at approximately the position of SN 2007on 4 years before the explosion, Voss and Nelemans conclude that the data support the scenario where matter is pulled off a companion star. The small number of X-ray sources in the field implies that there is only a small chance of an unrelated source being so close by coincidence. Also, the X-ray source has similar properties to those expected for fusion on a white dwarf, unlike most X-ray sources in the sky.

However, in follow-up studies, Voss, Nelemans and colleagues Gijs Roelofs (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.) and Cees Bassa (McGill University, Canada) used higher-quality optical images to better determine the supernova's position. This work, which is not yet published, shows a small, but significant difference in the measured positions of the supernova and the X-ray source, suggesting the source may not be the progenitor.

Follow-up Chandra observations hint that the X-ray object has disappeared, but further observations are needed to finally decide whether the source was the progenitor or not.

The team is also applying this new method to other supernovas and has high hopes that they will eventually succeed in identifying the elusive cause of at least some of these explosions.

"We're very excited about opening up a new way of studying supernovas, even though we're not sure that we've seen this particular stellar bomb before it exploded," said Gijs Roelofs. "We're very confident that we'll learn a lot more about these important supernovas in the future."

Voss agrees that, even if the X-ray source is not found to be the progenitor of SN 2007on, the hunt is worth the effort.

"Finding the progenitor to one of these Type Ia supernovas is a great chase in astronomy right now," he said. "These supernovas are great tools for studying dark energy, but if we knew more about how they form they might become even better tools."


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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Newborn Stars

Click on Image to Enlarge.

Newborn stars peek out from the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in this dynamic image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

This representative-colour image of Rho Oph's main cloud, Lynds 1688, was created with data from Spitzer's infrared array camera, which has the highest spatial resolution of Spitzer's three imaging instruments, and its multiband imaging photometer, best for detecting cooler materials.

Blue represents light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns; green shows light of 8 microns; and red is 24-micron light.

The colours in this image reflect the relative temperatures and evolutionary states of the various stars. The youngest stars are surrounded by dusty disks of gas from which they, and their potential planetary systems, are forming. These young disk systems show up as red in this image. More evolved stars, which have shed their natal material, are blue.

The extended white nebula in the center right of the image is a region of the cloud which is glowing in infrared light due to the heating of dust by bright young stars near the right edge of the cloud. Fainter multi-hued diffuse emission fills the image. The colour of the nebulosity depends on the temperature, composition and size of the dust grains.

Spitzer Spies Young Stars in their Baby Blanket of Dust
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
The first fruits of 2008 original music by The Moody Minstrel

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Cosmic Fossil

NGC 1132 A Mysterious Elliptical. Credit: Chanda

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a new image of the galaxy NGC 1132 which is, most likely, a cosmic fossil - the aftermath of an enormous multi-galactic pile-up, where the carnage of collision after collision has built up a brilliant but fuzzy giant elliptical galaxy far outshining typical galaxies.

The elliptical galaxy NGC 1132, seen in this latest image from Hubble, belongs to a category of galaxies called giant ellipticals. NGC 1132, together with the small dwarf galaxies surrounding it, are dubbed a "fossil group" as they are most likely the remains of a group of galaxies that merged together in the recent past.

In visible light NGC 1132 appears as a single, isolated, giant elliptical galaxy, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Scientists have found that NGC 1132 resides in an enormous halo of dark matter, comparable to the amount of dark matter usually found in an entire group of tens or hundreds of galaxies.

It also has a strong X-ray glow from an abundant amount of hot gas - an amount normally only found in galaxy groups. Its X-ray glow extends over a region of space ten times larger than the 120,000 light-year radius it has in visible light. An X-ray glow that is equal in size to that of an entire group of galaxies.

The origin of fossil group systems remains a puzzle. The most likely explanation is that they are the end-products of a cosmic feeding frenzy in which a large cannibal galaxy devours all of its neighbours. A less likely explanation is that they may be very rare objects that formed in a region or period of time where the growth of moderate-sized galaxies was somehow suppressed, and only one large galaxy formed.

Many galaxies reside in groups that are gravitationally bound together, including our own Milky Way, which is part of the Local Group. Sometimes gravity makes galaxies collide and eventually merge into one single galaxy. There is strong evidence that the Milky Way is one such cannibal that has snacked on numerous smaller galaxies during its lifetime, inheriting their stars in the process.

Scientists are keenly studying the environment surrounding galaxies such as NGC 1132 using space telescopes like Hubble, and they try to trace the history of the formation these galaxies by analysing their properties.

In this Hubble image, NGC 1132 is seen surrounded by thousands of ancient globular clusters, swarming around the galaxy like bees around a hive. These globular clusters are likely to be the survivors of the disruption of their cannibalised parent galaxies that have been eaten by NGC 1132 and may reveal its merger history. In the background, there is a stunning tapestry of numerous galaxies that are much further away.

Elliptical galaxies are smooth and featureless. They contain hundreds of millions to trillions of stars, and their shapes range from nearly spherical to very elongated in shape. Their overall yellowish colour is a telltale sign of their great age. Because elliptical galaxies do not contain much cool gas they can no longer make new stars.

NGC 1132 is located approximately 320 million light-years away in the constellation of Eridanus, the River. This image of NGC 1132 was taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Data obtained in 2005 and 2006 through green and near-infrared filters were used to produce a colour composite.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Cosmic Fingers

Click on Image to Enlarge. Credit: LiveScience

A giant gas finger emanating from two neighbouring galaxies has hooked into the starry disk of the Milky Way and is pulling all three galaxies closer. The hydrogen gas is actually the pointy end of the so-called Leading Arm of gas that streams ahead of two irregular galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

The fate of these nearby galaxies, which are impacted by the Milky Way's gravity, has been somewhat of a mystery. The new findings suggest that the Magellanic Clouds will eventually merge with the Milky Way rather than zooming past.

Located about 160,000 light-years from Earth, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is only one-twentieth the diameter of our galaxy and contains one-tenth as many stars. The Small Magellanic Cloud resides 200,000 light-years from Earth and is about 100 times smaller than the Milky Way.

"We can determine exactly where this gas is plowing into the Milky Way," said research team leader Naomi McClure-Griffiths of CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility.

Called HVC306-2+230, the gas finger is gouging into our galaxy's starry disk about 70,000 light-years away from Earth. In the night sky, the contact point would be nearest the Southern Cross.

Until last year, astronomers thought the Magellanic Clouds had orbited our galaxy many times. This scenario held a gloomy outlook for the clouds, which were said to be doomed to be ripped apart and swallowed by the gravitational goliath.

But then new Hubble Space Telescope measurements revealed the clouds are paying our galaxy a one-time visit rather than being its lunch.

McClure-Griffiths' results, however, are more in line with the previous tale pegging the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds as long-time companions. McClure-Griffiths remarks that this isn't the final word and that both theories are still on the table.

By pointing out the spot of contact between the Leading Arm and our galactic disk, the recent study will help astronomers to predict where the clouds themselves will travel in the future.

"We think the Leading Arm is a tidal feature, gas pulled out of the Magellanic Clouds by the Milky Way's gravity," McClure-Griffiths said. "Where this gas goes, we'd expect the clouds to follow, at least approximately."

In the distant future, the three galaxies could become one.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Rogue Stars

Rogue Stars - Credit: Andrea Thompson & Live Science

A young star speeding away from the Milky Way is in fact an alien visitor, astronomers have confirmed. The wayward object is one of several rogues that are giving astronomers a glimpse into the volatile nature of our galaxy and others.

Astronomers have found about 10 stars hurtling away from our galaxy, at speeds that exceed its gravitational grasp. While most stars rush through space at speeds on the order of hundreds of kilometers per second, these aptly-named "hypervelocity stars" are rocketing away at least 10 times as fast.

Most of these speedy stars are thought to be exiles from the center of our galaxy, flung out into intergalactic space by the powerful forces of the massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Their violent creation is giving astronomers insight into the almost impenetrable world at the center of the Milky Way, the mysteries of our nearby galactic neighbours, and the nature of intergalactic space.

Volatile origins
Hypervelocity stars were first theorized to exist in 1988. The theory was that binary star systems at the galaxy's center would occasionally wander too close to the massive black hole looming there, which would disrupt their orbital dance.

While one of the pair was captured by the black hole, the other would be sent rocketing off at an incredible speed.
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"That's the only way you can accelerate a star to go thousands of kilometers per second," said astronomer Alcestes Bonanos of the Carnegie Institution for Science, a member of the team that made the discovery of the alien star's origins.

Of the billions of stars in the Milky Way, only a tiny fraction are thought to be shot out from the center like this. This explains why they weren't found until 2005 - because there aren't very many.

Astronomers looked at the spectra of stars at the most outer reaches of the Milky Way and found a few that were going very, very fast, which isn't normal.

By examining the elemental composition of these exiled stars, astronomers can figure out where in the galaxy they came from. With their abundance of heavy metals, most of these stars seem to have come from the center of our galaxy, which tends to spawn more heavy-metal stars.

The galaxy's center is shrouded in gas and dust and normally hard for astronomers to peer into. Gas clouds usually act as excellent stellar nurseries, but the violent tidal forces from the black hole were thought to prevent any nearby stellar births.

The rogue stars seem to contradict that idea, as they seem to have come from the vicinity of the black hole, except for one, which is an alien passerby.

Of these 10 strange stars, one, dubbed HE 0437-5439, seemed a bit stranger than the rest. Based on its current position, the star would have to be 100 million years old to have come from the center of the Milky Way. But it is only 35 million years old.

Bonanos and Lopez-Morales took a closer look at the elemental composition of the star and found that it seemed to be a visitor from our small galactic neighbour, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

"Stars in the LMC are known to have lower elemental abundances than most stars in our galaxy," Bonanos explained, which seemed to fit HE 0437-5439's make-up.

But while the elemental profile matched, there's one big conundrum: The LMC is not known to have a massive black hole that could eject it. The usual tell-tale signs of a big black hole, such as strong X-ray and radio signals, are missing. Astronomers aren't sure if dwarf galaxies like the LMC have huge black holes in their center, so "this star might be a hint for something important," Bonanos said.

Another strange consequence of these roving stars is the contradiction they provide to the long-held notion that intergalactic space is pretty much empty.

'There seem to be all these stars flying around between galaxies," Bonanos said. If stars are shot out from our galaxy, they are likely propelled from others, she says, though we are unlikely to be able to see them because stars are too hard to individually identify from the distance of most galaxies.

It is predicted that about 1,000 hypervelocity stars have been spit out by the Milky Way's black hole, Bonanos said, though many are still hurtling through the galaxy.

So far all of the hypervelocity stars found are moving away from us, but they could be shot out of the galaxy's center in any direction, up or down from the galactic plane, or even toward us.

But there's no need to worry about a stellar roadrunner knocking into Earth, or any other planet or star. There's a lot of "empty space" in the solar system, so these speeding stars will likely have a clear path out of the neighbourhood.
Large Mover from The Magellanic Cloud @ Centauri Dreams.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Young Star Cluster

Credit: NASA/CXC/Univ. de Liège/Y. Naze et al

Westerlund 2, a young star cluster with an estimated age of about one or two million years. Until recently little was known about this cluster because it is heavily obscured by dust and gas. However, using infrared and X-ray observations to overcome this obscuration, Westerlund 2 has become regarded as one of the most interesting star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. It contains some of the hottest, brightest and most massive stars known.

This Chandra image of Westerlund 2 shows low energy X-rays in red, intermediate energy X-rays in green and high energy X-rays in blue. The image shows a very high density of massive stars that are bright in X-rays, plus diffuse X-ray emission.

An incredibly massive double star system called WR20a is visible as the bright yellow point just below and to the right of the cluster's center. This system contains stars with masses of 82 and 83 times that of the Sun. The dense streams of matter steadily ejected by these two massive stars, called stellar winds, collide with each other and produce copious amounts of X-ray emission. This collision is seen at different angles as the stars orbit around each other every 3.7 days. Several other bright X-ray sources may also show evidence for collisions between winds in massive binary systems.

Spitzer Infrared Images of Westerlund 2
RCW 49 is the surrounding HII region around the young stellar cluster Westerlund 2 (Wd2). Because many of the stars in RCW 49 are deeply embedded in plumes of dust, they cannot be seen at visible wavelengths. When viewed with Spitzer's infrared eyes, however, RCW 49 becomes transparent.

Chandra X-ray & Spitzer Infrared Image of Westerlund 2
This coloured Chandra X-ray Observatory image (inset) shows Westerlund 2 in context with the Spitzer infrared observation. ___________________________________________________________

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