Gas clouds whirling around black hole form heart of distant astronomical object

 

Cosmos by John Hussey


First detailed observation of environs of a massive black hole outside Milky Way

Astronomers have concluded that gas clouds rapidly moving around a central black hole form the very heart of the 3C327 quasar, confirming earlier measurements.

Optical image of the quasar 3C 273 (the bright stellar-like object in the center) obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope. It was the first quasar ever to be identified.

Credit: NASA

In 1963, astronomer Maarten Schmidt identified the first quasi-stellar object or “quasar,” an extremely bright but distant object. He found the single quasar, the active nucleus of a far-away galaxy known to astronomers as 3C 273, to be 100 times more luminous than all the stars in our Milky Way combined.

Now, the GRAVITY international team of astronomers, including Prof. Hagai Netzer of Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, have concluded that gas clouds rapidly moving around a central black hole form the very heart of this quasar. The results of the new research were published in Nature on November 29.

The first measurement of the mass of the black hole inside 3C 273, using an older method, was conducted at the TAU’s Florence and George Wise Observatory in 2000, as part of PhD research conducted by TAU’s Dr. Shai Kaspi, then a student in Prof. Netzer’s group. This result has now been corroborated by GRAVITY’s observations.

The research is the first detailed observation outside of our galaxy of gas clouds whirling around a central black hole. According to the researchers, GRAVITY’s measurements will become the benchmark for measuring black hole masses in thousands of other quasars.

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Taking a closer look at a black hole

The GRAVITY instrument, situated in Paranal, Chile, has unprecedented capabilities. It combines the collective area of four telescopes to form a virtual telescope, called an interferometer, 130 meters across. The instrument can detect distant astronomical objects at an extremely high resolution.

“Quasars are among the most distant astronomical objects that can be observed,” Prof. Netzer says. “They also play a fundamental role in the history of the universe, as their evolution is intricately tied to galaxy growth. While almost all large galaxies harbor a massive black hole at their centers, so far only one in our Milky Way has been accessible for such detailed studies.”

 

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“GRAVITY allowed us to resolve, for the first time ever, the motion of gas clouds around a central black hole,” says Eckhard Sturm of Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), who co-led the research for the study. “Our observations can follow the motion of the gas and reveal that the clouds do whirl around the central black hole.”

So far, such observations had not been possible due to the small angular size of a quasar’s inner region — roughly the size of our solar system, but some 2.5 billion light years distant from us.

“Broad emission lines created by gas in the vicinity of the black hole are observational hallmarks of quasars. Until now, the distance of the gas from the black hole, and occasionally the pattern of the motion, could only be measured by an older method that made use of light variations in the quasars,” Prof. Netzer says. “With the GRAVITY instrument, we can distinguish structures at the level of 10 micro-arc seconds, which corresponds to observing, for example, a 1-Euro coin on the Moon.”

“Information about the motion and distance of the gas immediately around the black hole is crucial to measuring the mass of the black hole,” explains Jason Dexter, also of MPE, who co-led the research. “For the first time, the old method was tested experimentally and passed its test with flying colors, confirming previous estimates of about 300 million solar masses for the black hole.”

“This is the first time that we can study the immediate environs of a massive black hole outside our home galaxy, the Milky Way,” concludes Reinhard Genzel, head of the infrared research group at MPE. “Black holes are intriguing objects, allowing us to probe physics under extreme conditions — and with GRAVITY we can now probe them both near and far.”

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Most Distant Black Hole Yet

Cosmos by John Hussey


Astronomers have discovered a supermassive black hole scarfing down gas just 690 million years after the Big Bang.

The new supermassive black hole J1342+0928 (yellow star) is the most distant one found found to date (yellow dots). Its mass is comparable to those estimated for other early black holes.

Jinyi Yang / University of Arizona; Reidar Hahn / Fermilab; M. Newhouse / NOAO / AURA / NSF

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Astronomers are like historians on steroids. They doggedly push back the curtain of cosmic time, peering back to ever-earlier eras in the universe. The latest discovery in this quest, announced today in the journal Nature, is the quasar J1342+0928. This black-hole-powered beacon blazes at us from a redshift of 7.54, or a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang.

This is not the earliest object astronomers have found: they’ve netted galaxies back to a mere 400 million years after It All Began. But J1342+0928 contains the earliest supermassive black hole detected, squeaking into first place some 50 million years ahead of the previous record holder.

Astronomers are actively hunting ancient quasars because they want to understand how the first supermassive black holes formed. To do that, they need to know how many there are in the early universe and how big they are at different times. This requires a census. As part of an ongoing, multi-survey search looking for the most distant quasars, Eduardo Bañados (Carnegie Institution for Science) and colleagues came upon J1342+0928. They were looking for sources shining at us from so far in the past that their light has been severely redshifted by cosmic expansion. J1342+0928 stuck out because it was invisible at shorter wavelengths but showed up at the longer, redder ones expected from objects in this distant era.

Based on J1342+0928’s brightness and how fast the gas whirls around the central black hole — determined thanks to how much the motion broadens the spectral line of singly ionized magnesium — the team estimates that the black hole has a mass of about 800 million Suns. That’s a little lower than the supplanted contender (J1120+0641, at 2 billion Suns) and within the ballpark for other supermassive black holes found a few hundred million years later.

Astronomers have been struggling for some time to understand how the universe grew such colossal black holes in less than a billion years. The options generally are that small black holes ate abnormally fast, or big clouds somehow collapsed directly into big black holes. The discovery of objects like J1342+0928 will one day help answer that question.

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Not Just About the Black Hole

Follow-up work, published by several of the same team members and headed up by Bram Venemans (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany) in Astrophysical Journal Letters, tracked down the radio glow from gas and dust in J1342+0928’s host galaxy. Interpreting the data takes a fair bit of extrapolating, but broadly speaking, the galaxy appears to be small and very dusty.

Another galaxy with the same cosmic age, A1689-zD1, also has a lot of dust — but not as much as J1342+0928. In fact overall, the dustiness of the quasar’s host galaxy is higher than “normal” galaxies seen at similar cosmic times, but it parallels the levels found for other high-redshift quasars.

Dust comes from aging or dying stars. Early galaxies often pumped out stars rapidly, which might explain these levels. Still, it remains unclear what the results tell us about starbirth in these systems.

One of the most important aspects of the newly discovered quasar, however, is its larger environment. Using the quasar’s beam as a backlight, the team spotted the distinct spectral signs of neutral hydrogen gas in the vicinity. Astronomers have also seen neutral hydrogen around the second-earliest quasar, J1120+0641, but almost none around quasars a couple hundred million years later.

This result proves that J1342+0928 sits in the epoch of reionization, when radiation from early galaxies tore apart the hydrogen atoms filling the universe and left the hydrogen ionized — a state the universe is still predominantly in today. Reionization is a fundamental change, like dawn hitting the universe.

The team estimates that the hydrogen around J1342+0928 is about 50/50 split between neutral and ionized. That favors a late date for reionization, which would jibe with results based on the cosmic microwave background.

 

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Camille M. Carlisle

 

Cosmos by John Hussey

 

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Trans-galactic streamers feeding most luminous galaxy in the universe

Cosmos by John Hussey


ALMA data show the most luminous galaxy in the universe has been caught in the act of stripping away nearly half the mass from at least three of its smaller neighbors.

Artist impression of W2246-0526, the most luminous known galaxy, and three companion galaxies.

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello

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The most luminous galaxy in the universe has been caught in the act of stripping away nearly half the mass from at least three of its smaller neighbors, according to a new study published in the journal Science. The light from this galaxy, known as W2246-0526, took 12.4 billion years to reach us, so we are seeing it as it was when our universe was only about a tenth of its present age.

New observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) reveal distinct streamers of material being pulled from three smaller galaxies and flowing into the more massive galaxy, which was discovered in 2015 by NASA’s space-based Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). It is by no means the largest or most massive galaxy we know of, but it is unrivaled in its brightness, emitting as much infrared light as 350 trillion Suns.

The connecting tendrils between the galaxies contain about as much material as the galaxies themselves. ALMA’s amazing resolution and sensitivity allowed the researchers to detect these remarkably faint and distant trans-galactic streamers.

“We knew from previous data that there were three companion galaxies, but there was no evidence of interactions between these neighbors and the central source,” said Tanio Díaz-Santos of the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, lead author of the study. “We weren’t looking for cannibalistic behavior and weren’t expecting it, but this deep dive with the ALMA observatory makes it very clear.”

Galactic cannibalism is not uncommon, though this is the most distant galaxy in which such behavior has been observed and the study authors are not aware of any other direct images of a galaxy simultaneously feeding on material from multiple sources at those early cosmic times.

The researchers emphasize that the amount of gas being devoured by W2246-0526 is enough to keep it forming stars and feeding its central black hole for hundreds of millions of years.

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This galaxy’s startling luminosity is not due to its individual stars. Rather, its brightness is powered by a tiny, yet fantastically energetic disk of gas that is being superheated as it spirals in on the supermassive black hole. The light from this blazingly bright accretion disk is then absorbed by the surrounding dust, which re-emits the energy as infrared light.

This extreme infrared radiation makes this galaxy one of a rare class of quasars known as Hot, Dust-Obscured Galaxies or Hot DOGs. Only about one out of every 3,000 quasars observed by WISE belongs to this class.

Much of the dust and gas being siphoned away from the three smaller galaxies is likely being converted into new stars and feeding the larger galaxy’s central black hole. This galaxy’s gluttony, however, may lead to its self-destruction. Previous research suggests that the energy of the AGN will ultimately jettison much, if not all of the galaxy’s star-forming fuel.

An earlier work led by co-author Chao-Wei Tsai of UCLA estimates that the black hole at the center of W2246-0526 is about 4 billion times the mass of the Sun. The mass of the black hole directly influences how bright the AGN can become, but — according to this earlier research — W2246-0526 is about 3 times more luminous than what should be possible. Solving this apparent contradiction will require additional observations.

 

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https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181115144858.htm

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Earth’s magnetotail: First-ever views of elusive energy explosion

Cosmos by John Hussey


Researchers have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving ‘magnetic reconnection’ — the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion — in the Earth’s magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.

Artist depiction of the MMS spacecraft that provided the first view of magnetic reconnection.

Credit: NASA/GSFC

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Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving “magnetic reconnection” — the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion — in the Earth’s magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.

Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can have — sparking auroras and possibly wreaking havoc on power grids in the case of extremely large events — but they haven’t completely understood the details. In a study published in the journal Science, the scientists outline the first views of the critical details of how this energy conversion process works in the Earth’s magnetotail.

“This was a remarkable event,” said Roy Torbert of the Space Science Center at UNH and deputy principal investigator for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, or MMS. “We have long known that it occurs in two types of regimes: asymmetric and symmetric but this is the first time we have seen a symmetric process.”

Magnetic reconnection occurs around Earth every day due to magnetic field lines twisting and reconnecting. It happens in different ways in different places, with different effects. Particles in highly ionized gases, called plasmas, can be converted and cause a single powerful explosion, just a fraction of a second long, that can lead to strong streams of electrons flying away at supersonic speeds. The view, which was detected as part of the scientists’ work on the MMS mission, had enough resolution to reveal its differences from other reconnection regimes around the planet like the asymmetric process found in the magnetopause around Earth which is closer to the sun.

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“This is important because the more we know and understand about these reconnections,” said Torbert, “the more we can prepare for extreme events that are possible from reconnections around the Earth or anywhere in the universe.”

Magnetic reconnection also happens on the sun and across the universe — in all cases forcefully shooting out particles and driving much of the change we see in dynamic space environments — so learning about it around Earth also helps us understand reconnection in other places in the universe which cannot be reached by spacecraft. The more we understand about different types of magnetic reconnection, the more we can piece together what such explosions might look like elsewhere.

For the first reported asymmetrical event on October 16, 2015, and now this symmetrical event on July 11, 2017, NASA’s MMS mission made history by flying through magnetic reconnection events near the Earth. The four MMS spacecrafts launched from a single rocket were only inside the events for a few seconds, but the instruments which UNH researchers helped to develop were able to gather data at an unprecedented speed of one hundred times faster than ever before. As a result, for the first time, scientists could track the way the magnetic fields changed, new electric fields presented, as well as the speeds and direction of the various charged particles.

 

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https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181115144917.htm

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New finding of particle physics may help to explain the absence of antimatter

Cosmos by John Hussey


With the help of computer simulations, particle physics researchers may be able to explain why there is more matter than antimatter in the Universe. The simulations offer a new way of examining conditions after the Big Bang, and could provide answers to some fundamental questions in particle physics.

Sketch of dimensional reduction.

Credit: David Weir

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In the Standard Model of particle physics, there is almost no difference between matter and antimatter. But there is an abundance of evidence that our observable universe is made up only of matter — if there was any antimatter, it would annihilate with nearby matter to produce very high intensity gamma radiation, which has not been observed. Therefore, figuring out how we ended up with an abundance of only matter is one of the biggest open questions in particle physics.

Because of this and other gaps in the Standard Model, physicists are considering theories which add a few extra particles in ways that will help to solve the problem. One of these models is called the Two Higgs Doublet Model, which, despite the name, actually adds four extra particles. This model can be made to agree with all particle physics observations made so far, including ones from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but it was unclear whether it could also solve the problem of the matter-antimatter imbalance. The research group, led by a University of Helsinki team, set out to tackle the problem from a different angle. Their findings have now been published in a paper in the Physical Review Letters.

About ten picoseconds after the Big Bang — right about the time the Higgs boson was turning on — the universe was a hot plasma of particles.

“The technique of dimensional reduction lets us replace the theory which describes this hot plasma with a simpler quantum theory with a set of rules that all the particles must follow,” explains Dr. David Weir, the corresponding author of the article.

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“It turns out that the heavier, slower-moving particles don’t matter very much when these new rules are imposed, so we end up with a much less complicated theory.”

This theory can then be studied with computer simulations, which provide a clear picture of what happened. In particular, they can tell us how violently out of equilibrium the universe was when the Higgs boson turned on. This is important for determining whether there was scope for producing the matter-antimatter asymmetry at this time in the history of the universe using the Two Higgs Doublet Model.

“Our results showed that it is indeed possible to explain the absence of antimatter and remain in agreement with existing observations,” Dr. Weir remarks. Importantly, by making use of dimensional reduction, the new approach was completely independent of any previous work in this model.

If the Higgs boson turned on in such a violent way, it would have left echoes. As the bubbles of the new phase of the universe nucleated, much like clouds, and expanded until the universe was like an overcast sky, the collisions between the bubbles would have produced lots of gravitational waves. Researchers at the University of Helsinki and elsewhere are now gearing up to look for these gravitational waves at missions such as the European LISA project.

 

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https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181113110408.htm

 

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Stars Map Dark Matter in Dwarf Galaxy

Cosmos by John Hussey


A combo of Hubble and Gaia data reveal the distribution of dark matter in a tiny galaxy by tracking the galaxy’s stars.

The Sculptor dwarf galaxy has very few stars, making it immensely difficult to detect (it’s the faint concentration of stars at the center of this image).

ESA / Hubble / Digitized Sky Survey 2

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Scientists have tracked the motions of stars in the Sculptor dwarf galaxy, which orbits the Milky Way roughly 300,000 light-years from Earth. The results, published in the December issue of Nature Astronomy, are exciting astronomers not for the stars themselves but for what the stellar motions trace: dark matter.

Davide Massari (University of Groningen and Leiden University, The Netherlands) and colleagues combined observations taken by the Hubble Space Telescope more than a decade ago with the first data release from the Gaia satellite, showing how 126 stars move along the plane of the sky (sideways, from our perspective). Combining these observations with previous measurements of the stellar motions along our line of sight, they obtain three-dimensional velocities. Finally, picking out 15 objects for which they have the best measurements, the team mapped out the unseen dark matter halo that guides the stars’ orbital trajectories.

The popular theory of “cold” (aka, slow-moving) dark matter says that the mysterious particles ought to gather at the center of a galaxy like the peak of a dark whipped cream. Nowhere should this effect be more visible than in dwarf galaxies — they’re dark matter-dominated and largely lack the sources that could confuse measurements, such as pulsars and supernovae. But results to date have had astronomers mired in what Massari and colleagues call “a longstanding unresolved debate.”

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The new measurements show that the Sculptor dwarf galaxy might actually have the predicted peak of dark matter. But it hasn’t settled the debate: the sample of stars is small and concentrated at one location in the galaxy, and the authors acknowledge that the observations don’t rule out the non-peak scenario. Nevertheless, the observations show the power of Gaia observations — the next data release, due in April 2018, will include on-the-sky motions for a much larger sample of stars.

 

By: Monica Young

 

Cosmos by John Hussey

 

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Dark Energy Survey Releases First Three Years of Data

Cosmos by John Hussey


Results from the first data release of the Dark Energy Survey include eleven new stellar streams in the Milky Way galaxy.

The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile houses the Dark Energy Camera.

Fermilab

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Free, detailed information on 400 million astronomical objects, anybody? Just visit the website of the Dark Energy Survey (DES) – it’s there for the taking. At a special session of the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., scientists presented the first data release (DR1) of the survey, containing observations that were collected between mid-2013 and early 2016. Among the preliminary results: eleven new stellar streams in the Milky Way galaxy and new constraints on cosmological parameters.

The Dark Energy Survey is carried out with the giant Dark Energy Camera (DECam) at the 4-meter Blanco Telescope of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. Built at Fermilab in Chicago, DECam sports 62 sensitive CCDs with a grand total of 570 million pixels. The 4-ton camera has a huge 3-square-degree field of view. The survey’s main goal is to solve the riddle of dark energy – the mystery force behind the accelerating expansion of the universe.

During the first three years of the survey, some 39,000 exposures have been taken at five different wavelength bands, covering a whopping 5,186 square degrees – about one-eighth of the whole sky. According to DES release scientist Matias Carrasco Kind (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), DR1 contains data on 310 million galaxies and 80 million stars brighter than magnitude 22.5. “This is the largest photometric dataset to date,” he says.

Thanks to its impressive sensitivity, DES has almost doubled the number of known ultra-faint dwarf galaxies swarming around the Milky Way, from two dozen to more than fifty (some of the new finds still need independent confirmation). At the meeting, Alex Drlica-Wagner (Fermilab) reported a ‘strong correlation’ in sky position with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. “30 to 60 percent of the DES satellite galaxies may have a Magellanic origin,” he says. “They may have started out as satellites of the two Milky Way companions.”

Drlica-Wagner also presented the discovery of eleven new stellar streams – the tidally stretched remains of dwarf galaxies that have been swallowed by the Milky Way galaxy. “We’re carrying out galactic archeology,” he says. “This will help in unraveling the evolutionary history of the Milky Way,” which has grown over the eons by gobbling up small satellites. The new streams are located between 40,000 and 165,000 light-years away, and were found by selecting old, metal-poor stars on the basis of their colors.

Four of the eleven new stellar streams found by the Dark Energy Survey (see main text) have been named after rivers in India: Indus, Jhelum, Chenab and Ravi. Two – Elqui and Turbio – were named after rivers near the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, where the Dark Energy Camera is located. The remaining five received river names from indigenous cultures in Chile (Aliqa Una, Palca and Willka Yacu) and in Australia (Wambelong and Turranburra). In naming the stellar streams, DES scientists worked together with school children and the general public.

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Michael Troxel (Ohio State University) described DES’s preliminary cosmology results. His team’s goal is to map the three-dimensional distribution of dark matter by studying the tiny systematic distortions (‘cosmic shear’) in the shapes of distant galaxies due to gravitational lensing.

So far, scientists have analyzed the shapes of 26 million galaxies, observed in DES’s first year of operation, mostly between declinations –40° and –60°. The result is “quite an exciting map,” in Troxel’s words. “This constitutes the most significant measurement of cosmic shear in a galaxy survey to date,” he says.

Troxel and his colleagues have combined the DES weak lensing results with data from other surveys on so-called baryon acoustic oscillations (BAOs – tell-tale patterns in the spatial distribution of galaxies) and with knowledge of nucleosynthesis (the formation of elements like deuterium) during the big bang. Together, these three parameters yield a value for the Hubble constant (the current expansion rate of the universe) that is completely independent from other measurements.

The new value, 67.2 kilometers per second per megaparsec, is a bit higher than the value derived from measurements of the cosmic background radiation by the European Planck mission, but it’s still substantially lower than what is obtained from observations of Cepheid variable stars and Type Ia supernovae. However, Troxel isn’t too worried about the apparent discrepancy, which, if confirmed, would point to new physics beyond the standard cosmological model. Referring to this canonical model, with dark energy in the form of a cosmological constant (Λ) and with cold dark matter, he says: ‘ΛCDM works.’

One reason for confidence among DES scientists is that other results from their survey – including observations of galaxy clusters – also appear to agree with current cosmological wisdom. After completing the five-year program later this year, the error bars will become even smaller. In the early 2020s, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will go deeper than DES and cover a much larger part of the sky, while all-sky space missions like Euclid (ESA) and WFIRST (NASA) are expected to provide final answers.

 

By: Govert Schilling

 

Cosmos by John Hussey

 

https://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/dark-energy-survey-releases-first-three-years/

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Astronomers witness slow death of nearby galaxy

Cosmos by John Hussey


Astronomers have witnessed, in the finest detail ever, the slow death of a neighboring dwarf galaxy, which is gradually losing its power to form stars.

This is CSIRO’s powerful Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.

Credit: CSIRO

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Astronomers from The Australian National University (ANU) and CSIRO have witnessed, in the finest detail ever, the slow death of a neighbouring dwarf galaxy, which is gradually losing its power to form stars.

The new peer-reviewed study of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), which is a tiny fraction of the size and mass of the Milky Way galaxy, uses images taken with CSIRO’s powerful Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.

Lead researcher Professor Naomi McClure-Griffiths from ANU said the features of the radio images were more than three times finer than previous SMC images, which allowed the team to probe the interactions between the small galaxy and its environment with more accuracy.

“We were able to observe a powerful outflow of hydrogen gas from the Small Magellanic Cloud,” said Professor McClure-Griffiths from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at ANU.

“The implication is the galaxy may eventually stop being able to form new stars if it loses all of its gas. Galaxies that stop forming stars gradually fade away into oblivion. It’s sort of a slow death for a galaxy if it loses all of its gas.”

Professor McClure-Griffiths said the discovery, which is part of a project that investigates the evolution of galaxies, provided the first clear observational measurement of the amount of mass lost from a dwarf galaxy.

“The result is also important because it provides a possible source of gas for the enormous Magellanic Stream that encircles the Milky Way,” she said.

“Ultimately, the Small Magellanic Cloud is likely to eventually be gobbled up by our Milky Way.”

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CSIRO co-researcher Dr David McConnell said ASKAP was unrivalled in the world for this kind of research due to its unique radio receivers that give it a panoramic view of the sky.

“The telescope covered the entire SMC galaxy in a single shot and photographed its hydrogen gas with unprecedented detail,” he said.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, and is the main ingredient of stars.

“ASKAP will go on to make state-of-the-art pictures of hydrogen gas in our own Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds, providing a full understanding of how this dwarf system is merging with our own galaxy and what this teaches us about the evolution of other galaxies,” Dr McConnell said.

 

Story Source:

Materials provided by Australian National University.

 

Cosmos by John Hussey

 

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/10/181029130957.htm

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Cosmic fountain offers clues to how galaxies evolve

Cosmos by John Hussey


Plumes of cold molecular gas spray out by black hole a billion light-years from Earth

Galaxy evolution can be chaotic and messy, but it seems that streams of cold gas spraying out from the region around supermassive black holes may act to calm the storm.

Artist impression of Abell 2597 showing the central supermassive black hole expelling cold, molecular gas — like the pump of a giant intergalactic fountain.

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry

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Galaxy evolution can be chaotic and messy, but it seems that streams of cold gas spraying out from the region around supermassive black holes may act to calm the storm.

This is according to an international team of scientists who have provided the first clear and compelling evidence of this process in action.

Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) of telescopes, the team, which includes researchers from Cardiff University, has observed a supermassive black hole acting like a ‘monumental fountain’ in the middle of a galaxy over a billion light-years from Earth.

At the centre of the galaxy, named Abell 2597, the black hole is drawing in vast stores of cold molecular gas and then spraying them back out again in an ongoing cycle.

The giant elliptical galaxy Abell 2597 lies at the heart of one of the universe’s most massive structures and has a sprawling cluster of other galaxies surrounding it.

According to the researchers, this entire system operates via a self-regulating feedback loop. The incoming material provides power for the fountain as it “drains” toward the central black hole, like water entering the pump of a fountain. This gas then causes the black hole to ignite with activity, launching high-velocity jets of super-heated material that shoot out of the galaxy.

As it travels, this material pushes out clumps and streamers of gas into the galaxy’s expansive halo, where it eventually rains back in on the black hole, triggering the entire process anew.

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By studying the location and motion of molecules of carbon monoxide (CO) with ALMA, which shine brightly in millimetre-wavelength light, the researchers were able to measure the motion of the gas as it falls in toward the black hole.

It is from these plumes of gas that new stars are formed in galaxies, and the researchers believe that the process they have observed could be common across the Universe and, more importantly, could be crucial to the development of massive galaxies like this one.

Dr Timothy Davis, from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, said: “Galaxy evolution can be pretty chaotic, and big galaxies like this tend to live hard and die young. For the first time we have been able to observe the full cycle of a supermassive black hole fountain, that acts to regulate this process, prolonging the life of galaxies.”

“The supermassive black hole at the centre of this giant galaxy acts like a mechanical ‘pump’ in a water fountain,” said Grant Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lead author on the paper.

“This is one of the first systems in which we find clear evidence for both cold molecular gas inflow toward the black hole and outflow or uplift from the jets that the black hole launches.”

 

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Cosmos by John Hussey

 

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181106103840.htm

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Elusive star has origins close to Big Bang

Cosmos by John Hussey


Astronomers have found what could be one of the universe’s oldest stars, made almost entirely of materials spewed from the Big Bang.

The star, named 2MASS J18082002–5104378 B, is part of a two-star system orbiting around a common point.

Credit: ESO/Beletsky/DSS1 + DSS2 + 2MASS

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Astronomers have found what could be one of the universe’s oldest stars, a body almost entirely made of materials spewed from the Big Bang.

The discovery of this approximately 13.5 billion-year-old tiny star means more stars with very low mass and very low metal content are likely out there — perhaps even some of the universe’s very first stars.

The star is unusual because unlike other stars with very low metal content, it is part of the Milky Way’s “thin disk” — the part of the galaxy in which our own sun resides.

And because this star is so old, researchers say it’s possible that our galactic neighborhood is at least 3 billion years older than previously thought. The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

“This star is maybe one in 10 million,” said lead author Kevin Schlaufman, a Johns Hopkins University assistant professor of physics and astronomy. “It tells us something very important about the first generations of stars.”

The universe’s first stars after the Big Bang would have consisted entirely of elements like hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of lithium. Those stars then produced elements heavier than helium in their cores and seeded the universe with them when they exploded as supernovae.

The next generation of stars formed from clouds of material laced with those metals, incorporating them into their makeup. The metal content, or metallicity, of stars in the universe increased as the cycle of star birth and death continued.

The newly discovered star’s extremely low metallicity indicates that, in a cosmic family tree, it could be as little as one generation removed from the Big Bang. Indeed, it is the new record holder for the star with the smallest complement of heavy elements — it has about the same heavy element content as the planet Mercury. In contrast, our sun is thousands of generations down that line and has a heavy element content equal to 14 Jupiters.

Astronomers have found around 30 ancient “ultra metal-poor” stars with the approximate mass of the sun. The star Schlaufman and his team found, however, is only 14 percent the mass of the sun.

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The star is part of a two-star system orbiting around a common point. The team found the tiny, almost invisibly faint “secondary” star after another group of astronomers discovered the much brighter “primary” star. That team measured the primary’s composition by studying a high-resolution optical spectrum of its light. The presence or absence of dark lines in a star’s spectrum can identify the elements it contains, such as carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, iron, and more. In this case, the star had extremely low metallicity. Those astronomers also identified unusual behavior in the star system that implied the presence of a neutron star or black hole. Schlaufman and his team found that to be incorrect, but in doing so, they discovered the visible star’s much smaller companion.

The existence of the smaller companion star turned out to be the big discovery. Schlaufman’s team was able to infer its mass by studying the primary star’s slight “wobble” as the little star’s gravity tugged at it.

As recently as the late 1990s, researchers believed that only massive stars could have formed in the earliest stages of the universe — and that they could never be observed because they burn through their fuel and die so quickly.

But as astronomical simulations became more sophisticated, they began to hint that in certain situations, a star from this time period with particularly low mass could still exist, even more than 13 billion years since the Big Bang. Unlike huge stars, low-mass ones can live for exceedingly long times. Red dwarf stars, for instance, with a fraction of the mass of the sun, are thought to live to trillions of years.

The discovery of this new ultra metal-poor star, named 2MASS J18082002-5104378 B, opens up the possibility of observing even older stars.

“If our inference is correct, then low-mass stars that have a composition exclusively the outcome of the Big Bang can exist,” said Schlaufman, who is also affiliated with the university’s Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science. “Even though we have not yet found an object like that in our galaxy, it can exist.”

 

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Cosmos by John Hussey

 

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181105160900.htm

 

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