Category Archives: Chandra

A Triple System Close to Home

Yes, it’s Alpha Centauri system. A new study yields a surprising result.

The short version from NASA:

A new study involving long-term monitoring of Alpha Centauri by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that any planets orbiting the two brightest stars are likely not being pummeled by large amounts of X-ray radiation from their host stars. This is important for the viability of life in the nearest star system outside the Solar System. Chandra data from May 2nd, 2017 are seen in the pull-out, which is shown in context of a visible-light image taken from the ground of the Alpha Centauri system and its surroundings.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star system located just over four light years, or about 25 trillion miles, from Earth. While this is a large distance in terrestrial terms, it is three times closer than the next nearest Sun-like star.

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system include a pair called “A” and “B,” (AB for short) which orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Cen A is a near twin of our Sun in almost every way, including age, while Alpha Cen B is somewhat smaller and dimmer but still quite similar to the Sun. The third member, Alpha Cen C (also known as Proxima), is a much smaller red dwarf star that travels around the AB pair in a much larger orbit that takes it more than 10 thousand times farther from the AB pair than the Earth-Sun distance. Proxima currently holds the title of the nearest star to Earth, although AB is a very close second.

The Chandra data reveal that the prospects for life in terms of current X-ray bombardment are actually better around Alpha Cen A than for the Sun, and Alpha Cen B fares only slightly worse. Proxima, on the other hand, is a type of active red dwarf star known to frequently send out dangerous flares of X-ray radiation, and is likely hostile to life. Planets in the habitable zone around Proxima receive an average dose of X-rays about 500 times larger than the Earth, and 50,000 times larger during a big flare.

Tom Ayres of the University of Colorado at Boulder presented these results at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Denver, Colorado, and some of these results were published in January 2018 in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Image credit: Optical: Zdenek Bardon; X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Colorado/T. Ayres et al

Cosmic Cold Front

Original caption (via NASA) — A gigantic and resilient “cold front” hurtling through the Perseus galaxy cluster has been studied using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This cosmic weather system spans about two million light years and has been traveling for over 5 billion years, longer than the existence of our Solar System.

This graphic shows the cold front in the Perseus cluster. The main panel contains X-ray data from Chandra – for regions close to the center of the cluster – along with data from ESA’s XMM-Newton and the now-defunct German Roentgen (ROSAT) satellite for regions further out. The Chandra data have been specially processed to brighten the contrast of edges to make subtle details more obvious.

The cold front is the long vertical structure on the left side of the image. It is about two million light years long and has traveled away from the center of the cluster at about 300,000 miles per hour.

The inset shows a close-up view of the cold front from Chandra. This image is a temperature map, where blue represents relatively cooler regions (30 million degrees) while the red is where the hotter regions (80 million degrees) are.

The cold front has not only survived for over a third of the age of the Universe, but it has also remained surprisingly sharp and split into two different pieces.

Astronomers expected that such an old cold front would have been blurred out or eroded over time because it has traveled for billions of years through a harsh environment of sound waves and turbulence caused by outbursts from the huge black hole at the center of Perseus,


Instead, the sharpness of the Perseus cold front suggests that the structure has been preserved by strong magnetic fields that are wrapped around it. The comparison of the Chandra X-ray data to theoretical models also gives scientists an indication of the strength of the cold front’s magnetic field for the first time.

While cold fronts in the Earth’s atmospheres are driven by rotation of the planet, those in the atmospheres of galaxy clusters like Perseus are caused by collisions between the cluster and other clusters of galaxies. These collisions typically occur as the gravity of the main cluster pulls the smaller cluster inward towards its central core. As the smaller cluster makes a close pass by the central core, the gravitational attraction between both structures causes the gas in the core to slosh around like wine swirled in a glass. The sloshing produces a spiral pattern of cold fronts moving outward through the cluster gas.

Aurora Simionescu and collaborators originally discovered the Perseus cold front in 2012 using data from ROSAT (the ROentgen SATellite), ESA’s XMM-Newton Observatory, and Japan’s Suzaku X-ray satellite. Chandra’s high-resolution X-ray vision allowed this more detailed work on the cold front to be performed.

The results of this work appear in a paper that will be published in the April issue of Nature Astronomy and is available online. The authors of the paper are Stephen Walker (Goddard Space Flight Center), John ZuHone (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Jeremy Sanders (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics), and Andrew Fabian (Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, England.)

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Image and caption: Credit: NASA/CXC/GSFC/S. Walker, ESA/XMM, ROSAT

Galactic Goulash

I love the title from NASA – “Chandra Samples Galactic Goulash” and it all makes sense:

NASA/Chandra — What would happen if you took two galaxies and mixed them together over millions of years? A new image including data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory reveals the cosmic culinary outcome.

Arp 299 is a system located about 140 million light years from Earth. It contains two galaxies that are merging, creating a partially blended mix of stars from each galaxy in the process.

However, this stellar mix is not the only ingredient. New data from Chandra reveals 25 bright X-ray sources sprinkled throughout the Arp 299 concoction. Fourteen of these sources are such strong emitters of X-rays that astronomers categorize them as “ultra-luminous X-ray sources,” or ULXs.

These ULXs are found embedded in regions where stars are currently forming at a rapid rate. Most likely, the ULXs are binary systems where a neutron star or black hole is pulling matter away from a companion star that is much more massive than the Sun. These double star systems are called high-mass X-ray binaries.

Such a loaded buffet of high-mass X-ray binaries is rare, but Arp 299 is one of the most powerful star-forming galaxies in the nearby Universe. This is due at least in part to the merger of the two galaxies, which has triggered waves of star formation. The formation of high-mass X-ray binaries is a natural consequence of such blossoming star birth as some of the young massive stars, which often form in pairs, evolve into these systems.

This new composite image of Arp 299 contains X-ray data from Chandra (pink), higher-energy X-ray data from NuSTAR (purple), and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (white and faint brown). Arp 299 also emits copious amounts of infrared light that has been detected by observatories such as NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, but those data are not included in this composite.

The infrared and X-ray emission of the galaxy is remarkably similar to that of galaxies found in the very distant Universe, offering an opportunity to study a relatively nearby analog of these distant objects. A higher rate of galaxy collisions occurred when the universe was young, but these objects are difficult to study directly because they are located at colossal distances.

The Chandra data also reveal diffuse X-ray emission from hot gas distributed throughout Arp 299. Scientists think the high rate of supernovas, another common trait of star-forming galaxies, has expelled much of this hot gas out of the center of the system.

A paper describing these results appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online. The lead author of the paper is Konstantina Anastasopoulou from the University of Crete in Greece. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Crete/K. Anastasopoulou et al, NASA/NuSTAR/GSFC/A. Ptak et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

Symbiotic Star

NASA – In biology, “symbiosis” refers to two organisms that live close to and interact with one another. Astronomers have long studied a class of stars – called symbiotic stars – that co-exist in a similar way. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, astronomers are gaining a better understanding of how volatile this close stellar relationship can be.

R Aquarii (R Aqr, for short) is one of the best known of the symbiotic stars. Located at a distance of about 710 light years from Earth, its changes in brightness were first noticed with the naked eye almost a thousand years ago. Since then, astronomers have studied this object and determined that R Aqr is not one star, but two: a small, dense white dwarf and a cool red, giant star.

The red giant star has its own interesting properties. In billions of years, our Sun will turn into a red giant once it exhausts the hydrogen nuclear fuel in its core and begins to expand and cool. Most red giants are placid and calm, but some pulsate with periods between 80 and 1,000 days like the star Mira and undergo large changes in brightness. This subset of red giants is called “Mira variables.”

The red giant in R Aqr is a Mira variable and undergoes steady changes in brightness by a factor of 250 as it pulsates, unlike its white dwarf companion that does not pulsate. There are other striking differences between the two stars. The white dwarf is about ten thousand times brighter than the red giant. The white dwarf has a surface temperature of some 20,000 K while the Mira variable has a temperature of about 3,000 K. In addition, the white dwarf is slightly less massive than its companion but because it is much more compact, its gravitational field is stronger. The gravitational force of the white dwarf pulls away the sloughing outer layers of the Mira variable toward the white dwarf and onto its surface.
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Chandra Chases a Rouge Black Hole

NASA – Supermassive holes are generally stationary objects, sitting at the centers of most galaxies. However, using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, astronomers recently hunted down what could be a supermassive black hole that may be on the move.
This possible renegade black hole, which contains about 160 million times the mass of our Sun, is located in an elliptical galaxy about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. Astronomers are interested in these moving supermassive black holes because they may reveal more about the properties of these enigmatic objects.

This black hole may have “recoiled,” in the terminology used by scientists, when two smaller supermassive black holes collided and merged to form an even larger one. At the same time, this collision would have generated gravitational waves that emitted more strongly in one direction than others. This newly formed black hole could have received a kick in the opposite direction of those stronger gravitational waves. This kick would have pushed the black hole out of the galaxy’s center, as depicted in the artist’s illustration.

The strength of the kick depends on the rate and direction of spin of the two smaller black holes before they merge. Therefore, information about these important but elusive properties can be obtained by studying the speed of recoiling black holes.

Astronomers found this recoiling black hole candidate by sifting through X-ray and optical data for thousands of galaxies. First, they used Chandra observations to select galaxies that contain a bright X-ray source and were observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Bright X-ray emission is a common feature of supermassive black holes that are rapidly growing.

Next, the researchers looked to see if Hubble Space Telescope observations of these X-ray bright galaxies revealed two peaks near their center in the optical image. These two peaks might show that a pair of supermassive black holes is present or that a recoiling black hole has moved away from the cluster of stars in the center of the galaxy.

If those criteria were met, then the astronomers examined the SDSS spectra, which show how the amount of optical light varies with wavelength. If the researchers found telltale signatures in the spectra indicative of the presence of a supermassive black hole, they followed up with an even closer examination of those galaxies.

After all of this searching, a good candidate for a recoiling black hole was discovered. The left image in the inset is from the Hubble data, which shows two bright points near the middle of the galaxy. One of them is located at the center of the galaxy and the other is located about 3,000 light years away from the center. The latter source shows the properties of a growing supermassive black hole and its position matches that of a bright X-ray source detected with Chandra (right image in inset). Using data from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii, the team determined that the growing black hole located near, but visibly offset from, the center of the galaxy has a velocity that is different from the galaxy. These properties suggest that this source may be a recoiling supermassive black hole.

The host galaxy of the possible recoiling black hole also shows some evidence of disturbance in its outer regions, which is an indication that a merger between two galaxies occurred in the relatively recent past. Since supermassive black hole mergers are thought to occur when their host galaxies merge, this information supports the idea of a recoiling black hole in the system.

Moreover, stars are forming at a high rate in the galaxy, at several hundred times the mass of the Sun per year. This agrees with computer simulations, which predict that star formation rates may be enhanced for merging galaxies particularly those containing recoiling black holes.

Another possible explanation for the data is that two supermassive black holes are located in the center of the galaxy but one of them is not producing detectable radiation because it is growing too slowly. The researchers favor the recoiling black hole explanation, but more data are needed to strengthen their case.

A paper describing these results was recently accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. The first author is Dongchan Kim from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Image credit: Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C. Kim; Optical: NASA/STScI