Category Archives: Research

The Tarantula Nebula Nursery

Just look at what you can do with a plane and a telescope these days. The SOFIA Observatory is just that combined with a great team. This image was taken with the visible-light guide camera during observations from Christchurch, New Zealand.

Credits: NASA/SOFIA/Nicholas A. Veronico

NASA – To have a full picture of the lives of massive stars, researchers need to study them in all stages – from when they’re a mass of unformed gas and dust, to their often dynamic end-of-life explosions.

NASA’s flying telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, is particularly well-suited for studying the pre-natal stage of stellar development in star-forming regions, such as the Tarantula Nebula, a giant mass of gas and dust located within the Large Magellanic Cloud, or LMC.

Researchers from the Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics, led by Michael Gordon, went aboard SOFIA to identify and characterize the brightness, ages and dust content of three young star-forming regions within the LMC.

“The Large Magellanic Cloud has always been an interesting and excellent laboratory for massive star formation,” said Gordon. “The chemical properties of star-forming regions in the LMC are significantly different than in the Milky Way, which means the stars forming there potentially mirror the conditions of star formation in dwarf galaxies at earlier times in the universe.”

In our galactic neighborhood, which includes the LMC, massive stars – generally classified as stars more than eight times the mass of Earth’s Sun – are believed to form exclusively in very dense molecular clouds. The dark dust and gas absorb background light, which prevents traditional optical telescopes from imaging these areas.

“The mid-infrared capabilities of SOFIA are ideal for piercing through infrared dark clouds to capture images of potential massive star-forming regions,” Gordon said.

The observations were completed with the Faint Object infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, known as FORCAST. This infrared camera also performs spectroscopy, which identifies the elements present.

Astronomers study stars evolving in both the optical and the infrared to learn more about the photosphere, and the population of stars in the photosphere. The mid- and far-infrared data from SOFIA reaffirm dust temperature and mass accretion rates that are consistent with prior research of the LMC.

“We want to combine as many observations as we can from the optical, as seen through images from the Hubble Space Telescope, all the way out to the far infrared, imaged using the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, to get as broad a picture as possible,” Gordon continued. “No previous researchers have used FORCAST’s wavelength range to effectively study massive star formations. We needed SOFIA to fill in the 20- to 40-micron gap to give us the whole picture of what’s taking place.”

In summer 2017, further research of the Tarantula Nebula was accomplished aboard SOFIA during the observatory’s six-week science campaign operating from Christchurch, New Zealand, to study the sky in the Southern Hemisphere. Gordon and his team are hopeful that when analyzed, data obtained from the Christchurch flights will reveal previously undiscovered young massive stars forming in the region, which have never been observed outside of the Milky Way.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Hangar 703, in Palmdale, California.

MMS and Magnetic Reconnection

Here’s a glimpse into the realm of the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission.

The topics of magnetic reconnection and the magnetosphere get a fair amount of attention on the internet. The interest is with good reason, the more we become dependent on electronic devices and the benefits derived from them like say, the internet and access to it the more we need to learn what is really going on up there. Funny thing is, much of the interest is from the doom-mongers and conspiracy theorists playing on the risk.

So with thanks to NASA (and Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Tom Bridgman) here is a little bit on what we are learning:

First a short (12 sec) animation of just one electron in the magnetic reconnection region.

NASA — The space high above Earth may seem empty, but it’s a carnival packed with magnetic field lines and high-energy particles. This region is known as the magnetosphere and, every day, charged particles put on a show as they dart and dive through it. Like tiny tightrope walkers, the high-energy electrons follow the magnetic field lines. Sometimes, such as during an event called magnetic reconnection where the lines explosively collide, the particles are shot off their trajectories, as if they were fired from a cannon.

Since these acts can’t be seen by the naked eye, NASA uses specially designed instruments to capture the show. The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, or MMS, is one such looking glass through which scientists can observe the invisible magnetic forces and pirouetting particles that can impact our technology on Earth. New research uses MMS data to improve understanding of how electrons move through this complex region — information that will help untangle how such particle acrobatics affect Earth.

Scientists with MMS have been watching the complex shows electrons put on around Earth and have noticed that electrons at the edge of the magnetosphere often move in rocking motions as they are accelerated. Finding these regions where electrons are accelerated is key to understanding one of the mysteries of the magnetosphere: How does the magnetic energy seething through the area get converted to kinetic energy — that is, the energy of particle motion. Such information is important to protect technology on Earth, since particles that have been accelerated to high energies can at their worst cause power grid outages and GPS communications dropouts.

New research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, found a novel way to help locate regions where electrons are accelerated. Until now, scientists looked at low-energy electrons to find these accelerations zones, but a group of scientists lead by Matthew Argall of the University of New Hampshire in Durham has shown it’s possible, and in fact easier, to identify these regions by watching high-energy electrons.

This research is only possible with the unique design of MMS, which uses four spacecraft flying in a tight tetrahedral formation to give high temporal and spatial resolution measurements of the magnetic reconnection region.

“We’re able to probe very small scales and this helps us to really pinpoint how energy is being converted through magnetic reconnection,” Argall said.

The results will make it easier for scientists to identify and study these regions, helping them explore the microphysics of magnetic reconnection and better understand electrons’ effects on Earth.

The Surface of π1 Gruis

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) just released this image of the surface of a red giant star. Take a look at our future. Excellent work! Image: ESO

ESO — Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), π1 Gruis is a cool red giant.

It has about the same mass as our Sun, but is 700 times larger and several thousand times as bright [1]. Our Sun will swell to become a similar red giant star in about five billion years.

An international team of astronomers led by Claudia Paladini (ESO) used the PIONIER instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to observe π1 Gruis in greater detail than ever before. They found that the surface of this red giant has just a few convective cells, or granules, that are each about 120 million kilometres across — about a quarter of the star’s diameter [2]. Just one of these granules would extend from the Sun to beyond Venus. The surfaces — known as photospheres — of many giant stars are obscured by dust, which hinders observations. However, in the case of π1 Gruis, although dust is present far from the star, it does not have a significant effect on the new infrared observations [3].

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Hungry Star?

Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab


team of U.S. astronomers studying the star RZ Piscium has found evidence suggesting its strange, unpredictable dimming episodes may be caused by vast orbiting clouds of gas and dust, the remains of one or more destroyed planets.

“Our observations show there are massive blobs of dust and gas that occasionally block the star’s light and are probably spiraling into it,” said Kristina Punzi, a doctoral student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York and lead author of a paper describing the findings. “Although there could be other explanations, we suggest this material may have been produced by the break-up of massive orbiting bodies near the star.”

RZ Piscium is located about 550 light-years away in the constellation Pisces. During its erratic dimming episodes, which can last as long as two days, the star becomes as much as 10 times fainter. It produces far more energy at infrared wavelengths than emitted by stars like our Sun, which indicates the star is surrounded by a disk of warm dust. In fact, about 8 percent of its total luminosity is in the infrared, a level matched by only a few of the thousands of nearby stars studied over the past 40 years. This implies enormous quantities of dust.

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Shedding Light on Dark Matter

This is pretty amazing and might turn out to be what we need to crack the (dark matter) nut so to speak.  Seriously we need more observations!

Here, get your dark matter geek on with the the authors of a paper: Joseph Conlon, Francesca Day, Nicolas Jennings, Sven Krippendorf and Markus Rummel, all from Oxford University in the UK.  Click here.

NASA – An innovative interpretation of X-ray data from a galaxy cluster could help scientists understand the nature of dark matter. The finding involves a new explanation for a set of results made with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, ESA’s XMM-Newton and Hitomi, a Japanese-led X-ray telescope. If confirmed with future observations, this may represent a major step forward in understanding the nature of the mysterious, invisible substance that makes up about 85% of matter in the universe.

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Back in the Day

We are looking at the way things were “back in the day”. This black hole is an astounding 13-billion light-years away.

JPL/Elizabeth Landau — Scientists have uncovered a rare relic from the early universe: the farthest known supermassive black hole. This matter-eating beast is 800 million times the mass of our Sun, which is astonishingly large for its young age. Researchers report the find in the journal Nature.

“This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form,” said study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Astronomers combined data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) with ground-based surveys to identify potential distant objects to study, then followed up with Carnegie Observatories’ Magellan telescopes in Chile. Carnegie astronomer Eduardo Bañados led the effort to identify candidates out of the hundreds of millions of objects WISE found that would be worthy of follow-up with Magellan.

For black holes to become so large in the early universe, astronomers speculate there must have been special conditions to allow rapid growth — but the underlying reason remains mysterious.

The newly found black hole is voraciously devouring material at the center of a galaxy — a phenomenon called a quasar. This quasar is especially interesting because it comes from a time when the universe was just beginning to emerge from its dark ages. The discovery will provide fundamental information about the universe when it was only 5 percent of its current age.

“Quasars are among the brightest and most distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early universe,” said co-author Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

The universe began in a hot soup of particles that rapidly spread apart in a period called inflation. About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, these particles cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas. But the universe stayed dark, without any luminous sources, until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies. The energy released by these ancient galaxies caused the neutral hydrogen to get excited and ionize, or lose an electron. The gas has remained in that state since that time. Once the universe became reionzed, photons could travel freely throughout space. This is the point at which the universe became transparent to light.

Much of the hydrogen surrounding the newly discovered quasar is neutral. That means the quasar is not only the most distant — it is also the only example we have that can be seen before the universe became reionized.

“It was the universe’s last major transition and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics,” Bañados said.

The quasar’s distance is determined by what’s called its redshift, a measurement of how much the wavelength of its light is stretched by the expansion of the universe before reaching Earth. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object. This newly discovered quasar has a redshift of 7.54, based on the detection of ionized carbon emissions from the galaxy that hosts the massive black hole. That means it took more than 13 billion years for the light from the quasar to reach us.

Scientists predict the sky contains between 20 and 100 quasars as bright and as distant as this quasar. Astronomers look forward to the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission, which has significant NASA participation, and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, to find more such distant objects.

“With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities currently being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years,” Stern said.

Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

Two Earths Around Star K2-18

Really enjoyed hearing about this research coming out of the Université de Montréal. I am very curious about the atmosphere of the planet in the habitable zone as is everybody else.

Université de Montréal — New research using data collected by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has revealed that a little-known exoplanet called K2-18b could well be a scaled-up version of Earth.

Just as exciting, the same researchers also discovered for the first time that the planet has a neighbor.

“Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting,” says lead author Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student in U of T Scarborough’s Centre for Planet Science, U of T’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Université de Montréal Institute for research on exoplanets (iREx).

Both planets orbit K2-18, a red-dwarf star located about 111 light years away in the constellation Leo. When the planet K2-18b was first discovered in 2015, it was found to be orbiting within the star’s habitable zone, making it an ideal candidate to have liquid surface water, a key element in harbouring conditions for life as we know it.

The data set used by the researchers came from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) using the ESO’s 3.6m telescope at La Silla Observatory, in Chile. HARPS allows for measurements of radial velocities of stars, which are affected by the presence of planets, to be taken with the highest accuracy currently available. Hence, this instrument allows for the detection of very small planets around them.

In order to figure out whether K2-18b was a scaled-up version of Earth (mostly rock), or a scaled-down version of Neptune (mostly gas), researchers had to first figure out the planet’s mass, using radial velocity measurements taken with HARPS.

“If you can get the mass and radius, you can measure the bulk density of the planet and that can tell you what the bulk of the planet is made of,” says Cloutier.

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Hubble Meets Gaia

Combining Hubble and Gaia data we now have proper motions for stars in a galaxy other than our own. It is a rather rigorous process undertaken by astronomers at the University of Groningen and the results were not expected.

Image: Sculptor-dwergsterrenstelsel.   Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2 via  University of Groningen

University of Groningen — By combining data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gaia mission, University of Groningen astronomers have been able to measure the proper motion for fifteen stars in the Sculptor galaxy, the first such measurement for stars in a small galaxy outside the Milky Way. The results show an unexpected preference in the direction of the movement, which suggests that the standard theoretical model s used to describe the motion of stars and dark matter halo’s in other galaxies might be invalid. Th e results were published on 27/11/2017 in Nature Astronomy.

Astronomers have long been able to measure the movement of stars in our ‘line of sight’ (i.e. the movement towards us or away from us) through the redshift, caused by the Doppler effect. However, measuring the movement in the plane of the sky, called the ‘proper motion’ is much more difficult. It requires multiple very precise measurements of a stars position spread out over several years to detect this proper motion. Because of the immense distance, even many stars in our galaxy only move very little across the sky as seen from Earth. For stars outside the galaxy, this movement is even smaller.
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A New Type of Explosion in Space Discovered

A great piece of work.

It strikes me as it always does: science research done collaboratively should serve as an excellent role model of what can be accomplished TO so many other unrelated (non-science) endeavors.

University of Southampton — An international team of astronomers, including a University of Southampton expert, has discovered a new type of explosion in a distant galaxy.
The explosion, called PS1-10adi, seems to prefer active galaxies that house supermassive black holes consuming the gas and material around them.

Using telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii, the team detected an explosion that was so energetic it must have originated from one of two sources: an extremely massive star – up to several hundred times more massive than our Sun – exploding as a supernova, or from a lower mass star that has been shredded by the ultra-strong gravitational forces close to the supermassive black hole.

The explosion – detailed in a study published in Nature Astronomy – occurred 2.4 billion years ago, but the enormous distance that light from the event had to travel to reach Earth meant it wasn’t observed by astronomers until 2010. The slow evolution of the explosion allowed scientists to monitor it for several years.
Dr Cosimo Inserra, of the University of Southampton, was involved in the analysis of data and helped identify the only two possible scenarios that could explain the event. He also tested the data using established physical supernova models to support the results.
He commented: “The discovery we made has revealed explosions capable of releasing an amount of energy ten times bigger than normal explosions.
“Our data show that events like this are not very unusual and challenge our knowledge of exploding and disrupting stars.
“At the same time, their existence provides us with important information about the extreme environment in the central, hidden, part of galaxies.”
Lead author Dr Erkki Kankare, of Queen’s University Belfast, added: “If these explosions are tidal disruption events – where a star gets sufficiently close to a supermassive black hole’s event horizon and is shredded by the strong gravitational forces – then its properties are such that it would be a brand new type of tidal disruption event.
“If they are supernova explosions then their properties are more extreme than we have ever observed before, and are likely connected to the central environments of the host galaxies.”
The international team included research institutes from Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Chile, and the US.

Artist concept via University of Southampton

This is a Cool Drone!

Around here we are seeing the beginning of drone use in a few activities for hire, for example crop and field mapping, monitoring wetlands, oh and just a few kilometers from here monitoring a public road infrastructure projects. If I am seeing this, I know you must be also.

In this case this drone is a scientific instrument that will plainly be a remarkable platform for science especially for our students.

NASA / Goddard / Lori Keesey — NASA scientists, who always are on the hunt for new platforms from which to carry out their research, now may avail themselves of two agency-developed unmanned aerial systems, or UASs, that some say represent the future for drone aircraft.

Unlike most commercially available unmanned aircraft systems, Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001 and Black Swift Technologies’ S2 small Unmanned Aircraft System, or sUAS, purposely were designed for scientific investigations.

Both provide one-of-a-kind capabilities that represent a significant success for NASA’s Small Business Innovative Research, or SBIR, program, which funded their development, said Geoff Bland, a research engineer at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

“Our goal always is to advance state-of-the-art airborne capabilities and platforms tailored to the needs of our scientists,” said Bland, who oversaw the aircrafts’ development. “The SBIR program offered us an outstanding venue for engaging small businesses in our quest to develop new tools for gathering scientific data.”

Now operational after months of development, the aircraft are offering the scientific community complementary, easy-to-use capabilities at a lower cost.

To Antarctica and Back

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