Category Archives: Research

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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Oldest Spiral Galaxy Yet Found

Swinburne University:  The most ancient spiral galaxy discovered to date is revealing its secrets to a team of astronomers at Swinburne University of Technology and The Australian National University (ANU), part of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in All Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO 3D).

The galaxy, known as A1689B11, existed 11 billion years in the past, just 2.6 billion years after the Big Bang, when the Universe was only one fifth of its present age. It is thus the most ancient spiral galaxy discovered so far.

The researchers used a powerful technique that combines gravitational lensing with the cutting-edge instrument the Near-infrared Integral Field Spectrograph (NIFS) on the Gemini North telescope in Hawai‘i to verify the vintage and spiral nature of this galaxy. NIFS is Australia’s first Gemini instrument that was designed and built by the late Peter McGregor at The ANU.

Gravitational lenses are Nature’s largest telescopes, created by massive clusters composed of thousands of galaxies and dark matter. The cluster bends and magnifies the light of galaxies behind it in a manner similar to an ordinary lens, but on a much larger scale.

“This technique allows us to study ancient galaxies in high resolution with unprecedented detail,” says Swinburne astronomer Dr Tiantian Yuan, who led the research team.

“We are able to look 11 billion years back in time and directly witness the formation of the first, primitive spiral arms of a galaxy.”

Co-author, Princeton University’s Dr Renyue Cen, says: “Studying ancient spirals like A1689B11 is a key to unlocking the mystery of how and when the Hubble sequence emerges.

“Spiral galaxies are exceptionally rare in the early Universe, and this discovery opens the door to investigating how galaxies transition from highly chaotic, turbulent discs to tranquil, thin discs like those of our own Milky Way galaxy.”

Dr Yuan says the study shows some surprising features of A1689B11.

“This galaxy is forming stars 20 times faster than galaxies today – as fast as other young galaxies of similar masses in the early Universe. However, unlike other galaxies of the same epoch, A1689B11 has a very cool and thin disc, rotating calmly with surprisingly little turbulence. This type of spiral galaxy has never been seen before at this early epoch of the Universe!”

This research is an international collaboration including astrophysicists from the University of Lyon in France, Princeton University in the USA and Hebrew University in Israel. It has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Jupiter’s Auroras Pulse Independently

Good research coming out of London’s Global University.

UCL – Jupiter’s intense northern and southern lights pulse independently of each other according to new UCL-led research using ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatories.

The study, published today in Nature Astronomy, found that very high-energy X-ray emissions at Jupiter’s south pole consistently pulse every 11 minutes. Meanwhile those at the north pole are erratic: increasing and decreasing in brightness, independent of the south pole.

This behaviour is distinct from Earth’s north and south auroras which broadly mirror each other in activity. Other similarly large planets, such as Saturn, do not produce any detectable X-ray aurora, which makes the findings at Jupiter particularly puzzling.

“We didn’t expect to see Jupiter’s X-ray hot spots pulsing independently as we thought their activity would be coordinated through the planet’s magnetic field. We need to study this further to develop ideas for how Jupiter produces its X-ray aurora and NASA’s Juno mission is really important for this,” explained lead author, William Dunn (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UK and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA).

Since arriving at Jupiter in 2016, the Juno mission has been re-writing much of what is known about the giant planet, but the spacecraft does not have an X-ray instrument on board. To understand how the X-ray aurora are produced, the team hope to combine the X-ray aurora information gathered using XMM-Newton and Chandra with data collected by Juno as it explores the regions producing Jupiter’s aurora.

“If we can start to connect the X-ray signatures with the physical processes that produce them, then we can use those signatures to understand other bodies across the Universe such as brown dwarfs, exoplanets or maybe even neutron stars. It is a very powerful and important step towards understanding X-rays throughout the Universe and one that we only have while Juno is conducting measurements simultaneously with Chandra and XMM-Newton,” said William Dunn.

One of the theories that Juno may help to prove or disprove is that Jupiter’s auroras form separately when the planet’s magnetic field interacts with the solar wind. The team suspect that the magnetic field lines vibrate, producing waves that carry charged particles towards the poles and these change in speed and direction of travel until they collide with Jupiter’s atmosphere, generating X-ray pulses.

Using the XMM-Newton and Chandra X-ray observatories in May to June 2016 and March 2007, the authors produced maps of Jupiter’s X-ray emissions and identified an X-ray hot spot at each pole. Each hot spot covers an area much bigger than the surface of the earth. Studying each to identify patterns of behaviour, they found that the hot spots have very different characteristics.

“The behaviour of Jupiter’s X-ray hot spots raises important questions about what processes produce these auroras. We know that a combination of solar wind ions and ions of Oxygen and Sulphur, originally from volcanic explosions from Jupiter’s moon, Io, are involved. However, their relative importance in producing the X-ray emissions is unclear,” explained co-author Dr Licia Ray (Lancaster University).

“What I find particularly captivating in these observations, especially at the time when Juno is making measurements in situ, is the fact that we are able to see both of Jupiter’s poles at once, a rare opportunity that last occurred ten years ago. Comparing the behaviours at the two poles allows us to learn much more of the complex magnetic interactions going on in the planet’s environment,” concluded co-author Professor Graziella Branduardi-Raymont (UCL Space & Climate Physics).

The team hopes to keep tracking the activity of Jupiter’s poles over the next two years using X-ray observing campaigns in conjunction with Juno to see if this previously unreported behaviour is commonplace.

The UCL and Harvard-Smithsonian-led study also involved researchers from Lancaster University, University of Southampton, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Universite de Liege, Boston University, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, MIT and Universidad Pontificia Comillas. It was kindly funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), ESA, the Natural and Environmental Research Council (NERC) and UCL

Image:  Juno via UCL

NASA Human Research Program

We are starting to hear a bit about the unique study NASA was able to conduct thanks to twin astronauts Scott Kelly and his year-long mission aboard the International Space Station and his twin brother Mark Kelly and seeing what differences exist between longer-term spaceflight and being here on Earth. The information gained is going to be very important to future long-term missions.

NASA’s Twins Study preliminary results have revealed that space travel causes an increase in methylation, the process of turning genes on and off, and additional knowledge in how that process works.

“Some of the most exciting things that we’ve seen from looking at gene expression in space is that we really see an explosion, like fireworks taking off, as soon as the human body gets into space,” Twins Study Principal Investigator Chris Mason, Ph.D., of Weill Cornell Medicine, said. “With this study, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of genes change how they are turned on and turned off. This happens as soon as an astronaut gets into space, and some of the activity persists temporarily upon return to Earth.”

When retired twin astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth in March 2016, the Twins Study research intensified with investigators collecting samples from him and his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. The researchers began combining the data and reviewing the enormous amount of information looking for correlations.

“This study represents one of the most comprehensive views of human biology,” Mason said. “It really sets the bedrock for understanding molecular risks for space travel as well as ways to potentially protect and fix those genetic changes.”

Final results for the Twins Study are expected to be published in 2018.

Related Story: NASA’s Human Research Program: https://www.nasa.gov/hrp “Some of the most exciting things that we’ve seen from looking at gene expression in space is that we really see an explosion, like fireworks taking off, as soon as the human body gets into space,” Twins Study Principal Investigator Chris Mason, Ph.D., of Weill Cornell Medicine, said. “With this study, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of genes change how they are turned on and turned off. This happens as soon as an astronaut gets into space, and some of the activity persists temporarily upon return to Earth.” – Christopher E. Mason, Ph. D. Associate Professor, Weill Cornell Medicine
Credit: NASA / Amy Blanchett / Laurie Abadie

Is There a Planet-9?

Despite what you might see on a few internet sites, YouTube in particular, NASA nor anybody else has discovered what they call ‘Planet X’ at least as far as I know.

Could there be another planet out there? Some actual scientists think there just might be.

University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) — A University of Michigan doctoral student has logged two pieces of evidence that may support the existence of a planet that could be part of our solar system, beyond Neptune.

Some astronomers think this alleged planet, called Planet Nine, exists because of the way some objects in space, called “Trans-Neptunian Objects,” or TNOs, behave. These TNOs are rocky objects smaller than Pluto that orbit the sun at a greater average distance than Neptune. But the orbits of the most distant of these TNOs—those whose average distance from the sun is more than 250 times as far as Earth’s distance—seem to point in the same direction. This observation first led astronomers to predict the existence of Planet Nine.

For these TNOs to be aligned in the orbits they currently occupy because of Planet Nine’s influence, astronomers say, they would have been in the solar system for longer than a billion years. However, some astronomers think in that amount of time, some of these objects should have either smashed into another planet, been thrown into the sun, or ricocheted off into space by other planets’ gravitational force.

The U-M research, led by Juliette Becker, a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy, consisted of a large set of computer simulations, which uncovered two findings about these TNOs. First, the researchers established a version of Planet Nine that would most likely cause our solar system to look the way it currently does, by preventing the TNOs from being destroyed or thrown out of the solar system. Second, the simulations predict that there is a process that they call “resonance hopping” by which a TNO jumps between stable orbits. This process can prevent the TNOs from being ejected from the solar system.

In each individual simulation, the researchers tested different versions of Planet Nine to see whether that version of the planet, with its gravitational forces, resulted in the same version of the solar system we see today.

“From that set of simulations, we found out that there are preferred versions of Planet Nine that make the TNO stay stable for longer, so it basically increases the probability that our solar system exists the way it does,” Becker said. “Through these computer simulations, we were able to determine which realization of Planet Nine creates our solar system—the whole caveat here being, if Planet Nine is real.”

The group, which includes U-M physics professors David Gerdes and Fred Adams as well as graduate student Stephanie Hamilton and undergraduate Tali Khain, also examined the resonance of these TNOs with Planet Nine. An orbital resonance occurs when objects in a system periodically exert gravitational forces upon each other that cause the objects to line up in a pattern.

In this case, the researchers found that occasionally, Neptune will bump a TNO out of its orbital resonance, but instead of sending that TNO skittering into the sun, out of the solar system or into another planet, something catches that TNO and confines it into a different resonance.

“The ultimate goal would be to directly see Planet Nine—to take a telescope, point it at the sky, and see reflected light from the sun bouncing off of Planet Nine,” Becker said. “Since we haven’t yet been able to find it, despite many people looking, we’re stuck with these kinds of indirect methods.”

Astronomers also have another newly discovered TNO to include in their indirect methods of detecting Planet Nine. The Dark Energy Survey collaboration, a large group of scientists including several U-M scientists, has discovered another TNO that has a high orbital inclination compared to the plane of the solar system: it is tilted about 54 degrees relative to the solar system’s plane.

In an analysis of this new object, Becker and her team have found that this object experiences resonance hopping as well in the presence of Planet Nine, showing that this phenomenon extends to even more unusual orbits.

This work was supported by National Science Foundation. Becker and Hamilton are also supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Grant.

Planetary Formation Studied

Very interesting take on how dust can turn into a planet from the University of Exeter.

The University press release:

A new study by an international team of scientists, led by Stefan Kraus from the University of Exeter, has given a fascinating new insight into one of the most respected theories of how planets are formed.

Young stars start out with a massive disk of gas and dust that over time, astronomers think, either diffuses away or coalesces into planets and asteroids.

However, scientists are still searching for a complete understanding of how these early formations come together to form asteroid-sized objects. One reason has been that drag in the disk produced by surrounding gas makes the grains move inward toward the star – which can in turn deplete the disk rapidly in a process known as “radial drift.”
In the new research, the team use high powered telescopes to target the star V1247 Orionis -, a young, hot star surrounded by a dynamic ring of gas and dust.

The team produced a detailed image of the star and its surrounding dust disc, shown in two parts: a clearly defined central ring of matter and a more delicate crescent structure located further out.
The region between the ring and crescent, visible as a dark strip, is thought to be caused by a young planet carving its way through the disc. As the planet moves around in its orbit, its motion creates areas of high pressure on either side of its path, similar to how a ship creates bow waves as it cuts through water.

These areas of high pressure could become protective barriers around sites of planet formation; dust particles are trapped within them for millions of years, allowing them the time and space to clump together and grow.
Professor Kraus said: “The exquisite resolution of ALMA allowed us to study the intricate structure of such a dust-trapping vortex for the first time. The crescent in the image constitutes a dust trap that formed at the outer edge of the dark strip.

“It also reveals regions of excess dust within the ring, possibly indicating a second dust trap that formed inside of the putative planet’s orbit. This confirms earlier computer simulations that predicted that dust traps should form both at the outer edge and inner edge of disc gaps.

“Dust trapping is one potential solution to a major stumbling block in our theories of how planets form, which predicts that particles should drift into the central star and be destroyed before they have time to grow to planetesimal sizes.”

Dust-trapping vortices and a potentially planet-triggered spiral wake in the pre-transitional disk of V1247 Orionis is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Credit: University of Exeter