Category Archives: Research

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: “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


COBALT (CoOperative Blending of Autonomous Landing Technologies) strives to provide the higest quality precision navigation solution ever tested for NASA space landing applications.

The technologies included a navigation doppler lidar (NDL), which provides ultra-precise velocity and line-of-sight range measurements, and the Lander Vision System (LVS), which provides terrain-relative navigation.

NASA’S Armstrong Flight Research Center – Through flight campaigns conducted in March and April aboard Masten Space Systems’ Xodiac, a rocket-powered vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) platform, the COBALT system was flight tested to collect sensor performance data for NDL and LVS and to check the integration and communication between COBALT and the rocket. The flight tests provided excellent performance data for both sensors, as well as valuable information on the integrated performance with the rocket that will be used for subsequent COBALT modifications prior to follow-on flight tests.

Star Orbiting a Black Hole

Not just orbiting, but very closely orbiting, only about 2.5 Earth-Moon distances or about 961,000 km / 598,000 miles according to astronomical research coming out of Michigan State University.


The MSU press release:

Astronomers have found evidence for a star that whips around a black hole about twice an hour. This may be the tightest orbital dance ever witnessed for a black hole and a companion star.

Michigan State University scientists were part of the team that made this discovery, which used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory as well as NASA’s NuSTAR and the Australia Telescope Compact Array.

The close-in stellar couple – known as a binary – is located in the globular cluster 47 Tucanae, a dense cluster of stars in our galaxy about 14,800 light years away from Earth.

While astronomers have observed this binary for many years, it wasn’t until 2015 that radio observations revealed the pair likely contains a black hole pulling material from a companion star called a white dwarf, a low-mass star that has exhausted most or all of its nuclear fuel.

New Chandra data of this system, known as X9, show that it changes in X-ray brightness in the same manner every 28 minutes, which is likely the length of time it takes the companion star to make one complete orbit around the black hole. Chandra data also shows evidence for large amounts of oxygen in the system a characteristic of white dwarfs. A strong case can, therefore, be made that that the companion star is a white dwarf, which would then be orbiting the black hole at only about 2.5 times the separation between the Earth and the moon.

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Join The Search

If you have not participated in Zooniverse before, give it a try. I do a couple of the projects and will be doing this one too.

Backyard Worlds: Planet 9

Here is a description from Zooniverse I got in an email:
In this project you’ll be searching through images from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, hunting for objects such as brown dwarfs and low-mass stars in our Solar System’s neighbourhood. You may find an object closer than Proxima Centauri (the closest star to the Sun) or even discover the Sun’s hypothesized ninth planet, which models suggest might appear in these images!

Global Warming


If you thought the outer atmospheres of the giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are cold think again. You are not unfounded, models suggest a temperature of -73 C would exist, but Voyager found temperatures of + 700 C (1000 K)!

We now know the atmosphere of Uranus has changed from 750 K to 550 K in 20 years and since the year 2013 the temperature as rebounded by 50 kelvin per year.

Recent studies may have found an answer. Could it be storms?

The image is from the Voyager 2 spacecraft snapped these (left) true-color and (right) false-color images of Uranus in 1986. Credit: NASA/JPL

ALMA Sees Einstein Ring



About the image:
ALMA/Hubble composite image of the gravitationally lensed galaxy SDP.81. The bright orange central region of the ring (ALMA’s highest resolution observation ever) reveals the glowing dust in this distant galaxy. The surrounding lower-resolution portions of the ring trace the millimeter wavelength light emitted by carbon monoxide. The diffuse blue element at the center of the ring is from the intervening lensing galaxy, as seen with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); B. Saxton NRAO/AUI/NSF; NASA/ESA Hubble, T. Hunter (NRAO)

From the NRAO press release:

Astronomers have discovered that a distant galaxy — seen from Earth with the aid of a gravitational lens — appears like a cosmic ring, thanks to the highest resolution images ever taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Forged by the chance alignment of two distant galaxies, this striking ring-like structure is a rare and peculiar manifestation of gravitational lensing as predicted by Albert Einstein in his theory of general relativity.

Gravitational lensing occurs when a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies bends the light emitted from a more distant galaxy, forming a highly magnified, though much distorted image. In this particular case, the galaxy known as SDP.81 (its formal name is HATLAS J090311.6+003906) and an intervening galaxy line up so perfectly that the light from the more distant one forms a nearly complete circle as seen from Earth.

Discovered by the Herschel Space Observatory, SDP.81 is an active star-forming galaxy nearly 12 billion light-years away, seen at a time when the Universe was only 15 percent of its current age. It is being lensed by a massive foreground galaxy that is a comparatively nearby 4 billion light-years away.

“Gravitational lensing is used in astronomy to study the very distant, very early Universe because it gives even our best telescopes an impressive boost in power,” said ALMA Deputy Program Scientist Catherine Vlahakis. “With the astounding level of detail in these new ALMA images, astronomers will now be able to reassemble the information contained in the distorted image we see as a ring and produce a reconstruction of the true image of the distant galaxy.”

Read the rest and see more images at the NRAO site.