Category Archives: Chandra

Chandra Looks at M 87 Black Hole

Here’s more on the supermassive black hole at the center of M-87 after that excellent announcement earlier this week. Thanks to NASA / Elizabeth Landau.

Image: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen

NASA: A black hole and its shadow have been captured in an image for the first time, a historic feat by an international network of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). EHT is an international collaboration whose support in the U.S. includes the National Science Foundation.

A black hole is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape. Anything that comes within a black hole’s “event horizon,” its point of no return, will be consumed, never to re-emerge, because of the black hole’s unimaginably strong gravity. By its very nature, a black hole cannot be seen, but the hot disk of material that encircles it shines bright. Against a bright backdrop, such as this disk, a black hole appears to cast a shadow.   

The stunning new image shows the shadow of the supermassive black hole in the center of Messier 87 (M87), an elliptical galaxy some 55 million light-years from Earth. This black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun. Catching its shadow involved eight ground-based radio telescopes around the globe, operating together as if they were one telescope the size of our entire planet. 

“This is an amazing accomplishment by the EHT team,” said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Years ago, we thought we would have to build a very large space telescope to image a black hole. By getting radio telescopes around the world to work in concert like one instrument, the EHT team achieved this, decades ahead of time.”

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The Tea Cup

The Galaxy Zoo project is really great, check it out and you can participate.

Chandra: Fancy a cup of cosmic tea? This one isn’t as calming as the ones on Earth. In a galaxy hosting a structure nicknamed the “Teacup,” a galactic storm is raging.

The source of the cosmic squall is a supermassive black hole buried at the center of the galaxy, officially known as SDSS 1430+1339. As matter in the central regions of the galaxy is pulled toward the black hole, it is energized by the strong gravity and magnetic fields near the black hole. The infalling material produces more radiation than all the stars in the host galaxy. This kind of actively growing black hole is known as a quasar.

Located about 1.1 billion light years from Earth, the Teacup’s host galaxy was originally discovered in visible light images by citizen scientists in 2007 as part of the Galaxy Zoo project, using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Since then, professional astronomers using space-based telescopes have gathered clues about the history of this galaxy with an eye toward forecasting how stormy it will be in the future. This new composite image contains X-ray data from Chandra (blue) along with an optical view from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (red and green).

The “handle” of the Teacup is a ring of optical and X-ray light surrounding a giant bubble. This handle-shaped feature, which is located about 30,000 light-years from the supermassive black hole, was likely formed by one or more eruptions powered by the black hole. Radio emission — shown in a separate composite image with the optical data — also outlines this bubble, and a bubble about the same size on the other side of the black hole.

Previously, optical telescope observations showed that atoms in the handle of the Teacup were ionized, that is, these particles became charged when some of their electrons were stripped off, presumably by the quasar’s strong radiation in the past. The amount of radiation required to ionize the atoms was compared with that inferred from optical observations of the quasar. This comparison suggested that the quasar’s radiation production had diminished by a factor of somewhere between 50 and 600 over the last 40,000 to 100,000 years. This inferred sharp decline led researchers to conclude that the quasar in the Teacup was fading or dying.

New data from Chandra and ESA’s XMM-Newton mission are giving astronomers an improved understanding of the history of this galactic storm. The X-ray spectra (that is, the amount of X-rays over a range of energies) show that the quasar is heavily obscured by gas. This implies that the quasar is producing much more ionizing radiation than indicated by the estimates based on the optical data alone, and that rumors of the quasar’s death may have been exaggerated. Instead the quasar has dimmed by only a factor of 25 or less over the past 100,000 years.

The Chandra data also show evidence for hotter gas within the bubble, which may imply that a wind of material is blowing away from the black hole. Such a wind, which was driven by radiation from the quasar, may have created the bubbles found in the Teacup.

Astronomers have previously observed bubbles of various sizes in elliptical galaxies, galaxy groups and galaxy clusters that were generated by narrow jets containing particles traveling near the speed of light, that shoot away from the supermassive black holes. The energy of the jets dominates the power output of these black holes, rather than radiation.

In these jet-driven systems, astronomers have found that the power required to generate the bubbles is proportional to their X-ray brightness. Surprisingly, the radiation-driven Teacup quasar follows this pattern. This suggests radiation-dominated quasar systems and their jet-dominated cousins can have similar effects on their galactic surroundings.

A study describing these results was published in the March 20, 2018 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online. The authors are George Lansbury from the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK; Miranda E. Jarvis from the Max-Planck Institut für Astrophysik in Garching, Germany; Chris M. Harrison from the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany; David M. Alexander from Durham University in Durham, UK; Agnese Del Moro from the Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik in Garching, Germany; Alastair Edge from Durham University in Durham, UK; James R. Mullaney from The University of Sheffield in Sheffield, UK and Alasdair Thomson from the University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.

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: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Cambridge/G. Lansbury et al; Optical: NASA/STScI/W. Keel et al.

Festive Chandra

One thing I enjoy about this time of year is it is colorful, this contribution comes from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Click the image above from Chandra/NASA for the larger version.

I could do without the -20 deg C temps and much lower though.

CHANDRA: This is the season of celebrating, and the Chandra X-ray Center has prepared a platter of cosmic treats from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This selection represents different types of objects — from relatively nearby exploded stars to extremely distant and massive clusters of galaxies — that emit X-rays detected by Chandra. Each image in this collection blends data from Chandra with observations from other telescopes, creating a colorful medley of light from our universe.

Top row (left to right):

E0102-72.3: This supernova remnant was produced by a massive star that exploded in a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud. X-rays from Chandra (blue and purple) have helped astronomers confirm that most of the oxygen in the universe is synthesized in massive stars.  The amount of oxygen in the E0102-72.3 ring shown here is enough for thousands of solar systems. This image also contains optical data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope in Chile (red and green).

Abell 370: Located about 4 billion light-years from Earth, Abell 370 is a galaxy cluster containing several hundred galaxies. Galaxy clusters are the largest objects in the universe held together by gravity.  In addition to individual galaxies, clusters contain vast amounts of multimillion-degree gas that emits X-rays, and dark matter that supplies most of the gravity of the cluster, yet does not produce any light. Chandra reveals the hot gas (diffuse blue regions) in a combined image with optical data from Hubble (red, green, and blue).

Messier 8: Also known as NGC 6523 or the Lagoon Nebula, Messier 8 is a giant cloud of gas and dust where stars are currently forming. At a distance of about 4,000 light years from Earth, Messier 8 provides astronomers an excellent opportunity to study the properties of very young stars. Many infant stars give off copious amounts of high-energy light including X-rays, which are seen in the Chandra data (pink). The X-ray data have been combined with an optical image of Messier 8 from the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center in Arizona (pale blue and white).

Bottom row (left to right):

Orion Nebula: Look just below the middle of the three stars of “belt” in the constellation Orion to find the Orion Nebula – to your unaided eyes, it appears as a small fuzzy dot. With a powerful telescope like Chandra, however, the view is much different. In this image, X-rays from Chandra (blue) reveal individual young stars, which are hot and energetic. When combined with radio emission from the NSF’s Very Large Array (purple), a vista of this stellar nursery is revealed.

Messier 33: The Triangulum Galaxy, a.k.a., Messier 33, is a spiral galaxy about 3 million light-years from Earth. It belongs to the Local Group of galaxies that includes the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. Chandra’s X-ray data (pink) reveal neutron stars and black holes that are pulling material from a companion star, while an optical image from the Subaru telescope in Hawaii (red, green, and blue) shows the majestic arms of this spiral galaxy that in many ways is a cousin to our own Milky Way.

Abell 2744: This composite image contains the aftermath of a giant collision involving four separate galaxy clusters at a distance of about 3.5 billion light-years. Officially known as Abell 2744, this system is also called “Pandora’s Cluster” because of the different structures found within it. This view of Abell 2744 contains X-ray data from Chandra (blue) showing hot gas, optical data from Subaru and the VLT (red, green and blue), and radio data from the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (red). Most of the cluster’s mass is invisible dark matter.

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.


Chandra’s Look at Kes 75

NASA: Scientists have confirmed the identity of the youngest known pulsar in the Milky Way galaxy using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This result could provide astronomers new information about how some stars end their lives.

After some massive stars run out of nuclear fuel, then collapse and explode as supernovas, they leave behind dense stellar nuggets called “neutron stars”. Rapidly rotating and highly magnetized neutron stars produce a lighthouse-like beam of radiation that astronomers detect as pulses as the pulsar’s rotation sweeps the beam across the sky.

Since Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Anthony Hewish, and their colleagues first discovered pulsars through their radio emission in the 1960s, over 2,000 of these exotic objects have been identified. However, many mysteries about pulsars remain, including their diverse range of behaviors and the nature of stars that form them.

New data from Chandra are helping address some of those questions. A team of astronomers has confirmed that the supernova remnant Kes 75, located about 19,000 light years from Earth, contains the youngest known pulsar in the Milky Way galaxy.

The rapid rotation and strong magnetic field of the pulsar have generated a wind of energetic matter and antimatter particles that flow away from the pulsar at near the speed of light . This pulsar wind has created a large, magnetized bubble of high-energy particles called a pulsar wind nebula, seen as the blue region surrounding the pulsar.

In this composite image of Kes 75, high-energy X-rays observed by Chandra are colored blue and highlight the pulsar wind nebula surrounding the pulsar, while lower-energy X-rays appear purple and show the debris from the explosion. A Sloan Digital Sky Survey optical image reveals stars in the field.

The Chandra data taken in 2000, 2006, 2009, and 2016 show changes in the pulsar wind nebula with time. Between 2000 and 2016, the Chandra observations reveal that the outer edge of the pulsar wind nebula is expanding at a remarkable 1 million meters per second, or over 2 million miles per hour.

This high speed may be due to the pulsar wind nebula expanding into a relatively low-density environment. Specifically, astronomers suggest it is expanding into a gaseous bubble blown by radioactive nickel formed in the explosion and ejected as the star exploded. This nickel also powered the supernova light, as it decayed into diffuse iron gas that filled the bubble. If so, this gives astronomers insight into the very heart of the exploding star and the elements it created.

The expansion rate also tells astronomers that Kes 75 exploded about five centuries ago as seen from Earth. (The object is some 19,000 light years away, but astronomers refer to when its light would have arrived at Earth.) Unlike other supernova remnants from this era such as Tycho and Kepler, there is no known evidence from historical records that the explosion that created Kes 75 was observed.

Why wasn’t Kes 75 seen from Earth? The Chandra observations along with previous ones from other telescopes indicate that the interstellar dust and gas that fill our Galaxy are very dense in the direction of the doomed star. This would have rendered it too dim to be seen from Earth several centuries ago.

The brightness of the pulsar wind nebula has decreased by 10% from 2000 to 2016, mainly concentrated in the northern area, with a 30% decrease in a bright knot. The rapid changes observed in the Kes 75 pulsar wind nebula, as well as its unusual structure, point to the need for more sophisticated models of the evolution of pulsar wind nebulas.

A paper describing these results appeared in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. The authors are Stephen Reynolds, Kazimierz Borokowski, and Peter Gwynne from North Carolina State University. 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/NCSU/S. Reynolds; Optical: PanSTARRS

Second Space Telescope in Safe-Mode

Another space telescope went into safe-mode due to a gyroscope issue. In this case the Chandra X-ray Observatory went into safe-mode on 10 October, 5-days after Hubble.

Unlike Hubble this particular problem as been resolved and the telescope was put back into normal operation.

Image: Chandra / NASA


The NASA press release included the process on going into safe-mode in this particular case.

From NASA:   The cause of Chandra’s safe mode on October 10 has now been understood and the Operations team has successfully returned the spacecraft to its normal pointing mode. The safe mode was caused by a glitch in one of Chandra’s gyroscopes resulting in a 3-second period of bad data that in turn led the on-board computer to calculate an incorrect value for the spacecraft momentum. The erroneous momentum indication then triggered the safe mode.

The team has completed plans to switch gyroscopes and place the gyroscope that experienced the glitch in reserve. Once configured with a series of pre-tested flight software patches, the team will return Chandra to science operations which are expected to commence by the end of this week.
At approximately 9:55 a.m. EDT on Oct. 10, 2018, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory entered safe mode, in which the observatory is put into a safe configuration, critical hardware is swapped to back-up units, the spacecraft points so that the solar panels get maximum sunlight, and the mirrors point away from the Sun. Analysis of available data indicates the transition to safe mode was normal behavior for such an event. All systems functioned as expected and the scientific instruments are safe. The cause of the safe mode transition (possibly involving a gyroscope) is under investigation, and we will post more information when it becomes available.

Chandra is 19 years old, which is well beyond the original design lifetime of 5 years. In 2001, NASA extended its lifetime to 10 years. It is now well into its extended mission and is expected to continue carrying out forefront science for many years to come.

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