October 20, 2017

Search for Habitable Worlds

Search for Habitable Worlds

New NASA research is helping to refine our understanding of candidate planets beyond our Solar System that might support life.

“Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study,” said Yuka Fujii of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), New York, New York and the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan.

Previous models simulated atmospheric conditions along one dimension, the vertical. Like some other recent habitability studies, the new research used a model that calculates conditions in all three dimensions, allowing the team to simulate the circulation of the atmosphere and the special features of that circulation, which one-dimensional models cannot do. The new work will help astronomers allocate scarce observing time to the most promising candidates for habitability.

Liquid water is necessary for life as we know it, so the surface of an alien world (e.g. an exoplanet) is considered potentially habitable if its temperature allows liquid water to be present for sufficient time (billions of years) to allow life to thrive. If the exoplanet is too far from its parent star, it will be too cold, and its oceans will freeze. If the exoplanet is too close, light from the star will be too intense, and its oceans will eventually evaporate and be lost to space. This happens when water vapor rises to a layer in the upper atmosphere called the stratosphere and gets broken into its elemental components (hydrogen and oxygen) by ultraviolet light from the star. The extremely light hydrogen atoms can then escape to space. Planets in the process of losing their oceans this way are said to have entered a “moist greenhouse” state because of their humid stratospheres.

In order for water vapor to rise to the stratosphere, previous models predicted that long-term surface temperatures had to be greater than anything experienced on Earth – over 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Celsius). These temperatures would power intense convective storms; however, it turns out that these storms aren’t the reason water reaches the stratosphere for slowly rotating planets entering a moist greenhouse state.

“We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state,” said Fujii. For exoplanets orbiting close to their parent stars, a star’s gravity will be strong enough to slow a planet’s rotation. This may cause it to become tidally locked, with one side always facing the star – giving it eternal day – and one side always facing away –giving it eternal night.

When this happens, thick clouds form on the dayside of the planet and act like a sun umbrella to shield the surface from much of the starlight. While this could keep the planet cool and prevent water vapor from rising, the team found that the amount of near-Infrared radiation (NIR) from a star could provide the heat needed to cause a planet to enter the moist greenhouse state. NIR is a type of light invisible to the human eye. Water as vapor in air and water droplets or ice crystals in clouds strongly absorbs NIR light, warming the air. As the air warms, it rises, carrying the water up into the stratosphere where it creates the moist greenhouse.

This process is especially relevant for planets around low-mass stars that are cooler and much dimmer than the Sun. To be habitable, planets must be much closer to these stars than our Earth is to the Sun. At such close range, these planets likely experience strong tides from their star, making them rotate slowly. Also, the cooler a star is, the more NIR it emits. The new model demonstrated that since these stars emit the bulk of their light at NIR wavelengths, a moist greenhouse state will result even in conditions comparable to or somewhat warmer than Earth's tropics. For exoplanets closer to their stars, the team found that the NIR-driven process increased moisture in the stratosphere gradually. So, it’s possible, contrary to old model predictions, that an exoplanet closer to its parent star could remain habitable.

This is an important observation for astronomers searching for habitable worlds, since low-mass stars are the most common in the galaxy. Their sheer numbers increase the odds that a habitable world may be found among them, and their small size increases the chance to detect planetary signals.

The new work will help astronomers screen the most promising candidates in the search for planets that could support life. “As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state,” said Anthony Del Genio of GISS. “Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state.”

In this study, researchers assumed a planet with an atmosphere like Earth, but entirely covered by oceans. These assumptions allowed the team to clearly see how changing the orbital distance and type of stellar radiation affected the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere. In the future, the team plans to vary planetary characteristics such as gravity, size, atmospheric composition, and surface pressure to see how they affect water vapor circulation and habitability.

Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/nasa-improves-search-for-habitable-worlds

Elliptical Galaxy NGC 4993

Elliptical Galaxy NGC 4993

The elliptical galaxy NGC 4993 is located about 130 million light-years from Earth. On 17 August 2017 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo Interferometer both detected gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars within this galaxy. The event also resulted in a flare of light, called a kilonova, which is visible to the upper left of the galactic centre in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Image Credit: NASA and ESA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic1717c/

Fomalhaut Debris Disk

Fomalhaut Debris Disk

Fomalhaut is one of the brightest stars in the sky. At roughly 25 light-years away the star lies especially close to us, and can be seen shining brightly in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus (The Southern Fish). This image from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) shows Fomalhaut (centre) encircled by a ring of dusty debris — this is the first time this scene has been captured at such high resolution and sensitivity at millimetre wavelengths.

Fomalhaut’s disc comprises a mix of cosmic dust and gas from comets in the Fomalhaut system (exocomets), released as the exocomets graze past and smash into one another. This turbulent environment resembles an early period in our own Solar System known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, which occurred approximately four billions years ago. This era saw huge numbers of rocky objects hurtle into the inner Solar System and collide with the young terrestrial planets, including Earth, where they formed a myriad of impact craters — many of which remain visible today on the surfaces of planets such as Mercury and Mars.

Fomalhaut is known to be surrounded by several discs of debris — the one visible in this ALMA image is the outermost one. The ring is approximately 20 billion kilometers from the central star and about 2 billion kilometers wide. Such a relative narrow, eccentric disc can only be produced by the gravitational influence of planets in the system, like Jupiter’s gravitational influence on our asteroid belt. In 2008 the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope discovered the famous exoplanet Fomalhaut b orbiting within this belt, but the planet is not visible in this ALMA image.

Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1721a/

October 19, 2017

An Atmosphere Around the Moon?

An Atmosphere Around the Moon?

Looking up at the Moon at night, Earth’s closest neighbor appears in shades of gray and white; a dry desert in the vacuum of space, inactive and dead for billions of years. Like many things, though, with the Moon, there is so much more than what meets the eye.

Research completed by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center planetary volcanologist Debra Needham in Huntsville, Alabama, and planetary scientist David Kring at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, suggests that billions of years ago, the Moon actually had an atmosphere. The ancient lunar atmosphere was thicker than the atmosphere of Mars today and was likely capable of weathering rocks and producing windstorms. Perhaps most importantly, it could be a source for some, if not all, of the water detected on the Moon.

“It just completely changes the way we think of the Moon,” said Needham, a scientist in Marshall’s Science and Technology Office. “It becomes a much more dynamic planetary body to explore.”

A time sequence of lunar mare -- lava plain -- flows in 0.5 billion year time increments, with red areas in each time step denoting the most recently erupted lavas. The timing of the eruptions, along with how much lava was erupted, helped scientists determine that the Moon once had an atmosphere and that the lunar atmosphere was thickest about 3.5 billion years ago.

Discovering the existence, thickness and composition of the atmosphere began with understanding how much lava erupted on the Moon 3.9 to one billion years ago, forming the lava plains we see as the dark areas on the surface of the Moon today. Needham and Kring then used lab analyses of lunar basalts -- iron and magnesium-rich volcanic rocks -- returned to Earth by the Apollo crews to estimate the amounts and composition of gases -- also called volatiles -- released during those volcanic eruptions.

The short-lived atmosphere -- estimated to have lasted approximately 70 million years -- was comprised primarily of carbon monoxide, sulfur and water. As volcanic activity declined, the release of the gases also declined. What atmosphere existed was either lost to space or became part of the surface of the Moon.

The researchers discovered that so much water was released during the eruptions -- potentially three times the amount of water in the Chesapeake Bay -- that if 0.1 percent of the erupted water migrated to the permanently shadowed regions on the Moon, it could account for all of the water detected there.

“We’re suggesting that internally-sourced volatiles might be at least contributing factors to these potential in-situ resource utilization deposits,” Needham said.

Water is one of the keys to living off of the land in space, also called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). Knowing where the water came from helps scientists and mission planners alike know if the resource is renewable. Ultimately, more research is needed to determine the exact sources.

The first indication of water on the Moon came in 1994 when NASA’s Clementine spacecraft detected potential signatures of water-ice in the lunar poles. In 1998, NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission detected enhanced hydrogen signatures but could not definitely associate them to water. Ten years later, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its partner spacecraft, the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), definitively confirmed the presence of water on the Moon. That same year, in 2008, volcanic glass beads brought back from the Moon by the Apollo 15 and 17 crews were discovered to contain volatiles, including water, leading to the research that indicates the Moon once had a significant atmosphere and was once much different than what we see today.

Casting one’s eyes at the Moon or viewing it through a telescope, the surface of the Moon today gives but a glimpse into its dynamic and complex history. Recent findings that propose Earth’s neighbor once had an atmosphere comparable to Mars’ continue to unravel the lunar past, while prompting scientists and explorers to ask more questions about Earth’s mysterious companion in the Solar System.

Image Credit: NASA/MSFC/Debra Needham; Lunar and Planetary Science Institute/David Kring
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/news/an-atmosphere-around-the-moon-nasa-research-suggests-significant-atmosphere-in-lunar-past.html

When Neutron Stars Collide

When Neutron Stars Collide

This illustration shows the hot, dense, expanding cloud of debris stripped from two neutron stars just before they collided. Within this neutron-rich debris, large quantities of some of the universe's heaviest elements were forged, including hundreds of Earth masses of gold and platinum.

This represents the first time scientists detected light tied to a gravitational-wave event, thanks to two merging neutron stars in the galaxy NGC 4993, located about 130 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra.

Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/when-neutron-stars-collide

Colliding Galaxies Arp 243

Colliding Galaxies Arp 243

This image, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows what happens when two galaxies become one. The twisted cosmic knot seen here is NGC 2623 — or Arp 243 — and is located about 250 million light-years away in the constellation of Cancer (The Crab).

NGC 2623 gained its unusual and distinctive shape as the result of a major collision and subsequent merger between two separate galaxies. This violent encounter caused clouds of gas within the two galaxies to become compressed and stirred up, in turn triggering a sharp spike of star formation. This active star formation is marked by speckled patches of bright blue; these can be seen clustered both in the centre and along the trails of dust and gas forming NGC 2623’s sweeping curves (known as tidal tails). These tails extend for roughly 50 000 light-years from end to end. Many young, hot, newborn stars form in bright stellar clusters — at least 170 such clusters are known to exist within NGC 2623.

NGC 2623 is in a late stage of merging. It is thought that the Milky Way will eventually resemble NGC 2623 when it collides with our neighbouring galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, in four billion years time.

In contrast to the image of NGC 2623 released in 2009, this new version contains data from recent narrow-band and infrared observations that make more features of the galaxy visible.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1742a/

October 18, 2017

Hubble observes source of gravitational waves for the first time

Hubble observes source of gravitational waves for the first time

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has observed for the first time the source of a gravitational wave, created by the merger of two neutron stars. This merger created a kilonova — an object predicted by theory decades ago — that ejects heavy elements such as gold and platinum into space. This event also provides the strongest evidence yet that short duration gamma-ray bursts are caused by mergers of neutron stars. This discovery is the first glimpse of multi-messenger astronomy, bringing together both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation.

On 17 August 2017 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo Interferometer both alerted astronomical observers all over the globe about the detection of a gravitational wave event named GW170817. About two seconds after the detection of the gravitational wave, ESA’s INTEGRAL telescope and NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope observed a short gamma-ray burst in the same direction.

In the night following the initial discovery, a fleet of telescopes started their hunt to locate the source of the event. Astronomers found it in the lenticular galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years away. A point of light was shining where nothing was visible before and this set off one of the largest multi-telescope observing campaigns ever — among these telescopes was the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Several different teams of scientists used Hubble over the two weeks following the gravitational wave event alert to observe NGC 4993. Using Hubble’s high-resolution imaging capabilities they managed to get the first observational proof for a kilonova, the visible counterpart of the merging of two extremely dense objects — most likely two neutron stars. Such mergers were first suggested more than 30 years ago but this marks the first firm observation of such an event. The distance to the merger makes the source both the closest gravitational wave event detected so far and also one of the closest gamma-ray burst sources ever seen.

“Once I saw that there had been a trigger from LIGO and Virgo at the same time as a gamma-ray burst I was blown away,” recalls Andrew Levan of the University of Warwick, who led the Hubble team that obtained the first observations. “When I realised that it looked like neutron stars were involved, I was even more amazed. We’ve been waiting a long time for an opportunity like this!”

Hubble captured images of the galaxy in visible and infrared light, witnessing a new bright object within NGC 4993 that was brighter than a nova but fainter than a supernova. The images showed that the object faded noticeably over the six days of the Hubble observations. Using Hubble’s spectroscopic capabilities the teams also found indications of material being ejected by the kilonova as fast as one-fifth of the speed of light.

“It was surprising just how closely the behaviour of the kilonova matched the predictions,” said Nial Tanvir, professor at the University of Leicester and leader of another Hubble observing team. “It looked nothing like known supernovae, which this object could have been, and so confidence was soon very high that this was the real deal.”

Connecting kilonovae and short gamma-ray bursts to neutron star mergers has so far been difficult, but the multitude of detailed observations following the detection of the gravitational wave event GW170817 has now finally verified these connections.

“The spectrum of the kilonova looked exactly like how theoretical physicists had predicted the outcome of the merger of two neutron stars would appear,” says Levan. “It ties this object to the gravitational wave source beyond all reasonable doubt.”

The infrared spectra taken with Hubble also showed several broad bumps and wiggles that signal the formation of some of the heaviest elements in nature. These observations may help solve another long-standing question in astronomy: the origin of heavy chemical elements, like gold and platinum. In the merger of two neutron stars, the conditions appear just right for their production.

The implications of these observations are immense. As Tanvir explains: “This discovery has opened up a new approach to astronomical research, where we combine information from both electromagnetic light and from gravitational waves. We call this multi-messenger astronomy — but until now it has just been a dream!”

Levan concludes: “Now, astronomers won’t just look at the light from an object, as we’ve done for hundreds of years, but also listen to it. Gravitational waves provide us with complementary information from objects which are very hard to study using only electromagnetic waves. So pairing gravitational waves with electromagnetic radiation will help astronomers understand some of the most extreme events in the Universe.”

Image Credit: NASA and ESA. Acknowledgment: A.J. Levan (U. Warwick), N.R. Tanvir (U. Leicester), and A. Fruchter and O. Fox (STScI)
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1717/

Puerto Rico seen from the International Space Station

Puerto Rico seen from the International Space Station

NASA astronaut Joe Acaba photographed Puerto Rico from the cupola of the International Space Station on October 12, 2017.

Acaba, whose parents were both born in Puerto Rico, joined NASA as a member of the 2004 class of astronauts and is on his third mission to the space station as a Flight Engineer on the Expedition 53/54 crew.

Image Credit: NASA

Protoplanetary Disk V1247 Orionis

Protoplanetary Disk V1247 Orionis

This image from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) shows V1247 Orionis, a young, hot star surrounded by a dynamic ring of gas and dust, known as a circumstellar disc. This disc can be seen here 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 orbits around its parent star, 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.

The exquisite resolution of ALMA allows astronomers to study the intricate structure of such a dust trapping vortex for the first time. The image reveals not only the crescent-shaped dust trap at the outer edge of the dark strip, but also regions of excess dust within the ring, possibly indicating a second dust trap that formed inside of the potential planet’s orbit. This confirms the predictions of earlier computer simulations.

Dust trapping is one potential solution to a major stumbling block in current 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 (the radial drift problem).

Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Kraus (University of Exeter, UK)
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1742a/

October 17, 2017

ESO Telescopes Observe First Light from Gravitational Wave Source - Merging neutron stars scatter gold and platinum into space

ESO Telescopes Observe First Light from Gravitational Wave Source - Merging neutron stars scatter gold and platinum into space
This artist’s impression shows two tiny but very dense neutron stars at the point at which they merge and explode as a kilonova. Such a very rare event is expected to produce both gravitational waves and a short gamma-ray burst, both of which were observed on 17 August 2017 by LIGO–Virgo and Fermi/INTEGRAL respectively. Subsequent detailed observations with many ESO telescopes confirmed that this object, seen in the galaxy NGC 4993 about 130 million light-years from the Earth, is indeed a kilonova. Such objects are the main source of very heavy chemical elements, such as gold and platinum, in the Universe.

ESO’s fleet of telescopes in Chile have detected the first visible counterpart to a gravitational wave source. These historic observations suggest that this unique object is the result of the merger of two neutron stars. The cataclysmic aftermaths of this kind of merger — long-predicted events called kilonovae — disperse heavy elements such as gold and platinum throughout the Universe. This discovery also provides the strongest evidence yet that short-duration gamma-ray bursts are caused by mergers of neutron stars.

For the first time ever, astronomers have observed both gravitational waves and light (electromagnetic radiation) from the same event, thanks to a global collaborative effort and the quick reactions of both ESO’s facilities and others around the world.

On 17 August 2017 the NSF's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States, working with the Virgo Interferometer in Italy, detected gravitational waves passing the Earth. This event, the fifth ever detected, was named GW170817. About two seconds later, two space observatories, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and ESA’s INTErnational Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL), detected a short gamma-ray burst from the same area of the sky.

The LIGO–Virgo observatory network positioned the source within a large region of the southern sky, the size of several hundred full Moons and containing millions of stars. As night fell in Chile many telescopes peered at this patch of sky, searching for new sources. These included ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) and VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at the Paranal Observatory, the Italian Rapid Eye Mount (REM) telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, the LCO 0.4-meter telescope at Las Cumbres Observatory, and the American DECam at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. The Swope 1-metre telescope was the first to announce a new point of light. It appeared very close to NGC 4993, a lenticular galaxy in the constellation of Hydra, and VISTA observations pinpointed this source at infrared wavelengths almost at the same time. As night marched west across the globe, the Hawaiian island telescopes Pan-STARRS and Subaru also picked it up and watched it evolve rapidly.

“There are rare occasions when a scientist has the chance to witness a new era at its beginning,” said Elena Pian, astronomer with INAF, Italy. “This is one such time!”

ESO launched one of the biggest ever “target of opportunity” observing campaigns and many ESO and ESO-partnered telescopes observed the object over the weeks following the detection. ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), New Technology Telescope (NTT), VST, the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) all observed the event and its after-effects over a wide range of wavelengths. About 70 observatories around the world also observed the event, including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Distance estimates from both the gravitational wave data and other observations agree that GW170817 was at the same distance as NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years from Earth. This makes the source both the closest gravitational wave event detected so far and also one of the closest gamma-ray burst sources ever seen.

The ripples in spacetime known as gravitational waves are created by moving masses, but only the most intense, created by rapid changes in the speed of very massive objects, can currently be detected. One such event is the merging of neutron stars, the extremely dense, collapsed cores of high-mass stars left behind after supernovae. These mergers have so far been the leading hypothesis to explain short gamma-ray bursts. An explosive event 1000 times brighter than a typical nova — known as a kilonova — is expected to follow this type of event.

The almost simultaneous detections of both gravitational waves and gamma rays from GW170817 raised hopes that this object was indeed a long-sought kilonova and observations with ESO facilities have revealed properties remarkably close to theoretical predictions. Kilonovae were suggested more than 30 years ago but this marks the first confirmed observation.

Following the merger of the two neutron stars, a burst of rapidly expanding radioactive heavy chemical elements left the kilonova, moving as fast as one-fifth of the speed of light. The colour of the kilonova shifted from very blue to very red over the next few days, a faster change than that seen in any other observed stellar explosion.

“When the spectrum appeared on our screens I realised that this was the most unusual transient event I’d ever seen,” remarked Stephen Smartt, who led observations with ESO’s NTT as part of the extended Public ESO Spectroscopic Survey of Transient Objects (ePESSTO) observing programme. “I had never seen anything like it. Our data, along with data from other groups, proved to everyone that this was not a supernova or a foreground variable star, but was something quite remarkable.”

Spectra from ePESSTO and the VLT’s X-shooter instrument suggest the presence of caesium and tellurium ejected from the merging neutron stars. These and other heavy elements, produced during the neutron star merger, would be blown into space by the subsequent kilonova. These observations pin down the formation of elements heavier than iron through nuclear reactions within high-density stellar objects, known as r-process nucleosynthesis, something which was only theorised before.

“The data we have so far are an amazingly close match to theory. It is a triumph for the theorists, a confirmation that the LIGO–VIRGO events are absolutely real, and an achievement for ESO to have gathered such an astonishing data set on the kilonova,” adds Stefano Covino.

“ESO’s great strength is that it has a wide range of telescopes and instruments to tackle big and complex astronomical projects, and at short notice. We have entered a new era of multi-messenger astronomy!” concludes Andrew Levan.

Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1733/ and https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1733a/

VIMOS image of galaxy NGC 4993 showing the visible-light counterpart to a merging neutron star pair

VIMOS image of galaxy NGC 4993 showing the visible-light counterpart to a merging neutron star pair

This image from the VIMOS instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile shows the galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years from Earth. The galaxy is not itself unusual, but it contains something never before witnessed, the aftermath of the explosion of a pair of merging neutron stars, a rare event called a kilonova (seen just above and slightly to the left of the centre of the galaxy). This merger also produced gravitational waves and gamma rays, both of which were detected by LIGO-Virgo and Fermi/INTEGRAL respectively.

Image Credit: ESO/A.J. Levan, N.R. Tanvir
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1733b/

VLT/MUSE image of the galaxy NGC 4993 and associated kilonova

VLT/MUSE image of the galaxy NGC 4993 and associated kilonova

This image from the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile shows the galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years from Earth. The galaxy is not itself unusual, but it contains something never before witnessed, the aftermath of the explosion of a pair of merging neutron stars, a rare event called a kilonova (seen just above and slightly to the left of the centre of the galaxy). This merger also produced gravitational waves and gamma rays, both of which were detected by LIGO-Virgo and Fermi/INTEGRAL respectively. By also creating a spectrum for each part of the object MUSE allows the emission from glowing gas to be seen, which appears in red here and reveals a surprising spiral structure.

Image Credit: ESO/J.D. Lyman, A.J. Levan, N.R. Tanvir
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1733d/

GROND image of kilonova in NGC 4993

GROND image of kilonova in NGC 4993

Image obtained by ESO's Gamma-ray Burst Optical/Near-infrared Detector (GROND) attached to the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory.

Image Credit: ESO/S. Smartt & T.-W. Chen

VST image of kilonova in NGC 4993

VST image of kilonova in NGC 4993

This image from the VST telescope at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile shows the galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years from Earth. The galaxy is not itself unusual, but it contains something never before witnessed, the aftermath of the explosion of a pair of merging neutron stars, a rare event called a kilonova (seen just above and slightly to the left of the centre of the galaxy). This merger also produced gravitational waves and gamma rays, both of which were detected by LIGO-Virgo and Fermi/INTEGRAL respectively.

Image Credit: ESO/A. Grado
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1733m/

The sky around the galaxy NGC 4993

The sky around the galaxy NGC 4993

This wide-field image generated from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 shows the sky around the galaxy NGC 4993. This galaxy was the host to a merger between two neutron stars, which led to a gravitational wave detection, a short gamma-ray burst and an optical identification of a kilonova event.

Image Credit: ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1733i/

October 13, 2017

Smoke from California wildfires seen by Sentinel-3A satellite

Smoke over California seen by Sentinel-3A satellite

The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite captured this image of smoke from wildfires in the US state of California on 9 October 2017.

Wildfires broke out in parts of the state on 8 October 2017 around Napa Valley, and the smoke was spread by strong northeasterly winds.

Image Credit: ESA

Supernova Remnant G292.0+1.8

Supernova Remnant G292.0+1.8

At a distance of about 20,000 light years, G292.0+1.8 is one of only three supernova remnants in the Milky Way known to contain large amounts of oxygen. These oxygen-rich supernovas are of great interest to astronomers because they are one of the primary sources of the heavy elements (that is, everything other than hydrogen and helium) necessary to form planets and people. The X-ray image from Chandra shows a rapidly expanding, intricately structured, debris field that contains, along with oxygen (yellow and orange), other elements such as magnesium (green) and silicon and sulfur (blue) that were forged in the star before it exploded.

Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/chandra/multimedia/chandra-15th-anniversary-g292.html

Dual Supermassive Black Holes

Dual Supermassive Black Holes
This illustration depicts two centrally located supermassive black holes surrounded by disks of hot gas. The black holes orbit each other for hundreds of millions of years before they merge to form a single supermassive black hole that sends out intense gravitational waves.

  • Five new pairs of merging supermassive black holes have been discovered by combining data from different telescopes.
  • Models predict such growing dual supermassive black holes, but relatively few have been found.
  • Researchers used Chandra observations to follow up on promising candidate mergers identified in optical and infrared studies.
  • X-ray and infrared radiation is able to penetrate obscuring clouds of gas and dust that keep these black hole pairs otherwise hidden.

This graphic shows two of five new pairs of supermassive black holes recently identified by astronomers using a combination of data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) Mapping Nearby Galaxies at APO (MaNGA) survey. This discovery could help astronomers better understand how giant black holes grow and how they may produce the strongest gravitational wave signals in the Universe.

Each pair contains two supermassive black holes weighing millions of times the mass of the Sun. These black hole couples formed when two galaxies collided and merged with each other, forcing their supermassive black holes close together. While theoretical models have predicted such giant growing black hole pairings should be relatively abundant, they have been difficult to find.

To uncover these latest supermassive black hole pairs, astronomers used optical data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) — shown in the main panel of each image — to identify galaxies where it appeared that a merger between two smaller galaxies was underway. Next, they selected objects where the separation between the centers of the two galaxies in the SDSS data is less than 30,000 light years, and the infrared colors from WISE data match those predicted for a rapidly growing supermassive black hole.

Seven merging systems containing at least one supermassive black hole were found with this technique. Because strong X-ray emission is a hallmark of growing supermassive black holes, the team then observed these systems with Chandra. They found that five systems contained pairs of X-ray sources that were separated by a relatively small distance (see inset for two examples), providing compelling evidence that they contain two growing, or feeding, supermassive black holes.

Both the X-ray data from Chandra and the infrared WISE observations suggest that the supermassive black holes are buried in large amounts of dust and gas. Because these two wavelengths are able to penetrate the obscuring clouds, this makes the combination of infrared selection with X-ray follow-up a very effective way to find these black hole pairs. Chandra's sharp vision is also critical as it is able to resolve each of the X-ray sources in the pairs.

Image Credit: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart
Explanation from: http://chandra.harvard.edu/photo/2017/doubleagn/

October 9, 2017

Emission Nebula NGC 6357

Emission Nebula NGC 6357

This image, captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal, shows a small part of the well-known emission nebula, NGC 6357, located some 8000 light-years away, in the tail of the southern constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion). The image glows with the characteristic red of an H II region, and contains a large amount of ionised and excited hydrogen gas.

The cloud is bathed in intense ultraviolet radiation — mainly from the open star cluster Pismis 24, home to some massive, young, blue stars — which it re-emits as visible light, in this distinctive red hue.

The cluster itself is out of the field of view of this picture, its diffuse light seen illuminating the cloud on the centre-right of the image. We are looking at a close-up of the surrounding nebula, showing a mesh of gas, dark dust, and newly born and still forming stars.

Image Credit: ESO
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1334a/

Dwarf Galaxy ESO 553-46

Dwarf Galaxy ESO 553-46

As far as galaxies are concerned, size can be deceptive. Some of the largest galaxies in the Universe are dormant, while some dwarf galaxies, such as ESO 553-46 imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, can produce stars at a hair-raising rate. In fact, ESO 553-46 has one of the highest rates of star formation of the 1000 or so galaxies nearest to the Milky Way. No mean feat for such a diminutive galaxy!

Clusters of young, hot stars are speckling the galaxy, burning with a fierce blue glow. The intense radiation they produce also causes surrounding gas to light up, which is bright red in this image. The small mass and distinctive colouring of galaxies of this type prompted astronomers to classify them, appropriately, as blue compact dwarfs (BCD).

Lacking the clear core and structure that many larger galaxies — such as the Milky Way — have, BCDs such as ESO 553-46 are composed of many large clusters of stars bound together by gravity. Their chemical makeup is interesting to astronomers, since they contain relatively little dust and few elements heavier than helium, which are produced in stars and distributed via supernova explosions. Such conditions are strikingly similar to those that existed in the early Universe, when the first galaxies were beginning to form.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1741a/

Dusty Ring around Boyajians Star

Dusty Ring around Boyajians Star

This illustration depicts a hypothetical uneven ring of dust orbitingKIC 8462852, also known as Boyajians Star or Tabby's Star. Astronomers have found the dimming of the star over long periods appears to be weaker at longer infrared wavelengths of light and stronger at shorter ultraviolet wavelengths. Such reddening is characteristic of dust particles and inconsistent with more fanciful alien megastructure concepts, which would evenly dim all wavelengths of light.

By studying observations from NASAsSpitzer and Swift telescopes, as well as the Belgian AstroLAB IRIS observatory, the researchers have been able to better constrain the size of the dust particles. This places them within the range found in dust disks orbiting stars, and larger than the particles typically found in interstellar dust.

The system is portrayed with a couple of comets, consistent with previous studies that have found evidence for cometary activity within the system.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Explanation from: http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/images/6404-ssc2017-11a-Dusty-Ring-Around-Boyajians-Star

October 6, 2017

4LGSF on UT4 of the VLT at ESO's Paranal Observatory

4LGSF on UT4 of the VLT at ESO's Paranal Observatory

The 4 Laser Guide Star Facility (4LGSF), a new subsystem of the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF) on UT4 of the Very Large Telescope (VLT), at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile. The facility saw first light in April 2016 and is the most powerful laser guide star system in the world. The image was taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Juan Carlos Muñoz-Mateos.

Image Credit: Juan Carlos Muñoz-Mateos/ESO
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/ut4_4lasers-cc/

Large Magellanic Cloud Galaxy in the Infrared

Large Magellanic Cloud Galaxy in the Infrared

This vibrant image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy.

The infrared image, a mosaic of 300,000 individual tiles, offers astronomers a unique chance to study the lifecycle of stars and dust in a single galaxy. Nearly one million objects are revealed for the first time in this Spitzer view, which represents about a 1,000-fold improvement in sensitivity over previous space-based missions. Most of the new objects are dusty stars of various ages populating the Large Magellanic Cloud; the rest are thought to be background galaxies.

The blue color in the picture, seen most prominently in the central bar, represents starlight from older stars. The chaotic, bright regions outside this bar are filled with hot, massive stars buried in thick blankets of dust. The red color around these bright regions is from dust heated by stars, while the red dots scattered throughout the picture are either dusty, old stars or more distant galaxies. The greenish clouds contain cooler interstellar gas and molecular-sized dust grains illuminated by ambient starlight.

Astronomers say this image allows them to quantify the process by which space dust the same stuff that makes up planets and even people is recycled in a galaxy. The picture shows dust at its three main cosmic hangouts: around the young stars, where it is being consumed (red-tinted, bright clouds); scattered about in the space between stars (greenish clouds); and in expelled shells of material from old stars (randomly-spaced red dots).

The Large Magellanic Cloud, located 160,000 light-years from Earth, is one of a handful of dwarf galaxies that orbit our own Milky Way. It is approximately one-third as wide as the Milky Way, and, if it could be seen in its entirety, would cover the same amount of sky as a grid of about 480 full moons. About one-third of the entire galaxy can be seen in the Spitzer image.

This picture is a composite of infrared light captured by Spitzer. Light with wavelengths of 3.6 (blue) and 8 (green) microns was captured by the telescope's infrared array camera; 24-micron light (red) was detected by the multiband imaging photometer.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Meixner (STScI) & the SAGE Legacy Team
Explanation from: http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/images/1670-ssc2006-17b1-Large-Magellanic-Cloud-in-the-Infrared

Jupiter seen by NASA's Juno spacecraft

Jupiter seen by NASA's Juno spacecraft

This striking image of Jupiter was captured by NASA's Juno spacecraft as it performed its eighth flyby of the gas giant planet.

The image was taken on September 1, 2017 at 2:58 p.m. PDT (5:58 p.m. EDT). At the time the image was taken, the spacecraft was 4,707 miles (7,576 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet at a latitude of about -17.4 degrees.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt
Explanation from: https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA21966

October 5, 2017

Aurora over Canada seen from the International Space Station

Aurora over Canada seen from the International Space Station

The spectacular aurora borealis, or the “northern lights,” over Canada is sighted from the International Space Station near the highest point of its orbital path. The station’s main solar arrays are seen in the left foreground. This photograph was taken by a member of the Expedition 53 crew aboard the station on September 15, 2017.

Image Credit: NASA
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/northern-lights-over-canada-0

Comet C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS)

Comet C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS)

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows a fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, surrounding the comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2), the farthest active comet ever observed entering the solar system. Hubble snapped images of K2 when the frozen visitor was over 2.4 billion kilometres from the Sun, just beyond Saturn's orbit. Even at that remote distance, sunlight is warming the frigid comet, producing a 128,000-kilometre-wide coma that envelops a tiny, solid nucleus. K2 has been traveling for millions of years from its home in the Oort Cloud, a spherical region at the edge of our solar system. This frigid area contains hundreds of billions of comets, the icy leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. The image was taken in June 2017 by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/opo1740a/

Spiral Galaxy NGC 6753

Spiral Galaxy NGC 6753

Despite the advances made in past decades, the process of galaxy formation remains an open question in astronomy. Various theories have been suggested, but since galaxies come in all shapes and sizes — including elliptical, spiral, and irregular — no single theory has so far been able to satisfactorily explain the origins of all the galaxies we see throughout the Universe.

To determine which formation model is correct (if any), astronomers hunt for the telltale signs of various physical processes. One example of this is galactic coronas, which are huge, invisible regions of hot gas that surround a galaxy’s visible bulk, forming a spheroidal shape. They are so hot that they can be detected by their X-ray emission, far beyond the optical radius of the galaxy. Because they are so wispy, these coronas are extremely difficult to detect. In 2013, astronomers highlighted NGC 6753, imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, as one of only two known spiral galaxies that were both massive enough and close enough to permit detailed observations of their coronas. Of course, NGC 6753 is only close in astronomical terms — the galaxy is nearly 150 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 6753 is a whirl of colour in this image — the bursts of blue throughout the spiral arms are regions filled with young stars glowing brightly in ultraviolet light, while redder areas are filled with older stars emitting in the cooler near-infrared.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Judy Schmidt
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1738a/

October 2, 2017

Tungurahua Volcano Eruption

Tungurahua Volcano Eruption

Tungurahua, Ecuador

Image Credit: Sebastián Crespo

Spiral Galaxy NGC 1964

Spiral Galaxy NGC 1964

This spectacular spiral galaxy, known as NGC 1964, resides approximately 70 million light-years away in the constellation of Lepus (The Hare). NGC 1964 has a bright and dense core. This core sits within a mottled oval disc, which is itself encircled by distinct spiral arms speckled with bright starry regions. The brilliant centre of the galaxy caught the eye of the astronomer William Herschel on the night of 20 November 1784, leading to the galaxy’s discovery and subsequent documentation in the New General Catalogue.

In addition to containing stars, NGC 1964 lives in a star-sprinkled section of the sky. In this view from the Wide Field Imager (WFI) — an instrument mounted on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, Chile — the star HD 36785 can be seen to the galaxy’s immediate right. Above it reside two other prominent stars named HD 36784 and TYC 5928-368-1 — and the large bright star below NGC 1964 is known as BD-22 1147.

This view of NGC 1964 also contains an array of galaxies, visible in the background. The WFI is able to observe the light from these distant galaxies, and those up to 40 million times fainter than the human eye can see.

Image Credit: ESO/Jean-Christophe Lambry
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1739a/

Star-Forming Regions in the Large Magellanic Cloud Galaxy

Star-Forming Regions in the Large Magellanic Cloud Galaxy

At a distance of just 160 000 light-years, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is one of the Milky Way’s closest companions. It is also home to one of the largest and most intense regions of active star formation known to exist anywhere in our galactic neighbourhood — the Tarantula Nebula. This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows both the spindly, spidery filaments of gas that inspired the region’s name, and the intriguing structure of stacked “bubbles” that forms the so-called Honeycomb Nebula (to the lower left).

The Honeycomb Nebula was found serendipitously by astronomers using ESO’s New Technology Telescope to image the nearby SN1987A, the closest observed supernova to Earth for over 400 years. The nebula’s strange bubble-like shape has baffled astronomers since its discovery in the early 1990s. Various theories have been proposed to explain its unique structure, some more exotic than others.

In 2010, a group of astronomers studied the nebula and, using advanced data analysis and computer modelling, came to the conclusion that its unique appearance is likely due to the combined effect of two supernovae — a more recent explosion has pierced the expanding shell of material created by an older explosion. The nebula’s especially striking appearance is suspected to be due to a fortuitous viewing angle; the honeycomb effect of the circular shells may not be visible from another viewpoint.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Judy Schmidt
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1740a/

October 1, 2017

Tungurahua Volcano Eruption

Tungurahua Volcano Eruption

Tungurahua, Ecuador

Image Credit: Per-Andre Hoffmann

Spiral Galaxy NGC 4490

Spiral Galaxy NGC 4490

This oddly-shaped galactic spectacle is bursting with brand new stars. The pink fireworks in this image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope are regions of intense star formation, triggered by a cosmic-scale collision. The huge galaxy in this image, NGC 4490, has a smaller galaxy in its gravitational grip and is feeling the strain.

Compared to the other fundamental forces in the Universe, gravity is fairly weak. Despite this, gravity has an influence over huge distances and is the driving force behind the motions of the most massive objects in the cosmos. The scattered and warped appearance of the galaxy in this image, NGC 4490, is a prime example of the results of gravity’s unrelenting tug.

Over millions of years, the mutual gravitational attraction between NGC 4490 and its smaller neighbour, NGC 4485, has dragged the two galaxies closer. Eventually, they collided in a swirling crush of stars, gas, and dust. In this image, this most intense period is already over and the two galaxies have moved through each other, untangled themselves, and are speeding apart again. But gravity’s pull is relentless; the galaxies are likely to collide again within a few billion years.

Together NGC 4490 and NGC 4485 form the system Arp 269, which is featured in the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies. They are located 24 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs). The extreme tidal forces of their interaction have determined the shapes and properties of the two galaxies. Once a barred spiral galaxy, similar to the Milky Way, NGC 4490’s outlying regions have been stretched out, resulting in its nickname of the Cocoon Galaxy. Virtually no trace of its past spiral structure can be seen from our perspective, although its companion galaxy NGC 4485 — not pictured here — still clings on to its spiral arms.

This cosmic collision has created rippling patches of higher density gas and dust within both galaxies. The conditions there are ripe for star formation; the brilliant pink pockets of light seen here are dense clouds of ionised hydrogen, glowing as they are irradiated with ultraviolet light from nearby young, hot stars. This spectacular burst of new activity has led to NGC 4490’s classification as a starburst galaxy.

Star formation is also evident in the thin thread that connects the two galaxies: a bridge of stars created by the ancient crash, stretching over the 24 000 light-years that currently separate the fated pair. But where there is life, there is also death. Several supernovae have also been spotted in NGC 4490 over the past few decades, including SN 1982F and SN 2008ax.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1716/

Planetary Nebula NGC 7009

Planetary Nebula NGC 7009

The spectacular planetary nebula NGC 7009, or the Saturn Nebula, emerges from the darkness like a series of oddly-shaped bubbles, lit up in glorious pinks and blues. This colourful image was captured by the powerful MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), as part of a study which mapped the dust inside a planetary nebula for the first time. The map — which reveals a wealth of intricate structures in the dust, including shells, a halo and a curious wave-like feature — will help astronomers understand how planetary nebulae develop their strange shapes and symmetries.

The Saturn Nebula is located approximately 5000 light years away in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Bearer). Its name derives from its odd shape, which resembles everyone’s favourite ringed planet seen edge-on.

But in fact, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The Saturn Nebula was originally a low-mass star, which expanded into a red giant at the end of its life and began to shed its outer layers. This material was blown out by strong stellar winds and energised by ultraviolet radiation from the hot stellar core left behind, creating a circumstellar nebula of dust and brightly-coloured hot gas. At the heart of the Saturn Nebula lies the doomed star, visible in this image, which is in the process of becoming a white dwarf.

In order to better understand how planetary nebulae are moulded into such odd shapes, an international team of astronomers led by Jeremy Walsh from ESO used the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) to peer inside the dusty veils of the Saturn Nebula. MUSE is an instrument installed on one of the four Unit Telescopes of the Very Large Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. It is so powerful because it doesn’t just create an image, but also gathers information about the spectrum — or range of colours — of the light from the object at each point in the image.

The team used MUSE to produce the first detailed optical maps of the gas and dust distributed throughout a planetary nebula. The resulting image of the Saturn Nebula reveals many intricate structures, including an elliptical inner shell, an outer shell, and a halo. It also shows two previously imaged streams extending from either end of the nebula’s long axis, ending in bright ansae (Latin for “handles”).

Intriguingly, the team also found a wave-like feature in the dust, which is not yet fully understood. Dust is distributed throughout the nebula, but there is a significant drop in the amount of dust at the rim of the inner shell, where it seems that it is being destroyed. There are several potential mechanisms for this destruction. The inner shell is essentially an expanding shock wave, so it may be smashing into the dust grains and obliterating them, or producing an extra heating effect that evaporates the dust.

Mapping the gas and dust structures within planetary nebulae will aid in understanding their role in the lives and deaths of low mass stars, and it will also help astronomers understand how planetary nebulae acquire their strange and complex shapes.

But MUSE’s capabilities extend far beyond planetary nebulae. This sensitive instrument can also study the formation of stars and galaxies in the early Universe, as well as map the dark matter distribution in galaxy clusters in the nearby Universe. MUSE has also created the first 3D map of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula and imaged a spectacular cosmic crash in a nearby galaxy.

Image Credit: ESO/J. Walsh
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1731/

September 14, 2017

Exoplanet WASP-12b

Exoplanet WASP-12b

Astronomers have discovered that the well-studied exoplanet WASP-12b reflects almost no light, making it appear essentially pitch black. This discovery sheds new light on the atmospheric composition of the planet and also refutes previous hypotheses about WASP-12b’s atmosphere. The results are also in stark contrast to observations of another similarly sized exoplanet.

Using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, an international team led by astronomers at McGill University, Canada, and the University of Exeter, UK, have measured how much light the exoplanet WASP-12b reflects — its albedo — in order to learn more about the composition of its atmosphere.

The results were surprising, explains lead author Taylor Bell, a Master’s student in astronomy at McGill University who is affiliated with the Institute for Research on Exoplanets: “The measured albedo of WASP-12b is 0.064 at most. This is an extremely low value, making the planet darker than fresh asphalt!” This makes WASP-12b two times less reflective than our Moon which has an albedo of 0.12. Bell adds: “The low albedo shows we still have a lot to learn about WASP-12b and other similar exoplanets.”

WASP-12b orbits the Sun-like star WASP-12A, about 1400 light-years away, and since its discovery in 2008 it has become one of the best studied exoplanets. With a radius almost twice that of Jupiter and a year of just over one Earth day, WASP-12b is categorised as a hot Jupiter. Because it is so close to its parent star, the gravitational pull of the star has stretched WASP-12b into an egg shape and raised the surface temperature of its daylight side to 2600 degrees Celsius.

The high temperature is also the most likely explanation for WASP-12b’s low albedo. “There are other hot Jupiters that have been found to be remarkably black, but they are much cooler than WASP-12b. For those planets, it is suggested that things like clouds and alkali metals are the reason for the absorption of light, but those don’t work for WASP-12b because it is so incredibly hot," explains Bell.

The daylight side of WASP-12b is so hot that clouds cannot form and alkali metals are ionised. It is even hot enough to break up hydrogen molecules into atomic hydrogen which causes the atmosphere to act more like the atmosphere of a low-mass star than like a planetary atmosphere. This leads to the low albedo of the exoplanet.

To measure the albedo of WASP-12b the scientists observed the exoplanet in October 2016 during an eclipse, when the planet was near full phase and passed behind its host star for a time. This is the best method to determine the albedo of an exoplanet, as it involves directly measuring the amount of light being reflected. However, this technique requires a precision ten times greater than traditional transit observations. Using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph the scientists were able to measure the albedo of WASP-12b at several different wavelengths.

“After we measured the albedo we compared it to spectral models of previously suggested atmospheric models of WASP-12b”, explains Nikolay Nikolov (University of Exeter, UK), co-author of the study. “We found that the data match neither of the two currently proposed models.” The new data indicate that the WASP-12b atmosphere is composed of atomic hydrogen and helium.

WASP-12b is only the second planet to have spectrally resolved albedo measurements, the first being HD 189733b, another hot Jupiter. The data gathered by Bell and his team allowed them to determine whether the planet reflects more light towards the blue or the red end of the spectrum. While the results for HD 189733b suggest that the exoplanet has a deep blue colour, WASP-12b, on the other hand, is not reflecting light at any wavelength. WASP-12b does, however, emit light because of its high temperature, giving it a red hue similar to a hot glowing metal.

“The fact that the first two exoplanets with measured spectral albedo exhibit significant differences demonstrates the importance of these types of spectral observations and highlights the great diversity among hot Jupiters,” concludes Bell.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1714/

Spiral Galaxy NGC 6384

Spiral Galaxy NGC 6384

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this finely detailed image of the beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 6384. This galaxy lies in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer), not far from the centre of the Milky Way on the sky. The positioning of NGC 6384 means that we have to peer at it past many dazzling foreground Milky Way stars that are scattered across this image.

In 1971, one member of NGC 6384 stood out against these bright foreground stars when one of its stars exploded as a supernova. This was a Type Ia supernova, which occurs when a compact star that has ceased fusion in its core, called a white dwarf, increases its mass beyond a critical limit by gobbling up matter from a companion star. A runaway nuclear explosion then makes the star suddenly as bright as a whole galaxy.

While many stars have already come to the ends of their lives in NGC 6384, in the centre, star formation is being fuelled by the galaxy’s bar structure; astronomers think such galactic bars funnel gas inwards, where it accumulates to form new stars.

This picture was created from images take with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. An image taken through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue) was combined with an image taken through a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 1050 s through each filter and the field of view is about 3 x 1.5 arcminutes.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1108a/

Star-Forming Region NGC 6729

Star-Forming Region NGC 6729

This image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope gives a close-up view of the dramatic effects new-born stars have on the gas and dust from which they formed. Although the stars themselves are not visible, material they have ejected is colliding with the surrounding gas and dust clouds and creating a surreal landscape of glowing arcs, blobs and streaks.

The star-forming region NGC 6729 is part of one of the closest stellar nurseries to the Earth and hence one of the best studied. This new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope gives a close-up view of a section of this strange and fascinating region. The data were selected from the ESO archive by Sergey Stepanenko as part of the Hidden Treasures competition. Sergey’s picture of NGC 6729 was ranked third in the competition.

Stars form deep within molecular clouds and the earliest stages of their development cannot be seen in visible-light telescopes because of obscuration by dust. In this image there are very young stars at the upper left of the picture. Although they cannot be seen directly, the havoc that they have wreaked on their surroundings dominates the picture. High-speed jets of material that travel away from the baby stars at velocities as high as one million kilometres per hour are slamming into the surrounding gas and creating shock waves. These shocks cause the gas to shine and create the strangely coloured glowing arcs and blobs known as Herbig–Haro objects.

In this view the Herbig–Haro objects form two lines marking out the probable directions of ejected material. One stretches from the upper left to the lower centre, ending in the bright, circular group of glowing blobs and arcs at the lower centre. The other starts near the left upper edge of the picture and extends towards the centre right. The peculiar scimitar-shaped bright feature at the upper left is probably mostly due to starlight being reflected from dust and is not a Herbig–Haro object.

This enhanced-colour picture was created from images taken using the FORS1 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Images were taken through two different filters that isolate the light coming from glowing hydrogen (shown as orange) and glowing ionised sulphur (shown as blue). The different colours in different parts of this violent star formation region reflect different conditions — for example where ionised sulphur is glowing brightly (blue features) the velocities of the colliding material are relatively low — and help astronomers to unravel what is going on in this dramatic scene.

Image Credit: ESO
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1109/

September 13, 2017

Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri

Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri

At the centre of this image of the Centaurus constellation are Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, two triple star systems. The brightest stars of both systems orbit near to each other, making them appear as one star. Alpha Centauri is the nearest "star" to Earth except for the Sun. This photograph of the Centaurus constellation was taken at ESO's La Silla Observatory.

Image Credit: ESO
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/centaurus-ch17-bardon-cc/

Exoplanet WASP-19b

Exoplanet WASP-19b

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have detected titanium oxide in an exoplanet atmosphere for the first time. This discovery around the hot-Jupiter planet WASP-19b exploited the power of the FORS2 instrument. It provides unique information about the chemical composition and the temperature and pressure structure of the atmosphere of this unusual and very hot world.

A team of astronomers led by Elyar Sedaghati, an ESO fellow and recent graduate of TU Berlin, has examined the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-19b in greater detail than ever before. This remarkable planet has about the same mass as Jupiter, but is so close to its parent star that it completes an orbit in just 19 hours and its atmosphere is estimated to have a temperature of about 2000 degrees Celsius.

As WASP-19b passes in front of its parent star, some of the starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere and leaves subtle fingerprints in the light that eventually reaches Earth. By using the FORS2 instrument on the Very Large Telescope the team was able to carefully analyse this light and deduce that the atmosphere contained small amounts of titanium oxide, water and traces of sodium, alongside a strongly scattering global haze.

“Detecting such molecules is, however, no simple feat,” explains Elyar Sedaghati, who spent 2 years as ESO student to work on this project. “Not only do we need data of exceptional quality, but we also need to perform a sophisticated analysis. We used an algorithm that explores many millions of spectra spanning a wide range of chemical compositions, temperatures, and cloud or haze properties in order to draw our conclusions.”

Titanium oxide is rarely seen on Earth. It is known to exist in the atmospheres of cool stars. In the atmospheres of hot planets like WASP-19b, it acts as a heat absorber. If present in large enough quantities, these molecules prevent heat from entering or escaping through the atmosphere, leading to a thermal inversion — the temperature is higher in the upper atmosphere and lower further down, the opposite of the normal situation. Ozone plays a similar role in Earth’s atmosphere, where it causes inversion in the stratosphere.

“The presence of titanium oxide in the atmosphere of WASP-19b can have substantial effects on the atmospheric temperature structure and circulation.” explains Ryan MacDonald, another team member and an astronomer at Cambridge University, United Kingdom. “To be able to examine exoplanets at this level of detail is promising and very exciting.” adds Nikku Madhusudhan from Cambridge University who oversaw the theoretical interpretation of the observations.

The astronomers collected observations of WASP-19b over a period of more than one year. By measuring the relative variations in the planet’s radius at different wavelengths of light that passed through the exoplanet’s atmosphere and comparing the observations to atmospheric models, they could extrapolate different properties, such as the chemical content, of the exoplanet’s atmosphere.

This new information about the presence of metal oxides like titanium oxide and other substances will allow much better modeling of exoplanet atmospheres. Looking to the future, once astronomers are able to observe atmospheres of possibly habitable planets, the improved models will give them a much better idea of how to interpret those observations.

“This important discovery is the outcome of a refurbishment of the FORS2 instrument that was done exactly for this purpose,” adds team member Henri Boffin, from ESO, who led the refurbishment project. “Since then, FORS2 has become the best instrument to perform this kind of study from the ground.”

Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1729/