Weekly Space Hangout – February 3, 2017: Meredith Rawls & the LSST

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Meredith Rawls Meredith is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington. She writes software to prepare for the coming onslaught of data from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and studies weird binary stars. She is also the lead organizer of the ComSciCon-Pacific Northwest […]

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Stars at the Edge of our Galaxy May Have Been Stolen

Our Milky Way is a pretty vast and highly-populated space. All told, its stars number between 100 and 400 billion, with some estimates saying that it may have as many as 1 trillion. But just where did all these stars come from? Well, as it turns out, in addition to forming many of its own […]

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Confirmed: We Really are ‘Star Stuff’

Scientist Carl Sagan said many times that “we are star stuff,” from the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, and the iron in our blood. It is well known that most of the essential elements of life are truly made in the stars. Called the “CHNOPS elements” – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, […]

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Weekly Space Hangout – Sept 16, 2016: Universe Sandbox

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guests: This week’s guests will be the Universe Sandbox Developers Dan Dixon (Project Lead & Creator) and Jenn Seiler (Astrophysicist & Developer). Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg) Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz) Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier ) Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter) Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / […]

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The Big Dipper in the Year 92,000

Stellar motions distort the future sky. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

You go out and look at the stars year after year and never see any of them get up and walk away from their constellations. Take a time machine back to the days of Plato and Socrates and only careful viewing would reveal that just three of the sky’s naked eye stars had budged: Arcturus, Sirius and Aldebaran. And then only a little. Their motion was discovered by Edmund Halley in 1718 when he compared the stars’ positions then to their positions noted by the ancient Greek astronomers. In all three cases, the stars had moved “above a half a degree more Southerly at this time than the Antients reckoned them.”

Stars are incredibly far away. I could throw light years around like I often do here, but the fact is, you can get a real feel for their distance by noting that during your lifetime, none will appear to move individually. The gems of the night and our sun alike revolve around the center of the galaxy. At our solar system’s distance from the center — 26,000 light years or about halfway from center to edge — it takes the sun about 225 million years to make one revolution around the Milky Way.

That’s a LONG time. The other stars we see on a September night take a similar length of time to orbit. Now divide the average lifetime of some 85 years into that number, and you’ll discover that an average star moves something like .00000038% of its orbit around the galactic center every generation. Phew, that ain’t much! No wonder most stars don’t budge in our lifetime.

Sirius, Aldebaran and Arcturus and several other telescopic stars are close enough that their motion across the sky becomes apparent within the span of recorded history. More powerful telescopes, which expand the scale of the sky, can see a great many stars amble within a human lifetime. Sadly, our eyes alone only work at low power!

But we needn’t invest billions in building a time machine to zing to the future or past to see how the constellation outlines become distorted by the individual motions of the stars that compose them. We already have one! Just fire up a free sky charting software program like Stellarium and advance the clock. Like most such programs, it defaults to the present, but let’s look ahead. Far ahead.

If we advance 90,000 years into the future, many of the constellations would be unrecognizable. Not only that, but more locally, the precession of Earth’s axis causes the polestar to shift. In 2016, Polaris in the Little Dipper stands at the northernmost point in the sky, but in 90,000 years the brilliant star Vega will occupy the spot. Tugs from the sun and moon on Earth’s equatorial bulge cause its axis to gyrate in a circle over a period of about 26,000 years. Wherever the axis points defines the polestar.

Take a look at the Big Dipper. Wow! It’s totally bent out of shape yet still recognizable. The Pointer Stars no longer quite point to Polaris, but with some fudging we might make it work. Vega stands near the pole, and being much closer to us than the rest of Lyra’s stars, has moved considerably farther north, stretching the outline of the constellation as if taffy.

Time goes on. We look up at the night sky in the present moment, but so much came before us and much will come after. Constellations were unrecognizable in the past and will be again in the future. In a fascinating discussion with Michael Kauper of the Minnesota Astronomical Society at a recent star party, he described the amount of space in and between galaxies as so enormous that “we’re almost not here” in comparison. I would add that time is so vast we’re likewise almost not present. Make the most of the moment.

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Best Picture Yet Of Milky Way’s Formation 13.5 Billion Years Ago

The Milky Way is like NGC 4594 (pictured), a disc shaped spiral galaxy with around 200 billion stars. The three main features are the central bulge, the disk, and the halo. Credit: ESO

Maybe we take our beloved Milky Way galaxy for granted. As far as humanity is concerned, it’s always been here. But how did it form? What is its history?

Our Milky Way galaxy has three recognized stellar components. They are the central bulge, the disk , and the halo. How these three were formed and how they evolved are prominent, fundamental questions in astronomy. Now, a team of researchers have used the unique property of a certain type of star to help answer these fundamental questions.

The type of star in question is called the blue horizontal-branch star (BHB star), and it produces different colors depending on its age. It’s the only type of star to do that. The researchers, from the University of Notre Dame, used this property of BHB’s to create a detailed chronographic (time) map of the Milky Way’s formation.

This map has confirmed what theories and models have predicted for some time: the Milky Way galaxy formed through mergers and accretions of small haloes of gas and dust. Furthermore, the oldest stars in our galaxy are at the center, and younger stars and galaxies joined the Milky Way over billions of years, drawn in by the galaxy’s growing gravitational pull.

The team who produced this study includes astrophysicist Daniela Carollo, research assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, and Timothy Beers, Notre Dame Chair of Astrophysics. Research assistant professor Vinicius Placco, and other colleagues rounded out the team.

“We haven’t previously known much about the age of the most ancient component of the Milky Way, which is the Halo System,” Carollo said. “But now we have demonstrated conclusively for the first time that ancient stars are in the center of the galaxy and the younger stars are found at longer distances. This is another piece of information that we can use to understand the assembly process of the galaxy, and how galaxies in general formed.”

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) played a key role in these findings. The team used data from the SDSS to identify over 130,000 BHB’s. Since these stars literally “show their age”, mapping them throughout the Milky Way produced a chronographic map which clearly shows the oldest stars near the center of the galaxy, and youngest stars further away.

“The colors, when the stars are at that stage of their evolution, are directly related to the amount of time that star has been alive, so we can estimate the age,” Beers said. “Once you have a map, then you can determine which stars came in first and the ages of those portions of the galaxy. We can now actually visualize how our galaxy was built up and inspect the stellar debris from some of the other small galaxies being destroyed by their interaction with ours during its assembly.”

Astronomers infer, from various data-driven approaches, that different structural parts of the galaxy have different ages. They’ve assigned ages to different parts of the galaxy, like the bulge. That makes sense, since everything can’t be the same age. Not in a galaxy that’s this old. But this map makes it even clearer.

As the authors say in their paper, “What has been missing, until only recently, is the ability to assign ages to individual stellar populations, so that the full chemo-dynamical history of the Milky Way can be assessed.”

This new map, with over 130,000 stars as data points, is a pretty important step in understanding the evolution of the Milky Way. It takes something that was based more on models and theory, however sound they were, and reinforces it with more constrained data.

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Terzan 5 May Unlock Secret to Milky Way’s Past

Peering through the thick dust clouds of the galactic bulge (center of the galaxy) an international team of astronomers has revealed the unusual mix of stars in the stellar cluster known as Terzan 5. The new results indicate that Terzan 5 is in fact one of the bulge's primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of the very early days of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/F. Ferraro

Not many people have heard of the globular star cluster Terzan 5. It’s a big ball of stars resembling spilled sugar like so many other globular clusters. A very few globulars are bright enough to see with the naked eye; Terzan 5 is faint because it lies far away in the direction of the center of Milky Way galaxy inside its central bulge. Here, that formed at the galaxy’s birth are packed together in great numbers. They are the “old ones” of the Milky Way.

Today, a team of astronomers revealed that Terzan 5 is unlike any globular cluster known. Most Milky Way globulars contain stars of just one age, about 11-12 billion years. They formed around the same time as the Milky Way itself, used up all their available gas early to build stars and then spent the remaining billions of years aging. Most orbit the galaxy’s center in a vast halo like moths whirring around a bright light. Oddball Terzan 5 has two populations aged 12 billion and 4.5 billion years old and it’s located inside the galactic bulge.

The team used the cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope as well as a host of ground-based telescopes to find compelling evidence for the two distinct kinds of stars. Not only do they show a large gap in age, but the differ in the elements they contain. Terzan 5’s dual populations point to a star formation process that wasn’t continuous but dominated by two distinct bursts of star formation.

“This requires the Terzan 5 ancestor to have large amounts of gas for a second generation of stars and to be quite massive. At least 100 million times the mass of the Sun,” explains Davide Massari, co-author of the study.

Its unusual properties make Terzan 5 the ideal candidate for the title of “living fossil” from the early days of the Milky Way. Current theories on galaxy formation assume that vast clumps of gas and stars interacted to form the primordial bulge of the Milky Way, merging and dissolving in the process.

While the properties of Terzan 5 are uncommon for a globular cluster, they’re very similar to the stars found in the galactic bulge. Remnants of those gaseous clumps appear to have stuck around intact since the days of our galaxy’s birth, one of them evolving into the present day Terzan 5. That makes it a relic from the Milky Way’s infant days and one of the earliest galactic building blocks. Later, the cluster, which held onto some of its remaining gas, experienced a second burst of star formation.

“Some characteristics of Terzan 5 resemble those detected in the giant clumps we see in star-forming galaxies at high-redshift (galaxies just beginning to form in the remote universe in the far distant past), suggesting that similar assembling processes occurred in the local and in the distant universe at the epoch of galaxy formation,” said Dr. Francesco Ferraro from the University of Bologna, Italy, who headed up the team.

Terzan 5’s chandelier-like presence is helping astronomers understand how our galaxy was assembled. Reconstructing the past is one of the key occupations of astronomy. The present is continually departing with every passing moment. Soon enough, every piece of information slips into the past tense.  In the near-past, which records humanity’s comings and goings, details are often forgotten or lost. The deep past is even worse. With no one around and only scattered clues, astronomers continually look for fragmental remains that when woven into the fabric of a theory, reveal patterns and processes before we came to be.

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6 Million Years Ago The Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole Raged

Artist's concept of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL

6 million years ago, when our first human ancestors were doing their thing here on Earth, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way was a ferocious place. Our middle-aged, hibernating black hole only munches lazily on small amounts of hydrogen gas these days. But when the first hominins walked the Earth, Sagittarius A was gobbling up matter and expelling gas at speeds reaching 1,000 km/sec. (2 million mph.)

The evidence for this hyperactive phase in Sagittarius’ life, when it was an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), came while astronomers were searching for something else: the Milky Way’s missing mass.

There’s a funny problem in our understanding of our galactic environment. Well, it’s not that funny. It’s actually kind of serious, if you’re serious about understanding the universe. The problem is that we can calculate how much matter we should be able to see in our galaxy, but when go looking for it, it’s not there. This isn’t just a problems in the Milky Way, it’s a problem in other galaxies, too. The entire universe, in fact.

Our measurements show that the Milky Way has a mass about 1-2 trillion times greater than the Sun. Dark matter, that mysterious and invisible hobgoblin that haunts cosmologists’ nightmares, makes up about five sixths of that mass. Regular, normal matter makes up the last sixth of the galaxy’s mass, about 150-300 billion solar masses. But we can only find about 65 billion solar masses of that normal matter, made up of the familiar protons, neutrons, and electrons. The rest is missing in action.

Astrophysicists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have been looking for that mass, and have written up their results in a new paper.

“We played a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. And we asked ourselves, where could the missing mass be hiding?” says lead author Fabrizio Nicastro, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and astrophysicist at the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF).

“We analyzed archival X-ray observations from the XMM-Newton spacecraft and found that the missing mass is in the form of a million-degree gaseous fog permeating our galaxy. That fog absorbs X-rays from more distant background sources,” Nicastro continued.

Nicastro and the other scientists behind the paper analyzed how the x-rays were absorbed and were able to calculate the amount and distribution of normal matter in that fog. The team relied heavily on computer models, and on the XMM-Newton data. But their results did not match up with a uniform distribution of the gaseous fog. Instead, there is an empty “bubble”, where this is no gas. And that bubble extends from the center of the galaxy two-thirds of the way to Earth.

What can explain the bubble? Why would the gaseous fog not be spread more uniformly through the galaxy?

Clearing gas from an area that large would require an enormous amount of energy, and the authors point out that an active black hole would do it. They surmise that Sagittarius A was very active at that time, both feeding on gas falling into itself, and pumping out streams of hot gas at up to 1000 km/sec.

Which brings us to present day, 6 million years later, when the shock-wave caused by that activity has travelled 20,000 light years, creating the bubble around the center of the galaxy.

Another piece of evidence corroborates all this. Near the galactic center is a population of 6 million year old stars, formed from the same material that at one time flowed toward the black hole.

“The different lines of evidence all tie together very well,” says Smithsonian co-author Martin Elvis (CfA). “This active phase lasted for 4 to 8 million years, which is reasonable for a quasar.”


The numbers all match up, too. The gas accounted for in the team’s models and observations add up to 130 billion solar masses. That number wraps everything up pretty nicely, since the missing matter in the galaxy is thought to be between 85 billion and 235 billion solar masses.

This is intriguing stuff, though it’s certainly not the final word on the Milky Way’s missing mass. Two future missions, the European Space Agency’s Athena X-ray Observatory, planned for launch in 2028, and NASA’s proposed X-Ray Surveyor could provide more answers.

Who knows? Maybe not only will we learn more about the missing matter in the Milky Way and other galaxies, we may learn more about the activity at the center of the galaxy, and what ebbs and flows it has gone through, and how that has shaped galactic evolution.

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Weekly Space Hangout – June 17, 2016: LIGO Team

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: LIGO Team Members:Kai Staats, Joe Giaime and Michael Landry Kai Staats is a filmmaker, lecturer and writer working in science outreach. He is currently completing his MSc thesis for his research in machine learning applied to radio astronomy at the University of Cape Town and the Square Kilometre Array, […]

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