In 2014 the Royal Astronomical Society carried out a survey of its membership, finding that we are both more and less diverse than UK society as a whole. Robert Massey summarizes the findings and what they mean for the Society in future.
One of the trademarks of the Star Wars film episodes is the dreaded Death Star battle station that fires a beam of directed energy powerful enough to blow up planets. The real universe has such fireworks, and they are vastly more powerful than the Star Wars creation. These extragalactic jets are tearing across hundreds of light-years of space at 98 percent the speed of light. Instead of a battle station, the source of the killer beam is a supermassive black hole weighing many million or even a billion times the mass of our sun. Energy from the spinning black hole, and its titanic magnetic fields, shape a narrow jet of gas blasting out a galaxy's center. Hubble has been used over the past 25 years to photograph and rephotograph a jet blasting out the heart of the elliptical galaxy 3C 264 (also known as NGC 3862). Hubble's sharp vision reveals that the jet has a string-of-pearls structure of glowing knots of material. When these images were assembled into a time-lapse movie, they reveal to the surprise of astronomers a faster-moving bright knot rear-ending the bright knot in front of it. The resulting shock collision further accelerates particles that produce a focused beam of deadly radiation. The jet is moving so fast toward us it gives the illusion that it is traveling faster than the speed of light. But not to worry, the host galaxy is 260 million light-years away. We are seeing the jet as it looked before the dinosaurs appeared on Earth, and our planet was suffering a global mass extinction.
A kiloparsec-scale internal shock collision in the jet of a nearby radio galaxy
Nature 521, 7553 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14481
Authors: Eileen T. Meyer, Markos Georganopoulos, William B. Sparks, Eric Perlman, Roeland P. van der Marel, Jay Anderson, Sangmo Tony Sohn, John Biretta, Colin Norman & Marco Chiaberge
Jets of highly energized plasma with relativistic velocities are associated with black holes ranging in mass from a few times that of the Sun to the billion-solar-mass black holes at the centres of galaxies. A popular but unconfirmed hypothesis to explain how the plasma is energized is the ‘internal shock model’, in which the relativistic flow is unsteady. Faster components in the jet catch up to and collide with slower ones, leading to internal shocks that accelerate particles and generate magnetic fields. This mechanism can explain the variable, high-energy emission from a diverse set of objects, with the best indirect evidence being the unseen fast relativistic flow inferred to energize slower components in X-ray binary jets. Mapping of the kinematic profiles in resolved jets has revealed precessing and helical patterns in X-ray binaries, apparent superluminal motions, and the ejection of knots (bright components) from standing shocks in the jets of active galaxies. Observations revealing the structure and evolution of an internal shock in action have, however, remained elusive, hindering measurement of the physical parameters and ultimate efficiency of the mechanism. Here we report observations of a collision between two knots in the jet of nearby radio galaxy 3C 264. A bright knot with an apparent speed of (7.0 ± 0.8)c, where c is the speed of light in a vacuum, is in the incipient stages of a collision with a slower-moving knot of speed (1.8 ± 0.5)c just downstream, resulting in brightening of both knots—as seen in the most recent epoch of imaging.
An international team of astronomers, including researchers from the University of Cambridge, has identified a young planetary system which may aid in understanding how our own solar system formed and developed billions of years ago.
Using the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) at the Gemini South telescope in Chile, the researchers identified a disc-shaped bright ring of dust around a star only slightly more massive than the sun, located 360 light years away in the Centaurus constellation. The disc is located between about 37 and 55 Astronomical Units (3.4 – 5.1 billion miles) from its host star, which is almost the same distance as the solar system’s Kuiper Belt is from the sun. The brightness of the disc, which is due to the starlight reflected by it, is also consistent with a wide range of dust compositions including the silicates and ice present in the Kuiper Belt.
The Kuiper Belt lies just beyond Neptune, and contains thousands of small icy bodies left over from the formation of the solar system more than four billion years ago. These objects range in size from specks of debris dust, all the way up to moon-sized objects like Pluto – which used to be classified as a planet, but has now been reclassified as a dwarf planet.
The star observed in this new study is a member of the massive 10-20 million year-old Scorpius-Centaurus OB association, a region similar to that in which the sun was formed. The disc is not perfectly centred on the star, which is strong indication that it was likely sculpted by one or more unseen planets. By using models of how planets shape a debris disc, the team found that ‘eccentric’ versions of the giant planets in the outer solar system could explain the observed properties of the ring.
“It’s almost like looking at the outer solar system when it was a toddler,” said principal investigator Thayne Currie, an astronomer at the Subaru Observatory in Hawaii.
The current theory on the formation of the solar system holds that it originated within a giant molecular cloud of hydrogen, in which clumps of denser material formed. One of these clumps, rotating and collapsing under its own gravitation, formed a flattened spinning disc known as the solar nebula. The sun formed at the hot and dense centre of this disc, while the planets grew by accretion in the cooler outer regions. The Kuiper Belt is believed to be made up of the remnants of this process, so there is a possibility that once the new system develops, it may look remarkably similar to our solar system.
“To be able to directly image planetary birth environments around other stars at orbital distances comparable to the solar system is a major advancement,” said Dr Nikku Madhusudhan of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, one of the paper’s co-authors. “Our discovery of a near-twin of the Kuiper Belt provides direct evidence that the planetary birth environment of the solar system may not be uncommon.”
This is the first discovery with the new cutting-edge Gemini instrument. “In just one of our many 50-second exposures we could see what previous instruments failed to see in more than 50 minutes,” said Currie.
The star, going by the designation HD 115600, was the first object the research team looked at. “Over the next few years, I’m optimistic that GPI will reveal many more debris discs and young planets. Who knows what strange, new worlds we will find,” Currie added.
The paper is accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Astronomers have discovered a disc of planetary debris surrounding a young sun-like star that shares remarkable similarities with the Kuiper Belt that lies beyond Neptune, and may aid in understanding how our solar system developed.Our discovery of a near-twin of the Kuiper Belt provides direct evidence that the planetary birth environment of the solar system may not be uncommonNikku MadhusudhanT. CurrieLeft: Image of HD 115600 showing a bright debris ring viewed nearly edge-on and located just beyond a Pluto-like distance to the star. Right: A model of the HD 115600 debris ring on the same scale.
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.
Astronomers have spent decades trying to determine the oddball behavior of an aging star nicknamed "Nasty 1" residing in our Milky Way galaxy. Nasty 1 was identified as a Wolf-Rayet star, a rapidly evolving star that is much more massive than our sun. The star loses its hydrogen-filled outer layers quickly, exposing its super-hot and extremely bright helium-burning core.