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Violent Origins of Disc Galaxies Probed by ALMA

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 2:00am
For decades scientists have believed that galaxy mergers usually result in the formation of elliptical galaxies. Now, for the the first time, researchers using ALMA and a host of other radio telescopes have found direct evidence that merging galaxies can instead form disc galaxies, and that this outcome is in fact quite common. This surprising result could explain why there are so many spiral galaxies like the Milky Way in the Universe.

Highlights in the study of exoplanet atmospheres

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

Highlights in the study of exoplanet atmospheres

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/nature13782

Author: Adam S. Burrows

Exoplanets are now being discovered in profusion. To understand their character, however, we require spectral models and data. These elements of remote sensing can yield temperatures, compositions and even weather patterns, but only if significant improvements in both the parameter retrieval process and measurements are

Advances in exoplanet science from Kepler

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

Advances in exoplanet science from Kepler

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/nature13781

Authors: Jack J. Lissauer, Rebekah I. Dawson & Scott Tremaine

Numerous telescopes and techniques have been used to find and study extrasolar planets, but none has been more successful than NASA's Kepler space telescope. Kepler has discovered most of the known exoplanets, the smallest planets to orbit normal stars and the planets most likely to

A supermassive black hole in an ultra-compact dwarf galaxy

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

A supermassive black hole in an ultra-compact dwarf galaxy

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/nature13762

Authors: Anil C. Seth, Remco van den Bosch, Steffen Mieske, Holger Baumgardt, Mark den Brok, Jay Strader, Nadine Neumayer, Igor Chilingarian, Michael Hilker, Richard McDermid, Lee Spitler, Jean Brodie, Matthias J. Frank & Jonelle L. Walsh

Ultra-compact dwarf galaxies are among the densest stellar systems in the Universe. These systems have masses of up to 2 × 108 solar masses, but half-light radii of just 3–50 parsecs. Dynamical mass estimates show that many such dwarfs are more massive than expected from their luminosity. It remains unclear whether these high dynamical mass estimates arise because of the presence of supermassive black holes or result from a non-standard stellar initial mass function that causes the average stellar mass to be higher than expected. Here we report adaptive optics kinematic data of the ultra-compact dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1 that show a central velocity dispersion peak exceeding 100 kilometres per second and modest rotation. Dynamical modelling of these data reveals the presence of a supermassive black hole with a mass of 2.1 × 107 solar masses. This is 15 per cent of the object’s total mass. The high black hole mass and mass fraction suggest that M60-UCD1 is the stripped nucleus of a galaxy. Our analysis also shows that M60-UCD1’s stellar mass is consistent with its luminosity, implying a large population of previously unrecognized supermassive black holes in other ultra-compact dwarf galaxies.

Exoplanets

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

Exoplanets

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/513327a

Author: Leslie Sage

It is hard to imagine now, and the younger people in the field will not remember this, but there was a period when the search for exoplanets had rather a bad reputation, based on a number of high-profile claims that were subsequently disproved. Although there

Doppler spectroscopy as a path to the detection of Earth-like planets

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

Doppler spectroscopy as a path to the detection of Earth-like planets

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/nature13780

Authors: Michel Mayor, Christophe Lovis & Nuno C. Santos

Doppler spectroscopy was the first technique used to reveal the existence of extrasolar planetary systems hosted by solar-type stars. Radial-velocity surveys led to the detection of a rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets. The numerous detected systems revealed a remarkable diversity. Combining Doppler measurements

The role of space telescopes in the characterization of transiting exoplanets

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

The role of space telescopes in the characterization of transiting exoplanets

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/nature13783

Author: Artie P. Hatzes

Characterization studies now have a dominant role in the field of exoplanets. Such studies include the measurement of an exoplanet's bulk density, its brightness temperature and the chemical composition of its atmosphere. The use of space telescopes has played a key part in the characterization

Instrumentation for the detection and characterization of exoplanets

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

Instrumentation for the detection and characterization of exoplanets

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/nature13784

Authors: Francesco Pepe, David Ehrenreich & Michael R. Meyer

In no other field of astrophysics has the impact of new instrumentation been as substantial as in the domain of exoplanets. Before 1995 our knowledge of exoplanets was mainly based on philosophical and theoretical considerations. The years that followed have been marked, instead, by surprising

Astrophysics: Giant black hole in a stripped galaxy

Astronomy News - 17 September 2014 - 1:00am

Astrophysics: Giant black hole in a stripped galaxy

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). doi:10.1038/513322a

Authors: Amy E. Reines

An oversized, supermassive black hole has been discovered at the centre of a densely packed conglomeration of stars. The finding suggests that the system is the stripped nucleus of a once-larger galaxy. See Letter p.398

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory Finds Planet That Makes Star Act Deceptively Old

Astronomy News - 16 September 2014 - 5:00pm
A planet may be causing the star it orbits to act much older than it actually is, according to new data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This discovery shows how a massive planet can affect the behavior of its parent star.

Lander to aim for comet’s ‘head’

Astronomy News - 16 September 2014 - 1:00am

Lander to aim for comet’s ‘head’

Nature 513, 7518 (2014). http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/513288a

Author: Elizabeth Gibney

Touchdown site for Rosetta probe chosen unanimously.

'J' marks the spot for Rosetta's lander

Astronomy News - 15 September 2014 - 10:15am
Rosetta's lander Philae will target Site J, an intriguing region on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that offers unique scientific potential, with hints of activity nearby, and minimum risk to the lander compared to the other candidate sites.

Rosetta comet landing site chosen

Astronomy News - 15 September 2014 - 10:14am
Europe's Rosetta mission, which aims to land on a 4km-wide comet later this year, identifies what it thinks is the safest place to touch down.

VIDEO: Mission impossible? Comet landing bid

Astronomy News - 15 September 2014 - 6:47am
The European Space Agency is about to announce the site on Comet 67P where the Rosetta mission will try to make a historic landing.

Stringy fields may make the universe swell faster

Astronomy News - 12 September 2014 - 5:00pm
Dark energy's latest guise comes from the world of string theory, and could help bring our universe's chance of existing down to reasonable odds






Gaia discovers its first supernova

Astronomy News - 12 September 2014 - 11:30am

This powerful event, now named Gaia14aaa, took place in a distant galaxy some 500 million light-years away, and was revealed via a sudden rise in the galaxy’s brightness between two Gaia observations separated by one month.

Gaia, which began its scientific work in July, repeatedly scans the entire sky, so that each of the roughly one billion stars in the final catalogue will be examined an average of 70 times over the next five years.

“This kind of repeated survey comes in handy for studying the changeable nature of the sky,” said Simon Hodgkin from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who is part of Gaia’s Science Alert Team.

Many astronomical sources are variable: some exhibit a regular pattern, with a periodically rising and declining brightness, while others may undergo sudden and dramatic changes.

“As Gaia goes back to each patch of the sky over and over, we have a chance to spot thousands of ‘guest stars’ on the celestial tapestry,” said Hodgkin. “These transient sources can be signposts to some of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe, like this supernova.”

Gaia’s Science Alert Team includes astronomers from the Universities of Cambridge and Warsaw, who are combing through the scans in search of unexpected changes.

It did not take long until they found the first ‘anomaly’ in the form of a sudden spike in the light coming from a distant galaxy, detected on August 30th. The same galaxy appeared much dimmer when Gaia first looked at it just a month before.

“We immediately thought it might be a supernova, but needed more clues to back up our claim,” explains Łukasz Wyrzykowski from the Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory.

Other powerful cosmic events may resemble a supernova in a distant galaxy, such as outbursts caused by the mass-devouring supermassive black hole at the galaxy centre.

However, in Gaia14aaa, the position of the bright spot of light was slightly offset from the galaxy’s core, suggesting that it was unlikely to be related to a central black hole.

The astronomers looked for more information in the light of this new source. Besides recording the position and brightness of stars and galaxies, Gaia also splits their light to create a spectrum. In fact, Gaia uses two prisms spanning red and blue wavelength regions to produce a low-resolution spectrum that allows astronomers to seek signatures of the various chemical elements present in the source of that light.

“In the spectrum of this source, we could already see the presence of iron and other elements that are known to be found in supernovas,” said Nadejda Blagorodnova, a PhD student at the Institute of Astronomy.

In addition, the blue part of the spectrum appears significantly brighter than the red part, as expected in a supernova. And not just any supernova: the astronomers already suspected it might be a ‘Type Ia’ supernova – the explosion of a white dwarf locked in a binary system with a companion star.

While other types of supernovas are the explosive demises of massive stars, several times more massive than the Sun, Type Ia supernovas are the end product of their less massive counterparts.

Low-mass stars, with masses similar to the Sun’s, end their lives gently, puffing up their outer layers and leaving behind a compact white dwarf. Their high density means that white dwarfs can exert an intense gravitational pull on a nearby companion star, accreting mass from it until the white dwarf reaches a critical mass that then sparks a violent explosion.

To confirm the nature of this supernova, the astronomers complemented the Gaia data with more observations from the ground, using the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) and the robotic Liverpool Telescope on La Palma, in the Canary Islands.

A high-resolution spectrum, obtained on September 3rd with the INT, confirmed not only that the explosion corresponds to a Type Ia supernova, but also provided an estimate of its distance. This proved that the supernova happened in the galaxy where it was observed.

“This is the first supernova in what we expect to be a long series of discoveries with Gaia,” said Dr Timo Prusti, ESA’s Gaia Project Scientist.

Supernovas are rare events: only a couple of these explosions happen every century in a typical galaxy. But they are not so rare over the whole sky, if we take into account the hundreds of billions of galaxies that populate the Universe.

Astronomers in the Science Alert Team are currently getting acquainted with the data, testing and optimising their detection software. In a few months, they expect Gaia to discover about three new supernovas every day.

In addition to supernovas, Gaia will discover thousands of transient sources of other kinds – stellar explosions on smaller scale than supernovas, flares from young stars coming to life, outbursts caused by black holes that disrupt and devour a nearby star, and possibly some entirely new phenomena never seen before.

“The sky is ablaze with peculiar sources of light, and we are looking forward to probing plenty of those with Gaia in the coming years,” said Prusti.

Adapted from European Space Agency press release.

While scanning the sky to measure the positions and movements of stars in our Galaxy, Gaia has discovered its first stellar explosion in another galaxy far, far away.

As Gaia goes back to each patch of the sky over and over, we have a chance to spot thousands of ‘guest stars’ on the celestial tapestrySimon HodgkinESA/ATG medialab/C. CarreauAn artist’s impression of a Type Ia supernova – the explosion of a white dwarf locked in a binary system with a companion star.

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Gaia discovers its first supernova

Astronomy News - 12 September 2014 - 9:00am
While scanning the sky to measure the positions and movements of stars in our Galaxy, Gaia has discovered its first stellar explosion in another galaxy far, far away.

Rubber duck comet photobombs Rosetta probe's selfie

Astronomy News - 11 September 2014 - 6:00pm
The spacecraft aiming to be the first to park a lander on a comet has snapped a self-portrait – with its quirkily shaped target in the background

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Arrives at Martian Mountain

Astronomy News - 11 September 2014 - 5:00pm
NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has reached the Red Planet's Mount Sharp, a Mount-Rainier-size mountain at the center of the vast Gale Crater and the rover mission's long-term prime destination.

This Star Cluster Is Not What It Seems

Astronomy News - 10 September 2014 - 11:00am
This new image from the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile shows a vast collection of stars, the globular cluster Messier 54. This cluster looks very similar to many others but it has a secret. Messier 54 doesn’t belong to the Milky Way, but is part of a small satellite galaxy, the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. This unusual parentage has now allowed astronomers to use the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to test whether there are also unexpectedly low levels of the element lithium in stars outside the Milky Way.