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Astronomy: Planets in chaos

Astronomy News - 2 July 2014 - 1:00am

Astronomy: Planets in chaos

Nature 511, 7507 (2014).

Author: Ann Finkbeiner

The discovery of thousands of star systems wildly different from our own has demolished ideas about how planets form. Astronomers are searching for a whole new theory.

Hubble to Proceed with Full Search for New Horizons Targets

Astronomy News - 1 July 2014 - 7:00pm

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Planetary scientists have successfully used the Hubble Space Telescope to boldly look out to the far frontier of the solar system to find suitable targets for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. After the marathon probe zooms past Pluto in July 2015, it will travel across the Kuiper Belt a vast rim of primitive ice bodies left over from the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. If NASA approves, the probe could be redirected to fly to a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) and photograph it up close.

Herschel:Young sun's violent history solves meteorite mystery

Astronomy News - 1 July 2014 - 1:00pm
Astronomers using ESA's Herschel space observatory to probe the turbulent beginnings of a Sun-like star have found evidence of mighty stellar winds that could solve a puzzling meteorite mystery in our own back yard.

Biggest X-ray eye in space to hunt hot cosmic objects

Astronomy News - 30 June 2014 - 7:30pm
The Athena space telescope will launch in 2028 to gather hot, energetic light from monster black holes and interstellar gas storms

Rosetta:Rosetta's comet 'sweats' two glasses of water a second

Astronomy News - 30 June 2014 - 2:16pm
ESA's Rosetta spacecraft has found that comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is releasing the equivalent of two small glasses of water into space every second, even at a cold 583 million kilometres from the Sun.

Pollution on other worlds may show advanced alien life

Astronomy News - 27 June 2014 - 5:00pm
A NASA telescope should be able to sniff the atmospheres of Earth-sized worlds for industrial gases like CFCs – a sign of civilisation

Commissioning the Radial Velocity Spectrometer

Astronomy News - 27 June 2014 - 1:27pm

Guest blog post by George Seabroke, RVS Payload Expert, on behalf of the team commissioning the RVS instrument.

The Radial Velocity Spectrometer (RVS) is one of three instruments onboard Gaia (see Figure 1). It is designed to measure the line-of-sight velocity component of Gaia stars (radial velocity, RV) to complement Gaia astrometry, which measures the transverse velocity component (parallax converts proper motions to transverse velocity). Combining the radial and transverse velocities gives the 3D space velocity of Gaia stars, allowing Gaia to produce not only a map of where Gaia stars are but how they are moving.

Figure 1: Photographs of RVS components (insets) overlaid on a photograph of the Gaia Payload Module at Astrium in Toulouse. Credits: Astrium, except top left (ESA/Gaia/DPAC/Airbus DS), bottom left (ESA) and top right (Selex Galileo, Italy). Composite designed by George Seabroke, MSSL.

The accuracy that Gaia astrometry is aiming for can only be achieved above the Earth’s atmosphere. The RV accuracy that RVS is aiming for (a few km/s for bright stars) can be achieved from the ground: however, the ground-based RV follow-up of the 118,200 Hipparcos stars managed about 20,000 stars in 15 years (a remarkable effort at the time!). Therefore it was decided to include an RV instrument onboard Gaia from the beginning and thus RVS was born.

RVS is an optical module located between the last mirror (M6) and the 12 RVS CCDs at the right edge of the Gaia focal plane (see Figure 1). RVS consists of six optical elements: a transmission grating (see bottom left in Figure 1), which disperses all the light entering RVS into medium-resolution (λ/Δλ ~ 11,500) spectra; a band-pass filter, which limits the spectra to 845–872 nm (wavelengths visible to the human eye are 400-700 nm); and four lenses/prisms (see top right in Figure 1) to correct the main aberrations of the telescope.

The RVS wavelength range is chosen to include a set of three absorption lines called the calcium triplet (see top left in Figure 1; click here for enlarged version of the spectra). Calcium is made by nuclear fusion in the centre of massive stars. When they explode as supernovae, the calcium can end up in the atmospheres of the next generation of stars (or in our teeth and bones!). If the star is moving away or towards Gaia, the calcium triplet (and all spectral) lines will be shifted by the Doppler effect, compared to their rest wavelengths. The RV of each star can be determined from RVS spectra by measuring these shifts.

The RVS Payload Experts (PEs) are the team, in DPAC, supporting the commissioning of the RVS instrument. The team, geographical locations and responsibilities are mainly split between Observatoire Paris Meudon (OPM) and Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL, part of University College London).

Unfortunately, at least from my personal perspective, we are PEs, rather than Payload Specialists. Payload Specialists were astronauts who flew on the Shuttle with specific payloads. Even if we wanted to visit Gaia, we would not be able to because at the second Sun–Earth Lagrangian point (L2), Gaia is much further than any astronaut has ever been, over 1 million km beyond the Moon’s orbit! Having not been selected to become an ESA astronaut in 2009 (one of my competitors, Alexander Gerst, is on the International Space Station right now!), working on commissioning the RVS is probably the closest I have come to being in space!

One recent commissioning activity that I led was when the RVS CCDs had charge injected into them to check for and calibrate any radiation damage.

The most critical issue for the RVS PEs was to check that the six optical elements of RVS are producing spectra that include the calcium triplet absorption lines, allowing us to derive RVs. If we had not seen the calcium lines, we would have had a bone to pick with RVS (English idiom!). Figure 2 shows what a 2D RVS spectrum looks like on a RVS CCD. RVS spectra are summed in the ACross Scan (AC) direction (y-axis in Figure 2) to produce 1D spectra, like the one in the top left inset of Figure 1 (see blog article “Gaia takes science measurements” for more details on this RVS spectrum – the first to go public). The calcium lines are clearly visible (so ironically no bone to pick!).

Figure 2: Example of a 2D RVS spectrum, extracted by Pasquale Panuzzo (OPM). The three dark vertical lines are where calcium atoms in the atmosphere of this particular star have blocked starlight to form absorption lines in this star’s spectrum.

The biggest surprise for the RVS PEs was finding there was a scattered light problem. The Basic Angle Monitor (BAM) has a laser at the same wavelength as RVS so there was a commissioning activity in January to check the levels of the BAM laser light leaking into RVS. Because of this, we were the first to measure the Gaia instrument background and found it to be much higher than expected from the BAM laser alone. Since then, Gaia’s instrument background has become a hot topic in commissioning and astrometric and photometric PEs have found that their instrument backgrounds are also affected. Various experiments have been conducted to understand the source of the scattered light and the Gaia PEs have been analysing the results of these experiments and feeding the results back to ESA.

OPM have developed most of the RVS offline tools. This involves downloading about 31 Gb of data per day (the total is now 7 Tb), ingesting it into local databases and generating daily “First Look” reports to allow the RVS PEs to have a first look at the data. The offline tools have been used in three other very important ways. Firstly they were used to analyse quickly the RVS spectra during the best focus commissioning activity, which were independently verified by MSSL. RVS spectra do have the required sharp absorption lines, including the calcium lines, which reduce the uncertainty on RV measurements. These spectra were also used by OPM to derive the RVS resolution. In addition, OPM are verifying and optimizing the onboard Video Processing Unit parameters, which control how well the readout windows are centred around RVS spectra to make sure we capture as much dispersed starlight as possible.

MSSL has developed a local infrastructure and integrated the official on-ground RVS data processing pipeline, which includes modules by all of Co-ordination Unit 6 (“Spectroscopic Processing”). MSSL are now running it to investigate the RVS data. The pipeline consists of more than 60,000 lines of code, described in over 800 pages of documentation (Software Design Descriptions). It has involved a lot of debugging of software to ensure the pipeline can process real RVS spectra. The commissioning period included 14 days of undisturbed data obtained between 9 and 23 May. The challenge now for MSSL, having ingested all these spectra (more than 111 million!) into our databases, is to process them through the RVS pipeline to estimate how accurate the RVS RVs will be (as a function of stellar brightness). RVS was never designed to measure the RVs of all Gaia’s 1 billion stars. We will soon know the number of stars for which RVS will be able to measure an RV and what the RV accuracy will be. Whatever the answer, it should be tens of millions, making RVS the largest RV survey in history!

I was fortunate enough to be in French Guiana to see the Gaia launch but like all the RVS PEs, we have never actually seen the completed RVS instrument with our own eyes! Now we will never see it, as Gaia will not return to Earth. Nevertheless, we have been getting to know RVS in the last six months of commissioning through the data it is returning. Over the next five years (or more) of the mission, we will get to know the instrument in ever-greater detail. This will allow us continually to optimize its operation onboard Gaia and also the on-ground algorithms that process the data, ensuring RVS reaches its enormous scientific potential.

Written by George Seabroke (MSSL) on behalf of the RVS PEs: Kevin Benson (MSSL), Mark Cropper (MSSL), Chris Dolding (MSSL), Joris Gerssen (Potsdam), Alain Guéguen (OPM), Leanne Guy (Geneva), Howard Huckle (MSSL), Katja Janssen (Potsdam), David Katz (OPM), Olivier Marchal (OPM), Pasquale Panuzzo (OPM, RVS PE Co-ordinator), Paola Sartoretti (OPM), Mike Smith (MSSL).


Huge X-ray space telescope planned

Astronomy News - 27 June 2014 - 11:31am
The European Space Agency initiates the process that should lead to the biggest X-ray telescope ever built going into orbit in 2028.

Cosmic Vision:Athena to study the hot and energetic Universe

Astronomy News - 27 June 2014 - 10:37am
ESA has selected the Athena advanced telescope for high-energy astrophysics as its second 'Large-class' science mission.

Better to see the beautiful, ugly truth of the cosmos

Astronomy News - 26 June 2014 - 9:00pm
The assumption that the cosmos is symmetrical over large scales is an elegant one, but how far must evidence deviate from expectations before we rethink it?

Pillars of creation built by big stellar bubble

Astronomy News - 26 June 2014 - 12:01am
Models of how the iconic towers of gas in the Eagle Nebula could have been born also reveal the complex role huge stars play in sparking stellar nurseries

Mystery galactic glow may be echo of sterile neutrinos

Astronomy News - 25 June 2014 - 6:30pm
An unexplained X-ray signal from the swirling Perseus galaxy cluster could be the death rattle of an elusive particle – and hint at the nature of dark matter

Black hole trio holds promise for gravity wave hunt

Astronomy News - 25 June 2014 - 6:05pm

An international team, including University of Cambridge scientists, led by Dr Roger Deane from the University of Cape Town, examined six systems thought to contain two supermassive black holes. The team found that one of these contained three supermassive black holes – the tightest trio of black holes detected at such a large distance – with two of them orbiting each other rather like binary stars. The finding suggests that these closely-packed supermassive black holes are far more common than previously thought.

A report of the research is published in this week’s Nature.

Dr Roger Deane from the University of Cape Town said: ‘What remains extraordinary to me is that these black holes, which are at the very extreme of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, are orbiting one another at 300 times the speed of sound on Earth. Not only that, but using the combined signals from radio telescopes on four continents we are able to observe this exotic system one third of the way across the Universe. It gives me great excitement as this is just scratching the surface of a long list of discoveries that will be made possible with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).’

The team used a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) to discover the inner two black holes of the triple system. This technique combines the signals from large radio antennas separated by up to 10,000 kilometres to see detail 50 times finer than that possible with the Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery was made with the European VLBI Network, an array of European, Chinese, Russian and South African antennas, as well as the 305 metre Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Future radio telescopes such as the SKA will be able to measure the gravitational waves from such black hole systems as their orbits decrease.

At this point, very little is actually known about black hole systems that are so close to one another that they emit detectable gravitational waves. According to Prof Matt Jarvis from the Universities of Oxford and the Western Cape, ‘This discovery not only suggests that close-pair black hole systems emitting at radio wavelengths are much more common than previously expected, but also predicts that radio telescopes such as MeerKAT and the African VLBI Network (AVN, a network of antennas across the continent) will directly assist in the detection and understanding of the gravitational wave signal. Further in the future the SKA will allow us to find and study these systems in exquisite detail, and really allow us gain a much better understanding of how black holes shape galaxies over the history of the Universe.’

Dr Keith Grainge of the University of Manchester, an author of the paper, said: ‘This exciting discovery perfectly illustrates the power of the VLBI technique, whose exquisite sharpness of view allows us to see deep into the hearts of distant galaxies. The next generation radio observatory, the SKA, is being designed with VLBI capabilities very much in mind.’

While the VLBI technique was essential to discover the inner two black, the team has also shown that the binary black hole presence can be revealed by much larger scale features. The orbital motion of the black hole is imprinted onto its large jets, twisting them into a helical or corkscrew-like shape. So even though black holes may be so close together that our telescopes cannot tell them apart, their twisted jets may provide easy-to-find pointers to them, much like using a flare to mark your location at sea. This may provide sensitive future telescopes like MeerKAT and the SKA a way to find binary black holes with much greater efficiency.

The discovery of three closely orbiting supermassive black holes in a galaxy more than four billion light years away could help astronomers in the search for gravitational waves: the ‘ripples in spacetime’ predicted by Einstein.

black holegravitational wavesSquare Kilometre ArrayClare RumseyUniversity of OxfordUniversity of Cape TownUniversity of ManchesterDepartment of PhysicsSchool of the Physical SciencesCavendish LaboratoryThis exciting discovery perfectly illustrates the power of the VLBI technique, whose exquisite sharpness of view allows us to see deep into the hearts of distant galaxies.Dr Keith GraingeRoger Deane (large image); NASA Goddard (inset bottom left; modified from original)Helical jets from one supermassive black hole caused by a very closely orbiting companion (see blue dots). The third black hole is part of the system, but farther away and therefore emits relatively straight jets.

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