Stars Regularly Ripped Apart By Black Holes In Colliding Galaxies

Astronomers based at the University of Sheffield have found evidence that stars are ripped apart by supermassive black holes 100 times more often than previously thought.

Until now, such stellar cannibalism – known as Tidal Distruption Events, or TDEs – had only been found in surveys which observed many thousands of galaxies, leading astronomers to believe they were exceptionally rare: only one event every 10,000 to 100,000 years per galaxy.

However, the pioneering study conducted by leading scientists from the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, recorded a star being destroyed by a supermassive black hole in a survey of just 15 galaxies – an extremely small sample size by astronomy standards.

“Each of these 15 galaxies is undergoing a ‘cosmic collision’ with a neighbouring galaxy,” said Dr James Mullaney, Lecturer in Astronomy and co-author of the study.
“Our surprising findings show that the rate of TDEs dramatically increases when galaxies collide. This is likely due to the fact that the collisions lead to large numbers of stars being formed close to the central supermassive black holes in the two galaxies as they merge together.”

The supermassive black holes that lurk in the hearts of all large galaxies can be elusive. This is because they don’t shine in a conventional sense due to their gravity being so strong that nothing can escape, not even light itself. However, the release of energy as stars are ripped apart when they move close to the black holes leads to dramatic flares. The galaxies’ nuclei can then appear as bright as all the billions of stars in a typical galaxy combined. In this way, TDEs can be used to locate otherwise dim black holes and study their strong gravity and how they accrete matter.

“Our team first observed the 15 colliding galaxies in the sample in 2005, during a previous project,” said Rob Spence, University of Sheffield PhD student and co-author of the study.

“However, when we observed the sample again in 2015, we noticed that one galaxy – F01004-2237 – appeared strikingly different. This led us to look at data from the Catalina Sky Survey, which monitors the brightness of objects in the sky over time. We found that in 2010, the brightness of F01004-2237 flared dramatically.”

The particular combination of variability and post-flare spectrum observed in F01004-2237 – which is 1.7 billion light years from Earth – was unlike any known supernova or active galactic nucleus, but characteristic of TDEs.

Clive Tadhunter, Professor of Astrophysics and leader of the study, said: “Based on our results for F01004-2237, we expect that TDE events will become common in our own Milky Way galaxy when it eventually merges with the neighbouring Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years.

“Looking towards the centre of the Milky Way at the time of the merger we’d see a flare approximately every 10 to 100 years. The flares would be visible to the naked eye and appear much brighter than any other star or planet in the night sky.”

Earth Probably Began With A Solid Shell

Today’s Earth is a dynamic planet with an outer layer composed of giant plates that grind together, sliding past or dipping beneath one another, giving rise to earthquakes and volcanoes. Others separate at undersea mountain ridges, where molten rock spreads out from the centers of major ocean basins.

But new research suggests that this was not always the case. Instead, shortly after Earth formed and began to cool, the planet’s first outer layer was a single, solid but deformable shell. Later, this shell began to fold and crack more widely, giving rise to modern plate tectonics.

The research, described in a paper published February 27, 2017 in the journal Nature, is the latest salvo in a long-standing debate in the geological research community: did plate tectonics start right away—a theory known as uniformitarianism—or did Earth first go through a long phase with a solid shell covering the entire planet? The new results suggest the solid shell model is closest to what really happened.

“Models for how the first continental crust formed generally fall into two groups: those that invoke modern-style plate tectonics and those that do not,” said Michael Brown, a professor of geology at the University of Maryland and a co-author of the study. “Our research supports the latter—a ‘stagnant lid’ forming the planet’s outer shell early in Earth’s history.”

To reach these conclusions, Brown and his colleagues from Curtin University and the Geological Survey of Western Australia studied rocks collected from the East Pilbara Terrane, a large area of ancient granitic crust located in the state of Western Australia. Rocks here are among the oldest known, ranging from 3.5 to about 2.5 billion years of age. (Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old.) The researchers specifically selected granites with a chemical composition usually associated with volcanic arcs—a telltale sign of plate tectonic activity.

Brown and his colleagues also looked at basalt rocks from the associated Coucal formation. Basalt is the rock produced when volcanoes erupt, but it also forms the ocean floor, as molten basalt erupts at spreading ridges in the center of ocean basins. In modern-day plate tectonics, when ocean floor basalt reaches the continents, it dips—or subducts—beneath the Earth’s surface, where it generates fluids that allow the overlying mantle to melt and eventually create large masses of granite beneath the surface.

Previous research suggested that the Coucal basalts could be the source rocks for the granites in the Pilbara Terrane, because of the similarities in their chemical composition. Brown and his collaborators set out to verify this, but also to test another long-held assumption: could the Coucal basalts have melted to form granite in some way other than subduction of the basalt beneath Earth’s surface? If so, perhaps plate tectonics was not yet happening when the Pilbara granites formed.

To address this question, the researchers performed thermodynamic calculations to determine the phase equilibria of average Coucal basalt. Phase equilibria are precise descriptions of how a substance behaves under various temperature and pressure conditions, including the temperature at which melting begins, the amount of melt produced and its chemical composition.

For example, one of the simplest phase equilibria diagrams describes the behavior of water: at low temperatures and/or high pressures, water forms solid ice, while at high temperatures and/or low pressures, water forms gaseous steam. Phase equilibria gets a bit more involved with rocks, which have complex chemical compositions that can take on very different mineral combinations and physical characteristics based on temperature and pressure.

“If you take a rock off the shelf and melt it, you can get a phase diagram. But you’re stuck with a fixed chemical composition,” Brown said. “With thermodynamic modeling, you can change the composition, pressure and temperature independently. It’s much more flexible and helps us to answer some questions we can’t address with experiments on rocks.”

Using the Coucal basalts and Pilbara granites as a starting point, Brown and his colleagues constructed a series of modeling experiments to reflect what might have transpired in an ancient Earth without plate tectonics. Their results suggest that, indeed, the Pilbara granites could have formed from the Coucal basalts.
More to the point, this transformation could have occurred in a pressure and temperature scenario consistent with a “stagnant lid,” or a single shell covering the entire planet.

Plate tectonics substantially affects the temperature and pressure of rocks within Earth’s interior. When a slab of rock subducts under the Earth’s surface, the rock starts off relatively cool and takes time to gain heat. By the time it reaches a higher temperature, the rock has also reached a significant depth, which corresponds to high pressure—in the same way a diver experiences higher pressure at greater water depth.

In contrast, a “stagnant lid” regime would be very hot at relatively shallow depths and low pressures. Geologists refer to this as a “high thermal gradient.”

“Our results suggest the Pilbara granites were produced by melting of the Coucal basalts or similar materials in a high thermal gradient environment,” Brown said. “Additionally, the composition of the Coucal basalts indicates that they, too, came from an earlier generation of source rocks. We conclude that a multi-stage process produced Earth’s first continents in a ‘stagnant lid’ scenario before plate tectonics began.”

“Earth’s first stable continents did not form by subduction,” Tim Johnson, Michael Brown, Nicholas Gardiner, Christopher Kirkland and Hugh Smithies, was published February 27, 2017 in the journal Nature.

First Evidence Of Rocky Planet Formation In Tatooine System

Evidence of planetary debris surrounding a double sun, ‘Tatooine-like’ system has been found for the first time by a UCL-led team of researchers.

Published today in Nature Astronomy and funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the European Research Council, the study finds the remains of shattered asteroids orbiting a double sun consisting of a white dwarf and a brown dwarf roughly 1000 light-years away in a system called SDSS 1557.

The discovery is remarkable because the debris appears to be rocky and suggests that terrestrial planets like Tatooine – Luke Skywalker’s home world in Star Wars – might exist in the system. To date, all exoplanets discovered in orbit around double stars are gas giants, similar to Jupiter, and are thought to form in the icy regions of their systems.

In contrast to the carbon-rich icy material found in other double star systems, the planetary material identified in the SDSS 1557 system has a high metal content, including silicon and magnesium. These elements were identified as the debris flowed from its orbit onto the surface of the star, polluting it temporarily with at least 1017 g (or 1.1 trillion US tons) of matter, equating it to an asteroid at least 4 km in size.

Lead author, Dr Jay Farihi (UCL Physics & Astronomy), said: “Building rocky planets around two suns is a challenge because the gravity of both stars can push and pull tremendously, preventing bits of rock and dust from sticking together and growing into full-fledged planets. With the discovery of asteroid debris in the SDSS 1557 system, we see clear signatures of rocky planet assembly via large asteroids that formed, helping us understand how rocky exoplanets are made in double star systems.”

In the Solar System, the asteroid belt contains the leftover building blocks for the terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, so planetary scientists study the asteroids to gain a better understanding of how rocky, and potentially habitable planets are formed. The same approach was used by the team to study the SDSS 1557 system as any planets within it cannot yet be detected directly but the debris is spread in a large belt around the double stars, which is a much larger target for analysis.

The discovery came as a complete surprise, as the team assumed the dusty white dwarf was a single star but co-author Dr Steven Parsons (University of Valparaíso and University of Sheffield), an expert in double star (or binary) systems noticed the tell-tale signs. “We know of thousands of binaries similar to SDSS 1557 but this is the first time we’ve seen asteroid debris and pollution. The brown dwarf was effectively hidden by the dust until we looked with the right instrument”, added Parsons, “but when we observed SDSS 1557 in detail we recognised the brown dwarf’s subtle gravitational pull on the white dwarf.”

The team studied the binary system and the chemical composition of the debris by measuring the absorption of different wavelengths of light or ‘spectra’, using the Gemini Observatory South telescope and the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope, both located in Chile.

Co-author Professor Boris Gänsicke (University of Warwick) analysed these data and found they all told a consistent and compelling story. “Any metals we see in the white dwarf will disappear within a few weeks, and sink down into the interior, unless the debris is continuously flowing onto the star. We’ll be looking at SDSS 1557 next with Hubble, to conclusively show the dust is made of rock rather than ice.”

NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch Of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water — key to life as we know it — under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated — scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. “It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star — classified as an ultra-cool dwarf — is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person were standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing — transits — of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimized Spitzer’s ability to observe transiting planets during Spitzer’s “warm mission,” which began after the spacecraft’s coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.

In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft’s observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures — key factors in assessing their habitability.

‘Quartz’ Crystals At Earth’s Core Power Its Magnetic Field

The Earth’s core consists mostly of a huge ball of liquid metal lying at 3000 km beneath its surface, surrounded by a mantle of hot rock. Notably, at such great depths, both the core and mantle are subject to extremely high pressures and temperatures. Furthermore, research indicates that the slow creeping flow of hot buoyant rocks — moving several centimeters per year — carries heat away from the core to the surface, resulting in a very gradual cooling of the core over geological time. However, the degree to which the Earth’s core has cooled since its formation is an area of intense debate amongst Earth scientists.

In 2013 Kei Hirose, now Director of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech), reported that the Earth’s core may have cooled by as much as 1000 degrees Celsius since its formation 4.5 billion years ago. This large amount of cooling would be necessary to sustain the geomagnetic field, unless there was another as yet undiscovered source of energy. These results were a major surprise to the deep Earth community, and created what Peter Olson of Johns Hopkins University referred to as, “the New Core Heat Paradox,” in an article published in Science.

Core cooling and energy sources for the geomagnetic field were not the only difficult issues faced by the team. Another unresolved matter was uncertainty about the chemical composition of the core. “The core is mostly iron and some nickel, but also contains about 10% of light alloys such as silicon, oxygen, sulfur, carbon, hydrogen, and other compounds,” Hirose, lead author of the new study to be published in the journal Nature. “We think that many alloys are simultaneously present, but we don’t know the proportion of each candidate element.”

Now, in this latest research carried out in Hirose’s lab at ELSI, the scientists used precision cut diamonds to squeeze tiny dust-sized samples to the same pressures that exist at the Earth’s core. The high temperatures at the interior of the Earth were created by heating samples with a laser beam. By performing experiments with a range of probable alloy compositions under a variety of conditions, Hirose’s and colleagues are trying to identify the unique behavior of different alloy combinations that match the distinct environment that exists at the Earth’s core.

The search of alloys began to yield useful results when Hirose and his collaborators began mixing more than one alloy. “In the past, most research on iron alloys in the core has focused only on the iron and a single alloy,” says Hirose. “But in these experiments we decided to combine two different alloys containing silicon and oxygen, which we strongly believe exist in the core.”

The researchers were surprised to find that when they examined the samples in an electron microscope, the small amounts of silicon and oxygen in the starting sample had combined together to form silicon dioxide crystals — the same composition as the mineral quartz found at the surface of the Earth.

“This result proved important for understanding the energetics and evolution of the core,” says John Hernlund of ELSI, a co-author of the study. “We were excited because our calculations showed that crystallization of silicon dioxide crystals from the core could provide an immense new energy source for powering the Earth’s magnetic field.” The additional boost it provides is plenty enough to solve Olson’s paradox.

The team has also explored the implications of these results for the formation of the Earth and conditions in the early Solar System. Crystallization changes the composition of the core by removing dissolved silicon and oxygen gradually over time. Eventually the process of crystallization will stop when then core runs out of its ancient inventory of either silicon or oxygen.

“Even if you have silicon present, you can’t make silicon dioxide crystals without also having some oxygen available,” says ELSI scientist George Helffrich, who modeled the crystallization process for this study. “But this gives us clues about the original concentration of oxygen and silicon in the core, because only some silicon:oxygen ratios are compatible with this model.”

Prediction: More Gas-Giants Will Be Found Orbiting Sun-Like Stars

New planetary formation models from Carnegie’s Alan Boss indicate that there may be an undiscovered population of gas giant planets orbiting around Sun-like stars at distances similar to those of Jupiter and Saturn. His work is published by The Astrophysical Journal.

The population of exoplanets discovered by ongoing planet-hunting projects continues to increase. These discoveries can improve models that predict where to look for more of them.

The planets predicted by Boss in this study could hold the key to solving a longstanding debate about the formation of our Solar System’s giant planets out of the disk of gas and dust that surrounded the Sun in its youth.

One theory holds that gas giants form just like terrestrial planets do — by the slow accretion of rocky material from the rotating disk — until the object contains enough material to gravitationally attract a very large envelope of gas around a solid core. The other theory states that gas giant planets form rapidly when the disk gas forms spiral arms, which increase in mass and density until distinct clumps form that coalesce into baby gas giant planets.

One problem with the first option, called core accretion, is that it can’t explain how gas giant planets form beyond a certain orbital distance from their host stars — a phenomenon that is increasingly found by intrepid planet hunters. However, models of the second theory, called disk instability, have indicated the formation of planets with orbits between about 20 and 50 times the distance between Earth and the Sun.

“Given the existence of gas giant planets on such wide orbits, disk instability or something similar must be involved in the creation of at least some exoplanets,” Boss said. “However, whether or not this method could create closer-orbiting gas giant planets remains unanswered.”

Boss set out to use his modeling tools to learn if gas giant planets can form closer to their host stars by taking a new look at the disk-cooling process. His simulations indicate that there may be a largely unseen population of gas giant planets orbiting Sun-like stars at distances between 6 and 16 times that separating Earth and the Sun. (For context Jupiter is just over five times as distant from the Sun as Earth is, and Saturn is over nine times as distant.)

“NASA’s upcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope may be ideally suited to test my predictions here,” Boss added.

Experiments Call Origin Of Earth’s Iron Into Question

New research from The University of Texas at Austin reveals that the Earth’s unique iron composition isn’t linked to the formation of the planet’s core, calling into question a prevailing theory about the events that shaped our planet during its earliest years.

The research, published in Nature Communications on Feb. 20, opens the door for other competing theories about why the Earth, relative to other planets, has higher levels of heavy iron isotopes. Among them: light iron isotopes may have been vaporized into space by a large impact with another planet that formed the moon; the slow churning of the mantle as it makes and recycles the Earth’s crust may preferentially incorporate heavy iron into rock; or, the composition of the raw material that formed the planet in its earliest days may have been enriched with heavy iron.

An isotope is a variety of atom that has a different weight from other atoms of the same element because it has a different numbers of neutrons.

“The Earth’s core formation was probably the biggest event affecting Earth’s history. Materials that make up the whole Earth were melted and differentiated,” said Jung-Fu Lin, a professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences and one of the study’s authors. “But in this study, we say that there must be other origins for Earth’s iron isotope anomaly.”

Jin Liu, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, led the research while earning his Ph.D. at the Jackson School. Collaborators include scientists from The University of Chicago, Sorbonne Universities in France, Argonne National Laboratory, the Center for High Pressure Science and Advanced Technology Research in China, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Rock samples from other planetary bodies and objects — ranging from the moon, to Mars, to ancient meteorites called chondrites — all share about the same ratio of heavy to light iron isotopes. In comparison to these samples from space, rocks from Earth have about 0.01 percent more heavy iron isotopes than light isotopes.

That might not sound like much, but Lin said it’s significant enough to make the Earth’s iron composition unique among known worlds.

“This 0.01 percent anomaly is very significant compared with, say, chondrites,” Lin said. “This significant difference thus represents a different source or origin of our planet.”

Lin said that one of the most popular theories to explain the Earth’s iron signature is that the relatively large size of the planet (compared with other rocky bodies in the solar system) created high pressure and high temperature conditions during core formation that made different proportions of heavy and light iron isotopes accumulate in the core and mantle. This resulted in a larger share of heavy iron isotopes bonding with elements that make up the rocky mantle, while lighter iron isotopes bonded together and with other trace metals to form the Earth’s core.

But when the research team used a diamond anvil to subject small samples of metal alloys and silicate rocks to core formation pressures, they not only found that the iron isotopes stayed put, but that the bonds between iron and other elements got stronger. Instead of breaking and rebonding with common mantle or core elements, the initial bond configuration got sturdier.

“Our high pressure studies find that iron isotopic fractionation between silicate mantle and metal core is minimal,” said Liu, the lead author.

Co-author Nicolas Dauphas, a professor at the University of Chicago, emphasized that analyzing the atomic scale measurements was a feat unto itself.

“One has to use sophisticated mathematical techniques to make sense of the measurements,” he said. “It took a dream team to pull this off.”

Helen Williams, a geology lecturer at the University of Cambridge, said it’s difficult to know the physical conditions of Earth’s core formation, but that the high pressures in the experiment make for a more realistic simulation.

“This is a really elegant study using a highly novel approach that confirms older experimental results and extends them to much higher pressures appropriate to the likely conditions of core-mantle equilibrium on Earth,” Williams said.

Lin said it will take more research to uncover the reason for the Earth’s unique iron signature, and that experiments that approximate early conditions on Earth will play a key role because rocks from the core are impossible to attain.