Black Hole Research Could Aid Understanding Of How Small Galaxies Evolve

Scientists have solved a cosmic mystery by finding evidence that supermassive black holes prevent stars forming in some smaller galaxies.

These giant black holes are over a million times more massive than the Sun and sit in the centre of galaxies sending out powerful winds that quench the star-making process. Astronomers previously thought they had no influence on the formation of stars in dwarf galaxies but a new study from the University of Portsmouth has proved their role in the process.

The results, presented today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, are particularly important because dwarf galaxies (those composed of up to 100 million to several billion stars) are far more numerous than bigger systems and what happens in these is likely to give a more typical picture of the evolution of galaxies.

“Dwarf galaxies outnumber larger galaxies like the Milky Way 50 to one,” says lead researcher Dr Samantha Penny, of the University’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation. “So if we want to tell the full story of galaxies, we need to understand how dwarf systems work.”

In any galaxy stars are born when clouds of gas collapse under the force of their own gravity. But stars don’t keep being born forever — at some point star formation in a galaxy shuts off. The reason for this differs in different galaxies but sometimes a supermassive black hole is the culprit.

Supermassive black holes can regulate their host galaxy’s ability to form new stars through a heating process. The black hole drives energy through powerful winds. When this wind hits the giant molecular clouds in which stars would form, it heats the gas, preventing its collapse into new stars.

Previous research has shown that this process can prevent star formation in larger galaxies containing hundreds of billions of stars — but it was believed a different process could be responsible for dwarf galaxies ceasing to produce stars. Scientists previously thought that the larger galaxies could have been interacting gravitationally with the dwarf systems and pulling the star-making gas away.

Data, however, showed the researchers that the dwarf galaxies under observation were still accumulating gas which should re-start star formation in a red, dead galaxy but wasn’t. This led the team to the supermassive black hole discovery.

Dr Penny said: “Our results are important for astronomy because they potentially impact how we understand galaxy evolution. Supermassive black holes weren’t thought to influence dwarf systems but we’ve shown that isn’t the case. This may well have a big influence on future research as simulations of galaxy formation don’t usually include the heating effect of supermassive black holes in low-mass galaxies, including the dwarf systems we have examined in this work.”

The team of international scientists used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), which has a telescope based in New Mexico, to make their observations. Using SDSS’s Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA) survey, they were able to map the processes acting on the dwarf galaxies through the star systems’ heated gas, which could be detected. The heated gas revealed the presence of a central supermassive black hole, or active galactic nucleus (AGN), and through MaNGA the team were able to observe the effect that the AGN had on their host dwarf galaxies.

Saturn’s Moon Titan Sports Earth-Like Features

Using the now-complete Cassini data set, Cornell astronomers have created a new global topographic map of Saturn’s moon Titan that has opened new windows into understanding its liquid flows and terrain. Two new papers, published Dec. 2 in Geophysical Review Letters, describe the map and discoveries arising from it.

Creating the map took about a year, according to doctoral student Paul Corlies, first author on “Titan’s Topography and Shape at the End of the Cassini Mission.” The map combines all of the Titan topography data from multiple sources. Since only about 9 percent of Titan has been observed in relatively high-resolution topography, with 25-30 percent of the topography imaged in lower resolution, the remainder of the moon was mapped using an interpolation algorithm and a global minimization process, which reduced errors such as those arising from spacecraft location.

The map revealed several new features on Titan, including new mountains, none higher than 700 meters. The map also provides a global view of the highs and lows of Titan’s topography, which enabled the scientists to confirm that two locations in the equatorial region of Titan are in fact depressions that could be either ancient, dried seas or cryovolcanic flows.

The map also revealed that Titan is a little bit flatter — more oblate — than was previously known, which suggests there is more variability in the thickness of Titan’s crust than previously thought.

“The main point of the work was to create a map for use by the scientific community,” said Corlies; within 30 minutes of the data set being available online, he began to receive inquiries on how to use it. The data set is downloadable in the form of the data that was observed, as well as that data plus interpolated data that was not observed. The map will be important for those modeling Titan’s climate, studying Titan’s shape and gravity, and testing interior models, as well as for those seeking to understand morphologic land forms on Titan.

Other Cornell authors on the paper are senior author Alex Hayes, assistant professor of astronomy, doctoral candidate Samuel Birch and research associate Valerio Poggiali.

The second paper, “Topographic Constraints on the Evolution and Connectivity of Titan’s Lacustrine Basins,” finds three important results using the new map’s topographical data. The team included Hayes, Corlies, Birch, Poggiali, research associate Marco Mastrogiuseppe and Roger Michaelides ’15.

The first result is that Titan’s three seas share a common equipotential surface, meaning they form a sea level, just as Earth’s oceans do. Either because there’s flow through the subsurface between the seas or because the channels between them allow enough liquid to pass through, the oceans on Titan are all at the same elevation.

“We’re measuring the elevation of a liquid surface on another body 10 astronomical units away from the sun to an accuracy of roughly 40 centimeters. Because we have such amazing accuracy we were able to see that between these two seas the elevation varied smoothly about 11 meters, relative to the center of mass of Titan, consistent with the expected change in the gravitational potential. We are measuring Titan’s geoid. This is the shape that the surface would take under the influence of gravity and rotation alone, which is the same shape that dominates Earth’s oceans,” said Hayes.

The paper’s second result proves a hypothesis that Hayes advanced in his first paper, in graduate school: that Titan’s lakes communicate with each other through the subsurface. Hayes and his team measured the elevation of lakes filled with liquid as well as those that are now dry, and found that lakes exist hundreds of meters above sea level, and that within a watershed, the floors of the empty lakes are all at higher elevations than the filled lakes in their vicinity.

“We don’t see any empty lakes that are below the local filled lakes because, if they did go below that level, they would be filled themselves. This suggests that there’s flow in the subsurface and that they are communicating with each other,” said Hayes. “It’s also telling us that there is liquid hydrocarbon stored on the subsurface of Titan.”

The paper’s final result raises a new mystery for Titan. Researchers found that the vast majority of Titan’s lakes sit in sharp-edged depressions that “literally look like you took a cookie cutter and cut out holes in Titan’s surface,” Hayes said. The lakes are surrounded by high ridges, hundreds of meters high in some places.

The lakes seem to be formed the way karst is on Earth, in places like the Florida Everglades, where underlying material dissolves and the surface collapses, forming holes in the ground. The lakes on Titan, like Earth’s karst, are topographically closed, with no inflow or outflow channels. But Earth karst does not have sharp, raised rims.

The shape of the lakes indicates a process called uniform scarp retreat, where the borders of the lakes are expanding by a constant amount each time. The largest lake in the south, for example, looks like a series of smaller empty lakes that have coalesced or conglomerated into one big feature.

“But if these things do grow outward, does that mean you’re destroying and recreating the rims all the time and that the rims are moving outward with it? Understanding these things is in my opinion the lynchpin to understanding the evolution of the polar basins on Titan,” said Hayes.

The research was supported by grants from NASA and the Italian Space Agency.

Researchers Measure The Inner Structure Of Distant Suns From Their Pulsations

At first glance, it would seem to be impossible to look inside a star. An international team of astronomers, under the leadership of Earl Bellinger and Saskia Hekker of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, has, for the first time, determined the deep inner structure of two stars based on their oscillations.

Our Sun, and most other stars, experience pulsations that spread through the star’s interior as sound waves. The frequencies of these waves are imprinted on the light of the star, and can be later seen by astronomers here on Earth. Similar to how seismologists decipher the inner structure of our planet by analyzing earthquakes, astronomers determine the properties of stars from their pulsations—a field called asteroseismology. Now, for the first time, a detailed analysis of these pulsations has enabled Earl Bellinger, Saskia Hekker and their colleagues to measure the internal structure of two distant stars.

The two stars they analyzed are part of the 16 Cygni system (known as 16 Cyg A and 16 Cyg B) and both are very similar to our own sun. “Due to their small distance of only 70 light years, these stars are relatively bright and thus ideally suited for our analysis,” says lead author Earl Bellinger. “Previously, it was only possible to make models of the stars’ interiors. Now we can measure them.”

To make a model of a star’s interior, astrophysicists vary stellar evolution models until one of them fits to the observed frequency spectrum. However, the pulsations of the theoretical models often differ from those of the stars, most likely due to some stellar physics still being unknown.

Bellinger and Hekker therefore decided to use the inverse method. Here, they derived the local properties of the stellar interior from the observed frequencies. This method depends less on theoretical assumptions, but it requires excellent measurement data quality and is mathematically challenging.

Using the inverse method, the researchers looked more than 500,000 km deep into the stars—and found that the speed of sound in the central regions is greater than predicted by the models. “In the case of 16 Cyg B, these differences can be explained by correcting what we thought to be the mass and the size of the star,” says Bellinger. In the case of 16 Cyg A, however, the cause of the discrepancies could not be identified.

It is possible that as-yet unknown physical phenomena are not sufficiently taken into account by the current evolutionary models. “Elements that were created in the early phases of the star’s evolution may have been transported from the core of the star to its outer layers,” explains Bellinger. “This would change the internal stratification of the star, which then affects how it oscillates.”

This first structural analysis of the two stars will be followed by more. “Ten to 20 additional stars suitable for such an analysis can be found in the data from the Kepler Space Telescope,” says Saskia Hekker, who leads the Stellar Ages and Galactic Evolution (SAGE) Research Group at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. In the future, NASA’s TESS mission (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and the PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillation of Stars) space telescope planned by the European Space Agency (ESA) will collect even more data for this research field.

The inverse method delivers new insights that will help to improve our understanding of the physics that happens in stars. This will lead to better stellar models, which will then improve our ability to predict the future evolution of the sun and other stars in our galaxy.

Tabby’s Star: Alien Megastructure Not The Cause Of Dimming Of The ‘Most Mysterious Star In The Universe’

A team of more than 200 researchers, including Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics Assistant Professor Jason Wright and led by Louisiana State University’s Tabetha Boyajian, is one step closer to solving the mystery behind the “most mysterious star in the universe.” KIC 8462852, or “Tabby’s Star,” nicknamed after Boyajian, is otherwise an ordinary star, about 50 percent bigger and 1,000 degrees hotter than the Sun, and about than 1,000 light years away. However, it has been inexplicably dimming and brightening sporadically like no other. Several theories abound to explain the star’s unusual light patterns, including that an alien megastructure is orbiting the star.

The mystery of Tabby’s Star is so compelling that more than 1,700 people donated over $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in support of dedicated ground-based telescope time to observe and gather more data on the star through a network of telescopes around the world. As a result, a body of data collected by Boyajian and colleagues in partnership with the Las Cumbres Observatory is now available in a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“We were hoping that once we finally caught a dip happening in real time we could see if the dips were the same depth at all wavelengths. If they were nearly the same, this would suggest that the cause was something opaque, like an orbiting disk, planet, or star, or even large structures in space” said Wright, who is a co-author of the paper, titled “The First Post-Kepler Brightness Dips of KIC 8462852.” Instead, the team found that the star got much dimmer at some wavelengths than at others.

“Dust is most likely the reason why the star’s light appears to dim and brighten. The new data shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities. Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure,” Boyajian said.

The scientists closely observed the star through the Las Cumbres Observatory from March 2016 to December 2017. Beginning in May 2017 there were four distinct episodes when the star’s light dipped. Supporters from the crowdfunding campaign nominated and voted to name these episodes. The first two dips were named Elsie and Celeste. The last two were named after ancient lost cities — Scotland’s Scara Brae and Cambodia’s Angkor. The authors write that in many ways what is happening with the star is like these lost cities.

“They’re ancient; we are watching things that happened more than 1,000 years ago,” the authors wrote. “They’re almost certainly caused by something ordinary, at least on a cosmic scale. And yet that makes them more interesting, not less. But most of all, they’re mysterious.”

The method in which this star is being studied — by gathering and analyzing a flood of data from a single target — signals a new era of astronomy. Citizen scientists sifting through massive amounts of data from the NASA Kepler mission were the ones to detect the star’s unusual behavior in the first place. The main objective of the Kepler mission was to find planets, which it does by detecting the periodic dimming made from a planet moving in front of a star, and hence blocking out a tiny bit of starlight. The online citizen science group Planet Hunters was established so that volunteers could help to classify light curves from the Kepler mission and to search for such planets.

“If it wasn’t for people with an unbiased look on our universe, this unusual star would have been overlooked,” Boyajian said. “Again, without the public support for this dedicated observing run, we would not have this large amount of data.”

Now there are more answers to be found. “This latest research rules out alien megastructures, but it raises the plausibility of other phenomena being behind the dimming,” Wright said. “There are models involving circumstellar material — like exocomets, which were Boyajian’s team’s original hypothesis — which seem to be consistent with the data we have.” Wright also points out that “some astronomers favor the idea that nothing is blocking the star — that it just gets dimmer on its own — and this also is consistent with this summer’s data.”

Boyajian said, “It’s exciting. I am so appreciative of all of the people who have contributed to this in the past year — the citizen scientists and professional astronomers. It’s quite humbling to have all of these people contributing in various ways to help figure it out.”

Meteorite Analysis Shows Reduced Salt Is Key In Earth’s New Recipe

Scientists have found the halogen levels in the meteorites that formed the Earth billions of years ago are much lower than previously thought.

The research was carried out by international team of researchers, led by the Universities of Manchester and Oxford, and has recently been published in Nature.

Halogens such as Chlorine, Bromine and Iodine, form naturally occurring salts which are essential for most life forms — but too much can prohibit life. When previously comparing halogen levels in meteorites that formed the planet, the Earth should have unhealthy levels of salt.

Many theories have been put forward to explain the mystery of why, instead, Earth salt concentrations are ‘just right’. The answer turns out to be quite simple — previous estimates meteorites were just too high.

Using a new analytical technique, the team looked at different kinds of chondrite meteorites, a type of primitive meteorite approximately 4.6 billion years old.

Dr Patricia Clay, lead author of the study from the University of Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES), said: ‘These kinds of meteorites are remnants of the solar nebula, a molecular cloud made up of interstellar dust and hydrogen gas that predates our Solar System. Studying them provides important clues for our understanding of the origin and age of the Solar System.’

How the Earth acquired its volatile elements has long interested scientists. To answer the question the team re-examined one of the largest collection of meteorites assembled for this type of study.

They found that previous estimates of halogen levels in meteorites were too high, but the technique used by the team helped them avoid contaminated sources.

Dr Clay explains: “No single model of Earth formation using the old meteorite measurements could easily account for the halogens we see today. Some of these models needed catastrophic planetary wide removal of halogens without affecting related elements — which just didn’t make sense.”

Professor Ray Burgess, co-author and also from The University of Manchester, added: “The new simplified model we have developed is a big step forward in understanding how key ingredients essential for life were brought to our planet, including water that probably helped distribute the halogens between the planetary interior and surface.”

The results were a huge surprise, and time after time each meteorite measured was found to have halogen levels far lower than previously thought, and remarkably consistent between different types of meteorites.

Professor Chris Ballentine, co-author from the University of Oxford and who designed the study, added: “Another big surprise of the study was just how uniform the halogen content of very different meteorites actually is — this is an incredibly important picture into the processes that formed the meteorites themselves — but also means that whatever meteorites formed the earth the halogen ingredients for Earth’s recipe remains the same.”

Researchers Present List Of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Ingredients

The dust that comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko emits into space consists to about one half of organic molecules. The dust belongs to the most pristine and carbon-rich material known in our solar system and has hardly changed since its birth. These results of the COSIMA team are published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. COSIMA is an instrument onboard the Rosetta spacecraft, which investigated comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from August 2014 to September 2016. In their current study, the involved researchers including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) analyze as comprehensively as ever before, what chemical elements constitute cometary dust.

When a comet traveling along it highly elliptical orbit approaches the Sun, it becomes active: frozen gases evaporate, dragging tiny dust grains into space. Capturing and examining these grains provides the opportunity to trace the “building materials” of the comet itself. So far, only few space missions have succeeded in this endeavor. These include ESA’s Rosetta mission. Unlike their predecessors, for their current study the Rosetta researchers were able to collect and analyze dust particles of various sizes over a period of approximately two years. In comparison, earlier missions, such as Giotto’s Flyby of comet 1P/Halley or Stardust, which even returned cometary dust from comet 81P/Wild 2 back to Earth, provided only a snapshot. In the case of the space probe Stardust, which raced past its comet in 2004, the dust had changed significantly during capture, so that a quantitative analysis was only possible to a limited extent.

In the course of the Rosetta mission, COSIMA collected more than 35000 dust grains. The smallest of them measured only 0.01 millimeters in diameter, the largest about one millimeter. The instrument makes it possible to first observe the individual dust grains with a microscope. In a second step, these grains are bombarded with a high-energy beam of indium ions. The secondary ions emitted in this way can then be “weighed” and analyzed in the COSIMA mass spectrometer. For the current study, the researchers limited themselves to 30 dust grains with properties that ensured a meaningful analysis. Their selection includes dust grains from all phases of the Rosetta mission and of all sizes.

“Our analyzes show that the composition of all these grains is very similar,” MPS researcher Dr. Martin Hilchenbach, Principal Investigator of the COSIMA team, describes the results. The scientists conclude that the comet’s dust consists of the same “ingredients” as the comet’s nucleus and thus can be examined in its place.

As the study shows, organic molecules are among those ingredients at the top of the list. These account for about 45 percent of the weight of the solid cometary material. “Rosetta’s comet thus belongs to the most carbon-rich bodies we know in the solar system,” says MPS scientist and COSIMA team member Dr. Oliver Stenzel. The other part of the total weight, about 55 percent, is provided by mineral substances, mainly silicates. It is striking that they are almost exclusively non-hydrated minerals i.e. missing water compounds.

“Of course, Rosetta’s comet contains water like any other comet, too,” says Hilchenbach. “But because comets have spent most of their time at the icy rim of the solar system, it has almost always been frozen and could not react with the minerals.” The researchers therefore regard the lack of hydrated minerals in the comet’s dust as an indication that 67P contains very pristine material.

This conclusion is supported by the ratio of certain elements such as carbon to silicon. With more than 5, this value is very close to the Sun’s value, which is thought to reflect the ratio found in the early solar system.
The current findings also touch on our ideas of how life on Earth came about. In a previous publication, the COSIMA team was able to show that the carbon found in Rosetta’s comet is mainly in the form of large, organic macromolecules. Together with the current study, it becomes clear that these compounds make up a large part of the cometary material. Thus, if comets indeed supplied the early Earth with organic matter, as many researchers assume, it would probably have been mainly in the form of such macromolecules.

M– USE Probes Uncharted Depths Of Hubble Ultra Deep Field

The M– USE HUDF Survey team, led by Roland Bacon of the Centre de recherche astrophysique de Lyon (CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1/ENS de Lyon), France, used M– USE (Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer/ to observe the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (heic0406/, a much-studied patch of the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace). This resulted in the deepest spectroscopic observations ever made; precise spectroscopic information was measured for 1600 galaxies, ten times as many galaxies as has been painstakingly obtained in this field over the last decade by ground-based telescopes.

The original HUDF images were pioneering deep-field observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope published in 2004. They probed more deeply than ever before and revealed a menagerie of galaxies dating back to less than a billion years after the Big Bang. The area was subsequently observed many times by Hubble and other telescopes, resulting in the deepest view of the Universe to date. Now, despite the depth of the Hubble observations, M– USE has — among many other results — revealed 72 galaxies never seen before in this very tiny area of the sky.

Roland Bacon takes up the story: “M– USE can do something that Hubble can’t — it splits up the light from every point in the image into its component colours to create a spectrum. This allows us to measure the distance, colours and other properties of all the galaxies we can see — including some that are invisible to Hubble itself.”

The M– USE data provides a new view of dim, very distant galaxies, seen near the beginning of the Universe about 13 billion years ago. It has detected galaxies 100 times fainter than in previous surveys, adding to an already richly observed field and deepening our understanding of galaxies across the ages.

The survey unearthed 72 candidate galaxies known as Lyman-alpha emitters that shine only in Lyman-alpha light. Current understanding of star formation cannot fully explain these galaxies, which just seem to shine brightly in this one colour. Because M– USE disperses the light into its component colours these objects become apparent, but they remain invisible in deep direct images such as those from Hubble.

“M– USE has the unique ability to extract information about some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe — even in a part of the sky that is already very well studied,” explains Jarle Brinchmann, lead author of one of the papers describing results from this survey, from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences at CAUP in Porto, Portugal. “We learn things about these galaxies that is only possible with spectroscopy, such as chemical content and internal motions — not galaxy by galaxy but all at once for all the galaxies!”

Another major finding of this study was the systematic detection of luminous hydrogen halos around galaxies in the early Universe, giving astronomers a new and promising way to study how material flows in and out of early galaxies.

Many other potential applications of this dataset are explored in the series of papers, and they include studying the role of faint galaxies during cosmic reionisation (starting just 380,000 years after the Big Bang), galaxy merger rates when the Universe was young, galactic winds, star formation as well as mapping the motions of stars in the early Universe.

“Remarkably, these data were all taken without the use of M– USE’s recent Adaptive Optics Facility upgrade. The activation of the AOF after a decade of intensive work by ESO’s astronomers and engineers promises yet more revolutionary data in the future,” concludes Roland Bacon.