Double Star System Flips Planet-Forming Disk Into Pole Position

New research led by an astronomer at the University of Warwick has found the first confirmed example of a double star system that has flipped its surrounding disc to a position that leaps over the orbital plane of those stars. The international team of astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) to obtain high-resolution images of the Asteroid belt-sized disc.

The overall system presents the unusual sight of a thick hoop of gas and dust circling at right angles to the binary star orbit. Until now this setup only existed in theorists’ minds, but the ALMA observation proves that polar discs of this type exist, and may even be relatively common.

The new research is published today (14 January) by Royal Society University Research Fellow Dr Grant M. Kennedy of the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics and Centre for Exoplanets and Habitability in Nature Astronomy in a paper entitled “A circumbinary protoplanetary disc in a polar configuration.”

Dr Grant M. Kennedy of the University of Warwick said:

“Discs rich in gas and dust are seen around nearly all young stars, and we know that at least a third of the ones orbiting single stars form planets. Some of these planets end up being misaligned with the spin of the star, so we’ve been wondering whether a similar thing might be possible for circumbinary planets. A quirk of the dynamics means that a so-called polar misalignment should be possible, but until now we had no evidence of misaligned discs in which these planets might form.”

Dr Kennedy and his fellow researchers used ALMA to pin down the orientation of the ring of gas and dust in the system. The orbit of the binary was previously known, from observations that quantified how the stars move in relation to each other. By combining these two pieces of information they were able to establish that the dust ring was consistent with a perfectly polar orbit. This means that while the stellar orbits orbit each other in one plane, like two horses going around on a carousel, the disc surrounds these stars at right angles to their orbits, like a giant ferris wheel with the carousel at the centre.

Dr Grant M. Kennedy of the University of Warwick added:

“Perhaps the most exciting thing about this discovery is that the disc shows some of the same signatures that we attribute to dust growth in discs around single stars. We take this to mean planet formation can at least get started in these polar circumbinary discs. If the rest of the planet formation process can happen, there might be a whole population of misaligned circumbinary planets that we have yet to discover, and things like weird seasonal variations to consider.”

If there were a planet or planetoid present at the inner edge of the dust ring, the ring itself would appear from the surface as a broad band rising almost perpendicularly from the horizon. The polar configuration means that the stars would appear to move in and out of the disc plane, giving objects two shadows at times. Seasons on planets in such systems would also be different. On Earth they vary throughout the year as we orbit the Sun. A polar circumbinary planet would have seasons that also vary as different latitudes receive more or less illumination throughout the binary orbit.

Co-author Dr Daniel Price of Monash University’s Centre for Astrophysics (MoCA) and School of Physics and Astronomy added:

“We used to think other solar systems would form just like ours, with the planets all orbiting in the same direction around a single sun. But with the new images we see a swirling disc of gas and dust orbiting around two stars. It was quite surprising to also find that that disc orbits at right angles to the orbit of the two stars.

“Incredibly, two more stars were seen orbiting that disc. So if planets were born here there would be four suns in the sky!

“ALMA is just a fantastic telescope, it is teaching us so much about how planets in other solar systems are born.”

The research is supported by the Monash Warwick Alliance, established by the University of Warwick and Monash University in 2012 as a bold and innovative project to develop an Alliance with a breadth, scale and impact beyond standard practice in the sector.

California Storms Bring Fear Of Devastating Mudslides, Residents Warned To Evacuate

LOS ANGELES — A year after a mudslide swept through a fire-devastated California town, killing 21 people, residents of hundreds of homes in burn areas were told to pack up and leave as a Pacific storm threatened potential catastrophe.

In Riverside County east of Los Angeles, mandatory evacuations were ordered Monday for a dozen areas around the Holy Fire, which swept through an enormous swath of the Cleveland National Forest and surrounding areas last August.

“People in these zones MUST GO NOW. Rainstorms carry the potential for dangerous debris flows that can send mud, boulders and trees crashing down hillsides” with little or no warning, a county statement said.

The evacuation was later downgraded to voluntary, but authorities urged people to stay alert because of continuing rain forecasts.

In Santa Barbara County on the central coast, evacuation orders were set to take effect at 10 a.m. Tuesday for areas hit by the Sherpa, Whittier and Thomas fires.

“Gather family members, pets, and essential items,” a county statement said. A debris flow could also make roads impassable and strand people near the evacuation areas, especially in Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, the county warned.

After a devastating fire that burned and destabilized foothills, Montecito was hit by a powerful storm on Jan. 9, 2018, that sent water, mud and boulders sluicing down creeks and canyons. Twenty-three people died and over 100 homes were destroyed.

Weather forecasters have predicted a series of storms that could continue to bring rain and snow into the middle of the week. Flash flood watches were issued by the National Weather Service for burn areas in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, which could see as much as an inch of rain per hour from Tuesday afternoon into the evening.

All schools in Malibu were closed Tuesday.

Flooding and debris flows were a threat to hundreds of homes in areas below foothills and canyons that were swept by flames in recent years.

Los Angeles County authorities issued evacuation orders beginning Tuesday morning for some areas of the Woolsey Fire. The blaze that broke out in November destroyed more than 1,500 homes and other buildings from Ventura County to Malibu and killed four people.

On Monday, the first in the series of storms dumped an inch of rain in Los Angeles and snow in the mountains.

Rain closed the Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement parks.

In San Diego County, a 20-foot-long, 20-foot-deep sinkhole on an Interstate 805 off-ramp near Serra Mesa.

A mudslide closed a 4.4-mile section of section of Pacific Coast Highway just north of Malibu on Monday for several hours. In Encino, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, a guest house was pushed off its foundation by a 250-foot-long debris flow from a hillside. No one was hurt but the Fire Department said up to a dozen other homes were in the slide zone.

Ice and blowing snow shut down the Grapevine, a high pass on Interstate 5, a major route connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco. Dozens of cars and trucks were stranded before the road reopened after nightfall.

Santorini Volcano (Greece): Earthquake Swarm Southwest Off The Island

An earthquake swarm has been occurring near the island since this morning. So far, 16 quakes of magnitudes between 2 and 3.9 and at depths ranging between about 30-6 km have been detected.

The quakes are clustered about half way between Santorini’s SW end and the Christiana Island group.

The strongest shock with magnitude 3.9 occurred at 10:27 local time and might have been felt weakly by residents of the southern part of Santorini.

Although the quakes are near the Kameni line, a tectonic lineament in SW-NE direction which has been the preferred location for magma ascent (i.e. formation of volcanic vents) in the volcano’s past few 100,000 years of history, there is currently no indication that the earthquakes are volcanic in origin. It is much more likely that they represent a normal tectonic event.

However, Santorini being both a popular tourist destination and an active volcano, the situation merits close monitoring.

Cosmic Telescope Zooms In On The Beginning Of Time

Observations from Gemini Observatory identify a key fingerprint of an extremely distant quasar, allowing astronomers to sample light emitted from the dawn of time. Astronomers happened upon this deep glimpse into space and time thanks to an unremarkable foreground galaxy acting as a gravitational lens, which magnified the quasar’s ancient light. The Gemini observations provide critical pieces of the puzzle in confirming this object as the brightest appearing quasar so early in the history of the Universe, raising hopes that more sources like this will be found.

Before the cosmos reached its billionth birthday, some of the very first cosmic light began a long journey through the expanding Universe. One particular beam of light, from an energetic source called a quasar, serendipitously passed near an intervening galaxy, whose gravity bent and magnified the quasar’s light and refocused it in our direction, allowing telescopes like Gemini North to probe the quasar in great detail.

“If it weren’t for this makeshift cosmic telescope, the quasar’s light would appear about 50 times dimmer,” said Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona who led the study. “This discovery demonstrates that strongly gravitationally lensed quasars do exist despite the fact that we’ve been looking for over 20 years and not found any others this far back in time.”

The Gemini observations provided key pieces of the puzzle by filling a critical hole in the data. The Gemini North telescope on Maunakea, Hawai’i, utilized the Gemini Near-InfraRed Spectrograph (GNIRS) to dissect a significant swath of the infrared part of the light’s spectrum. The Gemini data contained the tell-tale signature of magnesium which is critical for determining how far back in time we are looking. The Gemini observations also led to a determination of the mass of the black hole powering the quasar. “When we combined the Gemini data with observations from multiple observatories on Maunakea, the Hubble Space Telescope, and other observatories around the world, we were able to paint a complete picture of the quasar and the intervening galaxy,” said Feige Wang of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is a member of the discovery team.

That picture reveals that the quasar is located extremely far back in time and space — shortly after what is known as the Epoch of Reionization — when the very first light emerged from the Big Bang. “This is one of the first sources to shine as the Universe emerged from the cosmic dark ages,” said Jinyi Yang of the University of Arizona, another member of the discovery team. “Prior to this, no stars, quasars, or galaxies had been formed, until objects like this appeared like candles in the dark.”

The foreground galaxy that enhances our view of the quasar is especially dim, which is extremely fortuitous. “If this galaxy were much brighter, we wouldn’t have been able to differentiate it from the quasar,” explained Fan, adding that this finding will change the way astronomers look for lensed quasars in the future and could significantly increase the number of lensed quasar discoveries. However, as Fan suggested, “We don’t expect to find many quasars brighter than this one in the whole observable Universe.”

The intense brilliance of the quasar, known as J0439+1634 (J0439+1634 for short), also suggests that it is fueled by a supermassive black hole at the heart of a young forming galaxy. The broad appearance of the magnesium fingerprint captured by Gemini also allowed astronomers to measure the mass of the quasar’s supermassive black hole at 700 million times that of the Sun. The supermassive black hole is most likely surrounded by a sizable flattened disk of dust and gas. This torus of matter — known as an accretion disk — most likely continually spirals inward to feed the black hole powerhouse. Observations at submillimeter wavelengths with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Maunakea suggest that the black hole is not only accreting gas but may be triggering star birth at a prodigious rate — which appears to be up to 10,000 stars per year; by comparison, our Milky Way Galaxy makes one star per year. However, because of the boosting effect of gravitational lensing, the actual rate of star formation could be much lower.

Quasars are extremely energetic sources powered by huge black holes thought to have resided in the very first galaxies to form in the Universe. Because of their brightness and distance, quasars provide a unique glimpse into the conditions in the early Universe. This quasar has a redshift of 6.51, which translates to a distance of 12.8 billion light years, and appears to shine with a combined light of about 600 trillion Suns, boosted by the gravitational lensing magnification. The foreground galaxy which bent the quasar’s light is about half that distance away, at a mere 6 billion light years from us.

Fan’s team selected J0439+1634 as a very distant quasar candidate based on optical data from several sources: the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System1 (Pan-STARRS1; operated by the University of Hawai’i’s Institute for Astronomy), the United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope Hemisphere Survey (conducted on Maunakea, Hawai’i), and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope archive.

The first follow-up spectroscopic observations, conducted at the Multi-Mirror Telescope in Arizona, confirmed the object as a high-redshift quasar. Subsequent observations with the Gemini North and Keck I telescopes in Hawai’i confirmed the MMT’s finding, and led to Gemini’s detection of the crucial magnesium fingerprint — the key to nailing down the quasar’s fantastic distance. However, the foreground lensing galaxy and the quasar appear so close that it is impossible to separate them with images taken from the ground due to blurring of the Earth’s atmosphere. It took the exquisitely sharp images by the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal that the quasar image is split into three components by a faint lensing galaxy.

The quasar is ripe for future scrutiny. Astronomers also plan to use the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, and eventually NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, to look within 150 light-years of the black hole and directly detect the influence of the gravity from black hole on gas motion and star formation in its vicinity. Any future discoveries of very distant quasars like J0439+1634 will continue to teach astronomers about the chemical environment and the growth of massive black holes in our early Universe.

Birth Of A Black Hole Or Neutron Star Captured For First Time

A Northwestern University-led international team is getting closer to understanding the mysteriously bright object that burst in the northern sky this summer.

On June 17, the ATLAS survey’s twin telescopes in Hawaii found a spectacularly bright anomaly 200 million light years away in the Hercules constellation. Dubbed AT2018cow or “The Cow,” the object quickly flared up, then vanished almost as quickly.

After combining several imaging sources, including hard X-rays and radiowaves, the multi-institutional team now speculates that the telescopes captured the exact moment a star collapsed to form a compact object, such as a black hole or neutron star. The stellar debris, approaching and swirling around the object’s event horizon, caused the remarkably bright glow.

This rare event will help astronomers better understand the physics at play within the first moments of the creation of a black hole or neutron star. “We think that ‘The Cow’ is the formation of an accreting black hole or neutron star,” said Northwestern’s Raffaella Margutti, who led the research. “We know from theory that black holes and neutron stars form when a star dies, but we’ve never seen them right after they are born. Never.”

Margutti will present her findings at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society at 2:15 p.m. PST on Jan. 10 in Seattle. (Reporters can join the session to watch, listen and ask questions via webcast.) The research will then be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Margutti is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics), an endowed research center at Northwestern focused on advancing astrophysics studies with an emphasis on interdisciplinary connections.

The curious Cow

After it was first spotted, The Cow captured immediate international interest and left astronomers scratching their heads. “We thought it must be a supernova,” Margutti said. “But what we observed challenged our current notions of stellar death.”

For one, the anomaly was unnaturally bright — 10 to 100 times brighter than a typical supernova. It also flared up and disappeared much faster than other known star explosions, with particles flying at 30,000 kilometers per second (or 10 percent of the speed of light). Within just 16 days, the object had already emitted most of its power. In a universe where some phenomena last for millions and billions of years, two weeks amounts to the blink of an eye.

“We knew right away that this source went from inactive to peak luminosity within just a few days,” Margutti said. “That was enough to get everybody excited because it was so unusual and, by astronomical standards, it was very close by.”

Using Northwestern’s access to observational facilities at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the MMT Observatory in Arizona, as well as remote access to the SoAR telescope in Chile, Margutti took a closer look at the object’s makeup. Margutti and her team examined The Cow’s chemical composition, finding clear evidence of hydrogen and helium, which excluded models of compact objects merging — like those that produce gravitational waves.

Comprehensive strategy

Astronomers have traditionally studied stellar deaths in the optical wavelength, which uses telescopes to capture visible light. Margutti’s team, on the other hand, uses a more comprehensive approach. Her team viewed the object with X-rays, hard X-rays (which are 10 times more powerful than normal X-rays), radio waves and gamma rays. This enabled them to continue studying the anomaly long after its initial visible brightness faded.

After ATLAS spotted the object, Margutti’s team quickly obtained follow-up observations of The Cow with NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and INTEGRAL hard X-ray laboratories, soft X-rays at XMM-Newton and radio antennae at the Very Large Array toward The Cow.

Margutti attributes The Cow’s relative nakedness to potentially unraveling this intergalactic mystery. Although stars might collapse into black holes all the time, the large amount of material around newly born black holes blocks astronomers’ vision. Fortunately, about 10 times less ejecta swirled around The Cow as compared to a typical stellar explosion. The lack of material allowed astronomers to peer straight through to the object’s “central engine,” which revealed itself as a probable black hole or neutron star.

“A ‘lightbulb’ was sitting deep inside the ejecta of the explosion,” Margutti said. “It would have been hard to see this in a normal stellar explosion. But The Cow had very little ejecta mass, which allowed us to view the central engine’s radiation directly.”

Galactic neighbor

Margutti’s team also benefited from the star’s relative closeness to Earth. Even though it was nestled in the distant dwarf galaxy called CGCG 137-068, astronomers consider that to be “right around the corner.”

“Two hundred million light years is close for us, by the way,” Margutti said. “This is the closest transient object of this kind that we have ever found.”

Margutti’s team at Northwestern includes graduate student Aprajita Hajela, postdoctoral fellows Giacomo Terreran, Deanne Coppejans and Kate Alexander (who is a Hubble Fellow), and first-year undergraduate student Daniel Brethauer.

“Being given the opportunity to contribute to something as cutting edge and international as understanding AT2018cow as an undergrad is a surreal experience,” Brethauer said. “To have helped the world’s experts figure out what AT2018cow is even in the smallest way was beyond my wildest expectations at the beginning of the summer and something that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

The Lonely Giant: Milky Way-Sized Galaxy Lacking Galactic Neighbors

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, fewer galaxies were born than expected — and that could create new questions for galaxy physics, according to a new University of Michigan study.

The study examined the satellite galaxies of Messier 94, or M94, a galaxy similar in size to our Milky Way. Researchers have long known the Milky Way has about 10 smaller, satellite galaxies surrounding it, each with at least a million stars, and up to more than a billion, such as the Magellanic Clouds.

Now, with the powerful Subaru telescope, astronomers can peer at galaxies five or 10 times the distance from the Milky Way, such as M94. They then can use the physics of how satellite galaxies form around the Milky Way to predict how many satellite galaxies a similar-sized galaxy such as M94 may have.

When U-M astronomers examined M94, they expected to find a similar number of satellite galaxies. However, they detected just two galaxies near M94, with very few stars each. Their results, led by Adam Smercina, a National Science Foundation fellow in the U-M Department of Astronomy, are published in the journal Astrophysical Letters.

“More than just an observational oddity, we show that the current crop of galaxy formation models cannot produce such a satellite system,” Smercina said. “Our results indicate that Milky Way-like galaxies most likely host a much wider diversity of satellite populations than is predicted by any current model.”

Smercina also says their results have implications for the current understanding of how galaxies form — which is in much larger halos of dark matter.

These halos of dark matter surrounding galaxies have immense gravitational force, and can pull in gas from their immediate vicinity. Large galaxies like the Milky Way generally form in halos of about the same mass. But these smaller satellite galaxies, which form in smaller ‘subhalos,’ are not nearly so dependable.

The production rate of high-mass stars in these satellite galaxies actually modulates their growth. If, for example, the nascent satellite galaxy forms too many high-mass stars at one time, their eventual supernova explosions might expel all its gas and halt all further growth. But astronomers are unsure at what size halo this ‘scatter’ in galaxy formation becomes important.

Smercina says M94 indicates that galaxy formation in intermediate-sized dark halos may be much more uncertain than previously thought.

“We think that that scatter — the range of galaxies we expect to see — may be a lot higher than what people currently think for dark matter halos of a certain mass,” he said. “Nobody’s under any illusions as to there being this huge scatter at the very lowest halo masses, but it’s at these intermediate dark matter halos that the discussion is happening.”

To observe the number of satellite dwarf galaxies around M94, the researchers took a composite image of the large galaxy. The image covered about 12 square degrees of the night sky — the full moon, for comparison, appears as about one square degree. This kind of image includes layers and layers of “noise,” including cosmic rays and scattered light, which make faint dwarf galaxies difficult to detect.

To make sure they weren’t missing satellite galaxies, Smercina and his team engineered artificial galaxies back into the image and recovered them using the same methods as for real satellites. With this technique, the researchers confirmed that were no more than two galaxies around M94.

“The real kicker is whether or not the community expected this could be possible,” Smercina said. “That is the real curiosity of this finding — the result is something the simulations don’t predict. When you can discover something we didn’t really think we could find, you can make a contribution to our understanding of how our universe works, that’s really rewarding.”

Magnitude 6.1 Earthquake Near Adak, Tsunami Not Expected

A magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck 57 miles southwest of Adak, Alaska, at 9:47 Saturday morning. At this time, a tsunami is not expected, according to the National Weather Service Tsunami Warning Center.

The earthquake epicenter was some 37 miles south of Bobrof island, just 62 miles deep. The area is in the far western Aleutians, some 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

At this time there are no reports of damage.