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.

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.”

Astronomers Detect an Intense Luminous Gamma-Ray Flare

An international group of astronomers has detected an intense and extremely luminous gamma-ray flare from one of high-redshift blazars known as DA 193. The new detection, reported in a paper published December 18 on arXiv.org, is an uncommon finding as such bright flares are rarely observed from high-redshift sources.

Blazars, classified as members of a larger group of active galaxies that host active galactic nuclei (AGN), are the most numerous extragalactic gamma-ray sources. Their characteristic features are relativistic jets pointed almost exactly toward the Earth. In general, blazars are perceived by astronomers as high-energy engines serving as natural laboratories to study particle acceleration, relativistic plasma processes, magnetic field dynamics and black hole physics.

Studies show that high-redshift blazars (with redshifts above 2.0) hosting massive black holes and the most powerful relativistic jets are the most luminous ones. Finding and observing new blazars at high redshifts could be crucial for providing insights into many phenomena of the universe, including the evolution and space density of massive black holes.

A team of researchers led by Vaidehi S. Paliya of DESY research center in Zeuthen, Germany, investigated one such high-redshift blazer. They used the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on board NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and other instruments to characterize physical properties DA 193 – a blazar observed close to the galactic anti-center at a redshift of approximately 2.36. These observations resulted in the detection of significant gamma-ray emission from this object.

“In this work, we present the results of our study on another high-redshift blazar DA 193 (also known as 0552+398; z = 2.363, Wills & Wills 1976; McIntosh et al. 1999) which we have found as a new gamma-ray emitting object through our detailed Fermi-LAT analysis,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

DA 193 underwent a significant GeV flare in the first week of 2018. According to the study, it was an extremely luminous gamma-ray flare with a luminosity of about 130 quindecillion erg/s.

The researchers note that such a GeV flare from a high-redshift blazar is a rare phenomenon. This is due to the fact that these blazars are generally faint in the gamma-ray band.

Notably, DA 193 has an extremely hard gamma-ray spectrum. “What makes this event a rare one is the observation of an extremely hard γ-ray spectrum (photon index = 1.7 ± 0.2), which is somewhat unexpected since high-redshift blazars typically exhibit a steep falling spectrum at GeV energies,” the paper reads.

Trying to determine what caused such an intense and luminous flare from DA 193, the astronomers suggest that a change in the behavior of the underlying electron population could be responsible for the observed event. The team intends to use LAT for further continuous monitoring of the gamma-ray sky in order to find more powerful blazars showcasing luminous flares like DA 193. Studying such events could lead to a better understanding of radiative processes powering relativistic jets in blazars.

NASA’s New Horizons Just Made the Most Distant Flyby in Space History

NASA’s unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on its historic New Year’s flyby target, the most distant world ever studied, a frozen relic of the solar system some four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away. The cosmic object, known as Ultima Thule, is about the size of the US capital, Washington, and orbits in the dark and frigid Kuiper Belt about a billion miles beyond the dwarf planet, Pluto.

The spacecraft’s closest approach to this primitive space rock comes January 1 at 12:33 am ET (0533 GMT). Until then, what it looks like, and what it is made of, remain a mystery.

“This is a time capsule that is going to take us back four and a half billion years to the birth of the solar system,” said Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the project at the Southwest Research Institute, during a press briefing Friday. A camera on board the New Horizons spacecraft is currently zooming in on Ultima Thule, so scientists can get a better sense of its shape and configuration—whether it is one object or several.

“We’ve never been to a type of object like this before,” said Kelsi Singer, New Horizons co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute. About a day prior, “we will start to see what the actual shape of the object is,” she said. The spacecraft entered “encounter mode” on December 26, and is “very healthy,” added Stern.

Communicating with a spacecraft that is so far away takes six hours and eight minutes each way – or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip.

New Horizons’ eagerly awaited “phone home” command, indicating if it survived the close pass – at a distance of just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) is expected January 1 at 10:29 am (1529 GMT). Until then, the New Horizons spacecraft continues speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling almost a million miles per day.
And NASA scientists are eagerly awaiting the first images.

“Because this is a flyby mission, we only have one chance to get it right,” said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for New Horizons. The spacecraft, which launched in 2006, captured stunning images of Pluto when it flew by the dwarf planet in 2015.

Our Universe: An Expanding Bubble In An Extra Dimension

Uppsala University researchers have devised a new model for the Universe — one that may solve the enigma of dark energy. Their new article, published in Physical Review Letters, proposes a new structural concept, including dark energy, for a universe that rides on an expanding bubble in an additional dimension.

We have known for the past 20 years that the Universe is expanding at an ever accelerating rate. The explanation is the “dark energy” that permeates it throughout, pushing it to expand. Understanding the nature of this dark energy is one of the paramount enigmas of fundamental physics.

It has long been hoped that string theory will provide the answer. According to string theory, all matter consists of tiny, vibrating “stringlike” entities. The theory also requires there to be more spatial dimensions than the three that are already part of everyday knowledge. For 15 years, there have been models in string theory that have been thought to give rise to dark energy. However, these have come in for increasingly harsh criticism, and several researchers are now asserting that none of the models proposed to date are workable.

In their article, the scientists propose a new model with dark energy and our Universe riding on an expanding bubble in an extra dimension. The whole Universe is accommodated on the edge of this expanding bubble. All existing matter in the Universe corresponds to the ends of strings that extend out into the extra dimension. The researchers also show that expanding bubbles of this kind can come into existence within the framework of string theory. It is conceivable that there are more bubbles than ours, corresponding to other universes.

The Uppsala scientists’ model provides a new, different picture of the creation and future fate of the Universe, while it may also pave the way for methods of testing string theory.

Bringing Balance To The Universe: New Theory Could Explain Missing 95 Percent Of The Cosmos

Scientists at the University of Oxford may have solved one of the biggest questions in modern physics, with a new paper unifying dark matter and dark energy into a single phenomenon: a fluid which possesses ‘negative mass’. If you were to push a negative mass, it would accelerate towards you. This astonishing new theory may also prove right a prediction that Einstein made 100 years ago.

Our current, widely recognised model of the Universe, called LambdaCDM, tells us nothing about what dark matter and dark energy are like physically. We only know about them because of the gravitational effects they have on other, observable matter.

This new model, published today in Astronomy and Astrophysics, by Dr Jamie Farnes from the Oxford e-Research Centre, Department of Engineering Science, offers a new explanation. Dr Farnes says: “We now think that both dark matter and dark energy can be unified into a fluid which possesses a type of ‘negative gravity’, repelling all other material around them. Although this matter is peculiar to us, it suggests that our cosmos is symmetrical in both positive and negative qualities.”

The existence of negative matter had previously been ruled out as it was thought this material would become less dense as the Universe expands, which runs contrary to our observations that show dark energy does not thin out over time. However, Dr Farnes’ research applies a ‘creation tensor’, which allows for negative masses to be continuously created. It demonstrates that when more and more negative masses are continually bursting into existence, this negative mass fluid does not dilute during the expansion of the cosmos. In fact, the fluid appears to be identical to dark energy.

Dr Farnes’s theory also provides the first correct predictions of the behaviour of dark matter halos. Most galaxies are rotating so rapidly they should be tearing themselves apart, which suggests that an invisible ‘halo’ of dark matter must be holding them together. The new research published today features a computer simulation of the properties of negative mass, which predicts the formation of dark matter halos just like the ones inferred by observations using modern radio telescopes.

Albert Einstein provided the first hint of the dark universe exactly 100 years ago, when he discovered a parameter in his equations known as the ‘cosmological constant’, which we now know to be synonymous with dark energy. Einstein famously called the cosmological constant his ‘biggest blunder’, although modern astrophysical observations prove that it is a real phenomenon. In notes dating back to 1918, Einstein described his cosmological constant, writing that “a modification of the theory is required such that ’empty space’ takes the role of gravitating negative masses which are distributed all over the interstellar space.” It is therefore possible that Einstein himself predicted a negative-mass-filled universe.

Dr Farnes says: “Previous approaches to combining dark energy and dark matter have attempted to modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which has turned out to be incredibly challenging. This new approach takes two old ideas that are known to be compatible with Einstein’s theory — negative masses and matter creation — and combines them together.

“The outcome seems rather beautiful: dark energy and dark matter can be unified into a single substance, with both effects being simply explainable as positive mass matter surfing on a sea of negative masses.”

Proof of Dr Farnes’s theory will come from tests performed with a cutting-edge radio telescope known as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international endeavour to build the world’s largest telescope in which the University of Oxford is collaborating.

Dr Farnes adds: “There are still many theoretical issues and computational simulations to work through, and LambdaCDM has a nearly 30 year head start, but I’m looking forward to seeing whether this new extended version of LambdaCDM can accurately match other observational evidence of our cosmology. If real, it would suggest that the missing 95% of the cosmos had an aesthetic solution: we had forgotten to include a simple minus sign.”