Mapping Dark Energy – Accelerating the Expansion of the Universe

On 21 June 2019 the Spektrum-Röntgen-Gamma (Spektr-RG / SRG) spacecraft will be launched from the Kazakh steppe, marking the start of an exciting journey. SRG will be carrying the German Extended ROentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array (eROSITA) X-ray telescope and its Russian ART-XC partner instrument. A Proton rocket will carry the spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome towards its destination – the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system, L2, which is 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

In orbit around this equilibrium point, eROSITA will embark upon the largest-ever survey of the hot universe. The space telescope will use its seven X-ray detectors to observe the entire sky and search for and map hot sources such as galaxy clusters, active black holes, supernova remnants, X-ray binaries and neutron stars.

Walther Pelzer, executive board member for the Space Administration at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), says, “eROSITA’s X-ray ‘eyes’ are the best that have ever been launched as part of a space telescope. Their unique combination of light-collecting area, field-of-view and resolution makes them approximately 20 times more sensitive than the ROSAT telescope that flew to space in the 1990s. ROSAT also incorporated advanced technology that was ‘made in Germany’. With its enhanced capabilities, eROSITA will help researchers gain a better understanding of the structure and development of the universe, and also contribute towards investigations into the mystery of dark energy.”

The universe has been expanding continuously since the Big Bang. Until the 1990s, it was thought that this cosmic expansion would slow down and eventually come to a halt. Then, the astrophysicists Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt observed stellar explosions that were visible from a great distance and always emitted the same amount of light. They measured their distances and could hardly believe their findings.

“The Type 1a supernovae observed exhibited lower brightness levels than expected. It was clear that the universe was not slowing down as it expanded – quite the opposite, in fact. It is gathering speed and its components are being driven further and further apart at an ever-increasing rate,” explains Thomas Mernik, eROSITA Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration. With this discovery, the three researchers turned science upside and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011. Yet Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt have left us with one crucial question: “What is the ‘cosmic fuel’ that powers the expansion of the universe? Since no one has yet been able to answer this question, and the ingredients of this catalyst are unknown, it is simply referred to as dark energy. eROSITA will now attempt to track down the cause of this acceleration,” explains Mernik.

Galaxy clusters – a key to dark energy

Very little is known about the universe. The ingredients that make up 4 percent of its energy density – ‘normal’ material such as protons and neutrons – is only a very small part of the ‘universe recipe’. What the other 96 percent is composed of remains a mystery. Today it is believed that 26 percent is dark matter. However, the largest share, estimated at 70 percent, is comprised of dark energy.

To track this down, scientists must observe something unimaginably large and extremely hot: “Galaxy clusters are composed of up to several thousand galaxies that move at different velocities within a common gravitational field. Inside, these strange structures are permeated by a thin, extremely hot gas that can be observed through its X-ray emissions. This is where eROSITA’s X-ray ‘eyes’ come into play. They allow us to observe galaxy clusters and see how they move in the universe, and above all, how fast they are travelling. We hope that this motion will tell us more about dark energy,” explains Thomas Mernik.

Scientists are not just interested in the movement patterns of galaxy clusters. They also want to count and map these structures. Up to 10,000 such clusters should be ‘captured’ by eROSITA’s X-ray ‘eyes’ – more than have ever been observed before. In addition, other hot phenomena such as active galactic nuclei, supernova remnants, X-ray binaries and neutron stars will be observed and identified.

eROSITA will scan the entire sky every six months for this purpose, and create a deep and detailed X-ray map of the universe over four years. It will thus produce the largest-ever cosmic catalog of hot objects and thus improve the scientific understanding of the structure and development of the universe.

The German telescope consists of two core components – its optics and the associated detectors. The former consists of seven mirror modules aligned in parallel. Each module has a diameter of 36 centimeters and consists of 54 nested mirror shells, whose surface is composed of a para-boloid and a hyper-boloid (Wolter-I optics).

“The mirror modules collect high-energy photons and focus them onto the CCD X-ray cameras, which were specially developed for eROSITA at our semiconductor laboratory in Garching. These form the second core component of eROSITA and are located at the focus of each of the mirror systems. The highly sensitive cameras are the best of their kind and, together with the mirror modules, form an X-ray telescope featuring an unrivaled combination of light-collecting area and field-of-view,” explains Peter Predehl, eROSITA principal investigator at MPE.

Explosions Of Universe’s First Stars Spewed Powerful Jets

Several hundred million years after the Big Bang, the very first stars flared into the universe as massively bright accumulations of hydrogen and helium gas. Within the cores of these first stars, extreme, thermonuclear reactions forged the first heavier elements, including carbon, iron, and zinc.

These first stars were likely immense, short-lived fireballs, and scientists have assumed that they exploded as similarly spherical supernovae.

But now astronomers at MIT and elsewhere have found that these first stars may have blown apart in a more powerful, asymmetric fashion, spewing forth jets that were violent enough to eject heavy elements into neighboring galaxies. These elements ultimately served as seeds for the second generation of stars, some of which can still be observed today.

In a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal, the researchers report a strong abundance of zinc in HE 1327-2326, an ancient, surviving star that is among the universe’s second generation of stars. They believe the star could only have acquired such a large amount of zinc after an asymmetric explosion of one of the very first stars had enriched its birth gas cloud.

“When a star explodes, some proportion of that star gets sucked into a black hole like a vacuum cleaner,” says Anna Frebel, an associate professor of physics at MIT and a member of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “Only when you have some kind of mechanism, like a jet that can yank out material, can you observe that material later in a next-generation star. And we believe that’s exactly what could have happened here.”

“This is the first observational evidence that such an asymmetric supernova took place in the early universe,” adds MIT postdoc Rana Ezzeddine, the study’s lead author. “This changes our understanding of how the first stars exploded.”

“A sprinkle of elements”

HE 1327-2326 was discovered by Frebel in 2005. At the time, the star was the most metal-poor star ever observed, meaning that it had extremely low concentrations of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium — an indication that it formed as part of the second generation of stars, at a time when most of the universe’s heavy element content had yet to be forged.

“The first stars were so massive that they had to explode almost immediately,” Frebel says. “The smaller stars that formed as the second generation are still available today, and they preserve the early material left behind by these first stars. Our star has just a sprinkle of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, so we know it must have formed as part of the second generation of stars.”

In May of 2016, the team was able to observe the star which orbits close to Earth, just 5,000 light years away. The researchers won time on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope over two weeks, and recorded the starlight over multiple orbits. They used an instrument aboard the telescope, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, to measure the minute abundances of various elements within the star.

The spectrograph is designed with high precision to pick up faint ultraviolet light. Some of those wavelength are absorbed by certain elements, such as zinc. The researchers made a list of heavy elements that they suspected might be within such an ancient star, that they planned to look for in the UV data, including silicon, iron, phosophorous, and zinc.

“I remember getting the data, and seeing this zinc line pop out, and we couldn’t believe it, so we redid the analysis again and again,” Ezzeddine recalls. “We found that, no matter how we measured it, we got this really strong abundance of zinc.”

A star channel opens

Frebel and Ezzeddine then contacted their collaborators in Japan, who specialize in developing simulations of supernovae and the secondary stars that form in their aftermath. The researchers ran over 10,000 simulations of supernovae, each with different explosion energies, configurations, and other parameters. They found that while most of the spherical supernova simulations were able to produce a secondary star with the elemental compositions the researchers observed in HE 1327-2326, none of them reproduced the zinc signal.

As it turns out, the only simulation that could explain the star’s makeup, including its high abundance of zinc, was one of an aspherical, jet-ejecting supernova of a first star. Such a supernova would have been extremely explosive, with a power equivalent to about a nonillion times (that’s 10 with 30 zeroes after it) that of a hydrogen bomb.

“We found this first supernova was much more energetic than people have thought before, about five to 10 times more,” Ezzeddine says. “In fact, the previous idea of the existence of a dimmer supernova to explain the second-generation stars may soon need to be retired.”

The team’s results may shift scientists’ understanding of reionization, a pivotal period during which the gas in the universe morphed from being completely neutral, to ionized — a state that made it possible for galaxies to take shape.

“People thought from early observations that the first stars were not so bright or energetic, and so when they exploded, they wouldn’t participate much in reionizing the universe,” Frebel says. “We’re in some sense rectifying this picture and showing, maybe the first stars had enough oomph when they exploded, and maybe now they are strong contenders for contributing to reionization, and for wreaking havoc in their own little dwarf galaxies.”

These first supernovae could have also been powerful enough to shoot heavy elements into neighboring “virgin galaxies” that had yet to form any stars of their own.

“Once you have some heavy elements in a hydrogen and helium gas, you have a much easier time forming stars, especially little ones,” Frebel says. “The working hypothesis is, maybe second generation stars of this kind formed in these polluted virgin systems, and not in the same system as the supernova explosion itself, which is always what we had assumed, without thinking in any other way. So this is opening up a new channel for early star formation.”

Journey to the Big Bang Through the Lithium of a Milky Way Star

Researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and the University of Cambridge have detected lithium in a primitive star in our galaxy. The observations were made at the VLT, at the Paranal Observatory of ESO in Chile.

In astrophysics, any element heavier than hydrogen and helium is termed “metal” and lithium is among the lightest of these metals. Researchers at the IAC and the University of Cambridge have been able to detect lithium in a primitive star. This is the star J0023+0307, discovered a year ago by the same team of scientists with the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) and the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) of the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos.

This discovery could give crucial information about the creation of atomic nuclei (“nucleosynthesis”) in the Big Bang. “This primitive star surprises us for its high lithium content, and its possible relation to the primordial lithium formed in the Big Bang,” notes David Aguado, a researcher associated with the University of Cambridge and formerly doctoral student of the IAC/ULL, who is the lead author on this article.

This star is similar to our sun, but with a much poorer metal content, less than one thousandth part of that of the solar metallicity. This composition implies that we are dealing with a star which was formed in the first 300 million years of the universe, just after the supernovae marking the final phases of the first massive stars in our galaxy.