Milky Way had a blowout bash 6 million years ago


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Mark A. Garlick/CfA

The center of the Milky Way galaxy is currently a quiet place where a supermassive black hole slumbers, only occasionally slurping small sips of hydrogen gas. But it wasn’t always this way. A new study shows that 6 million years ago, when the first human ancestors known as hominins walked the Earth, our galaxy’s core blazed forth furiously. The evidence for this active phase came from a search for the galaxy’s missing mass. Measurements show that the Milky Way galaxy weighs about 1-2 trillion times as much as our Sun. About five-sixths of that is in the form of invisible mysterious dark matter. The remaining one-sixth of our galaxy’s heft, or 150-300 billion solar masses, is normal matter. However, if you count up all the stars, gas dust we can see, you only find about 65 billion solar masses. The rest of the normal matter – stuff made of neutrons, protons, electrons – seems to be missing.

“We played a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. And we asked ourselves, where could the missing mass be hiding?” says lead author Fabrizio Nicastro, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) astrophysicist at the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF).

“We analyzed archival X-ray observations from the XMM-Newton spacecraft found that the missing mass is in the form of a million-degree gaseous fog permeating our galaxy. That fog absorbs X-rays from more distant background sources,” Nicastro continues.

The astronomers used the amount of absorption to calculate how much normal matter was there, how it was distributed. They applied computer models but learned that they couldn’t match the observations with a smooth, uniform distribution of gas. Instead, they found that there is a “bubble” in the center of our galaxy that extends two-thirds of the way to Earth.

Clearing out that bubble required a tremendous amount of energy. That energy, the authors surmise, came from the feeding black hole. While some infalling gas was swallowed by the black hole, other gas was pumped out at speeds of 2 million miles per hour (1,000 km/sec).

Six million years later, the shock wave created by that phase of activity has crossed 20,000 light-years of space. Meanwhile, the black hole has run out of nearby food gone into hibernation.

This timeline is corroborated by the presence of 6-million-year-old stars near the galactic center. Those stars formed from some of the same material that once flowed toward the black hole.

“The different lines of evidence all tie together very well,” says Smithsonian co-author Martin Elvis (CfA). “This active phase lasted for 4 to 8 million years, which is reasonable for a quasar.”

The observations associated computer models also show that the hot, million-degree gas can account for up to 130 billion solar masses of material. Thus, it just might explain where all of the galaxy’s missing matter was hiding: it was too hot to be seen.

More answers may come from the proposed next-generation space mission known as X-ray Surveyor. It would be able to map out the bubble by observing fainter sources, see finer detail to tease out more information about the elusive missing mass. The European Space Agency’s Athena X-ray Observatory, planned for launch in 2028, offers similar promise.


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ALMA finds unexpected trove of gas around larger stars


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NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry / SkyWorks

ALMA image of the debris disk surrounding a star in the Scorpius-Centaurus Association known as HIP 73145. The green region maps the carbon monoxide gas that suffuses the debris disk. The red is the millimeter-wavelength light emitted by the dust surrounding the central star. The star HIP 73145 is estimated to be approximately twice the mass of the Sun. The disk in this system extends well past what would be the orbit of Neptune in our solar system, drawn in for scale. The location of the central star is also highlighted for reference.

J. Lieman-Sifry, et al., ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) surveyed dozens of young stars — some Sun-like others approximately double that size — discovered that the larger variety have surprisingly rich reservoirs of carbon monoxide gas in their debris disks. In contrast, the lower-mass, Sun-like stars have debris disks that are virtually gas-free. This finding runs counter to astronomers’ expectations, which hold that stronger radiation from larger stars should strip away gas from their debris disks faster than the comparatively mild radiation from smaller stars. It may also offer new insights into the timeline for giant planet formation around young stars.

Debris disks are found around stars that have shed their dusty, gas-filled protoplanetary disks gone on to form planets, asteroids, comets, other planetesimals. Around younger stars, however, many of these newly formed objects have yet to settle into stately orbits routinely collide, producing enough rubble to spawn a “second-generation” disk of debris.

“Previous spectroscopic measurements of debris disks revealed that certain ones had an unexpected chemical signature suggesting they had an overabundance of carbon monoxide gas,” said Jesse Lieman-Sifry, lead author on a paper published in Astrophysical Journal. At the time of the observations, Lieman-Sifry was an undergraduate astronomy major at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “This discovery was puzzling since astronomers believe that this gas should be long gone by the time we see evidence of a debris disk,” he said.

In search of clues as to why certain stars harbor gas-rich disks, Lieman-Sifry his team surveyed 24 star systems in the Scorpius-Centaurus Association. This loose stellar agglomeration, which lies a few hundred light-years from Earth, contains hundreds of low- intermediate-mass stars. For reference, astronomers consider our Sun to be a low-mass star.

The astronomers narrowed their search to stars between five ten million years old — old enough to host full-fledged planetary systems debris disks — used ALMA to examine the millimeter-wavelength “glow” from the carbon monoxide in the stars’ debris disks.

The team carried out their survey over a total of six nights between December 2013 December 2014, observing for a mere ten minutes each night. At the time it was conducted, this study constituted the most extensive millimeter-wavelength interferometric survey of stellar debris disks ever achieved.

Armed with an incredibly rich set of observations, the astronomers found the most gas-rich disks ever recorded in a single study. Among their sample of two dozen disks, the researchers spotted three that exhibited strong carbon monoxide emission. Much to their surprise, all three gas-rich disks surrounded stars about twice as massive as the Sun. None of the 16 smaller, Sun-like stars in the sample appeared to have disks with large stores of carbon monoxide.

This finding is counterintuitive because higher-mass stars flood their planetary systems with energetic ultraviolet radiation that should destroy the carbon monoxide gas lingering in their debris disks. This new research reveals, however, that the larger stars are somehow able to either preserve or replenish their carbon monoxide stockpiles.

“We’re not sure whether these stars are holding onto reservoirs of gas much longer than expected, or whether there’s a sort of ‘last gasp’ of second-generation gas produced by collisions of comets or evaporation from the icy mantles of dust grains,” said Meredith Hughes, an astronomer at Wesleyan University coauthor of the study.

The existence of this gas may have important implications for planet formation, says Hughes. Carbon monoxide is a major constituent of the atmospheres of giant planets. Its presence in debris disks could mean that other gases, including hydrogen, are present, but perhaps in much lower concentrations. If certain debris disks are able to hold onto appreciable amounts of gas, it might push back astronomers’ expected deadline for giant planet formation around young stars, the astronomers speculate.

“Future high-resolution observations of these gas-rich systems may allow astronomers to infer the location of the gas within the disk, which may shed light on the origin of the gas,” says co-author Antonio Hales, an astronomer with the Joint ALMA Observatory in Santiago, Chile, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. “For instance, if the gas was produced by planetesimal collisions, it should be more highly concentrated in regions of the disk where those impacts occurred. ALMA is the only instrument capable of making these kind of high-resolution images.”

According to Lieman-Sifry, these dusty disks are just as diverse as the planetary systems they accompany. The discovery that the debris disks around some larger stars retain carbon monoxide longer than their Sun-like counterparts may provide insights into the role this gas plays in the development of planetary systems.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.


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Cosmic neighbors inhibit star formation, even in the early-universe


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SpARCS collaboration.

Massive galaxy cluster MACS J0416 seen in X-rays (blue), visible light (red, green, blue), radio light (pink).


The international University of California, Riverside-led SpARCS collaboration has discovered four of the most distant clusters of galaxies ever found, as they appeared when the universe was only 4 billion years old. Clusters are rare regions of the universe consisting of hundreds of galaxies containing trillions of stars, as well as hot gas mysterious dark matter. Spectroscopic observations from the ground using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii the Very Large Telescope in Chile confirmed the four candidates to be massive clusters. This sample is now providing the best measurement yet of when how fast galaxy clusters stop forming stars in the early Universe. “We looked at how the properties of galaxies in these clusters differed from galaxies found in more typical environments with fewer close neighbors,” said Julie Nantais, an assistant professor at the Andres Bello University in Chile the first author of the research paper that appears in the August 2016 issue of Astronomy Astrophysics. “It has long been known that when a galaxy falls into a cluster, interactions with other cluster galaxies with hot gas accelerate the shut off of its star formation relative to that of a similar galaxy in the field, in a process known as environmental quenching. The SpARCS team has developed new techniques using Spitzer Space Telescope infrared observations to identify hundreds of previously-undiscovered clusters of galaxies in the distant universe.”


As anticipated, the team did indeed find that many more galaxies in the clusters had stopped forming stars compared to galaxies of the same mass in the field. Lead scientist Gillian Wilson, professor of physics astronomy at UC Riverside, said, “Fascinatingly, however, the study found that the percentage of galaxies which had stopped forming stars in those young, distant clusters, was much lower than the percentage found in much older, nearby clusters. While it had been fully expected that the percentage of cluster galaxies which had stopped forming stars would increase as the universe aged, this latest work quantifies the effect.” The paper concludes that about 30 percent of the galaxies which would normally be forming stars have been quenched in the distant clusters, compared to the much higher value of about 50 percent found in nearby clusters.

Several possible physical processes could be responsible for causing environmental quenching. For example, the hot, harsh cluster environment might prevent the galaxy from continuing to accrete cold gas form new stars, a process astronomers have named “starvation.” Alternatively, the quenching could be caused by interactions with other galaxies in the cluster. These galaxies might “harass” (undergo frequent, high speed, gravitationally-disturbing encounters), tidally strip (pull material from a smaller galaxy to a larger one) or merge (two or more galaxies joining together) with the first galaxy to stop its star formation.

While the current study does not answer the question of which process is primarily responsible, it is nonetheless hugely important because it provides the most accurate measurement yet of how much environmental quenching has occurred in the early universe. Moreover, the study provides an all-important early-universe benchmark by which to judge upcoming predictions from competing computational numerical simulations which make different assumptions about the relative importance of the many different environmental quenching processes which have been suggested, the timescales upon which they operate.


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Planet found in habitable zone around nearest star


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ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers using ESO telescopes other facilities have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri. The long-sought world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool red parent star every 11 days has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth is the closest exoplanet to us — it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the Solar System. A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on 25 August 2016. Just over four light-years from the Solar System lies a red dwarf star that has been named Proxima Centauri as it is the closest star to Earth apart from the Sun. This cool star in the constellation of Centaurus is too faint to be seen with the unaided eye lies near to the much brighter pair of stars known as Alpha Centauri AB.

During the first half of 2016 Proxima Centauri was regularly observed with the HARPS spectrograph on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla in Chile simultaneously monitored by other telescopes around the world [1]. This was the Pale Red Dot campaign, in which a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé, from Queen Mary University of London, was looking for the tiny back forth wobble of the star that would be caused by the gravitational pull of a possible orbiting planet [2].

As this was a topic with very wide public interest, the progress of the campaign between mid-January April 2016 was shared publicly as it happened on the Pale Red Dot website via social media. The reports were accompanied by numerous outreach articles written by specialists around the world.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé explains the background to this unique search: “The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning.”

The Pale Red Dot data, when combined with earlier observations made at ESO observatories elsewhere, revealed the clear signal of a truly exciting result. At times Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about 5 kilometres per hour — normal human walking pace — at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern of changing radial velocities repeats with a period of 11.2 days. Careful analysis of the resulting tiny Doppler shifts showed that they indicated the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times that of the Earth, orbiting about 7 million kilometres from Proxima Centauri — only 5% of the Earth-Sun distance [3].

Guillem Anglada-Escudé comments on the excitement of the last few months: “I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!”

Red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of a planet. To exclude this possibility the team also monitored the changing brightness of the star very carefully during the campaign using the ASH2 telescope at the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile the Las Cumbres Observatory telescope network. Radial velocity data taken when the star was flaring were excluded from the final analysis.

Although Proxima b orbits much closer to its star than Mercury does to the Sun in the Solar System, the star itself is far fainter than the Sun. As a result Proxima b lies well within the habitable zone around the star has an estimated surface temperature that would allow the presence of liquid water. Despite the temperate orbit of Proxima b, the conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet X-ray flares from the star — far more intense than the Earth experiences from the Sun [4].

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b its climate. They find that the existence of liquid water on the planet today cannot be ruled out and, in such case, it may be present over the surface of the planet only in the sunniest regions, either in an area in the hemisphere of the planet facing the star (synchronous rotation) or in a tropical belt (3:2 resonance rotation). Proxima b’s rotation, the strong radiation from its star the formation history of the planet makes its climate quite different from that of the Earth, it is unlikely that Proxima b has seasons.

This discovery will be the beginning of extensive further observations, both with current instruments [5] with the next generation of giant telescopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Proxima b will be a prime target for the hunt for evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe. Indeed, the Alpha Centauri system is also the target of humankind’s first attempt to travel to another star system, the StarShot project.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé concludes: “Many exoplanets have been found many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us. Many people’s stories efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next…”

Source: ESO


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