Tag Archives: galaxies

“They can’t be real.”

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have now detected and measured a new class of large but very dim galaxy that previously was not expected to exist.

‘Ultradiffuse’ galaxies came to attention only last year, after Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Roberto Abraham of the University of Toronto in Canada built an array of sensitive telephoto lenses named Dragonfly. The astronomers and their colleagues observed the Coma galaxy cluster 101 megaparsecs (330 million light years) away and detected 47 faint smudges.

“They can’t be real,” van Dokkum recalls thinking when he first saw the galaxies on his laptop computer. But their distribution in space matched that of the cluster’s other galaxies, indicating that they were true members. Since then, hundreds more of these galaxies have turned up in the Coma cluster and elsewhere.

Ultradiffuse galaxies are large like the Milky Way — which is much bigger than most — but they glow as dimly as mere dwarf galaxies. It’s as though a city as big as London emitted as little light as Kalamazoo, Michigan.

More significantly, they have now found that these dim galaxies can be as big and as massive as the biggest bright galaxies, suggesting that, surprise!, there are a lot more stars and mass hidden out there and unseen than anyone had previously predicted.

Astronomers find no evidence of nearby alien civilizations

New observations of the best candidate galaxies now suggests that very advanced civilizations are very rare or don’t exist in the local universe.

They looked at several hundred nearby galaxies that emitted a high amount of mid-infrared radiation, which could possibly be produced as the waste heat from civilizations using energy on galactic scales.

Professor Michael Garrett (ASTRON & University of Leiden) has used radio measurements of the very best candidate galaxies and discovered that the vast majority of these systems present emission that is best explained by natural astrophysical processes. In particular, the galaxies as a sample, follow a well-known global relation that holds for almost all galaxies – the so-called “Mid-Infrared Radio correlation”. The presence of radio emission at the levels expected from the correlation, suggests that the mid-IR emission is not heat from alien factories but more likely emission from dust – for example, dust generated and heated by regions of massive star formation.
As Professor Garrett explains: “the original research at Penn State has already told us that such systems are very rare but the new analysis suggests that this is probably an understatement, and that advanced Kardashev Type III civilisations basically don’t exist in the local Universe. In my view, it means we can all sleep safely in our beds tonight – an alien invasion doesn’t seem at all likely!”.

Joking aside, Professor Garrett is still looking at a few candidate galaxies that lie off of the astrophysical correlation: “Some of these systems definitely demand further investigation but those already studied in detail turn out to have a natural astrophysical explanation too. It’s very likely that the remaining systems also fall into this category but of course it’s worth checking just in case!”

Obviously, the uncertainty of these results is quite high. Nonetheless, the results indicate that either humanity really is the only intelligent species in this part of the universe, or advanced civilizations are far more efficient in their use of energy than is reasonable to assume.

Is it dark matter, or a previously unrecognized failure of Newton?

Dark matter?

The uncertainty of science: Using new data gathered by the 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii, astronomers have found that the outer stars of elliptical galaxies exhibit the same behavior as the outer stars of spirals, suggesting once again the existence of dark matter.

One of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century was that the spectacular spiral galaxies, such as our own Milky Way, rotate much faster than expected, powered by [the] extra gravitational force of invisible “dark matter” as it is now called. Since this discovery 40 years ago, we have learned that this mysterious substance, which is probably an exotic elementary particle, makes up about 85 percent of the mass in the Universe, leaving only 15 percent to be the ordinary stuff encountered in our everyday lives. Dark matter is central to our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve – and is ultimately one of the reasons for the existence of life on Earth – yet we know almost nothing about it.

“The surprising finding of our study was that elliptical galaxies maintain a remarkably constant circular speed out to large distances from their centers, in the same way that spiral galaxies are already known to do,” said Cappellari. “This means that in these very different types of galaxies, stars and dark matter conspire to redistribute themselves to produce this effect, with stars dominating in the inner regions of the galaxies, and a gradual shift in the outer regions to dark matter dominance.”

What is most fascinating about this press release, however, is that it also noted that dark matter is only one explanation for the data, and that the failure of Newtonian physics at large distances, instead of dark matter, might also provide an explanation.

However, the [solution] does not come out naturally from models of dark matter, and some disturbing fine-tuning is required to explain the observations. For this reason, the [problem] even led some authors to suggest that, rather than being due to dark matter, it may be due to Newton’s law of gravity becoming progressively less accurate at large distances. Remarkably, decades after it was proposed, this alternative theory (without dark matter) still cannot be conclusively ruled out.

Physicists call this other theory MOND, for modified Newtonian dynamics. It is not a very popular theory, however, and is almost always ignored, even though it appears to work as well as dark matter to explain the motion of stars in galaxies. Instead, most scientists favor dark matter.

For this press release to mention it as suggests the new data favors it over dark matter, which would make this a significant discovery.

No obvious evidence of advanced civilizations in 100,000 galaxies

A search for evidence of advanced civilizations in the WISE orbiting telescope database has come up mostly empty.

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson proposed in the 1960s that advanced alien civilizations beyond Earth could be detected by the telltale evidence of their mid-infrared emissions. It was not until space-based telescopes like the WISE satellite that it became possible to make sensitive measurements of this radiation emitted by objects in space.

Roger Griffith, a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper, scoured almost the entire catalog of the WISE satellite’s detections — nearly 100 million entries — for objects consistent with galaxies emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He then individually examined and categorized around 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images. Wright reports, “We found about 50 galaxies that have unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. Our follow-up studies of those galaxies may reveal if the origin of their radiation results from natural astronomical processes, or if it could indicate the presence of a highly advanced civilization.”

Though the spin of the article is that no clear evidence of alien civilizations was found, I am most intrigued by those 50 candidate galaxies.

A giant black hole in a tiny galaxy

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have unexpectedly discovered a supermassive black hole in the center of a nearby tiny galaxy, comprising almost 18% of the galaxy’s entire mass.

To weigh the beast, the researchers measured the velocity of stars whipping about the galaxy’s centre using an infrared spectrometer on the Gemini North telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The high velocity of the stars is best explained by a central black hole that tips the scales at 21 million times the Sun’s mass, concluded Seth’s team. That is more than five times heavier than the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way — even though M60-UCD1 has an estimated diameter of about one-six-hundredth that of our home galaxy.

Previously astronomers had believed that the size of a galaxy would predict the size of its central black hole, and that a galaxy this small would not house such a supermassive object. This find upsets those theories.

The Milky Way’s most distant stars

Astronomers have discovered the two most distant stars of the Milky Way.

Both stars are red giants, aging suns that shine so brightly observers can see them from afar. One star is about 890,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces—33 times farther from the Milky Way’s center than we are and well beyond the edge of the galactic disk. The only other Milky Way member at a comparable distance is a small galaxy named Leo I, which orbits ours at a distance of 850,000 light-years. If the star in Pisces revolves on a circular path as fast as we do, it takes some eight billion years to complete a single orbit around the galaxy. That’s more than half the age of the universe.

The other newfound star is about 780,000 light-years distant in the constellation Gemini and more than a million light-years from the other star. For comparison, the previous record-breaking individual star was only about half a million light-years from Earth.

Both stars are so far outside the galaxy’s disk that it is quite possible that they are not part of the Milky Way at all.

The Milky Way shrinks

The uncertainty of science: New research by astronomers suggests that the Milky Way is about half as massive as previously estimated.

In the sixties I remember astronomers claiming that the Milky Way was twice as big as Andromeda. Then it was considered half as big. Most recently it was considered about the same size. This new research makes it half as big as Andromeda again.

In other words, the data is very uncertain, and the scientists really don’t have a good handle on it. None of these conclusions should be taken very seriously. All we really know at this point is that the Milky Way and Andromeda are approximately comparable.

Telescope teamwork produces spectacular galaxy image


Combining images from a host of space and ground-based telescopes, astronomers have created a spectacular image of the galaxy M106.

This galactic fireworks display is taking place in NGC 4258 (also known as M106), a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way. This galaxy is famous, however, for something that our Galaxy doesn’t have – two extra spiral arms that glow in X-ray, optical, and radio light. These features, or anomalous arms, are not aligned with the plane of the galaxy, but instead intersect with it.

The anomalous arms are seen in this new composite image of NGC 4258, where X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory are blue, radio data from the NSF’s Karl Jansky Very Large Array are purple, optical data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope are yellow and blue, and infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope are red.

A new study of these anomalous arms made with Spitzer shows that shock waves, similar to sonic booms from supersonic planes, are heating large amounts of gas – equivalent to about 10 million Suns. What is generating these shock waves? Radio data shows that the supermassive black hole at the center of NGC 4258 is producing powerful jets of high-energy particles. Researchers thinkthat these jets strike the disk of the galaxy and generate shock waves. These shock waves, in turn, heat some of the gas – composed mainly of hydrogen molecules – to thousands of degrees.

The astronomers also used the Herschel Space Observatory to confirm the data from Spitzer.

A trio of supermassive black holes

Astronomers have discovered a trinary of supermassive black holes at the center of a distant collision of multiple galaxies.

Astronomer Roger Deane of the University of Cape Town in South Africa and his colleagues have been watching a particular quasar, known as SDSS J1502+1115, in the constellation Boötes. Other astronomers had found that the object, located 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, possessed two supermassive black holes, each the center of a large galaxy smashing into another. The black holes are at least 24,000 light-years apart.

Deane wanted to confirm their existence, so he used an intercontinental array of radio dishes that yields even sharper views than the Hubble Space Telescope. Lo and behold, one of the black holes turned out to be two. “We were incredibly surprised,” says Deane, whose team reports its findings online today in Nature.

While the discovery of this system is incredibly cool, this article in the journal Science is surprisingly incorrect on some points, while also missing the main story.
» Read more

The Milky Way’s council of galaxies.

The Milky Way’s council of galaxies.

“All bright galaxies within 20 million light years, including us, are organized in a ‘Local Sheet’ 34-million light years across and only 1.5-million light years thick,” says McCall. “The Milky Way and Andromeda are encircled by twelve large galaxies arranged in a ring about 24-million light years across – this ‘Council of Giants’ stands in gravitational judgment of the Local Group by restricting its range of influence.”

McCall says twelve of the fourteen giants in the Local Sheet, including the Milky Way and Andromeda, are “spiral galaxies” which have highly flattened disks in which stars are forming. The remaining two are more puffy “elliptical galaxies”, whose stellar bulks were laid down long ago. Intriguingly, the two ellipticals sit on opposite sides of the Council. Winds expelled in the earliest phases of their development might have shepherded gas towards the Local Group, thereby helping to build the disks of the Milky Way and Andromeda.

Astronomers watch the central supermassive black hole of a galaxy eat something, either a planet or a brown dwarf.

Astronomers watch the central supermassive black hole of a galaxy eat something, either a planet or a brown dwarf.

Astronomers were using Integral to study a different galaxy when they noticed a bright X-ray flare coming from another location in the same wide field-of-view. Using XMM-Newton, the origin was confirmed as NGC 4845, a galaxy never before detected at high energies. Along with Swift and MAXI, the emission was traced from its maximum in January 2011, when the galaxy brightened by a factor of a thousand, and then as it subsided over the course of the year. “The observation was completely unexpected, from a galaxy that has been quiet for at least 20–30 years,” says Marek Nikolajuk of the University of Bialystok, Poland, lead author of the paper in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

By analysing the characteristics of the flare, the astronomers could determine that the emission came from a halo of material around the galaxy’s central black hole as it tore apart and fed on an object of 14–30 Jupiter masses. This size range corresponds to brown dwarfs, substellar objects that are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen in their core and ignite as stars. However, the authors note that it could have had an even lower mass, just a few times that of Jupiter, placing it in the range of gas-giant planets.

All the instruments listed above are orbiting space telescopes. You can read the science paper here.

The largest known spiral galaxy.

The largest known spiral galaxy. With images.

Measuring tip-to-tip across its two outsized spiral arms, NGC 6872 spans more than 522,000 light-years, making it more than five times the size of our Milky Way galaxy.

For context, the Milky Way and its two Magellanic Clouds could easily fit inside this galaxy, with lots of room to spare.

Astronomers have discovered that a large number of dwarf galaxies are orbiting Andromedea in a flat plane, like our solar system, contrary to all predictions.

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have discovered that a large number of dwarf galaxies are orbiting Andromedea in a flat plane, like our solar system, contrary to all predictions.

The study reveals almost 30 dwarf galaxies orbiting the larger Andromeda galaxy in this regular, solar system-like plane. The astronomers’ expectations were that these smaller galaxies should be buzzing around randomly, like bees around a hive. “This was completely unexpected,” said Geraint Lewis, one of the lead authors on the Nature publication. “The chance of this happening randomly is next to nothing.” The fact that astronomers now see that a majority of these little systems in fact contrive to map out an immensely large – approximately one million light years across – but extremely flattened structure, implies that this understanding is grossly incorrect. Either something about how these galaxies formed, or subsequently evolved, must have led them to trace out this peculiar, coherent, structure.

An analysis of the survey data produced by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has uncovered literally millions of black hole candidates as well as a thousand of the brightest galaxies yet found.

An analysis of the survey data produced by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has uncovered literally millions of black hole candidates as well as a thousand of the brightest galaxies yet found.

Some spectacular images of galaxies from the new Discovery Channel Telescope.

Some spectacular images of galaxies from the new Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT).

Funded privately by the Discovery channel, the DCT has a primary mirror 4.3 meters wide, or about 170 inches, almost as large as the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain. This is a world class telescope which will do real research, and it was built the old-fashioned way, with private money donated to a private observatory in exchange for publicity and good will.

Astronomers think they have discovered a distant supermassive black hole that is being ejected from its galaxy at a speed of several million miles per hour.

Astronomers think they have discovered a distant supermassive black hole that is being ejected from its galaxy at a speed of several million miles per hour.

Although the ejection of a supermassive black hole from a galaxy by recoil because more gravitational waves are being emitted in one direction than another is likely to be rare, it nevertheless could mean that there are many giant black holes roaming undetected out in the vast spaces between galaxies. “These black holes would be invisible to us,” said co-author Laura Blecha, also of CfA, “because they have consumed all of the gas surrounding them after being thrown out of their home galaxy.”

This conclusion however is not final. The data could also be explained by the spiraling in of two supermassive black holes.

Mature galaxy cluster found in young universe

A mature galaxy cluster has been found by astronomers at a time when the universe is thought to be only a quarter of its present age.

This discovery could be very significant, since astronomers think mature galaxy clusters need time to form, and shouldn’t exist in the early universe. “If further observations find many more [of these clusters] then this may mean that our understanding of the early Universe needs to be revised.”

Most distant galaxy ever seen

Using a deep field image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have identified one galaxy in that image as the most distant ever seen, with a record-setting redshift of 8.6 and thus an rough distance of about 13 billion light years, only about 600 million years after the Big Bang.

Whoops! Last sentence corrected, thanks to my readers.

Hubble marches on: Pinwheel of star formation

Despite its age (20 plus years), the Hubble Space Telescope continues to produce amazing images. The mosiac below shows the beautiful pinwheel galaxy NGC 3982. From the caption:

NGC 3982 is located about 68 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The galaxy spans about 30,000 light-years, one-third of the size of our Milky Way galaxy. . . .The arms are lined with pink star-forming regions of glowing hydrogen, newborn blue star clusters, and obscuring dust lanes that provide the raw material for future generations of stars. The bright nucleus is home to an older population of stars, which grow ever more densely packed toward the center.

Pinwheel galaxy