Chandra takes an X-ray look at early Webb infrared observations

Chandra's X-ray vision of the Cartwheel Galaxy
Chandra’s X-ray view of the Cartwheel Galaxy

Webb's view of the Cartwheel Galaxy
Webb’s infrared view of the Cartwheel Galaxy
Click for full image.

Hubble's optical view of the Cartwheel Galaxy
Hubble’s optical view of the Cartwheel Galaxy. Click for original image.

Astronomers have now taken X-ray images using the orbital Chandra X-ray Observatory of four of the first Webb Space Telescope observations. The four targets were the Cartwheel Galaxy, Stephan’s Quintet, galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.3–7327, and the Carina Nebula.

The three images to the right illustrate the importance of studying astronomy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Each shows the Cartwheel Galaxy as seen by three of the world’s most important space-based telescopes, each looking at the galaxy in a different wavelength.

The top picture is Chandra’s new X-ray observations. As the press release notes,

Chandra data generally show higher-energy phenomena (like superheated gas and the remnants of exploded stars) than Webb’s infrared view. … X-rays seen by Chandra (blue and purple) come from superheated gas, individual exploded stars, and neutron stars and black holes pulling material from companion stars.

The middle picture was produced by Webb, shortly after the start of its science operations. It looks at the galaxy in the infrared.

In this near- and mid-infrared composite image, MIRI data are colored red while NIRCam data are colored blue, orange, and yellow. Amidst the red swirls of dust, there are many individual blue dots, which represent individual stars or pockets of star formation. NIRCam also defines the difference between the older star populations and dense dust in the core and the younger star populations outside of it.

The bottom picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. I have rotated the image to match the others. It looks at the galaxy in optical wavelengths, the wavelengths that our eyes perceive.

Note how bright the central galactic region is in the infrared and optical, but is invisible in X-rays. Chandra is telling us that all the most active regions in the Cartwheel are located in that outer ring, not in its center.

Astronomers: A supermassive black hole rotates far slower than expected

Quasar as seen across multiple wavelengths
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The uncertainty of science: Using Chandra astronomers have measured the rotation of a supermassive black hole in a distant quasar about 3.4 billion light years away and found that it spins at about half the speed of other less massive black holes.

Because a spinning black hole drags space around with it and allows matter to orbit closer to it than is possible for a non-spinning one, the X-ray data can show how fast the black hole is spinning. The spectrum — that is, the amount of energy as a function wavelength — of H1821+643 indicates that the black hole is rotating at a modest rate compared to other, less massive ones that spin close to the speed of light. This is the most accurate spin measurement for such a massive black hole.

The black hole, thought to weigh between 3 to 30 billion times more than the Sun and is the heaviest such object measured in this way, rotates at about half the speed of light. Why that rotation is less than other smaller black holes remains a question not yet answered, though astronomers suspect it is related to its formation history.

The image above is a composite showing this quasar across multiply wavelengths. X-rays are shown in blue, radio in red, and optical in white.

Chandra’s camera remains in safe mode

Though engineers have improvised a work-around that has allowed most of instruments on the Chandra X-Ray observatory to resume science operations, the power supply problem in the telescope’s high resolution camera (HRC) that occurred on February 9th remains unresolved, leaving that camera in safe mode.

The Chandra science instrument and engineering teams continue to analyze the cause of the HRC power supply issue, as well as potential approaches to enable the HRC again. The spacecraft is otherwise healthy and operating normally.

Chandra has been flying now for more than two decades, well past its original mission. For it to begin to have these problems is not surprising, though it will be a great tragedy if it fails just as the James Webb Space Telescope is about to go operational. Ideally astronomers want data from both, as well as Hubble, to cover a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, from the optical to the infrared to X-rays.

Chandra in safe mode

The Chandra X-ray Observatory last week experienced a loss of power that caused engineers to put the science instruments on the space telescope into safe mode while they investigate the problem.

No further information is presently available.

Chandra has been in orbit since 1999, and is now on an extended mission through 2025. It would be a great tragedy if it failed now, just as the infrared Webb telescope is about to begin operations. The two space telescopes are complementary.

New Chandra mosaic of galactic center reveals spider-web of magnetism

Magnetic field line at the galactic center
Click for full image.

Scientists today released a spectacular panorama of the center of the Milky Way using X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and radio data from the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa. The panorama reveals a complex web of magnetic field lines emanating out from the supermassive black hole at the center, Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star).

Below the fold are reduced versions of the full panorama, unlabeled on the left and labeled on the right. The image to the right, reduced to post here, shows just one single example of those magnetic field lines, dubbed G0.17-0.41 and about 20 light years long. This particular filament is the subject of a paper just published in connection with the release of this panorama. From the press release.

A new study of the X-ray and radio properties of this thread by Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst suggests these features are bound together by thin strips of magnetic fields. This is similar to what was observed in a previously studied thread. (Both threads are labeled with red rectangles in the [full labeled panorama]. The newly studied one in the lower left, G0.17-0.41, is much farther away from the plane of the Galaxy.) Such strips may have formed when magnetic fields aligned in different directions, collided, and became twisted around each other in a process called magnetic reconnection. This is similar to the phenomenon that drives energetic particles away from the Sun and is responsible for the space weather that sometimes affects Earth.

The image below is fascinating to study because of the wealth of detail it includes, not only of magnetic filaments but of other nearby gas clouds and Sagittarius A* itself.
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X-rays from Uranus detected for the 1st time

Composite Uranus image of X-ray and optical data

Astronomers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory in orbit have for the first time detected X-rays coming from the planet Uranus.

In the new study, researchers used Chandra observations taken in Uranus in 2002 and then again in 2017. They saw a clear detection of X-rays from the first observation, just analyzed recently, and a possible flare of X-rays in those obtained fifteen years later. The main graphic [posted to the right] shows a Chandra X-ray image of Uranus from 2002 (in pink) superimposed on an optical image from the Keck-I Telescope obtained in a separate study in 2004. The latter shows the planet at approximately the same orientation as it was during the 2002 Chandra observations.

What could cause Uranus to emit X-rays? The answer: mainly the Sun. Astronomers have observed that both Jupiter and Saturn scatter X-ray light given off by the Sun, similar to how Earth’s atmosphere scatters the Sun’s light. While the authors of the new Uranus study initially expected that most of the X-rays detected would also be from scattering, there are tantalizing hints that at least one other source of X-rays is present.

One explanation could be that the X-rays could be coming from Uranus’s rings, as such X-rays do from Saturn. This is not confirmed as yet however. More data will be needed.

NASA extends Chandra telescope operation to 2024

NASA has extended its contract with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts to run the Chandra X-ray Observatory through 2024.

In many ways the longevity of both Hubble and Chandra as well as other space telescopes has demonstrated the robustness of much in-space engineering these days. It suggests that when we finally begin building manned interplanetary spaceships we should have confidence they will operate reliably for long periods.

An X-ray deep field over six weeks by Chandra finds massive black holes common in early universe

An X-ray deep field image taken over a six week period by Chandra had found that massive black holes are common in early universe.

These results imply that between 30% and 100% of the distant galaxies contain growing supermassive black holes. Extrapolating these results from the relatively small field of view that was observed to the full sky, there are at least 30 million supermassive black holes in the early Universe. This is a factor of 10,000 larger than the estimated number of quasars in the early Universe.

The Crab Nebula erupts with flares six days

In mid-April the Crab Nebula erupted for six days, repeatedly emitting the most powerful flares ever recorded from the supernova remnant.

Scientists think the flares occur as the intense magnetic field near the pulsar undergoes sudden restructuring. Such changes can accelerate particles like electrons to velocities near the speed of light. As these high-speed electrons interact with the magnetic field, they emit gamma rays.

To account for the observed emission, scientists say the electrons must have energies 100 times greater than can be achieved in any particle accelerator on Earth. This makes them the highest-energy electrons known to be associated with any galactic source. Based on the rise and fall of gamma rays during the April outbursts, scientists estimate that the size of the emitting region must be comparable in size to the solar system.