Using Gaia data scientists discover the heaviest stellar black hole ever found

In digging into the precise motion data from the Gaia space telescope scientists have discovered the Milky Way’s heaviest stellar-sized black hole, with a mass thirty-three times the mass of our Sun.

Stellar black holes are formed from the collapse of massive stars and the ones previously identified in the Milky Way are on average about 10 times as massive as the Sun. Even the next most massive stellar black hole known in our galaxy, Cygnus X-1, only reaches 21 solar masses, making this new 33-solar-mass observation exceptional.

Remarkably, this black hole is also extremely close to us — at a mere 2000 light-years away in the constellation Aquila, it is the second-closest known black hole to Earth.

The only known black hole inside the Milky Way that is larger is Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the supermassive central black hole at the galaxy’s center and weighing over four million solar masses. That creature is a very different thing, as it involves the long term evolution of the galaxy itself. Stellar-sized black holes only involve the death of a single star, with possible additions from a handful of others.

Astronomers: a 9,000-light-year-long stream of gas and dust ripples like a wave due to the Milky Way’s gravity

According to an analysis of data from the space telescope Gaia, astronomers now believe that a 9,000-light- year-long stream of gas and dust that is only 500 light years away from the Sun at its nearest point ripples up and down like a wave, due to the Milky Way’s gravity.

Dubbed the Radcliffe Wave after the institute in which the astronomers were based who first discovered it, the scientists determined its wavelike behavior by mapping the motions of the star clusters along its length. Apparently, over time they are moving up and down, not unlike fans at a stadium doing the wave.

The data also includes these intriguing results:

“It turns out that no significant dark matter is needed to explain the motion we observe,” Konietzka said. “The gravity of ordinary matter alone is enough to drive the waving of the Wave.”

In addition, the discovery of the oscillation raises new questions about the preponderance of these waves both across the Milky Way and other galaxies. Since the Radcliffe Wave appears to form the backbone of the nearest spiral arm in the Milky Way, the waving of the Wave could imply that spiral arms of galaxies oscillate in general, making galaxies even more dynamic than previously thought. “The question is, what caused the displacement giving rise to the waving we see?,” Goodman said. “And does it happen all over the galaxy? In all galaxies? Does it happen occasionally? Does it happen all the time?”

That no dark matter is involved causes a lot of problems for the hypothesis that such material exists, causing the motions of stars in the outer regions all galaxies to orbit the galaxy faster than they should. Why would dark matter cause that increased rotation, but have no impact on this wave? It is a paradox that is not easily resolved.

The dark matter in the Milky Way is not behaving as its supposed to

The uncertainty of science: Scientists using precise data of the motions of the outer stars of the Milky Way from the Gaia orbiting telescope have found they do not rotate the galaxy’s center as fast as expected, based on the theory of the existence of dark matter.

Dark matter was proposed to explain why in other galaxies the speed of rotation of outer stars does not appear to decline with distance (as seen for example with the planets in our solar system) but remains the same, no matter how far out you go. That extra speed suggests there must be unseen matter pulling on the stars.

[N]ew results that combine Gaia measurements with those from APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment), performed on a ground-based telescope in New Mexico, USA, and which measures the physical properties of stars to better judge their distance, have indeed measured the Milky Way’s rotation curve for stars out farther than ever before, to about 100,000 light years. “What we were really surprised to see was that this curve remained flat, flat, flat out to a certain distance, and then it started tanking,” says Lina Necib, who is an assistant professor of physics at MIT, said in a statement. “This means the outer stars are rotating a little slower than expected, which is a very surprising result.”

…The decline in orbital velocity at these distances implies that there is less dark matter in the center of our galaxy than expected. The research team describe the galaxy’s halo of dark matter as having been “cored,” somewhat like an apple. The crew also says there’s not enough gravity from what dark matter there seems to exist there, to reach all the way out to 100,000 light years and keep stars moving at the same velocity.

The rotation data of other galaxies, while somewhat robust, also includes a number of assumptions might be fooling us into thinking that the speeds are higher than expected. The more precise data gathered nearby, in the Milky Way, is now suggesting those assumptions and that distant data must be questioned.

Or to put it more bluntly, dark matter remains an ad hoc solution to a mystery that astronomers really don’t understand, or have sufficient data to explain. It might very well be a wild goose chase that has made them miss the real answer, whatever that might be.

Astronomers identify what they think are the Milky Way’s first stars

The concentration of ancient stars in the Milky Way's core region
The concentration of ancient stars in the Milky Way’s core region.
Click for originial image.

The uncertainty of science: Using data produced by the European space telescope Gaia, combined with computer analysis, astronomers think they have identified the Milky Way’s first stars, all located within 30,000 light years of the galaxy’s core region.

The researchers began by locating a sample of two million bright red giant stars with the right spectra, using computer neural network machine learning.

With that sample, it proved comparatively easy to identify the ancient heart of the Milky Way galaxy – a population of stars that Rix has dubbed the “poor old heart”, given their low metallicity, inferred old age, and central location. On a sky map, these stars appear to be concentrated around the galactic center. The distances conveniently supplied by Gaia (via the parallax method) allow for a 3D reconstruction that shows those stars confined within a comparatively small region around the center, approximately 30,000 light-years across

The stars in question neatly complement Xiang’s and Rix’s earlier study of the Milky Way’s teenage years: They have just the right metallicity to have brought forth the metal-poorest of those stars that, later on, formed the Milky Way’s thick disk. Since that earlier study provided a chronology for thick-disk formation, this makes the ancient heart of the Milky Way older than about 12.5 billion years.

While the uncertainties of this scientific result are huge, it still helps identify the beginnings of the Milky Way, its initial size, and the kind of stars that existed here at that time.

New 3D atlas of all binary stars within 3,000 light years of Sun

Using data from Europe’s Gaia satellite, astronomers have now compiled a 3D map of every binary star within 3,000 light years of the the Sun — 1.3 million — including many widely spaced binaries that were previously not identified.

The one-of-a-kind atlas, created by Kareem El-Badry, an astrophysics Ph.D. student from the University of California, Berkeley, should be a boon for those who study binary stars — which make up at least half of all sunlike stars — and white dwarfs, exoplanets and stellar evolution, in general. Before Gaia, the last compilation of nearby binary stars, assembled using data from the now-defunct Hipparcos satellite, included about 200 likely pairs. “This is just a massive increase in sample size,” said El-Badry. “And it is an increase in what kinds of evolutionary phases we find the binaries in. In our sample, we have 17,000 white dwarfs alone. This is a much bigger census.”

The data has also shown that the bulk of these binaries are made up of twins, stars similar in mass, something that is surprising and as yet unexplained, especially for binaries where the stars are widely separated.

New Gaia data release tracks distance and motion of 1.8 billion stars

The European Space Agency (ESA) today released the third round of data from its Gaia satellite, designed to measure precisely the distance and motion of billions of nearby stars.

Gaia EDR3 contains detailed information on more than 1.8 billion sources, detected by the Gaia spacecraft. This represents an increase of more than 100 million sources over the previous data release (Gaia DR2), which was made public in April 2018. Gaia EDR3 also contains colour information for around 1.5 billion sources, an increase of about 200 million sources over Gaia DR2. As well as including more sources, the general accuracy and precision of the measurements has also improved.

This release also included the following discoveries:

  • The Milky Way’s outer regions beyond the Sun contain two populations of stars, one slowly dropping towards the galaxy’s plane, the second flying away quickly.
  • The first precise measure of the solar system’s orbit in the Milky Way
  • A more complete census of all stars within 100 parsecs of the Sun
  • A better map of the interaction between the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Milky Way, which also showed that the cloud does have a spiral structure

This precise data will take decades to digest, as past research has been based on only rough distance and motion estimates. Having precise data will change our approximation of each object’s brightness, which will also change much of what we assume about it.

Star to get within a trillion miles of Sun in 1.4 million years

Using the precise location and motion data obtained by the space telescope Gaia, astronomers have identified a star that 1.4 million years will come within a trillion miles of the Sun.

That distance puts it well within the outer parts of the theorized Oort cloud at the edge of the solar system. Since the star, Gliese 710, has a mass half that of the Sun, it will thus disturb many objects in that Oort Cloud, causing many to eventually fall sunward and produce a hail of comets several million years later. It will be, for a long time, the brightest object in the night sky, by far.

The data also identified a number of other stars that have in past or will in the future get close to the Sun. The most important result is not that these close approaches occur, but that they have found that they are relatively rare, and even the closest, Gliese 710, never really gets that close.

The universe is big, far bigger than we can really imagine.

Early Milky Way collision uncovered by Gaia

Data from the space telescope Gaia has revealed a Milky Way merger event that occurred about 10 billion years ago.

Using the first 22 months of observations, a team of astronomers led by Amina Helmi, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, looked at seven million stars – those for which the full 3D positions and velocities are available – and found that some 30,000 of them were part of an ‘odd collection’ moving through the Milky Way. The observed stars in particular are currently passing by our solar neighbourhood.

We are so deeply embedded in this collection that its stars surround us almost completely, and so can be seen across most of the sky.

Even though they are interspersed with other stars, the stars in the collection stood out in the Gaia data because they all move along elongated trajectories in the opposite direction to the majority of the Galaxy’s other hundred billion stars, including the Sun. They also stood out in the so-called Hertzprung-Russell diagram – which is used to compare the colour and brightness of stars – indicating that they belong to a clearly distinct stellar population.

The sheer number of odd-moving stars involved intrigued Amina and her colleagues, who suspected they might have something to do with the Milky Way’s formation history and set to work to understand their origins. In the past, Amina and her research group had used computer simulations to study what happens to stars when two large galaxies merge. When she compared those to the Gaia data, the simulated results matched the observations. “The collection of stars we found with Gaia has all the properties of what you would expect from the debris of a galactic merger,” says Amina, lead author of the paper published today in Nature.

At the time, the two galaxies were both probably about the same size, approximately equivalent to the Magellanic Clouds.

Must I mention that there is some uncertainty here? The data is good, and the conclusions seem quite reasonable. At the same time, the data is still somewhat thin. We need a lot more Gaia-type telescopes mapping out the motions and positions of all the stars of the Milky Way in far more detail before the uncertainties here will shrink.

Number of candidate exo-Earths reduced by Gaia data

Worlds without end: The number of candidate exo-Earths identified by Kepler has now been reduced based on data from Europe’s Gaia telescope.

To date, NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope has discovered about 30 roughly Earth-size exoplanets in their host stars’ “habitable zone” — the range of orbital distances at which liquid water can likely exist on a world’s surface.

Or so researchers had thought. New observations by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft suggest that the actual number is probably significantly smaller — perhaps between two and 12, NASA officials said today.

Gaia launched in December of 2013 to create an ultraprecise 3D map of the Milky Way. So far, this map includes position information for about 1.7 billion stars and distance data for about 1.3 billion stars, according to NASA officials. Gaia’s observations suggest that some of the Kepler host stars are brighter and bigger than previously believed, the officials added. Planets orbiting such stars are therefore likely larger and hotter than previously thought.

Being hotter and larger, the habitable zone for these stars shifts outward, placing the exoEarth’s outside the habitable zone.

More intergalactic stars discovered

Worlds without end: Using the data from Gaia’s second data release astronomers have identified twenty stars that are moving too fast to be permanent members of the Milky Way galaxy.

More significantly, most appeared to be approaching the galaxy, not flying away from it, suggesting they are visitors from other galaxies.

It is possible that these intergalactic interlopers come from the Large Magellanic Cloud, a relatively small galaxy orbiting the Milky Way, or they may originate from a galaxy even further afield. If that is the case, they carry the imprint of their site of origin, and studying them at much closer distances than their parent galaxy could provide unprecedented information on the nature of stars in another galaxy – similar in a way to studying Martian material brought to our planet by meteorites.

…An alternative explanation is that the newly identified sprinting stars could be native to our Galaxy’s halo, accelerated and pushed inwards through interactions with one of the dwarf galaxies that fell towards the Milky Way during its build-up history. Additional information about the age and composition of the stars could help the astronomers clarify their origin.

At least two more data releases shall come from Gaia, launched by Europe to precisely track the location and motions of a billion stars. So far, they have complete 3D velocity information for about seven million stars. After these additional data releases they expect to have complete 3D velocity information for 150 million stars, and should identify a lot more intergalactic stars at that time.

Galaxies collide!

Using data from then space telescope Gaia, astronomers have identified evidence that 8 to 10 billion years ago the Milky Way collided with a dwarf galaxy.

The astronomers propose that around 8 billion to 10 billion years ago, an unknown dwarf galaxy smashed into our own Milky Way. The dwarf did not survive the impact: It quickly fell apart, and the wreckage is now all around us.

“The collision ripped the dwarf to shreds, leaving its stars moving in very radial orbits” that are long and narrow like needles, said Vasily Belokurov of the University of Cambridge and the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute in New York City. The stars’ paths take them “very close to the center of our galaxy. This is a telltale sign that the dwarf galaxy came in on a really eccentric orbit and its fate was sealed.”

It is thought that this dwarf galaxy was quite large for a dwarf galaxy.

Astronomers identify 25 stars that have or will come within 3 light years of Sun

Using the second data release from Gaia, astronomers have identified 25 stars that have or will come within 3 light years of Sun sometime within fifteen million years.

But the authors are confident that the 25 stars represent only a sliver of the actual encounters that have occurred over this time period. “They’re still just scratching the surface,” Mamajek agrees. That’s because the Gaia satellite eliminates low-mass stars (which are simply too faint to see at the moment) and high-mass stars (which are often so bright they saturate the satellite’s detectors) — thus limiting the data to stars that range between 0.5 and 1.3 times the mass of the Sun.

As such, the team suspects that they have only spotted 15% of all the encounters that likely pummel our solar system. “It’s a good first step, but one should not look at this as the final word,” Mamajek adds.

In reading their paper (available here), they identify three stars come come within a light year, therefore disturbing the theorized Oort Cloud of comets thought to exist at this distance from the Sun. One, Gliese 710, will do so in 1.3 million years..

Gaia releases 3D map of galaxy

The science team for the space telescope Gaia, designed to map the positions of billions of stars, have released the probe’s second catalog, producing a 3D map of 1.7 billion stars in the Milky Way

The new data release, which covers the period between 25 July 2014 and 23 May 2016, pins down the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars, and with a much greater precision. For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a Euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon.

With these accurate measurements it is possible to separate the parallax of stars – an apparent shift on the sky caused by Earth’s yearly orbit around the Sun – from their true movements through the Galaxy. The new catalogue lists the parallax and velocity across the sky, or proper motion, for more than 1.3 billion stars. From the most accurate parallax measurements, about ten per cent of the total, astronomers can directly estimate distances to individual stars.

The catalog provides much more information than this. For example:

As well as positions, the data include brightness information of all surveyed stars and colour measurements of nearly all, plus information on how the brightness and colour of half a million variable stars change over time. It also contains the velocities along the line of sight of a subset of seven million stars, the surface temperatures of about a hundred million and the effect of interstellar dust on 87 million.

Gaia also observes objects in our Solar System: the second data release comprises the positions of more than 14 000 known asteroids, which allows precise determination of their orbits. A much larger asteroid sample will be compiled in Gaia’s future releases.

Further afield, Gaia closed in on the positions of half a million distant quasars, bright galaxies powered by the activity of the supermassive black holes at their cores. These sources are used to define a reference frame for the celestial coordinates of all objects in the Gaia catalogue, something that is routinely done in radio waves but now for the first time is also available at optical wavelengths.

I guarantee that many theories about specific strange stars, such as the plethora of different types of variable stars, are going to change drastically with this new and precise information. At the article they describe just one example relating to white dwarf stars.

An update on Gaia’s first year of astronomical observations

European scientists today released an update on the status and scientific observations of their space telescope Gaia, designed to survey the location and distance of a billion stars.

The press release provides a basic summary of the spacecraft’s condition, which appears good, as well as an overview of some of the most interesting observations, though with little detail. This is because the first scheduled release of Gaia hard data will not happen until a year from now, thus giving the scientists who run the project a year to analyze it and publish their own papers.

Loose fibers significantly cuts Gaia’s output

Europe’s Gaia telescope, designed to precisely measure the motions of a billion stars in the Milky Way, will have its accuracy cut in half because of the presence of loose fibers on the telescope’s sun shield that are allowing too much stray light in.

These fibres were spotted on Gaia before launch, but cutting them off was considered too risky, because that could allow small particles to enter the spacecraft. Another option, taping them down, was also ruled out because the increased stiffness could prevent the sunshield from unfolding.

The stray light shouldn’t affect measurements of the galaxy’s brightest stars, says Gaia science team member Anthony Brown at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, but it will double the expected errors on most of the stars in the Milky Way, which are much fainter.

For astronomers this is a great tragedy. Gaia will still teach us much, just not as much as they had hoped.

Gaia commissioning complete

After several months of in-orbit analysis, engineers have declared the European space telescope Gaia ready to begin research.

There have been several issues that had raised concerns, but from the article it sounds as if the engineers have either corrected the problems or have found ways to overcome or mitigate them.

Gaia will measure the movement and location of a billion stars, allowing astronomers to map the Milky Way better than ever before.

Problems with the European Gaia space telescope

Shades of Hubble: The first data from Europe’s Gaia space telescope, launched to map a billion Milky Way stars, will be delayed 9 months while engineers grapple with several problems.

Gaia managers started taking test images early this year, but soon noticed three issues. For one, more light than anticipated is bending around the 10-metre sunshield and entering the telescope.

Small amounts of water trapped in the spacecraft before launch are being released now that the telescope is in the vacuum of space, and more ice than calculated is accumulating on the telescope’s mirrors. In addition, the telescope itself is expanding and contracting by a few dozen nanometres more than expected because of thermal variations.

Mission managers say the number of stars detected will remain the same even if these complications remain untreated, but the accuracy in measurements of the fainter stars will suffer.

Unlike Hubble, however, there is no way to send a shuttle and a team of astronauts to Gaia to fix it. And it sounds like these issues will have an impact on the telescope’s abilities to gather its intended data.

This story raises my hackles for another reason. Gaia was a very technically challenging space telescope to build, but it was far easier and less cutting edge than the James Webb Space Telescope. It also cost far less. What will happen when Webb gets launched later this decade? How likely is it to have similar issues? Based on a story I just completed for Sky & Telescope on the difficulties of building ground-based telescopes, I’d say Webb is very likely to have similar problems, with no way to fix them. The American astronomy community could then be faced with the loss of two decades of research because they had put all the eggs into Webb’s basket, and thus had no money to build anything else.

“A lot of investment in green technology has been a giant scam, if well intentioned.”

“A lot of investment in green technology has been a giant scam, if well intentioned.”

The quote, and entire interview, are significant for two reasons. First, the interview is seeped with many skeptical opinions about human caused global warming, is very critical of that movement’s effort to politicize science, and the person being interviewed is James Lovelock, the founder of of the concept of Gaia, a former strong advocate of global warming but now a skeptic.

Most significant however is where the interview is published. It is in Nature, one of the most important and influential science journals, which previously has been aggressively pushing global warming politics for years. That they allowed these politically incorrect opinions within their walls and then broadcast them to their readers signals a major cultural shift within the science community. It is beginning to be acceptable to be a skeptic again!

Gaia, a astronomical space probe designed to pinpoint the location of a billion stars to map the Milky Way, was successfully launched today.

Gaia, a astronomical space probe designed to pinpoint the location of a billion stars to map the Milky Way, was successfully launched today.

This is an important spacecraft, but don’t expect to hear anything about its work now for a long time, as it will take a few years to accumulate the data involved and then a years beyond that to analyze it. Nonetheless, when Gaia’s work is finished we will have our first reasonably good map of the Milky Way, with the ability to project that map forward and backward in time.

The global warming advocate who invented the concept of “Gaia” now admits he was wrong about global warming.

The global warming advocate who invented the concept of “Gaia” now admits he was wrong about global warming.

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said. “The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now,” he said.

“The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.