Posts Tagged ‘astronomers’

Microquasars: Black Holes and Normal Stars an Interesting Mix

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008 by Bellatrix

Astronomers using two different telescopes and two different systems have started learning about microquasars. They’re learning new things that can then hopefully be applied to full size quasars as well.

A quasar is an extremely powerful, luminous and distant active galactic nucleus. While there was initially some controversy over the nature of these objects, there is now a scientific consensus that a quasar is a compact region surrounding the central supermassive black hole of a galaxy. Quasars show a very high redshift, meaning they are located a great distance from us. Quasars are active because the central black hole is accreting a lot of material. Near the black hole, intense magnetic fields in the disk accelerate material into tight jets that flow in opposite directions away from the hole.

Microquasars is a two-body system consisting of a stellar mass size black hole and a star, usually a red giant. The giant star is feeding material to the black hole. Which, needless to say creates some interesting dynamics. Astronomers have been looking at two systems, Swift1753.3-0127 and GX339-4, with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer to study microquasars. Microquasars are not only closer but change more rapidly, so a process that may take a normal quasar a year to undergo might only take a microquasar a few minutes.

Astronomers had thought that the visible light emission coming form microquasars was coming form far out in the accretion disk and thus did not give much information about the main actions going on. However, they were wrong. They now know that the optical and x-ray emission are intrinsically linked, probably by the same immense magnetic fields that hurl material into near light speed jets.

The data shows that light output typically drops just before x-ray output undergoes a large spike. The rapid variations in the x-ray and optical emission must have a common origin. The cool thing about discovering such patterns that stand out amidst chaotic fluctuations of light is that they give us a new handle on understanding the underlying physics. The best candidate is the strong magnetic fields as the dominant process behind it all.

So again what we once thought was wrong, we learned something new, but realize how much we don’t know yet. This data is a new clue about very mysterious and not yet understood systems. We still don’t know exactly what’s going on in these dynamic systems, but we have one more piece of the puzzle.

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Galaxy Having a Major Baby Boom

Monday, October 27th, 2008 by Bellatrix

Astronomers have discovered a distant galaxy making stars at an amazing rate. It is creating stars at a rate more than a thousand times that of the Milky Way, but the remarkable thing about it is its extreme distance. This galaxy may call into question the current theory of how galaxies form.

The galaxy, nicknamed the baby boom galaxy, is making stars at a rate of about 4000 per year, compared to the Milky Way, which makes only 10 stars per year. This galaxy is also located very far from us, 12.3 billion light years. We have observed other starburst galaxies before, but none this far away, or similarly this old. This galaxy is a very young galaxy, since it is so far, we are looking at it as it was almost 12 billions years ago. That gives this galaxy the record for furthest (or youngest) starburst galaxy ever observed. The furthest before this one was 11.7 billion light years from us.

Now this galaxy calls into question the current most popular model for how galaxies are believed to form, called the hierarchal model. This model states that galaxies form slowly by consuming other smaller galaxies and star clusters, thus the stars in the galaxies should all have different birthdays. However, with this new galaxy all the stars will have very similar birthdays, meaning formation of around the same time. So the question now is whether this case is the norm or the exception. With this kind of star formation we may be witnessing the birth of one of the most massive elliptical galaxies in the universe.

The discovery of this was only possible through combined use of several different telescopes. Measurements in the radio wavelengths were made with the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array in New Mexico. Infrared data was used from both the Spitzer space telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea Hawaii. Visible light images were used from both the Hubble Space Telescope and Japan’s Subaru Telescope also atop Mauna Kea. The identification of this galaxy and its properties would not have been possible without observations in the full range of the light spectrum. So its discovery is a fine example of the combination of different available technologies, from different sponsoring organizations. Now that we know how to find them, i.e. using data from across the electromagnetic spectrum, hopefully we can find out if galaxy baby booms were common in the distant universe, and if not, what is special about this case.

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Xieite: The First New Mineral With A Post-Spinel Structure

Thursday, September 18th, 2008 by Evan Finnes

Twenty-two years ago, the Suizhou meteorite broke into 12 pieces and struck the ground near Hubei, China. This meteorite contained a high-pressure chromite-spinel polymorph called xieite, which was recently classified as the first new mineral with a post-spinel structure. The formation of this mineral requires temperatures between 1800 and 1950 °C, and pressures between 18 and 23 GPa. Because of the high temperatures and pressures required to form this mineral, it is believed that this meteorite suffered from a catastrophic collision.

The discovery of xieite was made by an American-Chinese team from the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Carnegie Institute of Washington, Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Geophysical Laboratory. Xieite was given official mineral status by the International Mineralogical Association’s Commission of New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification. To be classified as a mineral, a substance must fit into five characterizations: 1) A mineral must be naturally occurring on Earth or somewhere in the Universe, not in a lab; 2) A mineral must be stable at room temperature (with the exception of ice and mercury); 3) A mineral should be inorganic, meaning it contains no C-C double bonds; 4) A mineral must be describable by a chemical formula– in xieite’s case it is Fe2+ Cr2 O4; and 5) A mineral must have an ordered atomic arrangement.

Spinels are a class of isometric minerals with the general formula XY2O4. These minerals are found in the Earth’s upper mantle, starting at the core mantle boundary, or Mohorovicic discontinuity, and down to depths of about 70 km. Any spinel found at greater depths contain high amounts of chromite. If found in the Earth, post-spinel chromite (which is 10% more dense than spinel-chromite) would have to have formed deep in the mantle, at depths of about 500 km.

Because of the high temperatures and pressures required for the formation of xieite, this new mineral could potentially become a useful tool for astronomers and geophysicists. If xieite is found in other asteroids, astronomers can use it to estimate the pressures and forces that have acted on the asteroid during impact. Likewise, if xieite is found in basaltic lava flows, or igneous intrusions, geophysicists can use the mineral to determine what depths in the mantle the magma originated.

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