Posts Tagged ‘nasa’

Old Method Finally Yields Results

Monday, June 1st, 2009 by Bellatrix

Modern develops in hunting for planets outside of our own solar system have yielded the discovery of well over a hundred different planets now. These newer methods include very new telescopes with the resolving power of being able to actually see an exoplanet, with which only 1 so far has been confirmed photographed, and other methods include using radial stellar velocity, or the Doppler effect, and the transit method. Now for the first time since its inception 50 years ago the method of astrometry has found an exoplanet.

The method of astrometry was first thought of 50 years ago to search for planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets. It involves measuring the precise motions of a star on the sky as an unseen planet tugs the star back and forth. But the method requires very precise measurements over long periods of time, and until now, has failed to turn up any exoplanets. This method is different from the more commonly used method of using the Doppler Effect or radial velocity of a star. Most exoplanets have been detected by watching for a wobble of a star, a gravitational tug from an orbiting planet due to the Doppler Effect. Astrometry also looks for a wobble but it is different  it measures the displacement the planets cause in their parent star’s apparent position on the sky, due to their mutual orbit around the center of mass of the system.

Two astronomers from NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in California have been collecting data for the past 12 years from an instrument mounted on a telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego. After looking at data from 30 different stars they have finally found what they were looking for: a planet surrounding the star VB 10. The planet itself is about 6 times the mass of Jupiter and an orbit a bit farther out making a cold Jupiter.  The star itself is quite small, a dwarf, at only 1/12 the mass of the sun. For a long time VB 10 was known as one of the smallest stars and now is the smallest star with a planet around it.  Because the star is so small, its planetary system would be a miniature, scaled-down version of our own. For example, VB 10b is located about as far from its star as Mercury is from the Sun. Any rocky Earth-sized planets that might happen to be in the neighborhood would lie even closer in.

The finding confirms that astrometry could be a powerful planet-hunting technique for both ground- and space-based telescopes. For example, a similar technique would be used by SIM Lite, a NASA concept for a space-based mission that is currently being explored. This is an exciting discovery because it shows that planets can be found around extremely lightweight stars. It seems that nature likes to form planets, even around stars quite different from our Sun. Now that it’s proven that this technique actually works and yields results it seems likely others might take it up, and more exoplanets will be found. One more tool in the planet hunter’s arsenal; one step possibly closer to finding a planet like our own.

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A Theoretical Link Found Between Radio Jets and Gamma Rays

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009 by Bellatrix

Scientists from the Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn Germany using NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope and the world’s largest radio telescope array have solidified a theoretical link between radio jets coming from the center of active galaxies and gamma ray bursts. This is a fine demonstration and use of new technology combined with an innovative use of existing technology.

Active galaxies are extremely bright galaxies which emitted oppositely directed jets of charged particles from their centers traveling near the speed of light.  Some, called Blazars, are especially bright because their jets are orientated along our line of sight.  These jets glow brightly in the radio part of the spectrum and in the 90’s it was hinted with the Chandra X-ray Observatory that they might emit in the higher energy parts of the spectrum as well. Astronomers believe these jets arise from matter that is falling into the central massive black holes of the galaxies, but the exact processes behind them is not well understood; which makes them the object of much study.

Now the Fermi telescope uses it’s Large Area Telescope, LAT, to scan the entire sky every 3 hours getting snapshots of the gamma ray bursts throughout the sky and monitor flares. Gamma ray bursts are the highest energy form of light below cosmic rays, and the origins of these gamma ray bursts is still undetermined; the objective of Fermi is to help clarify these origins. 

The new study was part of the MOJAVE program, which is a long-term study of the jets form active galaxies using primarily the VLBA. The VLBA is the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array, a set of 10 radio telescopes located from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands and operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico.  Signals from these 10 different telescopes are combined and the array acts like a single enormous radio dish more than 8,500 kilometers across. The VLBA can resolve details about a million times smaller than Fermi and50 times smaller than any optical telescope.

Astronomers combined data from the VLBA and LAT. Active galaxies detected in the LAT’s first few months of operations generally possess brighter and more compact radio jets than galaxies the LAT did not see. Moreover, an active galaxy’s radio jets tend to be brighter in the months following any gamma-ray flares observed by the LAT.  A correlation was also found between active galaxies with the brightest gamma ray emission and those with the fastest jets.

The scientists were also able to use this data to study a phenomenon known as Doppler boosting. Doppler boosting makes radio-emitting blobs look brighter and appear to move faster than the speed of light due to the angle at which it is viewed and the fact the speed of the particles is close to the speed of light.  The VLBA data shows that the bigger the Doppler boost seen in a radio jet, the more likely it is that Fermi recorded it as a gamma ray source. Also, many objects found by Fermi to be extreme in gamma rays are broadcasting strong bursts of radio emission at the same time. 

All of this data points to the conclusion that the portion of an active galaxy’s radio jet closest to the galaxy’s center is also the source of the gamma rays.  These findings show us a very interesting and before unknown link between two “sides” of one object and possibly one process. This may bring astronomers one-step closer to solving two very large mysteries: the processes behind the jets and the exact processes or origins of gamma ray bursts. It could turn out to be quite nice and convenient if both questions could have the same answer, or an answer that comes from the same place. This new finding is also a demonstration of the use of the new technology of Fermi the space telescope that was designed just to study gamma ray bursts, a first of its kind, and the technology behind the VLBA, using standard radio telescopes in a new way to improve their usefulness

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Everyone can be The Astronomer

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009 by admin

The year 2009 is the international year of astronomy; it marks 400 years since Galileo used the telescope to first look up at space. As part of the celebration NASA and other astronomical societies having been doing things to celebrate.  NASA is doing its part this month by allowing the public to be the astronomers. They have put the public in control of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA has picked six astronomical objects and is allowing the public to vote on which object Hubble will view and collect data on next. I decided to go over each of the six objects and describe what they are and why they might be of interest.

The first object is a star-forming region called NGC 6334 also known as the Cat’s Paw Nebula or the Bear Claw Nebula. It is located in the Scorpius constellation that is located in the southern hemisphere near the center of the galaxy.  It is located about 5,500 light years away. It glows with a deep red color that originates from a large amount of ionized hydrogen in the area. The nebula is usually obscured by large amounts of gas and dust sometimes making it difficult to observe from ground based telescopes.  The region is a very active star-forming region, which is the reason it is considered for observation. Observing these star forming regions tells us a lot about the birth and evolution of stars, and the interaction of a large number of young stars in close proximity to each other.

The second contestant is the planetary nebula NGC 6072, which is also located in the constellation Scorpius. There is not much information available on this object and it has not been viewed very often.  It is a remnant of a dead low mass star; a white dwarf with an envelope of gas and molecules surrounding it that were puffed off layers of the star as it was dying. Observing planetary nebulas is always useful, it gives us information about stars after they die and how the elements given off interacts with surrounding gas and dust. They also usually make for very pretty pictures.

The third object is planetary nebula NGC 40, otherwise known as the Bow-Tie Nebula. It is located about 3,500 light years form Earth in the constellation Cepheus. It is also composed of hot gas surrounding a dying/dead star. The white dwarf left behind radiates at about 50,000 degrees C and the gas envelope at about 30,000 degrees C.  This nebula has been imaged more than the other nebula, perhaps making it a less attractive candidate.

The fourth object in the contest is the spiral galaxy NGC 5172.  It is located at a distance of about 57 mega parsecs or about 150 million light years. It is a spiral type Sbc. IT has been a host to several well-documented supernovae. From what we can tell it is very similar in size and shape to our own Milky Way galaxy, which is the reason it may be a good candidate for study. Since we can not get an outside looking in view of our own galaxy studying ones similar to our own tell us information we could not otherwise get.

The next possible object is the edge on galaxy known as NGC 4289. It is located in the Virgo Constellation about 50 million light years away.  It is also a spiral galaxy but instead of being viewed face on it is seen completely edge on.  There are advantages to looking at the same types of things from different views; especially with astronomy. When looking at things so far away with things obstructing your view, light traveling so far, being bent around objects being able to see galaxies edge on can help with verifying measurements of brightness, velocity and other variables.

The last option for an object to choose is Arp 274, or NGC 5679, and is actually two (possibly three) galaxies interacting with each other.  It is also located in the Virgo constellation. Interacting galaxies are treasure-troves of data. By studying them we can information on formation and evolution or galaxies. We get information on how these interactions affect star formation, surrounding galaxies, central black holes, and more. I think this is a great candidate for further study. 

So those are the six objects open for voting. I encourage any readers to go check out NASA’s site and vote. I personally think this was a great idea on NASA’s part. Hubble has always been very popular and a great tool for creating public interest in astronomy, which can at times be hard to do.  I think it’s smart to give the general people the option to pick what they think is interesting and what they want to know more about. I encourage anything that the industry wants to do to try and rose public support, especially in times when funding is hard to come by NASA needs to keep the public in its corners.  I’m excited to see who the winner will be. 

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Fast As A Speeding Star

Monday, March 2nd, 2009 by Bellatrix

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA scientists have discovered stars doing something very interesting: speeding around through the interstellar medium.  This came as quite a surprise especially since they were not even looking for them. This is not usual behavior for stars and brings up many new questions about what these stars are doing and why.

The scientists discovered 14 of these crazy runaway stars.  Because of their movement it was harder to gather information about them but scientists were able to deduce some facts about the stars. The stars appear to be young, maybe only about a million years old.  This was deduced from looking a their strong stellar winds. Most stars only have such winds when they are quite young or very old. The nebulae around the stars do not math that of those typically seen around old dying stars. And only very massive stars have winds throughout their lifespan, but these stars could not be that massive because they do not have glowing clouds of ionized gas around them. They are estimated to be about 2 to 8 solar masses.

These stars plow through regions of dense interstellar gas creating brilliant arrowhead shaped glowing bow shocks and trailing tails of glowing gas. These bow shocks are created when the strong winds coming from the stars slam into the surrounding dense gas. It’s difficult to tell their exact distance from Earth but depending on the distance these bow shocks could be 100 billion to a trillion miles wide. By studying these bow shocks we can tell that the stars are moving very quickly, about 180,000 km/hr.  All stars are moving as they are orbiting around the galaxy but not nearly at these speeds, the sun for comparison moves through the galaxy at only about 13,000 km/hr.  Assuming this “young” phase lasts only a million years the stars would have traveled about 160 light years.

The scientists have hypothesized that these stars were likely kicked out or ejected from massive star clusters.  There’s two possible ways this expulsion could have happened.  One way is if a binary system, consisting of two stars orbiting each other, had one star go supernova the explosion would eject the companion star.  The other possibility would be if two binary systems or a binary and a third star collided one of the stars could have used he energy from the interaction to escape the system.

Runaway stars have been observed before, the first being found in the late 80s. However, those stars produced much larger bow shocks meaning they were probably more massive with larger stellar winds.  Scientists think these new objects, the medium size stars, are probably more common since medium sized stars are more common in general and because they would be more susceptible to being ejected.  These objects are difficult to find and observe because one doesn’t know where to find them or where to look for them. 

Follow up studies are planned to look for more of these objects, called interlopers, and to study these recently discovered ones. Further studies will tell us more about the effects these speed demons have on the environments they pass by or interact with. Theorists and modelers will have to set to work on looking at the origins of the objects and the causes of their ejections. Pretty interesting to think about these stars being expelled from their homes now doomed to zoom around the galaxy alone. 

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