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Did A Gamma-Ray Burst Destroy Life On Earth?

December 12, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Around The Net

A gamma-ray burst, the most powerful kind of explosion known in the universe, may have triggered a mass extinction on Earth within the past billion years, researchers say.

These deadly outbursts could help explain the so-called Fermi paradox, the seeming contradiction between the high chance of alien life and the lack of evidence for it, scientists added.

Gamma-ray bursts are brief, intense explosions of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. These outbursts give off as much energy as the sun during its entire 10-billion-year lifetime in anywhere from milliseconds to minutes. Scientists think gamma-ray bursts may be caused by giant exploding stars known as hypernovas, or by collisions between pairs of dead stars known as neutron stars.

If a gamma-ray burst exploded within the Milky Way, it could wreak extraordinary havoc if it were pointed directly at Earth, even from thousands of light-years away. Although gamma rays would not penetrate Earth’s atmosphere well enough to burn the ground, they would chemically damage the atmosphere, depleting the ozone layer that protects the planet from damaging ultraviolet rays that could trigger mass extinctions. It’s also possible that gamma-ray bursts may spew out cosmic rays, which are high-energy particles that may create an experience similar to a nuclear explosion for those on the side of the Earth facing the explosion, causing radiation sickness.

To see how great a threat gamma-ray bursts might pose to Earth, researchers investigated how likely it was that such an explosion could have inflicted damage on the planet in the past.

Gamma-ray bursts are traditionally divided into two groups — long and short — depending on whether they last more or less than 2 seconds. Long gamma-ray bursts are associated with the deaths of massive stars, while short gamma-ray bursts are most likely caused by the mergers of neutron stars.

For the most part, long gamma-ray bursts happen in galaxies very different from the Milky Way — dwarf galaxies low in any element heavier than hydrogen and helium. Any long gamma-ray bursts in the Milky Way will likely be confined in regions of the galaxy that are similarly low in any element heavier than hydrogen and helium, the researchers said.

The scientists discovered the chance that a long gamma-ray burst could trigger mass extinctions on Earth was 50 percent in the past 500 million years, 60 percent in the past 1 billion years, and more than 90 percent in the past 5 billion years. For comparison, the solar system is about 4.6 billion years old.

Short gamma-ray bursts happen about five times more often than long ones. However, since these shorter bursts are weaker, the researchers found they had negligible life-threatening effects on Earth. They also calculated that gamma-ray bursts from galaxies outside the Milky Way probably pose no threat to Earth.

These findings suggest that a nearby gamma-ray burst may have caused one of the five greatest mass extinctions on Earth, such as the Ordovician extinction that occurred 440 million years ago. The Ordovician extinction was the earliest of the so-called Big Five extinction events, and is thought by many to be the second largest. [Wipe Out: History's Most Mysterious Extinctions]

The scientists also investigated the danger that gamma-ray bursts may pose for life elsewhere in the Milky Way. Stars are packed more densely together toward the center of the galaxy, meaning worlds there face a greater danger of gamma-ray bursts. Worlds in the region about 6,500 light-years around the Milky Way’s core, where 25 percent of the galaxy’s stars reside, faced more than a 95 percent chance of a lethal gamma-ray burst within the past billion years. The researchers suggest that life as it is known on Earth could survive with certainty only in the outskirts of the Milky Way, more than 32,600 light-years from the galactic core.

The researchers also explored the danger gamma-ray bursts could pose for the universe as a whole. They suggest that because of gamma-ray bursts, life as it is known on Earth might safely develop in only 10 percent of galaxies. They also suggest that such life could only have developed in the past 5 billion years. Before then, galaxies were smaller in size, and gamma-ray bursts were therefore always close enough to cause mass extinctions to any potentially life-harboring planets.

“This may be an explanation, or at least a partial one, to what is called the Fermi paradox or the ‘Big Silence,’” said lead study author Tsvi Piran, a physicist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Why we haven’t encountered advanced civilizations so far? The Milky Way galaxy is much older than the solar system and there was ample time and ample space — the number of planetary systems with conditions similar to Earth is huge — for life to develop elsewhere in the galaxy. So why we haven’t encountered advanced civilizations so far?”

The answer to Fermi’s paradox may be that gamma-ray bursts have struck many life-harboring planets. The most severe criticism of these estimates “is that we address life as we know it on Earth,” Piran told Live Science. “One can imagine very different forms of life that are resilient to the relevant radiation.”


Are Supermassive Black Holes Heavier Than Originally Thought?

December 3, 2014 by Michael  
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The enormous black holes that lurk at the hearts of all galaxies are significantly bigger than astronomers had imagined, a new study suggests.

Researchers have used a new method to measure the distance to the active spiral galaxy NGC 4151 — whose core is dubbed the “Eye of Sauron” because of its resemblance to the structure in the “Lord of the Rings” films — with unprecedented precision. This calculation enabled them to determine the mass of NGC 4151′s central black hole more accurately — and the results were surprising.

‪”Our calculations show that the supermassive black holes are 40 percent heavier than previously thought,” study co-author Darach Watson, of the ‪University of Copenhagen’s ‪Niels Bohr Institute (NBI), said in a statement. “This fundamentally changes determinations of the masses of black holes.”

Supermassive black holes can contain as much mass as hundreds of millions, or even several billion, suns.

Previous estimates of the distance to NGC 4151′s central black hole relied on measurements of redshift — how wavelengths of light are lengthened by an object’s motion away from Earth-based observers. This technique yielded imprecise results, with estimates ranging from 13 million to 95 million light-years, Watson said.

So the study team, led by Sebastian Hönig of the University of Southampton in England (who was working at NBI while performing the research), tried out a different method: geometry.

As NGC 4151′s black hole draws in nearby gas, the material gets heated up and releases ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This radiation, in turn, heats up a ring of dust that orbits the black hole, causing the dust to give off infrared radiation.

Observations by Earth-based telescopes have revealed that the time delay between the UV and infrared emission is 30 days. Because the speed of light is known, calculating the distance between the black hole and the dust ring is a relatively straightforward matter.

The researchers used the twin Keck telescopes in Hawaii to measure the angle the dust ring makes in the sky — just 12 millionths of a degree. They combined the light collected by both telescopes, using a technique called interferometry. The method resulted in a resolution about 100 times greater than that achieved by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, researchers said.

The team could then calculate the distance to the Eye of Sauron using geometry. The distance from the black hole to the dust ring forms the base of an isosceles triangle, whose twin long legs are the distance from Earth to either side of the ring; with the angle of the sharp point of the triangle known, the legs’ distance can be computed.

The team calculated the distance to NGC 4151 to be 62 million light-years, with an uncertainty of just 13.5 percent or so. This improved precision will help researchers estimate the true heft of supermassive black holes, Watson said.

‪”The calculations of the mass (weight) of the supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies depends on two main factors: the rotational speed of the stars in the galaxy and how far it is from the black hole to the stars,” he said. “The rotational speed can be observed, and the distance from the black hole out to the rotating disc of stars can now be calculated precisely using the new method.”

Initial indications suggest that supermassive black hole masses have been underestimated by perhaps 40 percent. Researchers hope to extend their measurements to other active galaxies; the technique could eventually help astronomers better understand the rate at which the universe is expanding, study team members said.

The new study was published online today (Nov. 26) in the journal Nature.


Does Black Hole Turbulence Stop Stars From Forming?

November 13, 2014 by Michael  
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The low birth rate for stars in distant galaxy clusters is one of astronomy’s long-standing mysteries. But scientists now have a new culprit in the case: cosmic turbulence from black holes.

The discovery, made by astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, suggests that black holes make it hard for new stars to form in gas-rich galaxy clusters. It may also explain why more infant stars aren’t present in these otherwise fertile areas, researchers said.

“We knew that somehow the gas in clusters is being heated to prevent it cooling and forming stars. The question was exactly how,” said the study’s lead author Irina Zhuravleva, of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in a NASA statement. Zhuravleva and her colleagues suspect they “may have found evidence that the heat is channeled from turbulent motions.”

Zhuravleva’s team used the Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the Virgo and Perseus galaxy clusters, which are brimming with thousands of galaxies and even more stars. The Virgo galaxy cluster alone contains about 2,000 galaxies — the largest of which contain roughly 1 trillion stars.

But despite their sheer size, the most massive element of the galactic clusters are the gas that lives in the spaces between galaxies. Over time, these gas clouds should naturally cool down and become prime areas of star formation. But in most galaxies, the gas is hotter than predicted. Since this hot gas can’t coalesce into stars, star births remain low, researchers said.

Turbulence­­ usually refers to chaotic changes in the pressure and speed of a material. A fast moving ship, for example, can create turbulence on an otherwise calm body of water. In the interstellar gas clouds, the turbulence is believed to originate with supermassive black holes, which spit out violent jets of matter. The jets carve out deep cavities in the gas and generate strong turbulence, which gets passed into the gas cloud surrounding the cavity.

For the new study, which is detailed in the journal Nature, the researchers used the Chandra X-ray Observatory to study gas clouds in the Virgo and Perseus galaxy clusters. The X-ray images showed changes in the density of gas in those clusters, or areas where the gas was either bunched up or spread out. The researchers say these changes indicate the amount of turbulence in that area, from which they can estimate how much heat will be distributed to the gas.

“Our work gives us an estimate of how much turbulence is generated in these clusters,” said one of the study’s authors, Alexander Schekochihin of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in the press release. “From what we’ve determined so far, there’s enough turbulence to balance the cooling of the gas.”

Turbulence in galaxy cluster gas clouds could come from other major events, like two galaxies merging together. But the researchers believe black hole ejections are the most common source of the turbulence that ultimately hinders star birth.


Astronomers Discover Hybrid Star

October 13, 2014 by Michael  
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For astronomers, it’s the equivalent of buried treasure in space: a strange hybrid star — actually, one star packed inside the shell of another, larger star.

That’s apparently what happens when a dying star swallows a smaller, dead star. And for decades, this exotic cosmic rarity was only theory, a wild idea hatched by an astronomer and a now-famous physicist and an astronomer.

It’s called a Thorne-Zytkow object (TZO), and its existence was first proposed in 1975 by physicist Kip Thorne and astronomer Anna Zytkow. TZOs The strange hybrid stars are theorized to form from binary systems containing two massive stars — a neutron star and a red supergiant star.

Neutron stars are extraordinarily dense corpses of normal stars. Red supergiants are dying stars with the greatest diameters of any star in the universe, ranging from 200 to 2,000 times wider than the sun — “so big that if you placed them where our sun is, they would extend out to, or even beyond, the orbit of Saturn,” said study lead author Emily Levesque, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The news study, which details the likely discovery of the Thorne-Zytkow object, was published in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal MNRAS Letters. News of the find first came out, and was previewed in June, shortly after the study was submitted to the online preprint site

The hunt for a hybrid star

A TZO is typically thought to form when a red supergiant engulfs an orbiting neutron star. The merger would result in “a shell of burning material around the neutron core — a shell that would generate new elements as it burned,” Thorne said in a statement. “Convection, the circulation of hot gas inside the star, would reach right into the burning shell and carry the products of burning all the way to the surface of the star long before the burning was complete.”

A TZO should appear virtually identical to a very bright red supergiant. However, a TZO’s unique innards should produce unusually large amounts of rubidium, strontium, yttrium, zirconium, molybdenum and lithium, setting it apart from a normal red supergiant.

Now, scientists have detected a red supergiant with the distinct chemical signature of a TZO, suggesting they may have detected these space oddities for the first time.

“I am extremely happy that observational confirmation of our theoretical prediction has started to emerge,” Zytkow said in a June statement.

In a galaxy not so far away

The candidate TZO is named HV 2112. The star is a member of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy about 199,000 light-years away that is a close neighbor of the Milky Way and easily visible to the naked eye from the Southern Hemisphere.

The researchers identified HV 2112 after a survey of 62 red supergiants conducted with the 6.5-meter (21.3 feet) Magellan Clay telescope in Chile and the Apache Point Observatory 3.5-meter (11.5 feet) telescope in New Mexico.

“On our first night at the Magellan telescope, we had a fantastic ‘Hmmm, that’s odd’ moment,” Levesque told “We were displaying the raw data as we took it, and when one star’s data popped up, we could tell, even in that messy format, that the spectrum was unusual. Our co-author Nidia Morrell [of the Carnegie Observatories in La Serena, Chile] looked at the data for this star and immediately said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I know that I like it!’”

“It was our first inkling that there was something different about this star,” Levesque said. “And that star turned out to be HV 2112.”

The scientists confirmed excess levels of rubidium, molybdenum and lithium in HV 2112′s gaseous shroud.

“If HV 2112 is found to be a bona fide TZO, this would have huge implications,” Levesque said. “It could offer the first solid evidence for a completely different model of how stars’ interiors can work. Inside these stars, we also have a new way of producing elements, and knowing where the various elements come from is a critical ingredient in trying to understand how the universe works. We hear that everything is made of ‘star stuff’ — inside TZOs, we might have found a totally new way to make some of it.”

Is it really there?

The evidence that HV 2112 is a TZO is strong “but not ironclad,” Thorne said in a statement. “Certainly it’s by far the best candidate for a TZO that anyone has seen, but additional confirmation is needed.”

Although HV 2112 looks exactly how the researchers expected a TZO to look, “some of those expectations are based on models and predictions from a couple of decades ago,” Levesque said. “It’s possible that when modern-day models are run, they will give us new things to look for or new ideas of what a TZO might look like.”

Levesque noted that she had already “gotten dozens of emails from people who are interested in running their own new computer models to test how TZO interiors work, how they might form or evolve, or even whether or not they can stably exist. “A few months ago, TZOs were an interesting but somewhat obscure topic, but our discovery has spurred a renewed interest in these stars,” Levesque said. “Whether people are criticizing our findings or setting out to prove us wrong honestly matters less to me than the fact that new research on TZOs is underway — the more people study them, the more we’ll know!”

Levesque said that after she and her colleagues get more information on what modern-day models predict TZOs should look like, they would like to get more observations of HV 2112 and its surroundings “to see if there are any other strange quirks or tell-tale signs of it being a TZO.”

“Searching for more TZOs would obviously be exciting, too,” Levesque added. “Finding one is interesting, but if we find several, we’ll be able to learn so much more.”


Megaflare On Small Star Stuns Astronomers

October 6, 2014 by Michael  
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A series of megaflares unleashed earlier this year by a nearby red dwarf has astronomers rethinking just what these small, dim stars are capable of.

On April 23, NASA’s Swift satellite spotted the enormous star flare coming from DG Canum Venaticorum (DG CVn), a system of two red dwarfs located about 60 light-years from Earth. The eruption put to shame anything ever seen on the sun, whose strong flares are classified into three categories, with C flares being the weakest, M of medium strength and X the most powerful.

“The biggest flare we’ve ever seen from the sun occurred in November 2003 and is rated as X45,” Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. “The flare on DG CVn, if viewed from a planet the same distance as Earth is from the sun, would have been roughly 10,000 times greater than this, with a rating of about X100,000.”

For a few minutes, the superflare’s X-ray brightness outshone both stars’ total luminosity in all wavelengths, researchers said. The eruption’s temperature reached 360 million degrees Fahrenheit (200 million degrees Celsius) — about 13 times hotter than the sun’s core.

But DG CVn wasn’t done yet, firing off a number of other flares over the next 11 days, with each one being a bit weaker than the last. X-ray emission from the system finally returned to baseline levels 20 days after the April 23 event.

DG CVn’s sustained activity surprised scientists.

“We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks,” said Drake, who gave a presentation about the DG CVn superflare in August at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division. “This was a very complex event.”

Both of the stars in the DG CVn system are about one-third as massive as the sun. They orbit about 3 astronomical units from each other — too close for Swift to tell which one of them was responsible for the big flares this year. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the average distance from Earth to the sun — about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers).

The DG CVn stars complete one rotation in less than a day, compared to about 25 days for the sun. The dwarfs’ rotational speed helps explain how they are capable of such powerful flaring, researchers said: Flares erupt when a star’s twisted magnetic fields reconnect, and rapid spin amps these fields up.

The sun may once have blasted out megaflares, too. A star’s rotational speed decreases as it ages, and our sun is middle-aged at about 5 billion years old. The DG CVn stars are just 30 million years old or so, researchers said.


Should The Search For Alien Life Include Searching For Chlorophyll?

October 2, 2014 by Michael  
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The next generation of space telescopes hunting for signs of extraterrestrial life should focus on water, then oxygen and then alien versions of the plant chemical chlorophyll, a new study suggests.

In the past 20 years or so, astronomers have confirmed the existence of nearly 2,000 worlds outside Earth’s solar system. Many of these exoplanets lie in the habitable zones of stars, areas potentially warm enough for the worlds to harbor liquid water on their surfaces. Astrobiologists hope that life may someday be spotted on such alien planets, since there is life pretty much everywhere water exists on Earth.

One strategy to discover signs of such alien life involves looking for ways that organisms might change a world’s appearance. For example, chemicals typically shape what are known as the spectra seen from planets by adding or removing wavelengths of light. Alien-hunting telescopes could look for spectra that reveal chemicals associated with life. In other words, these searches would focus on biosignatures — chemicals or combinations of chemicals that life could produce, but that processes other than life could not or would be unlikely to create.

Astrophysicists Timothy Brandt and David Spiegel at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, sought to see how challenging it might be to conclusively identify signatures of water, oxygen and chlorophyll — the green pigment that plants use to convert sunlight to energy — on a distant twin of Earth using a future off-Earth instrument such as NASA’s proposed Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST).

The scientists found that water would be the easiest to detect.

“Water is a very common molecule, and I think a mission to take spectra of exoplanets should certainly look for water,” said Brandt, the lead study author. “Indeed, we have found water in a few gas giants more massive than Jupiter orbiting other stars.”

In comparison, oxygen is more difficult to detect than previously thought, requiring scientific instruments approximately twice as sensitive as those needed to detect water and significantly better at discriminating between similar colors of light.

“Oxygen, however, has only been a large part of Earth’s atmosphere for a few hundred million years,” Brandt said. “If we see it in an exoplanet, it probably points to life, but not finding oxygen certainly does not mean that the planet is sterile.”

Although a well-designed space telescope could detect water and oxygen on a nearby Earth twin, the astrophysicists found the instrument would need to be significantly more sensitive or very lucky, to see chlorophyll. Identifying this chemical typically requires scientific instruments about six times more sensitive than those needed for oxygen. Chlorophyll becomes as detectable as oxygen only when an exoplanet has a lot of vegetation and/or little in the way of cloud cover, researchers said.

Chlorophyll slightly reddens the light from Earth. If extraterrestrial life does convert sunlight to energy as plants do, scientists expect that the alien process might use a different pigment than chlorophyll. But alien photosynthesis could also slightly redden planets, just as chlorophyll does.

“Light comes in packets called photons, and only photons with at least a certain amount of energy are useful for photosynthesis,” Brandt said. Chlorophyll reflects photons that are too red and low in energy to be used for photosynthesis, and it may be reasonable to assume that extraterrestrial pigments would do the same thing, Brandt noted.

The researchers suggest a strategy for discovering Earthlike alien life that first looks for water, then oxygen on the more favorable planets and finally chlorophyll on only the most exceptionally promising worlds.

“The goal of a future space telescope will be primarily to detect water and oxygen on a planet around a nearby star,” Brandt said. “The construction and launch of such a telescope will probably cost at least $10 billion and won’t happen for at least 20 years — a lot of technology development needs to happen first — but it could be the most exciting mission of my lifetime.”

Brandt and Spiegel detailed their findings online Sept. 1 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Astronomers Find New Molecule In Space Dust

September 29, 2014 by Michael  
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The discovery of a strangely branched organic molecule in the depths of interstellar space has capped a decades-long search for the carbon-bearing stuff.

The molecule in question — iso-propyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN) — was spotted in Sagittarius B2, a huge star-making cloud of gas and dust near the center of the Milky Way, about 27,000 light-years from the sun. The discovery suggests that some of the key ingredients for life on Earth could have originated in interstellar space.

A specific molecule emits light at a particular wavelength and in a telltale pattern, or spectrum, which scientists can detect using radio telescopes. For this study, astronomers used the enormous Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in the Chilean desert, which went online last year and combines the power of 66 radio antennas. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]

Iso-propyl cyanide joins a long list of molecules detected in interstellar space. But what makes this discovery significant is the structure of iso-propyl cyanide. All other organic molecules that have been detected in space so far (including normal-propyl cyanide, the sister of i-C3H7CN) are made of a straight chain with a carbon backbone. Iso-propyl cyanide, however, has a “branched” structure. This same type of branched structure is a key characteristic of amino acids.

“Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are important ingredients of life on Earth,” the study’s lead author, Arnaud Belloche, of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, told in an email. “We are interested in the origin of amino acids in general and their distribution in our galaxy.”

Scientists have previously found amino acids in meteorites that fell to Earth, and the composition of these chemicals suggested they had an interstellar origin. The researchers in this new study did not find amino acids, but their discovery adds an “additional piece of evidence that the amino acids found in meteorites could have been formed in the interstellar medium,” Belloche wrote.

“The detection of a molecule with a branched carbon backbone in interstellar space, in a region where stars are being formed, is interesting because it shows that interstellar chemistry is indeed capable of producing molecules with such a complex, branched structure,” Belloche added.

It was first suggested in the 1980s that branched molecules could form on the surface of dust grains in interstellar space. But this is the first time such compounds have been detected. What’s more, iso-propyl cyanide seemed to be plentiful — it was almost half as abundant of its more common sister variant in Sagittarius B2, the study found. This means that branched molecules could actually be quite ordinary in interstellar space, the researchers said.


Scientist Solve Another Supernova Mystery

September 26, 2014 by Michael  
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A star-explosion mystery that puzzled astronomers for more than two decades has finally been solved.

Researchers using data gathered by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have determined that the supernova SN 1993J — which was first observed in 1993, as its name suggests — occurred because one star nabbed hydrogen from another.

“This is like a crime scene, and we finally identified the robber,” study co-author Alex Filippenko, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. “The companion star stole a bunch of hydrogen before the primary star exploded.” [Supernova Photos: Great Images of Star Explosions]

One telltale sign that something was unusual came through looking at the composition of SN 1993J, which is a Type IIb supernova — a rare kind of star explosion that has much less hydrogen than typical supernovas do.

Astronomers began searching for the companion star shortly after the discovery of SN 1993J, which is found in the Messier 81 galaxy, about 11 million light-years from Earth. They were unable to find the companion, however, because the supernova zone was so crowded that it was tough to know if they were observing the correct star.

“A binary system is likely required to lose the majority of the primary star’s hydrogen envelope prior to the explosion,” said lead author Ori Fox, also of UC Berkeley. “The problem is that, to date, direct observations of the predicted binary companion star have been difficult to obtain since it is so faint relative to the supernova itself.”

What eventually turned the tide was combining optical images with Hubble ultraviolet (UV) data to find the spectrum of elements expected to emanate from the companion star. The team plans to examine the system further to find more properties of the companion and to better figure out how stars explode, researchers said.

“We were able to get that UV spectrum with Hubble. This conclusively shows that you have an excess of continuum emission in the UV, even after the light from other stars has been subtracted,” said co-author Azalee Bostroem of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

While supernovas occur about once every second throughout the cosmos, catching one is a challenge to astronomers. Many of them appear faint because they are far from our planet, or they can be obscured from our view by cosmic dust. This makes predicting star explosions even more of a puzzle for scientists.


Can Venus Like Planets Help The Search For Alien Life?

September 17, 2014 by Michael  
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Exoplanet hunters have just made it easier to identify alien Venuses, in the hopes that doing so will lead to the discovery of more alien Earths.

A team of researchers has delineated the “Venus Zone,” the range of distances from a host star where planets are likely to resemble Earth’s similarly sized sister world, which has been rendered unlivably hot due to a runaway greenhouse effect.

The new study should help scientists get a better handle on how many of the rocky planets spotted by NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope are truly Earth-like, team members said.

“The Earth is Dr. Jekyll, and Venus is Mr. Hyde, and you can’t distinguish between the two based only on size,” lead author Stephen Kane, of San Francisco State University, said in a statement. “So the question then is, how do you define those differences, and how many ‘Venuses’ is Kepler actually finding?”

The results could also lead to a better understanding of Earth’s history, Kane added.

“We believe the Earth and Venus had similar starts in terms of their atmospheric evolution,” he said. “Something changed at one point, and the obvious difference between the two is proximity to the sun.”

Kane and his team defined the Venus Zone based on solar flux — the amount of stellar energy that orbiting planets receive. The outer edge of the zone is the point at which a runaway greenhouse effect would take hold, with a planet’s temperature soaring thanks to heat-trapping gases in its atmosphere. The inner boundary, meanwhile, is the distance at which stellar radiation would completely strip away a planet’s air.

The thinking is similar to that behind the “habitable zone” — the just-right range of distances from a star at which liquid water, and perhaps life as we know it, may be able to exist.

The dimensions of these astronomical zones vary from star to star, since some stars are hotter than others. In our own solar system, the Venus Zone’s outer boundary lies just inside the orbit of Earth, researchers said.

Future space-based instruments — such as NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018 — will be able to analyze some exoplanets’ atmospheres, helping scientists refine the Venus Zone concept, researchers said.

“If we find all of these planets in the Venus Zone have a runaway greenhouse-gas effect, then we know that the distance a planet is from its star is a major determining factor. That’s helpful to understanding the history between Venus and Earth,” Kane said.

“This is ultimately about putting our solar system in context,” he added. “We want to know if various aspects of our solar system are rare or common.”

The Kepler spacecraft launched in March 2009 on a mission to determine how commonly Earth-like planets occur around the Milky Way galaxy. To date, Kepler has detected more than 4,200 exoplanet candidates, 978 of which have been confirmed by follow-up observations or analysis. Mission team members think about 90 percent of the candidates will eventually turn out to be the real deal.

The telescope suffered a glitch in May 2013 that ended its original exoplanet hunt, but Kepler has embarked upon a new mission called K2, which calls for it to observe a range of cosmic objects and phenomena.



Can A Star Cluster Help Solve A Space Mystery?

September 11, 2014 by Michael  
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Stunning new photos taken by a telescope in Chile show an incredible grouping of stars that may help scientists solve a stellar conundrum.

The image, released today by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), shows a distant cluster of bright stars outside of the Milky Way. A related video of the globular cluster Messier 54 shows it glowing  in a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way called the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy about 90,0000 light-years away, according to ESO.

Messier 54′s location gives scientists a unique opportunity to study the stars of the cluster and make comparisons to those housed within the Milky Way. About 150 globular star clusters — groupings of stars that date back to the early days of the galaxy — orbit the Earth’s galaxy, ESO representatives said. [Gallery: 65 All-Time Great Galaxy Hits (Photos)]

Astronomers have found that the old stars in globular clusters of the Milky Way actually have less of the element lithium than expected.

“Most of the light chemical-element lithium now present in the universe was produced during the Big Bang, along with hydrogen and helium, but in much smaller quantities,” ESO representatives said in a statement. “Astronomers can calculate quite accurately how much lithium they expect to find in the early universe, and from this, work out how much they should see in old stars. But the numbers don’t match. There is about three times less lithium in stars than expected.”

Until now, researchers haven’t been able to measure lithium in globular clusters outside of the Milky Way for comparison, but now, with the new data collected by ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope, scientists have found that a sampling of stars in Messier 54 is also missing some lithium, according to ESO.

A group of scientists led by Alessio Mucciarelli of the University of Bologna, Italy, used the new information to find that the lithium puzzle doesn’t just affect the Milky Way. Because Messier 54 is missing a similar amount of lithium, scientists have extrapolated that the element is missing from other galaxies, as well.

Astronomers have come up with a few explanations for the strange lithium mystery.

“The first is that the calculations of the amounts of lithium produced in the Big Bang are wrong, but very recent tests suggest that this is not the case,” ESO representatives said. “The second is that the lithium was somehow destroyed in the earliest stars, before the formation of the Milky Way. The third is that some process in the stars has gradually destroyed lithium during their lives.”


Do White Dwarfs Hold The Key To Supernova Explosions?

August 29, 2014 by Michael  
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Supernovas, the most powerful stellar explosions in the universe, may result from catastrophic nuclear explosions on dead stars, new research shows. Scientists had long theorized that such nuclear events cause some supernovas, but now researchers finally have direct evidence.

A supernova shines brightly enough to briefly outshine all the stars in its galaxy, making it visible from halfway across the universe. Such explosions are rare, only occurring within each galaxy about every 100 years.

For decades, scientists theorized that about one-quarter of all supernovas, a kind known as type Ia supernovas, involved white dwarfs, the remains of stars that cram the mass of the sun into a much smaller volume. White dwarfs are incredibly dense; just a teaspoon of matter from a white dwarf would weigh 5 tons. This gives the stars intense gravitational fields.

Researchers have suggested that when a white dwarf has a companion star, the white dwarf’s gravitational pull can strip matter off the nearby star. This can result in too much extra material on the white dwarf, eventually destabilizing it and setting off a thermonuclear chain reaction that explosively obliterates the white dwarf. However, until now, astronomers did not have direct evidence for this idea.

To search for such evidence and learn more about how type Ia supernovas happen, scientists investigated the supernova SN 2014J, which occurred in January. The explosion happened in a nearby galaxy called M82, located about 11.4 million light-years from Earth.

Until now, type Ia supernovas had exploded too far away for astronomers to detect any gamma rays emitted by the explosions, which made it difficult to probe some of the supernovas’ fundamental properties. However, SN 2014J is the nearest type Ia supernova to Earth detected in at least four decades, and scientists managed to analyze gamma rays from between 50 and 100 days after the explosion occurred, using the European Space Agency satellite INTEGRAL.

Exploding white dwarfs should be full of nickel-56, an unstable isotope of the element. As nickel-56 decays, its byproducts give off specific wavelengths of gamma rays. INTEGRAL detected such radiation, with the levels hinting at an amount of nickel-56 equal to about 200,000 times the mass of the Earth. This is about what scientists expect would be involved with a type Ia supernova.

These findings offer evidence that SN 2014J and other type Ia supernovas do probably originate from thermonuclear explosions on white dwarfs.

This provides an unambiguous proof of the theoretical concept behind supernova type Ias,” said study lead author Eugene Churazov, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

However, astronomers have suggested another way type Ia supernovas can happen: when one white dwarf explosively collides with another. The researchers noted their findings cannot rule out the possibility of such a white-dwarf merger for SN 2014J. To confirm which mechanism actually caused SN 2014J, astronomers continue to gather data.

“The search for clues on the progenitor is underway in radio, optical and X-ray bands,” Churazov told


Does Microbial Life Here Bold Well For Alien Life Discovery?

August 27, 2014 by Michael  
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The discovery of a complex microbial ecosystem far beneath the Antarctic ice may be exciting, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that life teems on frigid worlds throughout the solar system, researcher’s caution.

Scientists announced today (Aug. 20) in the journal Nature that many different types of microbes live in subglacial Lake Whillans, a body of fresh water entombed beneath 2,600 feet (800 meters) of Antarctic ice. Many of the micro-organisms in these dark depths apparently get their energy from rocks, the researchers report.

The results could have implications for the search for life beyond Earth, notes Martyn Tranter of the University of Bristol in England, who did not participate in the study. [6 Most Likely Places for Alien Life in the Solar System]

“The team has opened a tantalizing window on microbial communities in the bed of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and on how they are maintained and self-organize,” Tranter wrote in an accompanying “News and Views” piece in the same issue of Nature. “The authors’ findings even beg the question of whether microbes could eat rock beneath ice sheets on extraterrestrial bodies such as Mars. This idea has more traction now.”

But just how much traction is a matter of debate. For example, astrobiologist Chris McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California doesn’t see much application to Mars or any other alien world.

“First, it is clear that the water sampled is from a system that is flowing through ice and out to the ocean,” said McKay, who also was not part of the study team.

“Second, and related to this, the results are not indicative of an ecosystem that is growing in a dark, nutrient-limited system,” McKay told via email. “They are consistent with debris from the overlying ice — known to contain micro-organisms — flowing through and out to the ocean. Interesting in its own right, but not a model for an isolated ice-covered ecosystem.”

Isolated, ice-covered oceans exist on some moons of the outer solar system, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa and the Saturn satellite Enceladus — perhaps the two best bets to host life beyond Earth. McKay and other astrobiologists would love to know if these oceans do indeed host life.

It may be possible to find out without even touching down on Europa or Enceladus. Plumes of water vapor spurt into space from the south polar regions of both moons, suggesting that flyby probes could sample their subsurface seas from afar.

And Europa is on the minds of the higher-ups at both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA is drawing up plans for a potential Europa mission that could blast off in the mid-2020s, while ESA aims to launch its JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission —which would study the Jovian satellites Callisto and Ganymede in addition to Europa — in 2022.


Astrophysicists Discover Stars Being Eaten By Supermassive Black Hole

August 22, 2014 by Michael  
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Astrophysicists have analyzed two decades-worth of X-ray data and discovered three events inside galactic cores that can be interpreted in only one way: stellar destruction.

ANALYSIS: Supermassive Black Hole Jet Mystery Solved

For any given galaxy, it is estimated that a star will be destroyed by the central supermassive black hole approximately once every 10,000 years. The vast majority of known galaxies are thought to contain at least one supermassive black hole in their cores, having a dramatic effect on galactic and stellar evolution. [Images: Black Holes of the Universe]

As a star drifts too close to a supermassive black hole, intense tidal stresses rip the star to shreds. As this happens, the shredded material will be dragged into the black hole’s accretion disk — a hot disk of gas that is gradually pulled into the black hole’s event horizon, bulking up the black hole’s mass, or blasted as energetic jets from its poles.

Should there be a rapid injection of material — i.e. a star becoming blended and ingested into the accretion disk — powerful X-rays of a specific signature will be generated.

NEWS: Supermassive Black Holes are Not Doughnuts!

In a new study by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, astrophysicists trawled through observations from two space observatories to discover three likely occasions where stars have been eaten by supermassive black holes. Their work has been accepted for publication in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Using data from the German ROSAT and European XMM-Newton space observatories, X-ray data from 1990 (to today) could be accessed and three events in different galaxies were positively identified — designated 1RXS J114727.1 + 494302, 1RXS J130547.2 + 641252 and 1RXS J235424.5-102053. Invaluable to this study was the long-duration observations by ROSAT (which operated from 1990 to 1999) and XMM-Newton (launched in 1999) that could detect the moment of stellar death, keeping track of the X-ray emissions over the years as the star’s material was gradually ingested.

NEWS: Intermediate Black Hole Implicated in Star’s Death

No more than two dozen other stellar death event candidates were seen in the observations, but positive identifications probably won’t be available until the launch of the multi-instrument Spectrum-X-Gamma space observatory in 2016.

This work has added some much needed detail to these rare events, indicating that (on average) one star every 30,000 years in any given galaxy will be destroyed by the central supermassive black hole, though the researchers caution that more observations of stars being eaten by supermassive black holes are needed.


Astronomer’s Discover New Clues In Supernovas Death?

August 21, 2014 by Michael  
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When a supernova suddenly appeared in the night sky earlier this year, astronomers scrambled to study the bright new object before it faded away.

Now, with new forensic data gathered by NASA telescopes, scientists say they have a better idea about what caused the star explosion in the nearby Messier 82 galaxy.

At 12 million light-years away, the Type Ia supernova first spotted on Jan. 21 was the closest to Earth in years. There are two primary explanations for how Type Ia supernovas are triggered: Either a small dense star core known as a white dwarf takes on too much mass from its companion star, or two white dwarfs merge. Both result in a spectacular explosion. But that first scenario should enshroud the white dwarf in a cloud of gas that produces a significant amount of X-rays after the explosion. The second would leave little or no X-rays behind.

A group of astronomers looked for an X-ray source around the supernova in Messier 82, also known as the Cigar Galaxy, using NASA’s Swift telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory. But their search turned up quite empty. Compared with older data gathered around the region, there were no new X-rays present after the supernova.

“While it may sound a bit odd, we actually learned a great deal about this supernova by detecting absolutely nothing,” study leader Raffaella Margutti of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in a statement from NASA. “Now we can essentially rule out that the explosion was caused by a white dwarf continuously pulling material from a companion star.”

Margutti and colleagues say more work is still needed to confirm how the supernova named SN 2014J was triggered.


Astronomers Confirm Medium Size Black Holes

August 20, 2014 by Michael  
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Black holes do indeed come in three sizes: small, medium and extra large, a new study suggests.

Astronomers have studied many black holes at either size extreme — “stellar-mass” black holes, which are a few dozen times as weighty as the sun, and supermassive black holes, which can contain millions or billions of times the mass of the sun and lurk at the heart of most, if not all, galaxies.

Researchers have spotted hints of much rarer medium-size black holes, which harbor between 100 and several hundred thousand solar masses. But it’s tough to weigh these objects definitively — so tough that their existence has been a matter of debate.

But that debate can now be put to rest, says a research team that has measured an intermediate black hole’s mass with unprecedented precision. A black hole in the nearby galaxy M82 weighs in at 428 solar masses, give or take a hundred suns or so, they report today (Aug. 17) in the journal Nature.

“Objects in this range are the least expected of all black holes,” study co-author Richard Mushotzky, an astronomy professor at the University of Maryland, said in a statement. “Astronomers have been asking, ‘Do these objects exist, or do they not exist? What are their properties?’ Until now, we have not had the data to answer these questions.”

Patterns in the light

Black holes famously gobble up anything that gets too close, including light. But that doesn’t mean astronomers can’t see them; bright X-ray light streams from the superhot disk of material spiraling into a black hole’s mouth.

About 15 years ago, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory spacecraft spotted such emissions coming from a source in the galaxy M82, which lies about 12 million light-years away from Earth. For a long time, Mushotzky and some other scientists suspected that the object, called M82 X-1, was a medium-size black hole. But those suspicions were tough to confirm.

“For reasons that are very hard to understand, these objects have resisted standard measurement techniques,” Mushotzky said.

In the new study, a team led by University of Maryland doctoral student Dheeraj Pasham took a closer look at M82 X-1. They studied observations made from 2004 to 2010 by NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite, which ceased operations in 2012.

The RXTE data revealed a pair of repeating oscillations in M82 X-1′s X-ray emissions. These oscillations occurred 5.1 times per second and 3.3 times per second, respectively — a ratio of three to two. This fact allowed the team to determine the black hole’s mass.

“In essence, [the] frequency of these 3:2 ratio oscillations scales inverse[ly] with black hole mass,” Pasham told via email. “Simply put, if the black hole is small, the orbital periods at the innermost circular orbit are shorter, but if the black hole is big, the orbital periods are longer (smaller frequencies).”

The researchers calculated M82 X-1′s mass at 428 suns, plus or minus 105 solar masses.

“In our opinion, and as the paper’s referees seem to agree, this is the most accurate mass measurement of an intermediate-mass black hole to date,” Pasham said.

Learning about black-hole growth

Confirming the existence of intermediate black holes could help researchers better understand the supermassive monsters at the cores of galaxies.

Such behemoths apparently first formed in the universe’s very early days, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. They could not have grown so big so fast if their “seeds” were small stellar-mass black holes (which result from the collapse of giant stars), Pasham said.

“Many theories, therefore, have suggested that these initial seed black holes had to have been a few 100 -1,000 times our sun,” he said. “But we did not have firm evidence for such intermediate-mass black holes.”

Stellar-mass black holes also often feature paired X-ray oscillations that occur in a 3:2 frequency ratio. Therefore, the new observations suggest that medium-size black holes may behave like scaled-up versions of stellar-mass black hole systems, Pasham added.