January 3, 2018

π1 Gruis

π1 Gruis

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time directly observed granulation patterns on the surface of a star outside the Solar System — the ageing red giant π1 Gruis. This remarkable new image from the PIONIER instrument reveals the convective cells that make up the surface of this huge star, which has 350 times the diameter of the Sun. Each cell covers more than a quarter of the star’s diameter and measures about 120 million kilometres across. These new results are being published this week in the journal Nature.

Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. It has about the same mass as our Sun, but is 350 times larger and several thousand times as bright. Our Sun will swell to become a similar red giant star in about five billion years.

An international team of astronomers led by Claudia Paladini (ESO) used the PIONIER instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to observe π1 Gruis in greater detail than ever before. They found that the surface of this red giant has just a few convective cells, or granules, that are each about 120 million kilometres across — about a quarter of the star’s diameter. Just one of these granules would extend from the Sun to beyond Venus. The surfaces — known as photospheres — of many giant stars are obscured by dust, which hinders observations. However, in the case of π1 Gruis, although dust is present far from the star, it does not have a significant effect on the new infrared observations.

When π1 Gruis ran out of hydrogen to burn long ago, this ancient star ceased the first stage of its nuclear fusion programme. It shrank as it ran out of energy, causing it to heat up to over 100 million degrees. These extreme temperatures fueled the star’s next phase as it began to fuse helium into heavier atoms such as carbon and oxygen. This intensely hot core then expelled the star’s outer layers, causing it to balloon to hundreds of times larger than its original size. The star we see today is a variable red giant. Until now, the surface of one of these stars has never before been imaged in detail.

By comparison, the Sun’s photosphere contains about two million convective cells, with typical diameters of just 1500 kilometres. The vast size differences in the convective cells of these two stars can be explained in part by their varying surface gravities. π1 Gruis is just 1.5 times the mass of the Sun but much larger, resulting in a much lower surface gravity and just a few, extremely large, granules.

While stars more massive than eight solar masses end their lives in dramatic supernovae explosions, less massive stars like this one gradually expel their outer layers, resulting in beautiful planetary nebulae. Previous studies of π1 Gruis found a shell of material 0.9 light-years away from the central star, thought to have been ejected around 20 000 years ago. This relatively short period in a star's life lasts just a few tens of thousands of years – compared to the overall lifetime of several billion – and these observations reveal a new method for probing this fleeting red giant phase.

Image Credit: ESO
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1741/

January 2, 2018

Cassiopeia A

Cassiopeia A

Where do most of the elements essential for life on Earth come from? The answer: inside the furnaces of stars and the explosions that mark the end of some stars’ lives.

Astronomers have long studied exploded stars and their remains – known as “supernova remnants” – to better understand exactly how stars produce and then disseminate many of the elements observed on Earth, and in the cosmos at large.

Due to its unique evolutionary status, Cassiopeia A (Cas A) is one of the most intensely studied of these supernova remnants. A new image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the location of different elements in the remains of the explosion: silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple). Each of these elements produces X-rays within narrow energy ranges, allowing maps of their location to be created. The blast wave from the explosion is seen as the blue outer ring.

X-ray telescopes such as Chandra are important to study supernova remnants and the elements they produce because these events generate extremely high temperatures – millions of degrees – even thousands of years after the explosion. This means that many supernova remnants, including Cas A, glow most strongly at X-ray wavelengths that are undetectable with other types of telescopes.

Chandra’s sharp X-ray vision allows astronomers to gather detailed information about the elements that objects like Cas A produce. For example, they are not only able to identify many of the elements that are present, but how much of each are being expelled into interstellar space. 

The Chandra data indicate that the supernova that produced Cas A has churned out prodigious amounts of key cosmic ingredients. Cas A has dispersed about 10,000 Earth masses worth of sulfur alone, and about 20,000 Earth masses of silicon. The iron in Cas A has the mass of about 70,000 times that of the Earth, and astronomers detect a whopping one million Earth masses worth of oxygen being ejected into space from Cas A, equivalent to about three times the mass of the sun. (Even though oxygen is the most abundant element in Cas A, its X-ray emission is spread across a wide range of energies and cannot be isolated in this image, unlike with the other elements that are shown.)

Astronomers have found other elements in Cas A in addition to the ones shown in this new Chandra image. Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and hydrogen have also been detected using various telescopes that observe different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Combined with the detection of oxygen, this means all of the elements needed to make DNA, the molecule that carries genetic information, are found in Cas A.

Oxygen is the most abundant element in the human body (about 65% by mass), calcium helps form and maintain healthy bones and teeth, and iron is a vital part of red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body. All of the oxygen in the Solar System comes from exploding massive stars. About half of the calcium and about 40% of the iron also come from these explosions, with the balance of these elements being supplied by explosions of smaller mass, white dwarf stars. 

While the exact date is not confirmed, many experts think that the stellar explosion that created Cas A occurred around the year 1680 in Earth’s timeframe. Astronomers estimate that the doomed star was about five times the mass of the Sun just before it exploded. The star is estimated to have started its life with a mass about 16 times that of the Sun, and lost roughly two-thirds of this mass in a vigorous wind blowing off the star several hundred thousand years before the explosion.

Earlier in its lifetime, the star began fusing hydrogen and helium in its core into heavier elements through the process known as “nucleosynthesis.” The energy made by the fusion of heavier and heavier elements balanced the star against the force of gravity. These reactions continued until they formed iron in the core of the star. At this point, further nucleosynthesis would consume rather than produce energy, so gravity then caused the star to implode and form a dense stellar core known as a neutron star.

The exact means by which a massive explosion is produced after the implosion is complicated, and a subject of intense study, but eventually the infalling material outside the neutron star was transformed by further nuclear reactions as it was expelled outward by the supernova explosion.

Chandra has repeatedly observed Cas A since the telescope was launched into space in 1999. The different datasets have revealed new information about the neutron star in Cas A, the details of the explosion, and specifics of how the debris is ejected into space.

Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/images/chandra-reveals-the-elementary-nature-of-cassiopeia-a.html

January 1, 2018

Interacting Galaxy NGC 5256

Interacting Galaxy NGC 5256

A riot of colour and light dances through this peculiarly shaped galaxy, NGC 5256. Its smoke-like plumes are flung out in all directions and the bright core illuminates the chaotic regions of gas and dust swirling through the galaxy’s centre. Its odd structure is due to the fact that this is not one galaxy, but two — in the process of a galactic collision.

NGC 5256, also known as Markarian 266, is about 350 million light-years away from Earth, in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear). It is composed of two disc galaxies whose nuclei are currently just 13 000 light-years apart. Their constituent gas, dust, and stars are swirling together in a vigorous cosmic blender, igniting newborn stars in bright star formation regions across the galaxy.

Interacting galaxies can be found throughout the Universe, producing a variety of intricate structures. Some are quiet, with one galaxy nonchalantly absorbing another. Others are violent and chaotic, switching on quasars, detonating supernovae, and triggering bursts of star formation.

While these interactions are destructive on a galactic scale, stars very rarely collide with each other in this process because the distances between them are so vast. But as the galaxies entangle themselves, strong tidal effects produce new structures — like the chaotic-looking plumes of NGC 5256 — before settling into a stable arrangement after millions of years.

In addition to the bright and chaotic features, each merging galaxy of NGC 5256 contains an active galactic nucleus, where gas and other debris are fed into a hungry supermassive black hole. Observations from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory show that both of these nuclei — and the region of hot gas between them — have been heated by shock waves created as gas clouds collide at high velocities.

Galaxy mergers, like the one NGC 5256 is currently experiencing, were more common early in the Universe and are thought to drive galactic evolution. Today most galaxies show signs of past mergers and near-collisions. Our own Milky Way too has a long history of interaction: it contains the debris of many smaller galaxies it has absorbed in the past; it is currently cannibalising the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy; and in a kind of cosmic payback, the Milky Way will merge with our neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy in about two billion years.

Also in this Hubble image is another pair of probably interacting galaxies — they are hiding to the right of NGC 5256 in the far distance, and have not yet been explored by any astronomer. From our perspective here on Earth, NGC 5256 is also just a few degrees away from another famous pair of interacting galaxies, Messier 51, which was observed by Hubble in 2005.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1720/