April 30, 2016

Airglow and the Milky Way Galaxy

Airglow and the Milky Way Galaxy

Airglow (also called nightglow) is a faint emission of light by a planetary atmosphere. In the case of Earth's atmosphere, this optical phenomenon causes the night sky never to be completely dark, even after the effects of starlight and diffused sunlight from the far side are removed.

September 1, 2015

Image Credit & Copyright: Yuri Beletsky

Earth and the far side of the Moon

Earth and the far side of the Moon

This image shows the far side of the Moon, illuminated by the Sun, as it crosses between the DSCOVR spacecraft's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth - one million miles away.

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA

Light Echoes Give Clues to Protoplanetary Disk

Star and Protoplanetary Disk

Imagine you want to measure the size of a room, but it's completely dark. If you shout, you can tell if the space you're in is relatively big or small, depending on how long it takes to hear the echo after it bounces off the wall.

Astronomers use this principle to study objects so distant they can't be seen as more than points. In particular, researchers are interested in calculating how far young stars are from the inner edge of their surrounding protoplanetary disks. These disks of gas and dust are sites where planets form over the course of millions of years.

"Understanding protoplanetary disks can help us understand some of the mysteries about exoplanets, the planets in solar systems outside our own," said Huan Meng, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "We want to know how planets form and why we find large planets called 'hot Jupiters' close to their stars."

Meng is the first author on a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and four ground-based telescopes to determine the distance from a star to the inner rim of its surrounding protoplanetary disk.

Making the measurement wasn't as simple as laying a ruler on top of a photograph. Doing so would be as impossible as using a satellite photo of your computer screen to measure the width of the period at the end of this sentence.

Instead, researchers used a method called "photo-reverberation," also known as "light echoes." When the central star brightens, some of the light hits the surrounding disk, causing a delayed “echo.” Scientists measured the time it took for light coming directly from the star to reach Earth, then waited for its echo to arrive.

Thanks to Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, we know that light travels at a constant speed. To determine a given distance, astronomers can multiply the speed of light by the time light takes to get from one point to another.

To take advantage of this formula, scientists needed to find a star with variable emission -- that is, a star that emits radiation in an unpredictable, uneven manner. Our own sun has a fairly stable emission, but a variable star would have unique, detectable changes in radiation that could be used for picking up corresponding light echoes. Young stars, which have variable emission, are the best candidates.

The star used in this study is called YLW 16B and lies about 400 light-years from Earth. YLW 16B has about the same mass as our sun, but at one million years old, it's just a baby compared to our 4.6-billion-year-old home star.

Astronomers combined Spitzer data with observations from ground-based telescopes: the Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona; the SOAR and SMARTS telescopes in Chile; and the Harold L. Johnson telescope in Mexico. During two nights of observation, researchers saw consistent time lags between the stellar emissions and their echoes in the surrounding disk. The ground-based observatories detected the shorter-wavelength infrared light emitted directly from the star, and Spitzer observed the longer-wavelength infrared light from the disk's echo. Because of thick interstellar clouds that block the view from Earth, astronomers could not use visible light to monitor the star.

Researchers then calculated how far this light must have traveled during that time lag: about 0.08 astronomical units, which is approximately 8 percent of the distance between Earth and its sun, or one-quarter the diameter of Mercury's orbit. This was slightly smaller than previous estimates with indirect techniques, but consistent with theoretical expectations.

Although this method did not directly measure the height of the disk, researchers were able to determine that the inner edge is relatively thick.

Previously, astronomers had used the light echo technique to measure the size of accretion disks of material around supermassive black holes. Since no light escapes from a black hole, researchers compare light from the inner edge of the accretion disk to light from the outer edge to determine the disk size. This technique is also used to measure the distance to other features near the accretion disk, such as dust and the surrounding fast-moving gas.

While light echoes from supermassive black holes represent delays of days to weeks, scientists measured the light echo from the protoplanetary disk in this study to be a mere 74 seconds.

The Spitzer study marks the first time the light echo method was used in the context of protoplanetary disks.

"This new approach can be used for other young stars with planets in the process of forming in a disk around them," said Peter Plavchan, co-author of the study and assistant professor at Missouri State University in Springfield.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/light-echoes-give-clues-to-protoplanetary-disk

April 29, 2016

Andromeda Galaxy in Ultraviolet

Andromeda Galaxy in Ultraviolet

In a break from its usual task of searching for distant cosmic explosions, NASA's Swift satellite acquired the highest-resolution view of a neighboring spiral galaxy ever attained in the ultraviolet. The galaxy, known as M31 in the constellation Andromeda, is the largest and closest spiral galaxy to our own. This mosaic of M31 merges 330 individual images taken by Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. The image shows a region 200,000 light-years wide and 100,000 light-years high (100 arcminutes by 50 arcminutes).

Image Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler (GSFC) and Erin Grand (UMCP)
Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1492.html

Meteors and Milky Way over Mount Rainier

Meteors and Milky Way over Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier, Washington, USA
August 2015

Image Credit & Copyright: Matthew Dieterich

Artist's Impression of the Dwarf Planet Makemake and Its Moon S/2015 (136472) 1

Artist's Impression of the Dwarf Planet Makemake and Its Moon S/2015 (136472) 1

This artist's concept shows the distant dwarf planet Makemake and its newly discovered moon. Makemake and its moon, nicknamed MK 2, are more than 50 times farther away than Earth is from the sun. The pair resides in the Kuiper Belt, a vast reservoir of frozen material from the construction of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Makemake is covered in bright, frozen methane that is tinted red by the presence of complex organic material. Its moon is too small to retain ices as volatile as methane, even given the feeble heating by the very distant sun, and likely has a much darker surface. MK 2 is orbiting 13,000 miles from the dwarf planet, and its estimated diameter is roughly 100 miles across. Makemake is 870 miles wide.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Parker (Southwest Research Institute)
Explanation from: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2016/18/image/c/

April 28, 2016

Earth seen by DSCOVR Observatory

Earth seen by DSCOVR Observatory

A NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth from one million miles away.

This color image of Earth was taken by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope. The image was generated by combining three separate images to create a photographic-quality image. The camera takes a series of 10 images using different narrowband filters -- from ultraviolet to near infrared -- to produce a variety of science products. The red, green and blue channel images are used in these color images.

The image was taken July 6, 2015, showing North and Central America. The central turquoise areas are shallow seas around the Caribbean islands. This Earth image shows the effects of sunlight scattered by air molecules, giving the image a characteristic bluish tint. The EPIC team is working to remove this atmospheric effect from subsequent images. Once the instrument begins regular data acquisition, EPIC will provide a daily series of Earth images allowing for the first time study of daily variations over the entire globe. These images, available 12 to 36 hours after they are acquired, will be posted to a dedicated web page by September 2015.

The primary objective of DSCOVR, a partnership between NASA & the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to maintain the nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA.

Image Credit: NASA, NOAA
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/nasa-captures-epic-earth-image

Flame Nebula in the Infrared

Flame Nebula in the Infrared

The Flame Nebula, designated as NGC 2024 and Sh2-277, is an emission nebula in the constellation Orion. It is about 900 to 1,500 light-years away.

The bright star Alnitak (ΞΆ Ori), the easternmost star in the Belt of Orion, shines energetic ultraviolet light into the Flame and this knocks electrons away from the great clouds of hydrogen gas that reside there. Much of the glow results when the electrons and ionized hydrogen recombine. Additional dark gas and dust lies in front of the bright part of the nebula and this is what causes the dark network that appears in the center of the glowing gas. The Flame Nebula is part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a star-forming region that includes the famous Horsehead Nebula.

At the center of the Flame Nebula is a cluster of newly formed stars, 86% of which have circumstellar disks. X-ray observations by the Chandra X-ray Observatory show several hundred young stars, out of an estimated population of 800 stars. X-ray and infrared images indicate that the youngest stars are concentrated near the center of the cluster.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Explanation from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flame_Nebula

Hubble Discovers Moon Orbiting the Dwarf Planet Makemake

Moon Orbiting the Dwarf Planet MakemakeMoon Orbiting the Dwarf Planet Makemake

Peering to the outskirts of our solar system, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a small, dark moon orbiting Makemake, the second brightest icy dwarf planet — after Pluto — in the Kuiper Belt.

The moon — provisionally designated S/2015 (136472) 1 and nicknamed MK 2 — is more than 1,300 times fainter than Makemake. MK 2 was seen approximately 13,000 miles from the dwarf planet, and its diameter is estimated to be 100 miles across. Makemake is 870 miles wide. The dwarf planet, discovered in 2005, is named for a creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast reservoir of leftover frozen material from the construction of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago and home to several dwarf planets. Some of these worlds have known satellites, but this is the first discovery of a companion object to Makemake. Makemake is one of five dwarf planets recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

The observations were made in April 2015 with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Hubble's unique ability to see faint objects near bright ones, together with its sharp resolution, allowed astronomers to pluck out the moon from Makemake's glare. The discovery was announced today in a Minor Planet Electronic Circular.

The observing team used the same Hubble technique to observe the moon as they did for finding the small satellites of Pluto in 2005, 2011, and 2012. Several previous searches around Makemake had turned up empty. "Our preliminary estimates show that the moon's orbit seems to be edge-on, and that means that often when you look at the system you are going to miss the moon because it gets lost in the bright glare of Makemake," said Alex Parker of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, who led the image analysis for the observations.

A moon's discovery can provide valuable information on the dwarf-planet system. By measuring the moon's orbit, astronomers can calculate a mass for the system and gain insight into its evolution.

Uncovering the moon also reinforces the idea that most dwarf planets have satellites.

"Makemake is in the class of rare Pluto-like objects, so finding a companion is important," Parker said. "The discovery of this moon has given us an opportunity to study Makemake in far greater detail than we ever would have been able to without the companion."

Finding this moon only increases the parallels between Pluto and Makemake. Both objects are already known to be covered in frozen methane. As was done with Pluto, further study of the satellite will easily reveal the density of Makemake, a key result that will indicate if the bulk compositions of Pluto and Makemake are also similar. "This new discovery opens a new chapter in comparative planetology in the outer solar system," said team leader Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

The researchers will need more Hubble observations to make accurate measurements to determine if the moon's orbit is elliptical or circular. Preliminary estimates indicate that if the moon is in a circular orbit, it completes a circuit around Makemake in 12 days or longer.

Determining the shape of the moon's orbit will help settle the question of its origin. A tight circular orbit means that MK 2 is probably the product of a collision between Makemake and another Kuiper Belt Object. If the moon is in a wide, elongated orbit, it is more likely to be a captured object from the Kuiper Belt. Either event would have likely occurred several billion years ago, when the solar system was young.

The discovery may have solved one mystery about Makemake. Previous infrared studies of the dwarf planet revealed that while Makemake's surface is almost entirely bright and very cold, some areas appear warmer than other areas. Astronomers had suggested that this discrepancy may be due to the sun warming discrete dark patches on Makemake's surface. However, unless Makemake is in a special orientation, these dark patches should make the dwarf planet's brightness vary substantially as it rotates. But this amount of variability has never been observed.

These previous infrared data did not have sufficient resolution to separate Makemake from MK 2. The team's reanalysis, based on the new Hubble observations, suggests that much of the warmer surface detected previously in infrared light may, in reality, simply have been the dark surface of the companion MK 2.

There are several possibilities that could explain why the moon would have charcoal-black surface, even though it is orbiting a dwarf planet that is as bright as fresh snow. One idea is that, unlike larger objects such as Makemake, MK 2 is small enough that it cannot gravitationally hold onto a bright, icy crust, which sublimates, changing from solid to gas, under sunlight. This would make the moon similar to comets and other Kuiper Belt Objects, many of which are covered with very dark material.

When Pluto's moon Charon was discovered in 1978, astronomers quickly calculated the mass of the system. Pluto's mass was hundreds of times smaller than the mass originally estimated when it was found in 1930. With Charon's discovery, astronomers suddenly knew something was fundamentally different about Pluto. "That's the kind of transformative measurement that having a satellite can enable," Parker said.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Parker and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute), W. Grundy (Lowell Observatory), and K. Noll (NASA GSFC)
Explanation from: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2016/18/full/

April 27, 2016

Proton Arc and Aurora over Lake Superior

Proton Arc and Aurora over Lake Superior

Lake Superior, Michigan, USA
August 2015

Image Credit & Copyright: Ken Williams

The NGC 4522 Galaxy

The NGC 4522 Galaxy

Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) allows astronomers to study an interesting and important phenomenon called ram pressure stripping that is so powerful, it is capable of mangling galaxies and even halting their star formation.

NGC 4522 is a spectacular example of a spiral galaxy that is currently being stripped of its gas content. The galaxy is part of the Virgo galaxy cluster and its rapid motion within the cluster results in strong winds across the galaxy as the gas within is left behind. Scientists estimate that the galaxy is moving at more than 10 million kilometres per hour. A number of newly formed star clusters that developed in the stripped gas can be seen in the Hubble image. The stripped spiral galaxy is located some 60 million light-years away from Earth.

Even though it is a still image, Hubble's view of NGC 4522 practically swirls off the page with apparent movement. It highlights the dramatic state of the galaxy with an especially vivid view of the ghostly gas being forced out of it. Bright blue pockets of new star formation can be seen to the right and left of centre.

Image Credit: NASA & ESA
Explanation from: http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic0911b/

The Twin Jet Nebula

The Twin Jet Nebula

The shimmering colours visible in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image show off the remarkable complexity of the Twin Jet Nebula. The new image highlights the nebula’s shells and its knots of expanding gas in striking detail. Two iridescent lobes of material stretch outwards from a central star system. Within these lobes two huge jets of gas are streaming from the star system at speeds in excess of one million kilometres per hour.

The cosmic butterfly pictured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image goes by many names. It is called the Twin Jet Nebula as well as answering to the slightly less poetic name of PN M2-9.

The M in this name refers to Rudolph Minkowski, a German-American astronomer who discovered the nebula in 1947. The PN, meanwhile, refers to the fact that M2-9 is a planetary nebula. The glowing and expanding shells of gas clearly visible in this image represent the final stages of life for an old star of low to intermediate mass. The star has not only ejected its outer layers, but the exposed remnant core is now illuminating these layers — resulting in a spectacular light show like the one seen here. However, the Twin Jet Nebula is not just any planetary nebula, it is a bipolar nebula.

Ordinary planetary nebulae have one star at their centre, bipolar nebulae have two, in a binary star system. Astronomers have found that the two stars in this pair each have around the same mass as the Sun, ranging from 0.6 to 1.0 solar masses for the smaller star, and from 1.0 to 1.4 solar masses for its larger companion. The larger star is approaching the end of its days and has already ejected its outer layers of gas into space, whereas its partner is further evolved, and is a small white dwarf.

The characteristic shape of the wings of the Twin Jet Nebula is most likely caused by the motion of the two central stars around each other. It is believed that a white dwarf orbits its partner star and thus the ejected gas from the dying star is pulled into two lobes rather than expanding as a uniform sphere. However, astronomers are still debating whether all bipolar nebulae are created by binary stars. Meanwhile the nebula’s wings are still growing and, by measuring their expansion, astronomers have calculated that the nebula was created only 1200 years ago.

Within the wings, starting from the star system and extending horizontally outwards like veins are two faint blue patches. Although these may seem subtle in comparison to the nebula’s rainbow colours, these are actually violent twin jets streaming out into space, at speeds in excess of one million kilometres per hour. This is a phenomenon that is another consequence of the binary system at the heart of the nebula. These jets slowly change their orientation, precessing across the lobes as they are pulled by the wayward gravity of the binary system.

The two stars at the heart of the nebula circle one another roughly every 100 years. This rotation not only creates the wings of the butterfly and the two jets, it also allows the white dwarf to strip gas from its larger companion, which then forms a large disc of material around the stars, extending out as far as 15 times the orbit of Pluto! Even though this disc is of incredible size, it is much too small to be seen on the image taken by Hubble.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, Judy Schmidt
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1518/

April 26, 2016

The NGC 4449 Galaxy

NGC 4449

Nearly 12.5 million light-years away in the dwarf galaxy NGC 4449 a veritable stellar "fireworks" is on display - here shown in exquisite detail through the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hundreds of thousands of vibrant blue and red stars are visible in this image of galaxy NGC 4449 taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Hot bluish white clusters of massive stars are scattered throughout the galaxy, interspersed with numerous dustier reddish regions of current star formation. Massive dark clouds of gas and dust are silhouetted against the flaming starlight.

NGC 4449 has been forming stars since several billion years ago, but currently it is experiencing a star formation event at a much higher rate than in the past. This unusual explosive and intense star formation activity qualifies as a starburst. At the current rate, the gas supply that feeds the stellar production would only last for another billion years or so.

Starbursts usually occur in the central regions of galaxies, but NGC 4449 has a more widespread star formation activity, since the very youngest stars are observed both in the nucleus and in streams surrounding the galaxy.

A "global" starburst like NGC 4449 resembles primordial star forming galaxies which grew by merging with and accreting smaller stellar systems. Since NGC 4449 is close enough to be observed in great detail, it is the ideal laboratory for the investigation of what may have occurred during galactic formation and evolution in the early Universe.

It's likely that the current widespread starburst was triggered by interaction or merging with a smaller companion. NGC 4449 belongs to a group of galaxies in the constellation Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs. Astronomers think that NGC 4449's star formation has been influenced by interactions with several of its neighbours.

This image was taken in November 2005 by an international science team led by Alessandra Aloisi of European Space Agency (ESA)/the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. Other team members include Francesca Annibali (STScI), Claus Leitherer (STScI), Jennifer Mack (STScI), Marco Sirianni (ESA/STScI), Monica Tosi (INAF-OAB), and Roeland van der Marel (STScI).

Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys observed the NGC 4449 in blue, visible, infrared, and Hydrogen-alpha light.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Aloisi (ESA/STScI) and The Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic0711/

Wide-field view of the sky around the Pencil Nebula

Pencil Nebula

This image of the region of sky around the Pencil Nebula shows a spectacular celestial landscape featuring the blue filaments of the Vela supernova remnant, the red glow of clouds of hydrogen and countless stars. It is a colour composite made from exposures from the Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Image Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2, Davide De Martin
Explanation from: http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1236c/

Comet PanSTARRS, Moon, and Venus

Comet PanSTARRS, Moon, and Venus

It is the object to the left of the big tree that's generating much recent excitement. If you look closely, there you can see Comet PanSTARRS, complete with two tails. During July 2015, this comet has increased markedly in brightness and has just passed its closest approach to Earth. The statuesque tree in the center is a Norfolk Island Pine, and to either side of this tree are New Zealand Pohutukawa trees. Over the trees, far in the distance, are bright Venus and an even brighter crescent Moon. If you look even more closely, you can find Jupiter hidden in the branches of the pine. The featured image was taken in July 2015 in Fergusson Park, New Zealand, looking over Tauranga Harbour Inlet.

Image Credit & Copyright: Amit Kamble
Explanation from: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150723.html

April 25, 2016

The Bubble Nebula

The Bubble Nebula

The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, which lies 8 000 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. This object was first discovered by William Herschel in 1787 and this is not the first time it has caught Hubble’s eye. However, due to its very large size on the sky, previous Hubble images have only shown small sections of the nebula, providing a much less spectacular overall effect. Now, a mosaic of four images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) allows us to see the whole object in one picture for the first time.

This complete view of the Bubble Nebula allows us to fully appreciate the almost perfectly symmetrical shell which gives the nebula its name. This shell is the result of a powerful flow of gas — known as a stellar wind — from the bright star visible just to the left of centre in this image. The star, SAO 20575, is between ten and twenty times the mass of the Sun and the pressure created by its stellar wind forces the surrounding interstellar materialoutwards into this bubble-like form.

The giant molecular cloud that surrounds the star — glowing in the star’s intense ultraviolet radiation — tries to stop the expansion of the bubble. However, although the sphere already measures around ten light-years in diameter, it is still growing, owing to the constant pressure of the stellar wind — currently at more than 100 000 kilometres per hour!

Aside from the symmetry of the bubble itself, one of the more striking features is that the star is not located at the centre. Astronomers are still discussing why this is the case and how the perfectly round bubble is created nonetheless.

The star causing the spectacular colourful bubble is also notable for something less obvious. It is surrounded by a complex system of cometary knots, which can be seen most clearly in this image just to the right of the star. The individual knots, which are generally larger in size than the Solar System and have masses comparable to Earth’s, consist of crescent shaped globules of dust with large trailing tails illuminated and ionised by the star. Observations of these knots, and of the nebula as a whole, help astronomers to better understand the geometry and dynamics of these very complicated systems.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1608/

Hubble’s wide view of “Mystic Mountain” in the Infrared

Mystic Mountain

This is a NASA Hubble Space Telescope near-infrared image of a pillar of gas and dust, three light-years tall, that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby stars in the tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina.

The image reveals a myriad of stars behind the gaseous veil of the nebula’s wall of hydrogen, laced with dust. The foreground pillar becomes semi-transparent because infrared light from background stars penetrates through much of the dust. A few stars inside the pillar also become visible. The false colours are assigned to three different infrared wavelength ranges.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 observed the pillar in February/March 2010.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Livio
Explanation from: http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic1007f/

Milky Way over Uluru

Milky Way over Uluru

Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia
July 13, 2015

Image Credit & Copyright: Babak Tafreshi

April 24, 2016

Optical Image of the Flame Nebula

Optical Image of the Flame Nebula

An optical image, from the Digitized Sky Survey, of a large field centered on the Flame Nebula. A comparison with the composite image from Chandra and Spitzer - shown as an overlay - demonstrates how powerful X-ray and infrared images are for studying star forming regions. The central cluster of stars, NGC 2024, is clearly observed in the X-ray and optical images but is not visible in the optical image.

Image Credit: DSS
Explanation from: http://chandra.si.edu/photo/2014/flame/more.html

Artist's Impression of the Cygnus X-1

Cygnus X-1

Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way. An artist's illustration depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. The black hole pulls material from a massive, blue companion star toward it. This material forms a disk (shown in red and orange) that rotates around the black hole before falling into it or being redirected away from the black hole in the form of powerful jets.

Image Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Explanation from: http://chandra.si.edu/photo/2011/cygx1/more.html

ALMA’s Most Detailed Image of a Protoplanetary Disc - Evidence for planet formation in Earth-like orbit around young star

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around the young star TW HydraeALMA image of the planet-forming disc around the young, Sun-like star TW HydraeInner region of the TW Hydrae protoplanetary disc as imaged by ALMA

This new image from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) shows the finest detail ever seen in the planet-forming disc around the nearby Sun-like star TW Hydrae. It reveals a tantalising gap at the same distance from the star as the Earth is from the Sun, which may mean that an infant version of our home planet, or possibly a more massive super-Earth, is beginning to form there.

The star TW Hydrae is a popular target of study for astronomers because of its proximity to Earth (only about 175 light-years away) and its status as an infant star (about 10 million years old). It also has a face-on orientation as seen from Earth. This gives astronomers a rare, undistorted view of the complete protoplanetary disc around the star.

"Previous studies with optical and radio telescopes confirm that TW Hydrae hosts a prominent disc with features that strongly suggest planets are beginning to coalesce," said Sean Andrews with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA and lead author on a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "The new ALMA images show the disc in unprecedented detail, revealing a series of concentric dusty bright rings and dark gaps, including intriguing features that may indicate that a planet with an Earth-like orbit is forming there."

Other pronounced gaps that show up in the new images are located three billion and six billion kilometres from the central star, similar to the average distances from the Sun to Uranus and Pluto in the Solar System. They too are likely to be the results of particles that came together to form planets, which then swept their orbits clear of dust and gas and shepherded the remaining material into well-defined bands.

For the new TW Hydrae observations, astronomers imaged the faint radio emission from millimetre-sized dust grains in the disc, revealing details on the order of the distance between the Earth and the Sun (about 150 million kilometres). These detailed observations were made possible with ALMA’s high-resolution, long-baseline configuration. When ALMA's dishes are at their maximum separation, up to 15 kilometres apart, the telescope is able to resolve finer details. "This is the highest spatial resolution image ever of a protoplanetary disc from ALMA, and that won't be easily beaten in the future!" said Andrews.

"TW Hydrae is quite special. It is the nearest known protoplanetary disc to Earth and it may closely resemble the Solar System when it was only 10 million years old," adds co-author David Wilner, also with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Earlier ALMA observations of another system, HL Tauri, show that even younger protoplanetary discs — a mere 1 million years old — can display similar signatures of planet formation. By studying the older TW Hydrae disc, astronomers hope to better understand the evolution of our own planet and the prospects for similar systems throughout the Milky Way.

The astronomers now want to find out how common these kinds of features are in discs around other young stars and how they might change with time or environment.

Image Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
Explanation from: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1611/