New Kind of Variable Star Discovered

Minute variations in brightness reveal whole new class of stars

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Astronomers using the Swiss 1.2-metre Euler telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have found a new type of variable star. The discovery was based on the detection of very tiny changes in brightness of stars in a cluster. The observations revealed previously unknown properties of these stars that defy current theories and raise questions about the origin of the variations.

The Swiss are justly famed for their craftsmanship when creating extremely precise pieces of technology. Now a Swiss team from the Geneva Observatory has achieved extraordinary precision using a comparatively small 1.2-metre telescope for an observing programme stretching over many years. They have discovered a new class of variable stars by measuring minute variations in stellar brightness.

The new results are based on regular measurements of the brightness of more than three thousand stars in the open star cluster NGC 3766 [1] over a period of seven years. They reveal how 36 of the cluster’s stars followed an unexpected pattern — they had tiny regular variations in their brightness at the level of 0.1% of the stars’ normal brightness. These variations had periods between about two and 20 hours. The stars are somewhat hotter and brighter than the Sun, but otherwise apparently unremarkable. The new class of variable stars is yet to be given a name.

This level of precision in the measurements is twice as good as that achieved by comparable studies from other telescopes — and sufficient to reveal these tiny variations for the first time.

“We have reached this level of sensitivity thanks to the high quality of the observations, combined with a very careful analysis of the data,” says Nami Mowlavi, leader of the research team, “but also because we have carried out an extensive observation programme that lasted for seven years. It probably wouldn’t have been possible to get so much observing time on a bigger telescope.”

Many stars are known as variable or pulsating stars, because their apparent brightness changes over time. How the brightness of these stars changes depends in complex ways on the properties of their interiors. This phenomenon has allowed the development of a whole branch of astrophysics called asteroseismology, where astronomers can “listen” to these stellar vibrations, in order to probe the physical properties of the stars and get to know more about their inner workings.

“The very existence of this new class of variable stars is a challenge to astrophysicists,” says Sophie Saesen, another team member. “Current theoretical models predict that their light is not supposed to vary periodically at all, so our current efforts are focused on finding out more about the behaviour of this strange new type of star.”

Although the cause of the variability remains unknown, there is a tantalising clue: some of the stars seem to be fast rotators. They spin at speeds that are more than half of their critical velocity, which is the threshold where stars become unstable and throw off material into space.

“In those conditions, the fast spin will have an important impact on their internal properties, but we are not able yet to adequately model their light variations,” explains Mowlavi. “We hope our discovery will encourage specialists to address the issue in the hope of understanding the origin of these mysterious variations.”

Notes
[1] This star cluster is one of several included in this major monitoring programme. NGC 3766 lies about 7000 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur) and is estimated to be about 20 million years old.

More information
This research was presented in a paper “Stellar variability in open clusters I. A new class of variable stars in NGC 3766”, by N. Mowlavi et al., published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics on 12 June 2013.

 

Read more at http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1326/

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Biggest Black Hole Blast Discovered

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have discovered a quasar with the most energetic outflow ever seen, at least five times more powerful than any that have been observed to date. Quasars are extremely bright galactic centres powered by supermassive black holes. Many blast huge amounts of material out into their host galaxies, and these outflows play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. But, until now, observed quasar outflows weren’t as powerful as predicted by theorists.

Quasars are the intensely luminous centres of distant galaxies that are powered by huge black holes. This new study has looked at one of these energetic objects — known as SDSS J1106+1939 — in great detail, using the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s VLT at the Paranal Observatory in Chile [1]. Although black holes are noted for pulling material in, most quasars also accelerate some of the material around them and eject it at high speed.

“We have discovered the most energetic quasar outflow known to date. The rate that energy is carried away by this huge mass of material ejected at high speed from SDSS J1106+1939 is at least equivalent to two million million times the power output of the Sun. This is about 100 times higher than the total power output of the Milky Way galaxy — it’s a real monster of an outflow,” says team leader Nahum Arav (Virginia Tech, USA). “This is the first time that a quasar outflow has been measured to have the sort of very high energies that are predicted by theory.”

Many theoretical simulations suggest that the impact of these outflows on the galaxies around them may resolve several enigmas in modern cosmology, including how the mass of a galaxy is linked to its central black hole mass, and why there are so few large galaxies in the Universe. However, whether or not quasars were capable of producing outflows powerful enough to produce these phenomena has remained unclear until now [2].

The newly discovered outflow lies about a thousand light-years away from the supermassive black hole at the heart of the quasar SDSS J1106+1939. This outflow is at least five times more powerful than the previous record holder [3]. The team’s analysis shows that a mass of approximately 400 times that of the Sun is streaming away from this quasar per year, moving at a speed of 8000 kilometres per second.

“We couldn’t have got the high-quality data to make this discovery without the VLT’s X-shooter spectrograph,” says Benoit Borguet (Virginia Tech, USA), lead author of the new paper. “We were able to explore the region around the quasar in great detail for the first time.”

As well as SDSS J1106+1939, the team also observed one other quasar and found that both of these objects have powerful outflows. As these are typical examples of a common, but previously little studied, type of quasars [4], these results should be widely applicable to luminous quasars across the Universe. Borguet and colleagues are currently exploring a dozen more similar quasars to see if this is the case.

“I’ve been looking for something like this for a decade,” says Nahum Arav, “so it’s thrilling to finally find one of the monster outflows that have been predicted!”

Notes
[1] The team observed SDSS J1106+1939 and J1512+1119 in April 2011 and March 2012 using the X-shooter spectrograph instrument attached to ESO’s VLT. By splitting the light up into its component colours and studying in detail the resultant spectrum the astronomers could deduce the velocity and other properties of the material close to the quasar.

[2] The powerful outflow observed in SDSS J1106+1939 carries enough kinetic energy to play a major role in active galaxy feedback processes, which typically require a mechanical power input of roughly 5% of the luminosity of the quasar. The rate at which kinetic energy is being transferred by the outflow is described as its kinetic luminosity.

[3] SDSS J1106+1939 has an outflow with a kinetic luminosity of at least 1046 ergs s−1. The distances of the outflows from the central quasar (300–8000 light-years) was greater than expected suggesting that we observe the outflows far from the region in which we assume them to initially accelerated (0.03–0.4 light-years).

[4] A class known as Broad Absorption Line (BAL) quasars.

Read more: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1247/

Serious Blow to Dark Matter Theories?

New study finds mysterious lack of dark matter in Sun’s neighbourhood

Artist’s impression of the expected dark matter distribution around the Milky Way

The most accurate study so far of the motions of stars in the Milky Way has found no evidence for dark matter in a large volume around the Sun. According to widely accepted theories, the solar neighbourhood was expected to be filled with dark matter, a mysterious invisible substance that can only be detected indirectly by the gravitational force it exerts. But a new study by a team of astronomers in Chile has found that these theories just do not fit the observational facts. This may mean that attempts to directly detect dark matter particles on Earth are unlikely to be successful.

A team using the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, along with other telescopes, has mapped the motions of more than 400 stars up to 13 000 light-years from the Sun. From this new data they have calculated the mass of material in the vicinity of the Sun, in a volume four times larger than ever considered before.

“The amount of mass that we derive matches very well with what we see — stars, dust and gas — in the region around the Sun,” says team leader Christian Moni Bidin (Departamento de Astronomía, Universidad de Concepción, Chile). “But this leaves no room for the extra material — dark matter — that we were expecting. Our calculations show that it should have shown up very clearly in our measurements. But it was just not there!”

Dark matter is a mysterious substance that cannot be seen, but shows itself by its gravitational attraction for the material around it. This extra ingredient in the cosmos was originally suggested to explain why the outer parts of galaxies, including our own Milky Way, rotated so quickly, but dark matter now also forms an essential component of theories of how galaxies formed and evolved.

Today it is widely accepted that this dark component constitutes about the 80% of the mass in the Universe [1], despite the fact that it has resisted all attempts to clarify its nature, which remains obscure. All attempts so far to detect dark matter in laboratories on Earth have failed.

By very carefully measuring the motions of many stars, particularly those away from the plane of the Milky Way, the team could work backwards to deduce how much matter is present [2]. The motions are a result of the mutual gravitational attraction of all the material, whether normal matter such as stars, or dark matter.

Astronomers’ existing models of how galaxies form and rotate suggest that the Milky Way is surrounded by a halo of dark matter. They are not able to precisely predict what shape this halo takes, but they do expect to find significant amounts in the region around the Sun. But only very unlikely shapes for the dark matter halo — such as a highly elongated form — can explain the lack of dark matter uncovered in the new study [3].

The new results also mean that attempts to detect dark matter on Earth by trying to spot the rare interactions between dark matter particles and “normal” matter are unlikely to be successful.

“Despite the new results, the Milky Way certainly rotates much faster than the visible matter alone can account for. So, if dark matter is not present where we expected it, a new solution for the missing mass problem must be found. Our results contradict the currently accepted models. The mystery of dark matter has just become even more mysterious. Future surveys, such as the ESA Gaia mission, will be crucial to move beyond this point.” concludes Christian Moni Bidin.

Notes
[1] According to current theories dark matter is estimated to constitute 83% of the matter in the Universe with the remaining 17% in the form of normal matter. A much larger amount of dark energy also seems present in the Universe, but is not expected to affect the motions of the stars within the Milky Way.

[2] The observations were made using the FEROS spectrograph on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope, the Coralie instrument on the Swiss 1.2-metre Leonhard Euler Telescope, the MIKE instrument on the Magellan II Telescope and the Echelle Spectrograph on the Irene du Pont Telescope. The first two telescopes are located at ESO’s La Silla Observatory and the latter two telescopes are located at the Las Campanas Observatory, both in Chile. A total of more than 400 red giant stars at widely differing heights above the plane of the galaxy in the direction towards the south galactic pole were included in this work.

[3] Theories predict that the average amount of dark matter in the Sun’s part of the galaxy should be in the range 0.4-1.0 kilograms of dark matter in a volume the size of the Earth. The new measurements find 0.00±0.07 kilograms of dark matter in a volume the size of the Earth.

More information
This research was presented in a paper, “Kinematical and chemical vertical structure of the Galactic thick disk II. A lack of dark matter in the solar neighborhood”, by Moni-Bidin et al. to appear in The Astrophysical Journal.
Read more: www.eso.org


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The Feeding Habits of Teenage Galaxies


New observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope are making a major contribution to understanding the growth of adolescent galaxies. In the biggest survey of its kind astronomers have found that galaxies changed their eating habits during their teenage years – the period from about 3 to 5 billion years after the Big Bang. At the start of this phase smooth gas flow was the preferred snack, but later, galaxies mostly grew by cannibalising other smaller galaxies.

Astronomers have known for some time that the earliest galaxies were much smaller than the impressive spiral and elliptical galaxies that now fill the Universe. Over the lifetime of the cosmos galaxies have put on a great deal of weight but their food, and eating habits, are still mysterious. A new survey of carefully selected galaxies has focussed on their teenage years — roughly the period from about 3 to 5 billion years after the Big Bang.

By employing the state-of-the-art instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope an international team is unravelling what really happened. In more than one hundred hours of observations the team has collected the biggest ever set of detailed observations of gas-rich galaxies at this early stage of their development [1].

“Two different ways of growing galaxies are competing: violent merging events when larger galaxies eat smaller ones, or a smoother and continuous flow of gas onto galaxies. Both can lead to lots of new stars being created,” explains Thierry Contini (IRAP, Toulouse, France), who leads the work.

The new results point toward a big change in the cosmic evolution of galaxies, when the Universe was between 3 and 5 billion years old. Smooth gas flow (eso1040) seems to have been a big factor in the building of galaxies in the very young Universe, whereas mergers became more important later.

“To understand how galaxies grew and evolved we need to look at them in the greatest possible detail. The SINFONI instrument on ESO’s VLT is one of the most powerful tools in the world to dissect young and distant galaxies. It plays the same role that a microscope does for a biologist,” adds Thierry Contini.

Distant galaxies like the ones in the survey are just tiny faint blobs in the sky, but the high image quality from the VLT used with the SINFONI instrument [2] means that the astronomers can make maps of how different parts of the galaxies are moving and what they are made of. There were some surprises.

“For me, the biggest surprise was the discovery of many galaxies with no rotation of their gas. Such galaxies are not observed in the nearby Universe. None of the current theories predict these objects,” says Benoît Epinat, another member of the team.

“We also didn’t expect that so many of the young galaxies in the survey would have heavier elements concentrated in their outer parts — this is the exact opposite of what we see in galaxies today,” adds Thierry Contini.

The team are only just starting to explore their rich set of observations. They plan to also observe the galaxies with future instruments on the VLT as well as using ALMA to study the cold gas in these galaxies. Looking further into the future the European Extremely Large Telescope will be ideally equipped to extend this type of study deeper into the early Universe.

Notes
[1] The name of the survey is MASSIV: Mass Assembly Survey with SINFONI in VVDS. The VVDS is the VIMOS-VLT Deep Survey. VIMOS is the VIsible imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph, a powerful camera and spectrograph on the VLT that was used to find the galaxies used in the MASSIV work, and measure their distances and other properties.

[2] SINFONI is the Spectrograph for INtegral Field Observations in the Near Infrared. It is the instrument on the VLT that was used for the MASSIV survey. SINFONI is a near-infrared (1.1-2.45 µm) integral field spectrograph using adaptive optics to improve the image quality.

Read more: www.eso.org

Inside Euler’s Head Or how to see a telescope through the walls of its dome

As night was falling over ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile on 20 December 2009, the sky was not yet dark enough for the telescopes to start observations. But conditions were perfect to perform a clever trick with the dome of the Swiss 1.2-metre Leonhard Euler Telescope: allowing us to peer inside with this photograph apparently taken through the dome.

This image is a 75-second exposure taken while the slit of the Euler telescope’s dome was performing half a rotation at full speed. Through the ghostly blur of the moving dome walls, the telescope is clearly visible. A dim light was switched on in the interior of the building especially for the purpose of this photo.

The picture was taken by Malte Tewes, a young astronomer from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, who had just finished a two-week observing run at the telescope on the evening in question. The next observer, Amaury Triaud, and the telescope’s technician, Vincent Mégevand (both pictured), were on site so they could operate the dome from the inside while Malte took the photograph from outside.

The road that leads to ESO’s nearby 3.6-metre telescope is visible lined by a chain of lights to the left of the image. In addition to the 3.6-metre telescope, the New Technology Telescope, and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope, La Silla Observatory also hosts several national and project telescopes that are not operated by ESO. The Euler telescope, named after the famous Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, is one of them.
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VLT Observations of Gamma-ray Burst …

…Reveal Surprising Ingredients of Early Galaxies

Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst shining through two young galaxies in the early Universe

An international team of astronomers has used the brief but brilliant light of a distant gamma-ray burst as a probe to study the make-up of very distant galaxies. Surprisingly the new observations, made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, have revealed two galaxies in the young Universe that are richer in the heavier chemical elements than the Sun. The two galaxies may be in the process of merging. Such events in the early Universe will drive the formation of many new stars and may be the trigger for gamma-ray bursts.

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest explosions in the Universe [1]. They are first spotted by orbiting observatories that detect the initial short burst of gamma rays. After their positions have been pinned down, they are then immediately studied using large ground-based telescopes that can detect the visible-light and infrared afterglows that the bursts emit over the succeeding hours and days. One such burst, called GRB 090323 [2], was first spotted by the NASA Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Very soon afterwards it was picked up by the X-ray detector on NASA’s Swift satellite and with the GROND system at the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope in Chile (eso1049) and then studied in great detail using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) just one day after it exploded.

The VLT observations show that the brilliant light from the gamma-ray burst had passed through its own host galaxy and another galaxy nearby. These galaxies are being seen as they were about 12 billion years ago [3]. Such distant galaxies are very rarely caught in the glare of a gamma-ray burst.

“When we studied the light from this gamma-ray burst we didn’t know what we might find. It was a surprise that the cool gas in these two galaxies in the early Universe proved to have such an unexpected chemical make-up,” explains Sandra Savaglio (Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany), lead author of the paper describing the new results. “These galaxies have more heavy elements than have ever been seen in a galaxy so early in the evolution of the Universe. We didn’t expect the Universe to be so mature, so chemically evolved, so early on.”

As light from the gamma-ray burst passed through the galaxies, the gas there acted like a filter, and absorbed some of the light from the gamma-ray burst at certain wavelengths. Without the gamma-ray burst these faint galaxies would be invisible. By carefully analysing the tell-tale fingerprints from different chemical elements the team was able to work out the composition of the cool gas in these very distant galaxies, and in particular how rich they were in heavy elements.

It is expected that galaxies in the young Universe will be found to contain smaller amounts of heavier elements than galaxies at the present day, such as the Milky Way. The heavier elements are produced during the lives and deaths of generations of stars, gradually enriching the gas in the galaxies [4]. Astronomers can use the chemical enrichment in galaxies to indicate how far they are through their lives. But the new observations, surprisingly, revealed that some galaxies were already very rich in heavy elements less than two billion years after the Big Bang. Something unthinkable until recently.

The newly discovered pair of young galaxies must be forming new stars at a tremendous rate, to enrich the cool gas so strongly and quickly. As the two galaxies are close to each other they may be in the process of merging, which would also provoke star formation when the gas clouds collide. The new results also support the idea that gamma-ray bursts may be associated with vigorous massive star formation.

Energetic star formation in galaxies like these might have ceased early on in the history of the Universe. Twelve billion years later, at the present time, the remains of such galaxies would contain a large number of stellar remnants such as black holes and cool dwarf stars, forming a hard to detect population of “dead galaxies”, just faint shadows of how they were in their brilliant youths. Finding such corpses in the present day would be a challenge.

“We were very lucky to observe GRB 090323 when it was still sufficiently bright, so that it was possible to obtain spectacularly detailed observations with the VLT. Gamma-ray bursts only stay bright for a very short time and getting good quality data is very hard. We hope to observe these galaxies again in the future when we have much more sensitive instruments, they would make perfect targets for the E-ELT,” concludes Savaglio.

Notes
[1] Gamma-ray bursts lasting longer than two seconds are referred to as long bursts and those with a shorter duration are known as short bursts. Long bursts, including the one in this study, are associated with supernova explosions of massive young stars in star-forming galaxies. Short bursts are not well understood, but are thought to originate from the merger of two compact objects such as neutron stars.

[2] The name refers to the date on which the burst was discovered, in this case it was spotted on 23 March 2009.

[3] The galaxies were seen at a redshift of 3.57, meaning that they are seen as they were 1.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

[4] The material produced by the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, was almost entirely hydrogen and helium. Most heavier elements, such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon, were produced later by thermonuclear reactions inside stars and fed back into the reserves of gas within galaxies as these stars die. So, it is expected that the amount of heavier elements in most galaxies gradually increases as the Universe ages.

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Distant Galaxies Reveal The Clearing of the Cosmic Fog

New VLT observations chart timeline of reionisation

Artist’s impression of galaxies at the end of the era of reionisation

Scientists have used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to probe the early Universe at several different times as it was becoming transparent to ultraviolet light. This brief but dramatic phase in cosmic history — known as reionisation — occurred around 13 billion years ago. By carefully studying some of the most distant galaxies ever detected, the team has been able to establish a timeline for reionisation for the first time. They have also demonstrated that this phase must have happened quicker than astronomers previously thought.
An international team of astronomers used the VLT as a time machine, to look back into the early Universe and observe several of the most distant galaxies ever detected. They have been able to measure their distances accurately and find that we are seeing them as they were between 780 million and a billion years after the Big Bang [1].

The new observations have allowed astronomers to establish a timeline for what is known as the age of reionisation [2] for the first time. During this phase the fog of hydrogen gas in the early Universe was clearing, allowing ultraviolet light to pass unhindered for the first time.
The new results, which will appear in the Astrophysical Journal, build on a long and systematic search for distant galaxies that the team has carried out with the VLT over the last three years.

“Archaeologists can reconstruct a timeline of the past from the artifacts they find in different layers of soil. Astronomers can go one better: we can look directly into the remote past and observe the faint light from different galaxies at different stages in cosmic evolution,” explains Adriano Fontana, of INAF Rome Astronomical Observatory who led this project. “The differences between the galaxies tell us about the changing conditions in the Universe over this important period, and how quickly these changes were occurring.”

Different chemical elements glow brightly at characteristic colours. These spikes in brightness are known as emission lines. One of the strongest ultraviolet emission lines is the Lyman-alpha line, which comes from hydrogen gas [3]. It is bright and recognisable enough to be seen even in observations of very faint and faraway galaxies….. Continue reading Distant Galaxies Reveal The Clearing of the Cosmic Fog