Looming Cosmic Clouds Crisscross Giant Elliptical Galaxy Centaurus A


Revealing the youthful glow of blue star clusters and a dusty core hidden from view 

Space news (astrophysics: giant elliptical galaxies; Centaurus A) – 11 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation Centaurus (NGC 5128) –  

The closest galaxy to Earth with an active nucleus containing a supermassive black hole that ejects jets of high-speed, extremely energetic particles into space, the giant elliptical island universe Centaurus A’s (NGC 5128) a nearby laboratory in which astronomers test present theories.  

The stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of Centaurus A (above) reveals a scene resembling cosmic clouds on a stormy day. Dark lanes of gas and dust crisscross its warped disk, revealing the youthful glow of blue star clusters, and red patches indicating shockwaves from a recent merger with a spiral galaxy. Shockwaves that cause hydrogen gas clouds to contract, starting the process of new star formation. 


The startling composite image of Centaurus A above combines X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra Observatory, optical data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array. The core of NGC 5128 is a mess of gas, dust, and stars in visible light, but X-rays and radio waves reveal a stunning jet of high-speed, extremely energetic particles emanating from its active nucleus. 

Elliptical galaxy Centaurus A is a peculiar galaxy with unusual and chaotic lanes of dust running across its center making it hard for astronomers to study its core. Also called NGC 5128, Centaurus A has red stars and a round shape characteristic of a giant elliptical galaxy, a type normally low in dark dust lanes. Image Credit & Copyright: Roberto Colombari

What could power such an event?

The power source for the relativistic jets observed streaming from the active galactic nucleus of Centaurus A’s a supermassive black hole with the estimated mass of over 10 million suns. Beaming out from the galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the high-speed jet travels nearly 13,000 light-years, while a shorter jet shoots from the core in the opposing direction. Astronomers think the source of the chaos in active galaxy Centaurus A’s the noted collision with a spiral galaxy about 100 million years ago. 

Thick lanes of dust obscure the center of Elliptical Galaxy Centaurus A from CFHT Credit & Copyright: Jean-Charles Cuillandre (CFHT) & Giovanni Anselmi (Coelum Astronomia), Hawaiian Starlight 

The amazing high-energy, extremely-fast, 30,000 light-year-long particle jet is the most striking feature in the false-color X-ray image taken by the Chandra Observatory. Beaming upward toward the left corner of the image, the relativistic jet seems to blast from the core of Centaurus A. A core containing an active, monster black hole pulling nearby matter into the center of its gravity well. An unknown realm mankind dreams about visiting one day. 

This image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows in unprecedented detail the galaxy Centaurus A’s last big meal: a spiral galaxy seemingly twisted into a parallelogram-shaped structure of dust. Spitzer’s ability to see dust and also see through it allowed the telescope to peer into the center of Centaurus A and capture this galactic remnant as never before. Credit: NASA/Spitzer

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Journey across the cosmos on a runaway supermassive star streaking out of 30 Doradus, the Tarantula Nebula.

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Traveling Across the Tarantula Nebula on a Runaway Star

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This image of the 30 Doradus nebula, a rambunctious stellar nursery, and the enlarged inset photo show a heavyweight star that may have been kicked out of its home by a pair of heftier siblings. In the inset image at right, an arrow points to the stellar runaway and a dashed arrow to its presumed direction of motion. The image was taken by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The heavyweight star, called 30 Dor #016, is 90 times more massive than the Sun and is traveling at more than 250,000 miles an hour. In the wider view of 30 Doradus, the homeless star, located on the outskirts of the nebula, is centered within a white box. The box shows Hubble’s field of view. The image was taken by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Wide Field Imager at the 2.2-meter telescope on La Silla, Chile. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Traveling at 250,000 mph would be a windy, visually spectacular ride to hell 

Space news (Astrophysics: stellar nursery dynamics; runaway stars) – 170,000 light-years from Earth, near the edge of the Tarantula Nebula – 

Hubble/WFPC2 and ESO/2.2-m Composite Image of 30 Dor Runaway Star. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

If you want to travel through the galaxy, hitch a ride on a runaway star like the one astronomers have been tracking since it came screaming out of 30 Doradus (Tarantula Nebula) in 2006. Data collected by the newly installed Cosmic Origins Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope suggests a massive star, as much as 90 times the mass of Sol, was knocked out of the nebula by gravitational interactions with even more massive suns. Traveling at around 250,000 mph, voyaging through the cosmos on this runaway star would be an adventure to write home about.  

ESO 2.2-m WFI Image of the Tarantula Nebula. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

The trail leads back to a star-forming region deep within the Tarantula Nebula called R136, where over 2,400 massive stars near the center of this huge nebula produce an intense wind of radiation. Astronomers think interactions with some of the 100 plus solar mass stars detected in this stellar nursery resulted in this runaway star being flung over 375 light-years by its bigger siblings.  

Massive Star is Ejected from a Young Star Cluster. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

These results are of great interest because such dynamical processes in very dense, massive clusters have been predicted theoretically for some time, but this is the first direct observation of the process in such a region,” says Nolan Walborn of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and a member of the COS team that observed the misfit star. “Less massive runaway stars from the much smaller Orion Nebula Cluster were first found over half a century ago, but this is the first potential confirmation of more recent predictions applying to the most massive young clusters.”   

Nolan Walborn. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Site

Astrophysicists studying the runaway star and the region in the Tarantula region where the trail ended believe it’s likely a massive, blue-white sun at least ten times hotter than Sol and only a few million years old. It’s far from home and in a region of space where no clusters with similar stars are found. It’s also left an egg-shaped cavity in its wake with glowing edges pointing in the direction of the center of 30 Doradus and the region of R136. A flaming trail you would see behind the star as you traveled across the cosmos and onto eternity.  

Compass/Scale Image of 30 Dor Runaway Star. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

 “It is generally accepted, however, that R136 is sufficiently young, 1 million to 2 million years old, that the cluster’s most massive stars have not yet exploded as supernovae,” says COS team member Danny Lennon of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “This implies that the star must have been ejected through dynamical interaction.” 

This runway star continues to scream across the cosmos, nearing the outskirts of 30 Doradus a star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, it will one day end its existence in a titanic explosion or supernova, and possibly leave behind one of the most mysterious and enigmatic objects discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, a black hole.  

Hubble Observations of Massive Stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Imagine riding this runaway star until it contracted into a black hole and left our universe altogether. Where would we travel? To a random location in spacetime? To another reality or universe? The possibilities abound and far exceed our ability to imagine such a reality. Scientists tell us such a journey wouldn’t be possible, but they’re just stumbling around in the dark looking for ideas to grasp. For handholds on the dark cliff we climb as we search for answers to the mysteries before us.  

What’s next?

Astronomers continue to study the Tarantula Nebula and the star-forming region R136 looking for signs of impending supernovae among the zoo of supermassive stars within. They also continue to track this runaway star and two other blue hot, supermassive stars outside the boundary of 30 Doradus that appear to have also been ejected from their host systems. We’ll update you with any news on it, and other runaway stars as it continues to scream across the cosmos. 

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WISE & Spitzer Detect Faintest, Coolest Brown Dwarf Star to Date

WISE J085510.83-071442.5 is the coolest, faintest brown dwarf star located and it’s also only 7.2 light-years away from Earth. Credits: NASA/ESA/Spitzer/WISE

A frosty, chilly star about the same temperature as the North Pole, minus 54 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 48 to minus 13 degrees Celsius)

Space news (astrophysics: faint, cool stars; brown dwarfs) – the fourth closest detected star system to Earth, just 7.2 light-years toward the constellation Hydra – 

A young, ambitious astronomer working at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds discovered the dimmest, coolest brown dwarf detected during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Kevin Lehman first noticed a fast moving object, quickly dubbed WISE J085510.83-071442.5, in March of 2013. Excited at a new discovery, he spent the next few days analyzing more images of the same part of the sky taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachon in Chile.

Welcome to the Sun’s Neighborhood This diagram illustrates the locations of the star systems closest to the sun. The year when the distance to each system was determined is listed after the system’s name. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, found two of the four closest systems: the binary brown dwarf WISE 1049-5319 and the brown dwarf WISE J085510.83-071442.5. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope helped pin down the location of the latter object. The closest system to the sun is a trio of stars that consists of Alpha Centauri, a close companion to it and the more distant companion Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Penn State University

“It’s very exciting to discover a new neighbor of our solar system that is so close,” said Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, University Park. “And given its extreme temperature, it should tell us a lot about the atmospheres of planets, which often have similarly cold temperatures.” 

Kevin Luhman originally spotted the fast motion of WISE J085510.83-071442.5 in infrared images taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Later analysis of infrared images taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope were needed to determine its chilly temperature of between minus (54-9) Fahrenheit [minus (13 – 48) degrees Celsius]. Astronomers would use measurements taken by Spitzer and WISE at different positions around the sun to determine its distance of 7.2 light-years from Earth using the parallax effect. To scientists, it added up to a brown dwarf or maybe a large Jupiter-size planet lost in space. 

“This object appeared to move really fast in the WISE data,” said Luhman. “That told us it was something special.” 

Cold and Quick: a Fast-Moving Brown Dwarf This animation shows the coldest brown dwarf yet seen, and the fourth closest system to our sun. Called WISE J085510.83-071442.5, this dim object was discovered through its rapid motion across the sky. It was first seen in two infrared images taken six months apart in 2010 by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE (see orange triangles). Two additional images of the object were taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2013 and 2014 (green triangles). All four images were used to measure the distance to the object — 7.2 light-years — using the parallax effect. › See animation The Spitzer data were used to show that the body is as cold as the North Pole (or between minus 54 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit, which is minus 48 to minus 13 degrees Celsius). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Penn State

Additional calculations estimated the mass of WISE J085510.83-071442.5 at between 3 and 10 times the mass of Jupiter. It could be a gas giant like Jupiter that was flung out of its host star system by gravitational interactions with more massive bodies. Astronomers determined it was more likely a very cool brown dwarf than a large gas giant planet since they have been detected more often. If this is the case, it’s the coldest brown dwarf star discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. A nice shiny feather in the hat of a young, aspiring astronomer on the rise.  

“It is remarkable that even after many decades of studying the sky, we still do not have a complete inventory of the sun’s nearest neighbors,” said Michael Werner, the project scientist for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. JPL manages and operates Spitzer. “This exciting new result demonstrates the power of exploring the universe using new tools, such as the infrared eyes of WISE and Spitzer.” 

Work’s never done

Never one to rest on his laurels, in March of 2013, Kevin Luhman discovered a pair of warmer brown dwarf stars just 6.5 light-years from Earth during his analysis of WISE images. Since this time, his search for rapidly moving bodies close to Earth has also shown that the outer solar system probably doesn’t contain a large, undiscovered planet X or Nemesis, as people often refer to it. I did mention he was ambitious. 

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Wolf-Rayet Star “Nasty 1” Transitional Stage in Evolution of Massive Stars

A very rapidly evolving, supermassive star with a newly formed nebula only a few thousand years old


Space news (supermassive stars: Wolf-Rayet stars; star NaSt1) – 3,000 light-years away on the edge of a pancake-shaped disk of gas moving at 22,000 mph – 

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered new clues concerning a nearby supermassive, rapidly aging star they have nicknamed “Nasty 1”. Designated NaSt1 in astronomy catalogs, “Nasty 1” when first discovered decades ago was identified as a non-typical Wolf-Rayet star with an orbiting disk-like structure. A vast disk estimated to be almost 2 trillion miles wide astronomers now think formed due to a companion star snacking on its outer envelope. Putting NaSt1 in a class of Wolf-Rayet stars astronomers haven’t observed often during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. A star type possibly representing a transition stage in the evolution of supermassive stars. 


“We were excited to see this disk-like structure because it may be evidence for a Wolf-Rayet star-forming from a binary interaction,” said study leader Jon Mauerhan of the University of California, Berkeley. “There are very few examples in the galaxy of this process in action because this phase is short-lived, perhaps lasting only a hundred thousand years, while the timescale over which a resulting disk is visible could be only ten thousand years or less.” 

Study leader Jon Mauerhan of the University of California, Berkley. Credit: University of California, Berkley.

In the case of NaSt1, computer simulations show a supermassive star evolving really fast and swelling as it begins to run out of hydrogen. Its outer hydrogen envelope is loosely bound and is gravitationally stripped from the star- astronomers call this process stellar cannibalism – by a more compact, nearby companion star. In the process the more compact star gains mass, while the more massive star loses its hydrogen envelope, exposing its helium core and eventually becoming a Wolf-Rayet star. 

The mass-transfer model is the favored process for how Wolf-Rayet stars evolve at the moment and considering at least 70 percent of supermassive stars detected, so far, are members of binary star system, this seems logical. Astronomers used to think this type of star could also form when a massive sun ejects its hydrogen envelope. But the direct mass loss model by itself can’t account for the number of Wolf-Rayet stars observed relative to less-evolved supermassive suns in the Milky Way.  


“We’re finding that it is hard to form all the Wolf-Rayet stars we observe by the traditional wind mechanism because the mass loss isn’t as strong as we used to think,” said Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is a co-author on the new NaSt1 paper. “Mass exchange in binary systems seems to be vital to account for Wolf-Rayet stars and the supernovae they make, and catching binary stars in this short-lived phase will help us understand this process.” 

Co-author of study Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Credit: The University of Arizona.

Astronomers computer models show that the mass-transfer process isn’t always perfectly efficient. Matter can only transfer from NaSt1 at a certain rate, left over material begins orbiting, creating a disk-like structure. 

“That’s what we think is happening in Nasty 1,” Mauerhan said. “We think there is a Wolf-Rayet star buried inside the nebula, and we think the nebula is being created by this mass-transfer process. So this type of sloppy stellar cannibalism actually makes Nasty 1 a rather fitting nickname.” 

Observing Nasty 1 (star NaSt1) through the clock of gas and dust surrounding this star system hasn’t been easy. The intervening disk-like structure even blocks the view of the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists haven’t been able to measure the distance between the stars, their mass, or the volume of material transferring to the smaller companion star.  

Astronomers have been able to discover a few items concerning the disk-like structure surrounding Nasty 1. Measurements indicate it’s traveling at around 22,000 mph in the outer nebula, a slower speed than recorded in other stars of this type. Scientists think this indicates a much less energetic supernova than was recorded for other events, like Era Carinae. In this case and other similar stars, the gas in the outer nebula has been recorded in the hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. Nasty 1 could be different supernova animal altogether.  

High atop the Cerro Manqui peak at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile the twin the Walter Baade Telescope is the first of the twin 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes to be completed. Credit: Ico.cl

Nasty 1 could also lose its outer envelope of hydrogen intermittently. Previous studies in the infrared light provided clues indicating the existence of a dense pocket of hot gas and dust close to the central stars in the region. More recent observations using the Magellan Telescope located at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile has also detected a bigger pocket of cooler gas and dust possibly indirectly blocking light from these stars. Astronomers think the existence of warm dust in the region implies it formed just recently, perhaps intermittently, as elementally enriched matter from the stellar winds of massive stars collides, mixes, flows away, and cools. Irregular stellar wind strength, the rate at which star NaSt1 loses its outer envelope, could also help explain the observed clumpy structure and gaps noted in the outer regions of the disk.  

Astrophysicists used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to measure the hypersonic winds screaming from each star. Readings showed a scorching hot plasma, indicating colliding stellar winds producing high-energy shockwaves that glow in X-rays. This is consistent with previous data collected on other evolving Wolf-Rayet star systems. We’ll get a better view once the outer hydrogen of Nasty 1’s (star NaSt1) depleted, and the mass-transfer process completes. Eventually, the gas and dust in the lumpy, disk-like structure will dissipate, giving us a clearer view of this mysterious binary star system.   


NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has shown the cosmos is full of objects and events far beyond anything we imagined when we first started the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Credit: NASA/Chandra

Nasty 1’s still evolving!

“What evolutionary path the star will take is uncertain, but it will definitely not be boring,” said Mauerhan. “Nasty 1 could evolve into another Eta Carinae-type system. To make that transformation, the mass-gaining companion star could experience a giant eruption because of some instability related to the acquiring of matter from the newly formed Wolf-Rayet. Or, the Wolf-Rayet could explode as a supernova. A stellar merger is another potential outcome, depending on the orbital evolution of the system. The future could be full of all kinds of exotic possibilities depending on whether it blows up or how long the mass transfer occurs, and how long it lives after the mass transfer ceases.” 

Astronomers continue to study Nasty 1 and its peculiar, unusual disk-like structure looking for clues to explain the mysteries surrounding its origin. 

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Those Incredible Polynesian Navigators Followed the Stars


Master navigator Mau Piailug schools his son and grandson in ancient celestial sailing knowledge with the help of a star compass, a traditional method of passing on celestial knowledge. Anders Ryman, Satawal, Federated States of Micronesia Anders/Ryman/Corbis

Stone-age Polynesians crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean, populating islands in a deliberate manner, as far back as tens of thousands of years ago using the stars, winds, currentswaves and other natural phenomena as guides 

Ancient Polynesians used different types of canoes, depending on the type and length of a voyage to get to their destination. Credit: Pinterest.

Ancient astronomy – When Europeans first sailed across the Pacific Ocean in the 1500s, they made an amazing discovery. Stone-age people as far back as tens of thousands of years ago had found their way to small, scattered islands spread across an immense body of water covering three-quarters of the surface of Earth – 

European explorers discovered ancient, stone-age Polynesians could navigate across open bodies of water. Something they were afraid to do, but islanders over thousands of years developed a navigational science, second to none. Credit: PBS

Local Polynesian traditions and folklore told of purposeful, long-term voyages of sea-going canoes across hundreds and even thousands of miles of open water. In this way, oral tradition and modern archaeology say groups of Pacific islands were deliberated populated by stone-age Polynesians thousands of years ago. 

Norweigan explorer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl is famous for Kon-Tiki expedition, during which he traveled over 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in 1947. Credit: Wikipedia.

People intimately connected to the ocean environment in which they lived, ancient Polynesian islanders navigated by a precise science passed on orally from generation to generation. They sailed hundreds and even thousands of miles across the dangerous and deep ocean using only the stars, winds, currents and even waves to find their way to small islands scattered across millions of square miles of empty water. 

The Polynesian Voyaging Society used the Hokule’a, a traditional Hawaiian canoe to travel across the world during a five-year voyage. They navigated across seemingly endless bodies of open water using the wind, waves, stars, currents and other natural phenomena to guide them to their destination. Credit National Geographic

Using natural science Polynesian islanders appear to have settled at least three groups of Pacific Ocean islands. Scientists have definite proof darker skinned people settled one group of islands, named Melanesia (Greek for black islands) by Europeans, stretching eastward from New Guinea to Fiji thousands of years ago. Humans with light-brown skin lived on Micronesia (little islands), north of Melanesia. Tall, pale-skinned people colonized Polynesia (many islands), a sprawling eastern triangle including Hawaii, New Zealand, and isolated Easter Island. 

Polynesian islanders built purposeful canoes, each designed for a specific type of voyage, from hugging the coast to traveling across seemingly endless bodies of open water. Credit: http://www.janesoceania.com/

At first, Europeans refused to believe that stone-age people sailed to distant islands without using navigational instruments to plot position and stay on course. In the 1600s sailors noted even experienced Europeans couldn’t determine their position and course once losing sight of land for a few days. This belief concerning the navigational skills of islanders persisted until the end of the 1960s when New Zealand-born adventurer David Lewis discovered Pacific Ocean islanders still made long-distance fishing and trading voyages without modern navigational equipment.  

Determined to learn all he could about the old navigational skills and lore of Polynesian islanders before it was totally supplanted by modern tools and techniques, David Lewis made a decision that would provide proof of their ancient navigational skills. During a nine-month period between 1968 – 1969, he journeyed across the West Pacific, sometimes in native canoes using the skills of islanders, other times in a 39-foot gaff ketch stripped of navigational aids. Guided by illiterate, but skillful and confident Polynesian islanders Tevake and Hipour, they traveled across thousands of miles of deep water using the stars, winds, currents, waves and other natural phenomena to guide them. Along the way, they talked at length with sailors from several different Pacific islands, including Tonga where navigational skills and knowledge were once considered family secrets. 

David Henry Lewis, DCNMZ (1917 – 23 October 2002) was a sailor, adventurer, doctor and Polynesian scholar. He’s best known for his work on the traditional systems of navigation used by the Pacific Islanders. His work, talked about in his book We, the Navigators, made these navigational methods known to a wide audience and helped to inspire a revival of traditional voyaging methods in the South Pacific. Credit: Wikipedia

In his book, “We, the Navigators” adventurer and explorer David Lewis tells of the navigational skills of Polynesian islanders who still use many of the same directional aids stone-age peoples used to colonize the islands of the Pacific Ocean. How they used guide stars to travel confidently to small islands far beyond the horizon, by simply steering toward a star known to stand above a given destination. Guide stars low in the sky were always selected. When heading east they selected a star that had just risen and one about to fall when sailing west. His islander guides followed a star path to their destination. After one guide star had risen too high or low below the horizon, they would select another that set or rose at the same position in the sky. Using this method, David and his companions made one nighttime journey by sailing a star path of nine guide stars in a row to reach a destination over 70 miles (112 kilometers) across open water. 

The outrigger canoe is still an integral part of the Polynesian sailing tradition. Island navigators used this type of canoe for thousands of years to travel between islands. Credit: Nova

Hawaiian and Tahitian islanders navigated to various islands hundreds of miles apart using a celestial “star compass” that uses the locations of 32 stars ascending and falling around the horizon at irregular distances apart. Using specific islands called etak (reference) islands for which the shift in apparent position from below one star to another during a journey was already known. An islander navigating from destination A to B would begin by selecting a certain island under star 1 as his etak. As he sailed on, the bearing of island 1 would change until it rested under star 2, the next point on the “star compass”. The navigator would just continue the process until the destination was reached. Through years of intensive, traditional land-based training using the placement of stones to represent star formations and other methods. They memorized various ancient astronomical charts to certain islands and became amazingly capable of reading and interpreting the night sky. Capable enough to pinpoint a ship’s location using only a few stars briefly viewed through an overcast sky. 

In the early 1970s members of the  Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii searched for Polynesians who remembered traditional navigation techniques. There were none, but they eventually tracked down Mau Piailug from the island of Satawal in Micronesia, who could navigate the open ocean without instruments. He guided the Hokule’a from Hawaii to Tahiti and back using a star compass, shown here. Mau Piailug shared his knowledge with Nainoa Thompson, who became the first Polynesian in centuries to use the ancient celestial navigation on long distance ocean voyaging when he repeated the journey in the same vessel in 1980. Credit: Teara.govt.nz

Master astronomers

During the daylight hours, they navigated using the position of the sun in the sky. But his guides didn’t solely rely on the stars and the sun, they had a confident understanding and way of reading the behavior of wind, waves, currents and other natural forces. During one nighttime journey through a storm, the old Polynesian Tevake confidently navigated more than 40 miles (64 kilometers), including bringing the boat expertly between two islands less than half a mile apart. Even when forced off course by a storm or unguided by the winds, stars, waves and other natural forces, navigators like Hipour and Tevake had traditional methods for navigating to unseen islands across vast stretches of the immense Pacific Ocean. For example, they often guided themselves and others toward an unseen island miles away by observing the clouds, which they explained appear slightly different in color and tone depending on the type of land or depth of ocean over which they are sailing. They also interpreted the flight of birds, floating debris or land waves they said can often cause a boat to pitch when over 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the island surf that created them. The most amazing and intriguing guidepost they used is an enigmatic, unexplained natural event referred to in different parts of the Pacific Islands as te lapa, te mata, or ulo aetahi (glory of the sea). Flashing steaks of light just feet below the surface that align with land up to 100 miles away, this “glory of the sea” is a ghostly phosphorescence ancient stone age navigators used to help deliberately and systematically populate the islands of the Pacific Ocean with amazing accuracy as far back as tens of thousands of years ago. 

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A Lonely, Wandering Hermit of a Galaxy

Tells astronomers a thing or two about star birth throughout the cosmos 

A mysterious hermit

Space news (astrophysics: irregular dwarf galaxies; the formation of new stars) – a lonely, undefined looking galaxy an estimated 4.2 million light-years from Earth, approximately 2.3 million light-years from Leo A –  

The Sagittarius Dwarf Irregular Galaxy (SagDIG) is a metal-poor galaxy from the dawn of the cosmos. Almost as old as the universe, SagDIG is showing us things about the evolution of everything we see during our journey to the beginning of space and time. Spanning about 1,500 light-years, this ancient star wanderer is about 3.5 million light-years distant toward the constellation Sagittarius.

Astronomers think the chaotic, unusual looking smaller island universe seen in the Hubble Space Telescope image here hasn’t merged with any other galaxies lately. Classified as an irregular dwarf galaxy, UGC 4879 has no obvious form and lacks the magnificent whirl of a spiral galaxy or the coherence of an elliptical. Approximately 1.36 million parsecs from Earth this lonely, wandering hermit of a galaxy is showing astronomers new, interesting things about star birth in the universe

Irregular dwarf galaxy Leo A seen here has a much more complicated formation history than astronomers first thought. The simple structure astrophysicists were expecting isn’t what we see here. Instead, Leo A shows hints of an evolution just as chaotic and unpredictable as larger island universes. 

Spectral data of UGC 4879 indicates radial velocities for different sections of the galaxy, which could indicate the presence of a stellar disk. This lonely, isolated wanderer is studied closely and intensely by astronomers because of its history of few interactions with other galaxies. This isolation makes it less complicated to piece together its history of star birth and an ideal laboratory for study. 

Dwarf irregular galaxy NGC 1569 seen here underwent a brief starburst period about 25 million years ago. Hidden within the chaos are monstrous, gigantic supermassive stars and envelopes of gas expelled by huge stars that recently went supernova. Only 11 million light-years away in the long-necked constellation Camelopardalis and spanning 8,000 light-years, the blue, white hot young stars within are perfect for study. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/Hubble Heritage

Study of UGC 4879 indicates during the first 4 billion years after the beginning of the universe new stars were being born at a pretty fast rate. The next nine billion years of relative inactivity followed by a recent starburst about 1 billion years ago is a puzzle for astronomers. They continue to study this hermit of a galaxy hoping to find out more about both its history and the complex riddles of sun birth across the cosmos.  

Irregular dwarf galaxy NGC 4449 seen here is undergoing an intense period of starburst, with young, blue-white stars being created at an amazing rate and pinkish star forming regions in this deep colour image. Only 12.5 million light-years away in Canes Venatici, the constellation of the Hunting Dogs, NGC 4449’s the first such galaxy to have an identified star stream in the lower right composed mainly of supermassive red giant stars. These types of galaxies are thought to have a significant dark matter halo, which is a chance for astronomers to study the dark side’s role in the evolution and formation of galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI 

Read about one of the most massive black holes ever discovered residing in a backwater part of the cosmos.

For the first time in space history the first moments of a supernova caught in visible light.

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Read a paper on the star formation history of irregular dwarf galaxy UGC 4879 here.


New Evidence Suggests Some Early Supermassive Black Holes Formed During the Direct Collapse of a Gas Cloud


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Combined data from Spitzer, Hubble and the Chandra X-ray Observatory were used to create this illustration of the direct collapse of a gas cloud into a supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA/Chandra/Spitzer/Hubble/ESA.

The seed out of which some of these mysterious, lurking monsters were born

Space news (astrophysics: black hole formation: early black holes) – supermassive black holes scattered around the observable universe – 

Astronomers believe and data suggests at the center of nearly all large galaxies, including the Milky Way, lurks a supermassive black hole with millions and even billions of times the mass of our sun. Gigantic black holes that in some cases formed less than a billion years after the birth of the cosmos. For the first time, they have uncovered evidence suggesting some of these early supermassive black holes formed directly during the collapse of a giant gas cloud. A finding making astronomers rethink current theories on the formation of these enigmatic, invisible monsters.


This illustration shows a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy far, far away. Light skimming past the event horizon (black area) is stretched and distorted like light hitting a fun house mirror.Credits: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson, and R. van der Marel (STScI)

“Our discovery, if confirmed, explains how these monster black holes were born,” said Fabio Pacucci of Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Pisa, Italy, who led the study. “We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps.”


This Hubble Space Telescope’s spectrograph image shows a zig-zag pattern representing rapidly rotating gas (880, 000 mph) within 26 light-years of the supermassive black hole at the core of galaxy M84. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble.

Intermediate steps like the formation of a supermassive star and its subsequent destruction during a supernova. Evidence to date suggests black holes are formed during this process and then supermassive black holes are produced by mergers between black holes. But this new finding suggests things get a little weirder than first thought. Maybe things are weirder than we could ever imagine. It could be the first supermassive black holes seeds were intermediate mass black holes, monsters in the 20,000 solar mass range. Watch this YouTube video on black hole formation.


Within the inset region in this composite Hubble and Chandra X-ray image is shown the Monster of the Milky Way -Sagittarius A- A 4 million solar mass supermassive black hole astronomers believe lurks at the core of the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster. Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Hubble.

Imagine the volume of a gas cloud capable of contracting directly into an object tens times, or more, the mass of Sol. Black hole seeds built up by drawing in cold gas and dust appear to have formed within the first billion years of the cosmos. Maybe once they confirm the existence of the two black hole seeds they think they detected. They can try to get some data on the mass of these early black hole seeds. At the moment, no mass data is available. Watch this YouTube video on black hole seeds.

This artist’s conception of an estimated 20 million solar mass supermassive black hole at the core of one of the smallest, densest galaxies ever discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

The forming of a supermassive black hole directly from the collapse of a massive cloud of gas seems even weirder than the observed formation process for supermassive black holes. But we’re not in Kansas anymore, so anything could theoretically be possible. I am certain, things are even weirder than we can imagine.

This artist’s conception of two supermassive holes entwined in a death spiral destined to end in the birth of a bigger version of the two monsters is called WISE J233237.05-505643.5. At 3.8 billion light-years this is one of the most distant suspected supermassive black holes binary systems detected. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.

“There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take,” said co-author Andrea Ferrara, also of SNS. “Our work suggests we are narrowing in on an answer, where the black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate.”

A black hole located in the middle of the spiral galaxy NGC 4178
The inset image in this Chandra X-ray Observatory image of spiral galaxy NGC 4178 shows an X-ray source at the location of a suspected 200,000 solar mass supermassive black hole. This monster is one of the lowest mass supermassive black holes ever detected at the core of a galaxy. Astronomers are studying this supermassive black hole closely since its also located in a galaxy not expected to host such a monster. All of the data collected seems to indicate a slightly different origin, which makes astronomers a little curious. Drredit: NASA/ESA/ Chandra/.

The team used computer models of the formation of black hole seeds combined with new techniques and methods to identify two possible candidates for early supermassive black holes in long-exposure Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer images. The data collected on these two candidates matches the theoretical profile expected and estimates of their age suggest they formed when the cosmos was less than a billion years old. But more study is needed to verify the data and existence of these theoretical early black hole seeds.


Astronomers recently detected the Monster of the Milky Way -Sagittarius A- snacking on material passing too close, possibly an asteroid. The resulting X-ray flares detected in September 2013 were the largest ever recorded during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, so far. Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

“Black hole seeds are extremely hard to find and confirming their detection is very difficult,” said Andrea Grazian, a co-author from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy. “However, we think our research has uncovered the two best candidates to date.”


Astronomers combined X-ray data from Chandra with microwave and visible images to reveal jets and radio-emitting lobes emanating from the 55 million solar mass central supermassive black hole in galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128). Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

What’s next?

The team plans additional observations to see if these two candidates have other properties of black hole seeds as computer simulations predict. Real evidence to prove or disprove their early supermassive black hole formation theory might have to wait for a few years. Until the James Webb Space Telescope, European Extremely Large Telescope and other assets come online. The team and other astronomers are currently designing the theoretical framework needed to interpret future data and pinpoint the existence of some of the first supermassive black holes ever to exist. Watch this YouTube video on the jet of Centaurus A.


This optical/radio composite image shows the vast radio-emitting lobes of Centaurus A in orange extending nearly a million light-years from the galaxy. The image of the right here shows the inner 4.16 light-years of the jet and counter-jet of this estimated 55 million solar mass monster. Credit: NASA.

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Small Region of Sky Source of Mysterious, Energetic Blasts

Astronomers have identified source as a supermassive, unknown star cluster containing some of the most massive stars in the Milky Way 

Hidden within the region inset in the small square lie some of the rarest, most massive stars in the galaxy.
Hidden within the region inset in the small square lie some of the rarest, most massive stars in the galaxy. More than a dozen red supergiant stars. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Space news (unknown X-ray and gamma-ray sources) – 2/3 of the way to the core of the Milky Way or 18,900 light-years (5,800 parsecs) from Earth toward the constellation Scutum in the Bermuda Triangle of the Milky Way – 

For years, astronomers studied a small region of the sky called the Bermuda Triangle known for mysterious, highly energetic blasts of X-rays and gamma rays looking for clues to the source. The identity of the source was finally determined around 2005 as an unknown, hefty star cluster containing some of the rarest and most massive stars in the Milky Way. More than a dozen red supergiant stars, supermassive stars that are destroyed when a star goes supernova, within a million years time.  

This color composite image compiled by the Spitzer Space Telescope highlights the colors of the cosmos. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
This color composite image compiled by the Spitzer Space Telescope highlights the dazzling color palette of the cosmos. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Astronomers detected 14 gigantic, red supergiant stars bloated to beyond 100 times their original size hidden within a star cluster estimated to be over 20 times the average size. Their outer envelopes of hydrogen bloated to beyond bursting, these behemoth stars are destined to end their days in one of the most energetic events in the cosmos a supernova. Destined to spread the elements of creation throughout the galaxy in a titanic explosion more energetic than the output of the entire Milky Way. 

“Only the most massive clusters can have lots of red supergiants because they are the only clusters capable of making behemoth stars,” explains Don Figer led scientists for the study. “They are good signposts that allow astronomers to predict the mass of the cluster. This observation also is a rare chance to study huge stars just before they explode. Normally, we don’t get to see stars before they pop off.” 

This very colorful artist's impression of the stars within this unknown star cluster. CreditNASA/ESA/STScI
This very colorful artist’s impression of the 14 red supergiant stars within this unknown star cluster. CreditNASA/ESA/STScI

What’s next for the team?

Red supergiant stars were indeed rare during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Only about 200 such titanic stars have been identified among the hundreds of millions detected in the Milky Way. Finding 14 of these behemoth stars relatively close to Earth is an opportunity for astronomers to study their life cycle in greater detail. An opportunity Figer and his team at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore plan on taking full advantage of during the years ahead. 

At the same time, Figer and his team of space scientists plan on studying an additional 130 supermassive star cluster candidates from the newly found clusters compiled in the Two Micron All Sky Survey catalog. “We can only see a small part of our galaxy in visible light because a dusty veil covers most of our galaxy,” Figer said. “I know there are other massive clusters in the Milky Way that we can’t see because of the dust. My goal is to find them using infrared light, which penetrates the dusty veil.” 

“Mysterious X-ray and gamma ray source explained!” 

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Kepler Captures Supernova Shockwave in Visible Light

Mining of Kepler space mission data reveals “supernova’s shockwave” in visible light


Space news (massive supernovae) – 1.2 billion light-years from Earth –

An international team of scientists at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana mining three years of Kepler Space Telescope data for massive supernovae discovered something never seen during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Buried in the Kepler data Peter Garnavich and team observed for the first time the brilliant flash of a massive supernova’s shockwave in visible light as it reached the surface of the exploding star.

NASA scientists Peter Garnavich. Credit: NASA

“In order to see something that happens on timescales of minutes, like a shock breakout, you want to have a camera continuously monitoring the sky,” said Garnavich. “You don’t know when a supernova is going to go off, and Kepler’s vigilance allowed us to be a witness as the explosion began.”

Garnavich’s the leader of the Kepler Extragalactic Survey (KEGS) research team, which is currently mining NASA’s Kepler K2 mission data looking for massive supernovae. NASA’s repurposed planet hunter is expected to detect around a dozen more events during its mission to capture the light from hundreds of distant galaxies and trillions of stars.

The diagram illustrates the brightness of a supernova event relative to the sun as it unfolds. For the first time, a supernova shockwave has been observed in the optical wavelength or visible light as it reaches the surface of the star. This early flash of light is called a shock breakout. 

Astronomers call the brilliant flash of a supernova’s shockwave “a shock breakout”. This event only lasts around twenty minutes in the cases observed, so catching the flash as it happens is truly a milestone for astronomers studying supernovae. By piecing together individual moments of a supernova astronomers hope to learn more about the history of chemical complexity and the evolution of life.

“All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel, and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars,” said Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Life exists because of supernovae.”

NASA scientist Steve Howell. Credit: NASA

Massive supernovae and their less energetic brothers are the seeds of chemical complexity in the cosmos, spreading the elements of creation across the breadth of the universe. Understanding the physics behind these titanic events can help tell us how these elements of creation were spread across the universe.

Kepler observes two massive supernovae

The Kepler Space Telescope observed a type II supernova shockwave in visible light as it broke the surface of the star for the first time in history as supermassive red giant KSN 2011d went supernova in 2011. Containing roughly 500 times the mass of Sol, this supermassive star at the moment the shockwave from the supernova reached its surface was 130,000,000 times brighter than the Sun. Continuing to explode and grow, the star eventually reached a maximum brightness over 1 billion times greater than Sol 14 days later.

This artist’s conception of the repurposed Kepler K2 spacecraft. Credit. NASA/Kepler K2

The Kepler Space Telescope also observed a second type II supernova in 2011. Red super massive star KSN 2011a contains 300 times as much mass as Sol and occupies a volume of space that would easily engulf the orbit of Earth around the Sun. Only 700 million light-years from Earth, astronomers weren’t able to observe a shock breakout in the data for this supernova, but they think it might be due to gas masking the shockwave as it reached the surface of the star.

“That is the puzzle of these results,” said Garnavich. “You look at two supernovae and see two different things. That’s maximum diversity.”

“While Kepler cracked the door open on observing the development of these spectacular events, K2 will push it wide open observing dozens more supernovae,” said Tom Barclay, senior research scientist and director of the Kepler and K2 guest observer office at Ames. “These results are a tantalizing preamble to what’s to come from K2!”

Drawing of Tom Barclay. Credit: Tom Barclay.com

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Polar Ring Galaxy NGC 660’s a Cosmic Anomaly

A single odd galaxy in a group of around a dozen or so extremely rare, bizarre island universes 

This new Hubble image shows a peculiar galaxy known as NGC 660, located around 45 million light-years away from us. NGC 660 is classified as a "polar ring galaxy", meaning that it has a belt of gas and stars around its centre that it ripped from a near neighbour during a clash about one billion years ago. The first polar ring galaxy was observed in 1978 and only around a dozen more have been discovered since then, making them something of a cosmic rarity. Unfortunately, NGC 660’s polar ring cannot be seen in this image, but has plenty of other features that make it of interest to astronomers – its central bulge is strangely off-kilter and, perhaps more intriguingly, it is thought to harbour exceptionally large amounts of dark matter. In addition, in late 2012 astronomers observed a massive outburst emanating from NGC 660 that was around ten times as bright as a supernova explosion. This burst was thought to be caused by a massive jet shooting out of the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy.
The polar ring of NGC 660 isn’t visible in this Hubble Space Telescope image, but its central bulge looks strangely tilted. Astronomers are more interested in large amounts of invisible dark matter they think could be hidden within it. Studying the formation of its polar ring during galactic interactions and mergers has provided knowledge and understanding of the shape of dark matter halos around galaxies. 

Space news (galactic interactions: rare galaxy types; polar ring galaxies) – 45 million light-years from Earth, swimming in the cosmic seas of the constellation Pisces – 

One of the most enigmatic objects discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, polar ring galaxies are a cosmic anomaly. Containing a belt of gas and stars orbiting its center that it tore from another galaxy during a collision around one billion years ago, polar ring galaxies are composed of two distinct systems. One of the rarest and oddest galaxy types classified, astronomers study the formation mechanisms of polar ring galaxies in order to try to grasp more knowledge and understanding of the evolution of galaxies.  


NGC 660 is classified as a “polar ring galaxy”, meaning that it has a belt of gas and stars around its centre that it ripped from a near neighbour during a clash about one billion years ago. The first polar ring galaxy was observed in 1978 and only around a dozen more have been discovered since then, making them something of a cosmic rarity. Credit: Gemini North Telescope

A large, elliptical galaxy about 300 million light years from Earth.
Astronomers studying dark matter halos observe galaxies like NGC 4555 because it hasn’t interacted much with other galaxies, which makes it easier to dark matter they started with. Chandra has shown this galaxy is embedded in a cloud of 10-million-degree Celcius gas (left) with a diameter of 40,000 light-years, more than twice that of NGC 4445. (left). A dark matter halo ten times the combined mass of the stars in the galaxy (right) and 300 times the mass of the gas cloud would be required to gravitationally hold it. is difficult to determine how much dark matter they originally possessed. Chandra’s observations of NGC 4555 confirms that an isolated, elliptical galaxy can possess a dark matter halo of its own.

Studying dark matter halos

The study of the formation history of unique polar-ring spiral galaxy NGC 660 has been even more useful in the detection and shape of the galaxy’s otherwise unseen dark matter halo. The only island universe of this kind detected, so far, a team of astronomers at the Paris Observatory has been studying the formation of its polar ring during interactions and mergers between galaxies. In order to gain insight into the shape of dark matter halos around the thousands of galaxies viewed during our journey. 

Polar Ring Galaxy NGC 660 Credit: AstronomyTrek


The disk of NGC 660 has a flat rotation curve and a rising polar ring astronomers find intriguing and rather puzzling. Scientists are studying its flatness and haven’t reached a conclusion, but they have determined it has a massive polar ring. It does raise a few difficulties in measuring the polar ring and disk velocities since they can’t be measured at the same radius. But astronomers have observed this in previous dark matter studies using polar ring galaxies. 

NGC 660’s also of interest to astronomers because late in 2012 they observed a massive burst emanating from this polar ring galaxy. An energetic outburst estimated to be nearly ten times as bright as a supernova event, they attribute to a massive jet shooting out of the supermassive black hole believed to reside at its core. This island universe’s a one-of-a-kind galaxy astronomers study looking for clues to its unique structure and formation history. A uniqueness that both intrigues and puzzles their inquisitive natures’. 

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