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!” 

“Now, we search for new cosmic mysteries to unveil!”

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Learn more about red supergiant stars

Read about the Nuclear Star Cluster, the Milky Way’s densest star cluster.

Learn more about the giant star blowing a huge bubble of gas.

Read about astronomers discovering superstar binary systems like Eta Carinae are more common than first thought.


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

Watch this YouTube video on this event here.

Learn more about K2.

Discover what the Kepler Extragalactic Survey has told us here.

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Learn more about type II supernovas here.

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Learn more about astronomy at the University of Notre Dame here.

Read about the giant bubble observed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Learn more about the prominent emission lines in young stars.

Read about two merging black holes astronomers are watching.

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’. 

Learn about the things astronomers have determined about polar ring galaxies here

Learn more about dark matter

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Learn more about galaxies types here

Read about the unique stellar object called the Red Rectangle.

Fly on the icy blue wings of the Hen 2-437.

Read about the recent observation of gravitational waves by LIGO.

Ancient Star Clusters Often Swarm Around Lenticular Galaxies

Like bees around a cosmic beehive

Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Space news (lenticular galaxies) – 100 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major (The Great Bear) –

The galaxy seen here is NGC 5308, a typical lenticular galaxy swarmed by star clusters circling around it like bees around a beehive. The Hubble Space Telescope image seen here is edge-on in relation to the galaxy, which offers a great view of the halo formed by the dense collection of older stars orbiting this island universe. 

Edge-on lenticular galaxies like NGC 5308 are S0 on the Hubble Tuning Fork classification system and are considered a transitional type between elliptical and spiral galaxies. But scientists are still trying to figure out the right formation theory for this type of galaxy. We’ll talk more about the current lenticular galaxy formation theory in a later article.

Also known as LEDA 48860 and UGC 8722, galaxies like this island universe are often referred to as armless spiral galaxies by astronomers. They usually have no obvious structure in their disks and are composed primarily of older, red stars. Lenticular galaxies like NGC 5308 often also appear more like elliptical galaxies than spirals, but usually have more dust.

Lenticular galaxies can often be mistaken for EO type galaxies if their central bulge isn’t very bright. They also don’t have spiral arms alive with bright, young stars as observed in spiral galaxies. But are found in some cases with a bar and in this case are classified as a barred lenticular galaxy (SBO).

Learn more about lenticular galaxies.

Take the space voyage of NASA to present day here.

Learn more about the Hubble Tuning Fork and its system of galaxy classification.

Voyage to distant cosmic discoveries with the ESA here.

Read about the Red Rectangle, a very unusual celestial object.

Discover one of the biggest, most massive stars in the galaxy.

Read about astronomers viewing a new galaxy forming.

The Milky Way’s Nuclear Star Cluster

The most massive, densest star cluster in the galaxy 

In this image the infrared light, which is invisible to humans, has been translated into colors our eyes can see. The red stars observed are embedded or shrouded by intervening dust and gas. Areas appearing dark against the bright background stars are actually very dense clouds of gas and dust seen in silhouette. These regions even the infrared eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope can’t penetrate. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Space news (Into the lair of the Monster of the Milky Way) – the center of the galaxy, 27,000 light-years away – 

Astronomers recently used the Hubble Space Telescope’s infrared vision to observe the lair of the Monster of the Milky Way. Using Hubble’s infrared cameras scientists revealed a dusty galactic core crammed with over an estimated half a million stars. Plus at least ten million stars too faint to be seen by Hubble through the dust in the disk of our island universe. Watch this Spitzer Space Telescope site video “The Hidden Universe: The Galactic Center Revisited“.

A keyhole-view through Hubble’s looking glass towards the center of the Milky Way through the Sagittarius Star Cloud at a treasure chest full of stars. A treasure chest containing ancient stars that first formed the galaxy with a tale to tell astronomers about the evolution of galaxies.

Part of the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster, the densest and most massive star cluster in the galaxy, these stars orbit Sagittarius A, a supermassive black hole astronomers believe resides at the center of our galaxy. Called the Monster of the Milky Way, the stars in this cluster are doomed to fall prey to this mysterious object, to be swallowed whole by this 4 million solar mass supermassive black hole. 

The 4-million-solar-mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

The bottom panel of this graphic is a view of the region around Sgr A* where red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Sgr A* itself is not visible in this image but is embedded in the white dot at the end of the arrow. The other two telescopes involved in the 15 years of X-ray observations were ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer, but their data are not included in this image.

Astrophysicists measured the movements of the stars within the galactic core to determine the mass and structure of the nuclear star cluster. Using these measurements they were able to get a glimpse backward in time to the moment it was formed. To see if it was constructed over time as globular clusters fell into the core of the galaxy or from gas and dust spiraling into the core from the disk to form new stars. 

This image is meant to show the grand scale of the lair of the Monster of the Milky Way. The storm of stars seen here is actually just the tip of the iceberg, there are at least 10 million stars in this image to faint for Hubble to detect according to estimates by astronomers. Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope’s infrared vision to look through the dust in the disk of the Milky Way at its nuclear star cluster. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Study continues

Astronomers weren’t able to determine which scenario best fits current theory and computer simulations conducted. They continue to modify parameters and devise additional scenarios to explain the formation of the nuclear star cluster. We’ll update you on their findings in future articles. 

Learn more about the Monster of the Milky Way – Sagittarius A

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Read and learn more about the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster

Read about the unusual star formation timescale astronomers have observed in dwarf galaxy Leo A.

Check out this artist’s conception of future Europa spacecraft.

Read about Chandra’s detection of X-rays emitted by a distant supermassive black hole.


A Titanic Supermassive Black Hole Residing in a Galactic Backwater

Makes astronomers think they need to rethink theory on black hole formation 

Scientists generated this computer simulation showing a supermassive black hole lurking at the center of a massive galaxy. The black sphere seen here at the core of the galaxy is its event horizon, beyond which not even light can escape the gravitational grip of this monster. A gravitational force that distorts spacetime near it and stretches and smears light from background stars as it travels past the black hole. Image credit: NASA/STSci/ESA

Space news (Black hole formation theory) – 200 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Eridanus –

Astronomers working on current black hole formation theory have detected a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy in a region of space and time they didn’t expect to find such a monster. A very hungry monster containing the mass of over 17 billion suns, residing in an out-of-the-way galactic backwater town.
Previously, astronomers detected titanic supermassive black holes at the center of huge, very massive galaxies in parts of space and time with a greater density of large galaxies. The very crowded Coma galaxy cluster has over 1,000 galaxies and is home to the biggest monster supermassive black hole recorded with an estimated mass of 21 billion times that of Sol.

NGC 1600 is a massive, isolated elliptical galaxy with one of the biggest recorded monster residing at its core. A supermassive black hole estimated to contain the matter found within 17 million suns like our own. Credit: NASA, ESA, Digital Sky Survey 2

“The newly discovered supersized black hole resides in the center of a massive elliptical galaxy, NGC 1600, located in a cosmic backwater, a small grouping of 20 or so galaxies,” said lead discoverer Chung-Pei Ma, a University of California-Berkeley astronomer and head of the MASSIVE Survey, a study of the most massive galaxies and supermassive black holes in the local universe. “While finding a gigantic black hole in a massive galaxy in a crowded area of the universe is to be expected – like running across a skyscraper in Manhattan – it seemed less likely they could be found in the universe’s small towns.”
“There are quite a few galaxies the size of NGC 1600 that reside in average-size galaxy groups,” Ma said. “We estimate that these smaller groups are about 50 times more abundant than spectacular galaxy clusters like the Coma cluster. So the question now is, ‘Is this the tip of an iceberg?’ Maybe there are more monster black holes out there that don’t live in a skyscraper in Manhattan, but in a tall building somewhere in the Midwestern plains.”

Ground-based view of NGC 1600
This is an image of lonely, wandering NGC 1600 taken by ground-based telescopes. Credit: NASA/ESA/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Astrophysicists studying NGC 1600 detected a supermassive black hole at least ten times more massive than current theory predicted at its center. Scientists previously thought the more massive the central bulge of a galaxy, proportionally more massive the supermassive black hole at its center should be, but this throws a wrench in previous correlations between the mass of a supermassive black hole and its central bulge of suns.

“It appears that that relation does not work very well with extremely massive black holes; they are a larger fraction of the host galaxy’s mass,” Ma said.

What could cause this smaller galaxy in a cosmic backwater to have such a titanic supermassive black hole at its core? It could be NGC 1600 merged with another galaxy hundreds of millions of years ago when such collisions were more common in this region of spacetime. Computer simulations show the central supermassive black holes of two merging galaxies fall into the center of the recently formed galaxy and begin orbiting each other in a slowly diminishing radius. Stars and other stellar objects that fall into the core steal momentum from the twirling monsters and in the process are often flung from the center of the galaxy. This transfer of momentum causes the supermassive black holes to slowly move closer together and eventually merge to form a super monster. A super monster that continues to grow by devouring gas drawn into the center of the galaxy by collisions and gravity.

In the words of Ma, “To become this massive, the black hole would have had a very voracious phase during which it devoured lots of gas.”

Astronomers continue to watch

Is it possible constant merging of NGC 1600 with galactic neighbors is one reason it lives in a cosmic backwater, with relatively few nearby galactic neighbors? It’s the brightest galaxy in town, more than three times brighter than any member of its galactic group. This difference in brightness has rarely been observed in other galactic groups. Maybe lots of galactic mergers resulted in one of the most titanic supermassive black holes ever recorded, residing in a small, cosmic backwater town.

The super monster lurking at the center of NGC 1600 is currently sleeping, but astronomers are watching for signs of its next meal going down. While they wait, they’re working on updating current theory on the formation of black holes, using the data obtained by studying NGC 1600 and similar galaxies. Current theory that will likely need to be revamped once new data comes in during our journey to the beginning of space and time.

The tide of science may rise and fall, but it always seeks truth in the facts. 

Take the space journey of NASA here.

Learn more about NGC 1600.

Learn more about supermassive black holes here.

Read more about black hole formation theory.

Learn more about the things astronomers learn by looking at the light from distant, young stars.

Supermassive black holes engulf any mass coming to close, and often burp after a meal.

Read about the weird light signal given off by two black holes that are destined to merge.