ESA’s ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter Prepares to Descend to the Red Planet

Schiaparelli module separates from Trace Gas Orbiter in preparation for orbit-raising maneuver 

This artist's concept from the European Space Agency (ESA) depicts the Trace Gas Orbiter and its entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, approaching Mars. The separation occurred on Oct. 16, 2016. The orbiter and the lander are components of the ExoMars 2016 mission of ESA and Roscosmos. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
This artist’s concept from the European Space Agency (ESA) depicts the Trace Gas Orbiter and its entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, approaching Mars. The separation occurred on Oct. 16, 2016. The orbiter and the lander are components of the ExoMars 2016 mission of ESA and Roscosmos.
Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Space news (space exploration: ExoMars 2016; orbit insertion and Schiaparelli module descent to surface) – Over 34 million miles (56 million kilometers) from Earth, preparing to descend to the surface of the Red Planet – 

This image show a fan-shaped deposit where a channel enters a crater. This suggests that water once flowed through the channel into a crater lake, depositing material in a similar manner to river deltas on Earth. Credits: NASA/ESA/medialab
This image shows a fan-shaped deposit where a channel enters a crater, which suggests to planetary scientists and geologists that water once flowed through the channel into a crater lake, depositing material in a similar manner to river deltas on Earth. Credits: NASA/ESA/medialab

NASA’s Curiosity rover and other Mars explorers are about to get a little help from their European and Russian brothers and sisters in the form of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). One of two joint space missions between Europe and Russia designed to explore Mars for signs that life once existed, the ExoMars TGO will investigate the environment, and blaze a path for a future 2020s mission to return a sample of Martian terrain for planetary scientists to examine in detail for signs of life. 

This stereo scene recorded by the Pancam on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Aug. 15, 2014, looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater marked with the rover's wheel tracks. It appears three-dimensional when seen through blue-red glasses with the red lens on the left. Credits: NASA/ESA
This stereo scene recorded by the Pancam on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Aug. 15, 2014, looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater marked with the rover’s wheel tracks. It appears three-dimensional when seen through blue-red glasses with the red lens on the left. Credits: NASA/ESA

The ExoMars TGO completed its final trajectory maneuver at 08.:45 GMT on October 14 and at 14:42 GMT/16:42 CEST today the Schiaparelli module separated from the orbiter. Tomorrow around 02:42 GMT/04:42 CEST the robotic spacecraft will conduct an orbit-raising maneuver in preparation for orbit insertion and the descent of Schiaparelli to the surface of Mars at around 14:48 GMT/16:48 CEST. The module is scheduled to land in a region of Mars near the equator called Meridiani Planum, where it will search for signs of life once having existed on the Red Planet. 

On Nov. 1, 2016, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed the impact site of Europe's Schiaparelli test lander, gaining the first color view of the site since the lander's Oct. 19, 2016, arrival. These cutouts from the observation cover three locations where parts of the spacecraft reached the ground: the lander module itself in the upper portion, the parachute and back shell at lower left, and the heat shield at lower right. The heat shield location was outside of the area covered in color. The scale bar of 10 meters (32.8 feet) applies to all three cutouts. Where the lander module struck the ground, dark radial patterns that extend from a dark spot are interpreted as "ejecta," or material thrown outward from the impact, which may have excavated a shallow crater. From the earlier image, it was not clear whether the relatively bright pixels and clusters of pixels scattered around the lander module's impact site are fragments of the module or image noise. Now it is clear that at least the four brightest spots near the impact are not noise. These bright spots are in the same location in the two images and have a white color, unusual for this region of Mars. The module may have broken up at impact, and some fragments might have been thrown outward like impact ejecta. At lower right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots appear identical in the Nov. 1 and Oct. 25 images, which were taken from different angles, so these spots are now interpreted as bright material, such as insulation layers, not glinting reflections. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL/Caltech
On Nov. 1, 2016, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed the impact site of Europe’s Schiaparelli test lander, gaining the first color view of the site since the lander’s Oct. 19, 2016, arrival.
These cutouts from the observation cover three locations where parts of the spacecraft reached the ground: the lander module itself in the upper portion, the parachute and back shell at lower left, and the heat shield at lower right. The heat shield location was outside of the area covered in color. The scale bar of 10 meters (32.8 feet) applies to all three cutouts. Where the lander module struck the ground, dark radial patterns that extend from a dark spot are interpreted as “ejecta,” or material is thrown outward from the impact, which may have excavated a shallow crater. From the earlier image, it was not clear whether the relatively bright pixels and clusters of pixels scattered around the lander module’s impact site are fragments of the module or image noise. Now it is clear that at least the four brightest spots near the impact are not noise. These bright spots are in the same location in the two images and have a white color, unusual for this region of Mars. The module may have broken up at impact, and some fragments might have been thrown outward like impact ejecta. At lower right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots appear identical in the Nov. 1 and Oct. 25 images, which were taken from different angles, so these spots are now interpreted as bright material, such as insulation layers, not glinting reflections. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL/Caltech

Unfortunately, after the separation from the ExoMars TGO, the Schiaparelli module didn’t return telemetry (onboard status information) and only sent its carrier signal, which indicates it’s operational and waiting for commands. Mission control’s currently looking into this anomaly and a resolution to the problem’s expected within a few hours. You can check for updates to this on the ESA website here

This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event. This Oct. 25 observation shows three locations where hardware reached the ground, all within about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometer) of each other, as expected. The annotated version includes insets with six-fold enlargement of each of those three areas. Brightness is adjusted separately for each inset to best show the details of that part of the scene. North is about 7 degrees counterclockwise from straight up. The scale bars are in meters. At lower left is the parachute, adjacent to the back shell, which was its attachment point on the spacecraft. The parachute is much brighter than the Martian surface in this region. The smaller circular feature just south of the bright parachute is about the same size and shape as the back shell, (diameter of 7.9 feet or 2.4 meters). At upper right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located about where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots may be part of the heat shield, such as insulation material, or gleaming reflections of the afternoon sunlight. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event. This Oct. 25 observation shows three locations where hardware reached the ground, all within about 0.9 miles (1.5 kilometers) of each other, as expected. The annotated version includes insets with six-fold enlargement of each of those three areas. Brightness is adjusted separately for each inset to best show the details of that part of the scene. North is about 7 degrees counterclockwise from straight up. The scale bars are in meters.
At lower left is the parachute, adjacent to the back shell, which was its attachment point on the spacecraft. The parachute is much brighter than the Martian surface in this region. The smaller circular feature just south of the bright parachute is about the same size and shape as the back shell, (diameter of 7.9 feet or 2.4 meters).
At upper right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located about where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots may be part of the heat shield, such as insulation material, or gleaming reflections of the afternoon sunlight. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

What’s next for ExoMars?

If everything goes as planned, mission control should get an update from the ExoMars TGO on October 20, along with images of the surface of the planet as Schiaparelli descended to Mars. Continuous updates from the orbiter and module are expected through the duration of the ExoMars TGO mission. The events of the mission will also be live streamed on the ESA website here, along with reports on Twitter using the hashtag #ExoMars

Watch this YouTube video on ten magnificent years of exploration for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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Rosetta Spacecraft Says Its Final Goodbye

An image of the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko worth a thousand words

The OSIRIS narrow-angle camera aboard the Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft captured this image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on September 30, 2016, from an altitude of about 10 miles (16 kilometers) above the surface during the spacecraft’s controlled descent. The image scale is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) per pixel and the image itself measures about 2,000 feet (614 meters) across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The OSIRIS narrow-angle camera aboard the Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft captured this image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on September 30, 2016, from an altitude of about 10 miles (16 kilometers) above the surface during the spacecraft’s controlled descent. The image scale is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) per pixel and the image itself measures about 2,000 feet (614 meters) across.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Space news (solar system science: planetary science; cometary science) – 66 feet above the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko; in a controlled descent –

Rosetta's last image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken shortly before impact, at an estimated altitude of 66 feet (20 meters) above the surface. The image was taken with the OSIRIS wide-angle camera on 30 September. The image scale is about 5 mm/pixel and the image measures about 2.4 m across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Rosetta’s last image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken shortly before impact, at an estimated altitude of 66 feet (20 meters) above the surface. The image was taken with the OSIRIS wide-angle camera on 30 September. The image scale is about 5 mm/pixel and the image measures about 2.4 m across.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The image above is the last thing the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera aboard the European Space Agency”s (ESA)Rosetta spacecraft captured before it hit the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at 4:19 a.m. PDT (7:19 a.m. EDT/1:19 p.m. CEST) on September 30, 2016. During this controlled crash landing of the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous and escort a comet as it orbits the Sun. Astronomers were able to conduct an additional study of the gas, dust and plasma environment close to the surface of the comet and take these high-resolution images.

Comet from 5.7 km – narrow-angle camera Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Comet from 5.7 km – narrow-angle camera
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The OSIRIS narrow-angle camera also captured the image shown at the top of the page from a height of around 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This image spans a distance of around 2,000 feet (614 meters) across the comet’s icy and volatile surface. Attempting to walk across such a surface as Bruce Willis and his drilling crew did in the movie Armageddon is going to be tricky at best.

OSIRIS narrow-angle camera image with Philae, 2 September Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
OSIRIS narrow-angle camera image with Philae, 2 September
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

It might seem like a waste to purposely crash the Rosetta spacecraft on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, but in the end, it’s probably the best solution. This comets headed out beyond the orbit of Jupiter, which is further from the Sun than the spacecraft has traveled before, and there wouldn’t be enough solar power to operate its systems. Communicating with the spacecraft’s also about to become difficult for a month, with the Sun being close to the line-of-sight between Earth and Rosetta during this time period.

Close-up of the Philae lander, imaged by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 2 September 2016 from a distance of 2.7 km. The image scale is about 5 cm/pixel. Philae’s 1 m-wide body and two of its three legs can be seen extended from the body. The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation. The image is a zoom from a wider-scene, and has been interpolated. More information: Philae found! Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Close-up of the Philae lander, imaged by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 2 September 2016 from a distance of 2.7 km. The image scale is about 5 cm/pixel. Philae’s 1 m-wide body and two of its three legs can be seen extended from the body. The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation.
The image is a zoom from a wider-scene, and has been interpolated.
More information: Philae found!
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta mission complete

Feel happy for Rosetta and team, they both did the job, and then some in the end. It took a decade of careful planning and travel to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and write history. Just one month and two days later, a smaller lander named Philae touched down on the surface of the comet. It bounced on the surface a few times, before finally setting down. During the next few days, it took the first images ever of a comet’s surface up close and sent back important data planetary scientists will use to look for clues to the role comets played in the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago. Clues they hope to use to learn more about the origin and evolution of our solar system and possibly the formation of solar systems in general.

JPL/NASA Rosetta Team From left to right: Dongsuk (Don) Han- Outer Planet Navigation Bruce Tsurutani - Rpc-mag Essam Heggy - Consert Sam Gulkis - Miro Danny Tran - Aspen Josh Doubleday - Aspen Gregg Rabideau - Aspen Tim Koch - Miro Martina Troesch - Software Barbara Hesselgesser - Acquisitions Paul Von Allmen - Miro Belinda Arroyo - DSN Sophia Lee - Scheduling Paul Friz-Rosetta Shadow Project Liz Barrios - Illustrator Paul Springer - Miro Steve Chien - Aspen Cynthia Kahn-Former SE David Delgado - Public Engagement Claudia Alexander - Project Scientist Grant Faris - MA Shyam Bhaskaran - NAV Mark Hofstadter - Miro Seungwon Lee - Miro Lei Pan - Miro Jacky Bagumyan - Assistant Adans Ko - MA Sarah Marcotte - Mars consultant Charlene Barone - Rosetta Web Project Lead Dan Goods - Creative Director Virgil Adumitroale - Miro Richard Flores - Acquisitions Artur Chmielewski - Rosetta Project Manager Veronica McGregor - Social Media Credits: NASA/JPL
JPL/NASA Rosetta Team
From left to right:
Dongsuk (Don) Han- Outer Planet Navigation
Bruce Tsurutani – Rpc-mag
Essam Heggy – Consert
Sam Gulkis – Miro
Danny Tran – Aspen
Josh Doubleday – Aspen
Gregg Rabideau – Aspen
Tim Koch – Miro
Martina Troesch – Software
Barbara Hesselgesser – Acquisitions
Paul Von Allmen – Miro
Belinda Arroyo – DSN
Sophia Lee – Scheduling
Paul Friz-Rosetta Shadow Project
Liz Barrios – Illustrator
Paul Springer – Miro
Steve Chien – Aspen
Cynthia Kahn-Former SE
David Delgado – Public Engagement
Claudia Alexander – Project Scientist
Grant Faris – MA
Shyam Bhaskaran – NAV
Mark Hofstadter – Miro
Seungwon Lee – Miro
Lei Pan – Miro
Jacky Bagumyan – Assistant
Adans Ko – MA
Sarah Marcotte – Mars consultant
Charlene Barone – Rosetta Web Project Lead
Dan Goods – Creative Director
Virgil Adumitroale – Miro
Richard Flores – Acquisitions
Artur Chmielewski – Rosetta Project Manager
Veronica McGregor – Social Media
Credits: NASA/JPL

Watch this YouTube video of the last few hours of ESA’s Rosetta mission.

Read and learn more about planetary scientists anticipation of studying a sample of material from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, material left over from the early moments of the birth of the solar system.

Read about comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

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Feedback Mechanisms of Actively Feeding Supermassive Black Holes

Can blow star-forming gas 1000 light-years out of core region of host galaxies 

This artist's rendering shows a galaxy being cleared of interstellar gas, the building blocks of new stars. New X-ray observations by Suzaku have identified a wind emanating from the black hole's accretion disk (inset) that ultimately drives such outflows. Credits: ESA/ATG Medialab
This artist’s rendering shows a galaxy being cleared of interstellar gas, the building blocks of new stars. New X-ray observations by Suzaku have identified a wind emanating from the black hole’s accretion disk (inset) that ultimately drives such outflows.
Credits: ESA/ATG Medialab

Space news (astrophysics: evolution of galaxies; feedback mechanisms) – about 2.3 billion years ago in a galaxy far, far away and standing in a fierce, 2 million mile per hour (3 million kilometers per hour) outflow of star-forming gas – 

Astrophysicists studying the evolution of galaxies using the Suzaku X-ray satellite and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Infrared Space Observatory have found evidence suggesting supermassive black holes significantly influence the evolution of their host galaxies. They found data pointing to winds near a monster black hole blowing star-forming gas over 1,000 light-years from the galaxy center. Enough material to form around 800 stars with the mass of our own Sol. 

“This is the first study directly connecting a galaxy’s actively ‘feeding’ black hole to features found at much larger physical scales,” said lead researcher Francesco Tombesi, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP). “We detect the wind arising from the luminous disk of gas very close to the black hole, and we show that it’s responsible for blowing star-forming gas out of the galaxy’s central regions.” 

The artist’s view of galaxy IRAS F11119+3257 (F11119) above shows 3 million miles per hour winds produced near the supermassive black hole at its center heating and dispersing cold, dense molecular clouds that could form new stars. Astronomers believe these winds are part of a feedback mechanism that blows star-forming gas from galaxy centers, forever altering the structure and evolution of their host galaxy.  

A red-filter image of IRAS F11119+3257 (inset) from the University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter telescope shows faint features that may be tidal debris, a sign of a galaxy merger. Background: A wider view of the region from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDSS/S. Veilleux
A red-filter image of IRAS F11119+3257 (inset) from the University of Hawaii’s 2.2-meter telescope shows faint features that may be tidal debris, a sign of a galaxy merger. Background: A wider view of the region from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/SDSS/S. Veilleux

Astronomers have been studying the Monster of the Milky Way, the supermassive black hole with an estimated mass six million times that of Sol thought to reside at the center of our galaxy, for years. The monster black hole at the core of F11119 is thought to contain around 16 million times the mass of Sol. The accretion disk surrounding this supermassive black hole is measured at hundreds of times the diameter of our solar system. The 170 million miles per hour (270 million kilometers per hour) winds emanating from its accretion disk push the star-forming dust out of the central regions of the galaxy. Producing a steady flow of cold gas over a thousand light-years across traveling at around 2 million mph (3 million kph) and moving a volume of mass equal to around 800 Suns. 

Astrophysicists have been searching for clues to a possible correlation between the masses of a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole and its galactic bulge. They have observed galaxies with more massive black holes generally, have bulges with proportionately larger stellar mass. The steady flow of material out of the central regions of galaxy F11119 and into the galactic bulge could help explain this correlation. 

“These connections suggested the black hole was providing some form of feedback that modulated star formation in the wider galaxy, but it was difficult to see how,” said team member Sylvain Veilleux, an astronomy professor at UMCP. “With the discovery of powerful molecular outflows of cold gas in galaxies with active black holes, we began to uncover the connection.” 

“The black hole is ingesting gas as fast as it can and is tremendously heating the accretion disk, allowing it to produce about 80 percent of the energy this galaxy emits,” said co-author Marcio Meléndez, a research associate at UMCP. “But the disk is so luminous some of the gas accelerates away from it, creating the X-ray wind we observe.” 

tidal_disruption_art_as
In this artist’s rendering, a thick accretion disk has formed around a supermassive black hole following the tidal disruption of a star that wandered too close. Stellar debris has fallen toward the black hole and collected into a thick chaotic disk of hot gas. Flashes of X-ray light near the center of the disk result in light echoes that allow astronomers to map the structure of the funnel-like flow, revealing for the first time strong gravity effects around a normally quiescent black hole. Credits: NASA/Swift/Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University

The accretion disk wind and associated molecular outflow of cold gas could be the final pieces astronomers have been looking for in the puzzle explaining supermassive black hole feedback. Watch this video animation of the workings of supermassive black hole feedback in quasars

Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar. Credits: M. Weiss/CfA
Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar.
Credits: M. Weiss/CfA

When the supermassive black hole’s most active, it clears cold gas and dust from the center of the galaxy and shuts down star formation in this region. It also allows shorter-wavelength light to escape from the accretion disk of the black hole astronomers can study to learn more. We’ll keep you updated on any additional discoveries. 

What’s the conclusion?

Astrophysicists conclude F11119 could be an early evolutionary phase of a quasar, a type of active galactic nuclei (AGN) with extreme emissions across a broad spectrum. Computer simulations show the supermassive black hole should eventually consume the gas and dust in its accretion disk and then its activity should lessen. Leaving a less active galaxy with little gas and a comparatively low level of star formation. 

Blazar 3C 279's historic gamma-ray flare can be seen in these images from the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on NASA's Fermi satellite. Both images show gamma rays with energies from 100 million to 100 billion electron volts (eV). For comparison, visible light has energies between 2 and 3 eV. Left: A week-long exposure ending June 10, before the eruption. Right: An exposure for the following week, including the flare. 3C 279 is brighter than the Vela pulsar, normally the brightest object in the gamma-ray sky. The scale bar at left shows an angular distance of 10 degrees, which is about the width of a clenched fist at arm's length. Credits: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
Blazar 3C 279’s historic gamma-ray flare can be seen in these images from the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on NASA’s Fermi satellite. Both images show gamma rays with energies from 100 million to 100 billion electron volts (eV). For comparison, visible light has energies between 2 and 3 eV. Left: A week-long exposure ending June 10, before the eruption. Right: An exposure for the following week, including the flare. 3C 279 is brighter than the Vela pulsar, normally the brightest object in the gamma-ray sky. The scale bar at left shows an angular distance of 10 degrees, which is about the width of a clenched fist at arm’s length.
Credits: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Astrophysicists and scientists look forward to detecting and studying feedback mechanisms connected with the growth and evolution of supermassive black holes using the enhanced ability of ASTRO-H. A joint space partnership between Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (ISAS/JAXA) and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Suzaku’s successors expected to lift the veil surrounding this mystery even more and lay the foundation for one day understanding a little more about the universe and its mysteries.

Watch an animation made by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center showing how black hole feedback works in quasars here.

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Learn what astronomers have discovered about the Monster of the Milky Way.  

 

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory Views Blast from Material Falling into Supermassive Black Hole at Center of Galaxy Pictor A

Powerful beams of radiation continually shooting across 300,000 light-years of spacetime

This new composite image of the beam of particles was obtained by combining X-ray data (blue) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory at various times over a fifteen year period and radio data from the Australian Telescope Compact Array (Red). Astronomers gain understanding and knowledge of the true nature of these amazing jets by studying and analyzing details of the structure of X-ray and radio data obtained.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Chandra

Image caption: This new composite image of the beam of particles was obtained by combining X-ray data (blue) from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory at various times over a fifteen year period and radio data from the Australian Telescope Compact Array (Red). Astronomers gain understanding and knowledge of the true nature of these amazing jets by studying and analyzing details of the structure of X-ray and radio data obtained. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Chandra

Space news (February 25, 2016) – 500 million light-years away in the constellation Pictor –

The stunning Chandra X-ray image of radio galaxy Pictor A seen here shows an amazing jet that reminds one of the death rays from Star Wars emanating from a black hole in the center of the galaxy. The “Death Star” as portrayed in the Star Wars movie Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope was capable of totally destroying a planet using powerful beams of radiation. In just the same any planet finding itself in the direct path of the 300,000 light-years long, continuous jet emanating from the supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy is toast.

Astronomers think the stunning jet observed is produced by huge amounts of gravitational energy released as material swirls toward the pointofnoreturn in the gravity well of the supermassive black hole at its center the event horizon. These jets are an enormous beam of particles traveling at nearly the speed of light into the vastness of intergalactic space scientists call relativistic jets. 

Astronomers also report additional data confirming the existence of another jet pointing in the opposite direction to the jet seen in this image that they call a counter jet. Data had previously pointed to the existence of a counter jet and the latest Chandra data obtained confirmed this. Unfortunately, due to the motion of this opposite jet away from the line-of-sight to Earth, it’s very faint and hard for even Chandra to observe. 

Image caption: The labeled image seen here shows the location of the supermassive black hole and both jet and counter jet. The radio lobe label is where the jet pushes into surrounding gas and hotspot produced by shock waves near the tip of the jet. Image credit: NASA/JPL?ESA
The labeled image seen here shows the location of the supermassive black hole and both jet and counter-jet. The radio lobe label is where the jet pushes into surrounding gas and hotspot produced by shock waves near the tip of the jet.
Image credit: NASA/JPL?ESA

Current theories and computer simulations indicate the continuous X-ray emissions observed by Chandra could be produced by electrons spiraling around magnetic field lines in a process astronomers call synchrotron emission. They’re still trying to figure out how electrons could be continuously accelerated as they travel the length of the jet. But plan additional observations in the future to obtain more data to help develop new theories and computer simulations to explain this. 

Watch this YouTube video on Pictor A.

We’ll update you on any new developments and theories on jets emanating from supermassive black holes at the center of nearby galaxies as they’re developed.

You can learn more about jets emanating from supermassive black holes here.

Follow the journey of the Chandra X-ray Observatory here.

Learn more about relativistic jets here.

Read about astronomers recent discovery that superstar binaries like Eta Carinae are more common than first thought.

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Read and observe the hydrocarbon dunes of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Hubble Views New Galaxy Being Formed

Galaxy NGC 6052 is being formed into a single structure from the merging of two galaxies of similar mass 

Two become one
NGC 6052 still shows definite signs of a recent collision between two smaller galaxies of similar mass. Credits: NASA/ESA

Space news ( February 18, 2016) – 230 million light-years away in the constellation Hercules – 

This breathtaking Hubble image of galaxy NGC 6052 was taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on board the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers originally classified this different looking island universe as an irregular galaxy, but after more study, they believe it’s a new galaxy in the process of being formed.  

Also called Mrk 297, LEDA 57039 and Arp 209, NGC 6052 has previously been described as having a rather unusual structure, as seen in the regions of strong emission and the irregular appendage on its eastern side as seen in this image. 

Looking at the image, it’s not easy to see the traces of two separate galaxies in the act of merging. Attracted by gravity, two smaller galaxies with similar mass were slowly drawn together, before colliding to form NGC 6052.  

As the merging process progresses, individual stars are knocked out of their original orbits and onto new ones that take them far outside the galaxy. The starlight in the image appears quite chaotic in shape and form, but over time, the chaotic shape of this new galaxy will settle down.  

Astronomers conducting a survey of nearby galaxies detected all types on the Hubble Tuning Fork, with about ten percent on average being classified as irregular or unusual using the Hubble classification system. The sample size in this survey is rather small, though, when you compare it to the size of the cosmos. 

The percentages of different galaxy types seem to vary according to the environment, so astronomers expect these numbers to change as the survey sample size increases. 

A titanic collision

Billions of years in the future, Andromeda and the Milky Way will have a similarly fated meeting, but this galactic merger will be a cosmic collision of a different sort. Andromeda has much more mass and is bigger than the Milky Way and astronomers expect this meeting to produce a different looking island universe than NGC 6052. 

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Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Views Gravitational Waves

Traveling across the fabric of spacetime as two black holes merge

This is an artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars . Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL
This is an artist’s impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars.
Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL

Space news (February 18, 2016) – It took a hundred years, but Einstein must be smiling, wherever he is –

Astronomers working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) recently announced they had observed the ripples of gravitational waves in space-time as predicted by Albert Einstein in his ground-breaking general theory of relativity in November of 1915. 

Using two LIGO ground-based observatories in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, astrophysicists observed gravitational waves within the range of 10 to 1,000 cycles per second (10 to 1,000 Hz). LIGO is the most sensitive instrument ever devised by man but is only sensitive to gravitational waves within this narrow band of frequencies and specific source types. 

Astronomers believe the gravitational waves observed by LIGO were produced in the final moments of the merger of two black holes into a single, spinning monster black hole. The collision and eventual merger of black holes were predicted by scientists, but this is the first time it has been observed as it happened. You can watch and learn more about astronomers simulations of two black holes merging here.

Astronomers estimate these black holes had masses of about 29 and 36 times the mass of Sol when this event happened about 1.3 billion years ago. At the time of gravitational waves were produced, about three times the mass of our sun was converted in a fraction of a second. In a brief moment of time, astronomers estimate about 50 times the total power output of all the suns in the universe was emitted. 

In this case, astronomers estimate two black holes around 150 meters in diameter, with 29 and 36 times the mass of Sol, collided at nearly half the speed of light and produced the gravitational waves observed. All estimates of size, mass, and other parameters made using LIGO have a significant plus/minus, so the numbers provided should be taken with a grain of salt, or two.

General relativity predicts these black holes collided into each other at almost fifty percent the speed of light. The collision forms a single, more massive black hole, but a portion of the combined mass of the black holes was converted to energy according to Einstein’s E = mc2. It was this energy that was emitted and observed by LIGO as a strong burst of gravitational waves, producing the violent storm in spacetime detected.

Doors to a new cosmos open

This news kicks open doors to a new branch of astrophysics, well refer to as gravitational astronomy, scientists have dreamed of exploring for over 50 years. Astronomers expect this young branch of astronomy to offer information capable of opening doors that will allow us to view the cosmos in ways the study of electromagnetic radiation hasn’t allowed. It will also complement the things we have learned about the cosmos through the detection and study of electromagnetic radiation.

The next phase of gravitational wave observation will be to design and engineer space-based systems to allow us a better view through our new window on the universe. Space-based systems can detect gravitational waves at frequencies from 0.0001 to 0.1 Hz and a bigger range of source types. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are currently developing concepts for space-based observatories capable of detecting gravitational waves.

eLISA

eLISA will be the first observatory in space to explore the Gravitational Universe. It will gather revolutionary information about the dark universe. Credit: eLISA/ESA
eLISA will be the first observatory in space to explore the Gravitational Universe. It will gather revolutionary information about the dark universe.
Credit: eLISA/ESA

The ESA and NASA are currently developing the first space-based gravitational wave observatory eLISA, which will allow astronomers to directly observe the universe using gravitational waves. eLISA will allow us to listen to the universe in gravitational waves and observe the interesting sources of gravitational waves in the cosmos.

Essentially a high precision laser interferometer in space with an arm length of 1 million km, eLISA will open even more doors and windows to the gravitational universe and extend the cosmic horizon. This important mission extends the spectrum of gravitational waves astronomers want to study.

LISA Pathfinder

LISA Pathfinder is on station at the L1 LaGrange point and is preparing to do an important experiment. Credit: Pathfinder/ESA
LISA Pathfinder is on station at the L1 LaGrange point and is preparing to do an important experiment.
Credit: Pathfinder/ESA

The ESA’s LISA Pathfinder mission, in partnership with NASA, is currently getting ready to demonstrate technologies expected to be used in future space-based gravitational observatories. LISA Pathfinder is currently at the L1 LaGrange point, about 1.5 million km in the direction of Sol, and is preparing to begin its science mission.

LISA Pathfinder was made to test the theory that free particles follow geodesics in spacetime, which is a key idea behind the design and engineering of gravitational wave detectors. Scientists had to design and engineer new technologies that allow them to track two test masses nominally in free fall, using picometer resolution laser interferometry. 

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Read about the youngest, nearest black hole candidate found by astronomers.

Learn about US congress recognizing the right of US citizens to own asteroid resources.

Read about concerned earthlings planning on moving to the Red Planet in the future.

Hubble Finds Youngest, Nearby Black Hole Candidate

Characteristics of 30-year old supernova remnant SN 1979C are consistent with predicted theory on birth of black hole or possibly a rapidly spinning neutron star

•If SN 1979C does indeed contain a black hole, it will give astronomers a chance to learn more about which stars make black holes and which create neutron stars. Image: NASA/Chandra
Far away in galaxy M100 we search for black holes. If SN 1979C does indeed contain a black hole, it will give astronomers a chance to learn more about which stars make black holes and which create neutron stars.
Image: NASA/Chandra

Space news (December 11, 2015) – 50 million light-years from Earth, in galaxy M100 –

One of the most enigmatic cosmic objects discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, black holes continue to entrance and mystify both astronomers studying them and common people trying to imagine the possibility of such monsters existing. Black holes are also one of the most difficult celestial objects to detect since not even light rays can escape from the strength of their gravitational-embrace, once they travel beyond the imaginary point-of-no-return astronomers call the “event horizon” of a black hole.

Astronomers working with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, after analysis of additional data provided by NASA’s Swift Gamma-ray Burst Explorer, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton spacecraft, and German’s ROSAT Observatory, believe they have evidence to suggest 30-year old supernova remnant SN 1979C could be a black hole.

NASA and German ROSAT Observatory scans the x-ray sky.
The ROSAT Observatory scans the x-ray sky looking for supernovas that could have given birth to a black hole. Image: NASA.

Supernova remnant SN 1979C shined X-rays steadily during constant observation from 1995 to 2007. This suggests to astronomers either a black hole eating material left over from the supernova or a hidden binary companion feeding hot material to the monster hidden within 

“If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed,” said Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. who led the study.

Astronomers have detected new black holes that existed during the ancient past through gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) associated with them. SN 1979C is listed in a class of supernovae not expected to produce GRBs, which theory predicts could be the most common way to make a black hole.   

This may be the first time the common way of making a black hole has been observed,” said co-author Abraham Loeb, also of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “However, it is very difficult to detect this type of black hole birth because decades of X-ray observations are needed to make the case.

The idea SN 1979C is a young, recently-formed black hole made from the remnants of a star with 20 times the mass of Sol, that went supernova some thirty Earth-years ago, is consistent with present theory. In 2005, a theory was put forth claiming the bright source of X-rays detected steaming from the supernova remnant is powered by a jet emanating from the monster that’s unable to penetrate the thick hydrogen envelope surrounding it.

Astronomers think there could be one other possibility for the identity of SN 1979C. It could be a rapidly spinning neutron star, with an extremely powerful wind of high energy particles. Present theory predicts this would produce the bright X-ray emissions detected during 12 years of constant observation. 

If this is true, this would make this supernova remnant the youngest known example of a celestial object called a pulsar wind nebula. The Crab Nebula is the best-known example of a bright pulsar wind nebula, but we would have to go back over 900 years to view it as a 30-year old. SN 1979C is a lot younger, which is a great opportunity to study one of the most enigmatic, yet difficult to detect celestial objects viewed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

It’s very rewarding to see how the commitment of some of the most advanced telescopes in space, like Chandra, can help complete the story,” said Jon Morse, head of the Astrophysics Division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Jon Morse is a pioneer, leader and hero of the human journey to the beginning of space and time
Jon Morse is a pioneer, leader and hero of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Image: Space.com.

Study continues

Astronomers will now continue to study SN 1979C, to see if they can determine its identity. No matter it’s true identity or nature, we can expect this celestial object to be one of the most studied examples of a young supernova remnant during recent times. 

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Read about the Monster of the Milky Way as it comes to life.

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The Monster of the Milky Way Comes to Life

Erupting X-ray flares every day, a ten-fold increase in bright flares from previous observations of Sagittarius A

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Astronomers believe the ten-fold increase in X-ray flares during the past year could be connected to the passage of a mysterious object designated G2 near the supermassive black hole (Image credit NASA and ESO

Space news (October 01, 2015) – 26,000 light-years from Earth, near the center of the Milky Way

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is part of a new breed of star hunting telescopes.
NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is part of a new breed of star hunting telescopes.

Astrophysicists combining the telescopic talents of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift spacecraft, with the European Space Agency’s X-ray Space Observatory XMM-Newton, recently detected an increase in X-ray flares erupting from the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A) at the center of the Milky Way.

NASA's Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer scans the universe looking for gamma ray bursts.
NASA’s Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer scans the universe looking for gamma ray bursts.

By analyzing data collected during extensive periods of monitoring by all three spacecraft, space scientists determined the Monster of the Milky Way – the supermassive black hole at the center with more than 4 million times the mass of Sol– has been more active during the past 15 years than first thought. 

An artists impression of the ESO's Newton XMM-Newton telescope.
An artists impression of the ESO’s Newton XMM-Newton telescope.

Erupting a bright X-ray flare every ten days, the Monster of the Milky Way has been eating hot gas falling into its gravity pool. Even more interesting, Sagittarius A during the past year has been erupting ten times as much, producing a bright X-ray flare every day. A discovery that has astrophysicists going over the data looking for a reason for the sudden increase. 

“For several years, we’ve been tracking the X-ray emission from Sgr A*. This includes also the close passage of this dusty object” said Gabriele Ponti of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. “A year or so ago, we thought it had absolutely no effect on Sgr A*, but our new data raise the possibility that that might not be the case.”

The mystery started late in 2013, as G2 passed close to the supermassive black hole. At this time, there wasn’t any apparent change in G2 as it approached Sagittarius A, other than being slightly stretched by the gravity pool of the black hole.

Originally astronomers thought G2 was a stretched cloud of gas and dust, but this finding has led scientists to the possibility it could be a dense body embedded in a dusty cocoon. Currently, there’s no consensus among astronomers on the identity of this mysterious object. But the recent ten-fold increase in X-ray flares as G2 passed near the supermassive black hole suggests there could be a connection of some kind. 

“There isn’t universal agreement on what G2 is,” said Mark Morris of the University of California at Los Angeles. “However, the fact that Sgr A* became more active not long after G2 passed by suggests that the matter coming off of G2 might have caused an increase in the black hole’s feeding rate.”

At this point, astronomers don’t know if the increase in X-ray flares from the supermassive black hole is common or unusual in nature. These emissions could be part of the normal life cycle of supermassive black holes and totally unrelated to the passage of G2. The ten-fold increase in X-ray flares could also be due to changing solar winds from nearby massive stars feeding gas and dust into the black hole.

What’s next?

Scientists will keep observing Sagittarius A over the next little while to see what pops up next in this mystery. Hopefully, they can shed some light on the reason the Monster of the Milky Way, suddenly started emitting X-ray flares once a day.  

“It’s too soon to say for sure, but we will be keeping X-ray eyes on Sgr A* in the coming months,” said co-author Barbara De Marco, also of Max Planck. “Hopefully, new observations will tell us whether G2 is responsible for the changed behavior or if the new flaring is just part of how the black hole behaves.”

Read about plans of private firm Planetary Resources, Inc. to mine a near-Earth asteroid in the next decade or less.

Learn more about a magnetar astronomers believe is orbiting extremely close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A.

Discover the Butterfly Nebula or Twin Jet Nebula.

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Watch this Nova video on the Monster of the Milky Way.

The Twin Jet Nebula Flies on the Wings of a Cosmic Butterfly

Twin iridescent jets of gas stream outward from a binary planetary nebula at over 1 million kilometers (621,400 miles) an hour.

 Seemingly flapping cosmic wings of gas, the Butterfly Nebula has only been flying across the constellation Ophiuchus for around 1,200 years. A binary star system with suns in the final days of their life cycles, astronomers are currently studying this unusual celestial object in hopes of understanding the processes creating such stunning beauty.

Seemingly flapping cosmic wings of gas, the Butterfly Nebula has only been flying across the constellation Ophiuchus for around 1,200 years. A binary star system with suns in the final days of their life cycles, astronomers are currently studying this unusual celestial object in hopes of understanding the processes creating such stunning beauty.

Space news (September 24, 2015) –

First recorded flying across the constellation Ophiuchus – about 2,100 light-years from Earth – by Rudolph Minkowski in 1947, the Twin Jet Nebula (PN M2-9), or Wings of a Butterfly Nebula, is a remarkably complex and stunningly beautiful 1,200-year-old bipolar planetary nebula.

Rudolph Leo Bernhard Minkowski 28 May 1895 1961 Bruce Medalist 4 January 1976
Rudolph Leo Bernhard Minkowski
28 May 1895 1961 Bruce Medalist 4 January 1976 Image credit: phys-astro.sonoma.edu

A bipolar nebula composed of an average star between 1 to 1.4 solar masses nearing the end of its life cycle and a smaller white dwarf between 0.6 to 1.0 solar masses that orbit a common center of mass. The Twin Jet Nebula gets its name from the shape of its two lobes, which look like butterfly wings to many viewers. 

Astrophysicists think the shape of the wings (lobes) is mainly due to the unusual motion of the larger star and white dwarf around their common center of mass. Orbiting each other in around 100 years, the smaller white dwarf is thought to have stripped gas away from its larger companion star, which then formed an expanding ring of material around the stars far too small to be seen by Hubble.

754349main_butterfly_nebula_full_full

This disk of material was then stretched into the shape of two lobes resembling two butterfly wings, rather than a uniform sphere, due to the unusual motion of the two stars around their center of mass. The faint patches of blue within the wings, starting near the binary star system and extending outward horizontally, are twin jets of gas streaming outward at over 1 million kilometers an hour. These jets slowly change their orientation, precessing across the lobes (wings) as the two stars orbit each other.

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Astronomers have noted a west to east, left to right, the precession of the Butterfly Nebula. Credit: NASA/Hubble

Astrophysicists are now taking a closer look at the Twin Jet Nebula, and other bipolar nebulae, to try to determine if such systems always contain two stars orbiting a common center of mass. Currently, astronomers are discussing this possibility, and other scenarios possibly leading to the birth and growth of similar celestial objects and other phenomena.

Hubble Sees Supersonic Exhaust From Nebula

Two astronomers working with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the ESO’s New Technology Telescope also recently conducted a study of 130 planetary nebulae. Dr. Brian Rees and Dr. Albert Zijlstra of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom found the long axis of many bipolar planetary nebulae studied all line up along the plane of the Milky Way. This alignment could have something to do with the magnetic field of the bulge at the center of our galaxy they think. You can read the abstract here.

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NASA Releases New View of Iconic Pillars of Creation in 3D

Revealing protostars and giant clouds of gas and dust where new stars were born

This visualisation of the three-dimensional structure of the Pillars of Creation within the star formation region Messier 16 (also called the Eagle Nebula) is based on new observations of the object using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The pillars actually consist of several distinct pieces on either side of the star cluster NGC 6611. In this illustration, the relative distance between the pillars along the line of sight is not to scale. Image Credit: European Southern Observatory
This visualization of the three-dimensional structure of the Pillars of Creation within the star formation region Messier 16 (also called the Eagle Nebula) is based on new observations of the object using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The pillars actually consist of several distinct pieces on either side of the star cluster NGC 6611. In this illustration, the relative distance between the pillars along the line of sight is not to scale.
Image Credit: European Southern Observatory

Space news (August 18, 2015) – 7,000 light-years away toward constellation Serpens (The Serpent); the iconic Pillars of Creation

Astronomers working with the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) have released the first 3D image of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula (M16 or Messier 16).

 The iconic first image of the Pillars of Creation, to the left in the image below, was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, but the latest image shown on the right below is both bigger and shows new details. An immense jet from a young star, intense radiation and stellar winds from brilliant O and B type suns sculpture the dusty Pillars of Creation over time. Three million years in the future the pillars will be totally evaporated by these forces.
Undersea coral? Enchanted castles? Space serpents? These eerie, dark pillar-like structures are actually columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust that are also incubators for new stars. The pillars protrude from the interior wall of a dark molecular cloud like stalagmites from the floor of a cavern.

The Pillars of Creation are a stellar feature that is more common than people first assume. Similar structures and shapes have been and are quite frequently seen during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. The columns of the Pillars of Creation were formed when intense radiation and stellar winds from huge, newly formed blue-white O and B suns blew away less dense material in the region of space surrounding them.

A study has shown the very top of the left pillar in the image is pointing toward us and sitting on top of another pillar behind nearby stellar cluster NGC 6611. This top portion of the left pillar is bearing the majority of withering radiation from nearby stars and this is why it looks brighter to our eyes compared to the other pillars.

I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are. They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution,” explained Paul Scowen of Arizona State University in Tempe. He and astronomer Jeff Hester, formerly of Arizona State University, led the original Hubble observations of the Eagle Nebula.

Scowen said. “The gas is not being passively heated up and gently wafting away into space. The gaseous pillars are actually getting ionized, a process by which electrons are stripped off of atoms, and heated up by radiation from the massive stars. And then they are being eroded by the stars’ strong winds and a barrage of charged particles, which are literally sandblasting away the tops of these pillars.   

The denser material left behind acted as a shield against the harsh, withering glare of nearby brilliant young stars, and formed the shape of the region. The dark “tails” or “elephant trunks” viewed as the dark body of the pillars point away from the intense radiation and stellar winds of nearby brilliant stars.

Now, astronomers plan on studying how newborn O and B stars in NGC 6611 influence the growth of further generations of stars. Previous studies have detected protostars forming within the clouds of NGC 6611. The latest study also provided evidence for protostars forming in the middle and left clouds of the Pillars of Creation and there are also probably other protostars and young stars hidden from view within the region.

Astronomers want to study star-forming regions like the Pillars of Creation in order to better understand the conditions in which stars like our own Sun formed. Current evidence points to the early solar system being bombarded with radioactive shrapnel from a nearby supernova. This indicates we formed in a star-forming region with young stars massive enough to produce powerful ionizing radiation like we see in the Eagle Nebula.

“That’s the only way the nebula from which the sun was born could have been exposed to a supernova that quickly, in the short period of time that represents, because supernovae only come from massive stars, and those stars only live a few tens of millions of years,” Scowen explained. “What that means is when you look at the environment of the Eagle Nebula or other star-forming regions, you’re looking at exactly the kind of nascent environment that our sun formed in.”

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Read about the surprises planetary scientists discovered during the recent flyby of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

Learn more about how exploding stars seed the universe with the building blocks of life.

Read about how NASA scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to map temperatures and water vapor on “a hot Jupiter-class exoplanet“.