How do Astronomers Precisely Determine Distances to Objects on the Other Side of the Milky Way Galaxy?

By studying light echoes, rings of x-rays observed around binary star system Circinus X-1

A light echo in X-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has provided a rare opportunity to precisely measure the distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy. The rings exceed the field-of-view of Chandra’s detectors, resulting in a partial image of X-ray data. Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz
The image above shows a light echo in x-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory which astronomers used to precisely measure the distance to a stellar object across the spiral disk of the Milky Way galaxy. The sizes of the light echoes detected in this image exceed the ability of the detectors, which has resulted in a partial construction of X-ray data. Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz

Space news (astrophysics: measuring distances of objects; light echoes) – 30,700 light-years from Earth in the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy, observing X-rays emitted by a neutron star in double star system Circinus X-1 reflecting off massive, surrounding clouds of gas and dust –

The youngest member of an important class of objects has been found using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Australia Compact Telescope Array. A composite image shows the X-rays in blue and radio emission in purple, which have been overlaid on an optical field of view from the Digitized Sky Survey. This discovery, described in the press release, allows scientists to study a critical phase after a supernova and the birth of a neutron star.
The youngest member of an important class of objects has been found using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Australia Compact Telescope Array. A composite image shows the X-rays in blue and radio emission in purple, which have been overlaid on an optical field of view from the Digitized Sky Survey. This discovery allows scientists to study a critical phase after a supernova and the birth of a neutron star. Credits: NASA/Chandra

Determining the apparent distance of objects tens of thousands of light-years from Earth across the breadth of the Milky Way was a difficult problem to solve during the early days of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. During the years since these early days, astronomers have developed a few techniques and methods to help calculate distances to stellar objects on the other side of the galaxy. 

The most recently measured distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way used the newest method developed. By detecting the rings from X-ray light echoes around the star Circinus X-1, a double star system containing a neutron star. Astronomers were able to determine the apparent distance to this system is around 30,700 light-years from Earth.

“It’s really hard to get accurate distance measurements in astronomy and we only have a handful of methods,” said Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who led the study. “But just as bats use sonar to triangulate their location, we can use the X-rays from Circinus X-1 to figure out exactly where it is.”

 Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison
Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison Credits: University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The rings are faint echoes from an outburst of x-rays emitted by Circinus X-1 near the end of 2013. The x-rays reflected off of separate clouds of gas and dust surrounding the star system, with some being sent toward Earth. The reflected x-rays arrived from different angles over a three month period, which created the observed X-ray rings. Using radio data scientists were able to determine the distance to each cloud of gas and dust, while detected X-ray echoes and simple geometry allowed for an accurate measurement of the distance to Circinus X-1 from Earth.

“We like to call this system the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but this one has nothing to do with Sauron,” said co-author Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “The beautiful match between the Chandra X-ray rings and the Mopra radio images of the different clouds is really a first in astronomy.”

Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales Credits: University of New South Wales
Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales Credits: University of New South Wales

In addition to this new distance measurement to Circinus X-1, astrophysicists determined this binary system’s naturally brighter in X-rays and other light than previously thought. This points to a star system that has repeatedly passed the threshold of brightness where the outward pressure of emitted radiation is balanced by the inward force of gravity. Astronomers have witnessed this equilibrium more often in binary systems containing a black hole, not a neutron star as in this case. The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a

The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a relativistic jet produced by a system containing a black hole. Scientists are currently studying this to see if they can determine why this system has such an unusual blend of characteristics.  

“Circinus X-1 acts in some ways like a neutron star and in some like a black hole,” said co-author Catherine Braiding, also of the University of New South Wales. “It’s extremely unusual to find an object that has such a blend of these properties.”

Astronomers think Circinus X-1 started emitting X-rays observers on Earth could have detected starting about 2,500 years ago. If this is true, this X-ray binary system’s the youngest detected, so far, during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

This new X-ray data is being used to create a detailed three-dimensional map of the dust clouds between Circinus X-1 and Earth. 

What’s next?

Astrophysicists are preparing to measure distances to other stellar objects on the other side of the Milky Way using the latest distance measurement method. This new astronomy tool’s going to come in handy during the next leg of the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Become a NASA Disk Detective and help classify embryonic planetary systems.

Read about the final goodbye of the Rosetta spacecraft, just before it crashes into the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Learn more about China’s contributions to the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Assess NASA’s contribution to the human journey to the beginning of space and time here.

Discover the Milky Way.

You can view the published results of this study in The Astrophysical Journal and online here.

Learn about astronomy at the University of Wisconsin.

Discover astronomy at the University of New South Wales.

Learn more about Circinus X-1.

Learn what NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has shown us about the cosmos here.

The Plasma Jets of Active Supermassive Black Holes

Transform surrounding regions and actively evolve host galaxies 

This artist's rendition illustrates a rare galaxy that is extremely dusty, and produces radio jets. Scientists suspect that these galaxies are created when two smaller galaxies merge. A few billion years after the Big Bang, astronomers suspect that small galaxies across the Universe regularly collided forcing the gas, dust, stars, and black holes within them to unite. The clashing of galactic gases was so powerful it ignited star formation, while fusing central black holes developed an insatiable appetite for gas and dust. With stellar nurseries and black holes hungry for galactic gas, a struggle ensued. Scientists say this struggle for resources is relatively short-lived, lasting only 10 to 100 million years. Eventually, much of the gas will be pushed out of the galaxy by the powerful winds of newborn stars, stars going supernovae (dying in a cataclysmic explosion), or radio jets shooting out of central supermassive black holes. The removal of gas will stunt the growth of black holes by "starving'' them, and quench star formation. They believe that these early merging structures eventually grew into some of the most massive galaxies in the Universe.
This artist’s rendition illustrates a rare galaxy that is extremely dusty and produces radio jets. Scientists suspect that these galaxies are created when two smaller galaxies merge.
A few billion years after the Big Bang, astronomers suspect that small galaxies across the Universe regularly collided forcing the gas, dust, stars, and black holes within them to unite. The clashing of galactic gasses was so powerful it ignited star formation while fusing central black holes developed an insatiable appetite for gas and dust. With stellar nurseries and black holes hungry for galactic gas, a struggle ensued.
Scientists say this struggle for resources is relatively short-lived, lasting only 10 to 100 million years. Eventually, much of the gas will be pushed out of the galaxy by the powerful winds of newborn stars, stars going supernovae (dying in a cataclysmic explosion), or radio jets shooting out of central supermassive black holes. The removal of gas will stunt the growth of black holes by “starving” them and quench star formation.
They believe that these early emerging structures eventually grew into some of the most massive galaxies in the Universe. Credits: NASA/JPL

Space news (astrophysics: spinning black holes; bigger, brighter plasma jets) – in the core of galaxies across the cosmos, observing the spin of supermassive black holes – 

In this radio image, two jets shoot out of the center of active galaxy Cygnus A. GLAST may solve the mystery of how these jets are produced and what they are made of. Credit: NRAO
In this radio image, two jets shoot out of the center of active galaxy Cygnus A. GLAST may solve the mystery of how these jets are produced and what they are made of. Credit: NRAO

Have you ever had the feeling the world isn’t the way you see it? That reality’s different than the view your senses offer you? The universe beyond the Earth is vast beyond comprehension and weird in ways human imagination struggles to fathom. Beyond the reach of your senses, the fabric of spacetime warps near massive objects, and even light bends to the will of gravity. In the twilight zone where your senses fear to tread, the cosmos twists and turns in weird directions and appears to leave the universe and reality far behind. Enigmas wrapped in cosmic riddles abound and mysteries to astound and bewilder the human soul are found. 

The galaxy NGC 4151 is located about 45 million light-years away toward the constellation Canes Venatici. Activity powered by its central black hole makes NGC 4151 one of the brightest active galaxies in X-rays. Credit: David W. Hogg, Michael R. Blanton, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Collaboration. Credits: NASA/JPL
The galaxy NGC 4151 is located about 45 million light-years away toward the constellation Canes Venatici. Activity powered by its central black hole makes NGC 4151 one of the brightest active galaxies in X-rays. Credit: David W. Hogg, Michael R. Blanton, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Collaboration. Credits: NASA/JPL

Imagine an object containing the mass of millions even billions of stars like the Sun. Squeeze that matter into a region of infinitely small volume, a region so dense the gravitational force it exerts warps spacetime and prevents even light from escaping its grasp. This object’s what astronomers call a supermassive black hole, a titanic monster your eyes can’t see with a gravitational pull that would stretch your body to infinity as you approached and crossed its outer boundary, the event horizon. Beyond this point, spacetime and reality take a turn toward the extreme, and the rules of science don’t apply. You have entered the realm of one of the most mysterious and enigmatic objects discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.  

In the newly discovered type of AGN, the disk and torus surrounding the black hole are so deeply obscured by gas and dust that no visible light escapes, making them very difficult to detect. This illustration shows the scene from a more distant perspective than does the other image. Click on image for high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.
In the newly discovered type of AGN, the disk and torus surrounding the black hole are so deeply obscured by gas and dust that no visible light escapes, making them very difficult to detect. This illustration shows the scene from a more distant perspective than does the other image. Click on image for high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.

Astronomers hunting for supermassive black holes have pinpointed their realms to be the center of massive galaxies and even the center of galaxy clusters. From this central location in each galaxy, the gravitational well of each supermassive black hole appears to act as an anchor point for the billions of stars within, and astronomers believe a force for change and evolution of every galaxy and galaxy cluster in which they exist. Surrounded and fed by massive clouds of gas and matter called accretion disks, with powerful particle jets streaming from opposite sides like the death ray in Star Wars, fierce, hot winds sometimes moving at millions of miles per hour blow from these supermassive monsters in all directions. 

These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe's current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe's age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays.
These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe’s current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe’s age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays. Credits: NASA/Chandra

“A lot of what happens in an entire galaxy depends on what’s going on in the minuscule central region where the black hole lies,” said theoretical astrophysicist David Garofalo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Garofalo is the lead author of a new paper that appeared online May 27 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Other authors are Daniel A. Evans of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., and Rita M. Sambruna of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. 

These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe's current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe's age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays.
These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe’s current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe’s age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays. Credits: NASA/Chandra

Astronomers studying powerful particle jets streaming from supermassive black holes use to think these monsters spin either in the same direction as their accretion disks, called prograde black holes, or against the flow, retrograde black holes. For the past few decades, Garofalo and team have worked with a theory that the faster the spin of a black hole, the more powerful the particle jets streaming from it. Unfortunately, anomalies in the form of some prograde black holes with no jets have been discovered. This has scientists turning their ideas upside down and sideways, to see if flipping their “spin paradigm” model on its head explains recent anomalies in the theory. 

This composite image shows a vast cloud of hot gas (X-ray/red), surrounding high-energy bubbles (radio/blue) on either side of the bright white area around the supermassive black hole. By studying the inner regions of the galaxy with Chandra, scientists estimated the rate at which gas is falling toward the galaxy's supermassive black hole. These data also allowed an estimate of the power required to produce the bubbles, which are each about 10,000 light years in diameter. Surprisingly, the analysis indicates that most of the energy released by the infalling gas goes into producing jets of high-energy particles that create the huge bubbles, rather than into an outpouring of light as observed in many active galactic nuclei.
This composite image shows a vast cloud of hot gas (X-ray/red), surrounding high-energy bubbles (radio/blue) on either side of the bright white area around the supermassive black hole. By studying the inner regions of the galaxy with Chandra, scientists estimated the rate at which gas is falling toward the galaxy’s supermassive black hole. These data also allowed an estimate of the power required to produce the bubbles, which are each about 10,000 light years in diameter. Surprisingly, the analysis indicates that most of the energy released by the infalling gas goes into producing jets of high-energy particles that create the huge bubbles, rather than into an outpouring of light as observed in many active galactic nuclei. X-ray: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/S.Allen et al; Radio: NRAO/VLA/G.Taylor; Infrared: NASA/ESA/McMaster Univ./W.Harris

Using data collected during a more recent study that links their previous theory with observations of galaxies at varying distances from Earth across the observable universe. Astronomers found more distant radio-loud galaxies with jets are powered by retrograde black holes, while closer radio-quiet black holes have prograde black holes. The study showed supermassive black holes found at the core of galaxies evolve over time from a retrograde to prograde state.  

This illustration shows the different features of an active galactic nucleus (AGN), and how our viewing angle determines what type of AGN we observe. The extreme luminosity of an AGN is powered by a supermassive black hole at the center. Some AGN have jets, while others do not. Click on image for unlabeled, high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.
This illustration shows the different features of an active galactic nucleus (AGN), and how our viewing angle determines what type of AGN we observe. The extreme luminosity of an AGN is powered by a supermassive black hole at the center. Some AGN have jets, while others do not. Click on image for unlabeled, high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.

“This new model also solves a paradox in the old spin paradigm,” said David Meier, a theoretical astrophysicist at JPL not involved in the study. “Everything now fits nicely into place.” 

A mere 11 million light-years away, Centaurus A is a giant elliptical galaxy - the closest active galaxy to Earth. This remarkable composite view of the galaxy combines image data from the x-ray ( Chandra), optical(ESO), and radio(VLA) regimes. Centaurus A's central region is a jumble of gas, dust, and stars in optical light, but both radio and x-ray telescopes trace a remarkable jet of high-energy particles streaming from the galaxy's core. The cosmic particle accelerator's power source is a black hole with about 10 million times the mass of the Sun coincident with the x-ray bright spot at the galaxy's center. Blasting out from the active galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the energetic jet extends about 13,000 light-years. A shorter jet extends from the nucleus in the opposite direction. Other x-ray bright spots in the field are binary star systems with neutron stars or stellar mass black holes. Active galaxy Centaurus A is likely the result of a merger with a spiral galaxy some 100 million years ago.
A mere 11 million light-years away, Centaurus A is a giant elliptical galaxy – the closest active galaxy to Earth. This remarkable composite view of the galaxy combines image data from the x-ray ( Chandra), optical(ESO), and radio(VLA) regimes. Centaurus A’s central region is a jumble of gas, dust, and stars in optical light, but both radio and x-ray telescopes trace a remarkable jet of high-energy particles streaming from the galaxy’s core. The cosmic particle accelerator’s power source is a black hole with about 10 million times the mass of the Sun coincident with the x-ray bright spot at the galaxy’s center. Blasting out from the active galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the energetic jet extends about 13,000 light-years. A shorter jet extends from the nucleus in the opposite direction. Other x-ray bright spots in the field are binary star systems with neutron stars or stellar mass black holes. Active galaxy Centaurus A is likely the result of a merger with a spiral galaxy some 100 million years ago. Credits: X-ray – NASA, CXC, R.Kraft (CfA), et al.; Radio – NSF, VLA, M.Hardcastle (U Hertfordshire) et al.; Optical – ESO, M.Rejkuba (ESO-Garching) et al.

Astrophysicists studying backward spinning black holes believe more powerful particle jets stream from these supermassive black holes because additional space exists between the monster and the inner edge of the accretion disk. This additional space between the monster and accretion disk provides more room for magnetic fields to build-up, which fuels the particle jet and increases its power. This idea is known as Reynold’s Conjecture, after the theoretical astrophysicist Chris Reynolds of the University of Maryland, College Park. 

The optical counterparts of many active galactic nuclei (circled) detected by the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey clearly show galaxies in the process of merging. These images, taken with the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, show galaxy shapes that are either physically intertwined or distorted by the gravity of nearby neighbors. These AGN were known prior to the Swift survey, but Swift has found dozens of new ones in more distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss and Richard Mushotzky (Univ. of Maryland)
The optical counterparts of many active galactic nuclei (circled) detected by the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey clearly show galaxies in the process of merging. These images, taken with the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, show galaxy shapes that are either physically intertwined or distorted by the gravity of nearby neighbors. These AGN were known prior to the Swift survey, but Swift has found dozens of new ones in more distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss and Richard Mushotzky (Univ. of Maryland)

“If you picture yourself trying to get closer to a fan, you can imagine that moving in the same rotational direction as the fan would make things easier,” said Garofalo. “The same principle applies to these black holes. The material orbiting around them in a disk will get closer to the ones that are spinning in the same direction versus the ones spinning the opposite way.”  

Swift's Hard X-ray Survey offers the first unbiased census of active galactic nuclei in decades. Dense clouds of dust and gas, illustrated here, can obscure less energetic radiation from an active galaxy's central black hole. High-energy X-rays, however, easily pass through. Credit: ESA/NASA/AVO/Paolo Padovani
Swift’s Hard X-ray Survey offers the first unbiased census of active galactic nuclei in decades. Dense clouds of dust and gas, illustrated here, can obscure less energetic radiation from an active galaxy’s central black hole. High-energy X-rays, however, easily pass through. Credit: ESA/NASA/AVO/Paolo Padovani

Scientists believe the powerful particle jets and winds emanating from supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies also play a key role in shaping their evolution and eventual fate. Often even slowing the formation rate of new stars in a host galaxy and nearby island universes as well.  

“Jets transport huge amounts of energy to the outskirts of galaxies, displace large volumes of the intergalactic gas, and act as feedback agents between the galaxy’s very center and the large-scale environment,” said Sambruna. “Understanding their origin is of paramount interest in modern astrophysics.” 

What lies just beyond the reach of our senses and technology, beneath the exterior of these supermassive black holes? Scientists presently study these enigmatic stellar objects looking for keys to the doors of understanding beyond the veil of gas and dust surrounding these titanic beasts. Keys they hope one day to use to unlock even greater secrets of reality just beyond hidden doors of understanding.  

Watch this video on active galactic nuclei.

Read and learn more about the supermassive black holes astronomers detect in a region called the COSMOS field.

Read about the recent detection by astronomers of read-end collisions between knots in the particle jets of supermassive black holes.

Learn what astronomers have discovered about feedback mechanisms in the feeding processes of active supermassive black holes.

You can join the voyage of NASA across the cosmos here

Learn more about supermassive black holes

Discover more about what scientists have discovered about the powerful particle jets emanating from supermassive black holes here

Discover NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Learn about astronomy at Caltech

Read and learn more about galaxies here

Discover more about spinning black holes.  

NASA’s NuSTAR Pinpoints Elusive High-energy X-rays of Supermassive Black Holes in COSMOS Field

Heralding the growth of monster black holes pulling in surrounding material while belching out the cosmic x-ray background 

The blue dots in this field of galaxies, known as the COSMOS field, show galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. The black holes were detected by NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, or NuSTAR, which spotted 32 such black holes in this field and has observed hundreds across the whole sky so far. The other colored dots are galaxies that host black holes emitting lower-energy X-rays, and were spotted by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra data show X-rays with energies between 0.5 to 7 kiloelectron volts, while NuSTAR data show X-rays between 8 to 24 kiloelectron volts. Credits: NASA/Caltech/NuSTAR
The blue dots in this field of galaxies, known as the COSMOS field, show galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. The black holes were detected by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, or NuSTAR, which spotted 32 such black holes in this field and has observed hundreds across the whole sky so far.
The other colored dots are galaxies that host black holes emitting lower-energy X-rays,  and were spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra data show X-rays with energies between 0.5 to 7 kiloelectron volts, while NuSTAR data show X-rays between 8 to 24 kiloelectron volts. Credits: NASA/Caltech/NuSTAR

Space news (astrophysics: x-ray bursts; detecting high-energy x-rays emitted by supermassive black holes) – searching the COSMOS field for elusive, high-energy x-rays with a high-pitched voice – 

The picture is a combination of infrared data from Spitzer (red) and visible-light data (blue and green) from Japan's Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These data were taken as part of the SPLASH (Spitzer large area survey with Hyper-Suprime-Cam) project. Credits: NASA/JPL/Spitzer/Subaru
The picture is a combination of infrared data from Spitzer (red) and visible-light data (blue and green) from Japan’s Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These data were taken as part of the SPLASH (Spitzer large area survey with Hyper-Suprime-Cam) project. Credits: NASA/JPL/Spitzer/Subaru

Astronomers searching for elusive, high-energy x-rays emitted by supermassive black holes recently made a discovery using NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). A chorus of high-energy x-rays emitted by millions of supermassive black holes hidden within the cores of galaxies spread across a field of galaxies called the COSMOS field. Singing the elusive, high-pitched song of a phenomenon scientists call the cosmic x-ray background they emitted when they pulled surrounding matter closer. A significant step in resolving the high-energy x-ray background and understanding more about the feeding habits of supermassive black holes as they grow and evolve. 

NuSTAR scans the sky looking at nine galaxies for supermassive black holes. Credits: NASA/NuSTAR/JPL/Caltech
NuSTAR scans the sky looking at nine galaxies for supermassive black holes. Credits: NASA/NuSTAR/JPL/Caltech

“We’ve gone from resolving just two percent of the high-energy X-ray background to 35 percent,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR at Caltech in Pasadena and lead author of a new study describing the findings in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.  “We can see the most obscured black holes, hidden in thick gas and dust.” 

Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR, has been awarded the top prize in high-energy astrophysics. Image credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marcomm
Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR, has been awarded the top prize in high-energy astrophysics. Image credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marcomm

The Monster of the Milky Way, the supermassive black hole believed to reside at the core of our galaxy, bulked up by siphoning off surrounding gas and dust in the past and will continue to grow. The data obtained here by NASA’s NuSTAR will help scientists learn more concerning the growth and evolution of black holes and our host galaxy. It will also give astrophysicists more insight into the processes involved the next time the Monster of the Milky Way wakes up and decides to have a little snack. 

This image, not unlike a pointillist painting, shows the star-studded centre of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The crowded centre of our galaxy contains numerous complex and mysterious objects that are usually hidden at optical wavelengths by clouds of dust — but many are visible here in these infrared observations from Hubble. However, the most famous cosmic object in this image still remains invisible: the monster at our galaxy’s heart called Sagittarius A*. Astronomers have observed stars spinning around this supermassive black hole (located right in the centre of the image), and the black hole consuming clouds of dust as it affects its environment with its enormous gravitational pull. Infrared observations can pierce through thick obscuring material to reveal information that is usually hidden to the optical observer. This is the best infrared image of this region ever taken with Hubble, and uses infrared archive data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, taken in September 2011. It was posted to Flickr by Gabriel Brammer, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory based in Chile. He is also an ESO photo ambassador.
This image, not unlike a pointillist painting, shows the star-studded centre of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The crowded centre of our galaxy contains numerous complex and mysterious objects that are usually hidden at optical wavelengths by clouds of dust — but many are visible here in these infrared observations from Hubble. However, the most famous cosmic object in this image still remains invisible: the monster at our galaxy’s heart called Sagittarius A*. Astronomers have observed stars spinning around this supermassive black hole (located right in the centre of the image), and the black hole consuming clouds of dust as it affects its environment with its enormous gravitational pull. Infrared observations can pierce through thick obscuring material to reveal information that is usually hidden to the optical observer. This is the best infrared image of this region ever taken with Hubble, and uses infrared archive data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, taken in September 2011. It was posted to Flickr by Gabriel Brammer, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory based in Chile. He is also an ESO photo ambassador.

“Before NuSTAR, the X-ray background in high energies was just one blur with no resolved sources,” said Harrison. “To untangle what’s going on, you have to pinpoint and count up the individual sources of the X-rays.” 

NASA’s NuSTAR’s the first telescope capable of focusing high-energy x-rays into a sharp image, but it only gives us part of the picture. Additional research’s required to clear up the picture a little more and give us a better view of the real singers in the choir. NuSTAR should allow astronomers to decipher individual voices of x-ray singers in one of the cosmos’ rowdiest choirs. 

“We knew this cosmic choir had a strong high-pitched component, but we still don’t know if it comes from a lot of smaller, quiet singers, or a few with loud voices,” said co-author Daniel Stern, the project scientist for NuSTAR at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Now, thanks to NuSTAR, we’re gaining a better understanding of the black holes and starting to address these questions.” 

Daniel Stern NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA
Daniel Stern
NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA

What’s next?

Astronomers plan on collecting more data on the high-energy x-ray choir of the COSMOS field, which should help clear up a few mysteries surrounding the birth, growth, and evolution of black holes. Hopefully, it gives also gives us more clues to many of the mysteries we discover during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

Read more about active supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies.

Learn more about the Unified Theory of Active Supermassive Black Holes.

Learn about magnetic lines of force emanating from supermassive black holes.

You can learn more about the COSMOS field here

Journey across spacetime aboard the telescopes of NASA

Discover NASA’s NuSTAR here

Learn more about the work of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Read and learn more about the Monster of the Milky Way here

 

 

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 – 

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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.  

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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.  

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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.”   

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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.  

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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.  

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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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Magnetar Extremely Close to Supermassive Black Hole at Center of Milky Way

Exhibiting a higher surface temperature and slower decrease in the rate of x-rays emitted than previous neutron stars detected during the human journey to the beginning of space and time

The x-ray image here taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory shows a view of the region surrounding the supermassive black hole thought to exist at the center of the Milky Way. The red, green and blue seen in the main image are low, medium and high-energy x-rays respectively. The inset image to the left was taken between 2005 and 2008, when the magnetar wasn't detected. The image to the right was taken in 2013, when the neutron star appeared as the bright x-ray source viewed.
The x-ray image here taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory shows a view of the region surrounding the supermassive black hole thought to exist at the center of the Milky Way. The red, green and blue seen in the main image are low, medium and high-energy x-rays respectively. The inset image to the left was taken between 2005 and 2008, when the magnetar wasn’t detected. The image to the right was taken in 2013, when the neutron star appeared as the bright x-ray source viewed.

Space news (August 15, 2015) –

Space scientists working with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory in 2013 discovered a magnetar dangerously close to the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A) thought to exist at the center of the Milky Way. At a distance of around 0.3 light-years or 2 trillion miles from the 4-million-solar mass black hole, the neutron star (called SGR 1745-2900) detected is likely orbiting slowly into the gravitational pool of the supermassive black hole. One day, far in the future, the two will merge during an event likely spectacular and unfathomable to both the scientist and layperson.

For the last two years, NASA and European space agency scientists have been monitoring SGR 1745-2900, and have discovered its acting unlike any magnetar discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

The rate of X-rays emitted by the magnetar is decreasing slower than other neutron stars viewed and its surface temperature is higher. Facts that are making astrophysicists rethink their theories on neutron stars and develop new ideas to explain how this happens.

Could the close proximity of the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A be the cause?

Considering the extreme distance between the supermassive black hole and magnetar, astrophysicists don’t think this could be the reason for the slower decrease in X-ray emissions and higher surface temperature of SGR 1745-2900. At the distance of 2 trillion miles, they believe the magnetar is too far away for the gravity and magnetic fields of the two to interact enough for this to occur.

The current model developed by astrophysicists to explain the unexpected slower rate of X-ray emissions and higher surface temperature of SGR 1745-2900 involves “starquakes”. Seismic waves astrophysicists think are more energetic than a 23rd magnitude earthquake on Earth, scientists found the starquake model doesn’t explain the slow decrease in X-ray brightness and the higher surface temperature detected.

To explain the new data obtained through study using the Chandra X-ray Observatory NASA astrophysicists have suggested a new model. The bombardment of the surface of SGR 1745-2900 by charged particles trapped within magnetic fields above its surface could add enough heat to account for the higher surface temperature and account for the slower decrease in X-ray emissions.

Study continues

NASA scientists will now continue their study of magnetar SGR 1745-2900 as it orbits Sagittarius A looking for clues to verify their new model. Study and understanding of this and other magnetars will provide clues to the events that occurred during the earliest moments of the universe. Events that can tell us more about the universe we reside in and the true nature of spacetime.

You can learn more about supermassive black holes here.

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Hubble Survey Links Galaxy Mergers with Presence of Active Galactic Nuclei

That are thought to be the result of huge volumes of heated matter circling around and being consumed by a supermassive black hole

Astrophysicists have wondered since discovering relativistic jets what could power such an awesome display of power. Space scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope just completed the largest survey ever conducted on this question. What they found might surprize you?
Astrophysicists have wondered since discovering relativistic jets what could power such an awesome display of power. Space scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope just completed the largest survey ever conducted on this question. What they found might surprise you?

Space news (August 12, 2015) – Astrophysics; studying galaxies with extremely luminous centers looking for clues to high-speed, radio-signal-emitting jets extending thousands of light-years into space

NASA space scientists working with the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on the Hubble Space Telescope think they have found a possible link between galaxy mergers and the presence of active galactic nuclei (AGN).

With a
With a “panchromatic” grasp of light extending from the ultraviolet through the visible and into the infrared, is an extremely powerful imaging instrument, extending Hubble’s capabilities by seeing deeper into the universe. WFC3 is viewed as an important bridge to the infrared observations that will be carried out with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) following its launch in 2013.

“The galaxies that host these relativistic jets give out large amounts of radiation at radio wavelengths,” explains Marco.“By using Hubble’s WFC3 camera we found that almost all of the galaxies with large amounts of radio emission, implying the presence of jets, were associated with mergers. However, it was not only the galaxies containing jets that showed evidence of mergers!”

Active galactic nuclei refer to the luminous center of a small percentage of galaxies viewed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Luminous centers space scientists often detect emitting two high-speed jets of plasma in opposite directions at right angles to the disk of matter surrounding the supermassive black hole believed to exist near the center of these galaxies. Powerful, radio-signal-emitting jets astrophysicists call relativistic jets they think could be powered by huge volumes of heated matter circling around and eventually being consumed by the supermassive black hole. Heated matter astrophysicists think could have been provided by the chaos of a recent merger with another galaxy.

How did they conduct the study?

NASA astrophysicists studied a large selection of galaxies with extremely luminous centers looking for signs of a recent merger with another galaxy. Data from several different additional studies was used to enhance the data set. Space scientists in this study looked at five different types of galaxies; two types with relativistic jets, two with luminous cores but no jets, and a set of regular inactive galaxies. 

What did they find?

Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)
Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope’s ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)

They found a large percentage of the galaxies viewed showed evidence of mergers with other galaxies, including all those with extremely luminous centers. They also found that a very small percentage of galaxies viewed formed AGNs with powerful radio emissions and even less relativistic jets extending thousands of light-years into space.

“We found that most merger events in themselves do not actually result in the creation of AGNs with powerful radio emission,” added co-author Roberto Gilli from Osservatorio Astronomico di Bologna, Italy. “About 40% of the other galaxies we looked at had also experienced a merger and yet had failed to produce the spectacular radio emissions and jets of their counterparts.”

What’s next?

Astrophysicists looking at the data provided through this survey of galaxies with AGNs believe it could be necessary for galaxies to merge to produce a host supermassive black hole with relativistic jets. They also think additional parameters need to exist for the merger to result in this spectacular and awe-inspiring sight. Possibly the result of two black holes of similar mass merging could power these high-speed jets viewed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time as excess energy is extracted from the black hole’s rotational energy is added to the mix.

“There are two ways in which mergers are likely to affect the central black hole. The first would be an increase in the amount of gas being driven towards the galaxy’s centre, adding mass to both the black hole and the disc of matter around it,” explains Colin Norman, co-author of the paper. “But this process should affect black holes in all merging galaxies, and yet not all merging galaxies with black holes end up with jets, so it is not enough to explain how these jets come about. The other possibility is that a merger between two massive galaxies causes two black holes of a similar mass to also merge. It could be that a particular breed of merger between two black holes produces a single spinning supermassive black hole, accounting for the production of jets.”

What’s next?

Astrophysicists and space scientists will now use both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) to expand the search for additional galaxies with extremely luminous centers. This will enhance the survey and provide more data on additional parameters to help shed light on galaxies with AGNs. For now, we can only say it appears galaxies viewed exhibiting relativistic jets have merged with other galaxies.

Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) to
Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA)

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NExSS Coalition Searches for Habitable Planets and Life Beyond Earth

Groundbreaking collaboration between sciences explores planetary zoo for candidates with the ingredients for life

The search for life beyond our solar system requires unprecedented cooperation across scientific disciplines. NASA's NExSS collaboration includes those who study Earth as a life-bearing planet (lower right), those researching the diversity of solar system planets (left), and those on the new frontier, discovering worlds orbiting other stars in the galaxy (upper right). Credits: NASA
The search for life beyond our solar system requires unprecedented cooperation across scientific disciplines. NASA’s NExSS collaboration includes those who study Earth as a life-bearing planet (lower right), those researching the diversity of solar system planets (left), and those on the new frontier, discovering worlds orbiting other stars in the galaxy (upper right).
Credits: NASA

Space news (June 06, 2015) – The human search for life beyond Earth reaches for new horizons this week with the announcement NASA’s bringing together space scientists spanning a variety of scientific fields to form Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS).

Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) brings together top research teams in Earth and planetary science and Helio and Astrophysics in an effort to determine the habitability of exoplanets discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

“This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” says Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. “The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”

Since the beginning of NASA’s Kepler Space Mission six years ago planet hunters have discovered 1852 exoplanets. Currently, there are another 4661 candidates detected by the Kepler Space Telescope, being examined closely for evidence to prove the existence of life beyond Earth. NExSS space scientists will develop techniques to confirm the habitability of these exoplanets by searching for ‘signs of life’.

Earth and planetary scientists, Heliophysicists and Astrophysicists use a “System Science” approach to better understand the ‘signs of life’ they need to look for on exoplanets discovered. They want to understand how life-on-Earth interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans and interior of the planet, and how this is affected by our sun. In an effort to develop better techniques to detect life on distant planets.

Dr. Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA notes, “NExSS scientists will not only apply a systems science approach to existing exoplanet data, their work will provide a foundation for interpreting observations of exoplanets from future exoplanet missions such as TESS, JWST, and WFIRST.” The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is working toward a 2017 launch, with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled for launch in 2018. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is currently being studied by NASA for a launch in the 2020’s.

The search for life goes on

NExSS is led by Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Dawn Gelino of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, and Anthony del Genio of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. They’ll lead team members from ten universities and two research institutes as they search for exoplanets with signs of life.

Humans have searched for signs of life in the night sky for thousands of years and some claim to have met and interacted with extraterrestrial beings during this time.

Now, humans desire to meet and communicate with beings from another world, and NExSS is the next step towards finding the answer to the eternal question.

Are we alone in the universe?

To learn more about NExSS and the search for life visit here.

You can learn more about NASA’s space mission to the stars here.

Learn more about planets in four star systems

Read about NASA reaching out to private and business concerns to help enable the human desire to travel to Mars and beyond.

Learn how to calculate the orbits of asteroids within the Main Asteroid Belt.