Archive for May 9, 2013

Herschel Finds Hot Gas On The Menu For Milky Way’s Black Hole

ESA’s Herschel space observatory has made detailed observations of surprisingly hot molecular gas that may be orbiting or falling towards the supermassive black hole lurking at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.

Our local black hole is located in a region known as Sagittarius A* – Sgr A* – after a nearby radio source. It has a mass about four million times that of our Sun and lies around 26 000 light-years away from the Solar System.

Herschel has detected a great variety of simple molecules at the Milky Way’s heart, including carbon monoxide, water vapour and hydrogen cyanide. By analysing the signature from these molecules, astronomers have been able to probe some of the fundamental properties of the interstellar gas surrounding the black hole.

“Herschel has resolved the far-infrared emission within just 1 light-year of the black hole, making it possible for the first time at these wavelengths to separate emission due to the central cavity from that of the surrounding dense molecular disc,” says Javier Goicoechea of the Centro de Astrobiología, Spain, and lead author of the paper reporting the results.

The biggest surprise was quite how hot the molecular gas in the innermost central region of the Galaxy gets. At least some of it is around 1000ºC, much hotter than typical interstellar clouds, which are usually only a few tens of degrees above the –273ºC of absolute zero.

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Astronomers Discover Surprising Clutch Of Hydrogen Clouds Lurking Among Our Galactic Neighbors

In a dark, starless patch of intergalactic space, astronomers have discovered a never-before-seen cluster of hydrogen clouds strewn between two nearby galaxies, Andromeda (M31) and Triangulum (M33). The researchers speculate that these rarefied blobs of gas — each about as massive as a dwarf galaxy — condensed out of a vast and as-yet undetected reservoir of hot, ionized gas, which could have accompanied an otherwise invisible band of dark matter.

The astronomers detected these objects using the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, W.Va. The results were published in the journal Nature.

“We have known for some time that many seemingly empty stretches of the Universe contain vast but diffuse patches of hot, ionized hydrogen,” said Spencer Wolfe of West Virginia University in Morgantown. “Earlier observations of the area between M31 and M33 suggested the presence of colder, neutral hydrogen, but we couldn’t see any details to determine if it had a definitive structure or represented a new type of cosmic feature. Now, with high-resolution images from the GBT, we were able to detect discrete concentrations of neutral hydrogen emerging out of what was thought to be a mainly featureless field of gas.”

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Hubble Finds Dead Stars “Polluted” With Planetary Debris

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has found signs of Earth-like planets in an unlikely place: the atmospheres of a pair of burnt-out stars in a nearby star cluster. The white dwarf stars are being polluted by debris from asteroid-like objects falling onto them. This discovery suggests that rocky planet assembly is common in clusters, say researchers.

The stars, known as white dwarfs — small, dim remnants of stars once like the Sun — reside 150 light-years away in the Hyades star cluster, in the constellation of Taurus (The Bull). The cluster is relatively young, at only 625 million years old.

Astronomers believe that all stars formed in clusters. However, searches for planets in these clusters have not been fruitful — of the roughly 800 exoplanets known, only four are known to orbit stars in clusters. This scarcity may be due to the nature of the cluster stars, which are young and active, producing stellar flares and other outbursts that make it difficult to study them in detail.

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