Long before the term “citizen science” was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours exploring the cosmos through a variety of telescopes that they acquire, maintain, and improve on their own. Some of these amateur astronomers specialize in capturing what is seen through their telescopes in images and are astrophotographers.
What happens when the work of amateur astronomers and astrophotographers is combined with the data from some of the world’s most sophisticated space telescopes? Collaborations between professional and amateur astronomers reveal the possibilities and are intended to raise interest and awareness among the community of the wealth of data publicly available in NASA’s various mission archives. This effort is particularly appropriate for this month because April marks Global Astronomy Month, the world’s largest global celebration of astronomy.
The images in this quartet of galaxies represent a sample of composites created with X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and optical data collected by an amateur astronomer.
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have applied a new image processing technique to obtain near-infrared scattered light photos of five disks observed around young stars in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes database. These disks are telltale evidence for newly formed planets.
If astronomers initially miss something in their review of data, they can make new discoveries by revisiting earlier data with new image processing techniques, thanks to the wealth of information stored in the Hubble data archive. This is what Rémi Soummer, of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., and his team recently did while on a hunt for hidden Hubble treasures.
The stars in question initially were targeted with Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) based on unusual heat signatures obtained from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Infrared Astronomical Satellite that flew in 1983. The previous data provided interesting clues that dusty disks could exist around these stars. Small dust particles in the disks might scatter light and therefore make the disks visible. But when Hubble first viewed the stars between 1999 and 2006, no disks were detected in the NICMOS pictures.
What looked at first like a sort of upside-down planet has instead revealed a new method for studying binary star systems, discovered by a University of Washington student astronomer.
Working with UW astronomer Eric Agol, doctoral student Ethan Kruse has confirmed the first “self-lensing” binary star system — one in which the mass of the closer star can be measured by how powerfully it magnifies light from its more distant companion star. Though our sun stands alone, about 40 percent of similar stars are in binary (two-star) or multi-star systems, orbiting their companions in a gravitational dance.
Kruse’s discovery confirms an astronomer’s prediction in 1973, based on stellar evolution models of the time, that such a system should be possible. A paper by Kruse and Agol was published in the April 18 edition of Science.
A pair of supermassive black holes in orbit around one another have been discovered by an international research team including Stefanie Komossa from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. This is the first time such a pair could be found in an ordinary galaxy. They were discovered because they ripped apart a star when ESA’s space observatory XMM-Newton happened to be looking in their direction.
The findings are published in the May 10 issue of the “Astrophysical Journal”, and appeared online today at the astrophysics preprint server.
Most massive galaxies in the Universe are thought to harbour at least one supermassive black hole at their centre. Two supermassive black holes are the smoking gun that the galaxy has merged with another. Thus, finding binary supermassive black holes can tell astronomers about how galaxies evolved into their present-day shapes and sizes.
To date, only a few candidates for close binary supermassive black holes have been found. All are in active galaxies where they are constantly ripping gas clouds apart, in the prelude to crushing them out of existence.
Unlike our sun, with its retinue of orbiting planets, many stars in the sky orbit around a second star. These binary stars, with orbital periods ranging from days to centuries, have long been the primary tool for measuring basic quantities like the star’s mass. While masses of normal stars are now well determined, some binaries present special interest because their stars are unusual (e.g. very young) or because they may contain planets, gas clouds, or other stars.
Now, astronomers at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) and at the US Naval Observatory (USNO) are making use of the latest technology, speckle imaging, to measure the separation of close binary stars. By observing them over a period of years, their obits have been determined with exquisite precision.
Using the new speckle camera at the 4.1-m Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR) in Chile with its novel electron-multiplication CCD detector, the team is able to measure the angular separation of stars down to 25 milli arcseconds: this is equivalent to measuring the size of a quarter atop the Empire State building in New York – from Washington, DC. This is over 2000 times better than the human eye can resolve. As Dr. Andrei Tokovinin, the lead author on the paper, said: “This camera surpasses adaptive-optics instruments at the 8-m telescopes, which work in the infrared and can only resolve binaries wider than 50 milli arcseconds.“
Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published April 17 in the journal Nature, shows that the atmospheres of Mars and Earth diverged in important ways very early in the 4.6 billion year evolution of our solar system.
Heather Franz, a former University of Maryland research associate who now works on the Curiosity rover science team at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, led the study with James Farquhar, co-author and UMD geology professor. The researchers measured the sulfur composition of 40 Mars meteorites—a much larger number than in previous analyses. Of more than 60,000 meteorites found on Earth, only 69 are believed to be pieces of rocks blasted off the Martian surface.
The meteorites are igneous rocks that formed on Mars, were ejected into space when an asteroid or comet slammed into the red planet, and landed on Earth. The oldest meteorite in the study is about 4.1 billion years old, formed when our solar system was in its infancy. The youngest are between 200 million and 500 million years old.
A team of University of Sydney astronomers has developed a new way to automatically classify huge numbers of astronomical objects, and to discover new, exotic ones almost as soon as they happen.
Massive torrents of raw data are now collected by telescopes on a daily basis creating an urgent need to massively accelerate the reliable classification of millions of stars and galaxies, and to quickly highlight objects that might be new discoveries or that have unusual properties.
“Next generation telescopes like the Square Kilometre Array will produce enough raw data to fill up 15 million iPods every day,” said Kitty Lo, lead author of the research published in The Astrophysical Journal.
“It will be too much for humans to sift through, and this is where computer classification comes in,” said Ms Lo.