Archive for May, 2014

A Habitable Environment On Martian Volcano?

The slopes of a giant Martian volcano, once covered in glacial ice, may have been home to one of the most recent habitable environments yet found on the Red Planet, according to new research led by Brown University geologists.

Nearly twice as tall as Mount Everest, Arsia Mons is the third tallest volcano on Mars and one of the largest mountains in the solar system. This new analysis of the landforms surrounding Arsia Mons shows that eruptions along the volcano’s northwest flank happened at the same time that a glacier covered the region around 210 million years ago. The heat from those eruptions would have melted massive amounts of ice to form englacial lakes — bodies of water that form within glaciers like liquid bubbles in a half-frozen ice cube.

The ice-covered lakes of Arsia Mons would have held hundreds of cubic kilometers of meltwater, according to calculations by Kat Scanlon, a graduate student at Brown who led the work. And where there’s water, there’s the possibility of a habitable environment.

“This is interesting because it’s a way to get a lot of liquid water very recently on Mars,” Scanlon said.

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Astronomers Identify Signature Of Earth-Eating Stars

Some Sun-like stars are ‘Earth-eaters.’ During their development they ingest large amounts of the rocky material from which ‘terrestrial’ planets like Earth, Mars and Venus are made.

Trey Mack, a graduate student in astronomy at Vanderbilt University, has developed a model that estimates the effect that such a diet has on a star’s chemical composition and has used it to analyze a pair of twin stars that both have their own planets.

The results of the study were published online May 7 in the Astrophysical Journal.

“Trey has shown that we can actually model the chemical signature of a star in detail, element by element, and determine how that signature is changed by the ingestion of Earth-like planets,” said Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy Keivan Stassun, who supervised the study. “After obtaining a high-resolution spectrum for a given star, we can actually detect that signature in detail, element by element.”

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Hidden Nurseries In The Milky Way

APEX, the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, is a telescope of 12 m diameter at an exceptional site on Earth: the Chajnantor plateau is located 5100 m above sea level in the Atacama desert in Chile. It was used to map the whole inner part of the plane of our Milky Way, ranging from the Southern constellations of Vela and Carina all the way to the Northern constellations of Aquila and the great Cygnus rift. The APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy (ATLASGAL) mapped the Galactic Plane at a wavelength of 0.87 mm. Cold interstellar dust emits strongly in this part of the electromagnetic spectrum, called the sub-millimeter range, while it is blocking visible and infrared wavelengths. The survey has revealed an unprecedented number of cold dense clumps of gas and dust as the cradles of massive stars, thus providing a complete view of their birthplaces in the Milky Way. Based on this census, an international team of scientists led by Timea Csengeri from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn has estimated the time scale for these nurseries to grow stars. This has been found to be a very fast process: with only 75,000 years on average it is much shorter than the corresponding time scales typically found for nurseries of lower mass stars.

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Radiation From Early Universe Found Key To Answer Major Questions In Physics

Astrophysicists at UC San Diego have measured the minute gravitational distortions in polarized radiation from the early universe and discovered that these ancient microwaves can provide an important cosmological test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. These measurements have the potential to narrow down the estimates for the mass of ghostly subatomic particles known as neutrinos.

The radiation could even provide physicists with clues to another outstanding problem about our universe: how the invisible “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which has been undetectable through modern telescopes, may be distributed throughout the universe.

The scientists are publishing details of their achievement in the June issue of the journal Physical Review Letters, the most prestigious journal in physics, which highlighted their paper as an “editor’s suggestion” because of its importance and significance to the discipline.

The UC San Diego scientists measured variations in the polarization of microwaves emanating from the Cosmic Microwave Background—or CMB—of the early universe. Like polarized light (which vibrates in one direction and is produced by the scattering of visible light off the surface of the ocean, for example), the polarized “B-mode” microwaves the scientists discovered were produced when CMB radiation from the early universe scattered off electrons 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the cosmos cooled enough to allow protons and electrons to combine into atoms.

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A Turbulent Birth for Stars In Merging Galaxies

Using state of the art computer simulations, a team of French astrophysicists have for the first time explained a long standing mystery: why surges of star formation (so called ‘starbursts’) take place when galaxies collide. The scientists, led by Florent Renaud of the AIM institute near Paris in France, publish their results in a letter to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Stars form when the gas inside galaxies becomes dense enough to collapse, usually under the effect of gravitation. When galaxies merge however, this increases the random motions of their gas generating whirls of turbulence which should hinder the collapse of the gas. Intuitively this turbulence should then slow down or even shut down the formation of stars, but in reality astronomers observe the opposite.

The new simulations were made using two of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe. The team modelled a galaxy like our own Milky Way and the two colliding Antennae galaxies.

For the Milky Way type galaxy, the astrophysicists used 12 million hours of time on the supercomputer Curie, running over a period of 12 months to simulate conditions across 300,000 light years. For the Antennae type system, the scientists used the supercomputer SuperMUC to cover 600,000 light years. This time they needed 8 million hours of computational time over a period of 8 months. With these enormous computing resources the team were able to model the systems in great detail, investigating details that were only a fraction of a light year across.

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Magnetar Formation Mystery Solved?

 Artist’s impression of the magnetar in the star cluster Westerlund 1. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Artist’s impression of the magnetar in the star cluster Westerlund 1. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Magnetars are the bizarre super-dense remnants of supernova explosions. They are the strongest magnets known in the Universe — millions of times more powerful than the strongest magnets on Earth.

When a massive star collapses under its own gravity during a supernova explosion it forms either a neutron star or black hole. Magnetars are an unusual and very exotic form of neutron star. Like all of these strange objects they are tiny and extraordinarily dense — a teaspoon of neutron star material would have a mass of about a billion tonnes — but they also have extremely powerful magnetic fields. Magnetar surfaces release vast quantities of gamma rays when they undergo a sudden adjustment known as a starquake as a result of the huge stresses in their crusts.

The Westerlund 1 star cluster, located 16 000 light-years away in the southern constellation of Ara (the Altar), hosts one of the two dozen magnetars known in the Milky Way.

“In our earlier work (eso1034) we showed that the magnetar in the cluster Westerlund 1 (eso0510) must have been born in the explosive death of a star about 40 times as massive as the Sun. But this presents its own problem, since stars this massive are expected to collapse to form black holes after their deaths, not neutron stars. We did not understand how it could have become a magnetar,” says Simon Clark, lead author of the paper reporting these results.

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Hubble Astronomers Use Supernovae To Gauge Power Of Cosmic Lenses

Distant exploding stars observed by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope are providing astronomers with a powerful tool to determine the strength of naturally-occurring “cosmic lenses” that are used to magnify objects in the remote universe.

Two teams of astronomers, working independently, observed three such exploding stars, called supernovae. Their light was amplified by the immense gravity of massive galaxy clusters in the foreground — a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. Astronomers use the gravitational lensing effect to search for distant objects that might otherwise be too faint to see, even with today’s largest telescopes.

“We have found supernovae that can be used like an eye chart for each lensing cluster,” explained Saurabh Jha of Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., a member of the Cluster Lensing and Supernova survey with Hubble (CLASH) team. “Because we can estimate the intrinsic brightness of the supernovae, we can measure the magnification of the lens.”

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