Globular clusters – dazzling agglomerations of up to a million ancient stars – are among the oldest objects in the universe. Though plentiful in and around many galaxies, newborn examples are vanishingly rare and the conditions necessary to create new ones have never been detected, until now.
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered what may be the first known example of a globular cluster about to be born: an incredibly massive, extremely dense, yet star-free cloud of molecular gas.
“We may be witnessing one of the most ancient and extreme modes of star formation in the universe,” said Kelsey Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and lead author on a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. “This remarkable object looks like it was plucked straight out of the very early universe. To discover something that has all the characteristics of a globular cluster, yet has not begun making stars, is like finding a dinosaur egg that’s about to hatch.”
This multi-coloured firework display is a cluster of stars known as Messier 15, located some 35 000 light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). It is one of the oldest globular clusters known, with an age of around 12 billion years.
Very hot blue stars and cooler golden stars are seen swarming together in this image, becoming more concentrated towards the cluster’s bright centre. Messier 15 is one of the densest globular clusters known, with most of its mass concentrated at its core.
However, this sparkling bauble has hidden secrets. Astronomers studying the cluster with Hubble in 2002 found there to be something dark and mysterious lurking at its heart. It could either be a collection of dark neutron stars, or an intermediate-mass black hole. Of the two possibilities it is more likely that Messier 15 harbours a black hole at its centre, as does the massive globular cluster Mayall II.
Intermediate-mass black holes are thought to form either from the merging of several smaller, stellar-mass black holes, or as a result of a collision between massive stars in dense clusters. A third possibility is that they were formed during the Big Bang. In terms of mass they lie between the more commonly found stellar-mass and supermassive types of black hole , and could tell us about how black holes grow and evolve within clusters like Messier 15, and within galaxies.
Hubble previously observed this cluster back in 2002. However, this new image combines visible and infrared data from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to reveal this patch of sky in greater detail than ever before, with a combined total exposure time of over 34 hours.
These new, deeper, observations were taken in order to explore the globular clusters within Abell 1689 . This new study has shown that Abell 1689 hosts the largest population of globular clusters ever found. While our galaxy, the Milky Way, is only home to around 150 of these old clumps of stars, Hubble has spied some 10 000 globular clusters within Abell 1689. From this, the astronomers estimate that this galaxy cluster could possibly contain over 160 000 globulars overall – an unprecedented number.
Astronomers at the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR) and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) have demonstrated the significant difference that sharp stellar images can make in our understanding of the properties of stars. They have observed the globular cluster NGC 6496 using a new instrument dubbed SAM, for SOAR Adaptive Module, which creates an artificial laser guide star. SAM, built by CTIO/NOAO-S, is mounted on the SOAR 4.1 meter telescope.
From the surface of the earth, stars twinkle as their image wobbles around due to the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere, rather like observing a penny on the bottom of a swimming pool. By removing this wobble, using an adaptive optics system that utilizes a laser guide star, the stellar images are sharpened, and fainter stars appear. The accompanying figure shows this globular cluster, and the difference between the image of NGC 6496 with the artificial laser-produced guide star turned on and off. Turning on the artificial guide star allows the effect of the atmosphere to be determined so that the adaptive optical system can sharpens the image.
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This new infrared image from ESO’s VISTA telescope shows the globular cluster 47 Tucanae in striking detail. This cluster contains millions of stars, and there are many nestled at its core that are exotic and display unusual properties. Studying objects within clusters like 47 Tucanae may help us to understand how these oddballs form and interact. This image is very sharp and deep due to the size, sensitivity, and location of VISTA, which is sited at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.
Globular clusters are vast, spherical clouds of old stars bound together by gravity. They are found circling the cores of galaxies, as satellites orbit the Earth. These star clumps contain very little dust and gas — it is thought that most of it has been either blown from the cluster by winds and explosions from the stars within, or stripped away by interstellar gas interacting with the cluster. Any remaining material coalesced to form stars billions of years ago.
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Some people are in great shape at the age of 90, while others are decrepit before they’re 50. We know that how fast people age is only loosely linked to how old they actually are — and may have more to do with their lifestyle. A new study using both the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals that the same is true of star clusters.
Globular clusters are spherical collections of stars, tightly bound to each other by their mutual gravity. Relics of the early years of the Universe, with ages of typically 12–13 billion years (the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago), there are roughly 150 globular clusters in the Milky Way and they contain many of our galaxy’s oldest stars.
But while the stars are old and the clusters formed in the distant past, astronomers using the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have found that some of these clusters are still young at heart. The research is presented in the 20 December 2012 issue of the journal Nature.
“Although these clusters all formed billions of years ago,” says Francesco Ferraro (University of Bologna, Italy), the leader of the team that made the discovery, “we wondered whether some might be aging faster or slower than others. By studying the distribution of a type of blue star that exists in the clusters, we found that some clusters had indeed evolved much faster over their lifetimes, and we developed a way to measure the rate of aging.”
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope offers an impressive view of the centre of globular cluster NGC 6362. The image of this spherical collection of stars takes a deeper look at the core of the globular cluster, which contains a high concentration of stars with different colours.
Tightly bound by gravity, globular clusters are composed of old stars, which, at around 10 billion years old, are much older than the Sun. These clusters are fairly common, with more than 150 currently known in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and more which have been spotted in other galaxies.
Recently, however, high precision measurements performed in numerous globular clusters, primarily with the Hubble Space Telescope, has led some to question this widely accepted theory. In particular, certain stars appear younger and bluer than their companions, and they have been dubbed blue stragglers. NGC 6362 contains many of these stars.