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Against All Odds: Astronomers Baffled By Discovery Of Rare Quasar Quartet


Image: Arrigoni-Battaia & Hennawi / MPIA

Image: Arrigoni-Battaia & Hennawi / MPIA

Using the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii, a group of astronomers led by Joseph Hennawi of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have discovered the first quadruple quasar: four rare active black holes situated in close proximity to one another. The quartet resides in one of the most massive structures ever discovered in the distant universe, and is surrounded by a giant nebula of cool dense gas. Either the discovery is a one-in-ten-million coincidence, or cosmologists need to rethink their models of quasar evolution and the formation of the most massive cosmic structures. The results are being published in the May 15, 2015 edition of the journal Science.

Hitting the jackpot is one thing, but if you hit the jackpot four times in a row you might wonder if the odds were somehow stacked in your favor. A group of astronomers led by Joseph Hennawi of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have found themselves in exactly this situation. They discovered the first known quasar quartet: four quasars, each one a rare object in its own right, in close physical proximity to each other.

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Left-Handed Cosmic Magnetic Field Could Explain Missing Antimatter


An artist’s concept of the Fermi Gamma ray Space Telescope (FGST) in orbit. Credit: NASA

An artist’s concept of the Fermi Gamma ray Space Telescope (FGST) in orbit. Credit: NASA

The discovery of a ‘left-handed’ magnetic field that pervades the universe could help explain a long standing mystery – the absence of cosmic antimatter. A group of scientists, led by Prof Tanmay Vachaspati from Arizona State University in the United States, with collaborators at the University of Washington and Nagoya University, announce their result in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Planets, stars, gas and dust are almost entirely made up of ‘normal’ matter of the kind we are familiar with on Earth. But theory predicts that there should be a similar amount of antimatter, like normal matter, but with the opposite charge. For example, an antielectron or positron has the same mass as its conventional counterpart, but a positive rather than negative charge.

In 2001 Prof Vachaspati published theoretical models to try to solve this puzzle, which predict that the entire universe is filled with helical (screw-like) magnetic fields. He and his team were inspired to search for evidence of these fields in data from the NASA Fermi Gamma ray Space Telescope (FGST).

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Cause Of Galactic Death: Strangulation


Artist’s impression. Credit: re-active

Artist’s impression. Credit: re-active

As murder mysteries go, it’s a big one: how do galaxies die and what kills them? A new study, published today in the journal Nature, has found that the primary cause of galactic death is strangulation, which occurs after galaxies are cut off from the raw materials needed to make new stars.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh have found that levels of metals contained in dead galaxies provide key ‘fingerprints’, making it possible to determine the cause of death.

There are two types of galaxies in the Universe: roughly half are ‘alive’ galaxies which produce stars, and the other half are ‘dead’ ones which don’t. Alive galaxies such as our own Milky Way are rich in the cold gas – mostly hydrogen – needed to produce new stars, while dead galaxies have very low supplies. What had been unknown is what’s responsible for killing the dead ones.

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Water Was Plentiful In The Early Universe


water_225x225_smAstronomers have long held that water — two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom — was a relative latecomer to the universe. They believed that any element heavier than helium had to have been formed in the cores of stars and not by the Big Bang itself. Since the earliest stars would have taken some time to form, mature, and die, it was presumed that it took billions of years for oxygen atoms to disperse throughout the universe and attach to hydrogen to produce the first interstellar “water.”

New research poised for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters by Tel Aviv University and Harvard University researchers reveals that the universe’s first reservoirs of water may have formed much earlier than previously thought — less than a billion years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age. According to the study, led by PhD student Shmuel Bialy and his advisor Prof. Amiel Sternberg of the Department of Astrophysics at TAU’s School of Physics and Astronomy, in collaboration with Prof. Avi Loeb of Harvard’s Astronomy Department, the timing of the formation of water in the universe bears important implications for the question of when life itself originated.

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Subaru Telescope Observers Superflare Stars With Large Starspots


Artificial image of a superflare star. Credit: Kyoto University

Artificial image of a superflare star. Credit: Kyoto University

A team of astronomers has used the High Dispersion Spectrograph on the Subaru Telescope to conduct spectroscopic observations of Sun-like “superflare” stars first observed and cataloged by the Kepler Space Telescope. The investigations focused on the detailed properties of these stars and confirmed that Sun-like stars with large starspots can experience superflares.

The team, made up of astronomers from Kyoto University, University of Hyogo, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), and Nagoya University, targeted a set of solar-type stars emitting very large flares that release total energies 10-10000 times greater than the biggest solar flares. Solar flares are energetic explosions in the solar atmosphere and are thought to occur by intense releases of magnetic energy around the sunspots. Large flares often cause massive bursts of high-speed plasma called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), can lead to geomagnetic storms on Earth. Such storms can have severe impacts on our daily life by affecting such systems as communications and power grids.

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Delta Cephei’s Hidden Companion


Bow shock around star Delta Cephei. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M

Bow shock around star Delta Cephei. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M

To measure distances in the universe, astronomers use cepheids, a family of variable stars whose luminosity varies with time. Their role as distance calibrators has brought them attention from researchers for more than a century. While it was thought that nearly everything was known about the prototype of cepheids, named Delta Cephei, a team of researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), the Johns Hopkins University, and the European Space Agency (ESA), have now discovered that this star has a hidden companion. They have published an article about the discovery in The Astrophysical Journal.

Delta Cephei, prototype of the cepheids, which has given its name to all similar variable stars, was discovered 230 years ago by the English astronomer John Goodricke. Since the early 20th century, scientists have been interested in measuring cosmic distances using a relationship between these stars’ periods of pulsation and their luminosities (intrinsic brightness), discovered by the American Henrietta Leavitt. Today, researchers from the Astronomical Observatory of UNIGE, Johns Hopkins University and the ESA show that Delta Cephei is, in fact, a double star, made up of a cepheid-type variable star and a companion that had thus far escaped detection, probably because of its low luminosity. Yet, pairs of stars, called binaries, complicate the calibration of the period-luminosity relationship, and can bias the measurement of distances. This is a surprising discovery, since Delta Cephei is one of the most studied stars, of which scientists thought they knew almost everything.

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Weather On Alien Worlds Uncovered: Cloudy Mornings & Hot Afternoons

May 12, 2015 1 comment

TORONTO, May 12, 2015 — We may complain a lot about the weather on earth but perhaps we are much better off here than on some alien worlds, where the daily forecast is cloudy, overcast skies in the morning and scorching heat in the afternoon.

A team of international astronomers including York University scientist Professor Ray Jayawardhana have uncovered evidence of daily weather cycles on six extra-solar planets using sensitive observations from the Kepler space telescope.

“Despite the discovery of thousands of extra-solar planets, what these far-off worlds look like is still shrouded in mystery,” says lead author Lisa Esteves, graduate student at the University of Toronto.

In their paper entitled “Changing Phases of Alien Worlds: Probing Atmospheres of Kepler Planets with High-Precision Photometry” published today in the Astrophysical Journal, the team analyzed all 14 Kepler planets known to exhibit phase variations, and found indications of cloudy mornings on four and hot, clear afternoons on two others.

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Powerful New Radio Telescope Array Searches The Entire Sky 24/7

May 11, 2015 1 comment

Credit: Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

Credit: Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

A new radio telescope array developed by a consortium led by Caltech and now operating at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory has the ability to image simultaneously the entire sky at radio wavelengths with unmatched speed, helping astronomers to search for objects and phenomena that pulse, flicker, flare, or explode.

The new tool, the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array (OV-LWA), is already producing unprecedented videos of the radio sky. Astronomers hope that it will help them piece together a more complete picture of the early universe and learn about extrasolar space weather—the interaction between nearby stars and their orbiting planets.

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Hubble Finds Massive Halo Around The Andromeda Galaxy


University of Notre Dame astrophysicist Nicolas Lehner has led a team of scientists who have used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to identify an immense halo of gas surrounding the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest major galaxy to Earth. The halo stretches about a million light-years from Andromeda, halfway to the Milky Way. The discovery will tell astronomers more about the evolution and structure of giant spiral galaxies such as the Milky Way and Andromeda.

“Halos are the gaseous atmospheres of galaxies,” said Lehner, the lead investigator. “The properties of these gaseous halos control the rate at which stars form in galaxies.” The gargantuan halo is estimated to contain at least as much mass in its diffuse gas as half of the stars in the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy, also known as Messier 31 or M31, is the most massive galaxy in the Local Group of galaxies that also includes the Milky Way and about 45 other known galaxies. M31 contains one trillion stars, about double the number of stars in the Milky Way. It is estimated to be about 25 percent more luminous than the Milky Way and lies 2.5 million light-years away.

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ALMA Discovers Proto Super Star Cluster — A Cosmic ‘Dinosaur Egg’ About To Hatch


Credit: K. Johnson, U.Va.; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

Credit: K. Johnson, U.Va.; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

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.”

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