Early galaxies may have helped shape the universe

Photo: Galaxy cluster and gravitational lensing. Credit: NASA/ESA
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy cluster MACSJ0717.5+3745. This is one of six being studied by the Hubble Frontier Fields programme, which together have produced the deepest images of gravitational lensing ever made. Due to the huge mass of the cluster it is bending the light of background objects, acting as a magnifying lens. It is one of the most massive galaxy clusters known, and it is also the largest known gravitational lens. Of all of the galaxy clusters known and measured, MACS J0717 lenses the largest area of the sky.

 

Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have taken advantage of gravitational lensing to reveal the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the Universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the Big Bang and are fainter than any other galaxy yet uncovered by Hubble. The team has determined, for the first time with some confidence, that these small galaxies were vital to creating the Universe that we see today.

An international team of astronomers, led by Hakim Atek of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, has discovered over 250 tiny galaxies that existed only 600 to 900 million years after the Big Bang — one of the largest samples of dwarf galaxies yet to be discovered at these epochs. The light from these galaxies took over 12 billion years to reach the telescope, allowing the astronomers to look back in time when the universe was still very young.

Although impressive, the number of galaxies found at this early epoch is not the team’s only remarkable breakthrough, as Johan Richard from the Observatoire de Lyon, France, points out, “The faintest galaxies detected in these Hubble observations are fainter than any other yet uncovered in the deepest Hubble observations.”

By looking at the light coming from the galaxies the team discovered that the accumulated light emitted by these galaxies could have played a major role in one of the most mysterious periods of the Universe’s early history — the epoch of reionization. Reionization started when the thick fog of hydrogen gas that cloaked the early Universe began to clear. Ultraviolet light was now able to travel over larger distances without being blocked and the Universe became transparent to ultraviolet light.

By observing the ultraviolet light from the galaxies found in this study the astronomers were able to calculate whether these were in fact some of the galaxies involved in the process. The team determined, for the first time with some confidence, that the smallest and most abundant of the galaxies in the study could be the major actors in keeping the Universe transparent. By doing so, they have established that the epoch of reionization — which ends at the point when the Universe is fully transparent — came to a close about 700 million years after the Big Bang.

Lead author Atek explained, “If we took into account only the contributions from bright and massive galaxies, we found that these were insufficient to reionize the Universe. We also needed to add in the contribution of a more abundant population of faint dwarf galaxies.”

To make these discoveries, the team utilized the deepest images of gravitational lensing made so far in three galaxy clusters, which were taken as part of the Hubble Frontier Fields program. These clusters generate immense gravitational fields capable of magnifying the light from the faint galaxies that lie far behind the clusters themselves. This makes it possible to search for, and study, the first generation of galaxies in the Universe.

Jean-Paul Kneib, co-author of the study from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, explains, “Clusters in the Frontier Fields act as powerful natural telescopes and unveil these faint dwarf galaxies that would otherwise be invisible.”

Co-author of the study Mathilde Jauzac, from Durham University, UK, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarks on the significance of the discovery and Hubble’s role in it,“Hubble remains unrivaled in its ability to observe the most distant galaxies. The sheer depth of the Hubble Frontier Field data guarantees a very precise understanding of the cluster magnification effect, allowing us to make discoveries like these.”

ESO’s Very Large Telescope finds hottest and most massive touching double star

Image: Artist's impression of two contacting stars. Credit: ESO
This artist’s impression shows VFTS 352 — the hottest and most massive double star system to date where the two components are in contact and sharing material. The two stars in this extreme system lie about 160,000 light-years from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

ESO News Release

The double star system VFTS 352 is located about 160,000 light-years away in the Tarantula Nebula. This remarkable region is the most active nursery of new stars in the nearby universe and new observations from ESO’s VLT have revealed that this pair of young stars is among the most extreme and strangest yet found.

VFTS 352 is composed of two very hot, bright and massive stars that orbit each other in little more than a day. The centers of the stars are separated by just 12 million kilometers. In fact, the stars are so close that their surfaces overlap and a bridge has formed between them. VFTS 352 is not only the most massive known in this tiny class of “overcontact binaries” — it has a combined mass of about 57 times that of the Sun — but it also contains the hottest components — with surface temperatures above 40,000 degrees Celsius.

Extreme stars like the two components of VFTS 352, play a key role in the evolution of galaxies and are thought to be the main producers of elements such as oxygen. Such double stars are also linked to exotic behavior such as that shown by “vampire stars,” where a smaller companion star sucks matter from the surface of its larger neighbor.

In the case of VFTS 352, however, both stars in the system are of almost identical size. Material is, therefore, not sucked from one to another, but instead may be shared. The component stars of VFTS 352 are estimated to be sharing about 30 percent of their material.

Such a system is very rare because this phase in the life of the stars is short, making it difficult to catch them in the act. Because the stars are so close together, astronomers think that strong tidal forces lead to enhanced mixing of the material in the stellar interiors.

“The VFTS 352 is the best case yet found for a hot and massive double star that may show this kind of internal mixing,” explains lead author Leonardo A. Almeida of the University of São Paulo, Brazil. “As such it’s a fascinating and important discovery.”

Astronomers predict that VFTS 352 will face a cataclysmic fate in one of two ways. The first potential outcome is the merging of the two stars, which would likely produce a rapidly rotating, and possibly magnetic, gigantic single star. “If it keeps spinning rapidly it might end its life in one of the most energetic explosions in the universe, known as a long-duration gamma-ray burst,” says the lead scientist of the project, Hugues Sana, of the University of Leuven in Belgium.

The second possibility is explained by the lead theoretical astrophysicist in the team, Selma de Mink of University of Amsterdam: “If the stars are mixed well enough, they both remain compact and the VFTS 352 system may avoid merging. This would lead the objects down a new evolutionary path that is completely different from classic stellar evolution predictions. In the case of VFTS 352, the components would likely end their lives in supernova explosions, forming a close binary system of black holes. Such a remarkable object would be an intense source of gravitational waves.”

Proving the existence of this second evolutionary path would be an observational breakthrough in the field of stellar astrophysics. Regardless of how VFTS 352 meets its demise, this system has already provided astronomers with valuable new insights into the poorly understood evolutionary processes of massive overcontact binary star systems.

October 2015: Monthly Membership Meeting

Photo: CWRU Prof. Corbin Covault. Photo by James Guilford.
CWRU Prof. Corbin Covault

On Monday, October 12, at 7:30 PM, the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association will meet at the Rocky River Nature Center, 24000 Valley Pkwy, North Olmsted, OH 44070. The program is free and open to the public.

The night’s speaker will be Corbin Covault, professor and associate chair of the Physics Department at Case Western Reserve University, who will discuss OSETI: Optical SETI, a means of searching for extra-terrestrial life. Where the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) most often seeks radio frequency evidence, OSETI looks for signals that might be generated by extraterrestrial civilizations employing coherent light.

The scientist’s proposal for a Northeastern Ohio OSETI facility will also be discussed. Following Dr. Covault’s talk, the CAA will convene its regular members’ business meeting.

2015-2016 Frontiers of Astronomy

From the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s website

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s “Frontiers of Astronomy” is a free lecture series that offers those with an interest in astronomy the chance to learn about the latest research in the field. Presentations begin at 8 PM in Murch Auditorium. No tickets or reservations are required. Limited parking is available in the Museum lot for $6. On clear evenings, the Ralph Mueller Observatory will be open afterward. Click Here to Download this year’s brochure.


 

25 YEARS OF THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2015
Dr. Frank Summers, Space Telescope Science Institute
In April 1990, astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope into Earth’s orbit, and launched a new era of astronomical discovery. Now, 25 years later, we celebrate a remarkable milestone for a space observatory whose groundbreaking investigations have brought revolutionary changes in our understanding from planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies to the very frontiers of the cosmos. Dr. Summers will share the trials and triumphs of NASA’s first Great Observatory, and display a compendium of some of the greatest imagery the Universe has ever known. It’s a celestial silver celebration!

THE HISTORY OF THE MILKY WAY WRITTEN IN THE STARS
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2015
Dr. Jennifer Johnson, The Ohio State University
Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, did not always look as it does now, a multi-armed spiral galaxy with at least one neighborhood hospitable to life. The Milky Way has been growing and evolving for the last 13 billion years, creating billions of stars throughout its life. These stars, through their age, chemical composition, and motions, record the history of the galaxy and provide a “fossil record” to observe and interpret. Dr. Johnson will discuss both how a large number of astronomers, engineers, and technical staff come together to relentlessly probe the night sky and how this enormous amount of data is revolutionizing our understanding of our home galaxy.

GAMMA-RAY BURSTS: THE BIGGEST EXPLOSIONS SINCE THE BIG BANG
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2015
Dr. Edo Berger, Harvard University
Representing nature’s biggest explosions since the Big Bang itself, gamma-ray bursts were first accidentally spotted in the 1960s by Department of Defense satellites hunting for terrestrial nuclear blasts. Dr. Berger will describe the ensuing decades-long quest to decipher the origin and energy source of these mysterious explosions.

GALACTIC CANNIBALISM
THURSDAY, MARCH 3, 2016
Dr. Kathryn Johnston, Columbia University
Images of galaxies are awe-inspiring—spirals of billions of stars, along with the gas and dust from which stars form, spinning slowly and serenely in the sky. Yet these majestic objects are thought to have formed quite violently through the agglomeration of smaller objects. Even our own home, the Milky Way Galaxy, seems to be in the process of devouring several smaller galaxies! Dr. Johnston examines why we think galaxies are cannibals in general, and what this means about the past and future evolution of the Milky Way in particular.

BIOGRAPHY OF THE MILKY WAY
THURSDAY, APRIL 14, 2016
Dr. James Bullock, University of California, Irvine
The Universe on the grandest scales is a vast network of galaxies. Dotted along an expanding cosmic web, galaxies shine with the collective light of thousands to billions of stars, forming dynamic ecosystems. They allow multiple generations of stars to build new atoms that had never before existed. They foster complex chemistry, even organic chemistry, in an otherwise sterile Universe. One galaxy, the Milky Way, is special to us. Without it, we would not exist. Dr. Bullock will share the story of how it happened, and how, once revealed, the Milky Way led the way to a revolution in our understanding of Universe’s origins, its makeup, and possibly its ultimate fate.

SPONSORED BY
The Department of Astronomy at Case Western Reserve University through the support of the Arthur S. Holden, Sr. Endowment; The Cleveland Museum of Natural History; and The Cleveland Astronomical Society.