A composite image of a molecular cloud used as a model to determine how stars are formed.
Hot off the astronomical press: the star census is complete. An international team of astronomers has conducted the first, comprehensive survey of stellar formation in the universe. The undertaking was ten times bigger than any star formation study before it, and confirmed that the rate of star formation has slowed significantly over time. But the researchers upped the stakes with this one by finding that the universe is now almost out of star-making materials.
For the first time, astrophysicists have created a computer simulation of the formation of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way (above). Researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Zurich modeled their galaxy, Eris, using a software platform called Gasoline, which allowed them to track the motion of 60 million particles of gas and dark matter for over 13 billion simulated years. Overall, the simulation required 9 months of number crunching on NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer, with supporting simulations on supercomputers at UCSC and the Swiss National Supercomputing Center.
Previous efforts to model spiral galaxies have failed, ending in disfigured galaxies with central bulges much too large for their disks, according to the researchers. But Eris’ bulge-to-disk ratio, stellar content, and other features fall in line with observations of the Milky Way. The researchers point to a realistic model of star formation as a key to Eris’ success—their high-resolution simulation allowed stars to form only in regions with a high density of particles, resulting in a more accurate distribution of stars. More than just a nice movie, the work supports the cold dark matter theory, which says that the gravitational interactions of dark matter drove the evolution of the universe. A paper detailing the Eris simulation will be published in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.
What’s the News: While the Kepler spacecraft is busy finding solar system-loads of new planets, other astronomers are expanding our idea where planets could potentially be found. One astronomer wants to look for habitable planets around white dwarfs, arguing that any water-bearing exoplanets orbiting these tiny, dim stars would be much easier to find than those around main-sequence stars like our Sun. Another team dispenses with stars altogether and speculates that dark matter explosions inside a planet could hypothetically make it warm enough to be habitable, even without a star. “This is a fascinating, and highly original idea,” MIT exoplanet expert Sara Seager told Wired, referring to the dark matter hypothesis. “Original ideas are becoming more and more rare in exoplanet theory.”
How the Heck:
What’s the Context:
Not So Fast:
References: Eric Agol. “TRANSIT SURVEYS FOR EARTHS IN THE HABITABLE ZONES OF WHITE DWARFS.” doi: 10.1088/2041-8205/731/2/L31
Dan Hooper and Jason H. Steffen. “Dark Matter And The Habitability of Planets.” arXiv:1103.5086v1
Image: NASA/European Space Agency
Planetar. Substar. Failed star. Sub-stellar object. Astronomers have pinned each of these monikers on brown dwarfs, a category that has always perplexed scientists because it raises questions about what it means to be a star or a planet. And if that wasn’t enough, now they’ve discovered the coldest brown dwarf yet, blurring the line between planet and star even further.
It’s name is CFBDSIR J1458+1013B, and may be cooler than the boiling point of water (at the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere). This strange body is about 75 light-years from us, where it orbits its binary partner, another brown dwarf. Using the infrared capabilities of the 10-meter Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea, University of Hawaii researcher Michael Liu and his team estimated the brown dwarf’s temperature, and have a ballpark range for its mass: between 6 and 15 times the mass of Jupiter.
It’s special because it may be a class Y dwarf (temperature less than 225 degrees Celsius (440 F)), a type of object whose existence astronomers had predicted but never actually found. Before this candidate arose, the coolest known brown dwarf was in the T spectral class; while there have been a few Y-class candidates in the past, scientists have a better grasp on the temperature of this one: 97 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 40C.
Young. Old. Scalding hot. Icy cold. Terrestrial midgets. Gas giants. As the cavalcade of planets spotted beyond our solar system continues to grow, we get to see worlds of all sorts—and we get to speculate on the staggering number of exoplanets that might inhabit just our own galaxy.
Today’s first piece of otherworldly news involves baby exoplanets. Astronomer Christian Thalmann says his team may have spotted planets in the process of forming around three different stars, the first time scientists have spotted the process in action.
An infant star forms from a collapsing cloud of dust and gas and gathers a dense, flat disk of material that rotates with the star like a record album. The material in the disk will eventually clump up into nascent planets. Theoretical models of planet formation predicted that those protoplanets should suck up more gas and dust with their gravity, clearing a wide gap in the otherwise solid disk. [Wired]
Peering at young stars like T Chamaeleontis (T Cha) LkCa15 and AB Auriga, Thalmann and colleagues saw those telltale gaps in the dusty rings (their study is forthcoming in the Astrophysical Journal Letters). The stars are much like our own sun, so these pictures of infant solar systems could resemble what our own looked like as a baby. But though the stars are nearby in cosmic terms—T Cha lies just 350 light years away—the gaps are faint enough that it’s difficult to tell for certain if newly forming planets, and not the influence of binary stars or other objects, are creating them.
If Thalmann’s team is right, catching the birth of new worlds would be a great scientific coup. Our galaxy, however, isn’t exactly hurting for planets.
For months we here at DISCOVER have been waiting impatiently for the Kepler mission to open up its vault of new exoplanets, hopefully filled with a bevy of Earth-like worlds and other exotic planets. Today planet lovers got a new peek at the Kepler findings, and those findings are stunning.
First, the Kepler scientists announced more than 1,200 candidate planets, which got DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait excited:
This is incredible! Even though I was expecting a number like this, actually hearing it for real is stunning. In 15 years we’ve found about 500 planets orbiting other stars, but in the almost two years since Kepler launched it may have easily tripled that number! Now, to be careful: these are candidate planets, which means they have not been confirmed. But in most cases these look pretty good, and if these numbers hold up it indicates that our galaxy is lousy with planets. They’re everywhere.
While those 1,200 are candidates, astronomers have confirmed a peculiar and fascinating set of six. From Phil Plait:
Using NASA’s orbiting Kepler observatory, astronomers have found a complete solar system of six planets orbiting a sun-like star… and it’s really weird: five of the six planets huddle closer to their star than Mercury does to the Sun!
None of them is what I would call precisely earth-like — they’re all more massive and much hotter than Earth — but their properties are intriguing, and promise that more wonderful discoveries from Kepler are coming.
80beats: Astronomers Predict a Bonanza of Earth-Sized Exoplanets
80beats: How Excited Should We Be About the New “Goldilocks” Exoplanet?
80beats: Astronomers Find a Bevy of Exoplanets; Won’t Discuss Most Interesting Ones
DISCOVER: How Long Until We Find a Second Earth?
More than a trillion pixels from a million-plus images, combined to create the most detailed map of the universe ever created—one that would require a wall of a half-million HDTVs to properly appreciate. Not bad for something that looks a little like tan carpeting.
What you’re seeing is about one-third of the sky, imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has been assembling images from Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico for more than a dozen years to image the cosmos in unprecedented detail.
It replaces an image that is now over half a century old, created on photographic plates by the Palomar Sky Survey in the 1950s but still used by astronomers today. It contains 10 times as many objects – such as galaxies, stars and nebulae – as the Palomar survey and scientists hope it will be used for decades to come by astronomers hunting for everything from dark matter to planets orbiting other stars. [The Guardian]
New sea creatures, humongous stars, and cockroach antibiotics: Those are just a few reader favorites from this year in science. As 2010 comes to a close, we bring you a dozen of the most popular 80beats posts of the year.
For more great stories from the year in science, check out DISCOVER’s Top 100 Stories of the Year.
On her first true flight as an observatory, NASA’s plane-based infrared telescope (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, aka SOFIA) took a close look at Orion and other star clusters overnight on November 30th.
“The early science flight program serves to validate SOFIA‘s capabilities and demonstrate the observatory’s ability to make observations not possible from Earth-based telescopes,” said Bob Meyer, NASA’s SOFIA program manager. “It also marks SOFIA‘s transition from flying testbed to flying observatory, and it gives the international astronomical research community a new, highly versatile platform for studying the universe.” [press release]
SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner that now includes a 100-inch German telescope (bigger than the Hubble’s!). These early observations were made with a general-use mid-infrared camera called FORCAST designed by a group at Cornell University.
Since SOFIA cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet above sea level, it’s above 99 percent of the atmosphere’s water vapor (which normally blocks infrared light from reaching earth). The camera captures images using these infrared rays, producing detailed pictures that couldn’t be taken from earth.
A study by Yale astronomer Pieter van Dokkum just took the estimated number of stars in the universe—100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 100 sextillion—and tripled it. And you thought nothing good ever happens on Wednesdays.
Van Dokkum’s study in the journal Nature focuses on red dwarfs, a class of small, cool stars. They’re so small and cool, in fact, that up to now astronomers haven’t been able to spot them in galaxies outside our own. That’s a serious holdup when you’re trying to account for all the stars there are.
As a consequence, when estimating how much of a galaxy’s mass stars account for – important to understanding a galaxy’s life history – astronomers basically had to assume that the relative abundance of red-dwarf stars found in the Milky Way held true throughout the universe for every galaxy type and at every epoch of the universe’s evolution, Dr. van Dokkum says. “We always knew that was sort of a stretch, but it was the only thing we had. Until you see evidence to the contrary you kind of go with that assumption,” he says. [Christian Science Monitor]