Plasmaloopalicious!

The magnetic loop containing hydrogen and nitrogen plasma evolves over 4 micro-seconds. Credit: Bellan & Stenson, 2012

The magnetic loop containing hydrogen and nitrogen plasma evolves over 4 micro-seconds. Credit: Bellan & Stenson, 2012

There’s no better method to understand how something works than to build it yourself. Although computer simulations can help you avoid blowing up a city block when trying to understand the physics behind a supernova, it’s sometimes just nice to physically model space phenomena in the lab.

So, two Caltech researchers have done just that in an attempt to understand a beautifully elegant, yet frightfully violent, solar phenomenon: coronal loops. These loops of magnetism and plasma dominate the lower corona and are particularly visible during periods of intense solar activity (like, now). Although they may look nice and decorative from a distance, these loops are wonderfully dynamic and are often the sites of some of the most energetic eruptions in our Solar System. Coronal loops spawn solar flares and solar flares can really mess with our hi-tech civilization.

A coronal loop as seen by NASA's Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE). Credit: NASA

A coronal loop as seen by NASA’s Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE). Credit: NASA

In an attempt to understand the large-scale dynamics of a coronal loop, Paul Bellan, professor of applied physics at Caltech, and graduate student Eve Stenson built a dinky “coronal loop” of their own (pictured top). Inside a vacuum chamber, the duo hooked up an electromagnet (to create the magnetic “loop”) and then injected hydrogen and nitrogen gas into the two “footpoints” of the loop. Then, they zapped the whole thing with a high-voltage current and voila! a plasma loop — a coronal loop analog — was born.

Although coronal loops on the sun can last hours or even days, this lab-made plasma loop lasted a fraction of a second. But by using a high-speed camera and color filters, the researchers were able to observe the rapid expansion of the magnetic loop and watch the plasma race from one footpoint to the other. Interestingly, the two types of plasma flowed in opposite directions, passing through each other.

The simulation was over in a flash, but they were able to deduce some of the physics behind their plasma loop: “One force expands the arch radius and so lengthens the loop while the other continuously injects plasma from both ends into the loop,” Bellan explained. “This latter force injects just the right amount of plasma to keep the density in the loop constant as it lengthens.” It is hoped that experiments like these will ultimately aid the development of space weather models — after all, it would be useful if we could deduce which coronal loops are ripe to erupt while others live out a quiescent existence.

It’s practical experiments like these that excite me. During my PhD research, my research group simulated steady-state coronal loops in the hope of explaining some of the characteristics of these fascinating solar structures. Of particular interest was to understand how magnetohydrodynamic waves interact with the plasma contained within the huge loops of magnetism. But all my research was based on lines of code to simulate our best ideas on the physical mechanisms at work inside these loops. Although modelling space phenomena is a critical component of science, it’s nice to compare results with experiments that aim to create analogs of large-scale phenomena.

The next test for Bellan and Stenson is to create two plasma loops inside their vacuum chamber to see how they interact. It would be awesome to see if they can initiate reconnection between the loops to see how the plasma contained within reacts. That is, after all, the fundamental trigger of explosive events on the Sun.

Read more in my Discovery News article: “Precursors to Solar Eruptions Created in the Lab

About these ads

Life: Not So Grim On The Galactic Rim?

M80 -- an old globular cluster in the Milky Way -- is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

M80 — an old globular cluster in the Milky Way — is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

The galaxy may be brimming with habitable small worlds and many older star systems could possess the conditions ripe for advanced alien civilizations to evolve. This prediction comes in the wake of new analysis of data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and ground based observatories by a team of Danish and American astronomers.

Led by Lars Buchhave of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, the team has revealed that stars containing low quantities of heavy elements — known as “metal poor” stars — are still capable of nurturing exoplanets with Earth-like qualities.

“I wanted to investigate whether planets only form around certain types of stars and whether there is a correlation between the size of the planets and the type of host star it is orbiting,” Buchhave said.

After analyzing the elemental composition of stars hosting 226 small exoplanets — some as small as the rocky planets in the Solar System — Buchhave’s team discovered that “unlike the gas giants, the occurrence of smaller planets is not strongly dependent on stars with a high content of heavy elements. Planets that are up to four times the size of Earth can form around very different stars — also stars that are poorer in heavy elements,” he concluded.

The Kepler mission, for example, is actively carrying out a search for exoplanets that pass in front of their host stars (events known as “transits”). With Kepler’s sensitive eye, it is capable of detecting exoplanets of similar size to Earth, or even as small as Mars.

Interestingly, as it surveys Sun-like stars, Kepler can detect tiny, rocky worlds that orbit within the “habitable zones” of their stars. It’s no huge leap of the imagination to think alien life may have evolved on some of these worlds.

But a problem facing astronomers hunting for bona fide “Earth-like” exoplanets is that many older stars have low quantities of heavier elements (such as the silicon and iron) that small rocky worlds need to become… well… rocky. But Buchhave’s discovery suggests that stars once considered infertile may in fact have a shot at birthing small exoplanets.

Jill Tarter, Chair of the SETI Institute, points out that this could be a boon for the search for intelligent extraterrestrials. “The idea that very old stars could also sport habitable planets is encouraging for our searches,” she said in a SETI press release on Wednesday.

Tarter also highlights the fact that life took a long time to evolve into an advanced technological state on Earth. Therefore, should there be small habitable rocky worlds orbiting ancient stars (as this research suggests), perhaps alien life far older and more technologically advanced than ourselves are out there.

Although this seems to make logical sense, it may not make biological sense. Metal-poor stars might have the ability to create small worlds, but just because there are likely many small worlds out there, it doesn’t mean life can be nurtured. But then again, regions of the Milky Way once considered to be devoid of exoplanets may now have a stab at providing a planetary habitat for extraterrestrial biology to gain a foothold. Whether or not these metal poor stars host the right ingredients for the building blocks of life probably won’t be known for some time.

In 2009, I wrote an article (see “Life Is Grim On The Galactic Rim“) that grabbed the attention of National Geographic writer Ken Croswell who quoted my Astroengine.com article in the December 2010 edition of the magazine. In the text, I discussed some research that investigated the strange lack of protoplanetary disks around a selection of metal-poor star clusters in the outermost regions of the galaxy. The lack of a protoplanetary disk means a lack of exoplanet-birthing potential and a grim outlook for life to evolve in regions of the galaxy distant from the galactic core.

The conclusion of this 2009 work appears to contradict these most recent findings and the suggestion that advanced alien civilizations may have evolved around metal-poor stars. Whether these stars are the exception rather than the rule, or whether their low metallicity influences the size or visibility of their protoplanetary disks would be an interesting factor to consider.

Although SETI searches have yet to turn up any signal from an advanced alien technology, Kepler is proving that stars — regardless of their metallicity — have the ability to host small rocky worlds. Should life have taken hold on these worlds, then perhaps, some day, we may intercept an interstellar phone call from one of them.

This topic and a myriad of others will be discussed on June 22-24 where the world’s leaders in the field of alien and exoplanet hunting will meet at the Hyatt Santa Clara hotel in California’s Silicon Valley for SETIcon.

UPDATE: After tweeting this article, @spacearcheology retweeted my link with the following comment:

This is something I neglected to consider in the original post. If there are indeed many more small rocky worlds out there — particularly around metal-poor stars that are, by their nature, ancient — why the heck haven’t we detected any ancient extraterrestrial intelligences yet? This has just become the Fermi Paradox PLUS…

Hubble Conquers Mystic Mountain

Where is that mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).

Where is this mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).

Sometimes, words are not enough to describe views of the universe when captured through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope. This is one of those moments.

Kicking off its 20th anniversary (yes, that super-sized telescope has been in space that long — I would say that I remember it being launched, but I don’t, because I was nine, playing with my Star Wars toys), Hubble has published some astonishing images of deep inside the Carina Nebula, some 7,500 light-years from Earth. And, quite frankly, I’m floored.

BIG PIC: Have a look deep inside the Carina Nebula with some of my Discovery News coverage of the event.

The pillar of gas and dust looks like a gnarled tree branch, dotted with sparkling lights. The Hubble press release even describes the structure as a “Mystic Mountain,” and it’s not hard to see why. In this age of computer generated everything, this release of images show that the cosmos contains things that defy our tiny imaginations.

We are looking at a star-forming region, deep inside the nebula, where stars are being born inside the bulbous towers of gas and dust, but on the outside, young stars are battering the tower with intense stellar winds and powerful radiation. The pillar is being eroded away. However, this exterior pressure is seeding the birth of new stars inside the nebulous material.

The mindblowing clarity of this Hubble observation even brings out the fine detail in the jets of ionized gas as it is blasted from the point of the tallest finger of material. This is being generated by a young star, gorging itself on gas, forming a superheated accretion disk, blasting the energized gas out from the stellar nursery.

As Hubble’s 20th anniversary celebrations continue, I think we can expect a lot more where this came from. So brace yourself, this gem of a space telescope may be getting old, but it still has a shedload of cosmos to show us.

Now, lets stand back and get a better view of the incredible floating ‘Mystic Mountain’…

The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)

The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)

Then Spitzer Imaged Baby Stars in the Orion Nebula…

The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA)

The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA).

Firstly, apologies that it’s been over a month since last posting to Astroengine.com. Call it slacking off, call it a sabbatical, either way, it’s not good. I’ve actually prepared several half-finished articles, but I just never got around to completing them. However, I have been on writing overdrive over at Discovery News, so if I go quiet over here, you know where to find me.

Speaking of Discovery News, I’ve just posted an incredible image of the heart of the Orion Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope, so I can’t think of a better way to kick-start Astroengine with an image filled with awesomeness.

Although Spitzer has entered a new phase of operations since it depleted the liquid helium coolant used to maintain its instrumentation, that doesn’t mean its stopped producing some awe-inspiring imagery. In a new vista released on Thursday, a bustling star formation region in Orion is detailed, showing some 1,500 young stars the observatory watched for 40 days. This is an unprecedented study, allowing rapid variations in these baby stars to be tracked by Spitzer.

Young stars are generally highly variable in their brightness, a characteristic that is of huge interest to astrophysicists. If we can understand the mechanisms causing this variation, we can gain an insight to stellar evolution, possibly even understanding the history of our own Solar System.

As Spitzer observes in infrared wavelengths, it’s very sensitive to clouds of dust being heated by these young stars. Therefore, the proto-planetary disks surrounding these million year old stars glow brightly. Not only does this give an indication to the conditions surrounding the star, it also provides astronomers with an idea to how these disks of dust clump together, slowly evolving into exoplanets. And now Spitzer has data sets spanning weeks, dynamic changes in the emissions from the stars and their evolving planetary systems can be studied.

But science aside, the Spitzer imagery is a thing of beauty, reminding us how complex our cosmos really is. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself (click the pic to dive right in):

The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Warning, Over-Hyped Title Alert: But It’s A Frackin’ SUPERNOVA!

I’m not kidding, last week was a huge mess of a supernova doomsday circus. It was like whispering “there’s a bomb under your chair” to the person next to you in a crowded theater and then watching the resulting flood of people slam into the fire escape. It was internet chaos. And there was no stopping it.

I am of course talking about the first, great doomsday scare of 2010: T Pyxidis.

Luckily for me, the first headline I saw was in the UK’s Telegraph that read “Earth ‘to be wiped out’ by supernova explosion.” Uh oh, that title sounds rather definite. Immediately, the bullshit sensor in my brain was tripped so I stopped flicking through the embarrassing excuse for a UK newspaper and had a read.

According to the article, some star (that I can’t pronounce) was “set to self-destruct” (as a big hairy supernova), a little over 3,000 light years away. Global chaos will therefore ensue. The ozone layer will be stripped away… and the Earth will be “wiped out.” (I still can’t work out how the Earth will be “wiped out.”)

I’m only picking on the Telegraph.co.uk as my skepticism knives were already sharpened after a series of idiotic woo-fueled articles (here, here and here) the website has played host to in recent months, but they weren’t the only news outlet to go batshit crazy with the “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE” angle.

But who was really to blame for this mess? After all, the media was just the messenger, they must have gotten their lead from somewhere. Ah yes, the scientists… what did those guys really say?

You can find out how I got to the bottom of the science behind the hype in my Discovery News article “Will Earth ‘Be Wiped Out’ by a Supernova?” but cutting to the chase, it turns out that the scientists may have been a little hasty in their attempt to make international headlines.

As my mate Phil Plait mentions in his excellent write up (about my write up) of the T Pyxidis debacle on Bad Astronomy, this isn’t just a simple case of media hype, a lot of the blame should lay with Edward Sion et al. from Villanova University in Philadelphia.

Sure, some of the numbers didn’t add up (mistakes happen), but issuing a press release with a huge wad of inaccurate doom wrapped inside is pretty irresponsible. Have a read for yourself:

An interesting, if a bit scary, speculative sidelight is that if a Type Ia supernova explosion occurs within [that distance] of Earth, then the gamma radiation emitted by the supernova would fry the Earth, dumping as much gamma radiation (~100,000 erg/square centimeter) into our planet [sic], which is equivalent to the gamma ray input of 1000 solar flares simultaneously. –Excerpt from the Villanova press release, “THE LONG OVERDUE RECURRENT NOVA T PYXIDIS: SOON TO BE A TYPE Ia SUPERNOVA?”

“…fry the Earth”? Come on, that’s not even an accurate scientific term about what would happen if we were hit by a surge of gamma-rays. What’s wrong with saying “…the Earth would be at the receiving end of a Death Ray”? If you’re going to do the job of the tabloid press, hyping up your own research before the tabloid press has even read the release, you may as well be accurate.

And speaking of accuracy, my colleague Ray Villard was at the AAS and confirmed that Sion’s numbers were out by a factor of 10. “A supernova would have to be 10 times closer [to Earth] to do the damage described,” Ray said.

Although I was tough on the Telegraph in my Discovery News article (let’s face it, with an inaccurate and inflammatory title like that, they had it coming), in this case I think the main issue lies with Sion and co.

Why over-hype your research to get attention, when the research was interesting enough without declaring doomsday? By me even writing about the subject again, I think I just answered my own question.

But on a plus point, at least everyone knows what T Pyxidis is now…

Whatever Happened to Hyper-Velocity Star HD 271791?

One scenario: Exploding star flings binary parter away at high velocity (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)

One scenario: Exploding star flings binary parter away at high velocity (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)

HC 271791 is a star with a problem, it’s moving so fast through our galaxy that it will eventually escape from the Milky Way all together. However, there is a growing question mark hanging over the reasons as to why HD 271791 is travelling faster than the galactic escape velocity.

So-called hyper-velocity stars were first predicted to exist back in 1988 when astrophysicist Jack Hills at Los Alamos National Laboratories pondered what would happen if a binary star system should stray too close to the supermassive black hole lurking in the galactic nucleus. Hills calculated that should one of the stars get swallowed by the black hole, the binary partner would be instantly released from the gravitational bind, flinging it away from the black hole.

This would be analogous to a hammer thrower spinning around, accelerating the ball of the hammer rapidly in a circle around his body. When the thrower releases the hammer at just the right moment, the weight is launched into the air, travelling tens of meters across the stadium. The faster the hammer thrower spins the ball, the greater the rotational velocity; when he releases the hammer, rotational velocity is converted to translational velocity, launching the ball away from him. Gold medals all ’round.

So, considering Hills’ model, when one of the stars are lost through black hole death, the other star is launched, hammer-style, at high velocity away from the galactic core. The fast rotational velocity is converted into a hyper-velocity star blasting through interstellar (and eventually intergalactic) space.

Hills actually took his theory and instructed the astronomical community to keep an eye open for speeding stellar objects, and sure enough they were out there. HD 271791 is one of these stars, travelling at a whopping 2.2 million kilometres per hour, a speed far in excess of the galactic escape velocity.

However, the 11 solar mass star didn’t originate from the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole (inside the radio source Sgr. A*), it was propelled from the outermost edge of the galactic disk. There is absolutely no evidence of a supermassive black hole out there, so what could have accelerated HD 271791 to such a high velocity? After all, stars aren’t exactly easy objects to throw around.

If HD 271791 used to be part of a binary pair, its partner would have had to suddenly disappear, releasing its gravitational grip rapidly. One idea is that HD 271791’s sibling exploded as a supernova. This should have provided the sudden loss in a gravitational field — the rapidly expanding supernova plasma will have dispersed the gravitational influence of the star.

However, according to Vasilii Gvaramadze at Moscow State University, the supernova theory may not be sound either; by his calculations a binary pair simply cannot produce such a large velocity. Gvaramadze thinks that a far more complex interaction between two binary pairs (four stars total) or one binary pair and another single star some 300 solar masses. Somehow, this “strong dynamical encounter” caused HD 271791 to be catapulted out of the system, propelling it at a galactic escape velocity.

Although this complex slingshot theory sounds pretty interesting, the supernova theory still sounds like the most plausible answer. But how could a sufficient rotational velocity be attained? As Gvaramadze points out, even an extreme rapidly orbiting binary pair cannot produce a star speeding at 530-920km/s.

This is in contrast to research carried out by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. In a January 2009 press release, Maria Fernanda Nieva points out that this hyper-velocity star possesses the chemical fingerprint of having been in the locality of a supernova explosion. This leads Nieva to conclude that HD 271791 was ejected after its binary partner exploded. What’s more, a Wolf-Rayet may have been the culprit.

Up to now such a scenario has been dismissed for hyper-velocity stars, because the supernova precursor usually is a super-giant star and any companion has to be at large distance in order to orbit the star. Hence the orbital velocities are fairly modest. The most massive stars in the Galaxy, however, end their lives as quite compact so-called Wolf-Rayet stars rather than as super-giants. The compactness of the primary leaves room for a companion to move rapidly on a close orbit of about 1 day-period. When the Wolf-Rayet-star exploded its companion HD 271791 was released at very high speed. In addition, HD 271791 made use of the Milky Way rotation to finally achieve escape velocity. –Maria Fernanda Nieva

Even though Gvaramadze’s stellar pinball theory sounds pretty compelling, the fact that HD 271791 contains a hint of supernova remnant in its atmosphere, the supernova-triggered event sounds more likely. But there is the fact that just because this 11 solar mass star was near a supernova some time in its past, it certainly doesn’t indicate that a supernova was the cause of it’s high speed.

For now I suppose, the jury is still out…

Publication: On the origin of the hypervelocity runaway star HD271791, V.V.Gvaramadze, 2009. arXiv:0909.4928v1 [astro-ph.SR]

Original source: arXiv blog

Life is Grim on the Galactic Rim

The White Star approaches the Shadow's homeworld of Z'ha'dum on the Galactic Rim.

The White Star approaches the Shadow’s homeworld of Z’ha’dum on the Galactic Rim.

It would appear that scientists have confirmed that the outer edge of the Milky Way is a bad location for life to even think about existing.

This research reminded me of the “Galactic Rim” in the 90’s sci-fi TV series Babylon 5. The Rim is the mysterious region of space right at the edge of our galaxy where only the hardiest of explorers dared to venture. As explained in the season 2 episode of B5, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum,” Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) discovers that his wife (when exploring The Rim) went missing on a planet called Z’ha’dum. It turns out that an angry ancient alien race — called the Shadows — lived on this mysterious world and their discovery led to them being used in all kinds of plots during the latter four seasons of this awesome sci-fi show.

However, the existence of any kind of life (let alone life as complex as the evil Shadows) in the badlands of the Milky Way is looking very unlikely.

Located some 62,000 light years from the core of our galaxy (over twice the distance of the Earth from the galactic centre), two very young star clusters in the constellation of Cassiopeia have been studied. Chikako Yasui, Naoto Kobayashi and colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Japan, found these clusters in a vast cloud of gas and dust called Digel Cloud 2. The stars inside these clusters are only half a million years old, and the majority of them should possess proto-planetary disks (which is characteristic of local star-forming regions). However, it would appear that these stars contain very little oxygen, silicon or iron (i.e. they have very low metallicity) and only 1 in 5 of the 111 baby stars analysed in both clusters have disks.

If proto-planetary disks are rare, this means there will be a rarity of planets. This is an obvious bummer for life to form. After all, Life As We Know It™ is quite attached to evolving on Earth-like planets.

So why are these young stars lacking proto-planetary disks, when local star forming regions don’t seem to have this affliction? The authors of the paper, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, suggest that these stars did have disks, but some mechanism is rapidly eroding them.

The most likely scenario is that low metalicity proto-planetary disks are more susceptible to photoevaporation. Simply put, these disks evaporate when exposed to EUV and X-ray radiation from their parent stars far more rapidly than disks that are metal-rich.

Therefore, if an alien race was able to form, they’d be very rare or they’d be very different from what we’d expect “life” to be like (i.e. they thrive in low metalicity star systems). Sounds like the mysterious Shadow homeworld of Z’ha’dum would be a very rare sight on The Rim of our Milky Way after all.

Publication: The Lifetime of Protoplanetary Disks in a Low-Metallicity Environment, Chikako Yasui et al., 2009. arXiv:0908.4026v3 [astro-ph.SR]
via New Scientist