Exoplanet Count Tops 700

An artist's impression of a lone exoplanet transiting its parent star. There are now 700 confirmed alien worlds orbiting other stars (ESO)
An artist's impression of a lone exoplanet transiting its parent star. There are now 700 confirmed alien worlds orbiting other stars (ESO)

On Friday, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia registered more than 700 confirmed exoplanets. Although this is an amazing milestone, it won’t be long until the “first thousand” are confirmed.

There are now more than 700 confirmed exoplanets in the database. The latest addition is the planet HD 100655 b.
— announced via the Exoplanet iPhone app

Only two months ago, the encyclopedia — administered by astrobiologist Jean Schneider of the Paris-Meudon Observatory — registered 600 confirmed alien worlds. Since then, there has been a slew of announcements including the addition of a batch of 50 exoplanets by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (or HARPS) in September.

The first exoplanet was discovered orbiting a Main Sequence star in 1995, and the rate of exoplanet detections has been accelerating ever since.

It is worth noting that hundreds more candidate exoplanet detections have been made, many of which have been spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Kepler is staring at the same patch of sky, waiting for alien worlds to cross the line of sight between their parent star and Earth, registering a slight dip in starlight brightness. The 1,235 candidates will be confirmed (or denied) as Kepler awaits future transits.

Detecting the slight dimming of starlight isn’t the only tool exoplanet hunters have to spot these alien worlds. The “radial velocity” method — as employed by systems such as the ESO’s HARPS — can detect the slight “wobble” of stars as orbiting worlds gravitationally “tug” on their parent stars. Both methods have their advantages and both are notching up an impressive exoplanet count. “Microlensing” has also been employed to spot a handful of exoplanets, as has direct imaging.

Exoplanetary studies are amongst the most exciting astronomical projects out there. Not only are we realizing there is a veritable zoo of worlds — some Earth-sized, others many times the mass of Jupiter — we are also pondering the most profound question: could extraterrestrial life inhabit these worlds?

For now, we have no clue, but life as we know it has a habit of springing up where we least expect it, it’s only a matter of time before we start to have some clue as to the existence of life as we don’t know it.

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Some Galaxies Die Young… Others Recycle

Some galaxies undergo a rapid star formation phase, losing stellar gases to intergalactic space, others choose to recycle, thereby extending their star forming lifespans.
Some galaxies undergo a rapid star formation phase, losing stellar gases to intergalactic space, others choose to recycle, thereby extending their star forming lifespans (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

It sounds like an over-hyped public service announcement: If you don’t recycle, you’ll die a premature death.

But in the case of galaxies, according to three new Science papers based on Hubble Space Telescope data, this is a reality. Should a galaxy “go green,” reusing waste stellar gas contained within huge halos situated outside their visible disks, they will fuel future star-birth cycles, prolonging their lifespans.

Sadly for “starburst” galaxies — galaxies that undergo rapid star generation over very short time periods — they care little for recycling, resulting in an untimely death.

Using data from Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), three teams studied 40 galaxies (including the Milky Way) and discovered vast halos of waste stellar gases. Contained within these spherical reservoirs — extending up to 450,000 light-years from their bright disks of stars — light elements such as hydrogen and helium were found to be laced with heavier elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and neon. There’s only one place these heavy elements could have come from: fusion processes in the cores of stars and supernovae.

Interestingly, the quantity of heavy elements contained within the newly-discovered halos is similar to what is contained in the interstellar gases within the galaxies themselves.

“There’s as much heavy elements out in the halos of the galaxies as there is in their interstellar medium, that is what shocked us.” said Jason Tumlinson, an astronomer for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., in an interview for my Discovery News article “Galaxies That Don’t Recycle Live Hard, Die Young.”

But these heavy elements are stored in halos outside the galaxies; how the heck did it get there?

According to the researchers, powerful stellar winds jetting into intergalactic space have been observed, transporting the heavy elements with them. But there’s a catch. If the outflow is too strong, waste stellar gases are ejected from the galaxies completely. Unfortunately for one sub-set of galaxies, powerful stellar outflows come naturally.

Starburst galaxies rapidly generate stars, ejecting speedy streams of stellar waste gas. Some of these streams have been clocked traveling at 2 million miles per hour, escaping from the galaxy forever. In the case of a starbust galaxy, a “recycling halo” cannot be re-supplied — future star birth is therefore killed off.

“We found the James Dean or Amy Winehouse of that population, you know, the galaxies that lived fast and died young,” Tumlinson pointed out. “(Todd) Tripp’s team studied that in their paper.”

“That paper used a galaxy that is known as a ‘post-star burst galaxy’ and its spectrum showed that it had a very robust star burst (phase),” he continued. “It was one of those live fast, die young galaxies.”

Although fascinating, one idea struck me the hardest. On asking Tumlinson to speculate on how galactic recycling of stellar material may impact us, he said:

“Your body is 70 percent water and every water molecule has an oxygen atom in it. The theorists say the recycling time (in the Milky Way’s halo) is approximately a billion years, so that means — potentially — that some of the material (oxygen) inside your body has cycled in and out of the galaxy ten times in the history of the galaxy. At least once, maybe up to ten times.”

As Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re made of star stuff;” perhaps this should be rephrased to: “We’re made of recycled star stuff.”

Publications:

When an Astrophysicist Needs a Star Map

Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, Ashland Astronomy Studio
Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, Ashland Astronomy Studio

Imagine the scene: I’m having a romantic walk on a clear night with my wife along the beach. We see a brief flash of light and Deb says, “Hey, a meteor!” I then proceed to tell her that most meteors are actually no bigger than a grain of sand and they originate from comets, even though she already knew that. Feeling quite chuffed with myself that I was able to describe a nugget of atmospheric dynamics in 2 minutes, Deb then points up again and says, “There’s Orion. What constellation is that one?”

“Um. I have no idea,” I reply, feeling less smug. “I know how those things work, but I don’t know what they look like.”

I don’t own a telescope (yet) and I only took one course in university on practical astronomy, everything else was astrophysics. So the sad thing is that I know how stars work — from the nuclear fusion in their core to coronal dynamics (the latter of which I did my PhD in) — but if anyone asked me to point out a constellation or the location of a star… I wouldn’t have a clue.

Sure, there are the old favorites, like Orion, the Big Dipper (or Plough) and bright Polaris, but my expertise in night sky viewing is pretty limited. Although I’d usually refer any astronomy-related questions to BBC astronomy presenter (and Discovery News writer) Mark Thompson, I’d love to learn more. So, firstly, I needed a star chart.

Luckily, a few weeks ago, I received a random email from Erik Anderson from Ashland Astronomy Studio asking whether I’d like a copy of his company’s new star map poster. Being eager to boost my pitiful knowledge of the constellations, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, my poster arrived through the post.

Now this is where things got really cool. Although Erik had titled his email to me “Star Map with Exoplanet Hosts,” I’d forgotten about the “exoplanet” part. On the clear, yet detailed Ashland star map, all the major constellations and stars are plotted, along with the time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) they can be seen. But also, there’s a symbol representing the hundreds of stars that are known to have exoplanetary systems orbiting.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been referring to my newly-framed star map, and can now confidently point into the sky, not only identifying the constellations but also some stars that possess exoplanets. Only last night, I pointed up in the general vicinity of the star 61 Virginis (near the blue giant Spica) and said, “That star has 3 worlds orbiting it.”

I’m not sure if Deb was overly impressed with my exoplanet knowledge, but I was happy to be smug again.

Although it’s only a very small part of an astronomer’s tool kit, a star map is essential. Although you can get apps for your iPhone, you can’t beat a poster that isn’t only functional, but also looks very attractive on your office wall.

The very cool Ashland Astronomy Studio Star Map can be purchased from Amazon.

Could Kepler Detect Borg Cubes? Why Not.

That's no sunspot.
"That's no sunspot."

Assuming Star Trek‘s Borg Collective went into overdrive and decided to build a huge cube a few thousand miles wide, then yes, the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope should be able to spot it. But how could Kepler distinguish a cube from a nice spherical exoplanet?

With the help of Ray Villard over at Discovery News, he did some digging and found a paper dating back to 2005 — long before Kepler was launched. However, researcher Luc Arnold, of the Observatoire de Haute-Provence in Paris, did have the space telescope in mind when he studied what it would take to distinguish different hypothetical shapes as they passed in front of his theoretical stars.

The big assumption when looking for exoplanets that drift between distant stars and the Earth — events known as “transits” — is that the only shape these detectable exoplanets come in are spheres. Obvious really.

As a world passes in front of its parent star, a circular shadow will form. However, from Earth, we’d detect a slight dimming of the star’s “light curve” during the transit, allowing astronomers to deduce the exoplanet’s orbital period and size.

The transit method has been used to confirm the presence of hundreds of exoplanets so far, and Kepler has found over 1,200 additional exoplanet candidates. But say if astronomers paid closer attention to the shape of the received light curve; spherical objects have a distinct signature, but say if something looked different in the transiting “planet’s” light curve? Well, it could mean that something non-spherical has passed in front of a star. And what does that mean? Well, that would be a pretty convincing argument for the presence of a huge planet-sized artificial structure orbiting another star. Artifical structure = super-advanced alien civilization.

Arnold tested his theory that all manner of shapes could be detected by Kepler, assuming the transiting structure was on the scale of a few thousand miles wide. In this case, Arnold was testing his hypothesis to see whether we could detect an advanced civilization’s “shadow play.” Perhaps, rather than beaming messages by radio waves, an advanced civilization might want to signal their presence — SETI style — by blocking their sun’s light with vast sheets of lightweight material. As the shape passes in front of the star, the slight dimming of starlight would reveal an artificial presence in orbit.

By putting a series of these shapes into orbit, the aliens could create a kind of interstellar Morse code.

Of course, this is a rather “out there” idea, but I find it fascinating that Kepler could detect an alien artifact orbiting a star tens or hundreds of light-years away. Although this research is only considering orbital “billboards,” I quite like the idea that Kepler might also be able to detect a large structure like… I don’t know… a big Borg mothership. Having advanced warning of the presence of an aggressive alien race sitting on our cosmic doorstep — especially ones of the variety that like to assimilate — would be pretty handy.

Publication: Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects, L. Arnold, 2005. arXiv:astro-ph/0503580v1

Jupiter Got Smacked, Again

Quite frankly, I’m stunned.

An Australian amateur astronomer has just observed his second ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event: an impact in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Phil Plait was very quick to get the news out, describing it as a “major coincidence,” and he ain’t wrong!

Anthony Wesley’s first event was the famous July 2009 observation of what was thought to have been the immediate aftermath of a comet impact in the Jovian atmosphere. His second happened on Thursday at 20:31 UTC when he was observing Jupiter when something hit the atmosphere, generating a huge fireball.

It is not known whether this event was caused by a comet or asteroid, but in a bizarre case of serendipity, earlier on Thursday Hubble released more information on his original impact event. The July 2009 “bruise” in the gas giant’s atmosphere is now thought to have been caused by an asteroid, and not a comet.

The Hubble press release included details on how researchers deduced that it was actually more likely that a 500 meter-wide asteroid hit Jupiter in 2009. One clue was that newly installed cameras on the space telescope detected little dust in the halo surrounding the impact site — a characteristic that was detected after the impact of the shards of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994. Also, the calculated trajectory of the 2009 event indicated the object didn’t have an orbit commonly associated with comets. If the 2009 event was an asteroid, that means Wesley saw something never seen before: the site of a recent asteroid impact on a celestial body.

And now, less than a year after being the first to see that impact aftermath, Wesley has done it again. Another amateur astronomer, Christopher Go, was quick to confirm Thursday’s fireball with a video of the 2 second flash in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

These impact events serve as a reminder about Jupiter’s fortuitous role in our Solar System. As the gas giant is so massive, its gravitational pull has a huge influence over the outer planets, dwarf planets, comets and asteroids. Acting like an interplanetary ‘vacuum cleaner’ Jupiter can block potentially disastrous chunks of stuff from taking a dive into the inner Solar System. It is thought that this distant planet has helped Earth become the thriving world it is today, preventing many asteroids and comets from ruining our evolution.

Thank you Jupiter!

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)

Could P/2010 A2 be the First Ever Observation of an Asteroid Collision?

Something rather bizarre was observed in the asteroid belt on January 6. Ray Villard at Discovery News has just posted an exciting article about the discovery of a comet… but it’s not your average, run-of-the-mill kinda comet. This comet appears to orbit the Sun, embedded in the asteroid belt.

Comets don’t usually do that, they tend to have elliptical and inclined orbits, orbits that carry them close to the Sun (when they start to heat up, creating an attractive cometary tail as volatile ices sublimate into space, producing a dusty vapor). They are then flung back out into the furthest reaches of the Solar System where the heating stops and the comet tail disappears until the next solar approach.

But P/2010 A2 — discovered by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey — has a circular orbit and it still appears to be venting something into space.

P/2010 A2 (LINEAR): A comet or asteroid debris? (Spacewatch/U of Arizona)

There is the possibility that it is a member of a very exclusive bunch of objects known as main belt comets (MBCs). MBCs are confused asteroid/comet hybrids that appear to spontaneously vent vapor and dust into space and yet stay confined to the asteroid belt. But, if P/2010 A2 is confirmed to be one of these, it will only be the fifth such object to be discovered.

So what else could it be? If the potential discovery of an MBC doesn’t excite you enough, it could be something else entirely: the dust produced by a hyper-velocity impact between two asteroids. If this is the case, it would be the first ever observation of an asteroid impact in the Solar System.

The asteroid belt isn’t the same asteroid belt you might see in science fiction; although there are countless rocky bodies in our asteroid belt, it is rare that these rocky bodies encounter each other. Space is very big, and although the density of asteroids in this region might be considered to be “high”, this is space we’re talking about, you can fly a spaceship through the region without having to worry that you’ll bump into something. The average distance between asteroids is huge, making it a very rare occurrence any two should hit. But given enough asteroids, and enough time, eventually asteroid collisions do happen. And in the case of P/2010 A2, we might have been lucky.

Asteroid collisions: Rare, but possible.
Asteroid collisions: Rare, but possible.

The chatter between comet/asteroid experts is increasing, and on one message board posting, Javier Licandro (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain) reports observing a secondary asteroid traveling with the cloud-like P/2010 A2.

The asteroid moves in the same direction and at the same rate as the comet,” reports Licandro on The Minor Planet Mailing List. “In addition, the P/2010 A2 (LINEAR) image does not show any central condensation and looks like a ‘dust swarm’.”

A short lived event, such as a collision, may have produced the observed dust ejecta.”

Therefore, this ‘comet’ may actually be the debris that was ejected after a collision between two asteroids. Although these are preliminary findings and it’s going to take some serious observing time to understand the true nature of P/2010 A2, it’s exciting to think that we may just have observed an incredibly rare event, 250 million miles away.

Source: Discovery News

Dear STFC, WTF? Sincerely, Ian

This week has been a horrid few days for UK physics. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced on Wednesday that it was going to plug a hole in their funding deficit by withdrawing the UK’s participation in a number of astronomy, nuclear and particle physics projects.

This measure will have a huge impact on the number of PhD and postdoc positions that will be available for students pursuing research training. In fact, a whopping 25% of fellowships and student grants for PhD projects will be eliminated next year.

On reading some of the reports, anyone would think the UK’s institutions are pissing their funds away Enron-style. How many billions of pounds is the STFC hoping to hide from these money-hungry physicists? After all, tea breaks and lasers don’t come cheap.

£115 million.

WTF?

Perhaps I’m just a little numb of hearing national debt topping “hundreds of billions” and “trillions,” but doesn’t £115 million sound petty by today’s standards? In a world where banks have vaporized zillions of pounds/dollars/euros and world governments are baling them back out again, just over one hundred million pounds doesn’t strike me as a huge number by a nation’s standards.

It’s okay, let’s pass the mic over to Prime Minister Gordon Brown for an explanation, surely he has a clue why baling out banks is better than baling out a research funding body? Actually, I think he’s got his work cut out in Copenhagen at the moment, but he seemed pretty upbeat about science in Feb. 2009 when he made the grand statement, “The [economic] downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.”

(I followed up the STFC turmoil on the Number 10 Downing Street website, but it appears the Prime Minister’s search engine is unavailable for comment on the issue.)

This statement came after a fairly ratty time during 2008 when I had a rant (across a series of articles) about the UK government’s stupidity when handling astronomy funding. The STFC — a then-recently appointed funding body that was formed after the merging of PPARC and CCLRC — had announced to the world that the UK was going to back out of its commitment as joint funding nation for the Gemini observatories in Hawaii and Chile.

Astronomer outrage and ceremonial Union Jack Flag-burning ensued.

In an effort to plug an £80 million hole in the STFC’s budget, the funding body appeared to slam the door shut on Gemini. But that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and after huge protests by astronomers, the UK’s involvement in Gemini was reinstated. Good times.

However, it would seem that the STFC deficit is getting worse and increasingly desperate measures are being taken. For a full run-down of STFC funding problems, have a look at Paul Crowther’s growing list on STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy. Also see STFC Funding Crisis: Particle Physics and STFC Funding Crisis: Neutron & Muon Science.

Ian Douglas, Telegraph science producer, has compiled a sobering list of the projects that are facing the axe in this new round of science culling. However, for me, this is the most alarming part:

SOHO, a collaboration between ESA and NASA, was to study the structure of the sun and its solar wind. The loss of Venus Express again puts Britain on the back foot when it comes to the exploration of other planets. Withdrawing from ALICE at CERN means that Britain will lose influence at the site of the largest experiments ever conducted and the Boulby underground laboratory is one of the leading centres of research on dark matter.

SOHO? Cassini? Venus Express? ALICE? It’s beginning to sound like a Who’s Who of projects you would never withdraw from. This shouldn’t be a budget cut hit list. Granted, all the projects, no matter how big or small, will be an irreplaceable loss for all scientists involved.

The Institute of Physics President Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell echoed some of my points in a recent statement, but also highlighted a fundamental flaw in this STFC strategy (emphasis added):

The greatest shame about today’s announcement is the reduced investment in people. With all of the challenges we face, from climate change and energy security to a rapidly ageing population, we urgently need individuals well-trained in physics. Today’s announcement, which includes a 25 per cent reduction in studentships and fellowships, runs counter to this need.

The amount needed to avoid this unfortunate cut is minor in comparison to the huge sums of money spent saving the financial sector, surely money can be found to avoid it.

Money to one side, this is the thing that worries me the most: If the STFC cuts back on the research opportunities available to postgrads and postdocs, the UK’s future in a huge swathe of physics disciplines could be crippled. If you start weakening the UK’s ability to lead, or at least be involved with, international physics projects, you ultimately damage the nation’s competitive edge. This impacts employment, innovation, industry, education and the economy.

Although it is fairly easy to paint the STFC with an incompetence gloss, it is really the UK government that’s screwing up. I’d find it insane if any government didn’t step in to fill a science funding deficit of this size (yes, the money could be found), but for the UK — a world leader in science and technology innovation — to stand by, citing the current economic climate as a reason for not investing in the future, is idiotic.

Unfortunately, politics is short-sighted and politicians have a shelf-life of a few years, it’s too easy to let the next administration sweep up the mess.

Star Birth Dominates Energy Production in Ultra-Luminous Galaxies

Artists impression of an ultra-luminous galaxy heating the surrounding dust (JAXA/ISAS/LIRA)
Artists impression of an ultra-luminous galaxy heating the surrounding dust (JAXA/ISAS/LIRA)

In the early 1980’s, NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) detected a number of unknown objects lurking in the depths of the cosmos.

At the time, these IRAS objects stirred speculation in the press. Were the infrared signals being emitted by comets inside the Solar System? Or were they failed stars (brown dwarfs) lurking beyond the orbit of Pluto? The latter theory spawned the idea that the hunt for Planet X was back on (stoking the smoldering conspiracy embers of the flawed doomsday theory that Nibiru is coming to get us). Alas, it was neither, these intense infrared signals were coming from much, much further away.

It turned out that the infrared emissions were being generated by galaxies that, bizarrely, had little optical signal. Although a high proportion of them were known to be interacting galaxies (i.e. they were colliding with other galaxies), the exact energy mechanism driving their emissions was not known.

Ultra-luminous galaxies have the luminocity of a trillion Suns, whereas our galaxy has the luminosity of a pedestrian ten billion Suns. Obviously, ultra-luminous galaxies are different animals to the Milky Way, but a galaxy is a galaxy and the energy sources are similar whether they are ultra-luminous or not. It would appear that the only difference is how active the galaxy is.

The first obvious energy source in a galaxy is star formation; the more stars that are forming, the brighter the galaxy. Secondly — as with our galaxy — the central supermassive black hole’s accretion rate contributes to the galaxy’s energy budget; the more matter being accreted by the black hole, the more energy is being generated (and therefore the brighter the galaxy).

So, when observing these ultra-luminous galaxies, surely it should be an easy task to work out where all this energy is coming from? Actually, this isn’t the case, astronomers are having a difficult job in understanding the nature of IRAS galaxies and the reason for this comes from the source of the infrared emissions. Galactic dust is being heated by the energy source, but this dust obscures the source of this heating (it is opaque to optical wavelengths).

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) researcher Guido Risaliti and his team have been analyzing Spitzer data to try to characterize the infrared emissions from 71 ultra-luminous galaxies. Using a “dust emission diagnostic technique,” the team have deduced that approximately 70% of the galaxies have active nuclei (i.e. their supermassive black holes have high accretion rates). Although most of the galactic nuclei are active, it is star formation that dominates the energy production in two-thirds of the galaxies. Also, these account for the highest fraction of the brightest galaxies.

This is a significant finding as it demonstrates how a galaxy reacts when it interacts with another galaxy. It would appear that the black hole in the core of the galactic bulge is kick-started during the massive gravitational interaction, boosting energy output as it eats more matter. The interaction also boosts star birth and this energy source becomes a dominant factor. Both energy sources heat up interstellar dust, making the galaxy glow in infrared wavelengths while optical light is masked.

Source: SAO (Harvard)