ALMA Reveals the True Nature of Hubble’s Enigmatic Ghost Spiral

Appearing as a ghostly apparition in deep space, the LL Pegasi spiral nebula signals the death of a star — and the world’s most powerful radio observatory has delved into its deeper meaning.

Left: HST image of LL Pegasi publicized in 2010. Credit: ESA/NASA & R. Sahai. Right: ALMA image of LL Pegasi. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / Hyosun Kim et al.

When the Hubble Space Telescope revealed the stunning LL Pegasi spiral for the first time, its ghostly appearance captivated the world.

Known to be an ancient, massive star, LL Pegasi is dying and shedding huge quantities of gas and dust into space. But this is no ordinary dying star, this is a binary system that is going out in style.

The concentric rings in the star system’s nebula are spiraling outwards, like the streams of water being ejected from a lawn sprinkler’s head. On initial inspection of the Hubble observation, it was assumed that the spiral must be caused by the near-circular orbit of two stars, one of which is generating the flood of gas. Judging by the symmetry of the rings, this system must be pointing roughly face-on, from our perspective.

Though these assumptions generally hold true, new follow-up observations by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) on the 5,000 meter-high Chajnantor plateau in Chile has added extra depth to the initial Hubble observations. Astronomers have used the incredible power of ALMA to see a pattern in the rings, revealing the complex orbital dynamics at play deep in the center of the spiral.

“It is exciting to see such a beautiful spiral-shell pattern in the sky. Our observations have revealed the exquisitely ordered three-dimensional geometry of this spiral-shell pattern, and we have produced a very satisfying theory to account for its details,” said Hyosun Kim, of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA) in Taiwan and lead researcher of this work.

Just as we read tree rings to understand the history of seasonal tree growth and climatic conditions, Kim’s team used the rings of LL Pegasi to learn about the nature of the binary star’s 800 year orbit. One of the key findings was the ALMA imaging of bifurcation in the rings; after comparing with theoretical models, they found that these features are an indicator that the central stars’ orbit is not circular — it’s in fact highly elliptical.

ALMA observation of the molecular gas around LL Pegasi. By comparing this gas distribution with theoretical simulations, the team concluded that the bifurcation of the spiral-shell pattern (indicated by a white box) is resulted from a highly elliptical binary system. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / Hyosun Kim et al.

Probably most striking, however, was that Hubble was only able to image the 2D projection of what is in fact a 3D object, something that ALMA could investigate. By measuring the line-of-sight velocities of gas being ejected from the central star, ALMA was able to create a three-dimensional view of the nebula, with the help of numerical modeling. Watch the animation below:

“While the [Hubble Space Telescope] image shows us the beautiful spiral structure, it is a 2D projection of a 3D shape, which becomes fully revealed in the ALMA data,” added co-author Raghvendra Sahai, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

This research is a showcase of the power of combining observations from different telescopes. Hubble was able to produce a dazzling (2D) picture of the side-on structure of LL Pegasi’s spirals, but ALMA’s precision measurements of gas outflow speed added (3D) depth, helping us “see” an otherwise hidden structure, while revealing the orbital dynamics of two distant stars.

A special thanks to Hyosun Kim for sending me the video of the LL Pegasi visualization!

Battlestar Galactica’s “Twelve Colonies of Kobol” Star System Found?

An image at radio wavelengths of a young stellar quadruplet. Credit: CfA/Nature/Pineda
An image at radio wavelengths of a young stellar quadruplet. Credit: CfA/Nature/Pineda

825 light-years away, in the constellation of Perseus, hides one protostar and three previously unseen gas concentrations that are undergoing gravitational collapse — basically embryos of soon-to-be baby stars. Found through the analysis of data from radio telescopes by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), this tiny cluster of baby stars occupy a small volume only 10,000 AU across — meaning that they’d all easily fit within the confines of the boundaries of our solar system (yes, the Oort Cloud is the solar system’s outermost boundary).

This is exciting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this little ‘stellar womb’ has given astronomers an opportunity to study the genesis of a multi-star system. Indeed, most stars in our galaxy belong to multi-star systems, whether that be binary or greater, and astronomers are currently trying to figure out whether they were born this way or whether, over time, stars jostled around and eventually became gravitationally bound. After analysis of the velocities of the protostar and stellar embryos, it appears that the masses are gravitationally interacting. In other words, it has the potential to mature into a quadruple star system in around 40,000 years, a minute amount of time in cosmic timescales. Although it is likely that the system will become unstable, possibly ejecting one or two of the stars in the process, it does provide observational evidence that multi-star systems can be born in a gravitational embrace.

A map of the Twelve Colonies via
A map of the Twelve Colonies via

But as I have a habit of linking astrophysical studies with science fiction imaginings, when I first saw this research, I immediately thought of the awesome re-imagined series’ Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.

Battlestar Galactica is set in the years following the Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, which almost wiped out humanity in this far-flung part of the galaxy. The remaining survivors, headed by William Adama (Edward James Olmos), take to the stars in a fleet of ragtag spaceships in search of the fabled Earth. One of my favorite scifi storylines and favorite scfi TV shows. But I digress.

The Twelve Colonies consist of four stars — Helios Alpha, Helios Beta, Helios Delta and Helios Gamma — each with their own systems of planets, 12 in total, including capital world Caprica.

So that poses a question: Just because Battlestar Galactica imagines a quadruple star system (well, two binary systems in a mutual orbit), is it possible to have such a stable system of planets evolve in a multi-star system? Or are the gravitational interactions too complex for anything to coalesce and slot into stable orbits? Well, by understanding how multi-star systems evolve by finding examples like this embedded inside star forming molecular clouds, we may start to appreciate how common and how stable they are and whether accompanying planetary systems are a reality or something that will forever be confined to the Twelve Colonies.

READ MORE: Star Quadruplets Spied Growing Inside Stellar Womb (Discovery News)

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.”


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.

If I Was A TV-Loving Alien, I’d Live In 40 Eridani


16.5 light years away, a revolution in sci-fi television programming is about to explode to life… Yes, it really is that exciting. Almost like a tsunami approaching a peaceful shore, island inhabitants totally unaware of its impending arrival, the triple star system of 40 Eridani is about to be bathed in a very special terrestrial signal…

So why am I getting so excited for this random star system? Well, 15 years ago, the awesome five-season show Babylon 5 aired in the US and the UK. For me, B5 formed a watershed of my love for sci-fi. In fact, you could say I was a teenage Babylonoholic, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Today, I see the superb graphic on Obtuse Goose (after being pointed to Phil’s Bad Astronomy post by Greg “Weird Things” Fish), showing the local star systems to the Solar System and what they are watching.

Watching? Yes.

As we transmit electromagnetic signals over the airwaves for our television viewing pleasure, we’ve also been leaking it into space. As the signal travels at the speed of light, the maximum distance our TV signal would have travelled is about 80 light years (we started leaking in the 1930’s). By that reasoning, our TV shows should have reached Aldebaran by now.

Unfortunately, the aliens of Aldebaran have a rather limited choice of TV shows… at the moment they’re probably putting up with Nazi Germany’s propaganda broadcasts (like in Jodie Foster’s Contact). Things are far more exciting in 40 Eridani… they’re about to get flooded by the first season of Babylon 5! Sure, there’s lots of other things to watch in the expanse of 80 light years, but if I had to choose, I’d be prepping my TV aerial and stocking the fridge in time for 5 years of awesome sci-fi on a world orbiting one of the three 40 Eridani stars…

Source: Obtuse Goose, via Bad Astronomy, via Greg.