Spitzer Space Telescope
Using a NASA-designed software program, members of the public helped identify a cache of brown dwarfs – sometimes called failed stars – lurking in our cosmic neighborhood.
We’ve never met some of the Sun’s closest neighbors until now. In a new study, astronomers report the discovery of 95 objects known as brown dwarfs, many within a few dozen light-years of the Sun. They’re well outside the solar system, so don’t experience heat from the Sun, but still inhabit a region astronomers consider our cosmic neighborhood. This collection represents some of the coldest known examples of these objects, which are between the sizes of planets and stars.
Members of the public helped make these discoveries through Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, a NASA-funded citizen science project that is a collaboration between volunteers and professional scientists. Backyard Worlds incorporates data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite along with all-sky observations collected between 2010 and 2011 under its previous moniker,WISE. Data from NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the facilities of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab were also instrumental in the analysis.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
NASA Headquarters, Washington
Using data from NASA’s Great Observatories, astronomers have found the best evidence yet for cosmic seeds in the early universe that should grow into supermassive black holes.
Researchers combined data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope to identify these possible black hole seeds. They discuss their findings in a paper that will appear in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“Our discovery, if confirmed, explains how these monster black holes were born,” said Fabio Pacucci of Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Pisa, Italy, who led the study. “We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps.”
Scientists believe a supermassive black hole lies in the center of nearly all large galaxies, including our own Milky Way. They have found that some of these supermassive black holes, which contain millions or even billions of times the mass of the sun, formed less than a billion years after the start of the universe in the Big Bang.
One theory suggests black hole seeds were built up by pulling in gas from their surroundings and by mergers of smaller black holes, a process that should take much longer than found for these quickly forming black holes.
These new findings suggest instead that some of the first black holes formed directly when a cloud of gas collapsed, bypassing any other intermediate phases, such as the formation and subsequent destruction of a massive star.
“There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take,” said co-author Andrea Ferrara, also of SNS. “Our work suggests we are narrowing in on an answer, where the black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate.”
The researchers used computer models of black hole seeds combined with a new method to select candidates for these objects from long-exposure images from Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer.
The team found two strong candidates for black hole seeds. Both of these matched the theoretical profile in the infrared data, including being very red objects, and they also emit X-rays detected with Chandra. Estimates of their distance suggest they may have been formed when the universe was less than a billion years old
“Black hole seeds are extremely hard to find and confirming their detection is very difficult,” said Andrea Grazian, a co-author from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy. “However, we think our research has uncovered the two best candidates to date.”
The team plans to obtain further observations in X-rays and infrared to check whether these objects have more of the properties expected for black hole seeds. Upcoming observatories, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, will aid in future studies by detecting the light from more distant and smaller black holes. Scientists currently are building the theoretical framework needed to interpret the upcoming data, with the aim of finding the first black holes in the universe.
“As scientists, we cannot say at this point that our model is ‘the one’,” said Pacucci. “What we really believe is that our model is able to reproduce the observations without requiring unreasonable assumptions.”
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program while the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission, whose science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado.
For more on NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/chandra
For more on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble
For more on NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer
This animated illustration shows one possible scenario for the rocky 55 e, nearly two times the size of Earth. New Spitzer data show that one side of the planet is much hotter than the other – which could be explained by a possible presence of lava pools.
Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a tiny star with a giant, cloudy storm, using data from NASA’s Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes. The dark storm is akin to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot: a persistent, raging storm larger than Earth.
“The star is the size of Jupiter, and its storm is the size of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said John Gizis of the University of Delaware, Newark. “We know this newfound storm has lasted at least two years, and probably longer.” Gizis is the lead author of a new study appearing in The Astrophysical Journal.
While planets have been known to have cloudy storms, this is the best evidence yet for a star that has one. The star, referred to as W1906+40, belongs to a thermally cool class of objects called L-dwarfs. Some L-dwarfs are considered stars because they fuse atoms and generate light, as our sun does, while others, called brown dwarfs, are known as “failed stars” for their lack of atomic fusion.
The L-dwarf in the study, W1906+40, is thought to be a star based on estimates of its age (the older the L-dwarf, the more likely it is a star). Its temperature is about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 Kelvin). That may sound scorching hot, but as far as stars go, it is relatively cool. Cool enough, in fact, for clouds to form in its atmosphere.
“The L-dwarf’s clouds are made of tiny minerals,” said Gizis.
Spitzer has observed other cloudy brown dwarfs before, finding evidence for short-lived storms lasting hours and perhaps days.
In the new study, the astronomers were able to study changes in the atmosphere of W1906+40 for two years. The L-dwarf had initially been discovered by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer in 2011. Later, Gizis and his team realized that this object happened to be located in the same area of the sky where NASA’s Kepler mission had been staring at stars for years to hunt for planets.
Kepler identifies planets by looking for dips in starlight as planets pass in front of their stars. In this case, astronomers knew observed dips in starlight weren’t coming from planets, but they thought they might be looking at a star spot — which, like our sun’s “sunspots,” are a result of concentrated magnetic fields. Star spots would also cause dips in starlight as they rotate around the star.
Follow-up observations with Spitzer, which detects infrared light, revealed that the dark patch was not a magnetic star spot but a colossal, cloudy storm with a diameter that could hold three Earths. The storm rotates around the star about every 9 hours. Spitzer’s infrared measurements at two infrared wavelengths probed different layers of the atmosphere and, together with the Kepler visible-light data, helped reveal the presence of the storm.
While this storm looks different when viewed at various wavelengths, astronomers say that if we could somehow travel there in a starship, it would look like a dark mark near the polar top of the star.
The researchers plan to look for other stormy stars and brown dwarfs using Spitzer and Kepler in the future.
“We don’t know if this kind of star storm is unique or common, and we don’t why it persists for so long,” said Gizis.
NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech.
Caltech manages JPL for NASA.