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A black hole and its shadow have been captured in an image for the first time, a historic feat by an international network of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). EHT is an international collaboration whose support in the U.S. includes the National Science Foundation.
A black hole is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape. Anything that comes within a black hole’s “event horizon,” its point of no return, will be consumed, never to re-emerge, because of the black hole’s unimaginably strong gravity. By its very nature, a black hole cannot be seen, but the hot disk of material that encircles it shines bright. Against a bright backdrop, such as this disk, a black hole appears to cast a shadow.
The job of mapping our own Milky Way galaxy from planet Earth, situated about two-thirds of the way out from the galaxy’s center, is similarly difficult. Clouds of dust permeate the Milky Way, blocking our view of the galaxy’s stars. Today, researchers have a suitable map of our galaxy’s spiral structure, but, like early explorers charting new territory, they continue to patiently and meticulously fill in the blanks.
Recently, researchers have turned to a new mapping method that takes advantage of data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Using WISE, the research team has discovered more than 400 dust-shrouded nurseries of stars, which trace the shape of our galaxy’s spiral arms. Seven of these “embedded star clusters” are described in a new study published online May 20 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“The sun’s location within the dust-obscured galactic disk is a complicating factor to observe the galactic structure,” said Denilso Camargo, lead author of the paper from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.
The results support the four-arm model of our galaxy’s spiral structure. For the last few years, various methods of charting the Milky Way have largely led to a picture of four spiral arms. The arms are where most stars in the galaxy are born. They are stuffed with gas and dust, the ingredients of stars. Two of the arms, called Perseus and Scutum-Centaurus, seem to be more prominent and jam-packed with stars, while the Sagittarius and Outer arms have as much gas as the other two arms but not as many stars.
The new WISE study finds embedded star clusters in the Perseus, Sagittarius, and Outer arms. Data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a ground-based predecessor of WISE from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, helped narrow down the distances to the clusters and pinpoint their location.
Embedded star clusters are a powerful tool for visualizing the whereabouts of spiral arms because the clusters are young, and their stars haven’t yet drifted away and out of the arms. Stars begin their lives in the dense, gas-rich neighborhoods of spiral arms, but they migrate away over time. These embedded star clusters complement other techniques for mapping our galaxy, such as those used by radio telescopes, which detect the dense gas clouds in spiral arms.
“Spiral arms are like traffic jams in that the gas and stars crowd together and move more slowly in the arms. As material passes through the dense spiral arms, it is compressed and this triggers more star formation,” said Camargo.
WISE is ideal for finding the embedded star clusters because its infrared vision can cut through the dust that fills the galaxy and shrouds the clusters. What’s more, WISE scanned the whole sky, so it was able to perform a thorough survey of the shape of our Milky Way. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope also uses infrared images to map the Milky Way’s territory. Spitzer looks along specific lines of sight and counts stars. The spiral arms will have the densest star populations.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California managed and operated WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was put into hibernation mode in 2011, after it scanned the entire sky twice, thereby completing its main objectives. In September 2013, WISE was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.
Other authors of the study are: Charles Bonatto and Eduardo Bica, also with the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.
For more information on WISE, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/wise
Previous research from Camargo’s team found two embedded clusters far outside the plane of our Milky Way, 16,000 light-years away. A feature story about that work is online at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4497
The new WISE study from the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society is online at: http://mnras.oxfordjournals.org/content/450/4/4150.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=tjeJAezGAmgdXzc
“We can see a completely new component of the center of our galaxy with NuSTAR’s images,” said Kerstin Perez of Columbia University in New York, lead author of a new report on the findings in the journal Nature. “We can’t definitively explain the X-ray signal yet — it’s a mystery. More work needs to be done.”
Astronomers have four theories to explain the baffling X-ray glow, three of which involve different classes of stellar corpses. When stars die, they don’t always go quietly into the night. Unlike stars like our sun, collapsed dead stars that belong to stellar pairs, or binaries, can siphon matter from their companions. This zombie-like “feeding” process differs depending on the nature of the normal star, but the result may be an eruption of X-rays.
“This new result just reminds us that the galactic center is a bizarre place,” said co-author Chuck Hailey of Columbia University. “In the same way people behave differently walking on the street instead of jammed on a crowded rush-hour subway, stellar objects exhibit weird behavior when crammed in close quarters near the supermassive black hole.”
“We don’t know if planets are more common in our galaxy’s central bulge or the disk of the galaxy, which is why these observations are so important,” said Jennifer Yee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a NASA Sagan fellow. Yee is the lead author of one of three new studies that appeared recently in the Astrophysical Journal describing a collaboration between astronomers using Spitzer and the Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or OGLE.
Microlensing complements other planet-hunting tools, such as NASA’s Kepler mission, which has found more than 1,000 planets closer to home. But it faces one key problem: This method can’t always precisely narrow down the distance to the stars and planets being observed. While a passing star may magnify the light of a more distant star, it rarely can be seen itself, making the task of measuring how far away it is challenging.
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