Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE)

NASA, Citizen Scientists Discover Potential New Hunting Ground for Exoplanets

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Artist’s concept of the newly discovered disk. Credits: Jonathan Holden


Via a NASA-led citizen science project, eight people with no formal training in astrophysics helped discover what could be a fruitful new place to search for planets outside our solar system – a large disk of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disk.

paper, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and coauthored by eight citizen scientists involved in the discovery, describes a newly identified red dwarf star, AWI0005x3s, and its warm circumstellar disk, the kind associated with young planetary systems. Most of the exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, that have been imaged to date dwell in disks similar to the one around AWI0005x3s.

The disk and its star are located in what is dubbed the Carina association – a large, loose grouping of similar stars in the Carina Nebula approximately 212 light years from our sun. Its relative proximity to Earth will make it easier to conduct follow-on studies.

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Clues About How Giant Black Holes Formed So Quickly

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This illustration depicts a possible “seed” for the formation of a supermassive black hole. The inset boxes at right contain Chandra (top) and Hubble (bottom) images of one of two candidate seeds, where the properties in the data matched those predicted by sophisticated models. Illustration Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss


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

Runaway Stars Leave Infrared Waves in Space

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Bow shocks thought to mark the paths of massive, speeding stars are highlighted in these images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wyoming
Bow shocks thought to mark the paths of massive, speeding stars are highlighted in these images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wyoming

Astronomers are finding dozens of the fastest stars in our galaxy with the help of images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

When some speedy, massive stars plow through space, they can cause material to stack up in front of them in the same way that water piles up ahead of a ship. Called bow shocks, these dramatic, arc-shaped features in space are leading researchers to uncover massive, so-called runaway stars.

“Some stars get the boot when their companion star explodes in a supernova, and others can get kicked out of crowded star clusters,” said astronomer William Chick from the University of Wyoming in Laramie, who presented his team’s new results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Florida. “The gravitational boost increases a star’s speed relative to other stars.”

Our own sun is strolling through our Milky Way galaxy at a moderate pace. It is not clear whether our sun creates a bow shock. By comparison, a massive star with a stunning bow shock, called Zeta Ophiuchi (or Zeta Oph), is traveling around the galaxy faster than our sun, at 54,000 mph (24 kilometers per second) relative to its surroundings. Zeta Oph’s giant bow shock can be seen in this image from the WISE mission:


Both the speed of stars moving through space and their mass contribute to the size and shapes of bow shocks. The more massive a star, the more material it sheds in high-speed winds. Zeta Oph, which is about 20 times as massive as our sun, has supersonic winds that slam into the material in front of it.

The result is a pile-up of material that glows. The arc-shaped material heats up and shines with infrared light. That infrared light is assigned the color red in the many pictures of bow shocks captured by Spitzer and WISE.

Chick and his team turned to archival infrared data from Spitzer and WISE to identify new bow shocks, including more distant ones that are harder to find. Their initial search turned up more than 200 images of fuzzy red arcs. They then used the Wyoming Infrared Observatory, near Laramie, to follow up on 80 of these candidates and identify the sources behind the suspected bow shocks. Most turned out to be massive stars. 

The findings suggest that many of the bow shocks are the result of speedy runaways that were given a gravitational kick by other stars. However, in a few cases, the arc-shaped features could turn out to be something else, such as dust from stars and birth clouds of newborn stars. The team plans more observations to confirm the presence of bow shocks.

“We are using the bow shocks to find massive and/or runaway stars,” said astronomer Henry “Chip” Kobulnicky, also from the University of Wyoming. “The bow shocks are new laboratories for studying massive stars and answering questions about the fate and evolution of these stars.”

Another group of researchers, led by Cintia Peri of the Argentine Institute of Radio Astronomy, is also using Spitzer and WISE data to find new bow shocks in space. Only instead of searching for the arcs at the onset, they start by hunting down known speedy stars, and then they scan them for bow shocks.

“WISE and Spitzer have given us the best images of bow shocks so far,” said Peri. “In many cases, bow shocks that looked very diffuse before, can now be resolved, and, moreover, we can see some new details of the structures.”

Some of the first bow shocks from runaway stars were identified in the 1980s by David Van Buren of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He and his colleagues found them using infrared data from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), a predecessor to WISE that scanned the whole infrared sky in 1983. 

Kobulnicky and Chick belong to a larger team of researchers and students studying bow shocks and massive stars, including Matt Povich from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The National Science Foundation funds their research. 

Images from Spitzer, WISE and IRAS are archived at the NASA Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about Spitzer is online at:



More information about WISE is at:




Whopping Galaxy Cluster Spotted with Help of NASA Telescopes

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The galaxy cluster called MOO J1142+1527 can be seen here as it existed when light left it 8.5 billion years ago. The red galaxies at the center of the image make up the heart of the galaxy cluster. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini/CARMA


Astronomers have discovered a giant gathering of galaxies in a very remote part of the universe, thanks to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The galaxy cluster, located 8.5 billion light-years away, is the most massive structure yet found at such great distances.

Galaxy clusters are gravitationally bound groups of thousands of galaxies, which themselves each contain hundreds of billions of stars. The clusters grow bigger and bigger over time as they acquire new members.

How did these clusters evolve over time? What did they look like billions of years ago? To answer these questions, astronomers look back in time to our youthful universe. Because light takes time to reach us, we can see very distant objects as they were in the past. For example, we are seeing the newfound galaxy cluster — called Massive Overdense Object (MOO) J1142+1527 — as it existed 8.5 billion years ago, long before Earth formed.

As light from remote galaxies makes its way to us, it becomes stretched to longer, infrared wavelengths by the expansion of space. That’s where WISE andSpitzer help out.

For infrared space telescopes, picking out distant galaxies is like plucking ripe cherries from a cherry tree. In the infrared images produced by Spitzer, these distant galaxies stand out as red dots, while closer galaxies look white. Astronomers first combed through the WISE catalog to find candidates for clusters of distant galaxies. WISE catalogued hundreds of millions of objects in images taken over the entire sky from 2010 to 2011.

They then used Spitzer to narrow in on 200 of the most interesting objects, in a project named the “Massive and Distant Clusters of WISE Survey,” or MaDCoWS. Spitzer doesn’t observe the whole sky like WISE, but can see more detail.

“It’s the combination of Spitzer and WISE that lets us go from a quarter billion objects down to the most massive galaxy clusters in the sky,” said Anthony Gonzalez of the University of Florida in Gainesville, lead author of a new study published in the Oct. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

From these observations, MOO J1142+1527 jumped out as one of the most extreme.

The W.M. Keck Observatories and Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii were used to measure the distance to the cluster at 8.5 billion light-years. Using data from the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) telescopes near Owens Valley in California, the scientists were then able to determine that the cluster’s mass is a quadrillion times that of our sun — making it the most massive known cluster that far back in space and time.

MOO J1142+1527 may be one of only a handful of clusters of this heft in the early universe, according to the scientists’ estimates.

“Based on our understanding of how galaxy clusters grow from the very beginning of our universe, this cluster should be one of the five most massive in existence at that time,” said co-author Peter Eisenhardt, the project scientist for WISE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In the coming year, the team plans to sift through more than 1,700 additional galaxy cluster candidates with Spitzer, looking for biggest of the bunch.

“Once we find the most massive clusters, we can start to investigate how galaxies evolved in these extreme environments,” said Gonzalez.

JPL managed and operated WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. 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. JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations and data processing for Spitzer and NEOWISE take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about WISE is online at: http://www.nasa.gov/wise

More information about Spitzer is online at: http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer and http://spitzer.caltech.edu

Charting the Milky Way From the Inside Out

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Charting the Milky Way From the Inside Out
Imagine trying to create a map ofyour house while confined to only the living room. You might peek through the doors into other rooms or look for light spilling in through the windows. But, in the end, the walls and lack of visibility would largely prevent you from seeing the big picture.

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