Tag: stars

Hubble Discovery of Runaway Star Yields Clues to Breakup of Multiple-Star System

As British royal families fought the War of the Roses in the 1400s for control of England’s throne, a grouping of stars was waging its own contentious skirmish — a star war far away in the Orion Nebula.

The stars were battling each other in a gravitational tussle, which ended with the system breaking apart and at least three stars being ejected in different directions. The speedy, wayward stars went unnoticed for hundreds of years until, over the past few decades, two of them were spotted in infrared and radio observations, which could penetrate the thick dust in the Orion Nebula.

Three-panel hubble image shows star motion

This three-frame illustration shows how a grouping of stars can break apart, flinging the members into space. Panel 1: members of a multiple-star system orbiting each other. Panel 2: two of the stars move closer together in their orbits. Panel 3: the closely orbiting stars eventually either merge or form a tight binary. This event releases enough gravitational energy to propel all of the stars in the system outward, as shown in the third panel.

Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)

Now NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has helped astronomers find the final piece of the puzzle by nabbing a third runaway star. The astronomers followed the path of the newly found star back to the same location where the two previously known stars were located 540 years ago. The trio reside in a small region of young stars called the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, near the center of the vast Orion Nebula complex, located 1,300 light-years away.

“The new Hubble observations provide very strong evidence that the three stars were ejected from a multiple-star system,” said lead researcher Kevin Luhman of Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. “Astronomers had previously found a few other examples of fast-moving stars that trace back to multiple-star systems, and therefore were likely ejected. But these three stars are the youngest examples of such ejected stars. They’re probably only a few hundred thousand years old. In fact, based on infrared images, the stars are still young enough to have disks of material leftover from their formation.”

All three stars are moving extremely fast on their way out of the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, up to almost 30 times the speed of most of the nebula’s stellar inhabitants. Based on computer simulations, astronomers predicted that these gravitational tugs-of-war should occur in young clusters, where newborn stars are crowded together. “But we haven’t observed many examples, especially in very young clusters,” Luhman said. “The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.”

The team’s results will appear in the March 20, 2017 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Luhman stumbled across the third speedy star, called “source x,” while he was hunting for free-floating planets in the Orion Nebula as a member of an international team led by Massimo Robberto of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The team used the near-infrared vision of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to conduct the survey. During the analysis, Luhman was comparing the new infrared images taken in 2015 with infrared observations taken in 1998 by the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). He noticed that source x had changed its position considerably, relative to nearby stars over the 17 years between Hubble images, indicating the star was moving fast, about 130,000 miles per hour.

hubble nebula image with annotations and insets

The image by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a grouping of young stars, called the Trapezium Cluster (center). The box just above the Trapezium Cluster outlines the location of the three stars. A close-up of the stars is top right. The birthplace of the multi-star system is marked “initial position.” Two of the stars — labeled BN, and “I,” for source I — were discovered decades ago. Source I is embedded in thick dust and cannot be seen. The third star, “x,” for source x, was recently discovered to have moved noticeably between 1998 and 2015, as shown in the inset image at bottom right.

Credits: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman (Penn State University), and M. Robberto (STScI)

BN was discovered in infrared images in 1967, but its rapid motion wasn’t detected until 1995, when radio observations measured the star’s speed at 60,000 miles per hour. Source I is traveling roughly 22,000 miles per hour. The star had only been detected in radio observations; because it is so heavily enshrouded in dust, its visible and infrared light is largely blocked.

The three stars were most likely kicked out of their home when they engaged in a game of gravitational billiards, Luhman said. What often happens when a multiple system falls apart is that two of the member stars move close enough to each other that they merge or form a very tight binary. In either case, the event releases enough gravitational energy to propel all of the stars in the system outward. The energetic episode also produces a massive outflow of material, which is seen in the NICMOS images as fingers of matter streaming away from the location of the embedded source I star.

Future telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to observe a large swath of the Orion Nebula. By comparing images of the nebula taken by the Webb telescope with those made by Hubble years earlier, astronomers hope to identify more runaway stars from other multiple-star systems that broke apart.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

By The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md.

Editor: Karl Hille

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button


The Dawn of a New Era for Supernova 1987a

Three decades ago, astronomers spotted one of the brightest exploding stars in more than 400 years. The titanic supernova, called Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A), blazed with the power of 100 million suns for several months following its discovery on Feb. 23, 1987.

Since that first sighting, SN 1987A has continued to fascinate astronomers with its spectacular light show. Located in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud, it is the nearest supernova explosion observed in hundreds of years and the best opportunity yet for astronomers to study the phases before, during, and after the death of a star.

The video begins with a nighttime view of the Small and Large Magellanic clouds, satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. It then zooms into a rich star-birth region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Nestled between mountains of red-colored gas is the odd-looking structure of Supernova 1987A, the remnant of an exploded star that was first observed in February 1987. The site of the supernova is surrounded by a ring of material that is illuminated by a wave of energy from the outburst. Two faint outer rings are also visible. All three rings existed before the explosion as fossil relics of the doomed star’s activity in its final days.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of SN 1987A, new images, time-lapse movies, a data-based animation based on work led by Salvatore Orlando at INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo, Italy, and a three-dimensional model are being released. By combining data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory, as well as the international Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers — and the public — can explore SN 1987A like never before.

red nebula and stars
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows Supernova 1987A within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy to our Milky Way.
Credits: NASA, ESA, R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation), and M. Mutchler and R. Avila (STScI)
This time-lapse video sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images reveals dramatic changes in a ring of material around the exploded star Supernova 1987A. The images, taken from 1994 to 2016, show the effects of a shock wave from the supernova blast smashing into the ring. The ring begins to brighten as the shock wave hits it. The ring is about one light-year across.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation), and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Hubble has repeatedly observed SN 1987A since 1990, accumulating hundreds of images, and Chandra began observing SN 1987A shortly after its deployment in 1999. ALMA, a powerful array of 66 antennas, has been gathering high-resolution millimeter and submillimeter data on SN 1987A since its inception.

“The 30 years’ worth of observations of SN 1987A are important because they provide insight into the last stages of stellar evolution,” said Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, California.

The latest data from these powerful telescopes indicate that SN 1987A has passed an important threshold. The supernova shock wave is moving beyond the dense ring of gas produced late in the life of the pre-supernova star when a fast outflow or wind from the star collided with a slower wind generated in an earlier red giant phase of the star’s evolution. What lies beyond the ring is poorly known at present, and depends on the details of the evolution of the star when it was a red giant.

“The details of this transition will give astronomers a better understanding of the life of the doomed star, and how it ended,” said Kari Frank of Penn State University who led the latest Chandra study of SN 1987A.

Supernovas such as SN 1987A can stir up the surrounding gas and trigger the formation of new stars and planets. The gas from which these stars and planets form will be enriched with elements such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and iron, which are the basic components of all known life. These elements are forged inside the pre-supernova star and during the supernova explosion itself, and then dispersed into their host galaxy by expanding supernova remnants. Continued studies of SN 1987A should give a unique insight into the early stages of this dispersal.

Some highlights from studies involving these telescopes include:

Hubble studies have revealed that the dense ring of gas around the supernova is glowing in an optical light, and has a diameter of about a light-year. The ring was there at least 20,000 years before the star exploded. A flash of ultraviolet light from the explosion energized the gas in the ring, making it glow for decades.

The central structure visible inside the ring in the Hubble image has now grown to roughly half a light-year across. Most noticeable are two blobs of debris in the center of the supernova remnant racing away from each other at roughly 20 million miles an hour.

From 1999 until 2013, Chandra data showed an expanding ring of X-ray emission that had been steadily getting brighter. The blast wave from the original explosion has been bursting through and heating the ring of gas surrounding the supernova, producing X-ray emission.

In the past few years, the ring has stopped getting brighter in X-rays. From about February 2013 until the last Chandra observation analyzed in September 2015 the total amount of low-energy X-rays has remained constant. Also, the bottom left part of the ring has started to fade. These changes provide evidence that the explosion’s blast wave has moved beyond the ring into a region with less dense gas. This represents the end of an era for SN 1987A.

Beginning in 2012, astronomers used ALMA to observe the glowing remains of the supernova, studying how the remnant is actually forging vast amounts of new dust from the new elements created in the progenitor star. A portion of this dust will make its way into interstellar space and may become the building blocks of future stars and planets in another system.

These observations also suggest that dust in the early universe likely formed from similar supernova explosions.

Astronomers also are still looking for evidence of a black hole or a neutron star left behind by the blast. They observed a flash of neutrinos from the star just as it erupted. This detection makes astronomers quite certain a compact object formed as the center of the star collapsed — either a neutron star or a black hole — but no telescope has uncovered any evidence for one yet.

These latest visuals were made possible by combining several sources of information including simulations by Salvatore Orlando and collaborators that appear in this paper: https://arxiv.org/abs/1508.02275. The Chandra study by Frank et al. can be found online at http://lanl.arxiv.org/abs/1608.02160. Recent ALMA results on SN 87A are available at https://arxiv.org/abs/1312.4086.

The Chandra program is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. 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 ESA (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, Inc., in Washington.

ALMA is a partnership of ESO (representing its member states), NSF (USA) and NINS (Japan), together with NRC (Canada), NSC and ASIAA (Taiwan), and KASI (Republic of South Korea), in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. The Joint ALMA Observatory is operated by ESO, AUI/NRAO and NAOJ.

For visuals and more information about SN 1987A, visit:




Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
dweaver@stsci.edu / villard@stsci.edu
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514

Megan Watzke
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.

Rob Gutro
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Editor: Karl Hille

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

Hubble Witnesses Massive Comet-Like Object Pollute Atmosphere of a White Dwarf

For the first time, scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have witnessed a massive object with the makeup of a comet being ripped apart and scattered in the atmosphere of a white dwarf, the burned-out remains of a compact star. The object has a chemical composition similar to Halley’s Comet, but it is 100,000 times more massive and has a much higher amount of water. It is also rich in the elements essential for life, including nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and sulfur.

These findings are evidence for a belt of comet-like bodies orbiting the white dwarf, similar to our solar system’s Kuiper Belt. These icy bodies apparently survived the star’s evolution as it became a bloated red giant and then collapsed to a small, dense white dwarf.

As many as 25 to 50 percent of white dwarfs are known to be polluted with infalling debris from rocky, asteroid-like objects, but this is the first time a body made of icy, comet-like material has been seen polluting a white dwarf’s atmosphere.

The results also suggest the presence of unseen, surviving planets which may have perturbed the belt and worked as a “bucket brigade” to draw the icy objects into the white dwarf. The burned-out star also has a companion star, which may disturb the belt, causing objects from the belt to travel toward the burned-out star.

Siyi Xu of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, led the team that made the discovery. According to Xu, this was the first time that nitrogen was detected in the planetary debris that falls onto a white dwarf. “Nitrogen is a very important element for life as we know it,” Xu explained. “This particular object is quite rich in nitrogen, more so than any object observed in our solar system.”

Our own Kuiper Belt, which extends outward from Neptune’s orbit, is home to many dwarf planets, comets, and other small bodies left over from the formation of the solar system. Comets from the Kuiper Belt may have been responsible for delivering water and the basic building blocks of life to Earth billions of years ago.

The new findings are observational evidence supporting the idea that icy bodies are also present in other planetary systems, and have survived throughout the history of the star’s evolution.

To study the white dwarf’s atmosphere, the team used both Hubble and the W. M. Keck Observatory. The measurements of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, iron, nickel, and hydrogen all come from Hubble, while Keck provides the calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen. The ultraviolet vision of Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) allowed the team to make measurements that are very difficult to do from the ground.

This is the first object found outside our solar system that is akin to Halley’s Comet in composition. The team used the famous comet for comparison because it has been so well studied.

The white dwarf is roughly 170 light-years from Earth in the constellation Bootes, the Herdsman. It was first recorded in 1974 and is part of a wide binary system, with a companion star separated by 2,000 times the distance that the Earth is from the sun.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA Goddard manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about the exocomets and Hubble, visit:



For additional information, contact:

Ann Jenkins / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
410-338-4488 / 410-338-4514
jenkins@stsci.edu / villard@stsci.edu

Siyi Xu
European Southern Observatory

Editor: Karl Hille

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

NASA Finds Planets of Red Dwarf Stars May Face Oxygen Loss in Habitable Zones

The search for life beyond Earth starts in habitable zones, the regions around stars where conditions could potentially allow liquid water – which is essential for life as we know it – to pool on a planet’s surface. New NASA research suggests some of these zones might not actually be able to support life due to frequent stellar eruptions – which spew huge amounts of stellar material and radiation out into space – from young red dwarf stars.

Now, an interdisciplinary team of NASA scientists wants to expand how habitable zones are defined, taking into account the impact of stellar activity, which can threaten an exoplanet’s atmosphere with oxygen loss. This research was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Feb. 6, 2017.

“If we want to find an exoplanet that can develop and sustain life, we must figure out which stars make the best parents,” said Vladimir Airapetian, lead author of the paper and a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’re coming closer to understanding what kind of parent stars we need.”

To determine a star’s habitable zone, scientists have traditionally considered how much heat and light the star emits. Stars more massive than our sun produce more heat and light, so the habitable zone must be farther out. Smaller, cooler stars yield close-in habitable zones.

But along with heat and visible light, stars emit X-ray and ultraviolet radiation, and produce stellar eruptions such as flares and coronal mass ejections – collectively called space weather. One possible effect of this radiation is atmospheric erosion, in which high-energy particles drag atmospheric molecules – such as hydrogen and oxygen, the two ingredients for water – out into space. Airapetian and his team’s new model for habitable zones now takes this effect into account.

In this artist’s concept, X-ray and extreme ultraviolet light from a young red dwarf star cause ions to escape from an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Scientists have developed a model that estimates the oxygen ion escape rate on planets around red dwarfs, which plays an important role in determining an exoplanet’s habitability.
Credits: NASA Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab, Michael Lentz, animator/Genna Duberstein, producer

The search for habitable planets often hones in on red dwarfs, as these are the coolest, smallest and most numerous stars in the universe – and therefore relatively amenable to small planet detection.

“On the downside, red dwarfs are also prone to more frequent and powerful stellar eruptions than the sun,” said William Danchi, a Goddard astronomer and co-author of the paper. “To assess the habitability of planets around these stars, we need to understand how these various effects balance out.”

Another important habitability factor is a star’s age, say the scientists, based on observations they’ve gathered from NASA’s Kepler mission. Every day, young stars produce superflares, powerful flares and eruptions at least 10 times more powerful than those observed on the sun. On their older, matured counterparts resembling our middle-aged sun today, such superflares are only observed once every 100 years.

“When we look at young red dwarfs in our galaxy, we see they’re much less luminous than our sun today,” Airapetian said. “By the classical definition, the habitable zone around red dwarfs must be 10 to 20 times closer-in than Earth is to the sun. Now we know these red dwarf stars generate a lot of X-ray and extreme ultraviolet emissions at the habitable zones of exoplanets through frequent flares and stellar storms.”

Superflares cause atmospheric erosion when high-energy X-ray and extreme ultraviolet emissions first break molecules into atoms and then ionize atmospheric gases. During ionization, radiation strikes the atoms and knocks off electrons. Electrons are much lighter than the newly formed ions, so they escape gravity’s pull far more readily and race out into space.

Opposites attract, so as more and more negatively charged electrons are generated, they create a powerful charge separation that lures positively charged ions out of the atmosphere in a process called ion escape.

“We know oxygen ion escape happens on Earth at a smaller scale since the sun exhibits only a fraction of the activity of younger stars,” said Alex Glocer, a Goddard astrophysicist and co-author of the paper. “To see how this effect scales when you get more high-energy input like you’d see from young stars, we developed a model.”

The model estimates the oxygen escape on planets around red dwarfs, assuming they don’t compensate with volcanic activity or comet bombardment. Various earlier atmospheric erosion models indicated hydrogen is most vulnerable to ion escape. As the lightest element, hydrogen easily escapes into space, presumably leaving behind an atmosphere rich with heavier elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.

But when the scientists accounted for superflares, their new model indicates the violent storms of young red dwarfs generate enough high-energy radiation to enable the escape of even oxygen and nitrogen – building blocks for life’s essential molecules.

“The more X-ray and extreme ultraviolet energy there is, the more electrons are generated and the stronger the ion escape effect becomes,” Glocer said. “This effect is very sensitive to the amount of energy the star emits, which means it must play a strong role in determining what is and is not a habitable planet.”

Considering oxygen escape alone, the model estimates a young red dwarf could render a close-in exoplanet uninhabitable within a few tens to a hundred million years. The loss of both atmospheric hydrogen and oxygen would reduce and eliminate the planet’s water supply before life would have a chance to develop.

“The results of this work could have profound implications for the atmospheric chemistry of these worlds,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard space scientist not involved with the study. “The team’s conclusions will impact our ongoing studies of missions that would search for signs of life in the chemical composition of those atmospheres.”

Modeling the oxygen loss rate is the first step in the team’s efforts to expand the classical definition of habitability into what they call space weather-affected habitable zones. When exoplanets orbit a mature star with a mild space weather environment, the classical definition is sufficient. When the host star exhibits X-ray and extreme ultraviolet levels greater than seven to 10 times the average emissions from our sun, then the new definition applies. The team’s future work will include modeling nitrogen escape, which may be comparable to oxygen escape since nitrogen is just slightly lighter than oxygen.

The new habitability model has implications for the recently discovered planet orbiting the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. Airapetian and his team applied their model to the roughly Earth-sized planet, dubbed Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri 20 times closer than Earth is to the sun.

Considering the host star’s age and the planet’s proximity to its host star, the scientists expect that Proxima b is subjected to torrents of X-ray and extreme ultraviolet radiation from superflares occurring roughly every two hours. They estimate oxygen would escape Proxima b’s atmosphere in 10 million years. Additionally, intense magnetic activity and stellar wind – the continuous flow of charged particles from a star – exacerbate already harsh space weather conditions. The scientists concluded that it’s quite unlikely Proxima b is habitable.

“We have pessimistic results for planets around young red dwarfs in this study, but we also have a better understanding of which stars have good prospects for habitability,” Airapetian said. “As we learn more about what we need from a host star, it seems more and more that our sun is just one of those perfect parent stars, to have supported life on Earth.”


Editor: Rob Garner


Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

NuSTAR Helps Solve ‘Rapid Burster’ Mystery

Scientists observing a neutron star in the “Rapid Burster” system may have solved a 40-year-old mystery surrounding its puzzling X-ray bursts.

Discovered in the 1970s, the Rapid Burster is a binary system comprising a low-mass star in its prime and a neutron star — the compact remnant of a massive star’s demise. The gravitational pull of the neutron star strips its companion of some of its gas, which then forms an accretion disk and spirals toward the neutron star.

Most neutron star binary systems continuously release large amounts of X-rays, punctuated by additional X-ray flashes every few hours or days. But scientists have wondered for decades about what accounts for the Rapid Burster’s sudden, erratic and extremely intense X-ray emissions — a phenomenon seen only in one other binary system.

In the new study, researchers discovered that the neutron star’s magnetic field creates a gap between the star and the disk around it, largely preventing it from feeding on matter from its stellar companion. Gas builds up until, under certain conditions, it hits the neutron star all at once, producing intense flashes of X-rays.

The new results provide the first evidence for what causes these so-called “type-II” bursts. The discovery was made with the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton mission and NASA’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) and Swift missions.

Full ESA story

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Jakob van den Eijnden
Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Additional contacts:
Nathalie Degenaar/Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands–degenaar@uva.nl

Norbert Schartel/European Space Agency, Villanueva de la Cañada (Madrid)
Norbert.Schartel@esa.int  +34-91-8131-184

Written by C. Mignone/ESA

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist
Buy Now Button

Star Birth With a Chance of Winds?

The lesser-known constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs), is home to a variety of deep-sky objects — including this beautiful galaxy, known as NGC 4861. Astronomers are still debating on how to classify it. While its physical properties — such as mass, size and rotational velocity — indicate it to be a spiral galaxy, its appearance looks more like a comet with its dense, luminous “head” and dimmer “tail” trailing off. Features more fitting with a dwarf irregular galaxy.

Although small and messy, galaxies like NGC 4861 provide astronomers with interesting opportunities for study. Small galaxies have lower gravitational potentials, which simply means that it takes less energy to move stuff about inside them than it does in other galaxies. As a result, moving in, around, and through such a tiny galaxy is quite easy to do, making them far more likely to be filled with streams and outflows of speedy charged particles known as galactic winds, which can flood such galaxies with little effort.

These galactic winds can be powered by the ongoing process of star formation, which involves huge amounts of energy. New stars are springing into life within the bright, colorful ‘head’ of NGC 4861 and ejecting streams of high-speed particles as they do so, which flood outwards to join the wider galactic wind. While NGC 4861 would be a perfect candidate to study such winds, recent studies did not find any galactic winds in it.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Text credit: European Space Agency

Editor: Karl Hille
Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

Hubble Detects Giant ‘Cannonballs’ Shooting from Star

Great balls of fire! NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has detected superhot blobs of gas, each twice as massive as the planet Mars, being ejected near a dying star. The plasma balls are zooming so fast through space it would take only 30 minutes for them to travel from Earth to the moon. This stellar “cannon fire” has continued once every 8.5 years for at least the past 400 years, astronomers estimate.

The fireballs present a puzzle to astronomers because the ejected material could not have been shot out by the host star, called V Hydrae. The star is a bloated red giant, residing 1,200 light-years away, which has probably shed at least half of its mass into space during its death throes. Red giants are dying stars in the late stages of life that are exhausting their nuclear fuel that makes them shine. They have expanded in size and are shedding their outer layers into space.

four part graphic showing illustrations of stellar activity
This four-panel graphic illustrates how the binary-star system V Hydrae is launching balls of plasma into space. Panel 1 shows the two stars orbiting each other. One of the stars is nearing the end of its life and has swelled in size, becoming a red giant. In panel 2, the smaller star’s orbit carries the star into the red giant’s expanded atmosphere. As the star moves through the atmosphere, it gobbles up material from the red giant, which settles into a disk around the star. The buildup of material reaches a tipping point and is eventually ejected as blobs of hot plasma along the star’s spin axis, shown in panel 3. This ejection process is repeated every eight years, the time it takes for the orbiting star to make another pass through the bloated red giant’s envelope, shown in panel 4.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

The current best explanation suggests the plasma balls were launched by an unseen companion star. According to this theory, the companion would have to be in an elliptical orbit that carries it close to the red giant’s puffed-up atmosphere every 8.5 years. As the companion enters the bloated star’s outer atmosphere, it gobbles up material. This material then settles into a disk around the companion and serves as the launching pad for blobs of plasma, which travel at roughly a half-million miles per hour.

This star system could be the archetype to explain a dazzling variety of glowing shapes uncovered by Hubble that are seen around dying stars, called planetary nebulae, researchers say. A planetary nebula is an expanding shell of glowing gas expelled by a star late in its life.

“We knew this object had a high-speed outflow from previous data, but this is the first time we are seeing this process in action,” said Raghvendra Sahai of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, lead author of the study. “We suggest that these gaseous blobs produced during this late phase of a star’s life help make the structures seen in planetary nebulae.”

Hubble observations over the past two decades have revealed an enormous complexity and diversity of structure in planetary nebulae. The telescope’s high resolution captured knots of material in the glowing gas clouds surrounding the dying stars. Astronomers speculated that these knots were actually jets ejected by disks of material around companion stars that were not visible in the Hubble images. Most stars in our Milky Way galaxy are members of binary systems. But the details of how these jets were produced remained a mystery.

“We want to identify the process that causes these amazing transformations from a puffed-up red giant to a beautiful, glowing planetary nebula,” Sahai said. “These dramatic changes occur over roughly 200 to 1,000 years, which is the blink of an eye in cosmic time.”

Sahai’s team used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to conduct observations of V Hydrae and its surrounding region over an 11-year period, first from 2002 to 2004, and then from 2011 to 2013. Spectroscopy decodes light from an object, revealing information on its velocity, temperature, location, and motion.

The data showed a string of monstrous, super-hot blobs, each with a temperature of more than 17,000 degrees Fahrenheit – almost twice as hot as the surface of the sun.

The researchers compiled a detailed map of the blobs’ location, allowing them to trace the first behemoth clumps back to 1986. “The observations show the blobs moving over time,” Sahai said. “The STIS data show blobs that have just been ejected, blobs that have moved a little farther away, and blobs that are even farther away.” STIS detected the giant structures as far away as 37 billion miles away from V Hydrae, more than eight times farther away than the Kuiper Belt of icy debris at the edge of our solar system is from the sun.

The blobs expand and cool as they move farther away, and are then not detectable in visible light. But observations taken at longer sub-millimeter wavelengths in 2004, by the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, revealed fuzzy, knotty structures that may be blobs launched 400 years ago, the researchers said.

Based on the observations, Sahai and his colleagues Mark Morris of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Samantha Scibelli of the State University of New York at Stony Brook developed a model of a companion star with an accretion disk to explain the ejection process.

“This model provides the most plausible explanation because we know that the engines that produce jets are accretion disks,” Sahai explained. “Red giants don’t have accretion disks, but many most likely have companion stars, which presumably have lower masses because they are evolving more slowly. The model we propose can help explain the presence of bipolar planetary nebulae, the presence of knotty jet-like structures in many of these objects, and even multipolar planetary nebulae. We think this model has very wide applicability.”

A surprise from the STIS observation was that the disk does not fire the monster clumps in exactly the same direction every 8.5 years. The direction flip-flops slightly from side-to-side to back-and-forth due to a possible wobble in the accretion disk. “This discovery was quite surprising, but it is very pleasing as well because it helped explain some other mysterious things that had been observed about this star by others,” Sahai said.

Astronomers have noted that V Hydrae is obscured every 17 years, as if something is blocking its light. Sahai and his colleagues suggest that due to the back-and-forth wobble of the jet direction, the blobs alternate between passing behind and in front of V Hydrae. When a blob passes in front of V Hydrae, it shields the red giant from view.

“This accretion disk engine is very stable because it has been able to launch these structures for hundreds of years without falling apart,” Sahai said. “In many of these systems, the gravitational attraction can cause the companion to actually spiral into the core of the red giant star. Eventually, though, the orbit of V Hydrae’s companion will continue to decay because it is losing energy in this frictional interaction. However, we do not know the ultimate fate of this companion.”

The team hopes to use Hubble to conduct further observations of the V Hydrae system, including the most recent blob ejected in 2011. The astronomers also plan to use the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to study blobs launched over the past few hundred years that are now too cool to be detected with Hubble.

The team’s results appeared in the August 20, 2016, issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

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, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about V Hydrae and Hubble, visit:



For additional information, contact:

Felicia Chou
NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514
dweaver@stsci.edu / villard@stsci.edu

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Photo Credit: NASA

Editor: Karl Hille

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist
Buy Now Button