Friday, July 29, 2011

Getting Ready for ALMA’s First Scientific Observations

The first European antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has reached new heights, having been transported to the observatory's Array Operations Site (AOS) on 27 July 2011. The 12-metre diameter antenna has arrived at the Chajnantor plateau, 5000 metres above sea level. Here, it joins antennas from the other international ALMA partners, bringing the total number at the AOS to 16.

Although 16 sounds like just another number, it is the number of antennas specified for ALMA to begin its first science observations, and is therefore an important milestone for the project. Soon, astronomers will begin conducting new scientific research with ALMA.

The antenna, manufactured by the European AEM Consortium [1] under contract from ESO, was handed over to the observatory in April at the Operations Support Facility (OSF), after six months of testing. The OSF is at an altitude of 2900 metres in the foothills of the Chilean Andes. There, it was equipped with highly sensitive detectors, cooled by liquid helium, and other necessary electronics. Now, one of the giant ALMA transporter vehicles has taken it 28km further, along the dry desert road to the AOS. The AOS is the last port of call in a long journey that began when the component parts of the antenna were manufactured in factories across Europe, under the rigorous oversight of ESO.

The ALMA Antenna Project Manager at ESO, Stefano Stanghellini said, "It's great to see the first European ALMA antenna reach Chajnantor. It is from this arid plateau that these masterpieces of technology will be used to study the cosmos."

ALMA's Early Science observations are planned to begin later this year. Although ALMA will still be under construction, the 16-antenna array that will be available already outmatches all other telescopes of this kind. Astronomers from around the world have submitted almost 1000 proposals for Early Science observations. This level of demand is about nine times the number of observations that are expected be carried out during the first phase of Early Science, which demonstrates how excited researchers are to use ALMA, even at this early stage.

The final step from the OSF to the Chajnantor plateau is a relatively short journey, but for ALMA it makes a great difference. The plateau's elevated location -- 2100 metres higher than the OSF -- gives it the extremely dry conditions that are vital for observing at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths, since these faint signals from space are easily absorbed by Earth's atmosphere.

While Chajnantor is perfect for ALMA, the extremely high altitude and lack of oxygen make it less pleasant for the site's human visitors. Although there is a Technical Building on Chajnantor -- it is in fact one of the highest buildings in the world -- the people working on ALMA do as much as possible from the lower altitude of the OSF, operating the telescope remotely.

When construction is completed in 2013, ALMA will have a total of 66 state-of-the-art antennas, which will work together as a single powerful telescope observing millimetre- and submillimetre-wavelength light. ALMA will help astronomers study the origins of planets, stars, galaxies and even the Universe itself, by observing cool molecular gas and dust in the Milky Way and beyond, as well as the relic radiation left over from the Big Bang.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

Twenty-five European ALMA antennas, including this one, are being provided by ESO through a contract with the European AEM Consortium. ALMA will also have 25 antennas provided by North America, and 16 by East Asia.

Eclipses Yield First Images of Elusive Iron Line in the Solar Corona

Solar physicists attempting to unlock the mysteries of the solar corona have found another piece of the puzzle by observing the sun's outer atmosphere during eclipses.

Ground-based observations reveal the first images of the solar corona in the near-infrared emission line of highly ionized iron, or Fe XI 789.2 nm. The observations were taken during total solar eclipses in 2006, 2008, and 2009 by astrophysicist Adrian Daw of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., with an international team of scientists led by Shadia Habbal from the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy (IfA).

"The first image of the corona in Fe XI 789.2 nm was taken during the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006," said Daw.

The images revealed some surprises. Most notably, that the emission extends out at least three solar radii -- that's one-and-a-half times the sun's width at its equator, or middle -- above the surface of the sun, and that there are localized regions of enhanced density for these iron ions.

Combined with observations of other iron charge states, the observations yield the two-dimensional distribution of electron temperature and charge-state measurements for the first time, and establish the first direct link between the distribution of charge states in the corona and in interplanetary space. "These are the first such maps of the 2-D distribution of coronal electron temperature and ion charge state," said Daw.

Mapping the distribution of electron temperature and iron charge states in the corona with total solar eclipse observations represents an important step in understanding the solar corona and how space weather impacts Earth.

The scientists' results will be presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting on January 4 in Washington and published in the January issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Solar Research Instrument 'Fills the Gap,' Views Sun's

During a total eclipse of the Sun, skywatchers are awed by the shimmering corona -- a faint glow that surrounds the Sun like gossamer flower petals. This outer layer of the Sun's atmosphere is, paradoxically, hotter than the Sun's surface, but so tenuous that its light is overwhelmed by the much brighter solar disk. The corona becomes visible only when the Sun is blocked, which happens for just a few minutes during an eclipse.

Now, an instrument on board NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), developed by Smithsonian scientists, is giving unprecedented views of the innermost corona 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

"We can follow the corona all the way down to the Sun's surface," said Leon Golub of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Previously, solar astronomers could observe the corona by physically blocking the solar disk with a coronagraph, much like holding your hand in front of your face while driving into the setting Sun. However, a coronagraph also blocks the area immediately surrounding the Sun, leaving only the outer corona visible.

The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument on SDO can "fill" this gap, allowing astronomers to study the corona all the way down to the Sun's surface. The resulting images highlight the ever-changing connections between gas captured by the Sun's magnetic field and gas escaping into interplanetary space.

The Sun's magnetic field molds and shapes the corona. Hot solar plasma streams outward in vast loops larger than Earth before plunging back onto the Sun's surface. Some of the loops expand and stretch bigger and bigger until they break, belching plasma outward.

"The AIA solar images, with better-than-HD quality views, show magnetic structures and dynamics that we've never seen before on the Sun," said CfA astronomer Steven Cranmer. "This is a whole new area of study that's just beginning."

Cranmer and CfA colleague Alec Engell developed a computer program for processing the AIA images above the Sun's edge. These processed images imitate the blocking-out of the Sun that occurs during a total solar eclipse, revealing the highly dynamic nature of the inner corona. They will be used to study the initial eruption phase of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) as they leave the Sun and to test theories of solar wind acceleration based on magnetic reconnection.

SDO is the first mission and crown jewel in a fleet of NASA missions to study our sun. The mission is the cornerstone of a NASA science program called Living with a Star, the goal of which is to develop the scientific understanding necessary to address those aspects of the sun-Earth system that directly affect our lives and society. Goddard Space Flight Center built, operates, and manages the SDO spacecraft for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Wave Power Can Drive Sun's Intense Heat

A new study sheds light on why the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, is more than 20 times hotter than its surface. The research, led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), may bring scientists a step closer to understanding the solar cycle and the Sun's impacts on Earth.

The study uses satellite observations to reveal that magnetic oscillations carrying energy from the Sun's surface into its corona are far more vigorous than previously thought. These waves are energetic enough to heat the corona and drive the solar wind, a stream of charged particles ejected from the Sun that affects the entire solar system.

"We now understand how hot mass can shoot upward from the solar interior, providing enough energy to maintain the corona at a million degrees and fire off particles into the high-speed solar wind," says Scott McIntosh, the study's lead author and a scientist in NCAR's High Altitude Observatory. "This new research will help us solve essential mysteries about how energy gets out of the Sun and into the solar system."

The study, published this week in the journal Nature, was conducted by a team of scientists from NCAR, Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Lab, Norway's University of Oslo, and Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven. It was funded by NASA. NCAR is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Jets and waves

The flow of mass and energy from the corona influences how much ultraviolet radiation reaches Earth. It also drives upper-atmospheric disturbances known as geomagnetic storms, which can disrupt technologies ranging from telecommunications to electrical transmission.

The new study focuses on the role of oscillations in the corona, known as Alfven waves, in moving energy through the corona.

Alfven waves were directly observed for the first time in 2007. Scientists recognized them as a mechanism for transporting energy upward along the Sun's magnetic field into the corona. But the 2007 observations showed amplitudes on the order of about 1,600 feet (0.5 kilometers) per second, far too small to heat the corona to its high levels or to drive the solar wind.

The new satellite observations used in the current study reveal Alfven waves that are over a hundred times stronger than previously measured, with amplitudes on the order of 12 miles (20 km) per second -- enough to heat the Sun's outer atmosphere to millions of degrees and drive the solar wind. The waves are easily seen in high-resolution images of the outer atmosphere as they cause high-speed jets of hot material, called spicules, to sway.

"The new satellite observations are giving us a close look for the first time at how energy and mass move through the Sun's outer atmosphere," McIntosh says.

The research builds on ongoing efforts to study the connection between spicules and Alfven waves. Scientists have known about spicules for decades but were unable to determine if their mass got hot enough to provide heat for the corona until earlier this year, when McIntosh and colleagues published research in the journal Science that used satellite observations to reveal that a new class of the phenomenon, dubbed "Type II" spicules, moves much faster and reaches coronal temperatures.

The new study reveals the role of Alfven waves. These oscillations play a critical role in transporting heat from the Sun by riding on the spicules and carrying energy into the corona.

Photographing our nearest star

The critical satellite observations described in the study come from the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, a package of instruments aboard NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which was launched in 2010. The instruments boast high spatial and temporal resolution, enough to detect structures and motions across regions of the Sun as small as 310 miles (500 km) and generate images every 12 seconds at different wavelengths.

"It's like getting a microscope to study the Sun's corona, giving us the spatial and temperature coverage to focus in on the way mass and energy circulate." McIntosh says.

Now that the real power of the waves has been revealed in the corona, the next step in unraveling the mystery of its extreme heat is to study how the waves lose their energy, which is transferred to plasma. To do that, scientists will need to develop computer models that are fine enough in detail to capture how the jets and waves work together to power the atmosphere. By studying the Sun's underlying physics with these tools, scientists could better understand the Sun's 11-year sunspot cycle and its impacts on Earth.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hubble's Neptune Photo

Today, Neptune has arrived at the same location in space where it was discovered nearly 165 years ago. To commemorate the event, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken these "anniversary pictures" of the blue-green giant planet.

Neptune is the most distant major planet in our solar system. German astronomer Johann Galle discovered the planet on September 23, 1846. At the time, the discovery doubled the size of the known solar system. The planet is 2.8 billion miles (4.5 billion kilometers) from the Sun, 30 times farther than Earth. Under the Sun's weak pull at that distance, Neptune plods along in its huge orbit, slowly completing one revolution approximately every 165 years.

These four Hubble images of Neptune were taken with the Wide Field Camera 3 on June 25-26, during the planet's 16-hour rotation. The snapshots were taken at roughly four-hour intervals, offering a full view of the planet. The images reveal high-altitude clouds in the northern and southern hemispheres. The clouds are composed of methane ice crystals.

The giant planet experiences seasons just as Earth does, because it is tilted 29 degrees, similar to Earth's 23-degree-tilt. Instead of lasting a few months, each of Neptune's seasons continues for about 40 years.

The snapshots show that Neptune has more clouds than a few years ago, when most of the clouds were in the southern hemisphere. These Hubble views reveal that the cloud activity is shifting to the northern hemisphere. It is early summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern hemisphere.

In the Hubble images, absorption of red light by methane in Neptune's atmosphere gives the planet its distinctive aqua color. The clouds are tinted pink because they are reflecting near-infrared light.

A faint, dark band near the bottom of the southern hemisphere is probably caused by a decrease in the hazes in the atmosphere that scatter blue light. The band was imaged by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989, and may be tied to circumpolar circulation created by high-velocity winds in that region.

The temperature difference between Neptune's strong internal heat source and its frigid cloud tops, about minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, might trigger instabilities in the atmosphere that drive large-scale weather changes.

Neptune has an intriguing history. It was Uranus that led astronomers to Neptune. Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, is Neptune's inner neighbor. British astronomer Sir William Herschel and his sister Caroline found Uranus in 1781, 55 years before Neptune was spotted. Shortly after the discovery, Herschel noticed that the orbit of Uranus did not match the predictions of Newton's theory of gravity. Studying Uranus in 1821, French astronomer Alexis Bouvard speculated that another planet was tugging on the giant planet, altering its motion.

Twenty years later, Urbain Le Verrier of France and John Couch Adams of England, who were mathematicians and astronomers, independently predicted the location of the mystery planet by measuring how the gravity of a hypothetical unseen object could affect Uranus's path. Le Verrier sent a note describing his predicted location of the new planet to the German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory. Over the course of two nights in 1846, Galle found and identified Neptune as a planet, less than a degree from Le Verrier's predicted position. The discovery was hailed as a major success for Newton's theory of gravity and the understanding of the universe.

Galle was not the first to see Neptune. In December 1612, while observing Jupiter and its moons with his handmade telescope, astronomer Galileo Galilei recorded Neptune in his notebook, but as a star. More than a month later, in January 1613, he noted that the "star" appeared to have moved relative to other stars. But Galileo never identified Neptune as a planet, and apparently did not follow up those observations, so he failed to be credited with the discovery.

Neptune is not visible to the naked eye, but may be seen in binoculars or a small telescope. It can be found in the constellation Aquarius, close to the boundary with Capricorn.

Neptune-mass planets orbiting other stars may be common in our Milky Way galaxy. NASA's Kepler mission, launched in 2009 to hunt for Earth-size planets, is finding increasingly smaller extrasolar planets, including many the size of Neptune.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Binary Star System Makes Dual Gamma-Ray Flares

In December 2010, a pair of mismatched stars in the southern constellation Crux whisked past each other at a distance closer than Venus orbits the sun. The system possesses a so-far unique blend of a hot and massive star with a compact fast-spinning pulsar. The pair's closest encounters occur every 3.4 years and each is marked by a sharp increase in gamma rays, the most extreme form of light.

The unique combination of stars, the long wait between close approaches, and periods of intense gamma-ray emission make this system irresistible to astrophysicists. Now, a team using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to observe the 2010 encounter reports that the system displayed fascinating and unanticipated activity.

"Even though we were waiting for this event, it still surprised us," said Aous Abdo, a Research Assistant Professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a leader of the research team.

Few pairings in astronomy are as peculiar as high-mass binaries, where a hot blue-white star many times the sun's mass and temperature is joined by a compact companion no bigger than Earth -- and likely much smaller. Depending on the system, this companion may be a burned-out star known as a white dwarf, a city-sized remnant called a neutron star (also known as a pulsar) or, most exotically, a black hole.

Just four of these "odd couple" binaries were known to produce gamma rays, but in only one of them did astronomers know the nature of the compact object. That binary consists of a pulsar designated PSR B1259-63 and a 10th-magnitude Be-type star known as LS 2883. The pair lies 8,000 light-years away.

The pulsar is a fast-spinning neutron star with a strong magnetic field. This combination powers a lighthouse-like beam of energy, which astronomers can easily locate if the beam happens to sweep toward Earth. The beam from PSR B1259-63 was discovered in 1989 by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. The neutron star is about the size of Washington, D.C., weighs about twice the sun's mass, and spins almost 21 times a second.

The pulsar follows an eccentric and steeply inclined orbit around LS 2883, which weighs roughly 24 solar masses and spans about nine times its size. This hot blue star sits embedded in a disk of gas that flows out from its equatorial region.

At closest approach, the pulsar passes less than 63 million miles from its star -- so close that it skirts the gas disk around the star's middle. The pulsar punches through the disk on the inbound leg of its orbit. Then it swings around the star at closest approach and plunges through the disk again on the way out.

"During these disk passages, energetic particles emitted by the pulsar can interact with the disk, and this can lead to processes that accelerate particles and produce radiation at different energies," said study co-author Simon Johnston of the Australia Telescope National Facility in Epping, New South Wales. "The frustrating thing for astronomers is that the pulsar follows such an eccentric orbit that these events only happen every 3.4 years."

In anticipation of the Dec. 15, 2010, closest approach, astronomers around the world mounted a multiwavelength campaign to observe the system over a broad energy range, from radio wavelengths to the most energetic gamma rays detectable. The observatories included Fermi and NASA's Swift spacecraft; the European space telescopes XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL; the Japan-U.S. Suzaku satellite; the Australia Telescope Compact Array; optical and infrared telescopes in Chile and South Africa; and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.), a ground-based observatory in Namibia that can detect gamma rays with energies of trillions of electron volts, beyond Fermi's range. (For comparison, the energy of visible light is between two and three electron volts.)

"When you know you have a chance of observing this system only once every few years, you try to arrange for as much coverage as you can," said Abdo, the principal investigator of the NASA-funded international campaign. "Understanding this system, where we know the nature of the compact object, may help us understand the nature of the compact objects in other, similar systems."

Despite monitoring of the system with the EGRET telescope aboard NASA's Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory in the 1990s, gamma-ray emission in the billion-electron-volt (GeV) energy range had never been seen from the binary.

Late last year, as the pulsar headed toward its massive companion, the Large Area Telescope (LAT) aboard Fermi discovered faint gamma-ray emission.

"During the first disk passage, which lasted from mid-November to mid-December, the LAT recorded faint yet detectable emission from the binary. We assumed that the second passage would be similar, but in mid-January 2011, as the pulsar began its second passage through the disk, we started seeing surprising flares that were many times stronger than those we saw before," Abdo said.

Stranger still, the system's output at radio and X-ray energies showed nothing unusual as the gamma-ray flares raged.

"The most intense days of the flare were Jan. 20 and 21 and Feb. 2, 2011," said Abdo. "What really surprised us is that on any of these days, the source was more than 15 times brighter than it was during the entire month-and-a-half-long first passage."

The study will appear in the July 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online.

"One great advantage of the Fermi LAT observations is the continuous monitoring of the source, which gives us the most complete gamma-ray observations of this system," said Julie McEnery, the Fermi project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Astronomers are continuing to analyze their bounty of data and working to understand the surprising flares. And in May 2014, when the pulsar once again approaches its giant companion, they'll be watching.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gamma-Ray Observatory Challenges Physics Beyond Einstein

The European Space Agency's Integral gamma-ray observatory has provided results that will dramatically affect the search for physics beyond Einstein. It has shown that any underlying quantum 'graininess' of space must be at much smaller scales than previously predicted

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity describes the properties of gravity and assumes that space is a smooth, continuous fabric. Yet quantum theory suggests that space should be grainy at the smallest scales, like sand on a beach.

One of the great concerns of modern physics is to marry these two concepts into a single theory of quantum gravity.

Now, Integral has placed stringent new limits on the size of these quantum 'grains' in space, showing them to be much smaller than some quantum gravity ideas would suggest.

According to calculations, the tiny grains would affect the way that gamma rays travel through space. The grains should 'twist' the light rays, changing the direction in which they oscillate, a property called polarisation.

High-energy gamma rays should be twisted more than the lower energy ones, and the difference in the polarisation can be used to estimate the size of the grains.

Philippe Laurent of CEA Saclay and his collaborators used data from Integral's IBIS instrument to search for the difference in polarisation between high- and low-energy gamma rays emitted during one of the most powerful gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) ever seen.

GRBs come from some of the most energetic explosions known in the Universe. Most are thought to occur when very massive stars collapse into neutron stars or black holes during a supernova, leading to a huge pulse of gamma rays lasting just seconds or minutes, but briefly outshining entire galaxies.

GRB 041219A took place on 19 December 2004 and was immediately recognised as being in the top 1% of GRBs for brightness. It was so bright that Integral was able to measure the polarisation of its gamma rays accurately.

Dr Laurent and colleagues searched for differences in the polarisation at different energies, but found none to the accuracy limits of the data.

Some theories suggest that the quantum nature of space should manifest itself at the 'Planck scale': the minuscule 10-35 of a metre, where a millimetre is 10-3 m.

However, Integral's observations are about 10 000 times more accurate than any previous and show that any quantum graininess must be at a level of 10-48 m or smaller.

"This is a very important result in fundamental physics and will rule out some string theories and quantum loop gravity theories," says Dr Laurent.

Integral made a similar observation in 2006, when it detected polarised emission from the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova explosion just 6500 light years from Earth in our own galaxy.

This new observation is much more stringent, however, because GRB 041219A was at a distance estimated to be at least 300 million light years.

In principle, the tiny twisting effect due to the quantum grains should have accumulated over the very large distance into a detectable signal. Because nothing was seen, the grains must be even smaller than previously suspected.

"Fundamental physics is a less obvious application for the gamma-ray observatory, Integral," notes Christoph Winkler, ESA's Integral Project Scientist. "Nevertheless, it has allowed us to take a big step forward in investigating the nature of space itself."

Now it's over to the theoreticians, who must re-examine their theories in the light of this new result.

Making a Spectacle of Star Formation

Looking like a pair of eyeglasses only a rock star would wear, a new nebula view brings into focus a murky region of star formation. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope exposes the depths of this dusty nebula with its infrared vision, showing stellar infants that are lost behind dark clouds when viewed in visible light.

Best known as Messier 78, the two round greenish nebulae are actually cavities carved out of the surrounding dark dust clouds. The extended dust is mostly dark, even to Spitzer's view, but the edges show up in mid-wavelength infrared light as glowing, red frames surrounding the bright interiors. Messier 78 is easily seen in small telescopes in the constellation of Orion, just to the northeast of Orion's belt, but looks strikingly different, with dominant, dark swaths of dust. Spitzer's infrared eyes penetrate this dust, revealing the glowing interior of the nebulae.

The light from young, newborn stars are starting to carve out cavities within the dust, and eventually, this will become a larger nebula like the "green ring" imaged by Spitzer (see

A string of baby stars that have yet to burn their way through their natal shells can be seen as red pinpoints on the outside of the nebula. Eventually these will blossom into their own glowing balls, turning this two-eyed eyeglass into a many-eyed monster of a nebula.

This is a three-color composite that shows infrared observations from two Spitzer instruments. Blue represents 3.6- and 4.5-micron light, and green shows light of 5.8 and 8 microns, both captured by Spitzer's infrared array camera. Red is 24-micron light detected by Spitzer's multiband imaging photometer.