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Late July Astronomy Bulletin
« on: July 25, 2021, 07:11 »

Researchers have discovered the fossilised remains of methane-cycling microbes that lived in a hydrothermal system beneath the sea floor 3.42 billion years ago. The microfossils are the oldest evidence for this type of life and expand the frontiers of potentially habitable environments on the early Earth, as well as other planets such as Mars. The study analysed microfossil specimens in two thin layers within a rock collected from the Barberton Greenstone Belt in South Africa. This region, near the border with Eswatini and Mozambique, contains some of the oldest and best-preserved sedimentary rocks found on our planet. The microfossils have a carbon-rich outer sheath and a chemically and structurally distinct core, consistent with a cell wall or membrane around intracellular or cytoplasmic matter. Researchers found exceptionally well-preserved evidence of fossilised microbes that appear to have flourished along the walls of cavities created by warm water from hydrothermal systems a few meters below the sea floor. Sub-surface habitats, heated by volcanic activity, are likely to have hosted some of Earth’s earliest microbial ecosystems and this is the oldest example that we have found to date. The interaction of cooler sea-water with warmer subsurface hydrothermal fluids would have created a rich chemical soup, with variations in conditions leading to multiple potential micro-habitats. The clusters of filaments were found at the tips of pointed hollows in the walls of the cavity, whereas the individual filaments were spread across the cavity floor.

Chemical analysis shows that the filaments include most of the major elements needed for life. The concentrations of nickel in organic compounds provide further evidence of primordial metabolisms and are consistent with nickel-content found in modern microbes, known as Archaea prokaryotes, that live in the absence of oxygen and use methane for their metabolism. Although we know that Archaea prokaryotes can be fossilised, we have extremely limited direct examples. The findings could extend the record of Archaea fossils for the first time into the era when life first emerged on Earth. As we also find similar environments on Mars, the study also has implications for astrobiology and the chances of finding life beyond Earth.

Cornell University

Scientists last autumn revealed that the gas phosphine was found in trace amounts in Venus' upper atmosphere. That discovery promised the slim possibility that phosphine serves as a biological signature for the hot, toxic planet. Now Cornell scientists say the phosphine's chemical fingerprints support a different and important scientific find: evidence of explosive volcanoes on the mysterious planet. The phosphine is not telling us about the biology of Venus - it's telling us about the geology. Science is pointing to a planet that has active explosive volcanism today or in the very recent past. Researchers argue that volcanism is the means for phosphine to get into Venus' upper atmosphere, after examining observations from the ground-based, submillimeter-wavelength James Clerk Maxwell Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile. Volcanism could supply enough phosphide to produce phosphine. The chemistry implies that phosphine derives from explosive volcanoes on Venus, not biological sources. Our planetary neighbour broils with an almost 500 C average surface temperature and features a carbon dioxide-filled atmosphere enveloped in sulphuric acid clouds, according to NASA. If Venus has phosphide -- a form of phosphorus present in the planet's deep mantle -- and, if it is brought to the surface in an explosive, volcanic way and then injected into the atmosphere, those phosphides react with the Venusian atmosphere's sulphuric acid to form phosphine. In 1978, on NASA's Pioneer Venus orbiter mission, scientists uncovered variations of sulphur dioxide in Venus' upper atmosphere, hinting at the prospect of explosive volcanism, Truong said, similar to the scale of Earth's Krakatoa volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1883.


A serendipitous flythrough of the tail of a disintegrated comet has offered scientists a unique opportunity to study these remarkable structures. Comet ATLAS fragmented just before its closest approach to the Sun last year, leaving its former tail trailing through space in the form of wispy clouds of dust and charged particles. The disintegration was observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in April 2020, but more recently the ESA spacecraft Solar Orbiter has flown close to the tail remnants in the course of its ongoing mission. This lucky encounter has presented researchers with a unique opportunity to investigate the structure of an isolated cometary tail. Using combined measurements from all of Solar Orbiter’s in-situ instruments, the scientists have reconstructed the encounter with ATLAS’s tail. The resulting model indicates that the ambient interplanetary magnetic field carried by the solar wind ‘drapes’ around the comet, and surrounds a central tail region with a weaker magnetic field.
Comets are typically characterized by two separate tails; one is the well-known bright and curved dust tail, the other - typically fainter - is the ion tail. The ion tail originates from the interaction between the cometary gas and the surrounding solar wind, the hot gas of charged particles that constantly blows from the Sun and permeates the whole Solar System.
When the solar wind interacts with a solid obstacle, like a comet, its magnetic field is thought to bend and ‘drape’ around it. The simultaneous presence of magnetic field draping and cometary ions released by the melting of the icy nucleus then produces the characteristic second ion tail, which can extend for large distances downstream from the comet’s nucleus.
This is the first comet tail detection occurring so close to the Sun - well inside the orbit of Venus. It is also one of the very few cases where scientists have been able to make direct measurements from a fragmented comet. Data from this encounter is expected to contribute greatly to our understanding of the interaction of comets with the solar wind and the structure and formation of their ion tails.

California Institute of Technology

Planetary astronomers combined measurements taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, with data from ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Earth-orbiting XMM-Newton mission, to solve a 40-year-old mystery about the origins of Jupiter’s unusual X-ray auroras. For the first time, they have seen the entire mechanism at work: The electrically charged atoms, or ions, responsible for the X-rays are “surfing” electromagnetic waves in Jupiter’s magnetic field down into the gas giant’s atmosphere. Auroras have been detected on seven planets in our solar system. Some of these light shows are visible to the human eye; others generate wavelengths of light we can only see with specialized telescopes. Shorter wavelengths require more energy to produce. Jupiter has the most powerful auroras in the solar system and is the only one of the four giant planets with an aurora that has been found to emit X-rays.


Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers have unambiguously detected the presence of a disc around a planet outside our Solar System for the first time. The observations will shed new light on how moons and planets form in young stellar systems. The disc in question, called a circumplanetary disc, surrounds the exoplanet PDS 70c, one of two giant, Jupiter-like planets orbiting a star nearly 400 light-years away. Astronomers had found hints of a “moon-forming” disc around this exoplanet before but, since they could not clearly tell the disc apart from its surrounding environment, they could not confirm its detection — until now. In addition, the team found that the disc has about the same diameter as the distance from our Sun to the Earth and enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon. But the results are not only key to finding out how moons arise. These new observations are also extremely important to prove theories of planet formation that could not be tested until now. Planets form in dusty discs around young stars, carving out cavities as they gobble up material from this circumstellar disc to grow. In this process, a planet can acquire its own circumplanetary disc, which contributes to the growth of the planet by regulating the amount of material falling onto it. At the same time, the gas and dust in the circumplanetary disc can come together into progressively larger bodies through multiple collisions, ultimately leading to the birth of moons.

PDS 70b and PDS 70c, the two planets making up the system, were first discovered using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and their unique nature means they have been observed with other telescopes and instruments many times since. The latest high resolution ALMA observations have now allowed astronomers to gain further insights into the system. In addition to confirming the detection of the circumplanetary disc around PDS 70c and studying its size and mass, they found that PDS 70b does not show clear evidence of such a disc, indicating that it was starved of dust material from its birth environment by PDS 70c. An even deeper understanding of the planetary system will be achieved with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction on Cerro Armazones in the Chilean Atacama desert.

University of Warwick

Astronomers have made the rare sighting of two stars spiralling to their doom by observing the tell-tale signs of a teardrop-shaped star. The shape is caused by a massive nearby white dwarf distorting the star with its intense gravity, which will also be the catalyst for an eventual supernova that will consume both. It is one of only very small number of star systems that has been discovered that will on published by the team today (12 July) in N e day see a white dwarf star reignite its core. New research confirms that the two stars are in the early stages of a spiral that will likely end in a Type Ia supernova, a type that helps astronomers determine how fast the universe is expanding. HD265435 is located roughly 1,500 light years away and comprises a hot subdwarf star and a white dwarf star orbiting each other closely at a rate of around 100 minutes. White dwarfs are 'dead' stars that have burnt out all their fuel and collapsed in on themselves, making them small but extremely dense. A type Ia supernova is generally thought to occur when a white dwarf star's core reignites, leading to a thermonuclear explosion. There are two scenarios where this can happen. In the first, the white dwarf gains enough mass to reach 1.4 times the mass of our Sun, known as the Chandrasekhar limit. HD265435 fits in the second scenario, in which the total mass of a close stellar system of multiple stars is near or above this limit. Only a handful of other star systems have been discovered that will reach this threshold and result in a Type Ia supernova. Using data from NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the team were able to observe the hot subdwarf, but not the white dwarf as the hot subdwarf is much brighter. However, that brightness varies over time which suggested the star was being distorted into a teardrop shape by a nearby massive object. Using radial velocity and rotational velocity measurements from the Palomar Observatory and the W. M. Keck Observatory, and by modelling the massive object's effect on the hot subdwarf, the astronomers could confirm that the hidden white dwarf is as heavy as our Sun, but just slightly smaller than the Earth's radius.

Combined with the mass of the hot subdwarf, which is a little over 0.6 times the mass of our Sun, both stars have the mass needed to cause a Type Ia supernova. As the two stars are already close enough to begin spiralling closer together, the white dwarf will inevitably go supernova in around 70 million years. Theoretical models produced specifically for this study predict that the hot subdwarf will contract to become a white dwarf star as well before merging with its companion. Type Ia supernovae are important for cosmology as 'standard candles'. Their brightness is constant and of a specific type of light, which means astronomers can compare what luminosity they should be with what we observe on Earth, and from that work out how distant they are with a good degree of accuracy. By observing supernovae in distant galaxies, astronomers combine what they know of how fast this galaxy is moving with our distance from the supernova and calculate the expansion of the Universe. The more we understand how supernovae work, the better we can calibrate our standard candles. This is very important at the moment because there's a discrepancy between what we get from this kind of standard candle, and what we get through other methods. The more we understand about how supernovae form, the better we can understand whether this discrepancy we are seeing is because of new physics that we're unaware of and not taking into account, or simply because we're underestimating the uncertainties in those distances. There is another discrepancy between the estimated and observed galactic supernovae rate, and the number of progenitors we see. We can estimate how many supernovae are going to be in our galaxy through observing many galaxies, or through what we know from stellar evolution, and this number is consistent. But if we look for objects that can become supernovae, we don't have enough. This discovery was very useful to put an estimate of what a hot subdwarf and white dwarf binaries can contribute. It still doesn't seem to be a lot, none of the channels observed seems to be enough.


The final stage of cataclysmic explosions of dying massive stars, called supernovae, could pack an up to six times bigger punch on the surrounding interstellar gas with the help of cosmic rays, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Oxford. When supernovae explode, they emit light and billions of particles into space. While the light can freely reach us, particles become trapped in spiral loops by magnetic shockwaves generated during the explosions. Crossing back and forth through shock fronts, these particles are accelerated almost to the speed of light and, on escaping the supernovae, are thought to be the source of the mysterious form of radiation known as cosmic rays. Due to their immense speed, cosmic rays experience strong relativistic effects, effectively losing less energy than regular matter and allowing them to travel great distances through a galaxy. Along the way, they affect the energy and structure of interstellar gas in their path and may play a crucial role in shutting down the formation of new stars in dense pockets of gas. However, to date, the influence of cosmic rays in galaxy evolution has not been well understood.

In the first high-resolution numerical study of its kind, the team ran simulations of the evolution of the shockwaves emanating from supernovae explosions over several million years. They found that cosmic rays can play a critical role in the final stages of a supernova’s evolution and its ability to inject energy into the galactic gas that surrounds it. Initially, the addition of cosmic rays does not appear to change how the explosion evolves. Nevertheless, when the supernova reaches the stage in which it cannot gain more momentum from the conversion of the supernova’s thermal energy to kinetic energy, the team found that cosmic rays can give an extra push to the gas, allowing for the final momentum imparted to be up to 4-6 times higher than previously predicted. The results suggest that gas outflows driven from the interstellar medium into the surrounding tenuous gas, or circumgalactic medium, will be dramatically more massive than previously estimated. Contrary to state-of-the-art theoretical arguments, the simulations also suggest that the extra push provided by cosmic rays is more significant when massive stars explode in low-density environments. This could facilitate the creation of super-bubbles powered by successive generations of supernovae, sweeping gas from the interstellar medium and venting it out of galactic discs. The results are a first look at the extraordinary new insights that cosmic rays will provide to our understanding of the complex nature of galaxy formation.”

University of Copenhagen - Faculty of Science

In the vicinity of a black hole, space curves so much that light rays are deflected, and very nearby light can be deflected so much that it travels several times around the black hole. Hence, when we observe a distant background galaxy (or some other celestial body), we may be lucky to see the same image of the galaxy multiple times, albeit more and more distorted. A distant galaxy shines in all directions -- some of its light comes close to the black hole and is lightly deflected; some light comes even closer and circumvolves the hole a single time before escaping down to us, and so on. Looking near the black hole, we see more and more versions of the same galaxy, the closer to the edge of the hole we are looking. How much closer to the black hole do you have to look from one image to see the next image? The result has been known for over 40 years, and is some 500 times (for the math aficionados, it is more accurately the "exponential function of two pi," written e2π). Calculating this is so complicated that, until recently, we had not yet developed a mathematical and physical intuition as to why it happens to be this exact factor. But using some clever, mathematical tricks, the Cosmic Dawn Center -- a basic research centre under both the Niels Bohr Institute and DTU Space -- has now succeeded in proving why. Proving something mathematically is not only satisfying in itself; indeed, it brings us closer to an understanding of this phenomenon. The factor "500" follows directly from how black holes and gravity work, so the repetitions of the images now become a way to examine and test gravity.

As a completely new feature, the method can also be generalized to apply not only to "trivial" black holes, but also to black holes that rotate. Which, in fact, they all do. It turns out that when it rotates really fast, you no longer have to get closer to the black hole by a factor 500, but significantly less. In fact, each image is now only 50, or 5, or even down to just 2 times closer to the edge of the black hole. Having to look 500 times closer to the black hole for each new image, means that the images are quickly "squeezed" into one annular image. In practice, the many images will be difficult to observe. But when black holes rotate, there is more room for the "extra" images, so we can hope to confirm the theory observationally in a not-too-distant future. In this way, we can learn about not just black holes, but also the galaxies behind them: The travel time of the light increases, the more times it has to go around the black hole, so the images become increasingly "delayed." If, for example, a star explodes as a supernova in a background galaxy, one would be able to see this explosion again and again.


Known as ultraluminous X-ray sources, the emitters are easy to spot when viewed straight on, but they might be hidden from view if they point even slightly away from Earth. Like a flashlight, they radiate primarily in one direction, and they look dramatically different depending on whether the beam points away from Earth (and nearby space telescopes) or straight at it. New data from NASA’s NuSTAR space observatory indicates that this phenomenon holds true for some of the most prominent X-ray emitters in the local universe: ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs. Most cosmic objects, including stars, radiate little X-ray light, particularly in the high-energy range seen by NuSTAR. ULXs, by contrast, are like X-ray lighthouses cutting through the darkness. To be considered a ULX, a source must have an X-ray luminosity that is about a million times brighter than the total light output of the Sun (at all wavelengths). ULXs are so bright, they can be seen millions of light-years away, in other galaxies. The new study shows that the object known as SS 433, located in the Milky Way galaxy and only about 20,000 light-years from Earth, is a ULX, even though it appears to be about 1,000 times dimmer than the minimum threshold to be considered one. This faintness is a trick of perspective, according to the study: The high-energy X-rays from SS 433 are initially confined within two cones of gas extending outward from opposite sides of the central object. These cones are similar to a mirrored bowl that surrounds a flashlight bulb: They corral the X-ray light from SS 433 into a narrow beam, until it escapes and is detected by NuSTAR. But because the cones are not pointing directly at Earth, NuSTAR can’t see the object’s full brightness. About 500 ULXs have been found in other galaxies, and their distance from Earth means it’s often nearly impossible to tell what type of object generates the X-ray emission. The X-rays likely come from a large amount of gas being heated to extreme temperatures as it is pulled in by the gravity of a very dense object. That object could be either a neutron star (the remains of a collapsed star) or a small black hole, one that is no more than about 30 times the mass of our Sun. The gas forms a disk around the object, like water circling a drain. Friction in the disk drives up the temperature, causing it to radiate, sometimes growing so hot that the system erupts with X-rays. The faster the material falls onto the central object, the brighter the X-rays.

Astronomers suspect that the object at the heart of SS 433 is a black hole about 10 times the mass of our Sun. What’s known for sure is that it is cannibalizing a large nearby star, its gravity siphoning away material at a rapid rate: In a single year SS 433 steals the equivalent of about 30 times the mass of Earth from its neighbor, which makes it the greediest black hole or neutron star known in our galaxy. The object in SS 433 has eyes bigger than its stomach: It’s stealing more material than it can consume. Some of the excess material gets blown off the disk and forms two hemispheres on opposite sides of the disk. Within each one is a cone-shaped void that opens up into space. These are the cones that corral the high-energy X-ray light into a beam. Anyone looking straight down one of the cones would see an obvious ULX. Though composed only of gas, the cones are so thick and massive that they act like lead paneling in an X-ray screening room and block X-rays from passing through them out to the side. Scientists have suspected that some ULXs might be hidden from view for this reason. SS 433 provided a unique chance to test this idea because, like a top, it wobbles on its axis – a process astronomers call precession. Most of the time, both of SS 433’s cones point well away from Earth. But because of the way SS 433 precesses, one cone periodically tilts slightly toward Earth, so scientists can see a little bit of the X-ray light coming out of the top of the cone. In the new study, the scientists looked at how the X-rays seen by NuSTAR change as SS 433 moves. They show that if the cone continued to tilt toward Earth so that scientists could peer straight down it, they would see enough X-ray light to officially call SS 433 a ULX. Black holes that feed at extreme rates have shaped the history of our universe. Supermassive black holes, which are millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun, can profoundly affect their host galaxy when they feed. Early in the universe’s history, some of these massive black holes may have fed as fast as SS 433, releasing huge amounts of radiation that reshaped local environments. Outflows (like the cones in SS 433) redistributed matter that could eventually form stars and other objects.


NEA Scout, a small spacecraft roughly the size of a large shoebox, has been packaged into a dispenser and attached to the adapter ring that connects the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. The Artemis I mission will be an uncrewed flight test. It also offers deep space transportation for several CubeSats, enabling opportunities for small spacecraft like NEA Scout to reach the Moon and beyond as part of the Artemis program. The CubeSat will use stainless steel alloy booms to deploy an aluminum-coated plastic film sail – thinner than a human hair and about the size of a racquetball court. The large-area sail will generate thrust by reflecting sunlight. Energetic particles of sunlight, called photons, bounce off the solar sail to give it a gentle yet constant push. Over time, this constant thrust can accelerate the spacecraft to very high speeds, allowing it to navigate through space and catch up to its target asteroid. Sailing on sunlight, NEA Scout will begin an approximate two-year journey to fly by a near-Earth asteroid. Once it reaches its destination, the spacecraft will use a science-grade camera to capture images of the asteroid – down to less than 10 centimetres per pixel – which scientists will then study to further our understanding of these small but important solar system neighbours. High-resolution imaging is made possible thanks to the low-velocity flyby less than 100 feet, or 30 metres per second) enabled by the solar sail.

Radboud University Nijmegen

Astronomers using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, which is known for capturing the first image of a black hole in the galaxy Messier 87, has now imaged the heart of the nearby radio galaxy Centaurus A in unprecedented detail. The astronomers pinpoint the location of the central supermassive black hole and reveal how a gigantic jet is being born. Most remarkably, only the outer edges of the jet seem to emit radiation, which challenges our theoretical models of jets. At radio wavelengths, Centaurus A emerges as one of the largest and brightest objects in the night sky. After it was identified as one of the first known extragalactic radio sources in 1949, Centaurus A has been studied extensively across the entire electromagnetic spectrum by a variety of radio, infrared, optical, X-ray, and gamma-ray observatories. At the centre of Centaurus A lies a black hole with the mass of 55 million suns, which is right between the mass scales of the Messier 87 black hole (six and a half billion suns) and the one in the centre of our own galaxy (about four million suns). Data from the 2017 EHT observations have been analyzed to image Centaurus A in unprecedented detail allowing astronomers for the first time to see and study an extragalactic radio jet on scales smaller than the distance light travels in one day. Astronomers see up close and personally how a monstrously gigantic jet launched by a supermassive black hole is being born.

Compared to all previous high-resolution observations, the jet launched in Centaurus A is imaged at a tenfold higher frequency and sixteen times sharper resolution. With the resolving power of the EHT, we can now link the vast scales of the source, which are as big as 16 times the angular diameter of the Moon on the sky, to their origin near the black hole in a region of merely the width of an apple on the Moon when projected on the sky. That is a magnification factor of one billion. Supermassive black holes residing in the centre of galaxies like Centaurus A are feeding off gas and dust that is attracted by their enormous gravitational pull. This process releases massive amounts of energy and the galaxy is said to become 'active'. Most matter lying close to the edge of the black hole falls in. However, some of the surrounding particles escape moments before capture and are blown far out into space: Jets -- one of the most mysterious and energetic features of galaxies -- are born. Astronomers have relied on different models of how matter behaves near the black hole to better understand this process. But they still do not know exactly how jets are launched from its central region and how they can extend over scales that are larger than their host galaxies without dispersing out. The EHT aims to resolve this mystery. The new image shows that the jet launched by Centaurus A is brighter at the edges compared to the centre. This phenomenon is known from other jets, but has never been seen so pronouncedly before.

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