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  • richardmitnick 4:55 am on October 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Australia Telescope Compact Array, , , , , , Neutron stars   

    From CSIRO blog: “Global collaboration is making waves in space” 

    CSIRO bloc

    CSIRO blog

    17 October 2017
    Tanya Griffiths

    CSIRO ATCA at the Paul Wild Observatory, about 25 km west of the town of Narrabri in rural NSW about 500 km north-west of Sydney, AU

    Gravitational waves – ripples in space-time produced by massive, accelerating bodies like orbiting black holes or neutron stars – were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago and first observed in 2015. That detection, of a pair of merging black holes, recently netted the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

    Today’s news that a fifth gravitational wave event has been detected by the international LIGO-Virgo team adds crucial new details to our understanding of the Universe.

    VIRGO Gravitational Wave interferometer, near Pisa, Italy

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA

    Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib

    ESA/eLISA the future of gravitational wave research

    Skymap showing how adding Virgo to LIGO helps in reducing the size of the source-likely region in the sky. (Credit: Giuseppe Greco (Virgo Urbino group)

    Telescopes around the world made follow-up observations of this latest event and, for the first time, detected electromagnetic radiation – gamma-rays, light, radio waves and more – along with the gravitational waves.

    An Australian group led by Associate Professor Tara Murphy from the University of Sydney and the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics used our Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri in NSW to confirm radio-wave emission from a gravitational wave event discovered on 17 August this year. Their research is published today in the journal Science.

    This is significant because it allows astronomers to determine where the gravitational-wave event took place. Professor Murphy’s team has used more than 40 hours of observing time on the Compact Array over several weeks. Thanks to the telescope’s ‘Target of Opportunity’ system, once alerted to the gravitational-wave event the team was able to quickly gain permission to override scheduled observations and begin using the telescope as soon as the source had risen in the sky above Australia.

    Aerial image of one of the unique L-shaped LIGO Observatories in the US – the Livingston Detector Site. Image: altech MIT LIGO Lab [?].

    The observations suggest that the event that created the gravitational waves was the merger of two neutron stars on the outskirts of the galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years away. Douglas Bock, Director of our Astronomy and Space Science, said this extraordinary detection by an Australian team, using Australian facilities, made a significant contribution to the global discovery.

    “Running a national facility involves providing researchers with access – fast – so they can monitor unexpected astronomical events of extraordinary scientific interest,” Douglas said.

    The radio source has remained and will continue to be monitored. How much it strengthens and when it reaches peak strength will allow astronomers to better understand the physics of the event. The LIGO team’s detection of gravitational waves – now totalling five separate events – was made possible by thousands of international researchers who’ve contributed to the project, including our own.

    LIGO technician inspecting one of LIGO’s core optics (mirrors) by illuminating its surface with light at a glancing angle. Image: Matt Heintze Caltech MIT LIGO Lab

    Our Manufacturing team was responsible for coating many of the optics used in the ‘Advanced LIGO’ instrumentation including ultra-high performance optical mirrors to give the required reflective properties and thermal shielding. We continue to be one of the only research groups in the world able to deliver to this level of precision.

    Of these latest achievements, our Chief Executive Larry Marshall said “This landmark discovery is an excellent example of the breakthroughs that can be achieved when great minds and organisations unite.

    “As Australia’s national science agency we are proud to have delivered the unique optics that helped enable the original discovery, and are excited to continue supporting the global community through the delivery of excellent science and world-class facilities like the Compact Array whose applications are as unlimited as space itself.”

    See the full article here .

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    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

    The CSIRO blog is designed to entertain, inform and inspire by generally digging around in the work being done by our terrific scientists, and leaving the techie speak and jargon for the experts.

    We aim to bring you stories from across the vast breadth and depth of our organisation: from the wild sea voyages of our Research Vessel Investigator to the mind-blowing astronomy of our Space teams, right through all the different ways our scientists solve national challenges in areas as diverse as Health, Farming, Tech, Manufacturing, Energy, Oceans, and our Environment.

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  • richardmitnick 7:51 pm on October 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astronomers proposed the existence of neutron stars in 1934, , , , , , , , , Neutron stars, Neutron stars have some of the strongest gravity you’ll find – black holes have the strongest, ,   

    From Stanford: “Stanford experts on LIGO’s binary neutron star milestone” 

    Stanford University Name
    Stanford University

    October 16, 2017
    Taylor Kubota
    (650) 724-7707

    On August 17, 2017, the two detectors of Advanced LIGO, along with VIRGO, zeroed in on what appeared to be gravitational waves emanating from a pair of neutron stars spinning together – a long-held goal for the LIGO team.

    VIRGO Gravitational Wave interferometer, near Pisa, Italy

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA

    Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib

    ESA/eLISA the future of gravitational wave research

    Skymap showing how adding Virgo to LIGO helps in reducing the size of the source-likely region in the sky. (Credit: Giuseppe Greco (Virgo Urbino group)

    An alert went out to collaborators worldwide and within hours some 70 instruments turned their sites on the location a mere 310 million light-years away.

    Artist’s rendering of two merging neutron stars. The rippling space-time grid represents gravitational waves that travel out from the collision, while the narrow beams show the bursts of gamma rays that are shot out just seconds after the gravitational waves. Swirling clouds of material ejected from the merging stars glow with visible and other wavelengths of light. (Image credit: NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

    Their combined observations, spanning the electromagnetic spectrum, confirm some of what physicists had theorized about this type of event and also open up new areas of research. Thousands of scientists contributed to this accomplishment, including many at Stanford University, and published the initial findings Oct. 16 in Physical Review Letters and The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    [For science papers, see https://sciencesprings.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/from-hubble-nasa-missions-catch-first-light-from-a-gravitational-wave-event/ ]

    “It’s a frighteningly disordered, energetic place out there in the universe and gravitational waves added a new dimension to looking at it,” said Robert Byer, professor of applied physics at Stanford and member of LIGO who provided the laser for the initial detector. “For this event, that new dimension was complemented by the signals from the other electromagnetic wavelengths and all those together gave us a completely different view of what’s going on inside the neutron stars as they merged.”

    This observation and the others that are likely to follow could help further the understanding of General Relativity, the origins of elements heavier than iron, the evolution of stars and black holes, relativistic jets that squirt from black holes and neutron stars, and the Hubble constant, which is the cosmological parameter which determines the expansion rate of the universe.

    Stanford and LIGO

    LIGO is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, but Stanford was brought into the collaboration in 1988, largely due to the ultra-clean, stable lasers developed by Byer. The Byer lab developed the chip for the laser in the initial LIGO detector, which they installed in the early 2000s and lasted the lifetime of the initial LIGO project, which concluded in 2010. Lasers for the Advanced LIGO built upon Byer’s earlier work, an effort led by Benno Wilkie of the Albert Einstein Institute Hannover, a former postdoctoral scholar in Stanford’s Ginzton lab.

    “We were looking for the problems that LIGO couldn’t actually worry about yet. We wanted to find those and solve them before they became roadblocks,” said Byer. “One thing that allowed Stanford to contribute to LIGO in these extraordinary ways is we have this long tradition of engineering and science working together – and that’s not common. Great credit also goes to our extraordinary graduate students who are the glue that hold it all together.”

    Daniel DeBra, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics, designed the original platform for LIGO, a nested system so stable that, in the LIGO detection band, it moves no more than an atom relative to the movement of Earth’s surface. Another crucial element of the vibration isolation system is the silicate bonding technique used to suspend LIGO’s mirrors. As a visiting scholar at Stanford, Sheila Rowan of the University of Glasgow adapted this technique from previous work at Stanford on the Gravity Probe B telescope.

    The Dark Energy Camera (DECam), the instrument used by the Dark Energy Survey, was among the first cameras to see in optical light what the LIGO-VIRGO detectors observed in gravitational waves earlier that morning.

    Dark Energy Survey

    Dark Energy Camera [DECam], built at FNAL

    NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile, housing DECam at an altitude of 7200 feet

    DECam imaged the entire area within which the object was expected to be and helped confirm that the event was a unique object – and very likely the event LIGO had seen earlier that day.

    Many people at Stanford and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are part of the Dark Energy Survey team. Aaron Roodman, professor and chair of particle physics and astrophysics at SLAC, developed, commissioned and continues to optimize the Active Optics System of DECam.

    Looking to the future, DeBra and colleagues including Brian Lantz, a senior research scientist who leads the Engineering Test Facility for LIGO at Stanford, are improving signal detection of Advanced LIGO by damping the effects of vibrations on the optics.

    Other faculty are improving the sensitivity of the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT), a instrument helmed by Peter Michelson, a professor of physics, that can both confirm the existence of a binary neutron star system and rule out other possible sources. Its sister instrument on Fermi, the Gamma-Ray Burst Monitor, detected a gamma ray burst coming from the location given by LIGO and VIRGO 14 seconds after the gravitational wave signal.

    LIGO is offline for scheduled upgrades for the next year, but many of the researchers are already working on LIGO Voyager, the third-generation of LIGO, which is anticipated to increase the sensitivity by a factor of 2 and would lead to an estimated 800 percent increase in event rate.

    “This is only a beginning. There are many innovations to come and I don’t know where we’re going to be in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years,” said Michelson. “The window is open and there are going to be mind-blowing surprises. That, to me, is the most exciting.”

    What’s so special about neutron stars

    A neutron star results when the core of a large star collapses and the atoms get crushed. The protons and electrons squeeze together and the remaining star is about 95 percent neutrons. A tablespoon full of neutron stars weighs as much as Mt. Everest.

    “Neutron stars have some of the strongest gravity you’ll find – black holes have the strongest – and thus they give us handles on studying strong-field gravity around them to see if it deviates at all from General Relativity,” said Mandeep Gill, the outreach coordinator at KIPAC at SLAC and Stanford, and a member of the Dark Energy Survey collaboration.

    Astronomers proposed the existence of neutron stars in 1934. They were first found in 1967, and then in 1975 a radio telescope observed the first instance of a binary neutron star system. From that discovery, Roger Blandford, professor of physics at Stanford, and colleagues confirmed predictions of the General Theory of Relativity.

    Blandford said the calculations related to the system Advanced LIGO saw are even more complicated because the stars are much closer together and could only be completed by a computer. This observation continues to support the General Theory of Relativity but Gill is hopeful that additional binary neutron star systems may begin to inform extension to the theory that could reveal how it fits with quantum theory, dark energy and dark matter.

    “One of the things I find terribly exciting about these observations is that not only do they confirm aspects of astronomical and relativistic precepts but they actually teach us things about nuclear physics that we don’t properly understand,” said Blandford. “We certainly have many things that we’ve speculated about and thought about – and I have to believe that some of that will be right – but some of it will be much more interesting than what we could anticipate.”

    As we observe more of these systems, which scientists anticipate, we may finally understand long-standing mysteries of neutron stars, like whether they have earthquakes on their crust or if, as suspected, they have small mountains that send out their own gravitational wave signal.

    “Even though we’ve been doing astronomy since the dawn of civilization, every time we turn on new instruments, we learn new things about what’s going on in the universe,” said Lantz. “If the elements heavier than iron are actually made in events like this, that stuff is here on Earth and it’s likely that was generated by events like this. It gives you sort of a way to reach out and touch the stars.”

    Blandford is also KIPAC Division Director in the Particle Physics and Astrophysics Directorate and professor of particle physics and astrophysics at SLAC; Byer is also a professor in SLAC’s Photon Science Directorate.

    Additional Stanford contributors to the LIGO multi-messenger observation include Edgard Bonilla, Riccardo Bassiri, Elliot Bloom, David Burke, Robert Cameron, James Chiang, Carissa Cirelli, C.E. Cunha, Christopher Davis, Seth Digel, Mattia Di Mauro, Richard Dubois, Martin Fejer, Warren Focke, Thomas Glanzman, Daniel Gruen, Ashot Markosyan, Manuel Meyer, Igor Moskalenko, Nicola Omedai, Elena Orlando, Troy Porter, Anita Reimer, Olaf Reimer, Leon Rochester, Aaron Roodman, Eli Rykoff, Brett Shapiro, Rafe Schindler, Jana B. Thayer, John Gregg Thayer, Giacomo Vianello and Risa Wechsler.

    See the full article here .

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    Leland and Jane Stanford founded the University to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.” Stanford opened its doors in 1891, and more than a century later, it remains dedicated to finding solutions to the great challenges of the day and to preparing our students for leadership in today’s complex world. Stanford, is an American private research university located in Stanford, California on an 8,180-acre (3,310 ha) campus near Palo Alto. Since 1952, more than 54 Stanford faculty, staff, and alumni have won the Nobel Prize, including 19 current faculty members

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  • richardmitnick 11:57 am on July 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Neutron stars, NICER-Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer   

    From Goddard: “NASA Neutron Star Mission Begins Science Operations” 

    NASA Goddard Banner
    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    Clare Skelly
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

    This time-lapse animation shows NICER being extracted from the SpaceX Dragon trunk on June 11, 2017. Credits: NASA.

    NASA’s new Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission to study the densest observable objects in the universe has begun science operations.

    Launched June 3 on an 18-month baseline mission, NICER will help scientists understand the nature of the densest stable form of matter located deep in the cores of neutron stars using X-ray measurements.

    NICER operates around the clock on the International Space Station (ISS). In the two weeks following launch, NICER underwent extraction from the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, robotic installation on ExPRESS Logistics Carrier 2 on board ISS and initial deployment. Commissioning efforts began June 14, as NICER deployed from its stowed launch configuration. All systems are functioning as expected.

    “No instrument like this has ever been built for the space station,” said Keith Gendreau, the principal investigator for NICER at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “As we transition from an instrument development project to a science investigation, it is important to recognize the fantastic engineering and instrument team who built a payload that delivers on all the promises made.”

    To date, NICER has observed over 40 celestial targets. These objects were used to calibrate the X-ray Timing Instrument and supporting star-tracker camera. The observations also validated the payload’s performance that will enable its key science measurements.

    Several cameras on the International Space Station have eyes on NICER. Since arriving to the space station on June 5 – aboard SpaceX’s eleventh cargo resupply mission – NICER underwent robotic installation on ExPRESS Logistics Carrier 2, initial deployment, precise point tests and more. This video shows segments of NICER’s time in space. Scientists and engineers will continue to watch NICER using these cameras throughout the mission’s science operations. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

    Along with the instrument’s transition to full science operations, the embedded Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) demonstration will begin using NICER data to tune the built-in flight software for its first experiment.

    “Our initial timing models use data collected by terrestrial radio telescopes,” said Jason Mitchell, the SEXTANT project manager at Goddard. “Because NICER observes in X-rays, we will account for the difference between the pulses we recover in X-rays compared to our radio models.”

    During NICER commissioning, an observation of low-mass X-ray binary 4U 1608–522 revealed a serendipitous Type I X-ray burst, a flare resulting from a thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a neutron star. 4U 1608 consists of a neutron star in a close orbit with a low-mass star from which it is drawing gas. As this matter accretes and piles up on the neutron star surface, its density in the strong-gravity environment increases until an explosive nuclear fusion reaction is ignited. The heated neutron star surface and atmosphere glow in X-rays, cooling and dimming over the span of about one minute. The hot-spot on the star swings in and out of NICER’s view as the star spins, approximately 619 times each second; these fluctuations in X-ray brightness, and their evolution during the burst, are indicated by the purple contours in the lower panel. NICER provides a unique such bursts, tracing flame propagation and other phenomena through the burst’s temperature and brightness changes over time, with simultaneous fast-timing and spectroscopy capability not previously available.
    Credits: NASA.

    Once NICER collects data on each of SEXTANT’s target pulsars, the software will exploit timing models developed using NICER-only data.

    NICER-SEXTANT is a two-in-one mission. NICER will study the strange, ultra-dense astrophysics objects known as neutron stars to determine how matter behaves in their interiors. SEXTANT will use NICER’s observations of rapidly rotating neutron stars, or pulsars, to demonstrate autonomous X-ray navigation in space.

    GX 301–2, a high mass X-ray binary, is a system in which a massive, aging star’s dense wind is drawn toward the strong gravity of a neutron star. The column of falling material emits X-rays, dominated at certain times by the fluorescent glow of atoms of heavy metals such as iron and nickel. NICER’s X-ray detectors measure the energies (or colors) of X-ray photons – the technique of spectroscopy – to determine the chemical makeup and density of the accreting material in this 1,200-second exposure. Credits: NASA.

    NICER is an Astrophysics Mission of Opportunity within NASA’s Explorer program, which provides frequent flight opportunities for world-class scientific investigations from space utilizing innovative, streamlined, and efficient management approaches within the heliophysics and astrophysics science areas. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate supports the SEXTANT component of the mission, demonstrating pulsar-based spacecraft navigation.

    For more information about NICER, visit:


    To download NICER Multimedia:


    For more information about SEXTANT, visit:


    For more information about research and technology on the International Space Station, visit:


    See the full article here.

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    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is home to the nation’s largest organization of combined scientists, engineers and technologists that build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, the sun, our solar system, and the universe.

    Named for American rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the center was established in 1959 as NASA’s first space flight complex. Goddard and its several facilities are critical in carrying out NASA’s missions of space exploration and scientific discovery.

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  • richardmitnick 1:49 pm on June 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Dr Wynn Ho, , Neutron stars,   

    From Southampton: “Scientist works with NASA on world’s first neutron star mission” 

    U Southampton bloc

    University of Southampton

    9 June 2017
    No writer credit found

    A University of Southampton scientist will analyse data from the world’s first space mission devoted to the study of neutron stars – collapsed stars containing the densest matter in the Universe.

    NICER is readied for its journey to the ISS. Credit: NASA

    NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission arrived at the International Space Station this week, and will begin observing neutron stars after its installation as an external payload.

    The refrigerator-sized piece of equipment features 56 X-ray telescopes and silicon detectors to provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars.

    It will also test technology that relies on pulsars – spinning neutron stars that appear to wink on and off like lighthouses – as navigation beacons, a technique which could eventually be used to guide human exploration to the distant reaches of the solar system and beyond.

    Associate Professor Wynn Ho, of the University of Southampton, is an expert in neutron star interior composition, and part of a large team of scientists collaborating on the mission.

    Dr Wynn Ho

    He will compute theoretical models that will be used to compare with the observational data obtained during the 18-month mission.

    He said: “I feel very privileged to be one of the few non-US-based scientists to have a major role in analyses of NICER’s science data. Neutron stars are unique tools for studying fundamental physics in environments that are inaccessible in laboratories on Earth.

    “With NICER, we hope to obtain valuable insights into nuclear and dense matter physics in a way that is complementary to results that will come out of gravitational wave detection of neutron stars, which our group here also works on.”

    Neutron stars are the remnants of massive stars that, after exhausting their nuclear fuel, went supernova and collapsed into super-dense spheres about 15 miles wide. Their intense gravity crushes an astonishing amount of matter — often more than 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, or at least 460,000 Earths — into these city-sized orbs, creating stable but incredibly dense matter not seen anywhere else in the universe. Just one teaspoonful of neutron star matter would weigh a billion tons on Earth.

    Although neutron stars emit radiation across the spectrum, observing them in the X-ray band offers unique insights into their structure and phenomena that can arise from these stars, including starquakes, thermonuclear explosions, and the most powerful magnetic fields in the Universe. NICER will collect X-rays generated from the stars’ tremendously strong magnetic fields and from hotspots located at their two magnetic poles.

    At these locations, the objects’ intense magnetic fields emerge from their interior and particles trapped within these fields rain down and generate X-rays when they strike the stars’ surfaces. In pulsars, these flowing particles emit powerful beams of radiation from the vicinity of the magnetic poles. On Earth these beams of radiation are observed as flashes of radiation ranging from milliseconds to seconds depending on how fast the pulsar rotates.

    Because these pulsations are predictable, they can be used as celestial clocks, providing high-precision timing, like the atomic-clock signals supplied through the Global Positioning System (GPS).

    Although ubiquitous on Earth, GPS signals weaken the farther one travels beyond Earth orbit. Pulsars, however, are accessible virtually everywhere in space, making them a valuable navigational solution for deep-space exploration.

    See the full article here .

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    The University of Southampton is a world-class university built on the quality and diversity of our community. Our staff place a high value on excellence and creativity, supporting independence of thought, and the freedom to challenge existing knowledge and beliefs through critical research and scholarship. Through our education and research we transform people’s lives and change the world for the better.

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  • richardmitnick 1:27 pm on May 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Neutron stars, New NASA Mission to Study Mysterious Neutron Stars and Aid in Deep Space Navigation   

    From Goddard: “New NASA Mission to Study Mysterious Neutron Stars, Aid in Deep Space Navigation” 

    NASA Goddard Banner
    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    May 26, 2017
    Claire Saravia
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

    A new NASA mission is headed for the International Space Station next month to observe one of the strangest observable objects in the universe.

    Launching June 1, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) will be installed aboard the space station as the first mission dedicated to studying neutron stars, a type of collapsed star that is so dense scientists are unsure how matter behaves deep inside it.



    A neutron star begins its life as a star between about seven and 20 times the mass of our sun. When this type of star runs out of fuel, it collapses under its own weight, crushing its core and triggering a supernova explosion. What remains is an ultra-dense sphere only about 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, the size of a city, but with up to twice the mass of our sun squeezed inside. On Earth, one teaspoon of neutron star matter would weigh a billion tons.

    “If you took Mount Everest and squeezed it into something like a sugar cube, that’s the kind of density we’re talking about,” said Keith Gendreau, the principal investigator for NICER at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

    Though we know neutron stars are small and extremely dense, there are still many aspects of these remnants of explosive deaths of other stars that we have yet to understand. NICER, a facility to be mounted on the outside of the International Space Station, seeks to find the answers to some of the questions still being asked about neutron stars. By capturing the arrival time and energy of the X-ray photons produced by pulsars emitted by neutron stars, NICER seeks to answer decades-old questions about extreme forms of matter and energy. Data from NICER will also be used in SEXTANT, an on-board demonstration of pulsar-based navigation. Credits: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

    See the full article here.

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    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is home to the nation’s largest organization of combined scientists, engineers and technologists that build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, the sun, our solar system, and the universe.

    Named for American rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the center was established in 1959 as NASA’s first space flight complex. Goddard and its several facilities are critical in carrying out NASA’s missions of space exploration and scientific discovery.

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  • richardmitnick 10:08 pm on December 23, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AR Scorpii, , Neutron stars,   

    From astrobites: “AR Sco — The First White Dwarf Pulsar” 

    Astrobites bloc


    Dec 23, 2016
    Matthew Green

    Title: Polarimetric evidence of a white dwarf pulsar in the binary system AR Scorpii
    Authors: D.A.H. Buckley, P.J. Meintjes, S.B. Potter, T.R. Marsh, & B.T Gänsicke
    First Author’s Institution: South African Astronomical Observatory, PO Box 9, Observatory, 7935, Cape Town, South Africa
    Status: Published on arXiv, open access

    In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Anthony Hewish saw a signal that they didn’t understand: a regular flash of radio emission coming from the same point on the sky, once every 1.3 seconds. It was named CP 1919, although privately they nicknamed the star LGM-1 (standing for Little Green Men) after the suggestion that the radio pulses were signals from an alien civilisation. While their signal was — spoiler alert — not aliens, it was the discovery of two things: the first known pulsar, and the first known neutron star.

    Until now, every known pulsar has contained a neutron star with a strong magnetic field. The magnetic field accelerates charged particles in its atmosphere and causes them to emit synchrotron radiation in two beams, pointing away from the north and south magnetic poles of the star. If the magnetic pole is not lined up with the rotation poles, these two beams sweep through space like rays of light from a lighthouse, appearing to observers on Earth as regular flashes of radio waves. Neutron stars have long been thought to be the only stars dense and magnetic enough to cause these beams. Today we see that this is no longer true, as we take a look at the first ever known white dwarf pulsar.

    Figure 1: Artist’s impression of AR Sco. Image by Mark Garlick, taken from the discovery’s press release.

    AR Scorpii

    AR Scorpii, or AR Sco, is a binary system containing a white dwarf and a main sequence star. Earlier this year, it was discovered to pulsate incredibly strongly — its brightness can increase or decrease by as much as a factor of four in as little as thirty seconds! Some of these pulsations are shown in Figure 2. These pulsations are seen across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio all the way up to ultraviolet. There are three time periods we see in the pulsations. Two are the orbital period of the system (3.5 hours) and the rotation period of the white dwarf (2 minutes, which is much faster than a white dwarf normally spins). The third period we see, which is also around 2 minutes long, is a so-called ‘beat’ period that comes from interference between the orbital and rotation periods. The beat period implies some interaction between the white dwarf itself and the main sequence star, such as pulses from the white dwarf reflecting from the other star’s surface. Strangely, this beat period is the most pronounced period in the data. If it is indeed a reflection effect, we see more of the reflected light than we see light from the white dwarf itself, a state of affairs which is hard to explain.

    Figure 2: The pulsations of AR Sco. These data cover approximately 30 minutes, which is 15% of a full orbital cycle. This is Figure 1 from today’s paper.


    Figure 3: Percentage of photons which were polarised. The spikes in polarisation line up well with the pulsations in the previous figure. This is Figure 3 from today’s paper.

    Today’s paper presents a new set of data on this system. For the first time, the polarisation of radiation from the system has been measured. Polarisation is the amount by which light is aligned; if you think of light as a collection of waves, polarised light would would have the peaks of each set of waves pointed in the same direction, while unpolarised light would have them pointed in random directions.

    The team behind today’s paper measured how polarised the light was from AR Sco, and found interesting results. Between pulses, the light is only around 5% polarised (meaning that around 5% of photons are polarised). During each pulse, however, they saw the polarisation rise to more like 30%. Take a look at Figure 3 to see for yourself. Clearly, the process causing the pulsations must be able to produce polarised light. The most likely candidate is synchrotron radiation, the process that powers pulsars.

    The Nature of AR Sco

    So where does that leave us? The white dwarf in AR Sco must have formed with an unusually strong magnetic field, up to 500 mega-Gauss (this is around 10 times as strong as an MRI machine, or 10,000 times as strong as a fridge magnet). Its rotation was then sped up to the short rotation period we now see. In neutron star pulsars this ‘spin-up’ occurs during the formation of the neutron star: as the star collapses from a puffy giant star core to a dense neutron star, conservation of angular momentum forces it to spin faster. In AR Sco, because the white dwarf is not as dense as a neutron star, the same explanation won’t cover the extremely fast rotation that we see. It is suggested that the spin-up may instead have involved mass transfer between the two stars in AR Sco. However it happened, we were left with a dense, fast-spinning, highly-magnetic object emitting two beams of synchrotron radiation. There are still questions to be answered, but for now it seems likely that AR Sco is the first white dwarf pulsar!

    Merry Christmas!

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  • richardmitnick 8:29 am on November 30, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , First Signs of Weird Quantum Property of Empty Space?, Neutron stars, RX J1856.5-3754   

    From ESO: “First Signs of Weird Quantum Property of Empty Space?” 

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    European Southern Observatory

    30 November 2016

    Roberto Mignani
    INAF – Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica Milano
    Milan, Italy
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    Vincenzo Testa
    INAF – Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma
    Monteporzio Catone, Italy
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    Roberto Turolla
    University of Padova
    Padova, Italy
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    VLT observations of neutron star may confirm 80-year-old prediction about the vacuum

    Access mp4 video here .

    By studying the light emitted from an extraordinarily dense and strongly magnetised neutron star using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers may have found the first observational indications of a strange quantum effect, first predicted in the 1930s. The polarisation of the observed light suggests that the empty space around the neutron star is subject to a quantum effect known as vacuum birefringence.

    A team led by Roberto Mignani from INAF Milan (Italy) and from the University of Zielona Gora (Poland), used ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile to observe the neutron star RX J1856.5-3754, about 400 light-years from Earth [1].

    This wide field image shows the sky around the very faint neutron star RX J1856.5-3754 in the southern constellation of Corona Australis. This part of the sky also contains interesting regions of dark and bright nebulosity surrounding the variable star R Coronae Australis (upper left), as well as the globular star cluster NGC 6723. The neutron star itself is too faint to be seen here, but lies very close to the centre of the image. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

    Colour composite photo of the sky field around the lonely neutron star RX J1856.5-3754 and the related cone-shaped nebula. It is based on a series of exposures obtained with the multi-mode FORS2 instrument at VLT KUEYEN through three different optical filters.


    The trail of an asteroid is seen in the field with intermittent blue, green and red colours. RX J1856.5-3754 is exactly in the centre of the image. Credit: ESO

    Despite being amongst the closest neutron stars, its extreme dimness meant the astronomers could only observe the star with visible light using the FORS2 instrument on the VLT, at the limits of current telescope technology.

    Neutron stars are the very dense remnant cores of massive stars — at least 10 times more massive than our Sun — that have exploded as supernovae at the ends of their lives. They also have extreme magnetic fields, billions of times stronger than that of the Sun, that permeate their outer surface and surroundings.

    These fields are so strong that they even affect the properties of the empty space around the star. Normally a vacuum is thought of as completely empty, and light can travel through it without being changed. But in quantum electrodynamics (QED), the quantum theory describing the interaction between photons and charged particles such as electrons, space is full of virtual particles that appear and vanish all the time. Very strong magnetic fields can modify this space so that it affects the polarisation of light passing through it.

    Mignani explains: “According to QED, a highly magnetised vacuum behaves as a prism for the propagation of light, an effect known as vacuum birefringence.”

    Among the many predictions of QED, however, vacuum birefringence so far lacked a direct experimental demonstration. Attempts to detect it in the laboratory have not yet succeeded in the 80 years since it was predicted in a paper by Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame) and Hans Heinrich Euler.

    “This effect can be detected only in the presence of enormously strong magnetic fields, such as those around neutron stars. This shows, once more, that neutron stars are invaluable laboratories in which to study the fundamental laws of nature.” says Roberto Turolla (University of Padua, Italy).

    After careful analysis of the VLT data, Mignani and his team detected linear polarisation — at a significant degree of around 16% — that they say is likely due to the boosting effect of vacuum birefringence occurring in the area of empty space surrounding RX J1856.5-3754 [2].

    Vincenzo Testa (INAF, Rome, Italy) comments: “This is the faintest object for which polarisation has ever been measured. It required one of the largest and most efficient telescopes in the world, the VLT, and accurate data analysis techniques to enhance the signal from such a faint star.”

    “The high linear polarisation that we measured with the VLT can’t be easily explained by our models unless the vacuum birefringence effects predicted by QED are included,” adds Mignani.

    “This VLT study is the very first observational support for predictions of these kinds of QED effects arising in extremely strong magnetic fields,” remarks Silvia Zane (UCL/MSSL, UK).

    Mignani is excited about further improvements to this area of study that could come about with more advanced telescopes: “Polarisation measurements with the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope, could play a crucial role in testing QED predictions of vacuum birefringence effects around many more neutron stars.”

    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile
    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile

    “This measurement, made for the first time now in visible light, also paves the way to similar measurements to be carried out at X-ray wavelengths,” adds Kinwah Wu (UCL/MSSL, UK).


    [1] This object is part of the group of neutron stars known as the Magnificent Seven. They are known as isolated neutron stars (INS), which have no stellar companions, do not emit radio waves (like pulsars), and are not surrounded by progenitor supernova material.

    [2] There are other processes that can polarise starlight as it travels through space. The team carefully reviewed other possibilities — for example polarisation created by scattering off dust grains — but consider it unlikely that they produced the polarisation signal observed.

    More information

    This research was presented in the paper entitled Evidence for vacuum birefringence from the first optical polarimetry measurement of the isolated neutron star RX J1856.5−3754, by R. Mignani et al., to appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    The team is composed of R.P. Mignani (INAF – Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica Milano, Milano, Italy; Janusz Gil Institute of Astronomy, University of Zielona Góra, Zielona Góra, Poland), V. Testa (INAF – Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Monteporzio, Italy), D. González Caniulef (Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK), R. Taverna (Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Università di Padova, Padova, Italy), R. Turolla (Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Università di Padova, Padova, Italy; Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK), S. Zane (Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK) and K. Wu (Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK).

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    ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

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  • richardmitnick 9:48 am on November 6, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Neutron stars, ,   

    From CfA: “Pulsar Wind Nebulae” 

    Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    Center For Astrophysics

    November 4, 2016

    Neutron stars are the detritus of supernova explosions, with masses between one and several suns and diameters only tens of kilometers across. A pulsar is a spinning neutron star with a strong magnetic field; charged particles in the field radiate in a lighthouse-like beam that can sweep past the Earth with extreme regularity every few seconds or less. A pulsar also has a wind, and charged particles, sometimes accelerated to near the speed of light, form a nebula around the pulsar: a pulsar wind nebula. The particles’ high energies make them strong X-ray emitters, and the nebulae can be seen and studied with X-ray observatories. The most famous example of a pulsar wind nebula is the beautiful and dramatic Crab Nebula.

    Supernova remnant Crab nebula. NASA/ESA Hubble
    Supernova remnant Crab nebula. NASA/ESA Hubble

    When a pulsar moves through the interstellar medium, the nebula can develop a bow-shaped shock. Most of the wind particles are confined to a direction opposite to that of the pulsar’s motion and form a tail of nebulosity. Recent X-ray and radio observations of fast-moving pulsars confirm the existence of the bright, extended tails as well as compact nebulosity near the pulsars. The length of an X-ray tail can significantly exceed the size of the compact nebula, extending several light-years or more behind the pulsar.

    CfA astronomer Patrick Slane was a member of a team that used the Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the nebula around the pulsar PSR B0355+54, located about 3400 light-years away.

    NASA/Chandra Telescope
    NASA/Chandra Telescope

    The pulsar’s observed movement over the sky (its proper motion) is measured to be about sixty kilometer per second. Earlier observations by Chandra had determined that the pulsar’s nebula had a long tail, extending over at least seven light-years (it might be somewhat longer, but the field of the detector was limited to this size); it also has a bright compact core. The scientists used deep Chandra observations to examine the nebula’s faint emission structures, and found that the shape of the nebula, when compared to the direction of the pulsar’s motion through the medium, suggests that the spin axis of the pulsar is pointed nearly directly towards us. They also estimate many of the basic parameters of the nebula including the strength of its magnetic field, which is lower than expected (or else turbulence is re-accelerating the particles and modifying the field). Other conclusions include properties of the compact core and details of the physical mechanisms powering the X-ray and radio radiation.

    Deep Chandra Observations of the Pulsar Wind Nebula Created by PSR B0355+54</emKlingler, Noel; Rangelov, Blagoy; Kargaltsev, Oleg; Pavlov, George G.; Romani, Roger W.; Posselt, Bettina; Slane, Patrick; Temim, Tea; Ng, C.-Y.; Bucciantini, Niccolò; Bykov, Andrei; Swartz, Douglas A.; Buehler, Rolf, ApJ 2016 (in press).

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  • richardmitnick 10:15 am on June 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Neutron stars,   

    From Goddard: “Astronomers Find the First ‘Wind Nebula’ Around a Magnetar” 

    NASA Goddard Banner
    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    June 21, 2016
    Francis Reddy
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

    Astronomers have discovered a vast cloud of high-energy particles called a wind nebula around a rare ultra-magnetic neutron star, or magnetar, for the first time. The find offers a unique window into the properties, environment and outburst history of magnetars, which are the strongest magnets in the universe.

    This X-ray image shows extended emission around a source known as Swift J1834.9-0846, a rare ultra-magnetic neutron star called a magnetar. The glow arises from a cloud of fast-moving particles produced by the neutron star and corralled around it. Color indicates X-ray energies, with 2,000-3,000 electron volts (eV) in red, 3,000-4,500 eV in green, and 5,000 to 10,000 eV in blue. The image combines observations by the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton spacecraft taken on March 16 and Oct. 16, 2014. Credits: ESA/XMM-Newton/Younes et al. 2016

    ESA/XMM Newton
    ESA/XMM Newton

    A neutron star is the crushed core of a massive star that ran out of fuel, collapsed under its own weight, and exploded as a supernova. Each one compresses the equivalent mass of half a million Earths into a ball just 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, or about the length of New York’s Manhattan Island. Neutron stars are most commonly found as pulsars, which produce radio, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays at various locations in their surrounding magnetic fields. When a pulsar spins these regions in our direction, astronomers detect pulses of emission, hence the name.

    This illustration compares the size of a neutron star to Manhattan Island in New York, which is about 13 miles long. A neutron star is the crushed core left behind when a massive star explodes as a supernova and is the densest object astronomers can directly observe. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

    Typical pulsar magnetic fields can be 100 billion to 10 trillion times stronger than Earth’s. Magnetar fields reach strengths a thousand times stronger still, and scientists don’t know the details of how they are created. Of about 2,600 neutron stars known, to date only 29 are classified as magnetars.

    The newfound nebula surrounds a magnetar known as Swift J1834.9-0846 — J1834.9 for short — which was discovered by NASA’s Swift satellite on Aug. 7, 2011, during a brief X-ray outburst.

    NASA/SWIFT Telescope
    NASA/SWIFT Telescope

    Astronomers suspect the object is associated with the W41 supernova remnant, located about 13,000 light-years away in the constellation Scutum toward the central part of our galaxy.

    “Right now, we don’t know how J1834.9 developed and continues to maintain a wind nebula, which until now was a structure only seen around young pulsars,” said lead researcher George Younes, a postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University in Washington. “If the process here is similar, then about 10 percent of the magnetar’s rotational energy loss is powering the nebula’s glow, which would be the highest efficiency ever measured in such a system.”

    A month after the Swift discovery, a team led by Younes took another look at J1834.9 using the European Space Agency’s (ESA) XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, which revealed an unusual lopsided glow about 15 light-years across centered on the magnetar. New XMM-Newton observations in March and October 2014, coupled with archival data from XMM-Newton and Swift, confirm this extended glow as the first wind nebula ever identified around a magnetar. A paper describing the analysis will be published by The Astrophysical Journal.

    “For me the most interesting question is, why is this the only magnetar with a nebula? Once we know the answer, we might be able to understand what makes a magnetar and what makes an ordinary pulsar,” said co-author Chryssa Kouveliotou, a professor in the Department of Physics at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

    The most famous wind nebula, powered by a pulsar less than a thousand years old, lies at the heart of the Crab Nebula supernova remnant in the constellation Taurus. Young pulsars like this one rotate rapidly, often dozens of times a second. The pulsar’s fast rotation and strong magnetic field work together to accelerate electrons and other particles to very high energies. This creates an outflow astronomers call a pulsar wind that serves as the source of particles making up in a wind nebula.

    Supernova remnant Crab nebula. NASA/ESA Hubble
    The best-known wind nebula is the Crab Nebula, located about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. At the center is a rapidly spinning neutron star that accelerates charged particles like electrons to nearly the speed of light. As they whirl around magnetic field lines, the particles emit a bluish glow. This image is a composite of Hubble observations taken in late 1999 and early 2000. The Crab Nebula spans about 11 light-years. Credits: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

    “Making a wind nebula requires large particle fluxes, as well as some way to bottle up the outflow so it doesn’t just stream into space,” said co-author Alice Harding, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We think the expanding shell of the supernova remnant serves as the bottle, confining the outflow for a few thousand years. When the shell has expanded enough, it becomes too weak to hold back the particles, which then leak out and the nebula fades away.” This naturally explains why wind nebulae are not found among older pulsars, even those driving strong outflows.

    A pulsar taps into its rotational energy to produce light and accelerate its pulsar wind. By contrast, a magnetar outburst is powered by energy stored in the super-strong magnetic field. When the field suddenly reconfigures to a lower-energy state, this energy is suddenly released in an outburst of X-rays and gamma rays. So while magnetars may not produce the steady breeze of a typical pulsar wind, during outbursts they are capable of generating brief gales of accelerated particles.

    “The nebula around J1834.9 stores the magnetar’s energetic outflows over its whole active history, starting many thousands of years ago,” said team member Jonathan Granot, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at the Open University in Ra’anana, Israel. “It represents a unique opportunity to study the magnetar’s historical activity, opening a whole new playground for theorists like me.”

    ESA’s XMM-Newton satellite was launched on Dec. 10, 1999, from Kourou, French Guiana, and continues to make observations. NASA funded elements of the XMM-Newton instrument package and provides the NASA Guest Observer Facility at Goddard, which supports use of the observatory by U.S. astronomers.

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  • richardmitnick 7:38 am on May 21, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Gold production, , Neutron stars,   

    From Kavli: “Galactic ‘Gold Mine’ Explains the Origin of Nature’s Heaviest Elements” 


    The Kavli Foundation

    Adam Hadhazy, Spring 2016

    Neutron star merger depicted Goddard
    Neutron star merger depicted. NASA/Goddard

    A unique galaxy loaded with hard-to-produce, heavy elements sheds light on stellar histories and galactic evolution.

    RESEARCHERS HAVE SOLVED a 60-year-old mystery regarding the origin of the heaviest elements in nature, conveyed in the faint starlight from a distant dwarf galaxy.

    Most of the chemical elements, composing everything from planets to paramecia, are forged by the nuclear furnaces in stars like the Sun. But the cosmic wellspring for a certain set of heavy, often valuable elements like gold, silver, lead and uranium, has long evaded scientists.

    Astronomers studying a galaxy called Reticulum II have just discovered that its stars contain whopping amounts of these metals—collectively known as “r-process” elements (See “What is the R-Process?”).

    Reticulum II galaxy. Dark Energy Survey, DECam, CTIO/Blanco Telescope, Cerro Tololo, Chile
    Reticulum II galaxy. Dark Energy Survey, DECam, CTIO/Blanco Telescope, Cerro Tololo, Chile

    Of the 10 dwarf galaxies that have been similarly studied so far, only Reticulum II bears such strong chemical signatures. The finding suggests some unusual event took place billions of years ago that created ample amounts of heavy elements and then strew them throughout the galaxy’s reservoir of gas and dust. This r-process-enriched material then went on to form Reticulum II’s standout stars.

    Based on the new study*, from a team of researchers at the Kavli Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the unusual event in Reticulum II was likely the collision of two, ultra-dense objects called neutron stars. Scientists have hypothesized for decades that these collisions could serve as a primary source for r-process elements, yet the idea had lacked solid observational evidence. Now armed with this information, scientists can further hope to retrace the histories of galaxies based on the contents of their stars, in effect conducting “stellar archeology.”

    The Kavli Foundation recently spoke with three astrophysicists about how this discovery can unlock clues about galactic evolution as well as the abundances of certain elements on Earth we use for everything from jewelry-making to nuclear power generation. The participants were:

    Alexander Ji – is a graduate student in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a member of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI). He is lead author of a paper in Nature describing this discovery.

    Anna Frebel – is the Silverman Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at MIT and also a member of MKI. Frebel is Ji’s advisor and coauthored the Nature paper. Her work delves into the chemical and physical conditions of the early universe as conveyed by the oldest stars.

    Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz – is a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research explores violent events in the universe, including the mergers of neutron stars and their role in generating r-process elements.

    The following is an edited transcript of their roundtable discussion. The participants have been provided the opportunity to amend or edit their remarks.

    THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: What was your reaction to discovering an abundance of heavy elements in the stars in the galaxy called Reticulum II?

    ALEX JI: I had spent some time looking at stars in other galaxies like this, and in every one of those, the content of this type of element – which we call r-process elements – was very low. So we went into this whole project thinking we would get very low detections as well with this galaxy. When we read off the r-process content of that first star in our telescope, it just looked wrong, like it could not have come out of this galaxy! I spent a long time making sure the telescope was pointed at the right star. Then I called Anna—actually, I had to wake her up, it was 3 A.M.—and we started doing instrument checks to make sure we were looking at the right thing. It turns out we were.

    ANNA FREBEL: It was quite funny, because usually when I get a call in the middle of the night from someone at the telescope, it means something really bad has happened! [Laughter] In this case, we were all super-excited because Alex had found something in the data that was really unexpected and also was a smoking gun. We pretty quickly confirmed that at least that first star he was looking at really had all these heavy elements in rather large quantities.

    Then another star showed the same kind of signature. I was like, “Oh my god—we’ve hit the lottery . . . twice!” We would have been happy walking away with just one awesome star, and then it turned into two, then into three, and four, five and so forth. The universe had thrown us a really big bone!

    ENRICO RAMIREZ-RUIZ: I’ve been working on neutron star mergers for a while, so I was extremely excited to see Alex and Anna’s results. Their study is indeed a smoking gun that exotic neutron star mergers were occurring very early in the history of this particular dwarf galaxy, and for that matter likely in many other small galaxies. Neutron star mergers are therefore probably responsible for the bulk of the precious substances we call r-process elements throughout the universe.


    An artist’s conception of a supernova forging heavy elements. Credit: Supernova illustration: Akihiro Ikeshita/Particle CG: Naotsugu Mikami (NAOJ)

    What Is the R-Process?

    The r-process stands for “rapid neutron-capture process.” This phenomenon, first theoretically described by nuclear physicists in 1957, creates elements in nature that are heavier than iron. In the supernova explosions of massive stars and in neutron star collisions, tremendous numbers of freely moving neutrons bind with iron atoms. As more and more neutrons pile up in the atom’s nucleus, the neutrons undergo a radioactive decay, turning into protons. Accordingly, new, heavier elements are formed, because elements are differentiated by the number of protons in their nucleus. As its name implies, this process must occur rapidly in order to build up to very heavy, neutron-rich nuclei that then decay into heavy elements, such as uranium, which has 92 protons compared to iron’s 26. While a theoretical understanding of the r-process is sound, scientists have debated over the astrophysical conditions and sites where the process can actually occur.


    TKF: Why has the provenance of these elements been such a tough nut to crack?

    FREBEL: The question of the cosmic origin of all of the elements has been a longstanding problem. The precursor question was, “Why do stars shine?” Scientists tackled that in the early part of the last century and solved the mystery only around 1950. We found out that stars do nuclear fusion in their cores, generating heat and light, and as part of that process, heavier elements are created. That led to a phase where a lot of people worked on figuring out how all the elements are made.

    Understanding how heavy, r-process elements, are formed is one of hardest problems in nuclear physics. The production of these really heavy elements takes so much energy that it’s nearly impossible to make them experimentally, even with current particle accelerators and apparatuses. The process for making them just doesn’t work on Earth. So we have had to use the stars and the objects in the cosmos as our lab.

    JI: As Anna just mentioned, we have been mostly stuck with astronomy, trying to measure what could have made all of these elements out in the stars. But it’s also very difficult to find stars that give you any information about the r-process.

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: Right, it is very difficult to see these elements shine when they’re created in the universe because they are very rare. For example, gold is only one part in a billion in the Sun. So even though the necessary physical conditions needed to make these elements were clear to physicists more than 50 years ago, it was a mystery as to what sort of objects and astrophysics would provide these conditions, because we couldn’t see r-process elements being produced in explosion remnants in our own galaxy.

    Two competing theories did emerge, which are that these elements are produced by supernovae and neutron star mergers. These phenomena are very different in terms of how often they should happen and in the amount of these elements they should theoretically produce. Just to give you an example, the explosion of a star with more than eight times the mass of the Sun is thought to produce about a Moon’s mass-worth of gold. A neutron star merger, however, is thought to produce a Jupiter’s mass-worth of gold. That’s over 25,000 times more! So just one neutron star merger can provide the gold we would expect to find in about six million to 10 million stars.

    Alex and Anna’s observations are so unbelievably useful because they really show that the phenomenon which created these elements is something rare, but that produces a lot of these elements, as a neutron star merger should.

    FREBEL: It took 60-something years of work to figure this out, and a variety of astronomers—observers as well as theorists—have all put in their share. That’s exactly what we and Enrico are continuing to do.

    TKF: Enrico, you study the ionized gas called plasma that composes stars. How is the material in neutron stars different than the plasma in run-of-the-mill stars like the Sun, and how does this provide the raw ingredients for making r-process elements?

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: Neutron stars are only about the size of San Francisco Bay, which I live close by, yet they pack in as much mass as the Sun—about 330,000 times the mass of the Earth. Neutron stars are the densest objects in the universe. A neutron star the size of a Starbucks cup would weigh as much as Mount Everest! We call them neutron stars because they are neutron-rich, and that’s a key aspect for making r-process elements, as I’ll let Alex and Anna explain.

    JI: So the nuclear fusion in stars can only make the elements up to iron. That’s because iron is the most stable nucleus. If you try to fuse two things to make elements heavier than iron, it actually takes more energy than the fusion reaction itself releases. A neutron that gets close enough to this dense iron nucleus can join it thanks to one of the fundamental forces of nature, the strong force, which binds protons and neutrons together.

    You can keep increasing the size of this nucleus by adding more neutrons, but there’s a trade-off. That nucleus will undergo a radioactive decay called a beta decay. Specifically, one of those added neutrons will spontaneously release some energy and turn into a proton. The r-process is what happens when you capture neutrons faster than the beta decays happen, and in that way you can build up to heavier nuclei.

    FREBEL: This process can only happen when you have lots and lots of free neutrons outside of an atomic nucleus, and that’s actually a difficult thing to do, because neutrons only survive for about 15 minutes before they decay into a proton. In other words, almost as soon as you have free neutrons, they just disappear. So it’s really hard to find places where there are even free neutrons to undergo this neutron capture. As far back as the 1930s, neutron stars had been postulated as something that could exist, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that we knew they were real.

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: As we learned more about neutron stars, we found out that about two percent of them have companion stars, and a very small fraction have another neutron star orbiting around them. If the neutron stars are close enough, they will merge within several billion years or less because they produce gravitational waves as they spin around each other. These waves simply carry off energy and angular momentum, so the stars get closer and closer, and eventually they touch each other.

    TKF: What happens to these heavy elements once two neutron stars collide?

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: As these neutron stars come together, the stars eject some material in their tidal tails into space at very close to the speed of light. So the atoms of these elements are moving very fast when they are first formed. By the time the ambient gas and dust in the galaxy is able to slow these elements down, they have probably mixed with about a thousand Sun-masses worth of material, enriching it atom-by-atom.

    FREBEL: Everything gets nicely mixed, like dough. And from that mixed material, the next generation of stars then forms. This stellar generation contains many, little, low-mass stars that have very long life times. It’s these low-mass, long-lived stars that we observed today in Reticulum II for this study.

    TKF: Anna, you published a book last year called “Searching for the Oldest Stars: Ancient Relics from the Early Universe.” How do these results demonstrate what you call “stellar archeology?”


    FREBEL: Finding these elements at Reticulum II thoroughly illustrates the concept of stellar archaeology. The idea is that we can use the composition of individual stars to trace the processes that created the elements in the early universe. Because the elements that we observe in our stars today were made prior to the stars’ birth—the stars inherited these heavy elements like “cosmic genes”—we have this incredible opportunity to look back in time to study the early chemical and physical processes that ushered in stars and galaxy formation soon after the Big Bang.

    Reticulum II is actually a perfect example of what we now call dwarf galaxy archaeology. It’s pretty much the same thing I just described, but now we are able to add other dimensions by not just using individual stars, but the entire dwarf galaxy and all the information that comes with it. We can use galactic environmental conditions and the star formation history to trace what happened very early on in that galaxy that provided the various elements we see today.

    It’s very nice that despite all the progress we have made in this field, there is more to come. I really think these findings have opened a new door for studying galaxy formation with individual stars and to some extent individual elements. We are seriously connecting the really small scales of stars with the really big scales of galaxies. I’m very excited to see what else we find. I don’t think we’ll find another galaxy like Reticulum II anytime soon, but hey, we’re going to keep looking!

    JI: The way I like to think about this is, imagine if you were an actual archaeologist and you wandered around on the surface of the Earth picking up artifacts whenever you found them. You’d find a collection of random artifacts from different periods and places, and you wouldn’t be sure how to associate them. In contrast, looking at galaxies like Reticulum II is like digging into a coherent, subterranean layer and finding a collection of artifacts that are all telling the same story . . .

    FREBEL: Like Pompeii!

    JI: Yeah, like Pompeii!

    TKF: Ah yes, the Roman town, and its residents, who were completely buried under volcanic ash. That was not a very nice outcome . . .

    FREBEL: Not for the people, no.

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: But the archeological evidence did remain pristine .

    TKF: Bad for Pompeians, but good for archeologists. Shifting gears here, what tools do you need to dig even deeper, if you will, into how elements like gold and silver originate, and otherwise find more cosmic archeological clues?

    JI: There are two types of things that we need. First, we have to find dwarf galaxies and that requires very large sky surveys like the Dark Energy Survey—which discovered Reticulum II—as well as surveys conducted by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will start operations in the 2020s.

    LSST/Camera, built at SLAC
    LSST Interior
    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile
    LSST/Camera, built at SLAC; LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile

    The second thing is we have to look at the stars in those galaxies. The problem with galaxies is that they are far away, so we need pretty large telescopes to do that.

    FREBEL: The stars that Alex has been observing are actually really, really faint. We had to work very hard to squeeze out whatever information we could about them. It was only because these stars had such a strong signal of r-process elements that we could see those signals in their light, very little of which we’re actually able to capture with current telescopes.

    So that really shows why we need larger telescopes. Multiple telescope projects are underway and are scheduled to open in the 2020s. They will have mirrors more than twice as big as today’s best ground-based telescopes. These include the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope.

    Giant Magellan Telescope,  Las Campanas Observatory, some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile
    Giant Magellan Telescope, Las Campanas Observatory, some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile

    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile
    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile

    They promise more light per unit of time hour, which means we can observe fainter stars, but we can also go back to brighter stars and get insanely high quality data. That is what we need for these r-process stars because there is so much information in their light. I think the next five to 10 years will be very exciting in this regard.

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: I want to make a plug for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, Louisiana
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, Louisiana

    The ultimate dream of mine would be to detect the gravitational wave signal of a neutron-neutron star merger.

    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib
    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib

    When we have multiple gravitational wave observatories in operation, such as when LIGO India is built next decade, we will be able to pinpoint the location of these rare events. We can then use our conventional, light-based telescopes to look at the transient light signals from the merged neutron star, which we actually think will be powered by the decay of these precious elements. That would be the ultimate direct evidence that these mergers are indeed producing all of these elements.

    FREBEL: Pinpointing the location of neutron star mergers might become possible for events in the nearby universe. But I don’t think we’ll go back far enough in space, and therefore time, to see a merger like in Reticulum II that went off billions of years ago. I agree with Enrico, though, it would be really great to have a nearby example that shows us, right in front of our eyes, how this really all works.

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: Anna’s absolutely right. We won’t see the r-process enrichment events that took place at the time when a galaxy like Reticulum II was being formed, but hopefully we’ll see the newly synthesized gold closer to home! [Laughter]

    TKF: Let’s take a moment to consider that most of the gold, silver and platinum in our valuable jewelry, as well as the uranium in our nuclear reactors, was created when mind- bogglingly dense neutron stars crushed into each other at incredible speeds. As you’re doing your research, does this sort of notion ever stop you in your tracks?

    JI: It does stop you in your tracks, right? Definitely one of the things that I think attracts people to astronomy is understanding the origin of everything around us. The other part of it for me is these neutron stars mergers are happening on really small scales, but these events are explosive enough to affect a whole galaxy! Imagining that event, then zooming out to the whole galactic scale, then zooming back down to us on Earth—I think it’s pretty cool to be able to follow the consequences of the production of these elements from beginning to end.

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: Something to think about is that all the gold originally here on Earth sank into the planet’s center because the early Earth was molten. So all the gold we have today on or near the surface is from asteroid impacts!

    FREBEL: As we’ve been saying, the gold wasn’t made in the asteroids, it was probably made in a neutron star merger. It then mixed into the cloud of gas and dust in which all the asteroids and planets formed. That gold was then transported to us on Earth as a special delivery. [Laughter]

    RAMIREZ-RUIZ: We have some gold atoms in our bodies, too. If we were to “talk” to one of these atoms, it would tell us a story how it was formed in billions of degrees, how it flew through space. Because just one of these neutron star mergers produced so much gold, probably all of the gold atoms that are in the four of us in this roundtable discussion came from the same event. So we’re not only linked by genetics, but by these exotic phenomena that happen in the universe.

    *Science paper:
    R-process enrichment from a single event in an ancient dwarf galaxy

    See the full article here .

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    The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, is dedicated to the goals of advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased public understanding and support for scientists and their work.

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