ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array)
ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array)
The ALMA Observatory is an international astronomy facility, a partnership of the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and NINS (National Institutes of Natural Sciences) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the NRC (National Research Council) of Canada and the NSC (National Science Council) of Taiwan and by NINS of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan, and KASI (Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute) Korea. 1) 2)
ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory), managed by AUI (Associated Universities, Inc.), on behalf of North America; and by NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
Figure 1: Global partnerships of the ALMA Program (image credit: ALMA partnership) 3)
ALMA isthe largest astronomical project in existence, it is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas (forming a sparse array of antennas) of 12 m and 7 m in diameter. ALMA is located at a truly unique and unusual place: the Chilean Atacama desert. While the astronomers will operate the telescope from the OSF (Operations Support Facility) Technical Building, at 2,900 m above sea level, the array of antennas will be located at the Altiplano de Chajnantor, a plateau at an altitude of 5,000 m altitude. This location was selected because of many well justified scientific reasons, particularly dryness and altitude. The ALMA site with the average annual rainfall below 100 mm is the perfect place for a new telescope capable of detecting radio waves just millimeters in wavelength. Indeed, radio waves penetrate a lot of the gas and dust in space, and can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere with little distortion. However, if the atmosphere above ALMA contained water, the radio signals would be heavily absorbed – the tiny droplets of water scatter the radio waves in all directions before they reach the telescope, and would degrade the quality of the observations.
Furthermore, the flat and wide land at the ALMA site is suitable for the construction of a large-scale array. Considering these aspects, the ALMA Observatory will not only be unique because of its ambitious scientific goals, and the unprecedented technical requirements, it will also be unique because of the very specific, harsh environment and living conditions in which the most challenging radio telescope array will operate with high efficiency and accuracy.
ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe (ESO), North America (NRAO/AUI), and East Asia (NAOJ). The JAO (Joint ALMA Observatory) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA. The JAO coordinates the ALMA Development Program in order to effectively manage the technological evolution of the ALMA facility. Periodically, solicitations (“calls”) are issued by each of the international partners to identify and fund development initiatives (“upgrades”) which will enhance the performance of the ALMA facility. The implementation of ALMA upgrades are assigned on a competitive basis.
Figure 2: A state-of-the-art telescope to study light with wavelengths of about one millimeter, shining from some of the coldest objects in the Universe, ALMA is a cooperation of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), together with its international partners. The site of ALMA is the 5000-m altitude Chajnantor plateau in northern Chile, one of the driest places on Earth (video credit: ESO, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), C. Malin , P. Horálek, Liam Young, B. Tafreshi, J. J. Tobin (University of Oklahoma/Leiden University), M. Kaufman, Theofanis N. Matsopoulos, H. H. Heyer, S. Argandoña and H. Zodet. Music by Movetwo, Published on Dec 7, 2016)
Figure 3: The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is an astronomical interferometer of radio telescopes in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. Since a high and dry site is crucial to millimeter and submillimeter wavelength operations, the array has been constructed on the Chajnantor plateau at 5,000 metres altitude, near Llano de Chajnantor Observatory and Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (video credit: ESO, Published on Oct 7, 2017)
Major ALMA Facilities
ALMA will be the world’s most powerful telescope for studying the Universe at submillimeter and millimeter wavelengths, on the boundary between infrared light and the longer radio waves. However, ALMA does not resemble many people’s image of a giant telescope. It does not use the shiny, reflective mirrors of visible- and infrared-light telescopes; it is instead comprised of many “antennas” that look like large metallic satellite dishes. 15)
Several antennas have already been installed in the harsh conditions of the 5000 m altitude Chajnantor plateau, and more are under construction at the 2900 m altitude OSF (Operations Support Facility). When ALMA is fully operational, visitors to Chajnantor will encounter 66 antennas, 54 of them with 12 m diameter dishes, and 12 smaller ones, with a diameter of 7 m each.
Figure 4: Photo of the first ALMA 12 m antenna, manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation (image credit: ALMA ,ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
The most visible part of each antenna is the dish, a large reflecting surface. Most of ALMA’s dishes have a diameter of 12 m. Each dish plays the same role as the mirror of an optical telescope: it collects radiation coming from distant astronomical objects, and focuses it into a detector that measures the radiation. The difference between the two types of telescopes is the wavelength of the radiation detected. Visible light, captured by optical telescopes, is just a small part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, with wavelengths between roughly 380 and 750 nm. ALMA, in contrast, will probe the sky for radiation at longer wavelengths from a few hundred µm to about 1 mm (about one thousand times longer than visible light). This is known, perhaps unsurprisingly, as mm and sub-mm radiation, and lies at the very short-wavelength end of radio waves.
This longer wavelength range is the reason, why ALMA’s dishes are not mirrors, but have a surface of metallic panels. The reflecting surfaces of any telescope must be virtually perfect: if they have any defects that are larger than a few percent of the wavelength to be detected, the telescope won’t produce accurate measurements. The longer wavelengths that ALMA’s antennas detect mean that although the surfaces are accurate to within 25 µm — much less than the thickness of a single sheet of paper, the dishes do not need the mirror finish used for visible-light telescopes. So although ALMA’s dishes look like giant metallic satellite dishes, to a submillimeter-wavelength photon (light-particle), they are almost perfectly smooth reflecting surfaces, focusing the photons with great precision.
Not only are the dish surfaces carefully controlled, but the antennas can be steered very precisely and pointed to an angular accuracy of 0.6 arcseconds (one arcsecond is 1/3600 of a degree). This is accurate enough to pick out a golf ball at a distance of 15 km.
ALMA will combine the signals from its array of antennas as an interferometer — acting like a single giant telescope as large as the whole array. Thanks to the two antenna transporter vehicles, astronomers will be able to reposition the antennas according to the kind of observations needed. So, unlike a telescope that is constructed and remains in one place, the antennas are robust enough to be picked up and moved between concrete foundation pads without this affecting their precision engineering.
In addition, the antennas achieve all this without the protection of a telescope dome or enclosure. The dishes are exposed to the harsh environmental conditions of the high altitude Chajnantor plateau, with strong winds, intense sunlight, and temperatures between ±20 ºC. Despite Chajnantor being in one of the driest regions on the planet, there is even sometimes snow here, but ALMA’s antennas are designed to survive all these hardships.
The production of the antennas is being shared between the ALMA partners. ESO has ordered twentyfive 12 m antennas, with an option for an additional seven, from the AEM Consortium (Alcatel Alenia Space France, Alcatel Alenia Space Italy, European Industrial Engineering S.r.L., MT Aerospace). The North American partners have placed an order of the same size with Vertex RSI, while the four 12 m and twelve 7 m antennas comprising ALMA’s ACA (Atacama Compact Array) have been ordered by NAOJ from MELCO (Mitsubishi Electric Corporation).
Apart from the obvious difference in size between the 12-meter and 7-meter antennas, careful observers will spot subtle differences in the antenna design from each partner. However, all the antennas are designed to meet the stringent technical specifications, and work together smoothly as parts of the whole. These state-of-the-art dishes, combined in a single revolutionary telescope, reflect the cooperative nature of the global ALMA project.
Figure 5: Photo of the ALMA antenna array (image credit: ALMA partnership, Ref. 3)
Figure 6: The 12th 7 m antenna developed by Japan was delivered to the high site in Chajnantor on April 29, 2013. Now all the 16 antennas of the ACA (Atacama Compact Array) are installed at the Array Operations Site at an altitude of 5,000 m, waiting to unveil secrets of the universe (image credit: ALMA partnership) 16)
Figure 7: The final antenna of the ALMA project is here seen arriving to the high site at the ALMA Observatory, 5000 m above sea level. Its arrival completes the complement of 66 ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile (image credit: ALMA, ESO/NAOJ/NRAO, A. Marinkovic) 17)
ALMA Front End Integration Centers: A construction project like ALMA, involving several partners in four different continents, requires consensus on several organizational and managerial decisions concerning the actual execution of certain construction activities. Several different scenarios for assembling and integrating the Front End components were extensively studied. This study revealed that the best solution was a “parallel approach”, installing half of the Front End in Europe and the other half in North America with identical and parallel procedures. This scenario was preferred in view of logistics, organization and program risks. Mainly based on considerations of risk mitigation, the parallel FEIC (Front End Integration Centers) was selected. The European FEIC is located at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (UK) and the North American FEIC at NRAO. A third FEIC is installed in Taiwan to carry out the integration of Front End assemblies required for the antennas supplied by NAOJ.
Figure 8: Aerial view of the ALMA OSF (Operation Support Facility) at 2,900 m altitude (image credit: ALMA partnership)
A world-class observatory site in the desert: 18)
The ALMA Observatory is operated at two distinct sites, far away from comfortable living conditions of modern civilization. The ALMA OSF is the base camp for the every-day, routine operation of the observatory. It is located at an altitude of about 2900 m, quite high compared to standard living conditions, but still quite acceptable for scientific projects in astronomy of similar scope. However, the OSF will not only serve as the location for operating the Joint ALMA Observatory, it is also the AIV (Assembly, Integration and Verification) station for all the high technology equipment before being moved to the AOS (Array Operations Site), located at 5000 m altitude. Antenna assembly is done at the OSF site at three separate areas, one each for the antennas provided by North America (VERTEX), Japan (MELCO), and Europe (AEM Consortium).
The OSF is also the center for activities associated with commissioning and science verification as well as Early Science operation. During the operations phase of the observatory it is the workplace of the astronomers and of the teams responsible for maintaining proper functioning of all the telescopes.
The construction of the OSF and AOS sites and their access required substantial efforts of the ALMA project. Obviously, there was no access to these two remote locations (Figure 9). The OSF site, located at 2900 m altitude, is about 15 km away from the closest public road, the Chilean highway No. 23. The AOS is another 28 km away from the OSF site. Thus, one of the first projects to be accomplished by ALMA was to construct an access road not only to the OSF but also to the AOS road, 43 km in length, not only at high altitudes, but also with sufficient width to regularly transport a large number of large radio telescopes with a diameter of 12 m.
The geographical location of ALMA (at Altiplano de Chajnantor) is latitude: -23.029° ; longitude: -67.755°
ALMA Front End System
The ALMA Front End system is the first element in a complex chain of signal receiving, conversion, processing and recording. The Front End is designed to receive signals of ten different frequency bands. 19)
The ALMA Front End is far superior to any existing systems. Indeed, spin offs of the ALMA prototypes are leading to improved sensitivities in existing millimeter and submillimeter observatories around the world. The Front End units are comprised of numerous elements, produced at different locations in Europe, North America, East Asia and Chile.
ALMA Cryostats: The largest single element of the Front End system is the cryostat (vacuum vessel) with the cryo-cooler attached. The cryostats will house the receivers, which are assembled in cartridges and can relatively easily be installed or replaced. The corresponding warm optics, windows and infrared filters were delivered by the IRAM (Institut de Radio Astronomie Millimétrique) of France. The operating temperature of the cryostats will be as low as 4 K (equivalent to -269ºC).
ALMA Receiver Bands: In the initial phase of operations, the antennas will be equipped with at least four receiver bands: Band 3 (3 mm), Band 6 (1 mm), Band 7 (0.85 mm), Band 9 (0.45 mm). It is planned to equip the antennas with the missing bands at a later stage of ALMA operations. The development programs were successful, as the requirements could be met – and sometimes the performance is even better than defined in the specifications.
Table 2: The 10 frequency bands of the ALMA antennas
Modular Cryogenic Receiver Concept. The complete front end unit will have a diameter of 1 m, be about 1m high and have a mass of about 750 kg. The cryostat will be cooled down to ~4 K by a 3-stage commercial closed-cycle cryocooler based on the Gifford – McMahon cooling cycle. The individual frequency bands are implemented in the form of modular cartridges that will be inserted in a large common cryostat. This cartridge concept allows for a great flexibility in construction and operation of the array. Figure 10 shows an example of such a receiver cartridge. Another advantage of the cartridge layout with well-defined interfaces is the fact that different cartridges can be developed and built by different groups within the ALMA Project with a large degree of independence but without the risk of incompatibility between them. 20)
Figure 10: Example of a, Band 6, receiver cartridge. The larger diameter metal plate in the middle is the boundary between cooled receiver electronics inside the cryostat (right hand side) and the room temperature electronics (left hand side), image credit: ALMA partnership)
Figure 11: Photo of one typical receiver cartridge built for ALMA ((image credit: ALMA partnership)
Band 5 — July 17, 2015: After more than five years of development and construction, ALMA successfully opened its eyes on another frequency range after obtaining the first fringes with a Band 5 receiver, specifically designed to detect water in the local Universe. Band 5 will also open up the possibility of studying complex molecules in star-forming regions and protoplanetary discs, and detecting molecules and atoms in galaxies in the early Universe, looking back about 13 billion years (Ref. 11).
“Band 5 will open up new possibilities to explore the Universe and bring new discoveries,” explains ESO’s Gianni Marconi, who is responsible for the integration of Band 5. “The frequency range of this receiver includes an emission line of water that ALMA will be able to study in nearby regions of star formation. The study of water is, of course, of intense interest because of its role in the origin of life.” With Band 5, ALMA will also be able to probe the emission from ionized carbon from objects seen soon after the Big Bang, opening up the possibility of probing the earliest epoch of galaxy formation. “This band will also enable astronomers to study young galaxies in the early Universe about 500 million years after the Big Bang,” added Gianni Marconi.
The Band 5 receivers were originally designed and prototyped by Onsala Space Observatory's Group for Advanced Receiver Development (GARD) at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, in collaboration with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK, and ESO, under the European Commission supported Framework Program FP6 (ALMA Enhancement). After having successfully tested the prototypes, the first production-type receivers were built and delivered to ALMA by a consortium of NOVA and GARD in the first half of 2015. Two receivers were used for the first light. The remainder of the 73 receivers ordered, including spares, will be delivered between now and 2017.
Figure 12: Photo of one of the Band 5 receiver cartridges built for ALMA. Extremely weak signals from space are collected by the ALMA antennas and focussed onto the receivers, which transform the faint radiation into an electrical signal (image credit: ALMA partnership)
ALMA Back End and Correlator
The ALMA Back End systems deliver signals generated by Front End units installed in each antenna to the Correlator installed in the AOS (Array Operations Site) Technical Building, located at an altitude of 5,000 m. Signal processing and data transfer is schematically shown in Figure 13. Analog data, produced by the Front End electronics, is processed and digitized before entering into the data encoder, followed by the optical transmitter units and multiplexers. All these elements are installed in the receiver cabins of each antenna. Optical signals are then transmitted by fibers to the AOS Technical Building. The total distance is, in one antenna configuration, about 15 km. At the Technical Building the incoming optical signals are de-multiplexed and de-formatted before entering the Correlator. 21) 22) 23)
ALMA main array Correlator: The ALMA main array Correlator, to be installed in the AOS Technical Building, is the last component in the receiving end of the data transmission. It is a very large data processing system, composed of four quadrants, each of which can process data coming from up to 504 pairs of antennas. The complete correlator will have 2912 printed circuit boards, 5200 interface cables, and more than 20 million solder points. Integral parts of the Correlator are TFB (Tunable Filter Bank) cards. The layout is such that four TFB cards are needed for the data coming from a single antenna. The TFB cards have been developed and optimized by the University of Bordeaux over the last few years.
ACA (Atacama Compact Array) Correlator: The ACA Correlator is designed to process the signals detected by the Atacama Compact Array (ACA). This correlator consists of 52 modules connected with each other through optical-fiber cables. All the modules are installed in 8 racks in the AOS Technical Building. The power spectra issued from the correlation are transferred to the ACA data processing computers.
ALMA links with other observatories to create an Earth-size telescope
November 2015: ALMA continues to expand its power and capabilities by linking with other millimeter-wavelength telescopes in Europe and North American in a series of VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) observations. In VLBI, data from two or more telescopes are combined to form a single virtual telescope that spans the geographic distance between them. The most recent of these experiments with ALMA formed an Earth-size telescope with extraordinarily fine resolution. 24)
Figure 14: ALMA combined its power with IRAM and VLBA in VLBI separated observations (image credit: A. Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF)
These experiments are an essential step in including ALMA in the EHT (Event Horizon Telescope), a global network of millimeter-wavelength telescopes that will have the power to study the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way in unprecedented detail.
Before ALMA could participate in VLBI observations, it first had to be upgraded adding a new capability known as a phased array. This new version of ALMA allows its 66 antennas to function as a single radio dish 85 m in diameter, which then becomes one element in a much larger VLBI telescope.
• The first test of ALMA’s VLBI capabilities occurred on 13 January 2015, when ALMA successfully linked with the APEX (Atacama Pathfinder Experiment Telescope), which is about two kilometers from the center of the ALMA array.
• On 30 March 2015, ALMA reached out much further by linking with IRAM (Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique), the 30 m radio telescope in the Sierra Nevada of southern Spain. Together they simultaneously observed the bright quasar 3C 273. Data from this observation were combined into a single observation with a resolution of 34 µarcsec (1 microarcsecond = 2.8º x 10-10). This is equivalent to distinguish an object of less than 10 cm on the Moon, seen from Earth. - The March observations were made during an observing campaign of the EHT at a wavelength of 1.3 mm.
• The most recent VLBI observing run was performed on 1–3 August 2015 with six of the VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array) antennas of NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory). This combined instrument formed a virtual Earth-size telescope and observed the quasar 3C 454.3, which is one of the brightest radio beacons on the sky, despite lying at a distance of 7.8 billion light-years. These data were first processed at NRAO and MIT-Haystack in the United States and further post-processing analysis is being performed at the MPIfR (Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy) in Bonn, Germany.
- The VLBA is an array of 10 antennas spread across the United States from Hawaii to St. Croix. For this observation, six antennas were used: North Liberty, IA; Fort Davis, TX; Los Alamos, NM; Owens Valley, CA; Brewster, WA; and Mauna Kea, HI. The observing wavelength was 3 mm.
• The new observations are a further step towards global interferometric observations with ALMA in the framework of the Global mm-VLBI Array and the EHT (Event Horizon Telescope), with ALMA as the largest and the most sensitive element. The addition of ALMA to millimeter VLBI will boost the imaging sensitivity and capabilities of the existing VLBI arrays by an order of magnitude.
Some selected observation imagery provided by ALMA
• October 4, 2019: The two baby stars were found in the [BHB2007] 11 system – the youngest member of a small stellar cluster in the Barnard 59 dark nebula, which is part of the clouds of interstellar dust called the Pipe nebula. Previous observations of this binary system showed the outer structure. Now, thanks to the high resolution of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) and an international team of astronomers led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, we can see the inner structure of this object. 27)
- “We see two compact sources that we interpret as circumstellar disks around the two young stars,” explains Felipe Alves from MPE who led the study. A circumstellar disk is the ring of dust and gas that surrounds a young star. The star accrete matter from the ring to grow bigger. “The size of each of these disks is similar to the asteroid belt in our Solar System and the separation between them is 28 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth,” notes Alves.
- The two circumstellar disks are surrounded by a bigger disk with a total mass of about 80 Jupiter masses, which displays a complex network of dust structures distributed in spiral shapes – the pretzel loops. “This is a really important result,” stresses Paola Caselli, managing director at MPE, head of the Centre of Astrochemical Studies and co-author of the study. “We have finally imaged the complex structure of young binary stars with their feeding filaments connecting them to the disk in which they were born. This provides important constraints for current models of star formation.”
- The baby stars accrete mass from the bigger disk in two stages. The first stage is when mass is transferred to the individual circumstellar disks in beautiful twirling loops, which is what the new ALMA image showed. The data analysis also revealed that the less-massive but brighter circumstellar disk — the one in the lower part of the image — accretes more material. In the second stage, the stars accrete mass from their circumstellar disks. “We expect this two-level accretion process to drive the dynamics of the binary system during its mass accretion phase,” adds Alves. “While the good agreement of these observations with theory is already very promising, we will need to study more young binary systems in detail to better understand how multiple stars form.”
- This research was presented in a paper published on 3 October 2019 in the journal Science. 28)
- The team is composed of F. O. Alves (Center for Astrochemical Studies, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany), P. Caselli (Center for Astrochemical Studies, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany), J. M. Girart (Institut de Ciències de l’Espai, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Spain and Institut d’Estudis Espacials de Catalunya, Spain), D. Segura-Cox (Center for Astrochemical Studies, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany), G. A. P. Franco (Departamento de Física, Instituto de Ciências Exatas, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil), A. Schmiedeke (Center for Astrochemical Studies, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany) and B. Zhao (Center for Astrochemical Studies, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany).
Figure 15: ALMA captured this unprecedented image of two circumstellar disks, in which baby stars are growing, feeding with material from their surrounding birth disk. The complex network of dust structures distributed in spiral shapes remind of the loops of a pretzel. These observations shed new light on the earliest phases of the lives of stars and help astronomers determine the conditions in which binary stars are born (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Alves et al.)
• September 30, 2019: Using the detailed eyes of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) and ESO’s VLT (Very Large Telescope), astronomers have mapped the intense tails of a cosmic jellyfish: a number of knotty streams of gas spewing outwards from a spiral galaxy named ESO 137-001. 29)
Figure 16: This celestial cnidarian is shown here in beautiful detail. The various elements making up this image were captured by different telescopes. The galaxy and its surroundings were imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope; its tails, which trace streams of hydrogen and show up in hues of bright purple, by the MUSE instrument mounted on the VLT; and bright hotspots of carbon dioxide emission from within the system, which show up as flares of orange-red, were spotted by ALMA [image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), P. Jachym (Czech Academy of Sciences) et al.]
- These tails are caused by a dramatic phenomenon known as ram-pressure stripping. The space between galaxies in a cluster is not empty, but full of material that acts like a viscous fluid. As a galaxy travels through this resistant environment, gas is stripped out of the galaxy to form a wake that creates beautiful, intricate systems such as that seen here around ESO 137-001 (which resides in the Norma galaxy cluster). The direction and position of the tail shed light on the way in which the galaxy is moving — with galaxies usually falling towards the center of the cluster itself.
- This image offers the first high-resolution map of the cold molecular gas lurking within a ram-pressure stripped system. ESO 137-001 is one of the nearest jellyfish galaxies to Earth, and is particularly interesting because its long, extended tails of gas contain features known as ‘fireballs’: bursts of star formation. The precise mechanisms governing how stars form within jellyfish tails are mysterious, and this map thus provides a new window onto the conditions needed for new stars to form in such intense, changeable environments.
- The ALMA array comprises 66 antennas, and is located on the Chajinator plateau in the Chilean Atacama Desert at an altitude of 5000 meters. ALMA observes the night sky from this remote location to unlock the secrets of how the Universe — and its weird and wonderful residents, ESO 137-001 included — formed and evolved, revealing more about our cosmic origins.
• September 16, 2019: Star clusters are formed by the condensation of molecular clouds, masses of cold, dense gas that are found in every galaxy. The physical properties of these clouds in our own galaxy and nearby galaxies have been known for a long time. But are they identical in distant galaxies that are more than 8 billion light-years away? For the first time, an international team led by the University of Geneva (UNIGE) has been able to detect molecular clouds in a Milky Way progenitor, thanks to the unprecedented spatial resolution achieved in such a distant galaxy. 30)
- These observations, published in Nature Astronomy, show that the distant clouds have a higher mass, density and internal turbulence than the clouds hosted in nearby galaxies and that they produce far more stars. The astronomers attribute these differences to the ambient interstellar conditions in distant galaxies, which are too extreme for the molecular clouds typical of nearby galaxies to survive. 31)
- Molecular clouds consist of dense, cold molecular hydrogen gas that swirls around at supersonic velocities, generating density fluctuations that condense and form stars. In nearby galaxies, such as the Milky Way, a molecular cloud produces between 10+3 and 10+6 stars. In far-off galaxies, however, located more than 8 billion light-years away, astronomers have observed gigantic star clusters containing up to 100 times more stars. Why is there such a difference?
Exceptional observation made possible using a cosmic magnifying glass
- To answer this question, the astronomers were able to make use of a natural telescope - the gravitational lens phenomenon - in combination with ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array), an interferometer made up of 50 millimetric radio antennas that reconstruct the entire image of a galaxy instantly.
- "Gravitational lenses are a natural telescope that produces a magnifying-glass effect when a massive object is aligned between the observer and the distant object," explains Miroslava Dessauges, a researcher in the Department of Astronomy in UNIGE's Faculty of Science and first author of the study.
- "With this effect, some parts of distant galaxies are stretched on the sky and can be studied at an unrivalled resolution of 90 light-years!" ALMA, meanwhile, can be employed to measure the level of carbon monoxide, which acts as a tracer of molecular hydrogen gas that constitutes the cold clouds.
- This resolution made it possible to characterize the molecular clouds individually in a distant galaxy, nicknamed the "Cosmic Snake", 8 billion light-years away. "It's the first time we've been able to pinpoint molecular clouds one from each other," says Daniel Schaerer, professor in UNIGE's Department of Astronomy.
Figure 17: Molecular clouds detected at the unprecedented resolution of 90 light-years in the Cosmic Snake, located more than 8 billion light-years away, a typical progenitor of our galaxy (left). Observed at resolutions 50,000 times better, each of these clouds resembles the very tormented gas of the Carina nebula located only 7500 light-years away, a veritable nursery of emerging stars (right) image credit: © UNIGE, Dessauges et NASA, ESA
- The astronomers were therefore able to compare the mass, size, density and internal turbulence of molecular clouds in nearby and distant galaxies. "It was thought that the clouds had the same properties in all galaxies at all times, continues the Geneva-based researcher, but our observations have demonstrated the opposite!"
Molecular clouds resistant to extreme environments
- These new observations revealed that the molecular clouds in distant galaxies had a mass, density and turbulence 10 to 100 times higher than those in nearby galaxies. "Such values had only been measured in clouds hosted in nearby interacting galaxies, which have interstellar medium conditions resembling those of distant galaxies," adds Miroslava Dessauges.
- The researchers could link the differences in the physical properties of the clouds with the galactic environments, which are more extreme and hostile in far-off galaxies than in closer galaxies.
- "A molecular cloud typically found in a nearby galaxy would instantly collapse and be destroyed in the interstellar medium of distant galaxies, hence its enhanced density and turbulence guarantee its survival and equilibrium," explains Miroslava Dessauges.
- "The characteristic mass of the molecular clouds in the Cosmic Snake appears to be in perfect agreement with the predictions of our scenario of fragmentation of turbulent galactic disks. As a result, this scenario can be put forward as the mechanism of formation of massive molecular clouds in distant galaxies," adds Lucio Mayer, a professor at the Centre for Physical and Cosmological Theory at the University of Zurich.
- The international team also discovered that the efficiency of star formation in the Cosmic Snake galaxy is particularly high, likely triggered by the highly supersonic internal turbulence of the clouds. "In nearby galaxies, a molecular cloud forms about 5% of its mass in stars. In distant galaxies, this number climbs to 30%," observes Daniel Schaerer.
- The astronomers will now study other distant galaxies in order to confirm their observational results obtained for the Cosmic Snake. Miroslava Dessauges says in conclusion: "We'll also push the resolution even further by taking advantage of the unique performance of the ALMA interferometer. In parallel, we need to understand in more detail the ability of molecular clouds in distant galaxies to form stars so efficiently."
• September 13, 2019: Astronomers using one of the most advanced radio telescopes (ALMA) have discovered a rare molecule in the dust and gas disc around a young star — and it may provide an answer to one of the conundrums facing astronomers. 32)
- The star, named HD 163296, is located 330 light years from Earth and formed over the last six million years.
- It is surrounded by a disc of dust and gas — a so-called protoplanetary disc. It is within these discs that young planets are born. Using a radio telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile, researchers were able to detect an extremely faint signal showing the existence of a rare form of carbon monoxide — known as an isotopologue (13C17O).
- The detection has allowed an international collaboration of scientists, led by the University of Leeds, to measure the mass of the gas in the disc more accurately than ever before. The results show that disc is much heavier — or more 'massive' — than previously thought.
- Alice Booth, a PhD researcher at Leeds who led the study, said: "Our new observations showed there was between two and six times more mass hiding in the disc than previous observations could measure.
- "This is an important finding in terms of the birth of planetary systems in discs — if they contain more gas, then they have more building material to form more massive planets."
- The study — The first detection of 13C17O in a protoplanetary disk: a robust tracer of disk gas mass — was published (12/09/2019) in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. 33)
- The scientists' conclusions are well timed. Recent observations of protoplanetary discs have perplexed astronomers because they did not seem to contain enough gas and dust to create the planets observed.
- Dr John Ilee, a researcher at Leeds who was also involved in the study, added: "The disc-exoplanet mass discrepancy raises serious questions about how and when planets are formed. However, if other discs are hiding similar amounts of mass as HD 163296, then we may just have underestimated their masses until now."
- "We can measure disc masses by looking at how much light is given off by molecules like carbon monoxide. If the discs are sufficiently dense, then they can block the light given off by more common forms of carbon monoxide -- and that could result in scientists underestimating the mass of the gas present. - This study has used a technique to observe the much rarer 13C17O molecule — and that's allowed us to peer deep inside the disc and find a previously hidden reservoir of gas."
- The researchers made use of one of the most sophisticated radio telescopes in the world — the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) — high in the Atacama Desert.
Figure 18: The inner red regions represent the dust in the disc, thought to be shaped into rings by forming planets. The wider blue region is the carbon monoxide (CO) gas in the disc. The inner green region shows the rarer 13C17O gas that the researchers have detected for the first time (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Booth and colleagues, University of Leeds)
- ALMA is able to observe light that is invisible to the naked eye, allowing astronomers to view what is known as the 'cold universe' — those parts of space not visible using optical telescopes.
- Booth said: "Our work shows the amazing contribution that ALMA is making to our understanding of the Universe. It is helping build a more accurate picture of the physics leading to the formation of new planets. This of course then helps us understand how the Solar System and Earth came to be."
- The researchers are already planning the next steps in their work.
- Booth added: "We suspect that ALMA will allow us to observe this rare form of CO in many other discs. By doing that, we can more accurately measure their mass, and determine whether scientists have systematically been underestimating how much matter they contain."
• August 22, 2019: Swirling clouds, big colorful belts, giant storms. The beautiful and incredibly turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter has been showcased many times. But what is going on below the clouds? What is causing the many storms and eruptions that we see on the ‘surface’ of the planet? However, to study this, visible light is not enough. We need to study Jupiter using radio waves. 34) 35)
- New radio wave images made with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) observatory provide a unique view of Jupiter’s atmosphere down to fifty kilometers below the planet’s visible (ammonia) cloud deck.
- “ALMA enabled us to make a three-dimensional map of the distribution of ammonia gas below the clouds. And for the first time, we were able to study the atmosphere below the ammonia cloud layers after an energetic eruption on Jupiter,” said Imke de Pater of the University of California, Berkeley (EE. UU.).
- The atmosphere of giant Jupiter is made out of mostly hydrogen and helium, together with trace gases of methane, ammonia, hydrosulfide, and water. The top-most cloud layer is made up of ammonia ice. Below that is a layer of solid ammonia hydrosulfide particles, and deeper still, around 80 kilometers below the upper cloud deck, there likely is a layer of liquid water. The upper clouds form the distinctive brown belts and white zones seen from Earth.
- Many of the storms on Jupiter take place inside those belts. They can be compared to thunderstorms on Earth and are often associated with lightning events. Storms reveal themselves in visible light as small bright clouds, referred to as plumes. These plume eruptions can cause a major disruption of the belt, which can be visible for months or years.
- The ALMA images were taken a few days after amateur astronomers observed an eruption in Jupiter’s South Equatorial Belt in January 2017. A small bright white plume was visible first, and then a large-scale disruption in the belt was observed that lasted for weeks after the eruption.
- De Pater and her colleagues used ALMA to study the atmosphere below the plume and the disrupted belt at radio wavelengths and compared these to UV-visible light and infrared images made with other telescopes at approximately the same time.
- “Our ALMA observations are the first to show that high concentrations of ammonia gas are brought up during an energetic eruption,” said de Pater. “The combination of observations simultaneously at many different wavelengths enabled us to examine the eruption in detail. Which led us to confirm the current theory that energetic plumes are triggered by moist convection at the base of water clouds, which are located deep in the atmosphere. The plumes bring up ammonia gas from deep in the atmosphere to high altitudes, well above the main ammonia cloud deck,” she added.
Figure 19: Radio image of Jupiter made with ALMA. Bright bands indicate high temperatures and dark bands low temperatures. The dark bands correspond to the zones on Jupiter, which are often white at visible wavelengths. The bright bands correspond to the brown belts on the planet. This image contains over 10 hours of data, so fine details are smeared by the planet’s rotation (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), I. de Pater et al.; NRAO/AUI NSF, S. Dagnello)
- “These ALMA maps at millimeter wavelengths complement the maps made with the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array in centimeter wavelengths,” said Bryan Butler of the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory). “Both maps probe below the cloud layers seen at optical wavelengths and show ammonia-rich gases rising into and forming the upper cloud layers (zones), and ammonia-poor air sinking down (belts).”
- “The present results show superbly what can be achieved in planetary science when an object is studied with various observatories and at various wavelengths”. Explains Eric Villard, an ALMA astronomer part of the research team. “ALMA, with its unprecedented sensitivity and spectral resolution at radio wavelengths, worked together successfully with other major observatories around the world, to provide the data to allow a better understanding of the atmosphere of Jupiter.”
Figure 20: Flat map of Jupiter in radio waves with ALMA (top) and visible light with the Hubble Space Telescope (bottom). The eruption in the South Equatorial Belt is visible in both images (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), I. de Pater et al.; NRAO/AUI NSF, S. Dagnello; NASA/Hubble)
Figure 21: Spherical ALMA map of Jupiter showing the distribution of ammonia gas below Jupiter’s cloud deck (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), I. de Pater et al.; NRAO/AUI NSF, S. Dagnello)
• June 17, 2019: Researchers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observed the earliest combined signals of oxygen, carbon, and dust from a galaxy in the Universe, 13 billion years ago. By comparing the different signals, the team determined that the galaxy is, in fact, two merging galaxies, making it the earliest example of merging galaxies yet discovered. 36)
- Takuya Hashimoto at Waseda University, Japan, and his team used ALMA to observe B14-65666, an object located 13 billion light-years away in the constellation Sextans. Because of the finite speed of light, the signals we receive from B14-65666 today had to travel for 13 billion years to reach us. In other words, they show us the image of what the galaxy looked like 13 billion years ago, less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang. 37)
- ALMA achieved the earliest observation of radio emissions from oxygen, carbon, and dust in B14-65666. The detection of multiple signals allows astronomers to retrieve complementary information.
- Data analysis showed that the emissions are divided into two blobs. Previous observations with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) had revealed two-star clusters in B14-65666. Now, with the three emission signals detected by ALMA, the team was able to show that the two blobs do in-fact form a single system, but with different speeds; which indicates that the blobs are two merging galaxies. The earliest known example of merging galaxies. The research team estimated that the total stellar mass of B14-65666 is less than 10% that of the Milky Way, meaning that it’s in its earliest phases of evolution. Despite its youth, B14-65666 is producing stars 100 times more actively than the Milky Way. Such active star-formation rate is another signature of galactic mergers because the gas compression in colliding galaxies naturally leads to bursty star-formation.
- “With rich data from ALMA and HST, combined with advanced data analysis, we could put the pieces together to show that B14-65666 is a pair of merging galaxies in the earliest era of the Universe,” explains Hashimoto. “Detection of radio waves from three components in such a distant object demonstrates ALMA’s high capability to investigate the distant Universe.”
- Present galaxies like our Milky Way have experienced countless, often violent, mergers. Sometimes a more massive galaxy swallowed a smaller one. In rare cases, galaxies with similar sizes merged to form a new, larger galaxy. Mergers are essential for galaxy evolution, attracting many astronomers eager to trace back them.
- “Our next step is to search for nitrogen, another major chemical element, and even the carbon monoxide molecule,” said Akio Inoue, a professor at Waseda University. “Ultimately, we hope to observationally understand the circulation and accumulation of elements and material in the context of galaxy formation and evolution.”
Figure 22: Composite image of B14-65666 showing the distributions of dust (red), oxygen (green), and carbon (blue), observed by ALMA and stars (white) observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, Hashimoto et al.)
Figure 23: Artist’s impression of the merging galaxies B14-65666 located 13 billion light-years away (image credit: NAOJ)
• May 10, 2019: Astronomers map the substance aluminum monoxide (AlO) in a cloud around a distant young star—Origin Source I. The finding clarifies some important details about how our solar system, and ultimately we, came to be. The cloud's limited distribution suggests AlO gas rapidly condenses to solid grains, which hints at what an early stage of our solar evolution looked like. 38) 39) 40)
- Professor Shogo Tachibana of the University of Tokyo Organization for Planetary and Space Science has a passion for space. From small things like meteorites to enormous things like stars and nebulae—huge clouds of gas and dust in space—he is driven to explore our solar system's origins.
- "I have always wondered about the evolution of our solar system, of what must have taken place all those billions of years ago," he said. "This question leads me to investigate the physics and chemistry of asteroids and meteorites."
- Space rocks of all kinds greatly interest astronomers as these rocks can remain largely unchanged since the time our sun and planets formed from a swirling cloud of gas and dust. They contain records of the conditions at that time—generally considered to be 4.56 billion years ago—and their properties such as composition can tell us about these early conditions.
- "On my desk is a small piece of the Allende meteorite, which fell to Earth in 1969. It's mostly dark but there are some scattered white inclusions (foreign bodies enclosed in the rock), and these are important," continued Tachibana. "These speckles are calcium and aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs), which were the first solid objects formed in our solar system."
- Minerals present in CAIs indicate that our young solar system must have been extremely hot. Physical techniques for dating these minerals reveal a fairly specific age for the solar system. However, Tachibana and colleagues wished to expand on the details of this stage of evolution.
Figure 24: The white inclusions called CAIs are among the oldest solid matter in the solar system (image credit: Rohan Mehra, Division for Strategic Public Relations)
- "There are no time machines to explore our own past, so we wanted to see a young star that could share traits with our own," said Tachibana. "With the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), we found the emission lines—a chemical fingerprint—for AlO in outflows from the circumstellar disk (gas and dust surrounding a star) of the massive young star candidate Orion Source I. It's not exactly like our sun, but it's a good start."
- ALMA was the ideal tool as it offers extremely high resolution and sensitivity to reveal the distribution of AlO around the star. No other instrument can presently make such observations.
- The team now plans to explore gas and solid molecules around other stars to gather data useful to further refine solar system models.
Figure 25: The Orion Nebula where the distant young star Origin Source I resides (image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team)
• March 19, 2019: Researchers have detected a radio signal from abundant interstellar dust in MACS0416_Y1, a galaxy 13.2 billion light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Standard models can’t explain this much dust in a galaxy this young, forcing us to rethink the history of star formation. Researchers now think MACS0416_Y1 experienced staggered star formation with two intense starburst periods 300 million and 600 million years after the Big Bang with a quiet phase in between. 41) 42)
- Stars are the main players in the Universe, but they are supported by the unseen backstage stagehands: stardust and gas. Cosmic clouds of dust and gas are the sites of star formation and masterful storytellers of the cosmic history.
- “Dust and relatively heavy elements such as oxygen are disseminated by the deaths of stars,” said Yoichi Tamura, an associate professor at Nagoya University and the lead author of the research paper, “Therefore, a detection of dust at some point in time indicates that a number of stars have already formed and died well before that point.”
- Using ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), Tamura and his team observed the distant galaxy MACS0416_Y1. Because of the finite speed of light, the radio waves we observe from this galaxy today had to travel for 13.2 billion years to reach us. In other words, they provide an image of what the galaxy looked like 13.2 billion years ago, which is only 600 million years after the Big Bang.
- The astronomers detected a weak but telltale signal of radio emissions from dust particles in MACS0416_Y1. The HST (Hubble Space Telescope), the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the European Southern Observatory’s VLT (Very Large Telescope) have observed the light from stars in the galaxy; and from its color they estimate the stellar age to be 4 million years.
- “It ain’t easy,” said Tamura half-lost in a moonage daydream. “The dust is too abundant to have been formed in 4 million years. It is surprising, but we need to hang onto ourselves. Older stars might be hiding in the galaxy, or they may have died out and disappeared already.”
- “There have been several ideas proposed to overcome this dust budget crisis,” said Ken Mawatari, a researcher at the University of Tokyo. “However, no one is conclusive. We made a new model which doesn’t need any extreme assumptions diverging far from our knowledge of the life of stars in today’s Universe. The model well explains both the color of the galaxy and the amount of dust.” In this model, the first burst of star formation started at 300 million years and lasted 100 million years. After that, the star formation activity went quiet for a and then restarted at 600 million years. The researchers think ALMA observed this galaxy at the beginning of its second generation of star formation.
- “Dust is a crucial material for planets like Earth,” explains Tamura. “Our result is an important step forward for understanding the early history of the Universe and the origin of dust.”
Figure 26: ALMA and Hubble Space Telescope (HST) image of the distant galaxy MACS0416_Y1. Distribution of dust and oxygen gas traced by ALMA are shown in red and green, respectively, while the distribution of stars captured by HST is shown in blue [image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, Tamura, et al.]
Figure 27: Artist’s impression of the distant galaxy MACS0416_Y1. Based on the observations with ALMA and HST, researchers assume that this galaxy contains stellar clusters with a mix of old and young stars. The clouds of gas and dust are illuminated by starlight (image credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)
• March 18, 2019: Scientists from the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research in Japan,the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden,and the University of Virginia in the USA and collaborators used ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) to observe a molecular cloud that is collapsing to form two massive protostars that will eventually become a binary star system. 43)
- While it is known that most massive stars possess orbiting stellar companions it has been unclear how this comes about – for example, are the stars born together from a common spiraling gas disk at the center of a collapsing cloud, or do they pair up later by chance encounters in a crowded star cluster.
- Understanding the dynamics of forming binaries has been difficult because the protostars in these systems are still enveloped in a thick cloud of gas and dust that prevents most light from escaping. Fortunately, it is possible to see them using radio waves, as long as they can be imaged with sufficiently high spatial resolution.
- In the current research, published in Nature Astronomy, the researchers led by Yichen Zhang of the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research and Jonathan C. Tan at the Chalmers University,and the University of Virginia, used ALMA to observe, at high spatial resolution, a star-forming region known as IRAS07299-1651, which is located 1.68 kpc (kiloparsec), or about 5,500 light years, away.
- The observations showed that already at this early stage, the cloud contains two objects, a massive “primary” central star and another “secondary” forming star, also of high mass. For the first time, the research team was able to use these observations to deduce the dynamics of the system. The observations showed that the two forming stars are separated by a distance of about 180 astronomical units—a unit approximately the distance from the earth to the sun. Hence, they are quite far apart. They are currently orbiting each other with a period of at most 600 years and have a total mass at least 18 times that of our Sun. 44)
Figure 28: ALMA’s view of the IRAS-07299 star-forming region and the massive binary system at its center. The background image shows dense, dusty streams of gas (shown in green) that appear to be flowing towards the center. Gas motions, as traced by the methanol molecule, that are towards us are shown in blue; motions away from us in red. The inset image shows a zoom-in view of the massive forming binary, with the brighter, primary protostar moving toward us is shown in blue and the fainter, secondary protostar moving away from us shown in red. The blue and red dotted lines show an example of orbits of the primary and secondary spiraling around their center of mass (marked by the cross) image credit: Riken & Study Team
Figure 29: Movie composed of images taken by ALMA showing the gas streams, as traced by the methanol molecule, with different line-of-sight color-coded velocities, around the massive binary protostar system. The grey background image shows the overall distribution, from all velocities, of dust emission from the dense gas streams (image credit: Riken & Study Team)
• March 13, 2019: Researchers have spotted the formation sites of planets around a young star resembling our Sun. Two rings of dust around the star, at distances comparable to the asteroid belt and the orbit of Neptune in our Solar System, suggest that we are witnessing the formation of a planetary system similar to our own. 45) 46)
- The Solar System is thought to have formed from a cloud of cosmic gas and dust 4.6 billion years ago. By studying young planetary systems forming around other stars, astronomers hope to learn more about our own origins.
- Tomoyuki Kudo, an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), and his team observed the young star DM Tau using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Located 470 light-years away in the constellation Taurus, DM Tau is about half the mass of the Sun and estimated to be three to five million years old.
- "Previous observations inferred two different models for the disk around DM Tau," said Kudo. "Some studies suggested the radius of the ring is about where the Solar System's asteroid belt would be. Other observations put the size out where Neptune would be. Our ALMA observations provided a clear answer: both are right. DM Tau has two rings, one at each location."
- The researchers found a bright patch in the outer ring. This indicates a local concentration of dust, which would be a possible formation site for a planet like Uranus or Neptune.
- "We are also interested in seeing the details in the inner region of the disk, because the Earth formed in such an area around the young Sun," commented Jun Hashimoto, a researcher at the Astrobiology Center, Japan. "The distribution of dust in the inner ring around DM Tau will provide crucial information to understand the origin of planets like Earth."
Figure 30: ALMA image of the dusty disk around the young star DM Tau. You can see two concentric rings where planets may be forming (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Kudo et al.)
• February 28, 2019: Astronomers have detected a stealthy black hole from its effects on an interstellar gas cloud. This intermediate mass black hole is one of over 100 million quiet black holes expected to be lurking in our galaxy. These results provide a new method to search for other hidden black holes and help us understand the growth and evolution of black holes. 47) 48)
- Black holes are objects with such strong gravity that everything, including light, is sucked in and cannot escape. Because black holes do not emit light, astronomers must infer their existence from the effects their gravity produce in other objects. Black holes range in mass from about 5 times the mass of the Sun to supermassive black holes millions of times the mass of the Sun. Astronomers think that small black holes merge and gradually grow into large ones, but no one had ever found an intermediate mass, hundreds or thousands of times the mass of the Sun.
- A research team led by Shunya Takekawa at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan noticed HCN–0.009–0.044, a gas cloud moving strangely near the center of the Galaxy 25,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius. They used ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) to perform high resolution observations of the cloud and found that it is swirling around an invisible massive object.
- Takekawa explains, “Detailed kinematic analyses revealed that an enormous mass, 30,000 times that of the Sun, was concentrated in a region much smaller than our Solar System. This and the lack of any observed object at that location strongly suggests an intermediate-mass black hole. By analyzing other anomalous clouds, we hope to expose other quiet black holes.”
- Tomoharu Oka, a professor at Keio University and coleader of the team, adds, “It is significant that this intermediate mass black hole was found only 20 light-years from the supermassive black hole at the Galactic center. In the future, it will fall into the supermassive black hole; much like gas is currently falling into it. This supports the merger model of black hole growth.”
Figure 31: Artist’s impression of a gas cloud swirling around a black hole [image credit: NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)]
• February 26, 2019: Astronomers have unveiled the enigmatic origins of two different gas streams from a baby star. Using ALMA, they found that the slow outflow and the high speed jet from a protostar have misaligned axes and that the former started to be ejected earlier than the latter. The origins of these two flows have been a mystery, but these observations provide telltale signs that these two streams were launched from different parts of the disk around the protostar. 49)
Figure 32: ALMA image of the protostar MMS5/OMC-3. The protostar is located at the center and the gas streams are ejected to the east and west (left and right). The slow outflow is shown in orange and the fast jet is shown in blue. It is obvious that the axes of the outflow and jet are misaligned (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) Matsushita et al.)
- Stars in the Universe have a wide range of masses, ranging from hundreds of times the mass of the Sun to less than a tenth of that of the Sun. To understand the origin of this variety, astronomers study the formation process of the stars, that is the aggregation of cosmic gas and dust.
- Baby stars collect the gas with their gravitational pull, however, some of the material is ejected by the protostars. This ejected material forms a stellar birth cry which provides clues to understand the process of mass accumulation.
- Yuko Matsushita, a graduate student at Kyushu University and her team used ALMA to observe the detailed structure of the birth cry from the baby star MMS5/OMC-3 and found two different gaseous flows: a slow outflow and a fast jet. There have been a handful of examples with two flows seen in radio waves, but MMS5/OMC-3 is exceptional.
- “Measuring the Doppler shift of the radio waves, we can estimate the speed and lifetime of the gas flows,” said Matsushita, the lead author of the research paper that appeared in the Astrophysical Journal. “We found that the jet and outflow were launched 500 years and 1300 years ago, respectively. These gas streams are quite young.”
- More interestingly, the team found that the axes of the two flows are misaligned by 17 degrees. The axis of the flows can be changed over long time periods due to the precession of the central star. But in this case, considering the extreme youth of the gas streams, researchers concluded that the misalignment is not due to precession but is related to the launching process.
Figure 33: Artist’s impression of the baby star MMS5/OMC-3. ALMA observations identified two gas streams from the protostar, a collimated fast jet and a wide-angle slow outflow, and found that the axes of the two gas flows are misaligned (image credit: NAOJ)
- There are two competing models for the formation mechanism of the protostellar outflows and jets. Some researchers assume that the two streams are formed independently in different parts of the gas disk around the central baby star, while others propose that the collocated jet is formed first, then it entrains the surrounding material to form the slower outflows. Despite extensive research, astronomers had not yet reached a conclusive answer.
- A misalignment in the two flows could occur in the ‘independent model,’ but is difficult in the ‘entrainment model.’ Moreover, the team found that the outflow was ejected considerably earlier than the jet. This clearly backs the ‘independent model.’
- “The observation well matches the result of my simulation,” said Masahiro Machida, a professor at Kyushu University. A decade ago, he performed pioneering simulation studies using a supercomputer operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. In the simulation, the wide-angle outflow is ejected from the outer area of the gaseous disk around a protostar, while the collimated jet is launched independently from the inner area of the disk. Machida continues, “An observed misalignment between the two gas streams may indicate that the disk around the protostar is warped.”
- “ALMA’s high sensitivity and high angular resolution will enable us to find more and more young, energetic outflow-and-jet-systems like MMS 5/OMC-3,” said Satoko Takahashi, an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the Joint ALMA Observatory and co-author of the paper. “They will provide clues to understand the driving mechanisms of outflows and jets. Moreover studying such objects will also tell us how the mass accretion and ejection processes work at the earliest stage of star formation.” 50)
• February 25, 2019: Red giants are old stars that eject gaseous material and solid particles through a stellar wind. Some red giants appeared to lose an exceptionally large amount of mass this way. However, new observations reveal that this is not quite the case. The stellar wind is not more intense than normal, but is affected by a partner that was overlooked until now—a second star that circles the red giant. These are the results of an international study led by Belgian university KU (Katholieke Universiteit) Leuven. 51)
- Humans don't live long enough to realize it, but stars are also born, they age, and they die. It's a process that takes billions of years. As a star gets older, it becomes bigger, colder, and redder - hence the name 'red giants'. Our sun will also become such a red giant in four and a half billion years.
- In the final stage of their life, red giants eject their mass - gas and other matter - in the form of a stellar wind. Earlier observations confirmed that red giants lose a lot of mass this way.
- Twelve mass-loss rate record holders, in particular, have been baffling scientists for decades. These red giants supposedly eject the equivalent of 100 earths per year for 100 to 2,000 years on end. Even astronomically speaking, that's a lot of matter in a short amount of time.
- This was difficult to explain, says Professor Leen Decin from the KU Leuven Institute of Astronomy: "If you look at the mass of such a star in the next phase of its life, the intense stellar wind doesn't last long enough to account for the mass loss that we've seen. It was also statistically improbable that we had discovered twelve of these red giants, knowing that what we were seeing was a phase that lasted only hundreds or thousands of years compared with their billion-year-long life. It's like finding a needle in a haystack twelve times."
- New observations from the ALMA telescope in Chile shed light on what was happening with two of these red giants. "For these stars, the stellar wind forms a spiral. It's an indirect indication that the red giant is not alone, but part of a binary star system. The red giant is the main star with a second star circling it. Both stars affect each other and their environment gravitationally in two ways: on the one hand, the stellar wind is pulled in the direction of the second star and, on the other hand, the red giant itself also wiggles slightly. These movements give the stellar wind a spiral shape."
- The discovery of a partner star made everything fall into place, says Decin: "We believed that these red giants were record holders for mass-loss rate, but that's not the case. It only seemed as though they were losing a lot of mass because there's an area between the two stars where the stellar wind is much more concentrated due to the gravity of the second star. These red giants don't lose the equivalent of 100 earths per year, but rather 10 of them - just like the regular red giants. As such, they also die a bit more slowly than we first assumed. To rephrase in a positive way: these old stars live longer than we thought."
- The astronomers are now investigating whether a system with a binary star could also be the explanation for other special red giants. "We believed that many stars lived alone, but we will probably have to adjust this idea. A star with a partner is likely to be more common than we thought," Decin concludes.
Figure 34: Thanks to new observations from the ALMA telescope in Chile, it became clear that the stellar wind of this red giant forms a spiral. This is an indirect indication that the star is not alone, but part of a binary star (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Decin et al.) 52)
• February 7, 2019: A team of astronomers and chemists using ALMA has detected the chemical fingerprints of sodium chloride (NaCl) and other similar salty compounds emanating from the dusty disk surrounding Orion Source I, a massive, young star in a dusty cloud behind the Orion Nebula. 53)
- “It’s amazing we’re seeing these molecules at all,” said Adam Ginsburg, a Jansky Fellow of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico, and lead author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. “Since we’ve only ever seen these compounds in the sloughed-off outer layers of dying stars, we don’t fully know what our new discovery means. The nature of the detection, however, shows that the environment around this star is very unusual.”
- To detect molecules in space, astronomers use radio telescopes to search for their chemical signatures – telltale spikes in the spread-out spectra of radio and millimeter-wavelength light. Atoms and molecules emit these signals in several ways, depending on the temperature of their environments.
- The new ALMA observations contain a bristling array of spectral signatures – or transitions, as astronomers refer to them – of the same molecules. To create such strong and varied molecular fingerprints, the temperature differences where the molecules reside must be extreme, ranging anywhere from 100 kelvin to 4,000 kelvin (about -175 Celsius to 3700 Celsius). An in-depth study of these spectral spikes could provide insights about how the star is heating the disk, which would also be a useful measure of the luminosity of the star.
- “When we look at the information ALMA has provided, we see about 60 different transitions – or unique fingerprints – of molecules like sodium chloride and potassium chloride coming from the disk. That is both shocking and exciting,” said Brett McGuire, a chemist at the NRAO in Charlottesville, Virginia, and co-author on the paper.
- The researchers speculate that these salts come from dust grains that collided and spilled their contents into the surrounding disk. Their observations confirm that the salty regions trace the location of the circumstellar disk.
- “Usually when we study protostars in this manner, the signals from the disk and the outflow from the star get muddled, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other,” said Ginsburg. “Since we can now isolate just the disk, we can learn how it is moving and how much mass it contains. It also may tell us new things about the star.”
- The detection of salts around a young star is also of interest to astronomers and astrochemists because some of constituent atoms of salts are metals – sodium and potassium. This suggests there may be other metal-containing molecules in this environment. If so, it may be possible to use similar observations to measure the amount of metals in star-forming regions. “This type of study is not available to us at all presently. Free-floating metallic compounds are generally invisible to radio astronomy,” noted McGuire.
Figure 35: Artist impression of Orion Source I, a young, massive star about 1,500 light-years away. New ALMA observations detected a ring of salt — sodium chloride, ordinary table salt — surrounding the star. This is the first detection of salts of any kind associated with a young star. The blue region (about 1/3 the way out from the center of the disk) represents the region where ALMA detected the millimeter-wavelength “glow” from the salts (image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello)
- The salty signatures were found about 30 to 60 astronomical units (AU, or the average distance between the Earth and the Sun) from the host stars. Based on their observations, the astronomers infer that there may be as much as one sextillion (a one with 21 zeros after it) kilograms of salt in this region, which is roughly equivalent to the entire mass of Earth’s oceans.
- “Our next step in this research is to look for salts and metallic molecules in other regions. This will help us understand if these chemical fingerprints are a powerful tool to study a wide range of protoplanetary disks, or if this detection is unique to this source,” said Ginsburg. “In looking to the future, the planned Next Generation VLA would have the right mix of sensitivity and wavelength coverage to study these molecules and perhaps use them as tracers for planet-forming disks.”
- Orion Source I formed in the Orion Molecular Cloud I, a region of explosive starbirth previously observed with ALMA. “This star was ejected from its parent cloud with a speed of about 10 km/s around 550 years ago,” said John Bally, an astronomer at the University of Colorado and co-author on the paper. “It is possible that solid grains of salt were vaporized by shock waves as the star and its disk were abruptly accelerated by a close encounter or collision with another star. It remains to be seen if salt vapor is present in all disks surrounding massive protostars, or if such vapor traces violent events like the one we observed with ALMA.” 54)
• February 4, 2019: Astronomers using ALMA have detected various complex organic molecules around the young star V883 Ori. A sudden outburst from this star is releasing molecules from the icy compounds in the planet forming disk. The chemical composition of the disk is similar to that of comets in the modern Solar System. Sensitive ALMA observations enable astronomers to reconstruct the evolution of organic molecules from the birth of the Solar System to the objects we see today. 55)
- The research team led by Jeong-Eun Lee (Kyung Hee University, Korea) used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect complex organic molecules including methanol (CH3OH), acetone (CH3COCH3), acetaldehyde (CH3CHO), methyl formate (CH3OCHO), and acetonitrile (CH3CN). This is the first time that acetone was unambiguously detected in a planet forming region or protoplanetary disk.
- Various molecules are frozen in ice around micrometer-sized dust particles in protoplanetary disks. V883 Ori's sudden flare-up is heating the disk and sublimating the ice, which releases the molecules into gas. The region in a disk where the temperature reaches the sublimation temperature of the molecules is called the "snow line." The radii of snow lines are about a few astronomical units (au) around normal young stars, however, they are enlarged almost 10 times around bursting stars.
- "It is difficult to image a disk on the scale of a few au with current telescopes," said Lee. "However, around an outburst star, ice melts in a wider area of the disk and it is easier to see the distribution of molecules. We are interested in the distribution of complex organic molecules as the building blocks of life."
- Ice, including frozen organic molecules, could be closely related to the origin of life on planets. In our Solar System, comets are the focus of attention because of their rich icy compounds. For example, the European Space Agency's legendary comet explorer Rosetta found rich organic chemistry around the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Comets are thought to have been formed in the outer colder region of the proto-Solar System, where the molecules were contained in ice. Probing the chemical composition of ice in protoplanetary disks is directly related to probing the origin of organic molecules in comets, and the origin of the building blocks of life.
- Thanks to ALMA's sharp vision and the enlarged snow line due to the flare-up of the star, the astronomers obtained the spatial distribution of methanol and acetaldehyde. The distribution of these molecules has a ring-like structure with a radius of 60 au, which is twice the size of Neptune's orbit. The researchers assume that inside of this ring the molecules are invisible because they are obscured by thick dusty material, and are invisible outside of this radius because they are frozen in ice.
- "Since rocky and icy planets are made from solid material, the chemical composition of solids in disks is of special importance. An outburst is a unique chance to investigate fresh sublimates, and thus the composition of solids." says Yuri Aikawa at the University of Tokyo, a member of the research team.
Figure 36: The distribution of dust is shown in orange and the distribution of methanol, an organic molecule, is shown in blue (image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Lee et al. V883Ori)
- V883 Ori is a young star located at 1300 light-years away from the Earth. This star is experiencing a so-called FU Orionis type outburst, a sudden increase of luminosity due to a bursting torrent of material flowing from the disk to the star. These outbursts last only on the order of 100 years, therefore the chance to observe a burst is rather rare. However, since young stars with a wide range of ages experience FU Ori bursts, astronomers expect to be able to trace the chemical composition of ice throughout the evolution of young stars. 56)
• January 21, 2019: Including the powerful ALMA into an array of telescopes for the first time, astronomers have found that the emission from the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) at the center of our Galaxy comes from a smaller region than previously thought. This may indicate that a radio jet from Sgr A* is pointed almost directly towards the Earth. 57) 58) 59)
- So far, a foggy cloud of hot gas has prevented astronomers from making sharp images of the supermassive black hole Sgr A* and causing doubt on its true nature. They have now included for the first time the powerful ALMA telescope in northern Chile into a global network of radio telescopes to peer through this fog, but the source keeps surprising them: its emission region is so small that the source may actually have to point directly at the direction of the Earth.
- Observing at a frequency of 86 GHz with the technique of VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry), which combines many telescopes to form a virtual telescope the size of the Earth, the team succeeded in mapping out the exact properties of the light scattering blocking our view of Sgr A*. To remove the scattering and obtain the image, the team used a technique developed by Michael Johnson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "Even though scattering blurs and distorts the image of Sgr A*, the incredible resolution of these observations allowed us to pin down the exact properties of the scattering,” says Johnson. “We could then remove most of the effects from scattering and begin to see what things look like near the black hole”.
- The high quality of the unscattered image (Figure 38) has allowed the team to constrain theoretical models for the gas around Sgr A*. The bulk of the radio emission is coming from a region of a small size: a mere 300 millionth of an arc degree. “This may indicate that the radio emission is produced in a disk of infalling gas rather than by a radio jet,” explains Issaoun, who has tested several computer models against the data. “However, that would make Sgr A* an exception compared to other radio emitting black holes. The alternative could be that the radio jet is pointing almost at us”.
- The German astronomer Heino Falcke, Professor of Radio Astronomy at Radboud University and PhD supervisor of Issaoun, calls this statement very unusual, but he also no longer rules it out. Last year, Falcke would have considered this a contrived model, but recently the GRAVITY team came to a similar conclusion using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer of optical telescopes and an independent technique. “Maybe this is true after all”, concludes Falcke, “and we are looking at this beast from a very special vantage point.”
Legend to Figure 37: The data were correlated at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), which also operates the Global Millimeter-VLBI Array (GMVA). Data analysis software was developed at the MIT Haystack Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Several members of the team worked in this project as part of the European Research Council funded BlackHoleCam (BHC) team. The research team is also part of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) consortium, an international partnership of thirteen institutes from ten countries: Germany, the Netherlands, France & Spain (via IRAM), USA, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, Canada and China (via EAO). The participation of ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) through the ALMA Phasing Project has been decisive for the success of this project. The GMVA is partially supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 730562.
- Supermassive black holes are common in the centers of galaxies and may generate the most energetic phenomena in the known universe. It is believed that, around these black holes, matter falls in a rotating disk and part of this matter is expelled in opposite directions along two narrow beams, called jets, at speeds close to the speed of light, which typically produces a lot of radio light. “Whether the radio emission seen from SgrA* originates from a symmetrical underlying structure, or is intrinsically asymmetric is a matter of intense discussion”, explains Thomas Krichbaum, member of the team.
- Sgr A* is the nearest supermassive black hole and 'weighs' about 4 million solar masses. Its apparent size on the sky is less than a 100 millionth of an arc degree, which corresponds to the size of a tennis ball on the moon as seen from the Earth. “The black hole is so small that only VLBI can provide the angular resolution needed to resolve its structure”, says Pablo Torne, astronomer in support on the observations from the IRAM 30-meter telescope. “The first observations of Sgr A* at 86 GHz date from 26 years ago, with only a handful of telescopes. Over the years, the quality of the data has improved steadily as more telescopes join,” adds J. Anton Zensus, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and head of its Radio Astronomy/VLBI division.
- The findings of Issaoun and her international team including scientists from two research departments (Kramer & Zensus) at MPIfR describe the first observations at 86 GHz in which ALMA also participated, by far the most sensitive telescope at this frequency. ALMA became part of the Global Millimeter VLBI Array (GMVA), which is operated by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, in April 2017. The participation of ALMA, made possible by the ALMA Phasing Project effort, has been decisive for the success of this project.
- The participation of ALMA in mm-VLBI is important because of its sensitivity and its location in the southern hemisphere. In addition to ALMA, twelve radio telescopes in North America and Europe also participated in the network. The resolution achieved was twice as large as in previous observations at this frequency and produced the first image of Sgr A* that is considerably reduced in interstellar scattering (an effect caused by density irregularities in the ionized material along the line of sight between Sgr A* and the Earth).
Figure 38: Sgr A* at 86 GHz: simulation (top left), added effects of scattering (top right), scattered image from observations (bottom right), unscattered image, after removing the effects of scattering in the line of sight (bottom left), image credit: S. Issaoun, M. Mościbrodzka, Radboud University (Nijmegen, The Netherlangs) / M. D. Johnson, CfA
• January 24, 2019: Using the ALMA observatory in Chile, a group of astronomers led by MPIA’s (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg), Henrik Beuther has made the most detailed observation yet of the way that a giant gas cloud fragments into dense cores, which then act as the birthplaces of stars. The astronomers found that the mechanisms for fragmentation are fairly straightforward, resulting from the combination of the cloud’s pressure and gravity. More complex features, such as magnetic lines or turbulence, play a smaller role than previously thought. 60) 61)
- Stars are born when giant clouds of gas and dust collapse. Whenever one of the collapsing regions becomes hot and dense enough for nuclear fusion to set in, a star is born. For massive stars, i.e. those stars that exhibit more than eight times the mass of the Sun, that is only part of the picture, though. The biggest stars in the Universe are not born singly. They are born from massive clouds of molecular gas, which then form a cascade of fragments, with many of the fragments giving birth to a star.
- Astronomers have long wondered whether this fragmentation-mode of forming stars requires different physical mechanisms than for lower-mass stars. Proposals include turbulent gas motion, which could destabilize a region and lead to quicker collapse, or magnetic fields that could stabilize and thus delay collapse.
- The different mechanisms should leave tell-tale traces in regions where multiple stars are forming. The collapse that leads to the formation of high-mass stars takes place on a hierarchy of different levels. On the largest scales, star formation involves giant molecular clouds, which consist mostly of hydrogen gas and can reach sizes between a few dozen and more than a hundred light-years across. Within those clouds are slightly denser clumps, typically a few light-years across. Each clump contains one or more dense cores, less than a fifth of a light-year in diameter. Within each core, collapse leads to the formation of either a single star or multiple stars. Together, the stars produced in the cores of a single clump will form a star cluster.
Tell-tale scales of fragmentation
- The scales of this fragmentation at multiple levels depend on the mechanisms involved. The simplest model can be written down using no more than high school physics: An ideal gas has a pressure that depends on its temperature and density. In a simplified gas cloud, assumed to have constant density, that pressure must be strong enough everywhere to balance the force of gravity (given by Newton’s law of gravity) – even in the center of the cloud, where the inward gravitation-induced push of all the surrounding matter is strongest. Write this condition down, and you will find that any such constant-density cloud can only have a maximum size. If a cloud is larger than this maximum, which is called the Jeans length, the cloud will fragment and collapse.
- Is the fragmentation of young massive clusters really dominated by these comparatively straightforward processes? It doesn’t need to be, and some astronomers have constructed much more complex scenarios, which include the influence of turbulent gas motion and magnetic field lines. These additional mechanisms change the conditions for cloud stability, and typically increase the scales of the different types of fragment.
- Different predictions for cloud sizes offer a way of testing the simple physics scenario against its more complex competitors. That is what Henrik Beuther and his colleagues set out to do when they observed the star formation region G351.77-0.54 in the Southern constellation Scorpius (The Scorpion). Previous observations had indicated that in this region, fragmentation could be caught in the act. But none of these observations had been powerful enough to show the smallest scale of interest for answering the question of fragmentation scales: the protostellar cores, let alone their sub-structure.
ALMA takes the most detailed look yet
- Beuther and his colleagues were able to do more. They used the ALMA Observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile. ALMA combines the simultaneous observations of up to 66 radio telescopes to achieve a resolution of down to 20 milli-arcseconds, which allows astronomers to discern details more than ten times smaller than with any previous radio telescope, and at unrivalled sensitivity – a combination that has already led to a number of breakthrough observations also in other fields.
- Beuther and his colleagues used ALMA to study the high-mass star-forming region G351.77-0.54 down to sub-core scales smaller than 50 astronomical units (in other words, less than 50 times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun). As Beuther says: “This is a prime example of how technology drives astronomical progress. We could not have obtained our results without the unprecedented spatial resolution and sensitivity of ALMA.”
Figure 39: Image of the massive star cluster NGC 3603, obtained with the VLT (Very Large Telescope). It probably has evolved in the same way as the one just forming in G351.77-0.54, the object depicted in this work (image credit: MPIA, ESO)
- Their results, together with earlier studies of the same cloud at larger scales, indicate that thermal gas physics is winning the day, even when it comes to very massive stars: Both the sizes of clumps within the cloud and, as the new observations show, of cores within the clumps and even of some core substructures are as predicted by Jeans length calculations, with no need for additional ingredients. Beuther comments: “In our case, the same physics provides a uniform description. Fragmentation from the largest to the smallest scales seems to be governed by the same physical processes.”
Small accretion disks: a new challenge
- Simplicity is always a boon for scientific descriptions. However, the same observations also provided a discovery that will keep astronomers on their collective toes. In addition to studying fragmentation, Beuther et al. had been looking to unravel the structure of nascent stars (“protostars”) within the cloud. Astronomers expect such a protostar to be surrounded by a swirling disk of gas, called the accretion disk. From the inner disk of the rim, gas falls onto the growing star, increasing its mass. In addition, magnetic fields produced by the motion of ionized gas and the gas itself interact to produce tightly focused streams called jets, which shoot out some of the matter into space perpendicular to that disk. Submillimeter light from those regions carries tell-tale signs (“Doppler-broadening of spectral lines”) of the motion of dust, which in turn traces the motion of gas. But where Beuther and his collaborators had hoped for a clear signature from an accretion disk, instead, he found mainly the signature of jets, cutting a comparatively smooth path through the surrounding gas. Evidently, the accretion disks are even smaller than astronomers had expected – a challenge for future observations at even greater spatial resolution.
• January 15, 2019: New research led by an astronomer at the University of Warwick has found the first confirmed example of a double star system that has flipped its surrounding disc to a position that leaps over the orbital plane of those stars. The international team of astronomers used ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array) to obtain high-resolution images of the Asteroid belt-sized disc. 62)
- The overall system presents the unusual sight of a thick hoop of gas and dust circling at right angles to the binary star orbit. Until now this setup only existed in theorists’ minds, but the ALMA observation proves that polar discs of this type exist, and may even be relatively common.
- The new research is published 14 January by Royal Society University Research Fellow Dr Grant M. Kennedy of the University of Warwick's Department of Physics and Center for Exoplanets and Habitability in Nature Astronomy in a paper entitled "A circumbinary protoplanetary disc in a polar configuration". 63)
- Dr Grant M. Kennedy of the University of Warwick said: "Discs rich in gas and dust are seen around nearly all young stars, and we know that at least a third of the ones orbiting single stars form planets. Some of these planets end up being misaligned with the spin of the star, so we've been wondering whether a similar thing might be possible for circumbinary planets. A quirk of the dynamics means that a so-called polar misalignment should be possible, but until now we had no evidence of misaligned discs in which these planets might form."
- Dr Kennedy and his fellow researchers used ALMA to pin down the orientation of the ring of gas and dust in the binary star system HD 98800 . The orbit of the binary was previously known, from observations that quantified how the stars move in relation to each other. By combining these two pieces of information they were able to establish that the dust ring was consistent with a perfectly polar orbit. This means that while the stellar orbits orbit each other in one plane, like two horses going around on a carousel, the disc surrounds these stars at right angles to their orbits, like a giant ferris wheel with the carousel at the center
- Kennedy added: "Perhaps the most exciting thing about this discovery is that the disc shows some of the same signatures that we attribute to dust growth in discs around single stars. We take this to mean planet formation can at least get started in these polar circumbinary discs. If the rest of the planet formation process can happen, there might be a whole population of misaligned circumbinary planets that we have yet to discover, and things like weird seasonal variations to consider."
- If there were a planet or planetoid present at the inner edge of the dust ring, the ring itself would appear from the surface as a broad band rising almost perpendicularly from the horizon. The polar configuration means that the stars would appear to move in and out of the disc plane, giving objects two shadows at times. Seasons on planets in such systems would also be different. On Earth they vary throughout the year as we orbit the Sun. A polar circumbinary planet would have seasons that also vary as different latitudes receive more or less illumination throughout the binary orbit.
- Future studies at different wavelengths will provide complementary information and further observational constraints for this source, which holds the key to a better understanding of black holes, the most exotic objects in the known universe.
Figure 40: An artist’s impression of a view of the HD 98800BaBb binary star system and the surrounding disk (image credit: Mark Garlick, University of Warwick)
- Co-author Dr Daniel Price of Monash University’s Center for Astrophysics (MoCA) and School of Physics and Astronomy added:“We used to think other solar systems would form just like ours, with the planets all orbiting in the same direction around a single sun. But with the new images we see a swirling disc of gas and dust orbiting around two stars. It was quite surprising to also find that that disc orbits at right angles to the orbit of the two stars. Incredibly, two more stars were seen orbiting that disc. So if planets were born here there would be four suns in the sky! ALMA is just a fantastic telescope, it is teaching us so much about how planets in other solar systems are born.”
• January 10, 2019: Galaxies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the most significant differences among galaxies, however, relate to where and how they form new stars. Compelling research to explain these differences has been elusive, but that is about to change. 64)
- A vast, new research project with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), known as PHANGS-ALMA (Physics at High Angular Resolution in Nearby GalaxieS), delves into this question with far greater power and precision than ever before by measuring the demographics and characteristics of a staggering 100,000 individual stellar nurseries spread throughout 74 galaxies.
- PHANGS-ALMA, an unprecedented and ongoing research campaign, has already amassed a total of 750 hours of observations and given astronomers a much clearer understanding of how the cycle of star formation changes, depending on the size, age, and internal dynamics of each individual galaxy. This campaign is 10 to 100 times more powerful (depending on your parameters) than any prior survey of its kind.
- "Some galaxies are furiously bursting with new stars while others have long ago used up most of their fuel for star formation. The origin of this diversity may very likely lie in the properties of the stellar nurseries themselves," said Erik Rosolowsky, an astronomer at the University of Alberta in Canada and a co-principal investigator of the PHANGS-ALMA research team.
- He presented initial findings of this research at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society being held this week in Seattle, Washington. Several papers based on this campaign have also been published in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astrophysical Journal Letters. 65) 66) 67)
- "Previous observations with earlier generations of radio telescopes provide some crucial insights about the nature of cold, dense stellar nurseries," Rosolowsky said. - "These observations, however, lacked the sensitivity, fine-scale resolution, and power to study the entire breadth of stellar nurseries across the full population of local galaxies. This severely limited our ability to connect the behavior or properties of individual stellar nurseries to the properties of the galaxies that they live in."
- For decades, astronomers have speculated that there are fundamental differences in the way disk galaxies of various sizes convert hydrogen into new stars. Some astronomers theorize that larger, and generally older galaxies, are not as efficient at stellar production as their smaller cousins.
- The most logical explanation would be that these big galaxies have less efficient stellar nurseries. But testing this idea with observations has been difficult.
Figure 41: The ALMA telescope is conducting an unprecedented survey of nearby disk galaxies to study their stellar nurseries. With it, astronomers are beginning to unravel the complex and as-yet poorly understood relationship between star-forming clouds and their host galaxies [image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton]
• January 1, 2019: Using observations from the ALMA radio observatory in Chile, researchers have observed, for the first time, a warped disk around an infant protostar that formed just several tens of thousands of years ago. This implies that the misalignment of planetary orbits in many planetary systems —including our own— may be caused by distortions in the planet-forming disk early in their existence. 68)
- The planets in our Solar System orbit the Sun in planes that are at most about seven degrees offset from the equator of the Sun itself. It has been known for some time that many extrasolar systems have planets that are not lined up in a single plane or with the equator of the star. One explanation for this is that some of the planets might have been affected by collisions with other objects in the system or by stars passing by the system, ejecting them from their initial orbital plane.
- However, the possibility remained that the formation of planets out of the normal plane was actually caused by a warping of the star-forming cloud out of which the planets were born. Recently, images of protoplanetary disks—rotating disks where planets form around a star—have in fact showed such warping. But it was still unclear how early this happened.
- In the latest findings, published in Nature, the group from the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (CPR) and Chiba University in Japan have discovered that L1527; an infant protostar still embedded within a cloud, has a disk that has two parts —an inner one rotating in one plane, and an outer one in a different plane. The disk is very young and still growing. L1527, which is about 450 light-years away in the Taurus Molecular Cloud, is a good object for study as it has a disk that is nearly edge-on to our view. 69)
- According to Nami Sakai, who led the research group, “This observation shows that it is conceivable that the misalignment of planetary orbits can be caused by a warp structure formed in the earliest stages of planetary formation. We will have to investigate more systems to find out if this is a common phenomenon or not.”
- The remaining question is what caused the warping of the disk. Sakai suggests two reasonable explanations. “One possibility,” she says, “is that irregularities in the flow of gas and dust in the protostellar cloud are still preserved and manifest themselves as the warped disk. A second possibility is that the magnetic field of the protostar is in a different plane from the rotational plane of the disk, and that the inner disk is being pulled into a different plane from the rest of the disk by the magnetic field.” She says they plan further work to determine which is responsible for the warping of the disk.
- The ALMA observatory in Chile is managed by an international consortium including the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ).
Figure 42: Artist’s impression of a warped disk around a protostar. ALMA observed the protostar IRAS04368+2557 in the dark cloud L1527 and discovered that the protostar has a disk with two misaligned parts (image credit: RIKEN, Japan)