Monthly Archives: April 2015

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

First Exoplanet Visible Light Spectrum

New technique paints promising picture for future


Astronomers using the HARPS planet-hunting machine at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have made the first-ever direct detection of the spectrum of visible light reflected off an exoplanet. These observations also revealed new properties of this famous object, the first exoplanet ever discovered around a normal star: 51 Pegasi b. The result promises an exciting future for this technique, particularly with the advent of next generation instruments, such as ESPRESSO, on the VLT, and future telescopes, such as the E-ELT.

The exoplanet 51 Pegasi b [1] lies some 50 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus. It was discovered in 1995 and will forever be remembered as the first confirmed exoplanet to be found orbiting an ordinary star like the Sun [2]. It is also regarded as the archetypal hot Jupiter — a class of planets now known to be relatively commonplace, which are similar in size and mass to Jupiter, but orbit much closer to their parent stars.

Since that landmark discovery, more than 1900 exoplanets in 1200 planetary systems have been confirmed, but, in the year of the twentieth anniversary of its discovery, 51 Pegasi b returns to the ring once more to provide another advance in exoplanet studies.

The team that made this new detection was led by Jorge Martins from the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA) and the Universidade do Porto, Portugal, who is currently a PhD student at ESO in Chile. They used the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.
Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Currently, the most widely used method to examine an exoplanet’s atmosphere is to observe the host star’s spectrum as it is filtered through the planet’s atmosphere during transit — a technique known as transmission spectroscopy. An alternative approach is to observe the system when the star passes in front of the planet, which primarily provides information about the exoplanet’s temperature.

The new technique does not depend on finding a planetary transit, and so can potentially be used to study many more exoplanets. It allows the planetary spectrum to be directly detected in visible light, which means that different characteristics of the planet that are inaccessible to other techniques can be inferred.

The host star’s spectrum is used as a template to guide a search for a similar signature of light that is expected to be reflected off the planet as it describes its orbit. This is an exceedingly difficult task as planets are incredibly dim in comparison to their dazzling parent stars.

The signal from the planet is also easily swamped by other tiny effects and sources of noise [3]. In the face of such adversity, the success of the technique when applied to the HARPS data collected on 51 Pegasi b provides an extremely valuable proof of concept.

Jorge Martins explains: “This type of detection technique is of great scientific importance, as it allows us to measure the planet’s real mass and orbital inclination, which is essential to more fully understand the system. It also allows us to estimate the planet’s reflectivity, or albedo, which can be used to infer the composition of both the planet’s surface and atmosphere.”

51 Pegasi b was found to have a mass about half that of Jupiter’s and an orbit with an inclination of about nine degrees to the direction to the Earth [4]. The planet also seems to be larger than Jupiter in diameter and to be highly reflective. These are typical properties for a hot Jupiter that is very close to its parent star and exposed to intense starlight.

HARPS was essential to the team’s work, but the fact that the result was obtained using the ESO 3.6-metre telescope, which has a limited range of application with this technique, is exciting news for astronomers. Existing equipment like this will be surpassed by much more advanced instruments on larger telescopes, such as ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the future European Extremely Large Telescope [5].

“We are now eagerly awaiting first light of the ESPRESSO spectrograph on the VLT so that we can do more detailed studies of this and other planetary systems,” concludes Nuno Santos, of the IA and Universidade do Porto, who is a co-author of the new paper.

Notes
[1] Both 51 Pegasi b and its host star 51 Pegasi are among the objects available for public naming in the IAU’s NameExoWorlds contest.

[2] Two earlier planetary objects were detected orbiting in the extreme environment of a pulsar.

[3] The challenge is similar to trying to study the faint glimmer reflected off a tiny insect flying around a distant and brilliant light.

[4] This means that the planet’s orbit is close to being edge on as seen from Earth, although this is not close enough for transits to take place.

[5] ESPRESSO on the VLT, and later even more powerful instruments on much larger telescopes such as the E-ELT, will allow for a significant increase in precision and collecting power, aiding the detection of smaller exoplanets, while providing an increase in detail in the data for planets similar to 51 Pegasi b.

Source: ESO

Shown here is "event zero," the first detection of a trapped electron in the MIT physicists' instrument. The color indicates the electron's detected power as a function of frequency and time. The sudden “jumps” in frequency indicate an electron collision with the residual hydrogen gas in the cell.

Courtesy of the researchers

Source: MIT News

New tabletop detector “sees” single electrons

Magnet-based setup may help detect the elusive mass of neutrinos.

Jennifer Chu


MIT physicists have developed a new tabletop particle detector that is able to identify single electrons in a radioactive gas.
As the gas decays and gives off electrons, the detector uses a magnet to trap them in a magnetic bottle. A radio antenna then picks up very weak signals emitted by the electrons, which can be used to map the electrons’ precise activity over several milliseconds.

Shown here is "event zero," the first detection of a trapped electron in the MIT physicists' instrument. The color indicates the electron's detected power as a function of frequency and time. The sudden “jumps” in frequency indicate an electron collision with the residual hydrogen gas in the cell. Courtesy of the researchers Source: MIT News
Shown here is “event zero,” the first detection of a trapped electron in the MIT physicists’ instrument. The color indicates the electron’s detected power as a function of frequency and time. The sudden “jumps” in frequency indicate an electron collision with the residual hydrogen gas in the cell.
Courtesy of the researchers
Source: MIT News

The team worked with researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of Washington, the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), and elsewhere to record the activity of more than 100,000 individual electrons in krypton gas.
The majority of electrons observed behaved in a characteristic pattern: As the radioactive krypton gas decays, it emits electrons that vibrate at a baseline frequency before petering out; this frequency spikes again whenever an electron hits an atom of radioactive gas. As an electron ping-pongs against multiple atoms in the detector, its energy appears to jump in a step-like pattern.
“We can literally image the frequency of the electron, and we see this electron suddenly pop into our radio antenna,” says Joe Formaggio, an associate professor of physics at MIT. “Over time, the frequency changes, and actually chirps up. So these electrons are chirping in radio waves.”
Formaggio says the group’s results, published in Physical Review Letters, are a big step toward a more elusive goal: measuring the mass of a neutrino.

A ghostly particle
Neutrinos are among the more mysterious elementary particles in the universe: Billions of them pass through every cell of our bodies each second, and yet these ghostly particles are incredibly difficult to detect, as they don’t appear to interact with ordinary matter. Scientists have set theoretical limits on neutrino mass, but researchers have yet to precisely detect it.
“We have [the mass] cornered, but haven’t measured it yet,” Formaggio says. “The name of the game is to measure the energy of an electron — that’s your signature that tells you about the neutrino.”
As Formaggio explains it, when a radioactive atom such as tritium decays, it turns into an isotope of helium and, in the process, also releases an electron and a neutrino. The energy of all particles released adds up to the original energy of the parent neutron. Measuring the energy of the electron, therefore, can illuminate the energy — and consequently, the mass — of the neutrino.
Scientists agree that tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is key to obtaining a precise measurement: As a gas, tritium decays at such a rate that scientists can relatively easily observe its electron byproducts.
Researchers in Karlsruhe, Germany, hope to measure electrons in tritium using a massive spectrometer as part of an experiment named KATRIN (Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment). Electrons, produced from the decay of tritium, pass through the spectrometer, which filters them according to their different energy levels. The experiment, which is just getting under way, may obtain measurements of single electrons, but at a cost.
“In KATRIN, the electrons are detected in a silicon detector, which means the electrons smash into the crystal, and a lot of random things happen, essentially destroying the electrons,” says Daniel Furse, a graduate student in physics, and a co-author on the paper. “We still want to measure the energy of electrons, but we do it in a nondestructive way.”
The group’s setup has an additional advantage: size. The detector essentially fits on a tabletop, and the space in which electrons are detected is smaller than a postage stamp. In contrast, KATRIN’s spectrometer, when delivered to Karlsruhe, barely fit through the city’s streets.
Tuning in
Furse and Formaggio’s detector — an experiment called “Project 8” — is based on a decades-old phenomenon known as cyclotron radiation, in which charged particles such as electrons emit radio waves in a magnetic field. It turns out electrons emit this radiation at a frequency similar to that of military radio communications.
“It’s the same frequency that the military uses — 26 gigahertz,” Formaggio says. “And it turns out the baseline frequency changes very slightly if the electron has energy. So we said, ‘Why not look at the radiation [electrons] emit directly?’”
Formaggio and former postdoc Benjamin Monreal, now an assistant professor of physics at UCSB, reasoned that if they could tune into this baseline frequency, they could catch electrons as they shot out of a decaying radioactive gas, and measure their energy in a magnetic field.
“If you could measure the frequency of this radio signal, you could measure the energy potentially much more accurately than you can with any other method,” Furse says. “The problem is, you’re looking at this really weak signal over a very short amount of time, and it’s tough to see, which is why no one has ever done it before.”
It took five years of fits and starts before the group was finally able to build an accurate detector. Once the researchers turned the detector on, they were able to record individual electrons within the first 100 milliseconds of the experiment — although the analysis took a bit longer.
“Our software was so slow at processing things that we could tell funny things were happening because, all of a sudden, our file size became larger, as these things started appearing,” Formaggio recalls.
He says the precision of the measurements obtained so far in krypton gas has encouraged the team to move on to tritium — a goal Formaggio says may be attainable in the next year or two — and pave a path toward measuring the mass of the neutrino.
Steven Elliott, a technical staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory, says the group’s new detector “represents a very significant result.” In order to use the detector to measure the mass of a neutrino, Elliott adds, the group will have to make multiple improvements, including developing a bigger cell to contain a larger amount of tritium.
“This was the first step, albeit a very important step, along the way to building a next-generation experiment,” says Elliott, who did not contribute to the research. “As a result, the neutrino community is very impressed with the concept and execution of this experiment.”
This research was funded in part by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
Star formation in what are now "dead" galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts.

This diagram illustrates this process. Galaxies in the early Universe appear at the left. The blue regions are where star formation is in progress and the red regions are the "dead" regions where only older redder stars remain and there are no more young blue stars being formed. The resulting giant spheroidal galaxies in the modern Universe appear on the right.

Credit:
ESO

Giant Galaxies Die from the Inside Out

VLT and Hubble observations show that star formation shuts down in the centres of elliptical galaxies first


Astronomers have shown for the first time how star formation in “dead” galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts. The results will be published in the 17 April 2015 issue of the journal Science.

Star formation in what are now "dead" galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts. This diagram illustrates this process. Galaxies in the early Universe appear at the left. The blue regions are where star formation is in progress and the red regions are the "dead" regions where only older redder stars remain and there are no more young blue stars being formed. The resulting giant spheroidal galaxies in the modern Universe appear on the right. Credit: ESO
Star formation in what are now “dead” galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts.
This diagram illustrates this process. Galaxies in the early Universe appear at the left. The blue regions are where star formation is in progress and the red regions are the “dead” regions where only older redder stars remain and there are no more young blue stars being formed. The resulting giant spheroidal galaxies in the modern Universe appear on the right.
Credit:
ESO

A major astrophysical mystery has centred on how massive, quiescent elliptical galaxies, common in the modern Universe, quenched their once furious rates of star formation. Such colossal galaxies, often also called spheroids because of their shape, typically pack in stars ten times as densely in the central regions as in our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and have about ten times its mass.

Astronomers refer to these big galaxies as red and dead as they exhibit an ample abundance of ancient red stars, but lack young blue stars and show no evidence of new star formation. The estimated ages of the red stars suggest that their host galaxies ceased to make new stars about ten billion years ago. This shutdown began right at the peak of star formation in the Universe, when many galaxies were still giving birth to stars at a pace about twenty times faster than nowadays.

“Massive dead spheroids contain about half of all the stars that the Universe has produced during its entire life,” said Sandro Tacchella of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, lead author of the article. “We cannot claim to understand how the Universe evolved and became as we see it today unless we understand how these galaxies come to be.”

Tacchella and colleagues observed a total of 22 galaxies, spanning a range of masses, from an era about three billion years after the Big Bang [1]. The SINFONI instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) collected light from this sample of galaxies, showing precisely where they were churning out new stars. SINFONI could make these detailed measurements of distant galaxies thanks to its adaptive optics system, which largely cancels out the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere.

The researchers also trained the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on the same set of galaxies, taking advantage of the telescope’s location in space above our planet’s distorting atmosphere. Hubble’s WFC3 camera snapped images in the near-infrared, revealing the spatial distribution of older stars within the actively star-forming galaxies.

“What is amazing is that SINFONI’s adaptive optics system can largely beat down atmospheric effects and gather information on where the new stars are being born, and do so with precisely the same accuracy as Hubble allows for the stellar mass distributions,” commented Marcella Carollo, also of ETH Zurich and co-author of the study.

According to the new data, the most massive galaxies in the sample kept up a steady production of new stars in their peripheries. In their bulging, densely packed centres, however, star formation had already stopped.

“The newly demonstrated inside-out nature of star formation shutdown in massive galaxies should shed light on the underlying mechanisms involved, which astronomers have long debated,” says Alvio Renzini, Padova Observatory, of the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics.

A leading theory is that star-making materials are scattered by torrents of energy released by a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole as it sloppily devours matter. Another idea is that fresh gas stops flowing into a galaxy, starving it of fuel for new stars and transforming it into a red and dead spheroid.

“There are many different theoretical suggestions for the physical mechanisms that led to the death of the massive spheroids,” said co-author Natascha Förster Schreiber, at the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik in Garching, Germany. “Discovering that the quenching of star formation started from the centres and marched its way outwards is a very important step towards understanding how the Universe came to look like it does now.”

Notes
[1] The Universe’s age is about 13.8 billion years, so the galaxies studied by Tacchella and colleagues are generally seen as they were more than 10 billion years ago.

Source: ESO


ALMA Reveals Intense Magnetic Field Close to Supermassive Black Hole

Illuminating the mysterious mechanisms at play at the edge of the event horizon


This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of a supermassive black hole, typical of that found at the heart of many galaxies. The black hole itself is surrounded by a brilliant accretion disc of very hot, infalling material and, further out, a dusty torus. There are also often high-speed jets of material ejected at the black hole’s poles that can extend huge distances into space. Observations with ALMA have detected a very strong magnetic field close to the black hole at the base of the jets and this is probably involved in jet production and collimation. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of a supermassive black hole, typical of that found at the heart of many galaxies. The black hole itself is surrounded by a brilliant accretion disc of very hot, infalling material and, further out, a dusty torus. There are also often high-speed jets of material ejected at the black hole’s poles that can extend huge distances into space. Observations with ALMA have detected a very strong magnetic field close to the black hole at the base of the jets and this is probably involved in jet production and collimation.
Credit:
ESO/L. Calçada

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has revealed an extremely powerful magnetic field, beyond anything previously detected in the core of a galaxy, very close to the event horizon of a supermassive black hole. This new observation helps astronomers to understand the structure and formation of these massive inhabitants of the centres of galaxies, and the twin high-speed jets of plasma they frequently eject from their poles. The results appear in the 17 April 2015 issue of the journal Science.

Supermassive black holes, often with masses billions of times that of the Sun, are located at the heart of almost all galaxies in the Universe. These black holes can accrete huge amounts of matter in the form of a surrounding disc. While most of this matter is fed into the black hole, some can escape moments before capture and be flung out into space at close to the speed of light as part of a jet of plasma. How this happens is not well understood, although it is thought that strong magnetic fields, acting very close to the event horizon, play a crucial part in this process, helping the matter to escape from the gaping jaws of darkness.

Up to now only weak magnetic fields far from black holes — several light-years away — had been probed [1]. In this study, however, astronomers from Chalmers University of Technology and Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden have now used ALMA to detect signals directly related to a strong magnetic field very close to the event horizon of the supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy named PKS 1830-211. This magnetic field is located precisely at the place where matter is suddenly boosted away from the black hole in the form of a jet.

The team measured the strength of the magnetic field by studying the way in which light was polarised, as it moved away from the black hole.

“Polarisation is an important property of light and is much used in daily life, for example in sun glasses or 3D glasses at the cinema,” says Ivan Marti-Vidal, lead author of this work. “When produced naturally, polarisation can be used to measure magnetic fields, since light changes its polarisation when it travels through a magnetised medium. In this case, the light that we detected with ALMA had been travelling through material very close to the black hole, a place full of highly magnetised plasma.”

The astronomers applied a new analysis technique that they had developed to the ALMA data and found that the direction of polarisation of the radiation coming from the centre of PKS 1830-211 had rotated [2]. These are the shortest wavelengths ever used in this kind of study, which allow the regions very close to the central black hole to be probed [3].

“We have found clear signals of polarisation rotation that are hundreds of times higher than the highest ever found in the Universe,” says Sebastien Muller, co-author of the paper. “Our discovery is a giant leap in terms of observing frequency, thanks to the use of ALMA, and in terms of distance to the black hole where the magnetic field has been probed — of the order of only a few light-days from the event horizon. These results, and future studies, will help us understand what is really going on in the immediate vicinity of supermassive black holes.”

Notes
[1] Much weaker magnetic fields have been detected in the vicinity of the relatively inactive supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Recent observations have also revealed weak magnetic fields in the active galaxy NGC 1275, which were detected at millimetre wavelengths.

[2] Magnetic fields introduce Faraday rotation, which makes the polarisation rotate in different ways at different wavelengths. The way in which this rotation depends on the wavelength tells us about the magnetic field in the region.

[3] The ALMA observations were at an effective wavelength of about 0.3 millimetres, earlier investigations were at much longer radio wavelengths. Only light of millimetre wavelengths can escape from the region very close to the black hole, longer wavelength radiation is absorbed.

Source: ESO


First Signs of Self-interacting Dark Matter?

Dark matter may not be completely dark after all


Based on our current scientific understanding of the universe and various surveys like the Cosmic Microwave Background observations by Planck or WMAP, we still only know about 4-5% of the visible or baryonic matter. Rest of the 96-94% is still a mystery. This huge unknown portion of the dark universe is known to be comprised of the dark energy (the source of accelerating expansion of the universe)  and dark matter (the extra un-explained mass of the galaxies). Despite having indirect signatures suggesting their presence, we still are not able to observe these phenomena.

For the first time dark matter may have been observed interacting with other dark matter in a way other than through the force of gravity. Observations of colliding galaxies made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have picked up the first intriguing hints about the nature of this mysterious component of the Universe.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the rich galaxy cluster Abell 3827. The strange pale blue structures surrounding the central galaxies are gravitationally lensed views of a much more distant galaxy behind the cluster. The distribution of dark matter in the cluster is shown with blue contour lines. The dark matter clump for the galaxy at the left is significantly displaced from the position of the galaxy itself, possibly implying dark matter-dark matter interactions of an unknown nature are occuring. Credit: ESO/R. Massey
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the rich galaxy cluster Abell 3827. The strange pale blue structures surrounding the central galaxies are gravitationally lensed views of a much more distant galaxy behind the cluster.
The distribution of dark matter in the cluster is shown with blue contour lines. The dark matter clump for the galaxy at the left is significantly displaced from the position of the galaxy itself, possibly implying dark matter-dark matter interactions of an unknown nature are occuring.
Credit:
ESO/R. Massey

Using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile, along with images from Hubble in orbit, a team of astronomers studied the simultaneous collision of four galaxies in the galaxy cluster Abell 3827. The team could trace out where the mass lies within the system and compare the distribution of the dark matter with the positions of the luminous galaxies.

Although dark matter cannot be seen, the team could deduce its location using a technique called gravitational lensing. The collision happened to take place directly in front of a much more distant, unrelated source. The mass of dark matter around the colliding galaxies severely distorted spacetime, deviating the path of light rays coming from the distant background galaxy — and distorting its image into characteristic arc shapes.

Our current understanding is that all galaxies exist inside clumps of dark matter. Without the constraining effect of dark matter’s gravity, galaxies like the Milky Way would fling themselves apart as they rotate. In order to prevent this, 85 percent of the Universe’s mass [1] must exist as dark matter, and yet its true nature remains a mystery.

In this study, the researchers observed the four colliding galaxies and found that one dark matter clump appeared to be lagging behind the galaxy it surrounds. The dark matter is currently 5000 light-years (50 000 million million kilometres) behind the galaxy — it would take NASA’s Voyager spacecraft 90 million years to travel that far.

A lag between dark matter and its associated galaxy is predicted during collisions if dark matter interacts with itself, even very slightly, through forces other than gravity [2]. Dark matter has never before been observed interacting in any way other than through the force of gravity.

Lead author Richard Massey at Durham University, explains: “We used to think that dark matter just sits around, minding its own business, except for its gravitational pull. But if dark matter were being slowed down during this collision, it could be the first evidence for rich physics in the dark sector — the hidden Universe all around us.”

The researchers note that more investigation will be needed into other effects that could also produce a lag. Similar observations of more galaxies, and computer simulations of galaxy collisions will need to be made.

Team member Liliya Williams of the University of Minnesota adds: “We know that dark matter exists because of the way that it interacts gravitationally, helping to shape the Universe, but we still know embarrassingly little about what dark matter actually is. Our observation suggests that dark matter might interact with forces other than gravity, meaning we could rule out some key theories about what dark matter might be.”

This result follows on from a recent result from the team which observed 72 collisions between galaxy clusters [3] and found that dark matter interacts very little with itself. The new work however concerns the motion of individual galaxies, rather than clusters of galaxies. Researchers say that the collision between these galaxies could have lasted longer than the collisions observed in the previous study — allowing the effects of even a tiny frictional force to build up over time and create a measurable lag [4].

Taken together, the two results bracket the behaviour of dark matter for the first time. Dark matter interacts more than this, but less than that. Massey added: “We are finally homing in on dark matter from above and below — squeezing our knowledge from two directions.”

Notes
[1] Astronomers have found that the total mass/energy content of the Universe is split in the proportions 68% dark energy, 27% dark matter and 5% “normal” matter. So the 85% figure relates to the fraction of “matter” that is dark.

[2] Computer simulations show that the extra friction from the collision would make the dark matter slow down. The nature of that interaction is unknown; it could be caused by well-known effects or some exotic unknown force. All that can be said at this point is that it is not gravity.

All four galaxies might have been separated from their dark matter. But we happen to have a very good measurement from only one galaxy, because it is by chance aligned so well with the background, gravitationally lensed object. With the other three galaxies, the lensed images are further away, so the constraints on the location of their dark matter too loose to draw statistically significant conclusions.

[3] Galaxy clusters contain up to a thousand individual galaxies.

[4] The main uncertainty in the result is the timespan for the collision: the friction that slowed the dark matter could have been a very weak force acting over about a billion years, or a relatively stronger force acting for “only” 100 million years.

Source: ESO

Complex Organic Molecules Discovered in Infant Star System

The new discovery hints that the building blocks of the chemistry of life are universal.


For the first time, astronomers have detected the presence of complex organic molecules, the building blocks of life, in a protoplanetary disc surrounding a young star. The discovery, made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), reaffirms that the conditions that spawned the Earth and Sun are not unique in the Universe. The results are published in the 9 April 2015 issue of the journal Nature.

Artist impression of the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star MWC 480. ALMA has detected the complex organic molecule methyl cyanide in the outer reaches of the disc in the region where comets are believed to form. This is another indication that complex organic chemistry, and potentially the conditions necessary for life, is universal. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)
Artist impression of the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star MWC 480. ALMA has detected the complex organic molecule methyl cyanide in the outer reaches of the disc in the region where comets are believed to form. This is another indication that complex organic chemistry, and potentially the conditions necessary for life, is universal.
Credit:
B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The new ALMA observations reveal that the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star MWC 480 [1] contains large amounts of methyl cyanide (CH3CN), a complex carbon-based molecule. There is enough methyl cyanide around MWC 480 to fill all of Earth’s oceans.

Both this molecule and its simpler cousin hydrogen cyanide (HCN) were found in the cold outer reaches of the star’s newly formed disc, in a region that astronomers believe is analogous to the Kuiper Belt — the realm of icy planetesimals and comets in our own Solar System beyond Neptune.

Comets retain a pristine record of the early chemistry of the Solar System, from the period of planet formation. Comets and asteroids from the outer Solar System are thought to have seeded the young Earth with water and organic molecules, helping set the stage for the development of primordial life.

“Studies of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned the Sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds,” noted Karin Öberg, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and lead author of the new paper.

“We now have even better evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the Universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own.” This is particularly intriguing, Öberg notes, since the molecules found in MWC 480 are also found in similar concentrations in the Solar System’s comets.

The star MWC 480, which is about twice the mass of the Sun, is located 455 light-years away in the Taurus star-forming region. Its surrounding disc is in the very early stages of development — having recently coalesced out of a cold, dark nebula of dust and gas. Studies with ALMA and other telescopes have yet to detect any obvious signs of planet formation in it, although higher resolution observations may reveal structures similar to HL Tauri, which is of a similar age.

Astronomers have known for some time that cold, dark interstellar clouds are very efficient factories for complex organic molecules — including a group of molecules known as cyanides. Cyanides, and most especially methyl cyanide, are important because they contain carbon–nitrogen bonds, which are essential for the formation of amino acids, the foundation of proteins and the building blocks of life.

Until now, it has remained unclear, however, if these same complex organic molecules commonly form and survive in the energetic environment of a newly forming solar system, where shocks and radiation can easily break chemical bonds.

By exploiting ALMA’s remarkable sensitivity [2] astronomers can see from the latest observations that these molecules not only survive, but flourish.

Importantly, the molecules ALMA detected are much more abundant than would be found in interstellar clouds. This tells astronomers that protoplanetary discs are very efficient at forming complex organic molecules and that they are able to form them on relatively short timescales [3].

As this system continues to evolve, astronomers speculate that it’s likely that the organic molecules safely locked away in comets and other icy bodies will be ferried to environments more nurturing to life.

“From the study of exoplanets, we know the Solar System isn’t unique in its number of planets or abundance of water,” concluded Öberg. “Now we know we’re not unique in organic chemistry. Once more, we have learnt that we’re not special. From a life in the Universe point of view, this is great news.”

Notes
[1] This star is only about one million years old. By comparison the Sun is more than four billion years old. The name MWC 480 refers to the Mount Wilson Catalog of B and A stars with bright hydrogen lines in their spectra.

[2] ALMA is able to detect the faint millimetre-wavelength radiation that is naturally emitted by molecules in space. For these most recent observations, the astronomers used only a portion of ALMA’s 66 antennas when the telescope was in its lower-resolution configuration. Further studies of this and other protoplanetary discs with ALMA’s full capabilities will reveal additional details about the chemical and structural evolution of stars and planets.

[3] This rapid formation is essential to outpace the forces that would otherwise break the molecules apart. Also, these molecules were detected in a relatively serene part of the disc, roughly 4.5 to 15 billion kilometres from the central star. Though very distant by Solar System standards, in MWC 480’s scaled-up dimensions, this would be squarely in the comet-forming zone.

Source: ESO

 

Study on MOOCs provides new insights on an evolving space

Findings suggest many teachers enroll, learner intentions matter, and cost boosts completion rates.


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Today, a joint MIT and Harvard University research team published one of the largest investigations of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to date. Building on these researchers’ prior work — a January 2014 report describing the first year of open online courses launched on edX, a nonprofit learning platform founded by the two institutions — the latest effort incorporates another year of data, bringing the total to nearly 70 courses in subjects from programming to poetry.

“We explored 68 certificate-granting courses, 1.7 million participants, 10 million participant-hours, and 1.1 billion participant-logged events,” says Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The research team also used surveys to ­gain additional information about participants’ backgrounds and their intentions.

Ho and Isaac Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and senior associate dean of digital learning at MIT, led a group effort that delved into the demographics of MOOC learners, analyzed participant intent, and looked at patterns that “serial MOOCers,” or those taking more than one course, tend to pursue.

“What jumped out for me was the survey that revealed that in some cases as many as 39 percent of our learners are teachers,” Chuang says. “This finding forces us to broaden our conceptions of who MOOCs serve and how they might make a difference in improving learning.”

Key findings

The researchers conducted a trend analysis that showed a rising share of female, U.S.-based, and older participants, as well as a survey analysis of intent, revealing that almost half of registrants were not interested in or unsure about certification. In this study, the researchers redefined their population of learners from those who simply registered for courses (and took no subsequent action) — a metric used in prior findings and often cited by MOOC providers — to those who participated (such as by logging into the course at least once).

1. Participation in HarvardX and MITx open online courses has grown steadily, while participation in repeated courses has declined and then stabilized.

From July 24, 2012, through Sept. 21, 2014, an average of 1,300 new participants joined a HarvardX or MITx course each day, for a total of 1 million unique participants and 1.7 million total participants. With the increase in second and third versions of courses, the researchers found that participation in second versions declined by 43 percent, while there was stable participation between versions two and three. There were outliers, such as the HarvardX course CS50x (Introduction to Computer Science), which doubled in size, perhaps due to increased student flexibility: Students in this course could participate over a yearlong period at their own pace, and complete at any time.

2. A slight majority of MOOC takers are seeking certification, and many participants are teachers.

Among the one-third of participants who responded to a survey about their intentions, 57 percent stated their desire to earn a certificate; nearly a quarter of those respondents went on to earn certificates. Further, among participants who were unsure or did not intend to earn a certificate, 8 percent ultimately did so. These learners appear to have been inspired to finish a MOOC even after initially stating that they had no intention of doing so.

Among 200,000 participants who responded to a survey about teaching, 39 percent self-identified as a past or present teacher; 21 percent of those teachers reported teaching in the course topic area. The strong participation by teachers suggests that even participants who are uninterested in certification may still make productive use of MOOCs.

3. Academic areas matter when it comes to participation, certification, and course networks.

Participants were drawn to computer science courses in particular, with per-course participation numbers nearly four times higher than courses in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. That said, certificate rates in computer science and other science- and technology-based offerings (7 percent and 6 percent, respectively) were about half of those in the humanities and social sciences.

The larger data sets also allowed the researchers to study those participating in more than one course, revealing that computer science courses serve as hubs for students, who naturally move to and from related courses. Intentional sequencing, as was done for the 10-part HarvardX Chinese history course “ChinaX,” led to some of the highest certification rates in the study. Other courses with high certification rates were “Introduction to Computer Science” from MITx and “Justice” and “Health in Numbers” from HarvardX.

4. Those opting for fee-based ID-verified certificates certify at higher rates.

Across 12 courses, participants who paid for “ID-verified” certificates (with costs ranging from $50 to $250) earned certifications at a higher rate than other participants: 59 percent, on average, compared with 5 percent. Students opting for the ID-verified track appear to have stronger intentions to complete courses, and the monetary stake may add an extra form of motivation.

Questions and implications

Based upon these findings, Chuang and Ho identified questions that might “reset and reorient expectations” around MOOCs.

First, while many MOOC creators and providers have increased access to learning opportunities, those who are accessing MOOCs are disproportionately those who already have college and graduate degrees. The researchers do not necessarily see this as a problem, as academic experience may be a requirement in advanced courses. However, to serve underrepresented and traditionally underserved groups, the data suggest that proactive strategies may be necessary.

“These free, open courses are phenomenal opportunities for millions of learners,” Ho emphasizes, “but equity cannot be increased just by opening doors. We hope that our data help teachers and institutions to think about their intended audiences, and serve as a baseline for charting progress.”

Second, if improving online and on-campus learning is a priority, then “the flow of pedagogical innovations needs to be formalized,” Chuang says. For example, many of the MOOCs in the study used innovations from their campus counterparts, like physics assessments from MIT and close-reading practices from Harvard’s classics courses. Likewise, residential faculty are using MOOC content, such as videos and assessment scoring algorithms, in smaller, traditional lecture courses.

“The real potential is in the fostering of feedback loops between the two realms,” Chuang says. “In particular, the high number of teacher participants signals great potential for impact beyond Harvard and MIT, especially if deliberate steps could be taken to share best practices.”

Third, advancing research through MOOCs may require a more nuanced definition of audience. Much of the research to date has done little to differentiate among the diverse participants in these free, self-paced learning environments.

“While increasing completion has been a subject of interest, given that many participants have limited, uncertain, or zero interest in completing MOOCs, exerting research muscle to indiscriminately increase completion may not be productive,” Ho explains. “Researchers might want to focus more specifically on well-surveyed or paying subpopulations, where we have a better sense of their expectations and motivations.”

More broadly, Ho and Chuang hope to showcase the potential and diversity of MOOCs and MOOC data by developing “Top 5” lists based upon course attributes, such as scale (an MIT computer science course clocked in with 900,000 participant hours); demographics (the MOOC with the most female representation is a museum course from HarvardX called “Tangible Things,” while MITx’s computing courses attracted the largest global audience); and type and level of interaction (those in ChinaX most frequently posted in online forums, while those in an introduction to computer science course fromMITx most frequently played videos).

“These courses reflect the breadth of our university curricula, and we felt the need to highlight their diverse designs, philosophies, audiences, and learning outcomes in our analyses,” Chuang says. “Which course is right for you? It depends, and these lists might help learners decide what qualities in a given MOOC are most important to them.”

Additional authors on the report included Justin Reich, Jacob Whitehill, Joseph Williams, Glenn Lopez, John Hansen, and Rebecca Petersen from Harvard, and Cody Coleman and Curtis Northcutt from MIT.

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Related links

Paper: “HarvardX and MITx: Two years of open online courses fall 2012-summer 2014”
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2586847

Office of Digital Learning
http://odl.mit.edu

MITx working papers
http://odl.mit.edu/mitx-working-papers/

HarvardX working papers
http://harvardx.harvard.edu/harvardx-working-papers

Related MIT News

ARCHIVE: MIT and Harvard release working papers on open online courses
https://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/mit-and-harvard-release-working-papers-on-open-online-courses-0121

ARCHIVE: Reviewing online homework at scale
https://newsoffice.mit.edu/2015/reviewing-mooc-homework-0330

ARCHIVE: Study: Online classes really do work
https://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/study-shows-online-courses-effective-0924

ARCHIVE: The future of MIT education looks more global, modular, and flexible
https://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/future-of-mit-education-0804

 Source: MIT News Office