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A projection of the radar data of Venus collected in 2012. Striking surface features -- like mountains and ridges -- are easily seen. The black diagonal band at the center represents areas too close to the Doppler “equator” to obtain well-resolved image data. Credit: B. Campbell, Smithsonian, et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Arecibo

NRAO Image Release: Venus, If You Will, as Seen in Radar with the GBT

Radar astronomy is a bit different from radio astronomy as in radar astronomy active observations are performed means a signal is sent from Earth which bounces back from an object and then this signal is analyzed to obtain images or other relevant information. In case of radio astronomy we perform passive observations and no signal is sent from earth and only signals from various sources are received to perform analysis. Radar astronomy is more suitable for nearby celestial objects as sending and receiving the bounced back signal in reasonable time is impossible for objects many light years away.


 

From earthbound optical telescopes, the surface of Venus is shrouded beneath thick clouds made mostly of carbon dioxide. To penetrate this veil, probes like NASA’s Magellan spacecraft use radar to reveal remarkable features of this planet, like mountains, craters, and volcanoes. 

Recently, by combining the highly sensitive receiving capabilities of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and the powerful radar transmitter at the NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, astronomers were able to make remarkably detailed images of the surface of this planet without ever leaving Earth. 

The radar signals from Arecibo passed through both our planet’s atmosphere and the atmosphere of Venus, where they hit the surface and bounced back to be received by the GBT in a process known as bistatic radar.

A projection of the radar data of Venus collected in 2012. Striking surface features -- like mountains and ridges -- are easily seen. The black diagonal band at the center represents areas too close to the Doppler “equator” to obtain well-resolved image data. Credit: B. Campbell, Smithsonian, et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Arecibo
A projection of the radar data of Venus collected in 2012. Striking surface features — like mountains and ridges — are easily seen. The black diagonal band at the center represents areas too close to the Doppler “equator” to obtain well-resolved image data. Credit: B. Campbell, Smithsonian, et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Arecibo


This capability is essential to study not only the surface as it appears now, but also to monitor it for changes. By comparing images taken at different periods in time, scientists hope to eventually detect signs of active volcanism or other dynamic geologic processes that could reveal clues to Venus’s geologic history and subsurface conditions.

High-resolution radar images of Venus were first obtained by Arecibo in 1988 and most recently by Arecibo and GBT in 2012, with additional coverage in the early 2000s by Lynn Carter of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The first of those observations was an early science commissioning experiment for the GBT.

“It is painstaking to compare radar images to search for evidence of change, but the work is ongoing. In the meantime, combining images from this and an earlier observing period is yielding a wealth of insight about other processes that alter the surface of Venus,” said Bruce Campbell, Senior Scientist with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A paper discussing the comparison between these two observations was accepted for publication in the journal Icarus.  

The 100-meter Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Its location in the National Radio Quiet Zone and the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zone protects the incredibly sensitive telescope from unwanted radio interference, enabling it to perform unique observations.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

A combined Hubble/ALMA image of NGC 1266. The zoom-in section shows the molecular gas being propelled by the black hole's jets (red and blue), the central ALMA data (yellow) indicate the dense molecular gas. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

‘Perfect Storm’ Suffocating Star Formation around a Supermassive Black Hole

High-energy jets powered by supermassive black holes can blast away a galaxy’s star-forming fuel — resulting in so-called “red and dead” galaxies: those brimming with ancient red stars yet little or no hydrogen gas available to create new ones.

Now astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered that black holes don’t have to be nearly so powerful to shut down star formation. By observing the dust and gas at the center NGC 1266, a nearby lenticular galaxy with a relatively modest central black hole, the astronomers have detected a “perfect storm” of turbulence that is squelching star formation in a region that would otherwise be an ideal star factory.
This turbulence is stirred up by jets from the galaxy’s central black hole slamming into an incredibly dense envelope of gas. This dense region, which may be the result of a recent merger with another smaller galaxy, blocks nearly 98 percent of material propelled by the jets from escaping the galactic center.

 Artist illustration of the central region of NGC 1266 near its central black hole with jet and gas motions indicated (yellow and white arrows, respectively). The large-scale gas motions induce turbulence on smaller scales, preventing star formation. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)
Artist illustration of the central region of NGC 1266 near its central black hole with jet and gas motions indicated (yellow and white arrows, respectively). The large-scale gas motions induce turbulence on smaller scales, preventing star formation. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

“Like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, the molecules in these jets meet so much resistance when they hit the surrounding dense gas that they are almost completely stopped in their tracks,” said Katherine Alatalo, an astronomer with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. This energetic collision produces powerful turbulence in the surrounding gas, disrupting the first critical stage of star formation. “So what we see is the most intense suppression of star formation ever observed,” noted Alatalo.

Previous observations of NGC 1266 revealed a broad outflow of gas from the galactic center traveling up to 400 kilometers per second. Alatalo and her colleagues estimate that this outflow is as forceful as the simultaneous supernova explosion of 10,000 stars. The jets, though powerful enough to stir the gas, are not powerful enough to give it the velocity it needs to escape from the system.
“Another way of looking at it is that the jets are injecting turbulence into the gas, preventing it from settling down, collapsing, and forming stars,” said National Radio Astronomy Observatory astronomer and co-author Mark Lacy.

The region observed by ALMA contains about 400 million times the mass of our Sun in star-forming gas, which is 100 times more than is found in giant star-forming molecular clouds in our own Milky Way. Normally, gas this concentrated should be producing stars at a rate at least 50 times faster than the astronomers observed in this galaxy.

Previously, astronomers believed that only extremely powerful quasars and radio galaxies contained black holes that were powerful enough to serve as a star-forming “on/off” switch.

A combined Hubble/ALMA image of NGC 1266. The zoom-in section shows the molecular gas being propelled by the black hole's jets (red and blue), the central ALMA data (yellow) indicate the dense molecular gas. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)
A combined Hubble/ALMA image of NGC 1266. The zoom-in section shows the molecular gas being propelled by the black hole’s jets (red and blue), the central ALMA data (yellow) indicate the dense molecular gas. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

“The usual assumption in the past has been that the jets needed to be powerful enough to eject the gas from the galaxy completely in order to be effective at stopping start formation,” said Lacy.

To make this discovery, the astronomers first pinpointed the location of the far-infrared light being emitted by the galaxy. Normally, this light is associated with star formation and enables astronomers to detect regions where new stars are forming. In the case of NGC 1266, however, this light was coming from an extremely confined region of the galaxy. “This very small area was almost too small for the infrared light to be coming from star formation,” noted Alatalo.

With ALMA’s exquisite sensitivity and resolution, and along with observations from CARMA (the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy), the astronomers were then able to trace the location of the very dense molecular gas at the galactic center. They found that the gas is surrounding this compact source of the far-infrared light.

Under normal conditions, gas this dense would be forming stars at a very high rate. The dust embedded within this gas would then be heated by young stars and seen as a bright and extended source of infrared light. The small size and faintness of the infrared source in this galaxy suggests that NGC 1266 is instead choking on its own fuel, seemingly in defiance of the rules of star formation.

The astronomers also speculate that there is a feedback mechanism at work in this region. Eventually, the black hole will calm down and the turbulence will subside so star-formation can begin anew. With this renewed star formation, however, comes greater motion in the dense gas, which then falls in on the black hole and reestablishes the jets, shutting down star formation once again.

NGC 1266 is located approximately 100 million light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Leticular galaxies are spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, but they have little interstellar gas available to form new stars.

More Information

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) 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 National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

 

Source: ALMA Observatory

Radio-optical overlay image of galaxy J1649+2635. Yellow is visible-light image; Blue is the radio image, indicating the presence of jets.

Credit: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Strange Galaxy Perplexes Astronomers

With the help of citizen scientists, a team of astronomers has found an important new example of a very rare type of galaxy that may yield valuable insight on how galaxies developed in the early Universe. The new discovery technique promises to give astronomers many more examples of this important and mysterious type of galaxy.

The galaxy they studied, named J1649+2635, nearly 800 million light-years from Earth, is a spiral galaxy, like our own Milky Way, but with prominent “jets” of subatomic particles propelled outward from its core at nearly the speed of light. The problem is that spiral galaxies are not supposed to have such large jets.

“The conventional wisdom is that such jets come only from elliptical galaxies that formed through the merger of spirals. We don’t know how spirals can have these large jets,” said Minnie Mao, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

Radio-optical overlay image of galaxy J1649+2635. Yellow is visible-light image; Blue is the radio image, indicating the presence of jets. Credit: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Radio-optical overlay image of galaxy J1649+2635. Yellow is visible-light image; Blue is the radio image, indicating the presence of jets.
Credit: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey



J1649+2635 is only the fourth jet-emitting spiral galaxy discovered so far. The first was found in 2003, when astronomers combined a radio-telescope image from the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and a visible-light image of the same object from the Hubble Space Telescope. The second was revealed in 2011 by images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the VLA, and the third, found earlier this year, also was discovered by combining radio and visible-light images.

“In order to figure out how these jets can be produced by the ‘wrong’ kind of galaxy, we realized we needed to find more of them,” Mao said.

To do that, the astronomers looked for help. That help came in the form of large collections of images from both radio and optical telescopes, and the hands-on assistance of volunteer citizen scientists. The volunteers are participants in an online project called the Galaxy Zoo, in which they look at images from the visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey and classify the galaxies as spiral, elliptical, or other types. Each galaxy image is inspected by multiple volunteers to ensure accuracy in the classification.

So far, more than 150,000 Galaxy Zoo participants have classified some 700,000 galaxies. Mao and her collaborators used a “superclean” subset of more than 65,000 galaxies, for which 95 percent of those viewing each galaxy’s image agreed on the classification. About 35,000 of those are spiral galaxies. J1649+2635 had been classified by 31 Galaxy Zoo volunteers, 30 of whom agreed that it is a spiral.

Next, the astronomers decided to cross-match the visible-light spirals with galaxies in a catalog that combines data from the NRAO VLA Sky Survey and the Faint Images of the Radio Sky at Twenty Centimeters survey, both done using the VLA. This job was done by Ryan Duffin, a University of Virginia undergraduate working as an NRAO summer student. Duffin’s cross-matching showed that J1649+2635 is both a spiral galaxy and has powerful twin radio jets.

“This is the first time that a galaxy was first identified as a spiral, then subsequently found to have large radio jets,” Duffin said. “It was exciting to make such a rare find,” he added.

Jets such as those seen coming from J1649+2635 are propelled by the gravitational energy of a supermassive black hole at the core of the galaxy. Material pulled toward the black hole forms a rapidly-rotating disk, and particles are accelerated outward along the poles of the disk. The collision that presumably forms an elliptical galaxy disrupts gas in the merging galaxies and provides “fuel” for the disk and acceleration mechanism. That same disruption, however, is expected to destroy any spiral structure as the galaxies merge into one.

J1649+2635 is unusual not only because of its jets, but also because it is the first example of a “grand design” spiral galaxy with a large “halo” of visible-light emission surrounding it. 

“This galaxy presents us with many mysteries. We want to know how it became such a strange beast,” Mao said. “Did it have a unique type of merger that preserved its spiral structure? Was it an elliptical that had another collision that made it re-grow spiral arms? Is its unique character the result of interaction with its environment?”

“We will study it further, but in addition, we need to see if there are more like it,” Mao said.

“We hope that with projects like the Galaxy Zoo and another called Radio Galaxy Zoo, those thousands of citizen scientists can help us find many more galaxies like this one so we can answer all our questions,” Mao said. Mao and her colleagues have dubbed these rare galaxies “Spiral DRAGNs,” an acronym for the technical description, “Double-lobed Radio sources Associated with Galactic Nuclei.”

Mao and Duffin worked with Frazer Owen, Emmanuel Momjian, and Mark Lacy, also of the NRAO; Bill Keel of the University of Alabama; Glenn Morrison of the University of Hawaii and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope; Tony Mroczkowski of the Naval Research Laboratory; Susan Neff of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; Ray Norris of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science in Australia; Henrique Schmitt of the Naval Research Laboratory; and Vicki Toy and Sylvain Veilleux of the University of Maryland. The scientists are reporting their findings in theMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Source: NRAO