Illuminating the mysterious mechanisms at play at the edge of the event horizon
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 . 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 . 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 .
“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.”
 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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  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 . 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  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 .
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.”
 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.
 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.
 Galaxy clusters contain up to a thousand individual galaxies.
 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.
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.
The new ALMA observations reveal that the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star MWC 480  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  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 .
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.”
 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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.
Researchers, from ESO, NASA and Keck, who are studying Mars’ atmosphere have provided some exciting results regarding the history of water on the red planet.
A primitive ocean on Mars held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean, and covered a greater portion of the planet’s surface than the Atlantic Ocean does on Earth, according to new results published today. An international team of scientists used ESO’s Very Large Telescope, along with instruments at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, to monitor the atmosphere of the planet and map out the properties of the water in different parts of Mars’s atmosphere over a six-year period. These new maps are the first of their kind. The results appear online in the journal Science today.
About four billion years ago, the young planet would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.
“Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space,” said Geronimo Villanueva, a scientist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, USA, and lead author of the new paper. “With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars.”
The new estimate is based on detailed observations of two slightly different forms of water in Mars’s atmosphere. One is the familiar form of water, made with two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, H2O. The other is HDO, or semi-heavy water, a naturally occurring variation in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by a heavier form, called deuterium.
As the deuterated form is heavier than normal water, it is less easily lost into space through evaporation. So, the greater the water loss from the planet, the greater the ratio of HDO to H2O in the water that remains .
The researchers distinguished the chemical signatures of the two types of water using ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, along with instruments at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii . By comparing the ratio of HDO to H2O, scientists can measure by how much the fraction of HDO has increased and thus determine how much water has escaped into space. This in turn allows the amount of water on Mars at earlier times to be estimated.
In the study, the team mapped the distribution of H2O and HDO repeatedly over nearly six Earth years — equal to about three Mars years — producing global snapshots of each, as well as their ratio. The maps reveal seasonal changes and microclimates, even though modern Mars is essentially a desert.
Ulli Kaeufl of ESO, who was responsible for building one of the instruments used in this study and is a co-author of the new paper, adds: “I am again overwhelmed by how much power there is in remote sensing on other planets using astronomical telescopes: we found an ancient ocean more than 100 million kilometres away!”
The team was especially interested in regions near the north and south poles, because the polar ice caps are the planet’s largest known reservoir of water. The water stored there is thought to document the evolution of Mars’s water from the wet Noachian period, which ended about 3.7 billion years ago, to the present.
The new results show that atmospheric water in the near-polar region was enriched in HDO by a factor of seven relative to Earth’s ocean water, implying that water in Mars’s permanent ice caps is enriched eight-fold. Mars must have lost a volume of water 6.5 times larger than the present polar caps to provide such a high level of enrichment. The volume of Mars’s early ocean must have been at least 20 million cubic kilometres.
Based on the surface of Mars today, a likely location for this water would be the Northern Plains, which have long been considered a good candidate because of their low-lying ground. An ancient ocean there would have covered 19% of the planet’s surface — by comparison, the Atlantic Ocean occupies 17% of the Earth’s surface.
“With Mars losing that much water, the planet was very likely wet for a longer period of time than previously thought, suggesting the planet might have been habitable for longer,” said Michael Mumma, a senior scientist at Goddard and the second author on the paper.
It is possible that Mars once had even more water, some of which may have been deposited below the surface. Because the new maps reveal microclimates and changes in the atmospheric water content over time, they may also prove to be useful in the continuing search for underground water.
 In oceans on Earth there are about 3200 molecules of H2O for each HDO molecule.
 Although probes on the Martian surface and orbiting the planet can provide much more detailed in situmeasurements, they are not suitable for monitoring the properties of the whole Martian atmosphere. This is best done using infrared spectrographs on large telescopes back on Earth.
Some of astronomy’s biggest goals include the study of dark matter and dark energy. These two phenomena were indirectly observed in 20th century and the questions about their nature still puzzle us. Astronomers, cosmologists, particle physicists, theoretical physicists and researchers in other related areas are trying hard to find more and more clues about the nature of dark matter and dark energy which comprise of around 95% of our universe.
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have spotted for the first time a distant supernova split into four images. The multiple images of the exploding star are caused by the powerful gravity of a foreground elliptical galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies.
This unique observation will help astronomers refine their estimates of the amount and distribution of dark matter in the lensing galaxy and cluster. Dark matter cannot be seen directly but is believed to make up most of the universe’s mass.
The gravity from both the elliptical galaxy and the galaxy cluster distorts and magnifies the light from the supernova behind them, an effect called gravitational lensing. First predicted by Albert Einstein, this effect is similar to a glass lens bending light to magnify and distort the image of an object behind it. The multiple images are arranged around the elliptical galaxy in a cross-shaped pattern called an Einstein Cross, a name originally given to a particular multiply imaged quasar, the bright core of an active galaxy.
The elliptical galaxy and its cluster, MACS J1149.6+2223, are 5 billion light-years from Earth. The supernova behind it is 9.3 billion light-years away.
Although astronomers have discovered dozens of multiply imaged galaxies and quasars, they have never seen a stellar explosion resolved into several images. “It really threw me for a loop when I spotted the four images surrounding the galaxy — it was a complete surprise,” said Patrick Kelly of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the Grism Lens Amplified Survey from Space (GLASS) collaboration. The GLASS group is working with the Frontier Field Supernova (FrontierSN) team to analyze the exploding star. Kelly is also the lead author on the science paper, which will appear on March 6 in a special issue of the journal Science celebrating the centenary of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
When the four images fade away, astronomers predict they will have a rare opportunity to catch a rerun of the supernova. This is because the current four-image pattern is only one part of the lensing display. The supernova may have appeared as a single image some 20 years ago elsewhere in the cluster field, and it is expected to reappear once more within the next five years.
This prediction is based on computer models of the cluster, which describe the various paths the supernova light is taking through the maze of clumpy dark matter in the galactic grouping. Each image takes a different route through the cluster and arrives at a different time, due, in part, to differences in the length of the pathways the light follows to reach Earth. The four supernova images captured by Hubble, for example, appeared within a few days or weeks of each other.
The supernova’s various light paths are analogous to several trains that leave a station at the same time, all traveling at the same speed and bound for the same location. Each train, however, takes a different route, and the distance for each route is not the same. Some trains travel over hills. Others go through valleys, and still others chug around mountains. Because the trains travel over different track lengths across different terrain, they do not arrive at their destination at the same time. Similarly, the supernova images do not appear at the same time because some of the light is delayed by traveling around bends created by the gravity of dense dark matter in the intervening galaxy cluster.
“Our model for the dark matter in the cluster gives us the prediction of when the next image will appear because it tells us how long each train track is, which correlates with time,” said Steve Rodney of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, leader of the FrontierSN team. “We already missed one that we think appeared about 20 years ago, and we found these four images after they had already appeared. The prediction of this future image is the one that is most exciting because we might be able to catch it. We hope to come back to this field with Hubble, and we’ll keep looking to see when that expected next image appears.”
Measuring the time delays between images offers clues to the type of warped-space terrain the supernova’s light had to cover and will help the astronomers fine-tune the models that map out the cluster’s mass. “We will measure the time delays, and we’ll go back to the models and compare them to the model predictions of the light paths,” Kelly said. “The lens modelers, such as Adi Zitrin (California Institute of Technology) from our team, will then be able to adjust their models to more accurately recreate the landscape of dark matter, which dictates the light travel time.”
While making a routine search of the GLASS team’s data, Kelly spotted the four images of the exploding star on Nov. 11, 2014. The FrontierSN and GLASS teams have been searching for such highly magnified explosions since 2013, and this object is their most spectacular discovery. The supernova appears about 20 times brighter than its natural brightness, due to the combined effects of two overlapping lenses. The dominant lensing effect is from the massive galaxy cluster, which focuses the supernova light along at least three separate paths. A secondary lensing effect occurs when one of those light paths happens to be precisely aligned with a specific elliptical galaxy within the cluster. “The dark matter of that individual galaxy then bends and refocuses the light into four more paths,” Rodney explained, “generating the rare Einstein Cross pattern we are currently observing.”
The two teams spent a week analyzing the object’s light, confirming it was the signature of a supernova. They then turned to the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, to measure the distance to the supernova’s host galaxy.
The astronomers nicknamed the supernova Refsdal in honor of Norwegian astronomer Sjur Refsdal, who, in 1964, first proposed using time-delayed images from a lensed supernova to study the expansion of the universe. “Astronomers have been looking to find one ever since,” said Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Los Angeles, the GLASS project’s principal investigator. “The long wait is over!”
The Frontier Fields survey is a three-year program that uses Hubble and the gravitational-lensing effects of six massive galaxy clusters to probe not only what is inside the clusters but also what is beyond them. The three-year FrontierSN program studies supernovae that appear in and around the galaxy clusters of the Frontier Fields and GLASS surveys. The GLASS survey is using Hubble’s spectroscopic capabilities to study remote galaxies through the cosmic telescopes of 10 massive galaxy clusters, including the six in the Frontier Fields.
ALMA and VLT probe surprisingly dusty and evolved galaxy
One of the most distant galaxies ever observed has provided astronomers with the first detection of dust in such a remote star-forming system and tantalising evidence for the rapid evolution of galaxies after the Big Bang. The new observations have used ALMA to pick up the faint glow from cold dust in the galaxy A1689-zD1 and used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to measure its distance.
A team of astronomers, led by Darach Watson from the University of Copenhagen, used the Very Large Telescope’s X-shooter instrument along with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe one of the youngest and most remote galaxies ever found. They were surprised to discover a far more evolved system than expected. It had a fraction of dust similar to a very mature galaxy, such as the Milky Way. Such dust is vital to life, because it helps form planets, complex molecules and normal stars.
The target of their observations is called A1689-zD1 . It is observable only by virtue of its brightness being amplified more than nine times by a gravitational lens in the form of the spectacular galaxy cluster, Abell 1689, which lies between the young galaxy and the Earth. Without the gravitational boost, the glow from this very faint galaxy would have been too weak to detect.
We are seeing A1689-zD1 when the Universe was only about 700 million years old — five percent of its present age . It is a relatively modest system — much less massive and luminous than many other objects that have been studied before at this stage in the early Universe and hence a more typical example of a galaxy at that time.
A1689-zD1 is being observed as it was during the period of reionisation, when the earliest stars brought with them a cosmic dawn, illuminating for the first time an immense and transparent Universe and ending the extended stagnation of the Dark Ages. Expected to look like a newly formed system, the galaxy surprised the observers with its rich chemical complexity and abundance of interstellar dust.
“After confirming the galaxy’s distance using the VLT,” said Darach Watson, “we realised it had previously been observed with ALMA. We didn’t expect to find much, but I can tell you we were all quite excited when we realised that not only had ALMA observed it, but that there was a clear detection. One of the main goals of the ALMA Observatory was to find galaxies in the early Universe from their cold gas and dust emissions — and here we had it!”
This galaxy was a cosmic infant — but it proved to be precocious. At this age it would be expected to display a lack of heavier chemical elements — anything heavier than hydrogen and helium, defined in astronomy as metals. These are produced in the bellies of stars and scattered far and wide once the stars explode or otherwise perish. This process needs to be repeated for many stellar generations to produce a significant abundance of the heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen.
Surprisingly, the galaxy A1689-zD1 seemed to be emitting a lot of radiation in the far infrared , indicating that it had already produced many of its stars and significant quantities of metals, and revealed that it not only contained dust, but had a dust-to-gas ratio that was similar to that of much more mature galaxies.
“Although the exact origin of galactic dust remains obscure,” explains Darach Watson, “our findings indicate that its production occurs very rapidly, within only 500 million years of the beginning of star formation in the Universe — a very short cosmological time frame, given that most stars live for billions of years.”
The findings suggest A1689-zD1 to have been consistently forming stars at a moderate rate since 560 million years after the Big Bang, or else to have passed through its period of extreme starburst very rapidly before entering a declining state of star formation.
Prior to this result, there had been concerns among astronomers that such distant galaxies would not be detectable in this way, but A1689-zD1 was detected using only brief observations with ALMA.
Kirsten Knudsen (Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden), co-author of the paper, added, “This amazingly dusty galaxy seems to have been in a rush to make its first generations of stars. In the future, ALMA will be able to help us to find more galaxies like this, and learn just what makes them so keen to grow up.”
The new SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has been used to search for a brown dwarf expected to be orbiting the unusual double star V471 Tauri. SPHERE has given astronomers the best look so far at the surroundings of this intriguing object and they found — nothing. The surprising absence of this confidently predicted brown dwarf means that the conventional explanation for the odd behaviour of V471 Tauri is wrong. This unexpected result is described in the first science paper based on observations from SPHERE.
Some pairs of stars consist of two normal stars with slightly different masses. When the star of slightly higher mass ages and expands to become a red giant, material is transferred to other star and ends up surrounding both stars in a huge gaseous envelope. When this cloud disperses the two move closer together and form a very tight pair with one white dwarf, and one more normal star .
One such stellar pair is called V471 Tauri . It is a member of the Hyades star cluster in the constellation of Taurus and is estimated to be around 600 million years old and about 163 light-years from Earth. The two stars are very close and orbit each other every 12 hours. Twice per orbit one star passes in front of the other — which leads to regular changes in the brightness of the pair observed from Earth as they eclipse each other.
A team of astronomers led by Adam Hardy (Universidad Valparaíso, Valparaíso, Chile) first used the ULTRACAM system on ESO’s New Technology Telescope to measure these brightness changes very precisely. The times of the eclipses were measured with an accuracy of better than two seconds — a big improvement on earlier measurements.
The eclipse timings were not regular, but could be explained well by assuming that there was a brown dwarf orbiting both stars whose gravitational pull was disturbing the orbits of the stars. They also found hints that there might be a second small companion object.
Up to now however, it has been impossible to actually image a faint brown dwarf so close to much brighter stars. But the power of the newly installed SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope allowed the team to look for the first time exactly where the brown dwarf companion was expected to be. But they saw nothing, even though the very high quality images from SPHERE should have easily revealed it .
“There are many papers suggesting the existence of such circumbinary objects, but the results here provide damaging evidence against this hypothesis,” remarks Adam Hardy.
If there is no orbiting object then what is causing the odd changes to the orbit of the binary? Several theories have been proposed, and, while some of these have already been ruled out, it is possible that the effects are caused by magnetic field variations in the larger of the two stars , somewhat similar to the smaller changes seen in the Sun.
“A study such as this has been necessary for many years, but has only become possible with the advent of powerful new instruments such as SPHERE. This is how science works: observations with new technology can either confirm, or as in this case disprove, earlier ideas. This is an excellent way to start the observational life of this amazing instrument,” concludes Adam Hardy.
 This name means that the object is the 471st variable star (or as closer analysis shows, pair of stars) to be identified in the constellation of Taurus.
 The SPHERE images are so accurate that they would have been able to reveal a companion such as a brown dwarf that is 70 000 times fainter than the central star, and only 0.26 arcseconds away from it. The expected brown dwarf companion in this case was predicted to be much brighter.
 This effect is called the Applegate mechanism and results in regular changes in the shape of the star, which can lead to changes in the apparent brightness of the double star seen from Earth.
New infrared view of the Trifid Nebula reveals new variable stars far beyond
A new image taken with ESO’s VISTA survey telescope reveals the famous Trifid Nebula in a new and ghostly light. By observing in infrared light, astronomers can see right through the dust-filled central parts of the Milky Way and spot many previously hidden objects. In just this tiny part of one of the VISTA surveys, astronomers have discovered two unknown and very distant Cepheid variable stars that lie almost directly behind the Trifid. They are the first such stars found that lie in the central plane of the Milky Way beyond its central bulge.
As one of its major surveys of the southern sky, the VISTA telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile is mapping the central regions of the Milky Way in infrared light to search for new and hidden objects. This VVV survey (standing forVISTA Variables in the Via Lactea) is also returning to the same parts of the sky again and again to spot objects that vary in brightness as time passes.
A tiny fraction of this huge VVV dataset has been used to create this striking new picture of a famous object, the star formation region Messier 20, usually called the Trifid Nebula, because of the ghostly dark lanes that divide it into three parts when seen through a telescope.
The familiar pictures of the Trifid show it in visible light, where it glows brightly in both the pink emission from ionised hydrogen and the blue haze of scattered light from hot young stars. Huge clouds of light-absorbing dust are also prominent. But the view in the VISTA infrared picture is very different. The nebula is just a ghost of its usual visible-light self. The dust clouds are far less prominent and the bright glow from the hydrogen clouds is barely visible at all. The three-part structure is almost invisible.
In the new image, as if to compensate for the fading of the nebula, a spectacular new panorama comes into view. The thick dust clouds in the disc of our galaxy that absorb visible light allow through most of the infrared light that VISTA can see. Rather than the view being blocked, VISTA can see far beyond the Trifid and detect objects on the other side of the galaxy that have never been seen before.
By chance this picture shows a perfect example of the surprises that can be revealed when imaging in the infrared. Apparently close to the Trifid in the sky, but in reality about seven times more distant , a newly discovered pair of variable stars has been found in the VISTA data. These are Cepheid variables, a type of bright star that is unstable and slowly brightens and then fades with time. This pair of stars, which the astronomers think are the brightest members of a cluster of stars, are the only Cepheid variables detected so far that are close to the central plane, but on the far side of the galaxy. They brighten and fade over a period of eleven days.
 The Trifid Nebula lies about 5200 light-years from Earth, the centre of the Milky Way is about 27 000 light-years away, in almost the same direction, and the newly discovered Cepheids are at a distance of about 37 000 light-years.
Like the gaping mouth of a gigantic celestial creature, the cometary globule CG4 glows menacingly in this new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Although it appears to be big and bright in this picture, this is actually a faint nebula, which makes it very hard for amateur astronomers to spot. The exact nature of CG4 remains a mystery.
In 1976 several elongated comet-like objects were discovered on pictures taken with the UK Schmidt Telescope in Australia. Because of their appearance, they became known as cometary globules even though they have nothing in common with comets. They were all located in a huge patch of glowing gas called the Gum Nebula. They had dense, dark, dusty heads and long, faint tails, which were generally pointing away from the Vela supernova remnant located at the centre of the Gum Nebula. Although these objects are relatively close by, it took astronomers a long time to find them as they glow very dimly and are therefore hard to detect.
The object shown in this new picture, CG4, which is also sometimes referred to as God’s Hand, is one of these cometary globules. It is located about 1300 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Puppis (The Poop, or Stern).
The head of CG4, which is the part visible on this image and resembles the head of the gigantic beast, has a diameter of 1.5 light-years. The tail of the globule — which extends downwards and is not visible in the image — is about eight light-years long. By astronomical standards this makes it a comparatively small cloud.
The relatively small size is a general feature of cometary globules. All of the cometary globules found so far are isolated, relatively small clouds of neutral gas and dust within the Milky Way, which are surrounded by hot ionised material.
The head part of CG4 is a thick cloud of gas and dust, which is only visible because it is illuminated by the light from nearby stars. The radiation emitted by these stars is gradually destroying the head of the globule and eroding away the tiny particles that scatter the starlight. However, the dusty cloud of CG4 still contains enough gas to make several Sun-sized stars and indeed, CG4 is actively forming new stars, perhaps triggered as radiation from the stars powering the Gum Nebula reached CG4.
Why CG4 and other cometary globules have their distinct form is still a matter of debate among astronomers and two theories have developed. Cometary globules, and therefore also CG4, could originally have been spherical nebulae, which were disrupted and acquired their new, unusual form because of the effects of a nearby supernova explosion. Other astronomers suggest, that cometary globules are shaped by stellar winds and ionising radiation from hot, massiveOB stars. These effects could first lead to the bizarrely (but appropriately!) named formations known as elephant trunksand then eventually cometary globules.
To find out more, astronomers need to find out the mass, density, temperature, and velocities of the material in the globules. These can be determined by the measurements of molecular spectral lines which are most easily accessible at millimetre wavelengths — wavelengths at which telescopes like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) operate.
This picture comes from the ESO Cosmic Gems programme, an outreach initiative to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes, for the purposes of education and public outreach. The programme makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations. All data collected may also be suitable for scientific purposes, and are made available to astronomers through ESO’s science archive.