Category Archives: Nebulae

Image

Eta Carinae and the Keyhole Nebula

Eta Carinae and the Keyhole Nebula

Diffuse gas and dust in the heart of the Carina Nebula. The bright star is Eta Carinae, a massive double star at the end of its live that will soon explode as a supernova. The “Keyhole” is the dark cloud in the centre of the image.

Image obtained as part of the “ABC Stargazing Live” events at Siding Spring Observatory (NSW, Australia), 4 – 6 April 2017.

Data taken on 3rd April 2017 using the CACTI camera in 2dF at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. Color image using B (12 x 60s, blue) + [O III] (12 x 60 s, green) + Hα (12 x 60 s, red) filters.

More sizes and high-resolution image in my Flickr.

Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory and Macquarie University), Steve Lee, Robert Patterson & Robert Dean (AAO), Night assistant at the AAT: Wiston Campbell (AAO).

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30th Anniversary of SN 1987A

The supernova SN 1987A, that exploded in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula (1) in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) on February 23rd, 1987, was an unique a rare event that still puzzles astronomers and theoretical physicists. SN 1987A originated by the core-collapse of a very massive star, hence it was classified as a “type II” supernova (2).

SN 1987A provided astrophysicists the very first opportunity to study the behavior and evolution of a supernova in detail. Among other things, SN 1987A was the first supernova for which the progenitor star was identified on archival photographic plates, permitted the first direct observation of supernova nucleosynthesis (including accurate masses of 56Ni, 57Ni and 44Ti), the first observation of the dust in a supernova, the first detection of circumstellar and interstellar material around a supernova, and, importantly, the first detection of neutrinos coming from the core collapse of a massive stars.

Figure 1. Supernova 1987A after exploding in February 1987 (left), and an image taken before the explosion (right). Credit: David Malin / Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Figure 1. Supernova 1987A after exploding in February 1987 (left), and an image taken before the explosion (right). Credit: David Malin / Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Commemorating the 30th anniversary of this very rare event, we at the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) have published today a new media release about it. In this post I extend this media release providing a kind of review of what it has been the study of the SN 1987A.

The discovery of SN 1987A

Although the light from SN 1987A reached Earth on February 23rd, 1987, it was discovered at ~23:00 UTC February 24th, 1987 (~10am Feb 25th, 1987 in Sydney time) by astronomers Ian Shelton and Oscar Duhalde using the 10-inch astrograph (also seen by the naked eye) at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Within few hours it was also independently identified by amateur astronomer Albert Jones (who has one of the highest records of observing variable stars, more than half a million measurements during his life) from New Zealand. Figure 1 compares the view of this region of the Tarantula Nebula using the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) after (left) and before (right) the star exploded.

SN 1987A is located at approximately 168,000 light years from Earth. It was the closest observed supernova since famous Kepler’s Supernova (SN 1604), which occurred in the Milky Way itself in 1604. Although SN 1987A could be seen only from the Southern Hemisphere because its location in the famous Tarantula Nebula (Figure 2) within the Large Magellanic Cloud, and it was visible to the naked eye during months. Its brightness peaked in May, when it reaches an apparent magnitude of about 3, meaning it was within the 300 brightest stars in the sky at that moment.

Figure 2: The Tarantula Nebula loom to the upper left of where the star Sanduleak -69° 202 exploded as supernova 1987A. Three-colour image made from BGR plates taken at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) prime focus Credit: David Malin / Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Figure 2: The Tarantula Nebula loom to the upper left of where the star Sanduleak -69° 202 exploded as supernova 1987A. Three-colour image made from BGR plates taken at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) prime focus Credit: David Malin / Australian Astronomical Observatory.

The first confirmation of the position of the SN 1987A came from Robert McNaught from Siding Spring Observatory (SSO, Australia) using the University of Aston Hewitt Satellite Schmidt camera. Within four days after the discovery the progenitor star was tentatively identified as the blue supergiant Sanduleak -69° 202. This was later confirmed when the supernova faded, as Sanduleak -69° 202 having disappeared. The progenitor star of SN 1987A had around 20 solar masses, a diameter around 40 times larger that our Sun, and had a spectral and luminosity type B3 I. However, the chemical composition of the progenitor star was very unusual (particularly, the abundance of helium in the outer layers of the star was more than twice larger than expected, as if part of the material of the core, where helium was produced, was somehow mixed into the outer layers).

First observations of SN 1987A

Once alerted to news of the supernova in February 1987, astronomers and engineers working at the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) immediately devised plans for how to make the best observations with the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT).  Observing the supernova became a top priority for the next three weeks, the assumed time that it would remain bright.

But just in case the supernova continued to be visible, AAO’s Peter Gillingham rapidly assembled a very high resolution “Wooden Spectrograph”, since no telescope in the southern hemisphere at the time had this type of technology available to take advantage of observing such a rare, bright supernova.  With luck, Supernova 1987A remained observable for several months after it exploded.

High-spatial resolution observations using cameras at the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the Cerro Tololo International Observatory independently found a “mystery spot” close to the supernova. This was another indication of the broken symmetry of the SN 1987A. Furthermore, the spectroscopic evolution of SN 1987A provided further evidence of the asymmetries in the explosion.

Figure 3. Image of the peculiar remnant of the SN 1987A as seen using the ACS camera of the Hubble Space Telescope. Two glowing loops of stellar material and a very bright ring surrounding the dying star at the centre of the frame are clearly identified. All together form an structure named “Hourglass” that still is not fully understood. The field of view of this image is 25x25 arcseconds. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA.

Figure 3. Image of the peculiar remnant of the SN 1987A as seen using the ACS camera of the Hubble Space Telescope. Two glowing loops of stellar material and a very bright ring surrounding the dying star at the centre of the frame are clearly identified. All together form an structure named “Hourglass” that still is not fully understood. The field of view of this image is 25×25 arcseconds. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA.

In 1994 images obtained with the very new Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/ESA) revealed the unusual remnant of SN 1987A (Figure 3). It consists in three rings aligned along an axis of symmetry, giving it the shape of an hourglass. The rings are dense regions in the stellar wind that were ionized by ultraviolet radiation from the supernova. The asymmetry of the SN 1987A remnant implies that the progenitor star was either spinning rapidly or was orbiting a companion star.

However, it is important to clarify that these rings are material ejected by Sanduleak -69° 202 tens of years before it exploded as supernova, but later ionized by the explosion. Interestingly, as the rings weren’t seen till the light of the explosion reached them and the size of the inner ring (that has a radius of 0.808 arcsec) was known, astronomers were able to use trigonometry to accurately calculate the distance to the supernova, that turned to be 168 000 light years.

Figure 4: (Left) Intense X-ray emission detected in 2005 as result of the collision of the expanding supernova ejecta with the inner ring released by the progenitor of the SN 1987A. (Right) Optical image using the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/S.Park & D.Burrows.; Optical: NASA/STScI/CfA/P.Challis

Figure 4: (Left) Intense X-ray emission detected in 2005 as result of the collision of the expanding supernova ejecta with the inner ring released by the progenitor of the SN 1987A. (Right) Optical image using the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/S.Park & D.Burrows.; Optical: NASA/STScI/CfA/P.Challis

Figure 4 shows the intense generation of X-ray emission when the expanding supernova ejecta, that was moving at more than 7000 km/s, collided with the inner ring of the SN 1987A remnant between 2001 and 2009. This collision also induced an increasing in the optical light emitted by the supernova remnant during this time. A timelapse movie of the images obtained with the HST between 1994 and 2009 (Figure 5) shows the collision of the expanding material with the inner ring. It is predicted the inner ring will disappear between 2020 and 2030 after the shock wave destroys the clumps of material within it.

Figure 5: A time sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images, taken in the 15 years from 1994 to 2009, showing the collision of the expanding supernova remnant with a ring of dense material ejected by the progenitor star 20,000 years before the supernova. Credit: Larson et al. 2011, Nature, 474, 484.

Figure 5: A time sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images, taken in the 15 years from 1994 to 2009, showing the collision of the expanding supernova remnant with a ring of dense material ejected by the progenitor star 20,000 years before the supernova. Credit: Larson et al. 2011, Nature, 474, 484.

Peculiarities of SN 1987A

SN 1987A was an unusual supernova in many aspects. The optical light curve of SN 1987A (Figure 6) was rather different from the one previously observed core-collapse supernovae. Astronomers expected that the progenitor stars were red supergiants with extended envelope, but Sanduleak -69° 202 was a blue supergiant. Furthermore, the way the ejecta of the supernova mixed induced changes in the expected light curve of SN 1987A. As a consequence, the old models of spherical explosions had to be revisited to include density inhomogeneities in the stellar structure.

Figure 6: Light curve of SN 1987A over the first 12 years. The figure marks some of the most important events in the history of the supernova. Credit: ESO, figure extracted from Leibundgut and Suntzeff 2003.

Figure 6: Light curve of SN 1987A over the first 12 years. The figure marks some of the most important events in the history of the supernova. Credit: ESO, figure extracted from Leibundgut and Suntzeff 2003.

Of special importance, SN1987A provided the first chance to confirm by direct observation the radioactive source of the energy for visible light emissions by detection of predicted gamma-ray line radiation from two of its abundant radioactive nuclei, 56Co and 57Co. This proved the radioactive nature of the long-duration post-explosion glow of supernovae.

In 2007 astronomers Thomas Morris and Philipp Podsiadlowski presented simulations which support the hypothesis that the merger of to stars generated the triple-ring system around SN 1987A around 20,000 years before the explosion itself. The two stars were a 15-20 solar mass red giant star and an 5 solar mass star. This would also explain why Sanduleak -69° 202 was a blue supergiant and other peculiarities such as its very strange chemical composition.

Interestingly, several “light echoes” (the light emitted by the supernova at its brightness peak reflected of interstellar sheets between the supernova and us) have been observed around the supernova over the years. Figure 7 shows another David Malin’s (AAO) image obtained at the AAT where two “light echoes” are seen. These observations have been used to map the diffuse interstellar medium within the LMC nearby the supernova.

Figure 7. The light echo of supernova 1987A. When supernova 1987A was seen to explode in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Milky Way's nearest companion galaxy, the brilliant flash of light from the self-destructing star had taken about 170,000 years to arrive at the telescope. Some light was deflected by two sheets of dust near the supernova, and is seen after the star has faded away because the reflected light covers a longer path to reach us. The dust responsible for the rings seen here lies in two distinct sheets, about 470 and 1300 light years from the supernova, close to our line of sight to it. The colour picture was made by photographically subtracting negative and positive images of plates of the region taken before and after the supernova appeared. The only major difference between them is the light echo itself. However, the bright stars do not cancel perfectly and appear black, while in other, bright parts of the image, the photographic noise does not cancel either. Despite this the image is an accurate reproduction of the colour of the extremely faint light echo, which in turn reflects the yellow colour of the supernova when it was at its brightest, in May, 1987. Photo and text credit: David Malin (AAO).

Figure 7. The light echo of supernova 1987A. When supernova 1987A was seen to explode in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Milky Way’s nearest companion galaxy, the brilliant flash of light from the self-destructing star had taken about 170,000 years to arrive at the telescope. Some light was deflected by two sheets of dust near the supernova, and is seen after the star has faded away because the reflected light covers a longer path to reach us. The dust responsible for the rings seen here lies in two distinct sheets, about 470 and 1300 light years from the supernova, close to our line of sight to it. The colour picture was made by photographically subtracting negative and positive images of plates of the region taken before and after the supernova appeared. The only major difference between them is the light echo itself. However, the bright stars do not cancel perfectly and appear black, while in other, bright parts of the image, the photographic noise does not cancel either. Despite this the image is an accurate reproduction of the colour of the extremely faint light echo, which in turn reflects the yellow colour of the supernova when it was at its brightest, in May, 1987. Photo and text credit: David Malin (AAO).

In 2011, observations using the infrared Herschel Space Observatory (European Space Agency) indicated that SN 1987A released between 160,000 and 230,000 Earth masses (~0.4 to 0.7 solar masses) of fresh dust into the interstellar medium. Contrary to previously thought, this suggests that supernovae may have produced much of the dust in the very early Universe, as old red giant stars (that are thought are the main producers of dust in the local Universe) did not exist then.

Recent observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope confirmed that SN 1987A freshly formed dust. Figure 8 shows a colour image of the remnant combining ALMA data (red) showing the newly formed dust, optical HST image (green) and X-ray Chandra data (blue) showing where the expanding shock wave is colliding with a ring of material around the supernova. The ALMA observations suggest that the SN 1987A remnant now contains about 25 percent the mass of the Sun in newly formed dust, including significant amounts of carbon monoxide and silicon monoxide.

Figure 8: This image shows the remnant of Supernova 1987A seen in light of very different wavelengths. ALMA data (in red) shows newly formed dust in the centre of the remnant. Hubble (in green) and Chandra (in blue) data show where the expanding shock wave is colliding with a ring of material around the supernova. This ring was initially lit up by the ultraviolet flash from the original explosion, but over the past few years the ring material has brightened considerably as it collides with the expanding shockwave. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/A. Angelich. Visible light image: the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. X-Ray image: The NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Figure 8: This image shows the remnant of Supernova 1987A seen in light of very different wavelengths. ALMA data (in red) shows newly formed dust in the centre of the remnant. Hubble (in green) and Chandra (in blue) data show where the expanding shock wave is colliding with a ring of material around the supernova. This ring was initially lit up by the ultraviolet flash from the original explosion, but over the past few years the ring material has brightened considerably as it collides with the expanding shockwave. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/A. Angelich. Visible light image: the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. X-Ray image: The NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

The birth of neutrinos astronomy

Approximately two to three hours before the visible light from SN 1987A reached Earth, a burst of neutrinos was observed at three separate neutrino observatories. In total 25 neutrinos were detected during this event: 12 recorded in Kamiokande II observatory (Japan), 8 found with the IMB (Irvine–Michigan–Brookhaven) detector (U.S.), and 5 detected by Russian Baksan Neutrino Observatory. Detecting 25 neutrinos in a very short lapse of time was a significant increase from the previously observed background level. Indeed, soon it was clear that the neutrinos were actually emitted from SN 1987A. The neutrino emission occurs simultaneously with core collapse, but preceding the emission of visible light. Transmission of visible light is a slower process that occurs only after the shock wave reaches the stellar surface.

This was the first time neutrinos from a supernova were observed directly. The most important implication of this observation was the confirmation of the hydrodynamic core collapse of the massive star. Indeed, these observations were consistent with theoretical supernova models in which 99% of the energy of the collapse is radiated away in the form of neutrinos. The analysis also suggested that the star collapsed into a neutron star but not further collapse to a black hole occurred. However, till date, the predicted neutron stars has not been detected in SN 1987A.

The detection of neutrinos from the explosion of SN 1987A marked the beginning of neutrino astronomy. As all the neutrino observatories were located in the northern hemisphere, this meant that the detected neutrinos were found after passage through the Earth. Masatoshi Koshiba was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 in recognition for the first detection of neutrinos from a celestial object other than the Sun. The 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared with Riccardo Giacconi for X-ray astronomy and Raymond Davis Jr. for solar neutrinos.

SN 1987A as seen today

30 years after the explosion, the remnants of the SN 1987A are still monitored in all wavelengths. An optical spectrum of the object will reveal a very prominent emission coming from ionized hydrogen (H-alpha). This feature is also seen using narrow-band images, as SN 1987A appears as a small “pink” blob. Figure 9 shows as example the optical spectrum of SN 1987A obtained in March 2016 by the Global Jet Watch project.

Figure 9. Optical spectrum of the remnant of the SN 1987A obtained using a 0.5m telescope of the Global Jet Watch project. It is a single 3000 seconds exposure obtained in March 2016 as part of a sequence that have been taken to monitor changes in this object. Credit: Global Jet Watch project, http://www.globaljetwatch.net, Acknowledgment: Steve Lee (AAO).

Figure 9. Optical spectrum of the remnant of the SN 1987A obtained using a 0.5m telescope of the Global Jet Watch project. It is a single 3000 seconds exposure obtained in March 2016 as part of a sequence that have been taken to monitor changes in this object. Credit: Global Jet Watch project, http://www.globaljetwatch.net, Acknowledgment: Katherine Blundell (Oxford Un.) and Steve Lee (AAO).

What does the neighborhood around Supernova 1987A look like today?  The surroundings of the SN 1987A remnant is filled by clouds of diffuse gas and dust. There are also some nearby bright blue stars that have an age of around 12 million years. These stars are from the same generation of stars that created Sanduleak -69° 202, the star that exploded as SN 1987A. The light of many of these massive stars makes shine the diffuse surrounding gas, that glows with green and red colors as seen in Figure 10.

Figure 10: New CACTI AAT image of the neighborhood of SN1987A Diffuse gas and dust in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula within the Large Magellanic Cloud. The remnant of SN 1987A appears as a bright red blob near the centre of the image. Data taken on 16th February 2017 using the CACTI camera in 2dF at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. Color image using B (6 x 40s, blue) + V (4 x 30 s, yellow) + [O III] (4 x 180 s, green) + Ha (4 x 180 s, red) filters. A Hubble Space Telescope (HST) image is included as luminosity at the position where SN 1987A is located. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU), Steve Lee, Robert Patterson, Robert Dean and Jennifer Riding (AAO) & Sarah Martel (UNSW / AAO).

Figure 10: New CACTI AAT image of the neighborhood of SN1987A Diffuse gas and dust in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula within the Large Magellanic Cloud. The remnant of SN 1987A appears as a bright red blob near the centre of the image. Data taken on 16th February 2017 using the CACTI camera in 2dF at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. Color image using B (6 x 40s, blue) + V (4 x 30 s, yellow) + [O III] (4 x 180 s, green) + Ha (4 x 180 s, red) filters. A Hubble Space Telescope (HST) image is included as luminosity at the position where SN 1987A is located. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU), Steve Lee, Robert Patterson, Robert Dean and Jennifer Riding (AAO) & Sarah Martel (UNSW / AAO).

The image, obtained on 16th February 2017 using the CACTI auxiliary camera of the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), shows the remnant of Supernova 1987A, with the pink glow of its hydrogen gas, and filaments of gas and dust that stretch over 300 light years to either side. A comparison of this AAT image with those obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope is included in Figure 11.  An animation showing the zooming into the remnants of the SN 1987A and also including the famous AAT view of the Tarantula Nebula obtained by David Malin (AAO)  before the explosion is also available.

Figure 11: The neighborhood and the remnant of SN 1987A. Left: New image around the remnant of SN 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud taken with the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU), Steve Lee, Robert Patterson, Robert Dean and Jennifer Riding (AAO) & Sarah Martel (UNSW / AAO).Top right: Wide Hubble Space Telescope image of the central area, data collected between 1994 and 1997. Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA). Bottom right: Deep Hubble Space Telescope image obtained in 2011 showing the asymmetric structure of the SN 1987A remnant. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA.

Figure 11: The neighborhood and the remnant of SN 1987A. Left: New image around the remnant of SN 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud taken with the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU), Steve Lee, Robert Patterson, Robert Dean and Jennifer Riding (AAO) & Sarah Martel (UNSW / AAO).Top right: Wide Hubble Space Telescope image of the central area, data collected between 1994 and 1997. Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA). Bottom right: Deep Hubble Space Telescope image obtained in 2011 showing the asymmetric structure of the SN 1987A remnant. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA.

The peculiar shapes of the gas and the dust also indicate that, previously to SN 1987A, many other stars have ended their lives as supernovae. In any case, there are also indications of new star forming now within these clouds. The new image also reveals a group of pearl-like bubbles, 110 light years away from the explosion site. These bubbles are a sign of youth, indicating previous supernova explosions in this fertile nursery, that still is forming stars. Who knows, perhaps this region gives us more celestial fireworks soon.

Animation: Zooming into the SN 1987A remnant. This 40 seconds animation shows a zooming into the SN1987A remnant in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It compiles 4 images: the full view of the Tarantula Nebula, as seen by the AAT years before the explosion on 23 February 1987, a new image of the neighborhood of the supernova obtained with the new CACTI camera at the AAT, and wide and deep images obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope showing the asymmetry of the SN 1987A remnant.

Credit: Australian Astronomical Observatory. Credit of the composition: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU). Credit of the individual images: Tarantula Nebula with the AAT: David Malin (AAO), CACTI image with the AAT:  Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU), Steve Lee, Robert Patterson, Robert Dean and Jennifer Riding (AAO) & Sarah Martel (UNSW / AAO), Wide Hubble Space Telescope image: WFPC2, Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA), Deep Hubble Space Telescope image: ACS, ESA/Hubble & NASA.
Extra info:

(1) The Tarantula nebula (also known as 30 Doradus and NGC 2070) is a massive star-forming region within the LMC that sprawls across more than 2000 light years. This nebula hosts the open clusters R136 and Hodge 301. This clusters contain some of the largest, brightest and most massive stars known, including some that are very likely to explode soon as supernova.

(2) Stars that are more massive than 8 solar masses end their lives as Type II supernova. The star first burned hydrogen (H) into helium (He) in its core. Later the He itself is burned, producing a smaller core of oxygen (O) and carbon (C). As the core contracts and heats to high temperatures, carbon and oxygen are also ignited. Their fusion produces neon (Ne), magnesium (Mg), silicon (Si), and sulfur (S). Finally a core of silicon and sulfur produces iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni). The internal structure of such stars resembles an onion, with deeper shells burning heavier elements, until a central core of iron is created. However it is impossible to produce nuclear fusions with iron. As the core colds down, the gravitational pressure of the rest of the star make the material collapse towards the core. This implosion is so violent that is generates an enormous burst of energy that rebounds as neutrinos back outward and blows the star apart as a supernova.

Supernova remnant NGC 2018 with CACTI

Last Thursday 24th November I conducted an outreach exercise while supporting astronomical observations at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). Using the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) Twitter account I asked people to chose one of 4 given object located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) to be observed at the telescope with the new CACTI camera while we were changing gratings of the scientific instrument, the spectrograph AAOmega. I’ve called the experiment “LMC Little Gems using CACTI”.

We got 193 votes, thank you to all of you who voted and also shared the post! It was quite exciting, particularly the last 30 minutes when, thanks to some of the best science communicators in Spain (and friends), we got +50 votes!

Well, here are the results:

  1. Cluster + nebula NGC 1949: 22%
  2. Globular cluster NGC 2121: 13%
  3. Supernova remnant NGC 2018: 34%
  4. Cluster + nebula NGC 1850: 31%

I must say my favorite was NGC 1949, but NGC 2018 was also a nice choice.

And the final color image of the object you chose to observe at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope is:

NGC 2018 - Supernova remnant in the LMC Data taken on 24 November 2016 as part of the AAO Outreach Exercise “Large Magellanic Cloud Little Gems with CACTI”. CACTI camera in 2dF @ 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. Color image using B (6 x 10s, blue) + [O III] (6 x 60 s, green) + Ha (8 x 60 s, red) filters. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory / Macquarie University) & Steve Lee, Robert Patterson & Robert Dean (AAO) Night assistant at the AAT: Steve Lee (AAO).

NGC 2018, a supernova remnant in the LMC Data taken on 24 November 2016 as part of the AAO Outreach Exercise “Large Magellanic Cloud Little Gems with CACTI”. CACTI camera in 2dF @ 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. Color image using B (6 x 10s, blue) + [O III] (6 x 60 s, green) + Ha (8 x 60 s, red) filters. A high resolution image can be obtained here. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory / Macquarie University) & Steve Lee, Robert Patterson & Robert Dean (AAO) Night assistant at the AAT: Steve Lee (AAO).

I’ve doing a bit of searching to get some extra information about this object. Indeed, the Large Magellanic Cloud has a high star-formation activity, meaning that star-cluster, star-forming nebula but also supernova remnants are all around the place. However, SIMBAD defines NGC 2018 as Association of Stars, and few references to this object to be a supernova remnant are found (e.g., here).

But looking at the image I can say that this definitively is a supernova remnant, yes, with an associated star cluster too (very probably, the sisters of the massive star that exploded as supernova). How? Well, do you see the filament structure seen in the green colour, that traces the [O III] emission? That is related to a supernova explosion, these features are usually not found in star-forming regions… unless you have a recent supernova explosion, as it is this case!

Thank you very much to all that participated on this outreach exercise! I really hope I can organize another experiment like this sooner than later!

Video of the “Story of Light” in Vivid Sydney 2016

Following the success of our sold-out Event “The Story of Light – The Astronomer’s Perspective” for ViVID Sydney Ideas 2015, the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) continued its collaboration with ViVID Sydney 2016 organizing “The Story of Light – Deciphering the data encoded on the cosmic light”. But actually it was me who was in charge of the organization.

The five astronomers speaking during our “Sydney Vivid Ideas: The Story of Light” started at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, 29th May 2016. From left to right: Luke Barnes, Alan Duffy, Vanessa Moss, Liz Mannering and Ángel López-Sánchez. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

The event was held at the PowerHouse Museum in Sydney on Sunday 29th May 2016. More than 160 people attended this special event. Five young astronomers (me included) talked about Astronomy and Big Data: the light and light-based technologies developed in Australian astronomy for both optical and radio telescopes; the tools, platforms, and techniques used for data analysis and visualization; how astronomers create simulation data; how some of these techniques are being used in other research areas; and the major scientific contributions toward our understanding of the Universe. Indeed, astronomers have been pioneers in developing “Data Science” techniques to make sense of this huge data deluge, many of which are now used in other areas.

We recorded all the event in video, and it is now publicly available  in the AAO YouTube channel. Some photos of the event are also compiled below. I want to thank AAO/ITSO Research Astronomer Caroline Foster for helping recording and editing the video and Jenny Ghabache (AAO) for taking the photos of the event.

Full recording of the event “The Story of Light 2016: Deciphering the data encoded on the cosmic light” organised by the AAO for Vivid Sydney Ideas 2016. Credit: AAO. Acknowledgment: Caroline Foster (AAO).

The event was hosted by Alan Duffy (Swinburne University). I was in charge of explaining optical astronomy, the AAO, optical surveys and big data. Then my colleagues  Vanessa Moss (Univ of Sydney/CAASTRO), Luke Barnes (Univ. of Sydney) and Liz Mannering (AAO/ICRAR) discussed radio astronomy, the ASKAP and big data (Vanessa), simulating, analysing and visualizing astronomy data (Luke) and astronomy data archive, the All-Sky Virtual Observatory (ASVO) and other virtual observatories (Liz ). After the short 12-15 minutes talks (well, as usual I took a bit more time), the panel welcomed questions from the audience (and even from Twitter using #SoLSydneyIdeas) for a discussion session about Light and Astronomy and the Australian contribution to the improvement of our understanding of the Universe.

The Lecture Theatre a few minutes before our “Sydney Vivid Ideas: The Story of Light” started at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, 29th May 2016. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

Our host, Alan Duffy, introducing the event. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

AAO/MQU Research Astronomer Ángel R. López-Sánchez talking about optical astronomy, the AAO and big data. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

Vanessa Moss (Univ. of Sydney/CAASTRO) talking about radioastronomy, the ASKAP and big data. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

Luke Barnes (Univ. of Sydney) talking about simulating, analysing and visualizing astronomy data. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

Liz Mannering (Univ. of Sydney) discussed astronomy data archive, the All-Sky Virtual Observatory (ASVO) and other virtual observatories. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

Panel discussion with all participants answering questions from the audience. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

Angel Lopez-Sanchez answering a question from the audience. Photo credit: Jenny Ghabache (AAO).

And last… Well, if you want to see only my talk, here it is:

Kathryn’s Wheel: A ring of fireworks around a nearby galactic collision

Story based on the news release about Kathryn’s Wheel I prepared for the Australian Astronomical Observatory webpage.

The majority of the galaxies in the Universe can be classified into two well-distinguished classes: spiral galaxies (as our own Milky Way Galaxy) or elliptical galaxies. Spiral galaxies have on-going star-formation activity, possess a lot of young, blue stars, and are rich in gas and dust. However elliptical galaxies are just made up of old stars, with no signs of star formation, gas and dust. Besides these two large galaxy classes, some galaxies are found to have irregular or disturbed morphologies. That is certainly the case of many dwarf galaxies. A disturbed morphology is typically indicating a galaxy that has experienced an interaction with a nearby companion object. Indeed, all galaxies are experiencing interactions and mergers with other galaxies during their life time: the theory currently accepted about how galaxies grow and evolve naturally explains the building of spiral galaxies as mergers of dwarf galaxies, and the birth of an elliptical galaxy after the merger of two spiral galaxies. This will actually be the final destiny of our Milky Way, when it is colliding and merging with the Andromeda galaxy in around 4.5 billions years from now.

When galaxies collide, stars and gas are pulled out from them by gravity, and long tails of material stripped from the parent galaxies are formed. Famous galaxies in interaction developing these long “tidal tails” are the Mice Galaxies (NGC 4676) and the Antennae Galaxies (NGC 4038/4039). Very rarely, the geometry of the galaxy encounter is such that a small galaxy passes through the centre of a spiral galaxy creating a collisional ring galaxy. The ring structure is created by a powerful shock wave that sweeps up gas and dust, triggering the formation of new stars as the shock wave moves outwards. The most famous ring galaxy is the Cartwheel (ESO 350-40) galaxy, which is located at 500 million light-years away in the Southern constellation of the Sculptor. However complete ring galaxies are extremely rare in the Universe, only 20 of these objects are known.


Images of the interacting galaxies The Mice (NGC 4676), the Antennae Galaxies (NGC 4038/4039), and the Cartwheel (ESO 350-40) galaxy. Credit: The Mice: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (UCSC/LO), M.Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA, Antennae Galaxies: Robert Gendler, The Cartwheel: ESA/Hubble & NASA.

An international team of astronomers led by Prof. Quentin Parker (The University of Hong Kong / Australian Astronomical Observatory) has discovered a nearby ring galaxy which in some ways is similar to the Cartwheel galaxy but 40 times closer. The system was discovered as part of the observations of the AAO/UK Schmidt Telescope (UKST) Survey for Galactic H-alpha emission. Completed in late 2003, this survey used the 1.2m UKST at Siding Spring Observatory (NSW, Australia) to get wide-field photographic data of the Southern Galactic Plane and the Magellanic Clouds using a H-alpha filter. This special filter is able to trace the gaseous hydrogen (and not the stellar emission) within galaxies, allowing astronomers to detect the ionized gas from nebulae. The survey films were scanned by the SuperCosmos measuring machine at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (UK), to provide the online digital atlas “SuperCOSMOS H-alpha Survey” (SHS). When using this survey to search for new, undiscovered planetary nebulae (dying stars which often show ring morphologies in nebular emission) in the Milky Way, the team realised that a very peculiar of these structures was actually found around a nearby galaxy, ESO 179-13, located in the Ara (the Altar) constellation. The reason why this magnificent collisional ring structure has been unknown by astronomers is that it is located behind a dense star field (this area of the sky is very close to the Galactic plane, where the majority of the Milky Way stars are located) and very close to a bright foreground star.

Discovery images of the “Kathryn’s Wheel” using the data obtained at the 1.2m UKST by the “SuperCOSMOS H-alpha Survey” (SHS). The left panel (SR) shows the red image tracing mainly the stars. The three main components of the system are labelled. The central panel shows the image using the H-alpha filter (Hα), which sees both the diffuse ionized gas and the stars. The right panel (Hα-SR) shows the continuum-substracted image of the system, revealing for the very first time the intense collisional star-forming ring. Image credit: Quentin Parker / the research team.

The discovery SHS images of the system reveal 3 main structures (A, B and C) plus tens of H-alpha emitting knots making the ring. Component A is the remnant of the main galaxy, the collisional ring is centered on it. Component A does not possess ionized gas (that is, it does not have star-formation at the moment). On the other hand, component B seems to be the irregular, dwarf galaxy (“the bullet”) that impacted with the main galaxy. Component B does possess a clumpy and intense H-alpha emission.

Astronomers have dubbed this ring galaxy as “Kathryn’s Wheel” in honour of the wife of one of the discoverers, Prof. Albert Zijlstra, (University of Manchester, UK). Kathryn’s Wheel lies at a distance of 30 million light years away, and therefore it is an ideal target for detailed studies aiming to understand how these rare collisional ring galaxies are formed, the physics behind these structures, and their role in galaxy evolution. Interestingly, the collisional ring is not very massive: its mass is only a few thousand million Suns. This is less than ~1% of the Milky Way mass, indicating that ring galaxies can be formed around small galaxies, something that was not considered so far.

(Left) Colour image of the collision, made by combining data obtained at the Cerro-Tololo InterAmerican Observatory (CTIO) 4-metre telescope in Chile. The H-alpha image is shown in red and reveals the star-forming ring around the galaxy ESO 179-13, that has been dubbed “Kathryn’s Wheel”. Image credit: Ivan Bojicic / the research team. (Right) Image showing only the pure H-alpha emission of the system highlighting just the areas of active star formation. For clarity any remaining stellar residuals have been removed. Image credit: Quentin Parker / the research team.

Furthermore, the galaxy possesses a lot of diffuse, neutral hydrogen in its surroundings. This cold gas is the raw fuel that galaxies need to create new stars. Observations using the 64-m Parkes radiotelescope (“The Dish”, Parkes, NSW) as part of the “HI Parkes All-Sky Survey” (HIPASS) revealed that the amount of neutral gas around Kathryn’s Wheel is similar to the amount of mass found in stars in the system. Astronomers are unsure about from where this cold gas is coming from, although they suspect it mainly belonged to the main galaxy before the collision started. However, as the remnant of the galaxy (component A) does not have star-formation at the moment, it seems that the diffuse gas has been expelled from the centre of the system to the outskirts of the galaxy.

The results were published in MNRAS in August 2015.
MNRAS 452, 3759–3775 (2015) doi:10.1093/mnras/stv1432
Kathryn’s Wheel: a spectacular galaxy collision discovered in the Galactic neighbourhood
Authors: Quentin A. Parker, Albert A. Zijlstra, Milorad Stupar, Michelle Cluver, David J. Frew, George Bendo and Ivan Bojicic

Gas, star-formation and chemical enrichment in the spiral galaxy NGC 1512

How do galaxies grow and evolve? Galaxies are made of gas and stars, which interact in very complex ways: gas form stars, stars die and release chemical elements into the galaxy, some stars and gas can be lost from the galaxy, some gas and stars can be accreted from the intergalactic medium. The current accepted theory is that galaxies build their stellar component using their available gas while they increase their amount of chemical elements in the process. But how do they do this?

That is part of my current astrophysical research: how gas is processed inside galaxies? What is the chemical composition of the gas? How does star-formation happen in galaxies? How galaxies evolve? Today, 21st May 2015, the prestigious journal “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society”, publishes my most recent scientific paper, that tries to provide some answers to these questions. This study has been performed with my friends and colleagues Tobias Westmeier (ICRAR), Baerbel Koribalski (CSIRO), and César Esteban (IAC, Spain). We present new, unique observations using the 2dF instrument at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), in combination with radio data obtained with the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) radio-interferometer, to study how the gas in processed into stars and how much chemical enrichment has this gas experienced in a nearby galaxy, NGC 1512.

Deep images of the galaxy pair NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 using optical light (left) and ultraviolet light (right).Credit: Optical image: David Malin (AAO) using photographic plates obtained in 1975 using de 1.2m UK Schmidt Telescope (Siding Spring Observatory, Australia). UV image: GALEX satellite (NASA), image combining data in far-ultraviolet (blue) and near-ultraviolet (red) filters.

NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 is an interacting galaxy pair composed by a spiral galaxy (NGC 1512) and a Blue Compact Dwarf Galaxy (NGC 1510) located at 9.5 Mpc (=31 million light years). The system possesses hundreds of star-forming regions in the outer areas, as it was revealed using ultraviolet (UV) data provided by the GALEX satellite (NASA). Indeed, the UV-bright regions in the outskirts of NGC 1512 build an “eXtended UV disc” (XUV-disc), a feature that has been observed around the 15% of the nearby spiral galaxies. However these regions were firstly detected by famous astronomer David Malin (AAO) in 1975 (that is before I was born!) using photographic plates obtained with the 1.2m UK Schmidt Telescope (AAO), at Siding Spring Observatory (NSW, Australia).

The system has a lot of diffuse gas, as revealed by radio observations in the 21 cm HI line conducted at the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) as part of the “Local Volume HI Survey” (LVHIS) and presented by Koribalski & López-Sánchez (2009). The gas follows two long spiral structures up to more than 250 000 light years from the centre of NGC 1512. That is ~2.5 times the size of the Milky Way, but NGC 1512 is ~3 times smaller than our Galaxy! One of these structures has been somehow disrupted recently because of the interaction between NGC 1512 and NGC 1510, that it is estimated started around 400 million years ago.

Multiwavelength image of the NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 system combining optical and near-infrared data (light blue, yellow, orange), ultraviolet data from GALEX (dark blue), mid-infrared data from the Spitzer satellite (red) and radio data from the ATCA (green). The blue compact dwarf galaxy NGC 1510 is the bright point-like object located at the bottom right of the spiral galaxy NGC 1512.
Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ) & Baerbel Koribalski (CSIRO).

Our study presents new, deep spectroscopical observations of 136 genuine UV-bright knots in the NGC 1512/1510 system using the powerful multi-fibre instrument 2dF and the spectrograph AAOmega, installed at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT).

2dF/AAOmega is generally used by astronomers to observe simultaneously hundreds of individual stars in the Milky Way or hundreds of galaxies. Without considering observations in the Magellanic Clouds, it is the first time that 2dF/AAOmega is used to trace individual star-forming regions within the same galaxy, in some way forming a huge “Integral-Field Unit” (IFU) to observe all the important parts of the galaxy.

Two examples of the high-quality spectra obtained using the AAT. Top: spectrum of the BCDG NGC 1510. Bottom: spectrum of one of the brightest UV-bright regions in the system. The important emission lines are labelled.
Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ), Tobias Westmeier (ICRAR), César Esteban (IAC) & Baerbel Koribalski (CSIRO).


The AAT observations confirm that the majority of the UV-bright regions are star-forming regions. Some of the bright knots (those which are usually not coincident with the neutral gas) are actually background galaxies (i.e., objects much further than NGC 1512 and not physically related to it) showing strong star-formation activity. Observations also revealed a knot to be a very blue young star within our Galaxy.

Using the peak of the H-alpha emission, the AAT data allow to trace how the gas is moving in each of the observed UV-rich region (their “kinematics”), and compare with the movement of the diffuse gas as provided using the ATCA data. The two kinematics maps provide basically the same results, except for one region (black circle) that shows a very different behaviour. This object might be an independent, dwarf, low-luminosity galaxy (as seen from the H-alpha emission) that is in process of accretion into NGC 1512.

Map showing the velocity field of the galaxy pair NGC 1512 / NGC 1510 as determined using the H-alpha emission provided by the AAT data. This kinematic map is almost identical to that obtained from the neutras gas (HI) data using the ATCA, except for a particular region (noted by a black circle) that shows very different kinematics when comparing the maps.
Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ), Tobias Westmeier (ICRAR), César Esteban (IAC) & Baerbel Koribalski (CSIRO).

The H-alpha map shows how the gas is moving following the optical emission lines up to 250 000 light years from the centre of NGC 1512, that is 6.6 times the optical size of the galaxy. No other IFU map has been obtained before with such characteristics.

Using the emission lines detected in the optical spectra, which includes H I, [O II], [O III], [N II], [S II] lines (lines of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur), we are able to trace the chemical composition -the “metallicity”, as in Astronomy all elements which are not hydrogen or helium as defined as “metals”- of the gas within this UV-bright regions. Only hydrogen and helium were created in the Big Bang. All the other elements have been formed inside the stars as a consequence of nuclear reactions or by the actions of the stars (e.g., supernovae). The new elements created by the stars are released into the interstellar medium of the galaxies when they die, and mix with the diffuse gas to form new stars, that now will have a richer chemical composition than the previous generation of stars. Hence, tracing the amount of metals (usually oxygen) within galaxies indicate how much the gas has been re-processed into stars.


Metallicity map of the NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 system, as given by the amount of oxygen in the star-forming regions (oxygen abundance, O/H). The colours indicate how much oxygen (blue: few, green: intermediate, red: many) each region has. Red diamonds indicate the central, metal rich regions of NGC 1512. Circles trace a long, undisturbed, metal-poor arm. Triangles and squares follow the other spiral arms, which is been broken and disturbed as a consequence of the interaction between NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 (blue star). The blue pentagon within the box in the bottom right corner represents the farthest region of the system, located at 250 000 light years from the centre.
Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ), Tobias Westmeier (ICRAR), César Esteban (IAC) & Baerbel Koribalski (CSIRO).


The “chemical composition map” or “metallicity map” of the system reveals that indeed the centre of NGC 1512 has a lot of metals (red diamonds in the figure), in a proportion similar to those found around the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. However the external areas show two different behaviours: regions located along one spiral arm (left in the map) have low amount of metals (blue circles), while regions located in other spiral arm (right) have a chemical composition which is intermediate between those found in the centre and in the other arm (green squares and green triangles). Furthermore, all regions along the extended “blue arm” show very similar metallicities, while the “green arm” also has some regions with low (blue) and high (orange and red) metallicities. The reason of this behaviour is that the gas along the “green arm” has been very recently enriched by star-formation activity, which was triggered by the interaction with the Blue Compact Dwarf galaxy NGC 1510 (blue star in the map).

When combining the available ultraviolet and radio data with the new AAT optical data it is possible to estimate the amount of chemical enrichment that the system has experienced. This analysis allows to conclude that the diffuse gas located in the external regions of NGC 1512 was already chemically rich before the interaction with NGC 1510 started about 400 million years ago. That is, the diffuse gas that NGC 1512 possesses in its outer regions is not pristine (formed in the Big Bang) but it has been already processed by previous generations of stars. The data suggest that the metals within the diffuse gas are not coming from the inner regions of the galaxy but very probably they have been accreted during the life of the galaxy either by absorbing low-mass, gas-rich galaxies or by accreting diffuse intergalactic gas that was previously enriched by metals lost by other galaxies.

In any case this result constrains our models of galaxy evolution. When used together, the analysis of the diffuse gas (as seen using radio telescopes) and the study of the metal distribution within galaxies (as given by optical telescopes) provide a very powerful tool to disentangle the nature and evolution of the galaxies we now observe in the Local Universe.

More information

Scientific Paper in MNRAS: “Ionized gas in the XUV disc of the NGC 1512/1510 system”. Á. R. López-Sánchez, T. Westmeier, C. Esteban, and B. S. Koribalski.“Ionized gas in the XUV disc of the NGC1512/1510 system”, 2015, MNRAS, 450, 3381. Published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) through Oxford University Press.

AAO/CSIRO/ICRAR Press Release (AAO): Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

AAO/CSIRO/ICRAR Press Release (ICRAR): Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Press Release: Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

Article in Phys.org: Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

Article in EurekAlert!: Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

Article in Press-News.org: Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

Article in Open Science World: Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

ATNF Daily Astronomy Picture on 21st May 2015.

The Crescent Nebula

A very nice example of a nebula surrounding a Wolf-Rayet star is the so-called Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888, Caldwell 27, Sharpless 105). Located in the northern constellation of Gygnus, The Swan, it lies at around 5000 light years from us. The Crescent Nebula has been formed by the strong stellar winds of the Wolf-Rayet star WR 136 (HD 192163), which is located in the center of the nebula. This is an image of the Crescent Nebula I took in 2004 using the 2.5m Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (La Palma, Spain) while I was still preparing my PhD Thesis at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC, Tenerife, Spain) about the properties of dwarf galaxies hosting Wolf-Rayet stars. Actually, the image was taken during the twilight, when sky is still dark enough the get details in the narrow-band filters.

Crescent Nebula using narrow-band filters, by Angel R. Lopez-Sanchez

Image of the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888) obtained by the author combining data using the broad-band optical B filter (blue) and the narrow-band optical filters [O III] (green) and Hα (red) obtained using the Wide Field Camera (WFC) attached at the 2.5m Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (La Palma, Spain). The size of the image is around 22 x 22 arcminutes, just slightly smaller than the field of view of the full moon in the sky (30 arcminutes in diameter). Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez

The complex structure of the Crescent Nebula is a consequence of the interaction of the strong wind of the Wolf-Rayet star with material ejected by the star in an earlier phase, probably while it was a red supergiant. The actual loss-mass rate of the WR136 is around 0.00001 solar masses per year, which means the star losses the equivalent of the Sun’s mass every 10,000 years.

The image clearly shows ionized gas (nebular emission) with very different conditions: while red-color (Hα emission) is tracing the normal, emitting ionized gas, the green colour ([O III] emission) indicates regions with high excitation of the gas, meaning higher temperatures probably because of shocks. In just some few hundreds of years the star will explode as type-II supernova and destroy all the nebula, although it will create a new object: a supernova remnant.