Category Archives: Outreach

The first detection of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event

Full AAO Media Release, published at 01:00am Sydney time, 17 October 2017, that I coordinated.

For the first time, astronomers have observed the afterglow of an event that was also detected in gravitational waves. The object, dubbed AT2017gfo, was a pair of in-spiralling neutron stars in a galaxy 130 million light years away. The death spiral was detected in gravitational waves, and the resulting explosion was followed by over 50 observatories world wide, including the AAO and other observatories here in Australia.

On August 17, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), based in the United States, detected a new gravitational wave event, called GW170817.

GW170817 is the fifth source of gravitational waves ever recorded. The first one was discovered in September 2015, for which three founding members of the LIGO collaboration were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The GW170817 data are consistent with the merging of two neutron stars and are unlike the four previous events, which were merging black holes.

Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The narrow beams represent the gamma-ray burst while the rippling space-time grid indicates the gravitational waves that characterize the merger. Swirling clouds of material ejected from the merging stars are a possible source of the light that was seen at lower energies. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet.

The Advanced-Virgo interferometer, based in Italy, was online at the time of the discovery and contributed to the localization of the new gravitational wave burst.

Based on information from LIGO and VIRGO, numerous telescopes immediately sprang into action to determine if an electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational waves could be detected.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Fermi satellite independently reported a short burst of gamma-rays within 2 seconds of the merger event associated with GW170817, consistent with the area of sky from which LIGO and VIRGO detected their gravitational waves.

This gamma-ray detection at the same time and place triggered even greater interest from the astronomical community and resulted in more intense follow up observations in optical, infrared and radio wavelengths.

A team of scientists within the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration, which includes researchers from the Australian Astronomical Observatory and other Australian institutions, working with astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in the U.S., were among the first astronomers to observe the electromagnetic counterpart of GW170817 in optical wavelengths.

Using the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam) mounted at the 4m Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, DES identified the kilonova AT2017gfo in the nearby galaxy NGC 4993, located only 130 million light years from us, as the optical counterpart of GW170817.

Composite of detection images, including the discovery z image taken on August 18th and the g and r images taken 1 day later. Right: The same area two weeks later. Credit: Soares-Santos et al. and DES Collaboration.

“Because of its large field of view, the Dark Energy Camera was able to search almost the entire region where LIGO/VIRGO expected the gravitational wave source to be, and its exquisite sensitivity allowed us to make detailed measurements of the kilonova – the extremely energetic outburst created by the merging neutron stars,” AAO Instrument Scientist and DES Collaboration member Dr Kyler Kuehn stated.

A kilonova is similar to a supernova in some aspects, but it is different in others. It occurs when two neutron stars crash into each other. These events are thought to be the mechanism by which many of the elements heavier than iron, such as gold, are formed.

“But as impressive as it is, the Dark Energy Camera is only one of many instruments with a front row seat to this celestial spectacle. A lot of effort has gone into preparing dozens of telescopes around the world to search for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves”, Dr Kuehn added.

Simultaneously to the DES study, a large group of Australian astronomers obtained follow up observations of the kilonova AT2017gfo at optical, infrared and radio wavelengths, using 14 Australian telescopes as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) and other Australian programs.

Their data are consistent with the expected outburst and subsequent merger of two neutron stars, in agreement with the results derived for GW170817 by the LIGO/Virgo collaboration.

“Before this event, it was like we were sitting in an IMAX theatre with blindfolds on. The gravitational wave detectors let us ‘hear’ the movies of black hole collisions, but we couldn’t see anything. This event lifted the blindfolds and, wow, what an amazing show!!”, A/Professor Jeff Cooke, astronomer at Swinburne University who led many of the observations said.

The Australia team also conducted observations at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), that is managed by the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO). Additional archive data from the 6dF survey obtained at the AAO’s 1.2m UK Schmidt Telescope were also used.

“The observations undertaken at the AAT place important constraints on the nature of the environment in which the kilonova occurred”, AAO astronomer Dr Chris Lidman said.

The follow up observations were not scheduled, but the excitement that this event generated in the astronomical community was so large that regular programs were placed on hold.

“Many astronomers dropped any other planned observation and used all the available resources to study this rare event”, said PhD candidate Igor Andreoni (Swinburne University and Australian Astronomical Observatory), first author of the scientific paper that will be published in the science journal “Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia” (PASA).

The study also reveals that the host galaxy has not experienced significant star-formation during the last billion years. However, there is some evidence that indicates that NGC 4993 experienced a collision with a smaller galaxy not long time ago.

The position of the kilonova AT2017gfo, found in the external parts of NGC 4993, may suggest that the binary neutron star could have been part of the smaller galaxy.

Australian astronomers were thrilled to contribute to both the detection and the ongoing observations of the kilonova AT2017gfo, the electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational wave event GW170817.

“We have been waiting and preparing for an event like this, but didn’t think it would happen so soon and in a galaxy that is so near to us. Once we were alerted of the gravitational wave detection, we immediately contacted a dozen telescopes and joined the worldwide effort to study this historic event. It didn’t let us down!”, A/Professor Jeff Cooke said.

“It was crucial to have telescopes placed in every continent, including Australia, to keep this rare event continuously monitored”, PhD candidate Igor Andreoni said.

“To me, this gravitational + electromagnetic wave combined detection is even more important than the initial detection that resulted in the Nobel Prize. This has changed the way the entire astronomical community operates”, AAO Instrument Scientist Dr Kyler Kuehn stated.

The first identification of the electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event is a milestone in the history of modern Astronomy, and opens a new era of multi-messenger astronomy.

More information:

AAO Media Release

AAO Media Release in Spanish / Nota de prensa del AAO en español

LIGO Media Release

DES Media Release

OzGrav Media Release

ESO Media Release

NASA Media Release

Article in The Conversation: “After the alert: radio ‘eyes’ hunt the source of the gravitational waves”, by Tara Murphy and David Kaplan

Article in The Conversation: “At last, we’ve found gravitational waves from a collapsing pair of neutron stars”, by David Blair

Multimedia, videos and animations:

Although there are many videos around there talking about this huge announcement, I particularly like this one by Derek Muller (Veritasium):

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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).

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!

AAT Outreach Exercise: “LMC Little Gems with CACTI”

Today, Thursday 24th November I’m the scheduled support astronomer at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). It is a “2dF+AAOmega service night”, meaning that I’ll be observing “service programs”, that is, science projects that require less than 6 hours in total to be completed, using the 2dF+AAOmega instruments at the 3.9m AAT.

Additionally, I’ve requested additional ~30 minutes to try to use the new CACTI camera to get a new, nice outreach image of an interesting object. As I did last May I’m asking the public to please provide feedback and help us to decide.

What do you want the AAT observes tonight?

For today’s observations I have chosen 4 objects located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC),  that is why I’ve called the experiment “LMC Little Gems using CACTI”.

The chosen 4 objects are these:

1. Stellar cluster + Nebula NGC 1949
2. Globular cluster NGC 2121
3. Supernova remnant NGC 2018
4. Stellar cluster + Nebula NGC 1850

Objects chosen for the "LMC Little Gems with CACTI" Outreach Exercise at the AAT. From top left to bottom right they are: 1. Stellar cluster + Nebula NGC 1949, 2. Globular cluster NGC 2121, 3. SN remnant NGC 2018, 4. Stellar cluster + Nebula NGC 1850. Credit of the images: Digital Sky Survey, except for NGC 1850 (ESO, image obtained using the FORS1 instrument at the VLT.

Objects chosen for the “LMC Little Gems with CACTI” Outreach Exercise at the AAT. From top left to bottom right they are: 1. Stellar cluster + Nebula NGC 1949, 2. Globular cluster NGC 2121, 3. SN remnant NGC 2018, 4. Stellar cluster + Nebula NGC 1850. Credit of the images: Digital Sky Survey, except for the image of NGC 1850, credited to ESO (image obtained using the FORS1 instrument at the VLT).

I chose objects in the LMC because this region of the sky can be observed during all night this time of the year.

In addition, getting these data for outreach purposes will not interfere too much with the scientific observations, as we need to change the configuration of the instrument (the gratings of the AAOmega spectrograph) and, while the night assistant is doing that, I will be taking the data of the object chosen by the public for this outreach exercise.

So, what do you think? What do you want the AAT observes tonight?

Please use your Twitter account and cast your vote following this link.

Assuming the weather is good and we don’t have any technical problems, I should have a new, nice outreach image obtained with CACTI at the AAT by tomorrow, Friday 25th November. Stay tuned!

Supermoons

During the last few days the news are talking about the “Supermoon” happening on Monday 14th November. The reports (some examples here, here and here) say that “it will be the brightest Full Moon in years“. Even we at the Australian Astronomical Observatory have been asked about this “very rare phenomenon“. But how much is true about all of this?

Let’s take a look. First of all we should have clear that the Moon, as any other small body moving around a larger body, has an elliptical orbit.

Diagram explaining the movement of the Moon around the Earth. Not in scale. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez. Moon image: Paco Bellido.

Diagram explaining the movement of the Moon around the Earth following an elliptical orbit and defining the perigee and the apogee. Not in scale. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez. Moon image: Paco Bellido.

Planets also move around the Sun following elliptical orbits, as it was discovered by the great astronomer (and the first real astrophysicist in History, although he also had to work as an astrologer to get a salary) Johannes Kepler at the beginning of the 17th century.

This means that sometimes the Moon is closer to the Earth and sometimes it is farther from the Earth, just depending on where it is located within its orbit. The point on the Moon’s orbit closest to Earth is called the perigee (at an average distance of 362 600 km) and the point farthest away is the apogee (at an average distance of 405 400 km). On average the Moon-Earth distance is about 382 900 kilometers.

Therefore, just because of its distance, the apparent size of the Moon is a bit larger than usual when it is at the perigee, while it seems a bit smaller than usual when the Moon is at the apogee. An image can explain this much better than words:

Comparison of the apparent size of the Moon when it is located at the perigee (left) and when it is at the apogee (right). Credit: Paco Bellido.

Comparison of the apparent size of the Moon when it is located at the perigee (left) and when it is at the apogee (right). Credit: Paco Bellido.

These photos were taken by the Spanish astrophotographer and friend Paco Bellido in 2014 and 2015 from Córdoba (Spain), my natal city, and clearly show the different apparent size that the Moon has at the perigee (left) when compared to where it is at the apogee (right).

What does happen when the full moon coincides with the perigee? Well, that is a supermoon! The next time this will occur is next Tuesday, 15th November, 12:52am Sydney time. In that moment the Moon will be ~13% larger and ~30% brighter than a full moon happening in the apogee (a “micromoon“). From Sydney (and Australia) the best moment to see it will be on the evening of Monday 14th November, and actually many people are planning to enjoy watching the “supermoon” appearing over the Pacific Ocean at the dusk from Sydney’s famous beaches and clifts.

Regarding this, it is important to say that our brain tricks us when observing the Moon or the Sun close to the horizon: they do appear to be larger than they do higher up in the sky. This is called the Moon illusion, some studies suggest that the perception is that the Moon is almost 3 times larger near the horizon that when located near the zenith.

Supermoon over Espejo's Castle (Córdoba, Spain) on 20th March 2011. This photo, taken by Paco Bellido, has been widely used in many places since then. Now people still try to get it too with their cameras... More info (in Spanish) in "El beso en la luna". Credit: Paco Bellido.

Supermoon over Espejo’s Castle (Córdoba, Spain) on 20th March 2011. This photo, taken by Paco Bellido, has been widely used in many places since then. Now people still try to reproduce this photo with their cameras when full moon… More info (in Spanish) in Paco’s blog “El beso en la luna“. Credit: Paco Bellido.

However, I must insist that the term “supermoon” does not come from Astronomy but from the pseudoscience of astrology. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why many people are talking about this. The term “supermoon” was coined by the US astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979, who defined it as ‘a New or a Full Moon that occurs when the Moon is at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in its orbit’.

Nolle, who associated supermoons to catastrophes without any scientific evidence that this was true, didn’t know that we astronomers already had a scientific term to describe this alignment: the perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. The word “syzygy” means a perfect alignment between three bodies, that are in a perfect straight line. The most famous examples of syzygies are the lunar and solar eclipses, when the alignment of the Sun, Earth and Moon happens on the lunar nodes (the two points where the plane of the orbit of the Moon around the Earth and the plane of orbit of the Earth around the Sun intercept).

As other “expressions”, such as “blood moon” (a lunar eclipse) or “blue moon” (the second full moon within the same calendar month), the term “supermoon” has become very popular lately, perhaps also because all the action in social media. But these definitions are not official astronomical terms. Indeed, a “blue moon” does not have a proper astronomical definition, and may happen or not depending on the time zone the observer is located.

In any case all the excitement about the supermoon happening on Tuesday 15th (for us in Sydney, but for the majority of the world on Monday 14th) it that the exact moment of the full moon (12:52 am Sydney time) is really close to the perigee, happening at a distance of only 356 536 km from us. The supermoon was not that close since 26th January 1948, when it was at 356 460 km, and it will not be that close till 26 November 2034, when it happens at 356 472 km.

Check the numbers, please. 356 532 km, 356 460 km, 356 472 km… they all just differ in tens of kilometers! That is only a difference of a 0.02% ! Even considering the distances happening on other supermoons (I forgot to say we typically have 2-3 supermoons per year, last 17th October and next 13 Dec will be also supermoons), the differences are just within around 500 km, what is translated into a difference of only 0.14%.

Illustration: Supermoons: can you see what is the largest? Eight supermoons between 2015 and 2018, images have been scaled to the apparent size of the Moon considering its distance from Sydney when the full moon is happening. The dates are times indicated are the moment of the Full Moon. The sizes and distances are computed assuming the observer is located in Sydney, Australia. This is an illustration, not real photos taken from Sydney (I can't travel to the future!). The original Moon image is the photo of the "micromoon" that Spanish astrophotographer Paco Pellido took on 5 March 2015 from Córdoba, Spain, which is the image I use in this post. An image without labels can be found here. The high resolution image is available here. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez, Moon Photo Credit: Paco Bellido.

Illustration: Supermoons: can you see what is the largest? Eight supermoons between 2015 and 2018, images have been scaled to the apparent size of the Moon considering its distance from Sydney when the full moon is happening. The dates are times indicated are the moment of the Full Moon. The sizes and distances are computed assuming the observer is located in Sydney, Australia.
This is an illustration, not real photos taken from Sydney (I can’t travel to the future!). The original Moon image is the photo of the “micromoon” that Spanish astrophotographer Paco Pellido took on 5 March 2015 from Córdoba, Spain, which is the image I use in this post. An image without labels can be found here. The high resolution image is available here. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez, Moon Photo Credit: Paco Bellido.

Let me say it again: the difference of the distance between the Earth and the Moon during a “supermoon”, with these happening typically 2-3 times per year (for full moon, 4-5 times per year in total including new moon), is only the 0.14%. Do you think you’ll be able to notice this with your naked eye?

However, giving numbers (talking quantitatively) the media can say “it is a rare event, the closest supermoon in almost 70 years“. But in practice you’ll not notice a thing. It will be a supermoon essentially similar to all of those we have every year.

Distance from the observer to the Moon depending on when rising or setting (top) or when it is near the zenith (bottom). Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez. Moon image: Paco Bellido.

Distance from the observer to the Moon depending on when rising or setting (top) or when it is near the zenith (bottom). Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez. Moon image: Paco Bellido.

There is more. Besides the lunar illusion, the moon is actually a bit further away from us when it is rising or setting than when it is near the zenith, as the image above clearly shows. The difference on the distance between the observer and the Moon may vary between few thousand an twelve thousand kilometers. This is called “diurnal effect” as it is, indeed,  larger than the difference of few hundreds of kilometers found for supermoons. In both cases, I insist, the differences on the apparent size of the Moon can’t be noted with the naked eye.

Here again it is important to have a bit of critical thought about what all of this means. In any case this “supermoon” is a great excuse to forget about our domestic problems, look at the sky and be amazed by all the beautiful things that are hiding among the stars.

More info:

PS: Ah, yes, a curiosity:  it is me who will be observing at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) the night of Monday 14th till Tuesday 15th… That is, quantitatively talking this will be the worst night since the AAT was built to be observing there…

Update 17 November:

I’ve included the illustration comparing the size of the Moon for 8 supermoons, as seen from Sydney. This started as a game in social media on Monday. I also prepared this illustration showing the sizes of the 12 full moons in 2016, as seen from Sydney. Do you identify the micromoon and the 3 supermoons?

Illustration: Full Moons in 2016 as seen from Sydney. All the full moons in 2016, scaled in size following the Moon's apparent size as seen from Sydney. The micromoon corresponds to 22nd Apr (top right) and the thre supermoons are 16 Oct, 14 Nov (15 Nov Sydney time) and 14 Dec. This is an illustration, not real photos taken from Sydney (I can't travel to the future!). The original Moon image is the photo of the "micromoon" that Spanish astrophotographer Paco Pellido took on 5 March 2015 from Córdoba, Spain, which is the image I use in this post. The image without labels is here. A high resolution image is available in my Flickr. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez. Moon photo credit: Paco Bellido.

Illustration: Full Moons in 2016 as seen from Sydney. All the full moons in 2016, scaled in size following the Moon’s apparent size as seen from Sydney. The micromoon corresponds to 22nd Apr (top right) and the thre supermoons are 16 Oct, 14 Nov (15 Nov Sydney time) and 14 Dec. This is an illustration, not real photos taken from Sydney (I can’t travel to the future!). The original Moon image is the photo of the “micromoon” that Spanish astrophotographer Paco Pellido took on 5 March 2015 from Córdoba, Spain, which is the image I use in this post. The image without labels is here. A high resolution image is available in my Flickr. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez. Moon photo credit: Paco Bellido.

Podcast in FBI radio: The Milky Way is missing

Some few months ago I was interviewed by Zacha Rosen in the FBi’s Not What You Think radio show. I was talking about what a galaxy is, the feeling of seeing the center of the Milky Way close to the zenith for the first time, and the problem of the light pollution.

Radio interview in FBI Sydney

The show was broadcasted on FBI 94.5 FM at 10:30am Saturday October 22nd, Sydney time. It is also available as podcast from the Not What You Think webpage or using iTunes.

You can also listen to the 18 minutes interview here:

 

Thanks Zacha for this wonderful experience I hope to repeat in the future!