Tag Archives: Amateur Astronomy

A year since the “Multiwavelength Dissection of Galaxies” Conference

I cannot believe a FULL YEAR has already gone since the “Multiwavelength Dissection of Galaxies” Conference happened. And I have never found the time to just describe how much work this was for me, and at the success of this meeting. At least let me share today the article I wrote for “The Observer”, the AAO Newsletter.

 
The Southern Cross Astrophysics Conferences, which are jointly supported by the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) and the CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS), are held annually around Australia with the aim of attracting international experts with wide ranging skills to discuss a particular astrophysical topic. The conference “Multiwavelength dissection of galaxies”, which was held at the Crown Plaza Hotel in  Coogee Beach, Sydney between 24th – 29th May 2015, was the 8th of the Southern Cross Conference Series. This Conference focused on galaxy evolution, combining resolved optical/near-infrared integral field spectroscopy data with other multiwavelength properties (from X-ray to radio) of nearby galaxies plus giving the view of what is known in our Milky Way.

Poster of the Conference "Multiwavelength Dissection of Galaxies".

Poster of the Conference “Multiwavelength Dissection of Galaxies”.

Indeed, the number of studies of galaxies using integral field spectroscopy (IFS) is rapidly increasing as a consequence of surveys such as ATLAS-3D, CALIFA, SAMI (that is conducted at the AAT), or MANGA. IFS techniques allow to spatially resolve internal properties of galaxies with unprecedented detail, and therefore they are providing key clues for understanding the structural components of galaxies, their star-formation activity, kinematics, stellar populations, metal distribution, and nuclear activity, as well as how galaxies evolve with time. Nevertheless, for a complete picture of how galaxies work it is crucial to use other multi-wavelength results, targeting galaxies in X-ray, ultraviolet, infrared, and radio frequencies. In particular, HI radio-surveys such as HIPASS, LVHIS, THINGS, Little-THINGS, ALFALFA, HALOGAS or WALLABY are essential to trace the neutral gas content of galaxies, as the 21 cm HI radio data provide key information about how the cold gas in converted into stars and galaxy dynamics. At the same time we are notably increasing our knowledge of the structure and composition of the Milky Way. This is possible thanks to the combination of very detailed observations of individual stars (such those coming from the RAVE survey conducted at the 1.2m UKST or the on-going GALAH survey at the AAT using the new high-resolution HERMES spectrograph), detailed analyses of Galactic nebulae, large field studies of the interstellar medium, and surveys searching for the diffuse gas with and around our Galaxy.

Hence, the aim of the “Multiwavelength dissection of galaxies” Conference was to bring together international experts in both Galactic and extragalactic astronomy to discuss the different components of a galaxy: stars, gas, dust, and dark matter, and where these components are found within and around galaxies, from both an observational (from radio to X-rays, but with a fundamental optical IFS component) and a theoretical point of view (from the most recent simulations of galaxy assembly to models reproducing the chemical evolution of galaxies), with the final objective of getting a better understanding on the processes that rule the evolution of the galaxies.

Conference Photo with the majority of the participants to the “Multiwavelength Dissection of Galaxies” meeting, 24th - 29th  May 2015. The background is an image of the Southern sky showing the Southern Cross and the Pointers. Credit: Conference Photo: Andy Green (AAO), Background image & composition: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

Conference Photo with the majority of the participants to the “Multiwavelength Dissection of Galaxies” meeting, 24th – 29th May 2015. The background is an image of the Southern sky showing the Southern Cross and the Pointers. Credit: Conference Photo: Andy Green (AAO), Background image & composition: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

Around 120 astronomers all around the globe attended to this Conference. In five days we had 94 talks, including 27 invited talks and a Summary talk, and 26 poster contributions. Highlight invited talks were given by Rosemary Wyse (The Structure of the Milky Way), Naomi McClure-Griffiths (Neutral gas in and around the Milky Way), Baerbel Koribalski (Diffuse gas in and around galaxies), Christy Tremonti (Measuring Gas Accretion and Outflow Signatures with MaNGA), César Esteban (Ionized gas in the Milky Way), Evan Skillman (The Chemical Properties of the ISM of Nearby Galaxies), Sarah Martell (Introduction to the GALAH Survey), Geraint Lewis (Galactic Archeology in the Local Group), Alessandro Boselli (The dust emission properties of nearby galaxies after Herschel), Jakob Walcher (News about the interstellar medium in galaxies from the CALIFA survey), Stas Shabala (Resolving the mysteries of AGN feedback:radio jets, galaxies and citizen science), Joss Bland-Hawthorn (Near Field Cosmology), Martin Asplund (The Gaia-ESO survey), Richard Bower (The EAGLE Universe), Lisa Kewley (SAMI Science) and Molly Peeples (A Multiwavelength View of the Circumgalactic Medium).

We also organised a “Poster Contest”: participants were asked to vote for their 2 favourite posters, and they got a short (10 minutes) talk during the last session of the Conference. The winners were two PhD students: Christina Baldwin (Macquarie University, Australia, with the poster “Early-Type Galaxy Stellar Populations in the Near-Infrared”) and Manuel Emilio Moreno-Raya (Universidad Complutense Madrid and CIEMAT, Spain, with the poster “Dependence of SNe Ia absolute magnitudes on the host galaxies elemental gas-phase abundances”).

We have compiled all scientific presentations at the Conference Webpage:

http://www.aao.gov.au/conference/multiwavelength-dissection-of-galaxies

Furthermore, participants were very active in Twitter, that followed the hashtag of the Conference #MDGal15, allowing a wider diffusion of the main results speakers were presenting. We have also compiled all tweets in a Storify for each day, they are available in our website.

Besides the scientific talks, participants enjoyed the social events we organised for the Conference, including a Welcome Cocktail Cruise on Sunday 24th May (delegates enjoyed not only the great views of Sydney Harbour but also a starry sky and the famous ViVID Lights Sydney Festival), a Wine Tasting event on Tuesday 26th, an outdoors barbecue and a visit to Sydney Observatory and Stargazing on Wednesday 27th May, and the Conference Dinner on Thursday 28th May, which was held at the Spanish restaurant “Postales” in famous Martin Place, Sydney. Furthermore, the AAO organised the Public Event “The Story of Light: The Astronomer’s Perspective” on Sunday 24th May at the Powerhouse Museum (Sydney). This event, which was fully booked, was included as part of the ViVID Festival and connected the International Year of Light 2015 with our Conference.

Overall, we considered it was a great Conference and some important and controversial research topics were actually discussed during those five days, generating new ideas and projects, and many new collaborations between participants (even between Galactic and extragalactic astronomers) started there.

Finally, I would like to thank the impeccable organisation of the staff at Crown Plaza Hotel, as everything worked very smoothly and we didn’t have any problems at all during our Conference. In particular, coffee breaks and lunches were very well attended, and we really enjoyed a great quality food. Of course, I also must thank all the members of the LOC and the SOC committees for their invaluable help organising this Conference. In particular, I would like to thank Helen Woods (AAO) for her enormous effort and Andrew Hopkins and AAO’s Director, Warrick Couch, for their strong support to this meeting.

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“Astronomía para Principiantes”, my new collaboration with radio SBS Australia

Last December I was contacted by journalists from radio SBS Australia in Spanish to be interviewed about my work and my life as a Spanish astronomer in Australia. The interview was prepared by Anna Sagristà, who included it in the section “Latinos en Australia” (Latins in Australia) and released on Sunday 13th December in radio SBS2 97.7 FM. Here is the podcast, in case you want to practice your Spanish:

http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/api/radio/player/podcast/441762?node=381058

Thanks to this interview I had the chance to talk to them about Astronomy and how scientific research in astronomy works. They were indeed really interested about listening to me talking about stars, planets, galaxies and more, and they liked the way I was answering their questions. Just a couple of days after the interview they phoned me again to talk about a new exoplanets discovery plus the results of the IAU NameExoWorlds contest (yes, we did it! “Estrella Cervantes” is already on the skies!). You can listen to this interview, released on 17th December 2015, here:

http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/api/radio/player/podcast/442632?node=381786

In early 2016 they asked me to start a collaboration with them. And this way the section “Astronomía para Principiantes” (Astronomy for Beginners) in radio SBS Australia in Spanish was born. This is just a ~monthly 6-8 minutes section talking about an interesting astronomy topic or some recent news about Astronomy. The first podcast was released on Sunday 8th February, we talked about the “predicted IX Planet in the outer parts of the Solar System”. You can listen to it here:

http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/api/radio/player/podcast/479670?node=408532

Screenshot SBS Australia in Spanish

We still have to work a bit to get it polished, but I’m really happy and excited about this new adventure in Science Communication in Australia.

Additionally last Friday I was also interviewed, of course, about the first observation of gravitational waves, detected by the LIGO experiment in September 2015, but announced in a very expected press conference last Thursday 11th February. The podcast of this interview, which was prepared by Marcia de los Santos, can be found in this podcast:

http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/api/radio/player/podcast/482376?node=410434

So if you want to practice your Spanish and at the same time know a bit more about Astronomy, you’ll have a chance to listen to me in radio SBS Australia en Español FM 97.7 every month in “Astronomía para Principiantes”. This will be at around 1:15pm on Sundays, but I’ll announce exactly when these are happening via Twitter.

Finally I want to thank journalists at radio SBS Australia in Spanish, and in particular to Anna Sagristà, for the opportunity they are providing me to communicate astronomy to the general public in Australia.

 

The oldest stars of the Galaxy

DP ENGLISH: This story belongs to the series “Double Post” which indicates posts that have been written both in English in The Lined Wolf and in Spanish in El Lobo Rayado.

DP ESPAÑOL: Esta historia entra en la categoría “Doble Post” donde indico artículos que han sido escritos tanto en español en El Lobo Rayado como en inglés en The Lined Wolf.

Last month the prestigious journal Nature published a letter led by PhD student (and friend) Louise Howes (@Lousie, ANU/RSAA, Australia). This scientific paper, with title Extremely metal-poor stars from the cosmic dawn in the bulge of the Milky Way, uses data from the 1.2m Skymapper Telescope, the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (both at Siding Spring Observatory, NSW, Australia) and the 6.5m Magellan Clay telescope (Las Campanas Observatory, Chile) to study very old stars in the Milky Way bulge.

Image of the Galactic centre obtained using Skymapper data. Credit: Chris Owen (ANU/RSAA).

Image of the Galactic centre obtained using Skymapper data. Credit: Chris Owen (ANU/RSAA).

The aim of the research was to look for signatures of really old stars: stars that old that perhaps the Milky Was was not even born when they were created! How do astronomers know that? Just studying the chemical composition of the stars via deep spectral analysis. Only hydrogen and helium (and just a bit of litium) were formed in the Big Bang: the rest of elements have been created or inside the stars (oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, iron) or because of processes happening to the stars (e.g., supernova explosions, that create heavy elements such as gold, silver, copper or uranium). As time goes by and new generations of stars are born, the amount of metals (for astronomers, metals are all elements which are not hydrogen and helium) increases. Therefore if we discover a star with very few amount of metals, we will quite sure we are observing a very old object.

Loiuse has been using the 2dF instrument at the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the MIKE spectrograph at the Magellan Clay Telescope (Chile) to get deep, high-resolution spectra of candidate old stars in the Galactic bulge. The candidate stars were identified using optical images provided by the 1.2m Skymapper Telescope. With these observations, Louise Howes and collaborators have detected 23 stars that are extremely metal-poor. These stars have surprisingly low levels of carbon, iron and other heavy elements. Indeed, they report the discovery of a star that has an abundance of iron which is 10,000 times lower than that found in the Sun! These stars were formed at redshift greater than 15, that is, we are observing in our own Milky Way stars that were formed just ~300 million years after the Big Bang!

On top of that, the study suggests that these first stars didn’t explode as normal supernova but as hypernova: poorly understood explosions of probably rapidly rotating stars producing 10 times as much energy as normal supernovae. The high-resolution spectroscopic data have been also used to study the kinematics of these very old stars, that are found on tight orbits around the Galactic centre rather that being halo stars passing through the bulge. This is also characteristic of stars that were formed at redshifts greater than 15.

Short 3 minutes video discussing the results found in this study. Credit: ANU.

I’m happy to say here that I’ve been the support astronomer for many of her nights at the AAT the last couple of years. And I’m extremely happy to see that, even because of the bad weather we have had sometimes, they managed to get these observations published in Nature! Well done, Louise!

More details:

Scientific paper in Nature: Howes et al. 2015, Extremely metal-poor stars from the cosmic dawn in the bulge of the Milky Way, 11 November 2015.

Scientific paper in arXiv

ANU Press Release

Bright meteor over the AAT

This week I’m back at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT, Siding Spring Observatory) as support astronomer. As the same time I’m helping visitors astronomer to get the best data using the 2dF instrument, I’m taking time-lapse sequences of the night sky using 2 CANON EOS 5D Mark III cameras. This afternoon, when checking the “preliminary” sequences of the previous night, I discovered a bright meteor in one of the frames. I was excited because at the beginning I thought it was a Leonid, but I checked and it seems to be a sporadic meteor or, perhaps, a meteor from the South Taurids shower.


The circumpolar Southern Sky, with the Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross and the Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) over the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), at Siding Spring Observatory (NSW, Australia). A bright meteor crosses the sky. Although it could have been a meteor of the Leonids meteor shower, the radiant (point in the sky from where the meteors of a meteor shower come from) was not in the sky. However it could be a meteor from the South Taurids shower. Photo taken at 2am AEST (UT+11) of the 17 Nov 2015 with a CANON EOS5D using a 16 mm lens at f2.8, 3200 ISO, 30 seconds exposure. Click here to get a higher resolution image. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ).

A reddish-greenish sky glow is also seen in the image. This glow has been also observed from the observatories in Chile as is consequence of chemical reactions involving oxygen (green colours, usually forming ozone) and nitrogen (red colours) molecules in our atmosphere. These chemical reactions are induced by ultraviolet emission from the Sun, which is much more intense when the solar cycle is in maximum, as it has been in the last few years.

Timelapse of World Record Stargazing 2015

On Friday 21st August 2015, during the Australian National Science Week, the AAO and Centennial Parklands organized a public stargazing event in Centennial Park in Sydney. This event was part of an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the “Most People Stargazing across Multiples sites in a Country,” organized by Mt Stromlo Observatory, RSAA/ANU, Canberra.

I helped in the organization of the event jointly organized by the Australian Astronomical Observatory and Centennial Parklands at Centennial Park. During a 10 minute period between 8:30 and 8:40 pm, 400 participants used small telescopes and binoculars to look at various objects in the night sky. I also prepared this time-lapse video, which compiles 2500 photos taken between 6pm and 9:30pm, shows people assembling in the field to listen to presentations by Prof. Fred Watson and Dr. Amanda Bauer before the official stargazing event began. A timeline of events are included in the video.

Time-lapse video of the Stargazing event jointly organized by the Australian Astronomical Observatory and Centennial Parklands at Centennial Park with the aim of break the Guinness World Record for the “Most People Stargazing across Multiples sites in a Country. The video compiles 2500 photos taken every 5 seconds between 6pm and 9:30pm. A Full HD version of the video is available in the AAO YouTube Channel.Credit of the video: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ); Credit of the music: “Space Guardians”, by Fran Soto, Epic Soul Factory.

In total, 37 sites across Australia participated in achieving the Guinness Record World, including 7960 individual stargazers. The Guinness World Record for the “Most People Stargazing across Multiples sites in a Country” was confirmed on 15th October 2015. Congratulations to all involved!

More info: AAO Webpage: World Record Stargazing 2015

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

Light and Astrophysics: My post for the IYL15 blog

DP ENGLISH: This story belongs to the series “Double Post” which indicates posts that have been written both in English in The Lined Wolf and in Spanish in El Lobo Rayado.

DP ESPAÑOL: Esta historia entra en la categoría “Doble Post” donde indico artículos que han sido escritos tanto en español en El Lobo Rayado como en inglés en The Lined Wolf.

Post originally published on 17th March 2015 in the International Year of Astronomy 2015 (IYL15) blog with the title Light and Astrophysics. The Spanish version of this article was published in Naukas.com.

Unlike the rest of sciences, Astrophysics is not based on carefully experiments designed in a laboratory but in the direct observation of the Universe. Astrophysicists get their data via the analysis of the light we receive from the Cosmos. For achieving this we use extremely sensitive instruments that collect the light emitted by planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies. Certainly, there are some alternative ways to study the Universe besides using the light, as analyzing meteorites or moon rocks, detecting energetic particles such as cosmic rays and neutrinos, or perhaps even using gravitational waves if they actually exist. But the main tool astrophysicists have today to investigate the Cosmos is the study of the radiation we receive from the outer space. Light is the key piece of the Astrophysics we make today.

As the aim is to observe the very faint light coming from objects located even billions of light years away, astronomical observatories are built in relatively isolated places, which are typically located high over the sea level. To observe the Universe, we astrophysicists need dark skies that are not affected by the nasty light pollution created by our society. The inadequate use of the artificial light emitted by streetlight of the cities induces an increasing of the brightness of the night sky. This happens as a consequence of the reflection and diffusion of the artificial light in the gases and particles of dust of the atmosphere. Besides the huge economic waste that it means, light pollution also has a very negative impact on the ecosystem, increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and drastically diminishes the visibility of the celestial bodies. Unfortunately the light pollution is the reason that a large part of the mankind cannot enjoy a dark starry sky. How is the firmament when we observe it from a dark place? This time-lapse video shows as an example the sky over Siding Spring Observatory (Australia), where the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), managed by the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) and where I work, is located. The darkness of the sky in this observatory allows us to clearly see with our own eyes the Milky Way (the diffuse band of stars that crosses the sky) and many other celestial bodies such as the Magellanic Clouds, the Orion and Carina nebulae, or the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.


Movie: Time-lapse video “The Sky over the Siding Spring Observatory”. More information about this video in this post in the blog. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ).

On the other hand, after traveling during hundreds, millions, or billions of years throughout the deep space, the information codified in the light that reaches us is disrupted by the atmosphere of the Earth in the last millionth of a second of its trip. Hence professional telescopes are built on the top of the mountains, where the atmosphere is more stable than a sea level. Even though, many times this is not enough: our atmosphere distorts the light coming from space and prevents the identification of objects located very close in the sky. New techniques have been developed for compensating the effect of the atmosphere in the quality of the light we receive from the Cosmos. In particular, the adaptive optics technique induces in real time slight modifications to the shape of the primary mirror of the telescope, and therefore they counteract the distortion created by the atmosphere. In any case, astrophysicists need to direct the light received by the telescope to a detector, which transforms light energy into electric energy. This has been the purpose of the CCD (Charge-Couple Device) chips, firstly used by astronomers, and later popularized in smartphones and digital cameras. Very sophisticated optical systems are built to direct the light from the telescope to the detectors. Some of the systems created to manipulate our collection and processing of light are based on optical fibres. This new technology has created the branch of Astrophotonic. Indeed, the AAO, together with the University of Sydney and Macquarie University (Australia), are pioneers in the field of Astrophotonic. The next video shows how the light from the Cosmos is studied at the AAT. First it is collected using the primary mirror of the telescope, which has a diameter of 4 meters, and then it is sent using optical fibres to a dark room where the AAOmega spectrograph is located. This spectrograph, which is a series of special optics, separates the light into its rainbow spectrum, in a similar way a prism separates white light into a rainbow. The separated light is later focussed onto the CCD detector.


Movie: Rainbow Fingerprints, showing how the light of distant galaxies in collected by the Anglo-Australian Telescope and directed to the AAOmega spectrograph using optical fibres. More information: at the AAO webpages. Credit: Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), Movie produced by Amanda Bauer (AAO).

Specifically, this video shows how astrophysicists analyse the light coming from distant galaxies to understand their nature and properties. In particular, the video reveals the final science quality spectra for two different types of galaxies, one spiral (top panel) and one elliptical (bottom panel), using actual data obtained with the AAT and the AAOmega spectrograph. The information codified in the rainbow fingerprint identifies each galaxy unambiguously: distance, star formation history, chemical composition, age, physical properties as the temperature or the density of the diffuse gas, and many more. All this information has been captured within a single ray of light that has travelled hundred of millions of years to reach us. Similarly, the properties of stars (luminosity, mass, temperature, chemical composition, kinematics, …), nebulae, and any other celestial body (planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, …) are analyzed through its light. And studying tiny changes in the amount of light we receive from nearby stars we are now finding thousands of exoplanets in the Milky Way.

The “rainbow fingerprints” video shown before includes only the observations of two galaxies, but actually the AAT is able to observe around 350 objects at the same time. This is achieved using the 2dF robot, which can configure 400 optical fibres within a circular field of view with a diameter of 4 full moons. The majority of the optical fibres are allocated to observe galaxies (or stars), but some few optical fibres are used to get an accurate guiding of the telescope or to obtain important calibration data. With this technology the AAT is a survey machine, and indeed it is a pioneer of galaxy surveys. Around 1/3 of all the galaxy distances known today have been obtained using the AAT. The most recent galaxy survey completed at the AAT is the “Galaxy And Mass Assembly” (GAMA) survey, that has collected the light of more than 300 thousand galaxies located in some particular areas of the sky. The next movie shows the 3D distribution of galaxies in one of the sky areas observed by GAMA. This simulated fly through shows the real positions and images of the galaxies that have been mapped by GAMA. Distances are to scale, but the galaxy images have been enlarged for a viewing pleasure.


Movie: “Fly through of the GAMA Galaxy Catalogue”, showing a detailed map of the Universe where galaxies are in 3D. More information in the Vimeo webpage of the video. Crédito: Made by Will Parr, Dr. Mark Swinbank and Dr. Peder Norberg (Durham University) using data from the SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey) and the GAMA (Galaxy And Mass Assembly) surveys.

However, to really understand what happens in the Universe, astrophysicists use not only the light that our eyes can see (the optical range) but all the other “lights” that make up the electromagnetic spectrum, from the very energetic gamma rays to the radio waves. The light codified in the radio waves is studied using radiotelescopes, many of them located in the surface of the Earth. The study of the light in radio frequencies allows us to detect the diffuse, cold gas existing in and around galaxies, the coldest regions of the interstellar medium and where the stars are formed, and energetic phenomena associated to galaxy nuclei hosting an active super-massive black hole in its centre. Many technological achievements, including the invention of the Wi-Fi, come from Radioastronomy. The study of the infrared, ultraviolet, X ray and gamma ray lights must be done using space telescopes, as the atmosphere of the Earth completely blocks these kinds of radiation. As an example, the next image shows how the nearby spiral galaxy M 101 is seen when we use all the lights of the electromagnetic spectrum. Light in X rays traces the most violent phenomena in the galaxy, which are regions associated to supernova remnants and black holes. The ultraviolet (UV) light marks where the youngest stars (those born less than 100 million years ago) are located. Optical (R band) and near-infrared (H band) lights indicate where the sun-like and the old stars are found. The emission coming from ionized hydrogen (H-alpha) reveals the star-forming regions, that is, the nebulae, in M 101. Mid-infrared (MIR) light comes from the thermal emission of the dust, which has been heated up by the young stars. Finally, the image in radio light (neutral atomic hydrogen, HI, at 21 cm) maps the diffuse, cold, gas in the galaxy.

Imagen: Mosaic showing six different views of the galaxy M 101, each one using a different wavelength. Images credit: X ray data (Chandra): NASA/CXC/JHU/K.Kuntz et al,; UV data(GALEX): Gil de Paz et al. 2007, ApJS, 173, 185; R and Hα data (KPNO): Hoopes et al. 2001, ApJ, 559, 878; Near-Infrared data (2MASS): Jarrett et al. 2003, AJ, 125, 525, 8 microns data (Spitzer): Dale et al. 2009, ApJ, 703, 517; 21cm HI data (VLA): Walter et al. 2008, AJ, 136, 2563, ”The H I Nearby Galaxy Survey”. Credit of the composition: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ).

In any case, today Astrophysics does not only use observations of the light we collect from the Cosmos, but also includes a prominent theoretical framework. “Experiments” in Astrophysics are somewhat performed using computer simulations, where the laws of Physics, together with some initial conditions, are taken into account. When the computer runs, the simulated system evolves and from there general or particular trends are obtained. These predictions must be later compared with the real data obtained using telescopes. Just to name some few cases, stellar interiors, supernova explosions, and galaxy evolution are modeled through careful and sometimes expensive computer simulations. As an example, the next movie shows a cosmological simulation that follows the development of a spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way from shortly after the Big Bang to the present time. This computer simulation, that required about 1 million CPU hours to be completed, assumes that the Universe is dominated by dark energy and dark matter. The simulation distinguishes old stars (red colour), young stars (blue colour) and the diffuse gas available to form new stars (pale blue), which is the gas we observe using radiotelescopes. This kind of cosmological simulations are later compared with observations obtained using professional telescopes to progress in our understanding of the Cosmos.

Movie: Computer simulation showing the evolution of a spiral galaxy over about 13.5 billion years, from shortly after the Big Bang to the present time. Colors indicate old stars (red), young stars (white and bright blue) and the distribution of gas density (pale blue); the view is 300,000 light-years across. The simulation ran on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and required about 1 million CPU hours. It assumes a universe dominated by dark energy and dark matter. More information about this animation in this NASA website. Credit: F. Governato and T. Quinn (Univ. of Washington), A. Brooks (Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison), and J. Wadsley (McMaster Univ.).

In summary, thanks to the analysis of the light we know where stars, galaxies, and all the other celestial bodies are, what are they made of, how do the move, and more. Actually, much of the research that we astrophysicists do today combines observing and analyzing light coming from very different spectral ranges, X rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio waves. In many cases, we are using techniques that have been known for only few decades and that are still waiting to be fully exploited. The detailed study of the light coming from the Cosmos will provide new important astronomical discoveries in the nearby future and, at the same time, will impulse new technologies; many of them will be applied in medicine and communications. The light techniques we are developing for Astrophysics will have a direct application to our everyday life and will improve the welfare state of our society, besides deepens the understanding of the vast Universe we all live in.