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    Here’s the James Webb telescope’s first direct image of an exoplanet

    This is the first picture of an exoplanet from the James Webb Space Telescope.

    “We’re actually measuring photons from the atmosphere of the planet itself,” says astronomer Sasha Hinkley of the University of Exeter in England. Seeing those particles of light, “to me, that’s very exciting.”

    The planet is about seven times the mass of Jupiter and lies more than 100 times farther from its star than Earth sits from the sun, direct observations of exoplanet HIP 65426 b show. It’s also young, about 10 million or 20 million years old, compared with the more than 4-billion-year-old Earth, Hinkley and colleagues report in a study submitted August 31 at arXiv.org.

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    Those three features — size, distance and youth — made HIP 65426 b relatively easy to see, and so a good planet to test JWST’s observing abilities. And the telescope has once again surpassed astronomers’ expectations (SN: 7/11/22).

    “We’ve demonstrated really how powerful JWST is as an instrument for the direct imaging of exoplanets,” says exoplanet astronomer and coauthor Aarynn Carter of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

    Astronomers have found more than 5,000 planets orbiting other stars (SN: 3/22/22). But almost all of those planets were detected indirectly, either by the planets tugging on the stars with their gravity or blocking starlight as they cross between the star and a telescope’s view.

    To see a planet directly, astronomers have to block out the light from its star and let the planet’s own light shine, a tricky process. It’s been done before, but for only about 20 planets total (SN: 11/13/08; SN: 3/14/13; SN: 7/22/20).

    “In every area of exoplanet discovery, nature has been very generous,” says MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager, who was not involved in the JWST discovery. “This is the one area where nature didn’t really come through.”

    In 2017, astronomers discovered HIP 65426 b and took a direct image of it using an instrument on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. But because that telescope is on the ground, it can’t see all the light coming from the exoplanet. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of the planet’s infrared wavelengths — exactly the wavelengths JWST excels at observing. The space telescope observed the planet on July 17 and July 30, capturing its glow in four different infrared wavelengths.

    “These are wavelengths of light that we’ve never ever seen exoplanets in before,” Hinkley says. “I’ve literally been waiting for this day for six years. It feels amazing.”

    Pictures in these wavelengths will help reveal how planets formed and what their atmospheres are made of.

    “Direct imaging is our future,” Seager says. “It’s amazing to see the Webb performing so well.”

    While the team has not yet studied the atmosphere of HIP 65426 b in detail, it did report the first spectrum — a measurement of light in a range of wavelengths — of an object orbiting a different star. The spectrum allows a deeper look into the object’s chemistry and atmosphere, astronomer Brittany Miles of UC Santa Cruz and colleagues reported September 1 at arXiv.org.

    That object is called VHS 1256 b. It’s as heavy as 20 Jupiters, so it may be more like a transition object between a planet and a star, called a brown dwarf, than a giant planet. JWST found evidence that the amounts of carbon monoxide and methane in the atmosphere of the orb are out of equilibrium. That means the atmosphere is getting mixed up, with winds or currents pulling molecules from lower depths to its top and vice versa. The telescope also saw signs of sand clouds, a common feature in brown dwarf atmospheres (SN: 7/8/22).

    “This is probably a violent and turbulent atmosphere that is filled with clouds,” Hinkley says.

    HIP 65426 b and VHS 1256 b are unlike anything we see in our solar system. They’re more than three times the distance of Uranus from their stars, which suggests they formed in a totally different way from more familiar planets. In future work, astronomers hope to use JWST to image smaller planets that sit closer to their stars.

    “What we’d like to do is get down to study Earths, wouldn’t we? We’d really like to get that first image of an Earth orbiting another star,” Hinkley says. That’s probably out of JWST’s reach — Earth-sized planets are still too small see. But a Saturn? That may be something JWST could focus its sights on.  More

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    The James Webb telescope spotted CO2 in an exoplanet’s atmosphere

    The James Webb Space Telescope has gotten the first sniff of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet in another solar system.

    “It’s incontrovertible. It’s there. It’s definitely there,” says planetary scientist and study coauthor Peter Gao of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “There have been hints of carbon dioxide in previous observations, but never confirmed to such an extent.”

    The finding, submitted to arXiv.org on August 24, marks the first detailed scientific result published from the new telescope. It also points the way to finding the same greenhouse gas in the atmospheres of smaller, rockier planets that are more like Earth.

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    The planet, dubbed WASP-39b, is huge and puffy. It’s a bit wider than Jupiter and about as massive as Saturn. And it orbits its star every four Earth days, making it scorching hot. Those features make it a terrible place to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life (SN: 4/19/16). But that combination of puffy atmosphere and frequent passes in front of its star makes it easy to observe, a perfect planet to put the new telescope through its paces.

    James Webb, or JWST, launched in December 2021 and released its first images in July 2022 (SN: 7/11/22). For about eight hours in July, the telescope observed starlight that filtered through the planet’s thick atmosphere as the planet crossed between its star and JWST. As it did, molecules of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbed specific wavelengths of that starlight.

    Previous observations of WASP-39b with NASA’s now-defunct Spitzer Space Telescope had detected just a whiff of absorption at that same wavelength. But it wasn’t enough to convince astronomers that carbon dioxide was really there.

    “I would not have bet more than a beer, at most a six pack, on that weird tentative hint of carbon dioxide from Spitzer,” says astronomer Nicolas Cowan of McGill University in Montreal, who was not involved with the new study. The JWST detection, on the other hand, “is rock solid,” he says. “I wouldn’t bet my firstborn because I love him too much. But I would bet a nice vacation.”

    The JWST data also showed an extra bit of absorption at wavelengths close to those absorbed by carbon dioxide. “It’s a mystery molecule,” says astronomer Natalie Batalha of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the team behind the observation. “We have several suspects that we are interrogating.”

    The amount of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere can reveal details about how the planet formed (SN: 5/11/18). If the planet was bombarded with asteroids, that could have brought in more carbon and enriched the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. If radiation from the star stripped away some of the planet atmosphere’s lighter elements, that could make it appear richer in carbon dioxide too.

    Despite needing a telescope as powerful as JWST to detect it, carbon dioxide might be in atmospheres all over the galaxy, hiding in plain sight. “Carbon dioxide is one of the few molecules that is present in the atmospheres of all solar system planets that have atmospheres,” Batalha says. “It’s your front-line molecule.”

    Eventually, astronomers hope to use JWST to find carbon dioxide and other molecules in the atmospheres of small rocky planets, like the ones orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 (SN: 12/13/17). Some of those planets, at just the right distances from their star to sustain liquid water, might be good places to look for signs of life. It’s yet to be seen whether JWST will detect those signs of life, but it will be able to detect carbon dioxide.

    “My first thought when I saw these data was, ‘Wow, this is gonna work,’” Batalha says. More

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    The discovery of the Kuiper Belt revamped our view of the solar system

    On a Hawaiian mountaintop in the summer of 1992, a pair of scientists spotted a pinprick of light inching through the constellation Pisces. That unassuming object — located over a billion kilometers beyond Neptune — would rewrite our understanding of the solar system.

    Rather than an expanse of emptiness, there was something, a vast collection of things in fact, lurking beyond the orbits of the known planets.

    The scientists had discovered the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped swath of frozen objects left over from the formation of the solar system.

    As researchers learn more about the Kuiper Belt, the origin and evolution of our solar system is coming into clearer focus. Closeup glimpses of the Kuiper Belt’s frozen worlds have shed light on how planets, including our own, might have formed in the first place. And surveys of this region, which have collectively revealed thousands of such bodies, called Kuiper Belt objects, suggest that the early solar system was home to pinballing planets.

    The humble object that kick-started it all is a chunk of ice and rock roughly 250 kilometers in diameter. It was first spotted 30 years ago this month.

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    Staring into space

    In the late 1980s, planetary scientist David Jewitt and astronomer Jane Luu, both at MIT at the time, were several years into a curious quest. The duo had been using telescopes in Arizona to take images of patches of the night sky with no particular target in mind. “We were literally just staring off into space looking for something,” says Jewitt, now at UCLA.

    An apparent mystery motivated the researchers: The inner solar system is relatively crowded with rocky planets, asteroids and comets, but there was seemingly not much out beyond the gas giant planets, besides small, icy Pluto. “Maybe there were things in the outer solar system,” says Luu, who now works at the University of Oslo and Boston University. “It seemed like a worthwhile thing to check out.”

    David Jewitt and Jane Luu, shown in Honolulu in the early 2000s, discovered the Kuiper Belt.D. Jewitt/UCLA

    Poring over glass photographic plates and digital images of the night sky, Jewitt and Luu looked for objects that moved extremely slowly, a telltale sign of their great distance from Earth. But the pair kept coming up empty. “Years went by, and we didn’t see anything,” Luu says. “There was no guarantee this was going to work out.”

    The tide changed in 1992. On the night of August 30, Jewitt and Luu were using a University of Hawaii telescope on the Big Island. They were employing their usual technique for searching for distant objects: Take an image of the night sky, wait an hour or so, take another image of the same patch of sky, and repeat. An object in the outer reaches of the solar system would shift position ever so slightly from one image to the next, primarily because of the movement of Earth in its orbit. “If it’s a real object, it would move systematically at some predicted rate,” Luu says.

    By 9:14 p.m. that evening, Jewitt and Luu had collected two images of the same bit of the constellation Pisces. The researchers displayed the images on the bulbous cathode-ray tube monitor of their computer, one after the other, and looked for anything that had moved. One object immediately stood out: A speck of light had shifted just a touch to the west.

    But it was too early to celebrate. Spurious signals from high-energy particles zipping through space — cosmic rays — appear in images of the night sky all of the time. The real test would be whether this speck showed up in more than two images, the researchers knew.

    Jewitt and Luu nervously waited until 11 p.m. for the telescope’s camera to finish taking a third image. The same object was there, and it had moved a bit farther west. A fourth image, collected just after midnight, revealed the object had shifted position yet again. This is something real, Jewitt remembers thinking. “We were just blown away.”

    The way the circled object shifted position in the sky (time stamps at right) told Jewitt and Luu that the object, dubbed 1992 QB1, was distant. It was the first evidence of the icy zone called the Kuiper Belt.D. Jewitt/UCLA

    Based on the object’s brightness and its leisurely pace — it would take nearly a month for it to march across the width of the full moon as seen from Earth — Jewitt and Luu did some quick calculations. This thing, whatever it was, was probably about 250 kilometers in diameter. That’s sizable, about one-tenth the width of Pluto. It was orbiting far beyond Neptune. And in all likelihood, it wasn’t alone.

    Although Jewitt and Luu had been diligently combing the night sky for years, they had observed only a tiny fraction of it. There were possibly thousands more objects out there like this one just waiting to be found, the two concluded.

    The realization that the outer solar system was probably teeming with undiscovered bodies was mind-blowing, Jewitt says. “We expanded the known volume of the solar system enormously.” The object that Jewitt and Luu had found, 1992 QB1 (SN: 9/26/92, p. 196), introduced a whole new realm.

    Just a few months later, Jewitt and Luu spotted a second object also orbiting far beyond Neptune (SN: 4/10/93, p. 231). The floodgates opened soon after. “We found 40 or 50 in the next few years,” Jewitt says. As the digital detectors that astronomers used to capture images grew in size and sensitivity, researchers began uncovering droves of additional objects. “So many interesting worlds with interesting stories,” says Mike Brown, an astronomer at Caltech who studies Kuiper Belt objects.

    Finding all of these frozen worlds, some orbiting even beyond Pluto, made sense in some ways, Jewitt and Luu realized. Pluto had always been an oddball; it’s a cosmic runt (smaller than Earth’s moon) and looks nothing like its gas giant neighbors. What’s more, its orbit takes it sweeping far above and below the orbits of the other planets. Maybe Pluto belonged not to the world of the planets but to the realm of whatever lay beyond, Jewitt and Luu hypothesized. “We suddenly understood why Pluto was such a weird planet,” Jewitt says. “It’s just one object, maybe the biggest, in a set of bodies that we just stumbled across.” Pluto probably wouldn’t be a member of the planet club much longer, the two predicted. Indeed, by 2006, it was out (SN: 9/2/06, p. 149).

    Up-close look

    The discovery of 1992 QB1 opened the world’s eyes to the Kuiper Belt, named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper. In a twist of history, however, Kuiper predicted that this region of space would be empty. In the 1950s, he proposed that any occupants that might have once existed there would have been banished by gravity to even more distant reaches of the solar system.

    In other words, Kuiper anti-predicted the existence of the Kuiper Belt. He turned out to be wrong.

    Today, researchers know that the Kuiper Belt stretches from a distance of roughly 30 astronomical units from the sun — around the orbit of Neptune — to roughly 55 astronomical units. It resembles a puffed-up disk, Jewitt says. “Superficially, it looks like a fat doughnut.”

    The frozen bodies that populate the Kuiper Belt are the remnants of the swirling maelstrom of gas and dust that birthed the sun and the planets. There’s “a bunch of stuff that’s left over that didn’t quite get built up into planets,” says astronomer Meredith MacGregor of the University of Colorado Boulder. When one of those cosmic leftovers gets kicked into the inner solar system by a gravitational shove from a planet like Neptune and approaches the sun, it turns into an object we recognize as a comet (SN: 9/12/20, p. 14). Comets that circle the sun once only every 200 years or more typically derive from the solar system’s even more distant repository of icy bodies known as the Oort cloud.

    There are many places in the solar system where icy bodies congregate: the asteroid belt roughly between Jupiter and Mars (top), the doughnut-shaped Kuiper Belt beyond the gas giant planets (middle) and the most distant zone, the Oort cloud (bottom).Mark Garlick/Science Source

    In scientific parlance, the Kuiper Belt is a debris disk (SN Online: 7/28/21). Distant solar systems contain debris disks, too, scientists have discovered. “They’re absolutely directly analogous to our Kuiper Belt,” MacGregor says.

    In 2015, scientists got their first close look at a Kuiper Belt object when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto (SN Online: 7/15/15). The pictures that New Horizons returned in the following years were thousands of times more detailed than previous observations of Pluto and its moons. No longer just a few fuzzy pixels, the worlds were revealed as rich landscapes of ice-spewing volcanoes and deep, jagged canyons (SN: 6/22/19, p. 12; SN Online: 7/13/18). “I’m just absolutely ecstatic with what we accomplished at Pluto,” says Marc Buie, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and a member of the New Horizons team. “It could not possibly have gone any better.”

    But New Horizons wasn’t finished with the Kuiper Belt. On New Year’s Day of 2019, when the spacecraft was almost 1.5 billion kilometers beyond Pluto’s orbit, it flew past another Kuiper Belt object. And what a surprise it was. Arrokoth — its name refers to “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language — looks like a pair of pancakes joined at the hip (SN: 12/21/19 & 1/4/20, p. 5; SN: 3/16/19, p. 15). Roughly 35 kilometers long from end to end, it was probably once two separate bodies that gently collided and stuck. Arrokoth’s bizarre structure sheds light on a fundamental question in astronomy: How do gas and dust clump together and grow into larger bodies?

    One long-standing theory, called planetesimal accretion, says that a series of collisions is responsible. Tiny bits of material collide and stick together on repeat to build up larger and larger objects, says JJ Kavelaars, an astronomer at the University of Victoria and the National Research Council of Canada. But there’s a problem, Kavelaars says.

    In 2019, New Horizons flew by Arrokoth (above), a roughly 35-kilometer-long Kuiper Belt object.NASA, JHU-APL, SWRI

    As objects get large enough to exert a significant gravitational pull, they accelerate as they approach one another. “They hit each other too fast, and they don’t stick together,” he says. It would be unusual for a large object like Arrokoth, particularly with its two-lobed structure, to have formed from a sequence of collisions.

    More likely, Arrokoth was born from a process known as gravitational instability, researchers now believe. In that scenario, a clump of material that happens to be denser than its surroundings grows by pulling in gas and dust. This process can form planets on timescales of thousands of years, rather than the millions of years required for planetesimal accretion. “The timescale for planet formation completely changes,” Kavelaars says.

    If Arrokoth formed this way, other bodies in the solar system probably did too. That may mean that parts of the solar system formed much more rapidly than previously believed, says Buie, who discovered Arrokoth in 2014. “Already Arrokoth has rewritten the textbooks on how solar system formation works.”

    What they’ve seen so far makes scientists even more eager to study another Kuiper Belt object up close. New Horizons is still making its way through the Kuiper Belt, but time is running out to identify a new object and orchestrate a rendezvous. The spacecraft, which is currently 53 astronomical units from the sun, is approaching the Kuiper Belt’s outer edge. Several teams of astronomers are using telescopes around the world to search for new Kuiper Belt objects that would make a close pass to New Horizons. “We are definitely looking,” Buie says. “We would like nothing better than to fly by another object.”

    All eyes on the Kuiper Belt

    Astronomers are also getting a wide-angle view of the Kuiper Belt by surveying it with some of Earth’s largest telescopes. At the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea — the same mountaintop where Jewitt and Luu spotted 1992 QB1 — astronomers recently wrapped up the Outer Solar System Origins Survey. It recorded more than 800 previously unknown Kuiper Belt objects, bringing the total number known to roughly 3,000.

    The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, near the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island, has revealed hundreds of Kuiper Belt objects.Gordon W. Myers/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    This cataloging work is revealing tantalizing patterns in how these bodies move around the sun, MacGregor says. Rather than being uniformly distributed, the orbits of Kuiper Belt objects tend to be clustered in space. That’s a telltale sign that these bodies got a gravitational shove in the past, she says.

    The cosmic bullies that did that shoving, most astronomers believe, were none other than the solar system’s gas giants. In the mid-2000s, scientists first proposed that planets like Neptune and Saturn probably pinballed toward and away from the sun early in the solar system’s history (SN: 5/5/12, p. 24). That movement explains the strikingly similar orbits of many Kuiper Belt objects, MacGregor says. “The giant planets stirred up all of the stuff in the outer part of the solar system.”

    Refining the solar system’s early history requires observations of even more Kuiper Belt objects, says Meg Schwamb, an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Researchers expect that a new astronomical survey, slated to begin next year, will find roughly 40,000 more Kuiper Belt objects. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, being built in north-central Chile, will use its 3,200-megapixel camera to repeatedly photograph the entire Southern Hemisphere sky every few nights for 10 years. That undertaking, the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, or LSST, will revolutionize our understanding of how the early solar system evolved, says Schwamb, a cochair of the LSST Solar System Science Collaboration.

    The Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile is expected to spot about 40,000 Kuiper Belt objects with its 8.4-meter mirror and the world’s largest digital camera.Rubin Observatory/NSF and AURA

    It’s exciting to think about what we might learn next from the Kuiper Belt, Jewitt says. The discoveries that lay ahead will be possible, in large part, because of advances in technology, he says. “One picture with one of the modern survey cameras is roughly a thousand pictures with our setup back in 1992.”

    But even as we uncover more about this distant realm of the solar system, a bit of awe should always remain, Jewitt says. “It’s the largest piece of the solar system that we’ve yet observed.” More

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    Mini-Neptunes may become super-Earths as the exoplanets lose their atmospheres

    Mini-Neptunes and super-Earths may have a lot more in common than just being superlatives.

    Four gaseous exoplanets, each a bit smaller than Neptune, seem to be evolving into super-Earths, rocky worlds up to 1.5 times the width of our home planet. That’s because the intense radiation of their stars appears to be pushing away the planets’ thick atmospheres, researchers report in a paper submitted July 26 at arXiv.org. If the current rate of atmospheric loss keeps up, the team predicts, those puffy atmospheres will eventually vanish, leaving behind smaller planets of bare rock.

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    Studying how these worlds evolve and lose their atmospheres can help scientists understand how other exoplanets lose their atmospheres. And that, says astronomer Heather Knutson of Caltech, can provide intel on what types of planets might have habitable environments. “Because if you can’t keep an atmosphere,” she says, “you can’t be habitable.”

    Knutson and her colleagues’ new study bolsters a previous suspicion. Earlier this year, the same researchers reported that helium seemed to be escaping the atmosphere of one these mini-Neptunes. But the team wasn’t sure if their discovery was a one-off. “Maybe we just got very lucky for this one planet, but every other planet is different,” says exoplanet researcher Michael Zhang, also of Caltech.

    So the team looked at three more mini-Neptunes orbiting other stars and compared those worlds to the first planet they had observed. Each of these planets occasionally blocks some of the light from its star (SN: 7/21/21).  Zhang, Knutson and colleagues tracked how long each planet blocked its stars’ light and how much of that starlight was absorbed by helium enveloping the planets. Together, these observations let the team measure the sizes and shapes of the planets’ atmospheres.

    “When a planet is losing its atmosphere, you get this big, sort of cometlike tail of gas coming out from the planet,” Knutson says. If the gas instead is still bound to the planet — as is the case for Neptune in our solar system — the astronomers would have seen a circle. “We don’t fully understand all the shapes that we see in the outflows,” she says, “but we see they’re not spherical.”

    In other words, each planet is steadily losing its helium. “I never would have guessed that every single planet we looked at, that we would see such a clear detection,” Knutson says.

    The astronomers also calculated how much mass those exoplanets were losing (SN: 6/19/17). “This mass loss rate is high enough to strip the atmospheres of at least most of these planets, so that some of them, at least, will become super-Earths,” Zhang says.

    These rates, though, are just snapshots in time, says Ian Crossfield, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who was not involved with this work. For each planet, “you don’t know exactly how it’s been losing atmosphere throughout its entire history and into the future,” he says. “All we know is what we see today.” Even with such open questions, he adds, the idea that mini-Neptunes turn into super-Earths “seems plausible.”

    Theories and computer simulations of how planets form and lose their atmospheres can help fill in some of the blanks on individual planets, Crossfield says.

    Measurements of more mini-Neptunes will also help. Zhang plans to observe another handful. In addition, “we’ve already looked at one more target, and that target also has a pretty strong escaping helium [signal],” he says. “Now we have five for five.” More

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    A new James Webb telescope image reveals a galactic collision’s aftermath

    It’s not easy being ringed. A newly released image from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, shows the Cartwheel Galaxy still reeling from a run-in with a smaller galaxy 400 million years ago.

    The Cartwheel Galaxy, so called because of its bright inner ring and colorful outer ring, lies about 500 million light-years from Earth. Astronomers think it used to be a large spiral like the Milky Way, until a smaller galaxy smashed through it. In earlier observations with other telescopes, the space between the rings appeared shrouded in dust.

    Now, JWST’s infrared cameras have peered through the dust and found previously unseen stars and structure (SN: 7/11/22). The new image shows sites of intense star formation throughout the galaxy that were triggered by the collision’s aftereffects. Some of those new stars are forming in spokelike patterns between the central ring and the outer ring, a process that is not well understood.

    When the Hubble Space Telescope observed the Cartwheel Galaxy in visible light (left), the spokes between the galaxy’s bright rings were barely visible wisps. JWST’s infrared eyes brought them into vivid focus (right). Near-infrared light (blue, orange and yellow) traces newly forming stars; mid-infrared light (red) highlights the galaxy’s chemistry.Left: Hubble/NASA and ESA; Right: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI and Webb ERO Production Team

    Ring galaxies are rare, and galaxies with two rings are even more unusual. That strange shape means that the long-ago collision set up multiple waves of gas rippling back and forth in the galaxy left behind. It’s like if you drop a pebble in the bathtub, says JWST project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “First you get this ring, then it hits the walls of your bathtub and reflects back, and you get a more complicated structure.”

    The effect probably means that the Cartwheel Galaxy has a long road to recovery ahead — and astronomers don’t know what it will look like in the end.

    As for the smaller galaxy that caused all this mayhem, it didn’t stick around to get its picture taken. “It’s gone off on its merry way,” Pontoppidan says. More

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    The heaviest neutron star on record is 2.35 times the mass of the sun

    A fast-spinning neutron star south of the constellation Leo is the most massive of its kind seen so far, according to new observations.

    The record-setting collapsed star, named PSR J0952-0607, weighs about 2.35 times as much as the sun, researchers report July 11 on arXiv.org. “That’s the heaviest well-measured neutron star that has been found to date,” says study coauthor Roger Romani, an astrophysicist at Stanford University.

    The previous record holder was a neutron star in the northern constellation Camelopardalis named PSR J0740+6620, which tipped the scales at about 2.08 times as massive as the sun. If a neutron star grows too massive, it collapses under its own weight and becomes a black hole. These measurements of hefty neutron stars are of interest because no one knows the exact mass boundary between neutron stars and black holes.

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    That dividing line drives the quest to find the most massive neutron stars and determine just how massive they can be, Romani says. “It’s defining the boundary between the visible things in the universe and the stuff that is forever hidden from us inside of a black hole,” he says. “A neutron star that’s on the hairy edge of becoming a black hole — just about heavy enough to collapse — has at its center the very densest material that we can access in the entire visible universe.”

    PSR J0952-0607 is in the constellation Sextans, just south of Leo. It resides 20,000 light-years from Earth, far above the galaxy’s plane in the Milky Way’s halo. The neutron star emits a pulse of radio waves toward us each time it spins, so astronomers also classify the object as a pulsar. First reported in 2017, this pulsar spins every 1.41 milliseconds, faster than all but one other pulsar.

    That’s why Romani and his colleagues chose to study it — the fast spin led them to suspect that the pulsar might be unusually heavy. That’s because another star orbits the pulsar, and just as water spilling over a water wheel spins it up, gas falling from that companion onto the pulsar could have sped up its rotation while also boosting its mass.

    Observing the companion, Romani and his colleagues found that it whips around the pulsar quickly — at about 380 kilometers per second. Using the companion’s speed and its orbital period of about six and a half hours, the team calculated the pulsar’s mass to be more than twice the mass of the sun. That’s a lot heavier than the typical neutron star, which is only about 1.4 times as massive as the sun.

    “It’s a terrific study,” says Emmanuel Fonseca, a radio astronomer at West Virginia University in Morgantown who measured the mass of the previous record holder but was not involved in the new work. “It helps nuclear physicists actually constrain the nature of matter within these extreme environments.” More

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    How James Webb Space Telescope data have already revealed surprises

    Massimo Pascale wasn’t planning to study the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. But as soon as he saw the cluster glittering in the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, he and his colleagues couldn’t help themselves.

    “We were like, we have to do something,” says Pascale, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. “We can’t stop ourselves from analyzing this data. It was so exciting.”

    Pascale’s team is one of several groups of scientists who saw the first JWST images and immediately rolled up their sleeves. In the first few days after images and the data used to create them were made public, scientists have estimated the amount of mass the cluster contains, uncovered a violent incident in the cluster’s recent past and estimated the ages of the stars in galaxies far beyond the cluster itself.

    “We’ve been preparing for this for a long time. Myself, I’ve been preparing for years, and I’m not very old,” says Pascale, who is in his fourth year of graduate school.  JWST “is really going to define a new generation of astronomers and a new generation of science as a whole.”

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    Cluster collision

    When the image of SMACS 0723 was released in a White House briefing on July 11, most of the focus went to extremely distant galaxies in the background (SN: 7/11/22). But smack in the middle of the image is SMACS 0723 itself, a much closer cluster of galaxies about 4.6 billion light-years from Earth. Its mass bends light from even farther away, making more distant objects appear magnified, as if their light had traveled through the lens of another cosmic-sized telescope.

    The light from the most distant galaxy in this image started its journey to JWST about 13.3 billion years ago — “almost at the dawn of the universe,” says astrophysicist Guillaume Mahler of Durham University in England, who is already using the picture as his Zoom background.

    But the image can also fill in the history of the intervening galaxy cluster itself. “People sometimes forget about that — the galaxy cluster is also very important,” Pascale says.

    Pascale’s and Mahler’s teams each started by taking inventory of the distant galaxies that appear stretched and distorted in the image. The light from some of those galaxies is warped such that multiple images of the same galaxy appear in different places. Mapping those multiply imaged galaxies is a sensitive probe of the way mass is spread around the cluster. That, in turn, can reveal where the cluster contains dark matter, the invisible, mysterious substance that makes up the majority of the mass in the universe (SN: 9/10/20).

    Both teams found that SMACS 0723 is more elongated than it appeared in previous observations. They also found a faint glow, called intracluster light, inside the cluster from stars that don’t belong to any particular galaxy. Together, those features suggest that SMACS 0723 is still recovering from a relatively recent smash-up with another galaxy cluster, the teams report separately in a pair of papers submitted to arXiv.org on July 14.

    A galaxy cluster that has been sitting on its own for eons should have a rounder distribution of matter and intracluster light, rather than SMACS 0723’s oblong shape. The stars that emit the intracluster light were probably ripped from their home galaxies by gravitational forces during the collision.

    “Two separate clusters have merged together, and it looks to us as if it’s not totally settled yet,” Pascale says. “What we might be looking at is an ongoing merger.”

    Three examples of multiply imaged galaxies — marked with white, red and yellow arrows — popped out of this small region of the first JWST image. The gravity from a foreground galaxy cluster distorted the light from these galaxies, making them appear in at least two places at once.Reproduced from M. Pascale et al/arXiv.org 2022

    Far-flung galaxies

    Mapping out mass in the cluster is also essential to decoding the properties of the more distant galaxies in the background of the image, Mahler says. “You need to understand the cluster and its magnification power to understand what’s behind.”

    Some scientists are already investigating those distant galaxies in detail. The first JWST data include not just pretty pictures but also spectra, measurements of how much light an object emits at various wavelengths. Spectra allow scientists to determine how much a distant object’s light has been stretched — or redshifted — by the expansion of the universe, which is a proxy for its distance. Such data can also help reveal a galaxy’s composition and the ages of its stars.

    “The main thing that limits the study of star formation in galaxies is the quality of the data,” says astrophysicist Adam Carnall of the University of Edinburgh. But with the vastly improved data from JWST, he says, he and his team were able to measure the ages of stars in those remote galaxies.

    Carnall and colleagues turned their attention to the spectra of the distant galaxies just a few days after the SMACS image was released. They measured the redshifts of 10 galaxies, five of which were particularly distant, the team reports in a paper submitted to arXiv.org on July 18. One had already been highlighted as one of the most distant galaxy ever seen, with light that was emitted just 500 million years after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. The other four shone as late as 1.1 billion years after the Big Bang.

    All 10 galaxies were relatively young when they emitted the light captured by JWST, Carnall says. They had all switched on their star formation just a few million years earlier. That’s not especially surprising, but it is interesting.

    “The ability to look at these small, faint galaxies … gives you a sense of how all galaxies must look when they start forming stars,” Carnall says.

    Scientists hope to use JWST to find the first instances of star formation ever. Other early results suggest they’re already getting close.

    Some galaxies in a JWST image of another cluster may hearken from an even earlier time, as early as 300 million years after the Big Bang, two research teams report in a pair of papers submitted to arXiv.org on July 19. One of those galaxies seems to have already built up a spiral disk about a billion times the mass of the sun, which is surprisingly mature for such an early galaxy.

    And a tally of galaxies seen in the SMACS 0723 image suggests that galaxies with mature disks, rather than disorganized blobs or ones made up mostly of dark matter, may have been more common in the very early universe than previously thought, another team reports in an arXiv.org paper submitted July 19. That means those early disks might not be outliers.

    “Definitely these galaxies are a big deal, but it remains to be seen how exciting they will look in the context of a few months’ progress with JWST,” Carnall says. The best is yet to come.

    [embedded content]
    Exploded stars, colliding galaxies, and beautiful clouds feature in the first space photos released by The James Webb Space Telescope July 12. More

  • in

    Clouds in the Milky Way’s plasma bubbles came from the starry disk — and far beyond

    Huge bubbles of plasma billowing out from the Milky Way’s center might contain scraps from all over the galaxy — and beyond.

    A new look at gas clouds in the galaxy’s Fermi bubbles shows that the clouds contain stuff from the galaxy’s starry disk and from some mysterious other source. The finding could shed light on how galaxies in general live and die, astronomers report July 18 in Nature Astronomy.

    The Fermi bubbles are giant blobs of plasma, tens of thousands of light-years tall, that extend on either side of the Milky Way’s galactic disk. When the bubbles were discovered in 2010, astronomers thought they could have been formed by newborn stars (SN: 11/9/10). These days, many astronomers are instead convinced the bubbles could have been blown by a massive, long-ago burp emitted from the galaxy’s supermassive black hole.

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    In the years that followed the discovery, astronomers also spotted clouds of relatively cool gas that seem to flit around within the bubbles, high above the starry disk. “We call them high velocity clouds, because we’re not very good at naming things,” says astrophysicist Trisha Ashley of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

    Scientists thought the clouds had been ripped from the Milky Way’s bright starry disk and sent flying when the Fermi bubbles formed. That assumption has been used to calculate things like the age of the bubbles, which could offer a clue to their origins.

    “It made sense, it was a logical assumption,” Ashley says. “But no one had ever tested the origin of these clouds.”

    Now Ashley and colleagues have made a first effort to figure out where the clouds come from — and found a surprising answer.

    Using new and archived data from several telescopes, she and her team measured the metal content — the abundances of all the elements heavier than helium — in 12 high velocity clouds entrenched in the Fermi bubbles. Then the researchers compared the clouds’ chemistries to those of stars in the Milky Way’s disk. If the clouds really did come from the disk, they should have metal contents like the sun and other disk stars, Ashley says. If not, their metal contents should be lower.

    The team found a wide range of metals in the clouds, from less than a fifth of the sun’s to more than the sun’s. That means “these clouds have to originate in both the disk of the Milky Way and the halo of the Milky Way,” she says, referring to the chaotic cloud of gas and dust that surrounds the galaxy and provides it with fuel for new stars (SN: 7/12/18). “We haven’t figured out any other explanation.”

    How those clouds got into the halo in the first place is still an open question, says Jessica Werk, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle who was not involved in the study.

    “There’s a number of ways these clouds can be produced, a number of origins and a number of fates,” she says. The clouds could have condensed within the halo on their own, or they could have been ripped from smaller galaxies cannibalized by the Milky Way, or a number of other origin stories (SN: 7/24/02). “This cycle in general is a very messy process.”

    That messiness could help predict how the Milky Way’s star formation could change in the future. Cold gas clouds like these are the fuel for future star formation. If these clouds were born in the Milky Way’s gaseous halo but are being buoyed up by the Fermi bubbles instead of falling into the disk to form stars, that could eventually slow down the Milky Way’s star forming factories.

    But if the gas clouds do end up forming new stars, that could mean the Milky Way is building new stars from a variety of cosmic sources.

    “Ultimately what people are interested in is, how does the Milky Way sustain its star formation for a long time?” Werk says. “This tells you it’s not just one thing.”

    Studying these bubbles and clouds can help astronomers understand other galaxies, too.

    “We can see these things going on in other galaxies,” Ashley says. “But we have a front row seat to this one.” More