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    The tiny dot in this image may be the first look at exomoons in the making

    New telescope images may provide the first view of moons forming outside the solar system.

    The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile glimpsed a dusty disk of potentially moon-forming material around a baby exoplanet about 370 light-years from Earth. The Jupiter-like world is surrounded by enough material to make up to 2.5 Earth moons, researchers report online July 22 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Observations of this system could offer new insight into how planets and moons are born around young stars.

    ALMA observed two planets, dubbed PDS 70b and 70c, circling the star PDS 70 in July 2019. Unlike most other known exoplanets, these two Jupiter-like worlds are still forming — gobbling up material from the disk of gas and dust swirling around their star (SN: 7/2/18). During this formation process, planets are expected to wrap themselves in their own debris disks, which control how planets pack on material and form moons.

    Around PDS 70c, ALMA spotted a disk of dust about as wide as Earth’s orbit around the sun. With previously reported exomoon sightings still controversial, the new observations offer some of the best evidence yet that planets orbiting other stars have moons (SN: 4/30/19).

    Unlike PDS 70c, 70b does not appear to have a moon-forming disk. That may be because it has a narrower orbit than PDS 70c, which is nearly as far from its star as Pluto is from the sun. That puts PDS 70c closer to an outer disk of debris surrounding the star.

    Just inside a ring of debris surrounding a young star is the planet PDS 70c, which is surrounded by its own disk of possible moon-forming material (bright dot at center).ALMA/ESO, NAOJ and NRAO, M. Benisty et al

    “C is getting all the material from the outer disk, and b is getting starved,” says study coauthor Jaehan Bae, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

    “In the past, b must have gotten some material in its [disk], and it could have already formed moons,” Bae says. But to make the new images, ALMA observed wavelengths of light emitted by sand-sized dust grains, not large objects, so those moons would not be visible. More

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    The latest picture of a black hole captures Centaurus A’s massive jets

    The Event Horizon Telescope is expanding its portfolio of black hole images.

    In 2019, the telescope unveiled the first image of a black hole, revealing the supermassive beast 55 light-years from Earth at the center of galaxy M87 (SN: 4/10/19). That lopsided orange ring showed the shadow of the black hole on its glowing accretion disk of infalling material. Since then, observations from the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, have yielded more detailed views of M87’s black hole (SN: 9/23/20). Now, EHT data have revealed new details of the supermassive black hole at the heart of a galaxy near our own, called Centaurus A.

    Rather than zooming in close enough to see the black hole’s shadow, the new picture offers the clearest view yet of the powerful plasma jets erupting from the black hole. This perspective gives insight into how supermassive black holes blast such plasma jets into space, researchers report online July 19 in Nature Astronomy.

    “It’s a fairly impressive feat,” says radio astronomer Craig Walker of capturing the new high-resolution image. “These [jets] are some of the most powerful things in the universe,” says Walker, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, N.M., who was not involved in the work. Because such superfast plasma streams are thought to influence how galaxies grow and evolve, astronomers are keen to understand how the jets form (SN: 3/29/19).

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    Researchers pointed the global network of radio dishes that make up the EHT at Centaurus A for six hours in April 2017, during the same observing run that delivered the first picture of a black hole (SN: 4/10/19). About 12 million light-years from Earth, Centaurus A is one of the brightest galaxies in the sky and is known for the huge jets expelled by its central black hole.

    “They extend to pretty much the entire scale of the galaxy,” says Michael Janssen, a radio astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. “If we were to see radio light [with our eyes], and we were to look at the night sky, then we would see these jets of Centaurus A as a structure that is 16 times bigger than the full moon.”

    Using the EHT, Janssen and colleagues homed in on the base of those jets, which gush out from either side of the black hole’s accretion disk. The new image is 16 times as sharp as previous observations of the jets, probing details less than one light-day across — about four times the distance from the sun to Pluto. One of the most striking features that the image reveals is that only the outer edges of the jets seem to glow.

    The supermassive black hole in the galaxy Centaurus A launches two jets of plasma in opposite directions (zoomed-out view of the jets at left). In a new close-up view taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (at right; estimated location of the black hole indicated with an arrow), the jet moving toward Earth points toward the image’s top left, with two bright edges and a dark center. The jet moving away from Earth, also bright only at the edges, points toward the bottom right.M. Janssen et al/Nature Astronomy 2021

    “That’s still a puzzle,” Janssen says. One possibility is that the jets are rotating, which might cause material in some regions of the jets to emit light toward Earth, while others don’t. Or the jets could be hollow, Janssen says.

    Recent observations of a few other galaxies have hinted that the jets of supermassive black holes are brighter around the edges, says Denise Gabuzda, an astrophysicist at University College Cork in Ireland, who wasn’t involved in the work. “But it’s been hard to know whether it was a common feature, or whether it was something quirky about the few that had been observed.”

    The new view of Centaurus A’s black hole provides evidence that this edge-brightening is common, Gabuzda says. “It’s fairly rare to be able to detect the jets coming out in both directions, but in the images of Centaurus A … you can clearly see that both of them are brighter at the edges.”

    The next step will be to compare the EHT image of Centaurus A with computer simulations based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, to test how well relativity holds up in this extreme environment, Janssen says. Examining the polarization, or orientation, of the light waves emanating from Centaurus A’s jets could also reveal the structure of their magnetic fields — just as polarization revealed the magnetism around M87’s black hole (SN: 3/24/21). More

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    A shadowy birthplace may explain Jupiter’s strange chemistry

    Jupiter may have formed in a shadow that kept the planet’s birthplace colder than Pluto. The frigid temperature could explain the giant world’s unusual abundance of certain gases, a new study suggests.

    Jupiter consists mostly of hydrogen and helium, which were the most common elements in the planet-spawning disk that spun around the newborn sun. Other elements that were gases near Jupiter’s birthplace became part of the planet, too, but in only the same proportions as they existed in the protoplanetary disk (SN: 6/12/17).

    Astronomers think the sun’s composition of elements largely reflects that of the protoplanetary disk, so Jupiter’s should resemble that solar makeup — at least for elements that were gases. But nitrogen, argon, krypton and xenon are about three times as common on Jupiter, relative to hydrogen, as they are on the sun.

    “This is the main puzzle of Jupiter’s atmosphere,” says Kazumasa Ohno, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Where did those extra elements come from?

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    If Jupiter was born at its current distance from the sun, the temperature of the planet’s birthplace would have been around 60 kelvins, or –213˚ Celsius. In the protoplanetary disk, those elements should be gases at that temperature. But they would freeze solid below about 30 kelvins, or –243˚ C. It’s easier for a planet to accrete solids than gases. So if Jupiter somehow arose in a much colder environment than its current home, the planet could have acquired solid objects laden with those extra elements as ice.

    For this reason, in 2019 two different research teams independently made the radical suggestion that Jupiter had originated in the deep freeze beyond the current orbits of Neptune and Pluto, then spiraled inward toward the sun.

    Now Ohno and astronomer Takahiro Ueda of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan propose a different idea: Jupiter formed where it is, but a pileup of dust in between the planet’s orbit and the sun blocked sunlight, casting a long shadow that cooled Jupiter’s birthplace. The frosty temperature made nitrogen, argon, krypton and xenon freeze solid and become a greater part of the planet, the scientists suggest in a study in the July Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    The dust that cast the shadow came from rocky objects closer to the sun that collided and shattered. Farther from the sun, where the protoplanetary disk was colder, water froze, giving rise to objects that resembled snowballs. When those snowballs collided, they were more likely to stick together than shatter and thus didn’t cast much of a shadow, the researchers say.

    “I think it’s a clever fix of something that might have been difficult to rectify otherwise,” says Alex Cridland, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

    Cridland was one of the scientists who had suggested that Jupiter formed beyond Neptune and Pluto. But that theory, he says, means Jupiter had to move much closer to the sun after birth. The new scenario avoids that complication.

    Measuring the atmospheric composition of Saturn may pinpoint the birthplace of Jupiter.NASA, ESA, A. Simon/GSFC, M.H. Wong/UCB, the OPAL Team

    How to test the new idea? “Saturn might hold the key,” Ohno says. Saturn is nearly twice as far from the sun as Jupiter is, and the scientists calculate that the dust shadow that chilled Jupiter’s birthplace barely reached Saturn’s. If so, that means Saturn arose in a warmer region and so should not have acquired nitrogen, argon, krypton or xenon ice. In contrast, if the two gas giants really formed in the cold beyond the present orbits of Neptune and Pluto, then Saturn should have lots of those elements, like Jupiter.

    Thanks to the Galileo probe, which dove into the Jovian atmosphere in 1995, astronomers know these abundances for Jupiter. What’s needed, the researchers say, is a similar mission to Saturn. Unfortunately, while orbiting Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft (SN: 8/23/17) measured only an uncertain level of nitrogen in the Ringed Planet’s atmosphere and detected no argon, krypton or xenon, so Saturn doesn’t yet constrain where the two gas giants arose.     More

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    Scientists spotted an electron-capture supernova for the first time

    A long-predicted type of cosmic explosion has finally burst onto the scene.

    Researchers have found convincing evidence for an electron-capture supernova, a stellar explosion ignited when atomic nuclei sop up electrons within a star’s core. The phenomenon was first predicted in 1980, but scientists have never been sure that they have seen one. A flare that appeared in the sky in 2018, called supernova 2018zd, matches several expected hallmarks of the blasts, scientists report June 28 in Nature Astronomy.

    “These have been theorized for so long, and it’s really nice that we’ve actually seen one now,” says astrophysicist Carolyn Doherty of Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, who was not involved with the research.

    Electron-capture supernovas result from stars that sit right on the precipice of exploding. Stars with more than about 10 times the sun’s mass go supernova after nuclear fusion reactions within the core cease, and the star can no longer support itself against gravity. The core collapses inward and then rebounds, causing the star’s outer layers to explode outward (SN: 2/8/17). Smaller stars, with less than about eight solar masses, are able to resist collapse, instead forming a dense object called a white dwarf (SN: 6/30/21). But between about eight and 10 solar masses, there’s a poorly understood middle ground for stars. For some stars that fall in that range, scientists have long suspected that electron-capture supernovas should occur.

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    During this type of explosion, neon and magnesium nuclei within a star’s core capture electrons. In this reaction, an electron vanishes as a proton converts to a neutron, and the nucleus morphs into another element. That electron capture spells bad news for the star in its war against gravity because those electrons are helping the star fight collapse.

    According to quantum physics, when electrons are packed closely together, they start moving faster. Those zippy electrons exert a pressure that opposes the inward pull of gravity. But if reactions within a star chip away at the number of electrons, that support weakens. If the star’s core gives way — boom — that sets off an electron-capture supernova.

    But without an observation of such a blast, it remained theoretical. “The big question here was, ‘Does this kind of supernova even exist?’” says astrophysicist Daichi Hiramatsu of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Las Cumbres Observatory in Goleta, Calif. Potential electron-capture supernovas have been reported before, but the evidence wasn’t definitive.

    So Hiramatsu and colleagues created a list of six criteria that an electron-capture supernova should meet. For example, the explosions should be less energetic, and should forge different varieties of chemical elements, than more typical supernovas. Supernova 2018zd checked all the boxes.

    A stroke of luck helped the team clinch the case. Most of the time, when scientists spot a supernova, they have little information about the star that produced it — by time they see the explosion, the star has already been blown to bits. But in this case, the star showed up in previous images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope. Its properties matched those expected for the type of star that would produce an electron-capture supernova.

    “All together, it really is very promising,” says astrophysicist Pilar Gil-Pons of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. Reading the researchers’ results, she says, “I got pretty excited, especially about the identification of the progenitor.” 

    Finding more of these supernovas could help unveil their progenitors, misfit stars in that odd mass middle ground. It could also help scientists better nail down the divide between stars that will and won’t explode. And the observations could reveal how often these unusual supernovas occur, an important bit of information for better understanding how supernovas seed the cosmos with chemical elements. More

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    This moon-sized white dwarf is the smallest ever found

    Only a smidge bigger than the moon, a newfound white dwarf is the smallest of its kind known. 

    The white dwarf, a type of remnant left behind when certain stars peter out, has a radius of about 2,100 kilometers, researchers report June 30 in Nature. That’s remarkably close to the moon’s approximately 1,700-kilometer radius. Most white dwarfs are closer to the size of Earth, which has a radius of about 6,300 kilometers.

    The white dwarf’s small girth means, counterintuitively, that it is also one of the most massive known objects of its kind, at about 1.3 times the sun’s mass. That’s because white dwarfs shrink as they gain mass (SN: 8/12/20).

    “That’s not the only very amazing characteristic of this white dwarf,” astrophysicist Ilaria Caiazzo of Caltech said June 28 in an online news conference. “It is also rapidly rotating.”

    The white dwarf spins around approximately once every seven minutes. And it has a powerful magnetic field, more than a billion times the strength of Earth’s. Caiazzo and colleagues discovered the unusual stellar remnant, dubbed ZTF J1901+1458 and located about 130 light-years from Earth, using the Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in California, which searches for objects in the sky that change in brightness.

    The white dwarf probably formed when two white dwarfs orbited one another and merged to create a single white dwarf with an extra-large mass and extra-small size, the team says. That convergence would also have spun up the white dwarf and given it a strong magnetic field.

    This white dwarf is living on the edge: If it were much more massive, it wouldn’t be able to support its own weight, causing it to explode. Studying such objects can help scientists understand the limits of what’s possible for these dead stars. More

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    Any aliens orbiting these 2,000 stars could spot Earth crossing the sun

    Astronomers look for distant planets by watching for the shadow the worlds cast when passing between their star and Earth. If any aliens are searching for other intelligent life, they could spot us using the same trick.

    Now, scientists have identified 1,715 star systems whose hypothetical inhabitants could have seen Earth cross in front of the sun sometime in the last 5,000 years. Another 319 stars will come into the right positions for spotting Earth in the next 5,000 years, astrophysicist Jackie Faherty and astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger report in the June 23 Nature.

    Those 2,034 stars had or will have “the front row seat to finding Earth as a transiting planet,” says Faherty, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

    Seventy-five of the stars are close enough that human-made radio waves have already reached them, and seven of those stars have potentially habitable planets.

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    Faherty and Kaltenegger, of Cornell University, used maps of more than 1 billion stars from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, which measures stars’ movements and distances from Earth. The researchers identified the Earth transit zone, the region of space from which stars can see Earth cross the sun, and ran the clock backward and forward to see stars move in and out of that zone. “The way I think about this is, ‘Where are we the aliens?’” Kaltenegger says.

    Previous research identified stars that can currently see Earth silhouetted against the sun (SN: 4/20/16). But those studies did not take into account stellar movements through space and time. The new work shows that most star systems with a good look at Earth will keep that view for thousands of years.

    The newly described stellar collection includes some of the nearest and most well-known stars with planets, including Ross 128 and TRAPPIST-1, with its septet of rocky worlds (SN: 2/22/17). More

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    Dust and a cold spell on Betelgeuse could explain why the giant star dimmed

    Astronomers around the world were startled in late 2019 when Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky, grew dark for several months. Rumors swirled that the star was about to go supernova. It didn’t. But debate over what was going on exploded. Now, newly released images taken before and during the “Great Dimming” suggest what happened: The star’s surface cooled and triggered a cloud of dust that temporarily blocked its light.

    “This is the best interpretation we can get with the data that we have … without flying our spaceship to Betelgeuse and seeing what’s going on there,” says astrophysicist Emily Cannon of KU Leuven in Belgium.

    Cannon and colleagues used the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to take snapshots of Betelgeuse for more than a year. Serendipitously, the team had captured an image of the star in January 2019, months before the dimming began, and could compare that image with others taken in December 2019 and January and March 2020.

    The dimming wasn’t spread uniformly across Betelgeuse’s surface, the team reports June 16 in Nature. A dark splotch was concentrated over the star’s southern hemisphere. The researchers then ran computer simulations of the star, which included incorporating how dynamic gas bubbles constantly churn beneath its surface, to figure out the likeliest explanation for the way that the dimming played out.

    Earlier observations of the star had split astronomers into two camps (SN: 11/29/20). One group thought that a cloud of dust had blocked Betelgeuse’s light (SN: 3/12/20). Another thought that there wasn’t enough evidence of dust, and the dimming was due to temporary cooling at Betelgeuse’s surface.

    Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky, marks the shoulder (circled in red) of the constellation Orion.Nick Risinger/, ESO

    Astrophysicist Miguel Montargès says that now that he’s seen his team’s data, he’s in both camps. “The most natural conclusion is that both events happened,” says Montargès, of the Paris Observatory.

    The team’s hypothesis is that in late 2019, a temporary cold patch formed in Betelgeuse’s southern hemisphere due to the normal churning of surface plasma, and that cooling caused the star’s light to dim. The cold patch then allowed gas that had been released from the star’s surface to cool enough to form dust particles, which further blocked the star’s light.

    “You start getting a runaway effect,” which makes it easier for more dust to form, says astrophysicist Emily Levesque of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the research but wrote a commentary in the same issue of Nature. As the dust spread out, the starlight shone through again.

    Some astronomers are still unconvinced that dust is part of the answer. The images plus simulations don’t prove dust was there, says astrophysicist Thavisha Dharmawardena of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “This discussion will continue till we obtain direct evidence for dust,” says Dharmawardena, who has looked for — and failed to find — signs of dust during the Great Dimming.

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    Montargès thinks the dust was just hard to see using other techniques. “When people say they are not seeing new dust, I think they are wrong,” he says. “It’s that their data does not allow them to see it.”

    Both researchers agree that the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile could break the stalemate. That telescope was out of commission last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when its observations would have been most useful. More observations are scheduled for this summer, and if dust is still there, ALMA should see it.

    Still, “if we cannot identify it, it’s not because it’s not there,” Montargès says. “It’s because we are too late.”

    The Betelgeuse observations may help astronomers recognize similar dimming events in other stars, Levesque says. Betelgeuse is Earth’s closest red supergiant star, a late phase of the stellar life cycle that comes before a supernova explosion. While dust does not predict an explosion, it can be part of how these stars lose mass before they die.

    So when will Betelgeuse go out with a bang? “Not today,” Montargès says. “Every day, we are closer to the explosion, that’s for sure. I think it’s not tomorrow, or even in our lifetime, for Betelgeuse.” More

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    An arc of galaxies 3 billion light-years long may challenge cosmology

    A giant arc of galaxies appears to stretch across more than 3 billion light-years in the distant universe. If the arc turns out to be real, it would challenge a bedrock assumption of cosmology: that on large scales, matter in the universe is evenly distributed no matter where you look.

    “It would overturn cosmology as we know it,” said cosmologist Alexia Lopez at a June 7 news conference at the virtual American Astronomical Society meeting. “Our standard model, not to put it too heavily, kind of falls through.”

    Lopez, of the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England, and colleagues discovered the purported structure, which they call simply the Giant Arc, by studying the light of about 40,000 quasars captured by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Quasars are the luminous cores of giant galaxies so distant that they appear as points of light. While en route to Earth, some of that light gets absorbed by atoms in and around foreground galaxies, leaving specific signatures in the light that eventually reaches astronomers’ telescopes (SN: 7/12/18).

    The Giant Arc’s signature is in magnesium atoms that have lost one electron, in the halos of galaxies about 9.2 billion light-years away. The quasar light absorbed by those atoms traces out a nearly symmetrical curve of dozens of galaxies spanning about one-fifteenth the radius of the observable universe, Lopez reported. The structure itself is invisible on the sky to human eyes, but if you could see it, the arc would span about 20 times the width of the full moon.

    Astronomers discovered what they say is a giant arc of galaxies (smile-shaped curve in the middle of this image) by using the light from distant quasars (blue dots) to map out where in the sky that light got absorbed by magnesium atoms in the halos (dark spots) that surround foreground galaxies.A. Lopez

    “This is a very fundamental test of the hypothesis that the universe is homogeneous on large scales,” says astrophysicist Subir Sarkar of the University of Oxford, who studies large-scale structures in the universe but was not involved in the new work. If the Giant Arc is real, “this is a very big deal.”

    But Sarkar isn’t convinced it is real yet. “Our eye has a tendency to pick up patterns,” Sarkar says, noting that some people have claimed to see cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s initials written in fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, the oldest light in the universe.

    Lopez ran three statistical tests to figure out the odds that galaxies would line up in a giant arc by chance. All three suggest that the structure is real, with one test surpassing physicists’ gold standard that the odds of it being a statistical fluke are less than 0.00003 percent.

    That sounds pretty good, but it’s not enough, Sarkar says. “Right now, I would say they still don’t have compelling evidence,” he says. More observations, from Lopez’s group and others, could confirm or refute the Giant Arc.

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    If it is real, the Giant Arc would join a growing group of large-scale structures in the universe that, taken together, would break the standard model of cosmology. This model assumes that when you look at large enough volumes of space — above about 1 billion light-years — matter is distributed evenly. The Giant Arc appears about three times as long as that theoretical threshold. It joins other structures with similarly superlative names, like the Sloan Great Wall, the Giant Gamma-Ray Burst Ring and the Huge Large Quasar Group.

    “We can have one large-scale structure that could just be a statistical fluke,” Lopez said. “That’s not the problem. All of them combined is what makes the problem even bigger.” More