Perseus’s Cosmic Dance Helps Reveal the Secrets of Galaxy Cluster Astrophysics

Stephen A. Walker
Stephen A. Walker

We welcome Stephen A. Walker, first author on our latest results from the Perseus galaxy cluster, as our guest blogger. Originally from the UK, Stephen received his PhD at the University of Cambridge, continuing there as a postdoc, before becoming a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The story begins in October 2010, when I started my PhD at the University of Cambridge. I was exploring new X-ray observations of the outskirts of galaxy clusters taken with Suzaku. Much like in a city, the outskirts are where clusters continue to grow outwards.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures of the universe, consisting of hundreds or thousands of galaxies. The total masses of clusters are colossal, reaching up to and beyond a million billion times the mass of the sun. The vast majority of the ‘normal’ matter in these clusters (like hydrogen and helium) does not actually lie in the galaxies themselves, but rather in an extremely hot and diffuse gas between the galaxies, called the intracluster medium.

As the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe, galaxy clusters continue to grow and accrete matter from the surrounding cosmic web of gas produced by the Big Bang. When the infalling gas falls into their deep gravitational potential wells, it is shock heated to tens of millions of degrees, and begins to emit prodigiously in the X-ray band.

A Cosmic Cold Front in the Perseus Cluster

A gigantic and resilient "cold front" hurtling through the Perseus galaxy cluster has been studied using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This cosmic weather system spans about two million light years and has been traveling for over 5 billion years, longer than the existence of our Solar System.

This graphic shows the cold front in the Perseus cluster. The image above contains X-ray data from Chandra — for regions close to the center of the cluster —along with data from ESA's XMM-Newton and the now-defunct German Roentgen (ROSAT) satellite for regions farther out. The Chandra data have been specially processed to brighten the contrast of edges to make subtle details more obvious.

A Crab Walks Through Time

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory launch into space. The Crab Nebula was one of the first objects that Chandra examined with its sharp X-ray vision, and it has been a frequent target of the telescope ever since.

There are many reasons that the Crab Nebula is such a well-studied object. For example, it is one of a handful of cases where there is strong historical evidence for when the star exploded. Having this definitive timeline helps astronomers understand the details of the explosion and its aftermath.

ULX in M51: Beaming with the Light of Millions of Suns

In the 1980s, scientists started discovering a new class of extremely bright sources of X-rays in galaxies. These sources were a surprise, as they were clearly located away from the supermassive black holes found in the center of galaxies. At first, researchers thought that many of these ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, were black holes containing masses between about a hundred and a hundred thousand times that of the sun. Later work has shown some of them may be stellar-mass black holes, containing up to a few tens of times the mass of the sun.

In 2014, observations with NASA's NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) and Chandra X-ray Observatory showed that a few ULXs, which glow with X-ray light equal in luminosity to the total output at all wavelengths of millions of suns, are even less massive objects called neutron stars. These are the burnt-out cores of massive stars that exploded. Neutron stars typically contain only about 1.5 times the mass of the sun. Three such ULXs were identified as neutron stars in the last few years. Scientists discovered regular variations, or "pulsations," in the X-ray emission from ULXs, behavior that is exhibited by neutron stars but not black holes.

Now, researchers using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have identified a fourth ULX as being a neutron star, and found new clues about how these objects can shine so brightly. The newly characterized ULX is located in the Whirlpool galaxy, also known as M51. This composite image of the Whirlpool contains X-rays from Chandra (purple) and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red, green, and blue). The ULX is marked with a circle.

The Billion-year Race Between Black Holes and Galaxies: Mar Mezcua

Mar Mezcua
Mar Mezcua

Mar Mezcua is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences, in Barcelona (Spain), where she is from. She is a guest blogger today and the leading author of one of the two papers highlighted in our latest press release. aShe conducted this work last year with Prof. Julie Hlavacek Larrondo while at the University of Montreal (Canada).

Supermassive black holes (SMBHs) started to fascinate me when I was 13 years old. These monsters reside at the center of massive galaxies and are the most energetic sources in the Universe. When they are actively accreting, the surrounding matter that feeds them (or that the black hole accretes) can radiate over a trillion times as much energy as the Sun, being able even to outshine the galaxy in which they reside. This feeding, or accreted, material emits X-ray radiation that we can detect with X-ray satellites such as Chandra, while the material that is ejected from the SMBH in the form of jets also often emit at radio wavelengths. (Yes, SMBHs do not only swallow but also emit outflows of energetic particles!) It is for all the above that I pursued a career in astrophysics in order to study these powerful behemoths in detail.

My first close approach took place during my PhD, when I estimated the black holes (BH) masses of a sample of SMBHs whose radio jets had a peculiar morphology. To do this, I used the close relationships that had been recently found between the mass of SMBHs and some of their host galaxy properties, such as how much light was emitted by the central bulge or how quickly and where the stars in the bulge moved.

The finding of such correlations suggested that SMBHs and their host galaxies grow in tandem — that there is a co-evolution — implying that SMBHs somehow regulate the growth of the galaxy in which they reside. As simple as it might sound, this was an astonishing discovery of the late 90’s. SMBHs typically have masses of between one million and one billion times that of the Sun and sizes similar to that of the Solar System, this is, nearly 10,000 times smaller than the galaxy that hosts them. That’s a huge difference in size! How is it then possible that such a ‘small’ central SMBH controls the whole budget of a galaxy? SMBHs were getting more and more exciting every time, so after my PhD I kept on studying them using all tools I had available: radio, optical, infrared and X-ray observations!

The Billion-year Race Between Black Holes and Galaxies: Guang Yang

Guang Yang
Guang Yang

We welcome Guang Yang, a 4th-year Astronomy graduate student at Penn State, as a guest blogger. Guang led one of the two studies reported in our new press release about the evolution of supermassive black holes and galaxies. Before studying at Penn State, he obtained his astronomy B.S. degree at the University of Science and Technology of China.

Supermassive black holes, with masses over million times that of our sun, sit in the centers of galaxies. The evolution of these black holes and their host galaxies in the past billions of years of cosmic history is still an unsolved mystery. A prevailing idea is that black hole growth is synchronized with host-galaxy growth, i.e., the ratio between black hole and galaxy growth is constant. "What a beautiful theory," I told my advisor Prof. Niel Brandt, and colleagues Dr. Chien-Ting Chen and Dr. Fabio Vito. "But is it true?” I asked. “Has someone proved it?"

We searched large amounts of literature but did not find dedicated works proving the idea, although it is widely quoted in published papers. "Then why not prove it with observations?" said my advisor. "It can be a great thesis topic for you." I was so happy that my thesis topic was settled and I even dreamed about how our data might nicely support the theory.

We painstakingly analyzed a large amount of data in the Chandra Deep Field-South & North and COSMOS surveys. We successfully tracked the black hole and galaxy growth in the distant universe with NASA's Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, and other observatories. The observations are so deep that we can study the evolution of black holes and their host galaxies 12 billion years in the past, when the Universe was less than 15% of its current age.

The Winter 'AstrOlympics' Kick Off

Winter Olympic Ice Skater

As the athletes get set to compete in Pyeongchang, Korea, the public can explore the Olympic Games in a different way through an innovative project blending science and sports. “AstrOlympics” relates the amazing feats of Olympic athletes with the spectacular phenomena found throughout space.

This project from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory highlights the physical connections between sport and space. Examining various topics including speed, distance, time, mass, rotation, and pressure, AstrOlympics explores the impressive range of these different physical properties.

Chandra Helps Track Stormy Weather Around Black Holes

X-ray Binary
Illustration: NASA/Swift/A. Simonnet, Sonoma State Univ.

An international collaboration of scientists, using data from Chandra and other X-ray telescopes over two decades, has shown that the “weather” around some black holes is stormier than previously thought.

The research, which appears in the January 22th issue of the journal Nature and is available on the arXiv, looked at 21 outbursts in X-rays from 12 X-ray binaries, that is, systems where a stellar-mass black hole is in close orbit with a companion star.

Researchers Catch Supermassive Black Hole Burping — Twice

SDSS J1354+1327
SDSS J1354+1327

Using data from several telescopes including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have caught a supermassive black hole snacking on gas and then "burping" — not once but twice, as described in our latest press release.

This graphic shows the galaxy, called SDSS J1354+1327 (J1354 for short) in a composite image with data from Chandra (purple), and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST; red, green and blue). The inset box contains a close-up view of the central region around J1354's supermassive black hole. A companion galaxy to J1354 is shown to the north. Researchers also used data from the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii and the Apache Point Observatory (APO) in New Mexico for this finding.

Chandra detected a bright, point-like source of X-ray emission from J1354, a telltale sign of the presence of a supermassive black hole millions or billions of times more massive than our sun. The X-rays are produced by gas heated to millions of degrees by the enormous gravitational and magnetic forces near the black hole. Some of this gas will fall into the black hole, while a portion will be expelled in a powerful outflow of high-energy particles.

A Scuba Dive, a (Failed) Ziploc Bag, and a Trip to the Center of the Galaxy

Chris Russell
Chris Russell

We welcome this guest post from Christopher Russell of the Pontifical Catholic University in Chile. Dr. Russell was the creator of the new immersive movies that allow viewers to explore the center of the Milky Way in 360 degrees. In this post, Dr. Russell provides the backstory of how he came to make these innovative movies.

I went to a Galactic Center meeting in Australia in July 2016, where I saw an Occulus Rift (a high-end virtual reality, or VR, setup) display by Chi-Kwan Chan (Univ. of Arizona). With the Rift, you plug it into your computer (so much more powerful rendering than available with a phone) and your position actually determines what is rendered. So if you walk left, right, forward, or backward, you are actually walking through the simulation and therefore seeing a different perspective. The thought of visualizing one of these Galactic Center simulations in this fashion was immediately apparent. Then we talked about 360/VR videos; what is required from the goggle side, computer specs, rendering programs, etc.

The day after the meeting, I went snorkeling, and unfortunately the Ziploc bag I put my phone in to keep it waterproof failed. Not one of my brightest ideas, I must say. But when I was looking for a new phone, the one I wanted (Galaxy s7) had two available promotions: get a free 256 GB memory card (useful, but not really fun), or the Samsung Gear VR goggles (definitely fun). I chose the latter, so now I could at least view 360-degree videos in their native format, and so would be able to view one of the Galactic Center if I could figure out how to make it.


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