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Study Reveals Six Galaxies Undergoing Sudden, Dramatic Transitions

Galaxies come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and brightnesses, ranging from humdrum ordinary galaxies to luminous active galaxies. While an ordinary galaxy is visible mainly because of the light from its stars, an active galaxy shines brightest at its center, or nucleus, where a supermassive black hole emits a steady blast of bright light as it voraciously consumes nearby gas and dust.

Sitting somewhere on the spectrum between ordinary and active galaxies is another class, known as low-ionization nuclear emission-line region (LINER) galaxies. While LINERs are relatively common, accounting for roughly one-third of all nearby galaxies, astronomers have fiercely debated the main source of light emission from LINERs. Some argue that weakly active galactic nuclei are responsible, while others maintain that star-forming regions outside the galactic nucleus produce the most light.

A team of astronomers observed six mild-mannered LINER galaxies suddenly and surprisingly transforming into ravenous quasars–home to the brightest of all active galactic nuclei. The team reported their observations, which could help demystify the nature of both LINERs and quasars while answering some burning questions about galactic evolution, in the Astrophysical Journal on September 18, 2019. Based on their analysis, the researchers suggest they have discovered an entirely new type of black hole activity at the centers of these six LINER galaxies.

“For one of the six objects, we first thought we had observed a tidal disruption event, which happens when a star passes too close to a supermassive black hole and gets shredded,” said Sara Frederick, a graduate student in the University of Maryland Department of Astronomy and the lead author of the research paper. “But we later found it was a previously dormant black hole undergoing a transition that astronomers call a ‘changing look,’ resulting in a bright quasar. Observing six of these transitions, all in relatively quiet LINER galaxies, suggests that we’ve identified a totally new class of active galactic nucleus.”

All six of the surprising transitions were observed during the first nine months of the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), an automated sky survey project based at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, which began observations in March 2018. UMD is a partner in the ZTF effort, facilitated by the Joint Space-Science Institute (JSI), a partnership between UMD and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Changing look transitions have been documented in other galaxies–most commonly in a class of active galaxies known as Seyfert galaxies. By definition, Seyfert galaxies all have a bright, active galactic nucleus, but Type 1 and Type 2 Seyfert galaxies differ in the amount of light they emit at specific wavelengths. According to Frederick, many astronomers suspect that the difference results from the angle at which astronomers view the galaxies.

Type 1 Seyfert galaxies are thought to face Earth head-on, giving an unobstructed view of their nuclei, while Type 2 Seyfert galaxies are tilted at an oblique angle, such that their nuclei are partially obscured by a donut-shaped ring of dense, dusty gas clouds. Thus, changing look transitions between these two classes present a puzzle for astronomers, since a galaxy’s orientation towards Earth is not expected to change.

Frederick and her colleagues’ new observations may call these assumptions into question.

© R. Buta (University of Alabama/Image enhancement: Jean-Baptiste Faur Spiral Seyfert Galaxy NGC 3081: Seyfert galaxies are one of the two largest groups of active galaxies, along with quasars. They have quasar-like nuclei with very high surface brightnesses whose spectra reveal strong, high-ionisation emission lines, but unlike quasars, their host galaxies are clearly detectable.

© R. Buta (University of Alabama/Image enhancement: Jean-Baptiste Faur
Spiral Seyfert Galaxy NGC 3081: Seyfert galaxies are one of the two largest groups of active galaxies, along with quasars. They have quasar-like nuclei with very high surface brightnesses whose spectra reveal strong, high-ionisation emission lines, but unlike quasars, their host galaxies are clearly detectable.

“We started out trying to understand changing look transformations in Seyfert galaxies. But instead, we found a whole new class of active galactic nucleus capable of transforming a wimpy galaxy to a luminous quasar,” said Suvi Gezari, an associate professor of astronomy at UMD, a co-director of JSI and a co-author of the research paper. “Theory suggests that a quasar should take thousands of years to turn on, but these observations suggest that it can happen very quickly. It tells us that the theory is all wrong. We thought that Seyfert transformation was the major puzzle. But now we have a bigger issue to solve.”

Frederick and her colleagues want to understand how a previously quiet galaxy with a calm nucleus can suddenly transition to a bright beacon of galactic radiation. To learn more, they performed follow-up observations on the objects with the Discovery Channel Telescope, which is operated by the Lowell Observatory in partnership with UMD, Boston University, the University of Toledo and Northern Arizona University. These observations helped to clarify aspects of the transitions, including how the rapidly transforming galactic nuclei interacted with their host galaxies.

“Our findings confirm that LINERs can, in fact, host active supermassive black holes at their centers,” Frederick said. “But these six transitions were so sudden and dramatic, it tells us that there is something altogether different going on in these galaxies. We want to know how such massive amounts of gas and dust can suddenly start falling into a black hole. Because we caught these transitions in the act, it opens up a lot of opportunities to compare what the nuclei looked like before and after the transformation.”

Unlike most quasars, which light up the surrounding clouds of gas and dust far beyond the galactic nucleus, the researchers found that only the gas and dust closest to the nucleus had been turned on. Frederick, Gezari and their collaborators suspect that this activity gradually spreads from the galactic nucleus–and may provide the opportunity to map the development of a newborn quasar.

“It’s surprising that any galaxy can change its look on human time scales. These changes are taking place much more quickly than we can explain with current quasar theory,” Frederick said. “It will take some work to understand what can disrupt a galaxy’s accretion structure and cause these changes on such short order. The forces at play must be very extreme and very dramatic.”

In addition to Frederick and Gezari, UMD-affiliated co-authors of the research paper include Adjunct Associate Professor of Astronomy Bradley Cenko, former Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellow Erin Kara and astronomy graduate student Charlotte Ward.

More information: Sara Frederick et al, A New Class of Changing-look LINERs, The Astrophysical Journal (2019). DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ab3a38

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Headline Image: © (Left; infrared & visible light imagery): ESA/Hubble, NASA and S. Smartt (Queen’s University Belfast); (Right; artist’s concept): NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Space

Voyager 2 has discovered something amazing: Denser space outside the solar system

In November 2018, after a 41-year voyage, Voyager 2 crossed the boundary beyond which the Sun’s influence ends, and entered interstellar space. But the mission of the little probe is not yet complete – it continues to make amazing discoveries

Perhaps the probes have found some kind of traffic jam at the edge of the solar system. The Voyager flight continues and we will soon find out what it was.

Voyager 2 discovered something amazing: as the distance from the Sun increases, the density of space increases.

Voyager 1, which entered interstellar space in 2012, transmitted similar indicators to Earth. New data have shown that the increase in density may be a feature of the interstellar medium.

The solar system has several boundaries, one of which, called the heliopause, is determined by the solar wind, or rather by its significant weakening. The space inside the heliopause is the heliosphere, and the space outside is the interstellar medium. But the heliosphere is not round. It looks more like an oval, in which the solar system is at the leading edge, and a kind of tail stretches behind it.

Both Voyagers crossed the heliopause at the leading edge, but within 67 degrees heliographic latitude and 43 degrees longitude apart.

Interstellar space is usually considered a vacuum, but this is not entirely true. The density of matter is extremely small, but it still exists. In the solar system, the solar wind has an average density of protons and electrons from 3 to 10 particles per cubic centimeter, but it is lower the further from the Sun.

The average concentration of electrons in the interstellar space of the Milky Way is estimated to be about 0.037 particles per cubic centimeter. And the plasma density in the outer heliosphere reaches approximately 0.002 electrons per cubic centimeter. When the Voyager probes crossed the heliopause, their instruments recorded the electron density of the plasma through plasma oscillations.

Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause on August 25, 2012 at a distance of 121.6 astronomical units from the Earth (121.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun – about 18.1 billion km). When he first measured plasma oscillations after crossing the heliopause on October 23, 2013 at a distance of 122.6 astronomical units (18.3 billion km), he found a plasma density of 0.055 electrons per cubic centimeter.

After flying another 20 astronomical units (2.9 billion kilometers), Voyager 1 reported an increase in the density of interstellar space to 0.13 electrons per cubic centimeter.

Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause on November 5, 2018 at a distance of 119 astronomical units (17.8 billion kilometers. On January 30, 2019, it measured plasma oscillations at a distance of 119.7 astronomical units (17.9 billion kilometers), finding that the density plasma is 0.039 electrons per cubic centimeter.

In June 2019, Voyager 2’s Instruments showed a sharp increase in density to about 0.12 electrons per cubic centimeter at a distance of 124.2 astronomical units (18.5 billion kilometers).

What caused the increase in the density of space? One theory is that the lines of force of the interstellar magnetic field become stronger with distance from the heliopause. This can cause electromagnetic ion cyclotron instability. Voyager 2 did detect an increase in the magnetic field after crossing the heliopause.

Another theory is that the material carried away by the interstellar wind should slow down in the heliopause, forming a kind of plug, as evidenced by the weak ultraviolet glow detected by the New Horizons probe in 2018, caused by the accumulation of neutral hydrogen in the heliopause.

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NASA has banned fighting and littering on the moon

New details of the agreement signed by representatives of a number of countries on the development of the moon and the extraction of minerals within the framework of the Artemis program have appeared. Reported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

So, astronauts involved in the mission are prohibited from littering and fighting on the territory of a natural satellite of the Earth.

So, we present to you the new rules for being on the Moon:

Everyone comes in peace;

Confidentiality is prohibited, all launched objects must be identified and registered;

All travel participants agree to help each other in case of emergencies;

All received data is transferred to the rest of the participants, and space systems must be universal;

Historic sites must be preserved and all rubbish must be disposed of;

Rovers and spacecraft should not interfere with other participants.

“”It is important not only to go to the moon with our astronauts, but also that we bring our values ​​with us,” said Mike Gold, acting head of NASA’s international and inter-agency relations.

According to him, violators of the above rules will be asked to “just leave” the territory of the moon.

The effect of these principles so far applies to eight signatory countries of the agreement: the USA, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Countries other than China can join if they wish.

 It should be noted that at the moment NASA is prohibited from signing any bilateral agreements with the PRC leadership.

The first NASA mission to the moon, known as “Artemis 1”, is scheduled for 2021 without astronauts, and “Artemis 2” will fly with a crew in 2023.

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Methane snow found on the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains

Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above the surface of the planet.

In the images of the Cthulhu region – a dark region in the equatorial regions of Pluto – planetary scientists have found large reserves of methane snow that covers the peaks of local mountains and hills. It formed quite differently from how snow forms on Earth, astronomers write in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

“The white caps on the tops of Pluto’s mountains did not arise from the cooling of air currents that rise along the slopes into the upper atmosphere, as it happens on Earth, but from the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above Pluto’s surface. This gas condensed on the mountain tops, “the scientists write.

We owe almost everything we know about Pluto to the New Horizons interplanetary station. It was launched in January 2006, and in mid-July 2015 the station reached the Pluto system. New Horizons flew just 13 thousand km from the dwarf planet, taking many photographs of its surface. 

New Horizons data indicated an interesting feature of Pluto – in its depths, a giant subglacial ocean of liquid water can be hidden. It can be a kind of engine of those geological processes, traces of which can be seen on the surface of a dwarf planet. Because of this discovery of New Horizons, many discussions began among planetary scientists. Scientists are trying to understand how such a structure could have arisen, as well as to find out the appearance of Pluto in the distant past.

Members of the New Horizons science team and their colleagues from France, led by planetary scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center (USA) Tanguy Bertrand, have discovered another unusual feature of Pluto. They studied the relief of one of the regions of the dwarf planet – the Cthulhu region. This is what astronomers call a large dark region at Pluto’s equator, which is whale-like in shape and is covered in many craters, mountains and hills.

Snow in Pluto’s mountains

By analyzing images of these structures taken by the LORRI camera installed on board New Horizons, astronomers have noticed many blank spots on the slopes of the highest mountain peaks. Having studied their composition, scientists have found that they consist mainly of methane.

Initially, planetary scientists assumed that these are deposits of methane ice. However, Bertrand and his colleagues found that the slopes and even the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains are actually covered not only with ice, but also with exotic methane snow that forms right on their surface.

Planetary scientists came to this conclusion by calculating how methane behaves in Pluto’s atmosphere. In doing so, they took into account how the molecules of its gases interact with the sun’s rays and other heat sources. It turned out that at the equator of Pluto, at an altitude of 2-3 km from its surface, due to the special nature of the movement of winds, unique conditions have formed, due to which snow is formed from methane vapor.

Unlike Earth, where such deposits are formed as a result of the rise of warm air into the upper atmosphere, on Pluto this process goes in the opposite direction – as a result of contact of the cold surface of the peaks and slopes of mountains with warm air masses from the relatively high layers of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

Previously, as noted by Bertrand and his colleagues, scientists did not suspect that this was possible. The fact is that they did not take into account that due to the deposition of even a small amount of methane snow and ice, the reflectivity of the peaks and slopes of mountains in the Cthulhu region increases. As a result, their surface temperature drops sharply, and snow forms even faster.

Scientists suggest that another mysterious feature of Pluto’s relief could have arisen in a similar way – the so-called Tartarus Ridges, located east of the Sputnik plain. A distinctive feature of this mountainous region is strange peaks that are shaped like skyscrapers or blades. Bertrand and his colleagues suggest that these peaks are also methane ice deposits that grow “from top to bottom.”

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