SOCIETY FOR POPULAR ASTRONOMY Electronic News Bulletin No. 507 Jan 26

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    THE SOCIETY FOR POPULAR ASTRONOMY Electronic News Bulletin No. 507 2020 January 26

    Here is the latest round-up of news from the Society for Popular Astronomy.  The SPA is arguably Britain's liveliest astronomical society, with members all over the world. We accept subscription payments online at our secure site and can take credit and debit cards. You can join or renew via a secure server or just see how much we have to offer by visiting

    Field Museum

    Stars have life cycles. They're born when bits of dust and gas floating through space find each other and collapse in on each other and heat up. They burn for millions to billions of years, and then they die. When they die, they pitch the particles that formed in their winds out into space, and those bits of stardust eventually form new stars, along with new planets and moons and meteorites. And in a meteorite that fell fifty years ago in Australia, scientists have now discovered stardust that formed 5 to 7 billion years ago — the oldest solid material ever found
    on Earth. The materials that have been examined are called presolar grains-minerals formed before the Sun was born. These bits of stardust became trapped in meteorites where they remained unchanged for billions of years, making them time capsules of the time before the solar system. But presolar grains are hard to come by. They're rare, found only in about five percent of meteorites that have fallen to Earth, and they're tiny -a hundred of the biggest ones would fit on the period at the end of this sentence. But the Field Museum has the largest portion of the Murchison meteorite, a treasure trove of presolar grains that fell in Australia in
    1969. Presolar grains for this study were isolated from the Murchison meteorite for this study about 30 years ago at the University of Chicago. Once the presolar grains were isolated, the researchers figured out from what types of stars they came and how old they were.
    The researchers learned that some of the presolar grains in their sample were the oldest ever discovered-based on how many cosmic rays they'd soaked up, most of the grains had to be 4.6 to 4.9 billion years old, and some grains were even older than 5.5 billion years. For context, our Sun is 4.6 billion years old, and Earth is 4.5 billion. But the age of the presolar grains wasn't the end of the discovery.  Since presolar grains are formed when a star dies, they can tell us about the history of stars. And 7 billion years ago, there was apparently a bumper crop of new stars forming-a sort of stellar baby boom. Scientists hypothesize that the
    majority of those grains, which are 4.9 to 4.6 billion years old, formed in an episode of enhanced star formation. There was a time before the start of the Solar System when more stars formed than normal. This finding is ammo in a debate between scientists about whether or not new stars form at a steady rate, or if there are highs and lows in the number of new stars over time. Some people think that the star formation rate of the galaxy is constant but thanks to these grains, we now have direct evidence for a period of enhanced star formation in our galaxy seven billion years ago with samples from meteorites.

    National Institutes of Natural Sciences

    Astronomers at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) have analyzed the paths of two objects heading out of the Solar System forever and determined that they also most likely originated from outside of the Solar System.  These results improve our understanding of the outer Solar System and beyond.  Not all comets follow closed orbits around the Sun. Some fly through the Solar System at high speed before heading out to interstellar space, never to return.  Although it is simple to calculate where these comets are going, determining where they came from is more difficult. There are two possible scenarios. In the first scenario, a comet is originally in a stable orbit far from the Sun, but gravitational interactions with a passing object pull the comet out of its orbit. The comet then falls into the inner Solar System where it can be observed before being flung out into interstellar space. In the second scenario, a comet originates someplace very far away, perhaps a different planetary system, and as it flies through interstellar space, by random chance it passes through the Solar System once before continuing on its way. Astronomers calculated the types of trajectories which would typically be expected in each scenario. The team then compared their calculations to observations of two unusual outbound objects, 1I/'Oumuamua discovered in 2017 and 2I/Borisov discovered in 2019. They found that the interstellar origin scenario provides the better match for the paths of both objects. The team also showed that it is possible for gas-giant-sized bodies passing close to the Solar System to destabilize long-orbit comets and set them on paths similar to the paths of these two objects. Survey observations have not uncovered any gas-giant-sized bodies which can be linked to these two outbound
    objects, but further study, both theoretical and observational, of small interstellar objects is needed to better determine the origins of these objects.


    The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star's habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface. Scientists confirmed the find, called TOI 700 d, using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and have modelled the planet's potential environments to help inform future observations. TOI 700 d is one of only a few Earth-size planets discovered in a star's habitable zone so far. Others include several planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and other worlds discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. Discovering TOI 700 d is a key science finding for TESS. Confirming the planet's size and habitable zone status with Spitzer is another win for Spitzer as it approaches the end of science operations this January. TESS monitors large swaths of the sky, called sectors, for 27 days at a time. This long stare allows the satellite to track changes in stellar brightness caused by an orbiting planet crossing in front of its star from our perspective, an event called a transit. TOI 700 is a small, cool M dwarf star located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It's roughly 40% of the Sun's mass and size and about half its surface temperature. The star appears in 11 of the 13 sectors TESS observed during the mission's first year, and scientists caught multiple transits by its three planets. The star was originally misclassified in the TESS database as being more similar to our Sun, which meant the planets appeared larger and hotter than they really are. Several researchers, including Alton Spencer, a high school student working with members of the TESS team, identified the error.

    The innermost planet, called TOI 700 b, is almost exactly Earth-size, is probably rocky and completes an orbit every 10 days. The middle planet, TOI 700 c, is 2.6 times larger than Earth – between the sizes of Earth and Neptune – orbits every 16 days and is likely a gas-dominated world. TOI 700 d, the outermost known planet in the system and the only one in the habitable zone, measures 20% larger than Earth, orbits every 37 days and receives from its star 86% of the energy that the Sun provides to Earth. All of the planets are thought to be tidally locked to their star, which means they rotate once per orbit so that one side is constantly bathed
    in daylight. The Spitzer data increased scientists' confidence that TOI 700 d is a real planet and sharpened their measurements of its orbital period by 56% and its size by 38%. It also ruled out other possible astrophysical causes of the transit signal, such as the presence of a smaller, dimmer companion star in the system.  The team also used follow-up observations from a 1-metre ground-based telescope in the global Las Cumbres Observatory network to improve scientists' confidence in the orbital period and size of TOI 700 c by 30% and 36%,
    respectively. Because TOI 700 is bright, nearby, and shows no sign of stellar flares, the system is a prime candidate for precise mass measurements by current ground-based observatories. These measurements could confirm scientists' estimates that the inner and outer planets are rocky and the middle planet is made of gas. Future missions may be able to identify whether the planets have atmospheres and, if so, even determine their compositions. While the exact conditions on TOI 700 d are unknown, scientists can use current information, like the planet's size and the type of star it orbits, to generate computer models and make predictions. Researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, modelled 20 potential environments of TOI 700 d to gauge if any version would result in surface temperatures and pressures suitable for habitability.

    University of California – Los Angeles

    Astronomers from UCLA's Galactic Center Orbits Initiative have discovered a new class of bizarre objects at the centre of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. The new objects look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole. Their orbits range from about 100 to 1,000 years. The research group identified an unusual object at the centre of our galaxy in 2005, which was later named G1. In 2012, astronomers in Germany made a puzzling discovery of a bizarre object named G2 in the centre of the Milky Way that made a close approach to the supermassive black hole in 2014. The team believe that G2 is most likely two stars that had been orbiting the black hole in tandem and merged into an extremely large star, cloaked in unusually thick gas and dust. At the time of closest approach, G2 had a really strange signature. It had been seen before, but it didn't look too peculiar until it got close to the black hole and became elongated, and much of its gas was torn apart. It went from being a pretty
    innocuous object when it was far from the black hole to one that was really stretched out and distorted at its closest approach and lost its outer shell, and now it's getting more compact again. What has made everyone excited about the G objects is that the stuff that gets pulled off of them by tidal forces as they sweep by the central black hole must inevitably fall into the black hole. When that happens, it might be able to produce an impressive fireworks show since the material eaten by the black hole will heat up and emit copious radiation before it disappears across the event horizon. But are G2 and G1 outliers, or are they part of a larger
    class of objects? In answer to that question, the research group reports the existence of four more objects they are calling G3, G4, G5 and G6. The researchers have determined each of their orbits. While G1 and G2 have similar orbits, the four new objects have very different orbits.
    The team believes all six objects were binary stars — a system of two stars orbiting each other — that merged because of the strong gravitational force of the supermassive black hole. The merging of two stars takes more than 1 million years to complete. Mergers of stars may be happening in the universe more often than we thought, and likely are quite common. Black holes may be driving binary stars to merge. It's possible that many of the stars we've been watching and not understanding may be the end product of mergers that are calm now. We are
    learning how galaxies and black holes evolve. The way binary stars interact with each other and with the black hole is very different from how single stars interact with other single stars and with the black hole. The team noted that while the gas from G2's outer shell got stretched dramatically, its dust inside the gas did not get stretched much. Something must have kept it compact and enabled it to survive its encounter with the black hole. This is evidence for a stellar object inside G2. In September 2019, the team reported that the black hole is getting hungrier and it is unclear why. The stretching of G2 in 2014 appeared to pull off gas that may
    recently have been swallowed by the black hole. The team has already identified a few other candidates that may be part of this new class of objects, and are continuing to analyze them.

    University of Erlangen-Nuremberg

    Stellar black holes form when massive stars end their life in a dramatic collapse. Observations have shown that stellar black holes typically have masses of about ten times that of the Sun, in accordance with the theory of stellar evolution.  Recently, a Chinese team of astronomers claimed to have discovered a black hole as massive as 70 solar masses, which, if confirmed, would severely challenge the current view of stellar evolution. The publication immediately triggered theoretical investigations as well as additional observations by other astrophysicists. Among those to take a closer look at the object was a team of astronomers from the
    Universities of Erlangen-Nürnberg and Potsdam. They discovered that it may not necessarily be a black hole at all, but possibly a massive neutron star or even an 'ordinary' star. The putative black hole was detected indirectly from the motion of a bright companion star, orbiting an invisible compact object over a period of about 80 days. From new observations, a Belgian team showed that the original measurements were misinterpreted and that the mass of the black hole is, in fact, very uncertain. The most important question, namely how the observed binary system was created, remains unanswered. A crucial aspect is the mass of the visible companion, the hot star LS V+22 25. The more massive this star is, the more massive the black hole has to be to induce the observed motion of the bright star. The latter was considered to be a normal star, eight times more massive than the Sun. A team of astronomers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and the University of Potsdam had a closer look at the archival spectrum of LS V+22 25, taken by the Keck telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. In particular, they were interested in studying the abundances of the chemical elements on the stellar surface. Interestingly, they detected
    deviations in the abundances of helium, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen compared to the standard composition of a young massive star. The observed pattern on the surface showed ashes resulting from the nuclear fusion of hydrogen, a process that only happens deep in the core of young stars and would not be expected to be detected at its surface.
    At first glance, the spectrum did indeed look like one from a young massive star.  However, several properties appeared rather suspicious. This motivated the team concluded that LS V+22 25 must have interacted with its compact companion in the past. During this episode of mass-transfer, the outer layers of the star were removed and now the stripped helium core is visible, enriched with the ashes from the burning of hydrogen. However, stripped helium stars are much lighter than their normal counterparts. Combining their results with recent distance
    measurements from the Gaia space telescope, the authors determined a most likely stellar mass of only 1.1 (with an uncertainty of +/-0.5) times that of the Sun.  This yields a minimum mass of only 2-3 solar masses for the compact companion, suggesting that it may not necessarily be a black hole at all, but possibly a massive neutron star or even an 'ordinary' star. The star LS V+22 25 has become famous for possibly having a massive black hole companion. However, a closer look at the star itself reveals that it is a very intriguing object in its own right, as whilst stripped helium stars of intermediate mass have been predicted in theory, only very few have been discovered so far. They are key objects to understanding
    binary star interactions.

    University of California – Davis

    Warm, cold, just right? Physicists at the University of California, Davis are taking the temperature of dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up about a quarter of our universe. We have very little idea of what dark matter is and physicists have yet to detect a dark matter particle. But we do know that the gravity of clumps of dark matter can distort light from distant objects. Now astronomers are using this distortion, called gravitational lensing, to learn more about the properties of dark matter. The standard model for dark matter is that it
    is 'cold,' meaning that the particles move slowly compared to the speed of light.  This is also tied to the mass of dark matter particles. The lower the mass of the particle, the 'warmer' it is and the faster it will move. The model of cold (more massive) dark matter holds at very large scales but doesn't work so well on the scale of individual galaxies. That's led to other models including 'warm' dark matter with lighter, faster-moving particles. 'Hot' dark matter with particles moving close to the speed of light has been ruled out by observations. Astronomers have
    used gravitational lensing to put a limit on the warmth and therefore the mass of dark matter. They measured the brightness of seven distant gravitationally lensed quasars to look for changes caused by additional intervening blobs of dark matter and used these results to measure the size of these dark matter lenses. If dark matter particles are lighter, warmer and more rapidly-moving, then they will not form structures below a certain size. Below a certain size, they would just get smeared out. The results put a lower limit on the mass of a potential dark matter particle while not ruling out cold dark matter.
    Bulletin compiled by Clive Down
    (c) 2020 The Society for Popular Astronomy

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