A Celestial Companion for 2007

Daily celestial guide

The last regular posting of 2006 is a good time to remind you that Tammy Plotner’s What’s Up 2007 is now available. It’s a 410 page PDF file that takes you through celestial events on a day to day basis for the entire year. Loaded with photographs and charts, What’s Up 2007 is free to download, or you can buy a printed version for $25. A third alternative is to check the Astronomy What’s Up weblog daily, where each day’s entry will be posted as the year progresses.

I skipped ahead at random and landed on February 14, which I learned from Plotner’s book is not only Valentine’s Day but also the birthday of astronomer Fritz Zwicky, who catalogued galaxy clusters and did yeoman work on supernovae. The celestial object for the day is the Spirograph Nebula, whose image (taken by the Hubble telescope) adorns the page.

Plotner’s clear prose walks us through the basics:

…the light you see tonight from the IC 408 planetary nebula left in the year 7 AD. Its central star, much like our own Sol, was in the final stages of its life at that time, and but a few thousand years earlier was a red giant. As it shed its layers off into about a tenth of a light-year of space, only its superheated core remained—its ultraviolet radiation lighting up the expelled gas. Perhaps in several thousand years the nebula will have faded away, and in several billion years more the central star will have become a white dwarf — a fate that also awaits our own Sun.

My advice is to track daily celestial events through the weblog or else buy the printed copy, but then I have a notorious distaste for the PDF format. Whatever your choice, you’ll want to consult the tips and background information the book provides again and again. Around here, an ever present danger is to get so absorbed in astronomical theory that I forget to go outside and actually look up. What’s Up 2007 is a good antidote, a stimulating way to reconnect with the wonder of the night sky.

Tightening the Focus on Dark Matter

Interesting things happen when gravitational lenses go to work. The earliest observations of the phenomenon involved entire clusters of galaxies. When the alignment is right, a galaxy cluster between the observer and a still more distant galaxy will bend the light of that galaxy. It will appear as one or more luminous arcs which are actually made up of its multiple images distorted (and magnified) by the gravitational lens.

Lensing in galaxy groups

All this happens because, as Einstein told us, spacetime is curved by the presence of matter. Here’s how gravitational lensing looks. Notice the blue arcs of the lensed galaxy in the background surrounding the galaxies at their center, which have distorted spacetime enough to make this image possible.

The latest work on the lensing phenomenon focuses on smaller structures like groups — rather than entire clusters — of galaxies. Astronomers using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (Hawaii) are devoting 500 nights of telescope time to a survey of an area of the sky comparable to four full moons. The effort will be stretched over a five year period.

Image: This example of a galaxy group lens in the CFHTLS-SL2S, called SL2SJ021408-053532, shows a very complex arc structure (in blue). Such complex arc geometries allow us to probe the details of the dark matter profiles associated with the group of yellow galaxies in the center of the image. Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation 2006.

Lensing arcs around various groups of galaxies have begun showing up in the survey. They’re more than just intriguing visual objects. In fact, they provide an opportunity to study the distribution of dark matter in the galaxy groups in question, telling us much about mass we can see and mass that remains dark but provides its signature through the operation of curved spacetime. We’ve only been looking at gravitational lensing for twenty years now, but it’s clear these unusual displays are becoming prime tools for understanding the large scale structure of the cosmos.

Meanwhile, on Centauri B…

With COROT on its way, the search for exoplanets moves into a new phase with an active, space-based transit study. Launched from Baikonur (Kazakhstan) yesterday, the mission’s status reports will be available online and should provide fascinating reading. After all, COROT will monitor 120,000 stars with its 30-centimeter telescope, looking for the signatures of planetary transits. That means the kind of ‘hot Jupiters’ we’ve already found around many stars, but it should also involve smaller rocky worlds, some perhaps not all that much larger than Earth.

But notice what COROT stands for: ‘Convection Rotation and Planetary Transits.’ The first part of that phrase refers to asteroseismology, the study of stellar interiors by examining the acoustic waves that move across the surface of stars. That means COROT will be able to detect so-called ‘starquakes’ that well up from deep inside the star. Examining their strength and duration tells astronomers much about the star’s mass and composition, and it can also help pin down the star’s age.

That last point is worth noting in relation to the Centauri stars. Yesterday we looked at the odd dimming of Centauri A in x-ray wavelengths, implying some sort of coronal cycle that had not been observed by earlier researchers. Asteroseismology is one way we can learn more about the Centauri stars, but here too there is an anomaly. It’s spelled out in an interesting paper by Mutlu Yildiz (Ege University, Turkey), who notes that our values for the age of these stars vary depending on the observing method.

Here’s the problem: We can use ground-based spectrography to gather data about the seismic properties of the Centauri stars. Indeed, the internal structure of both Centauri A and B has been widely tackled, and age estimates of from 4.85 to 7.6 billion years have emerged from this work. However, using parameters like mass, radius, luminosity, metallicity and so on instead of seismic data gives a different value indeed, suggesting they are as much as 8.88 billion years old. The seismic studies, in other words, give different values than these observations.

Here’s Yildiz on the issue:

The reason for such a great age for the system is that the observed luminosity of α Cen A is much greater than that of α Cen B according to their masses. Because α Cen A evolves faster than α Cen B, an old age is required for a simultaneous agreement between the models and observations. However, we should also question the accuracy of the observed values…

So it comes down to this. The latest seismic values that Yildiz plugs in show an age of 5.6 to 5.9 billion years for the Centauri stars. But the luminosities of Centauri A and B don’t match such a young age. In fact, based on the seismic studies’ age estimate, the expected luminosity of Centauri B is 15 percent larger than what we actually see.

Centauri B, in other words, is not bright enough for its apparent age. If it is as young as the seismic studies suggest, it should be brighter. If the seismic studies are correct, that seems to be telling us we need to reduce our estimate of Centauri B’s mass or change our value for its radius. Or — and this is the most probable answer — it may point to seismic processes that don’t fit existing models. Figuring this out may bring the age estimates into agreement, and should help to refine our understanding of seismic properties at Centauri and elsewhere.

Yildiz believes the Centauri stars are useful as a testbed whose seismic data can be measured against other systems, and he analyzes the methods that should direct such studies. The paper is Yildiz, “Models of α Centauri A and B with and without seismic constraints: time dependence of the mixing-length parameter,” slated for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and available online as a preprint.

The Darkening of Centauri A

Take a look at the image of Alpha Centauri in the Centauri Dreams logo. It’s the bright object at far left, not the single star that it appears but a triple system whose glare masks its two major components. Centauri A is a G2 star much like our Sun, while Centauri B is a K1. The two are separated by an average of 23 AU, with an orbital period of some eighty years. Indiscernible in the image is Proxima Centauri, an M-class dwarf which is actually the closest star to Earth.

Bright, nearby and highly studied, the Centauri stars would seemingly be well characterized. But new results from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton x-ray satellite show anomalies. Unlike optical wavelengths, where the larger Centauri A dominates, Centauri B is the brighter object in x-ray emissions. What’s odd is that repeated monitoring of the two by XMM-Newton shows that Centauri A faded by no less than an order of magnitude in x-rays during the two-year observing range, a behavior out of keeping with all prior observations of the star at these wavelengths.

Below are side by side views of Centauri A and B in x-ray wavelengths. Note in the image on the left that Centauri A shows up just above and left of the brighter Centauri B in these wavelengths. The later image, on the right, shows a dramatic drop in x-ray brightness.

X-ray views of Alpha Centauri

Image (click to enlarge): Two EPIC MOS images of Alpha Centauri A+B, taken in March 2003 (left) and Feb. 2005 (right). The separation of Alpha Centauri A+B is in March 2003 around 12″, in Feb. 2005 somewhat above 10″. Alpha Cen B is the X-ray brighter object down right and exhibits a comparable X-ray luminosity in both exposures. In contrast Alpha Cen A, a star very similar to our Sun, is only visible in the left image. It has fainted in X-rays by at least an order of magnitude, a behaviour never observed before despite several observations of the Alpha Centauri system over the last 25 years. Image and caption credit: Robrade, Jan and ESA.

From a recent paper on this work:

…a strong decrease of the total emission measure is necessary to explain our findings. While smaller differences in the long term evolution of X-ray luminosity may be explained by the use of the various instruments, the decline seen over the XMM-Newton campaign can only be explained by a X-ray activity cycle or an irregular event. While no definite statement can be made about an irregular event, the scenario of an activity cycle would require, that all previous X-ray measurements were made when α Cen A was near the ‘high state’ of its cycle. Putting all the observation dates together, this would require a cycle with a duration of ~ 3.4 years from maximum to maximum.

A definitive statement on the cause of this x-ray ‘fainting’ is impossible without further data. We do know that our own Sun has a coronal activity cycle with a period of some eleven years. Centauri A’s similarity to the Sun makes further study of Solar x-ray emissions a possible key to the mystery, but it seems remarkable that such a cycle would have gone unnoticed until now. It will be interesting to see what this ongoing observation program comes up with next. Also interesting: the XMM-Newton work has observed a flare on Centauri B, confirming its nature as a flare star.

The paper is Robrade et al., “X-rays from Alpha Centauri – The darkening of the solar twin,” accepted by Astronomy & Astrophysics, with preprint available online. Thanks to Ian Jordan (Space Telescope Science Institute) for the heads-up on this work.