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Aug. 1, 2010

The Turbulent Tale of a Tiny Galaxy

by Trudy Bell and Dr. Tony Phillips

Next time you hike in the woods, pause at a babbling stream. Watch carefully how the water flows around rocks. After piling up in curved waves on the upstream side, like the bow wave in front of a motorboat, the water speeds around the rock, spilling into a riotous, turbulent wake downstream. Lightweight leaves or grass blades can get trapped in the wake, swirling round and round in little eddy currents that collect debris.

Astronomers have found something similar happening in the turbulent wake of a tiny galaxy that is plunging into a cluster of 1,500 galaxies in the constellation Virgo. In this case, however, instead of collecting grass and leaves, eddy currents in the little galaxy’s tail seem to be gathering gaseous material to make new stars.

“It’s a fascinating case of turbulence [rather than gravity] trapping the gas, allowing it to become dense enough to form stars,” says Janice A. Hester of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The tell-tale galaxy, designated IC 3418, is only a hundredth the size of the Milky Way and hardly stands out in visible light images of the busy Virgo Cluster. Astronomers realized it was interesting, however, when they looked at it using NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite. “Ultraviolet images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer revealed a long tail filled with clusters of massive, young stars,” explains Hester.  

Galaxies with spectacular tails have been seen before. Usually they are behemoths—large spiral galaxies colliding with one another in the crowded environment of a busy cluster.  Tidal forces during the collision pull gas and stars of all ages out of these massive galaxies to form long tails. But in IC 3418, the tail has just young stars. No old stars.

“The lack of older stars was one tip-off that IC 3418’s tail isn’t tidal,” says Hester. “Something else must be responsible for these stars”

Hester and eight coauthors published their findings in the June 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The team described the following scenario: IC 3418 is speeding toward the center of the Virgo cluster at 1,000 kilometers per second. The space between cluster galaxies is not empty; it is filled with a gaseous atmosphere of diffuse, hot hydrogen. Thus, like a bicyclist coasting downhill feels wind even on a calm day, IC 3418 experiences “a stiff wind” that sweeps interstellar gas right out of the little galaxy, said Hester—gas that trails far behind its galaxy in a choppy, twisting wake akin to the wake downstream of the rock in the babbling brook. Eddy currents swirling in the turbulent wake trap the gas, allowing it to become dense enough to form stars.

“Astronomers have long debated the importance of gravity vs. turbulence in star formation,” Hester noted. “In IC 3418’s tail, it’s ALL turbulence.”

To many astronomers, that’s a surprising tale indeed.

See other surprising UV images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer at Kids (and grownups) can play the challenging new Photon Pileup game at .

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Ultraviolet image from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows star formation in the turbulent ake of galaxy IC 3418. In the ultraviolet image on the left, from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, galaxy IC 3418 leaves a turbulent star forming region in its wake. In the visible light image on the right (from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey), the wake with its new stars is not apparent.

Sept. 1, 2010

The Hunt is On!

by Carolyn Brinkworth

The world of astronomy was given new direction on August 13, 2010, with the publication of the Astro2010 Decadal Survey. Astro2010 is the latest in a series of surveys produced every 10 years by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences. This council is a team of senior astronomers who recommend priorities for the most important topics and missions for the next decade.

Up near the top of their list this decade is the search for Earth-like planets around other stars—called “extrasolar planets” or “exoplanets” —which has become one of the hottest topics in astronomy.

The first planet to be found orbiting a star like our Sun was discovered in 1995. The planet, called “51 Peg b,” is a “Hot Jupiter.” It is about 160 times the mass of Earth and orbits so close to its parent star that its gaseous “surface” is seared by its blazing sun. With no solid surface, and temperatures of about 1000 degrees Celsius (1700 Fahrenheit), there was no chance of finding life on this distant world. Since that discovery, astronomers have been on the hunt for smaller and more Earth-like planets, and today we know of around 470 extrasolar planets, ranging from about 4 times to 8000 times the mass of Earth.

This explosion in extrasolar planet discoveries is only set to get bigger, with a NASA mission called Kepler that was launched last year. After staring at a single small patch of sky for 43 days, Kepler has detected the definite signatures of seven new exoplanets, plus 706 “planetary candidates” that are unconfirmed and in need of further investigation. Kepler is likely to revolutionize our understanding of Earth's place in the Universe.

We don't yet have the technology to search for life on exoplanets. However, the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope has detected molecules that are the basic building blocks of life in two exoplanet atmospheres.  Most extrasolar planets appear unsuitable for supporting life, but at least two lie within the “habitable zone” of their stars, where conditions are theoretically right for life to gain a foothold.

We are still a long way from detecting life on other worlds, but in the last 20 years, the number of known planets in our Universe has gone from the 8 in our own Solar System to almost 500. It's clear to everyone, including the Astro2010 decadal survey team, that the hunt for exoplanets is only just beginning, and the search for life is finally underway in earnest.

Explore Spitzer’s latest findings at Kids can dream about finding other Earths as they read “Lucy’s Planet Hunt” at

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Artist’s rendering of hot gas planet HD209458b. Artist’s rendering of hot gas planet HD209458b. Both the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes have detected carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor—in other words, the basic chemistry for life—in the atmosphere of this planet, although since it is a hot ball of gas, it would be unlikely to harbor life.

Oct. 1, 2010

Close Encounters with Jupiter

by Dr. Tony Phillips

Jupiter and Earth just had a close encounter—and it was a good one. In late September 2010, the two worlds were 31 million km (about 19 million miles) closer than at any time in the past 11 years. Soaring high in the midnight sky, Jupiter shone six times brighter than Sirius and looked absolutely dynamite through a backyard telescope.

Planetary scientist Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute isn’t satisfied. “I’d like to get even closer,” he says.

Bolton will get his wish in July 2016. That’s when a NASA spacecraft named “Juno” arrives at Jupiter for a truly close-up look at the giant planet. Swooping as low as 5,000 km (about 3,000 miles) above the cloud tops, Juno will spend a full year orbiting nearer to Jupiter than any previous spacecraft.

The goal of the mission is to learn what lies inside the planet.

Astronomers have been studying Jupiter since the invention of the telescope 400 years ago, but in all that time the planet’s vast interior has remained hidden from view. Even the Galileo probe, which dived into the clouds in 1995, penetrated no more than about 0.1% of Jupiter’s radius.

“Our knowledge of Jupiter is truly skin deep,” says Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator. “There are many basic things we just don’t know—like how far down does the Great Red Spot go? And does Jupiter have a heavy core?”

Juno will improve the situation without actually diving into the clouds. Bolton explains how. “Juno will spend a full year in close polar orbit around Jupiter, flying over all latitudes and longitudes. We will thus be able to fully map Jupiter’s gravitational field and figure out how the interior is structured.”

But that’s not all. Researchers have good reason to believe that much of Jupiter’s interior is filled with liquid metallic hydrogen, an exotic metal that could form only in the high-pressure, hydrogen-rich core of a giant planet. Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field almost certainly springs from dynamo action inside this vast realm of electrically conducting metal.

“Juno’s magnetometers will precisely map Jupiter’s magnetic field,” says Bolton. “This map will tell us a great deal about planet’s inner magnetic dynamo—what it’s made of and how it works.”

Finally, Juno will probe Jupiter’s atmosphere using a set of microwave radiometers. “Our sensors can measure the temperature 50 times deeper than ever before,” says Bolton. Researchers will use that information to figure out how much water is underneath Jupiter’s clouds. “Microwave measurements of Jupiter’s water content are particularly exciting because they will help discriminate among competing theories of the planet’s origin.”

Now that’s a close encounter. Stay tuned for Juno.

Find out more about the Juno mission at Play the new Solar System Explorer super game, which includes the Juno Recall mini-game at It’s not just for kids!

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The Juno mission will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 for a year-long close-up study of the planet. The Juno mission, arriving at Jupiter in July 2016, will help to solve the mystery of what’s inside the giant planet’s core.

Nov. 1, 2010

Blue Rings around Red Galaxies

by Trudy E. Bell and Dr. Tony Phillips

Beautiful flat rings around the planet Saturn are one thing—but flat rings around entire galaxies?

That is the astonishing discovery that two astronomers, Samir Salim of Indiana University at Bloomington and R. Michael Rich of UCLA described in the May 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“For most of the twentieth century, astronomers observing at visible wavelengths saw that galaxies looked either ‘red and dead’ or ‘blue and new,’” explained Salim. Reddish galaxies were featureless, shaped mostly like balls or lentils; bluish ones were magnificent spirals or irregular galaxies.

Elliptical galaxies looked red, astronomers reasoned, because they had mostly old red giant stars near the end of their life cycles, and little gas from which new stars could form. Spiral and irregular galaxies looked blue, however, because they were rich in gas and dust that were active nurseries birthing hot, massive, bluish stars.

At least, that's how galaxies appear in visible light.

As early as the 1970s, though, the first space-borne telescopes sensitive to ultraviolet radiation (UV) revealed something mysterious: a few red elliptical galaxies emitted “a surprising ultraviolet excess,” said Rich. The observations suggested that some old red galaxies might not be as “dead” as previously supposed.

To investigate, Salim and Rich used NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite to identify 30 red elliptical galaxies that also emitted the strongest UV. Then they captured a long, detailed picture of each galaxy using the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Hubble revealed the answer,” says Salim. The UV radiation was emitted by enormous, flat bluish rings that completely surrounded each reddish galaxy, reminiscent of the rings of Saturn. In some cases, the bluish rings even showed a faint spiral structure!

Because the bluish UV rings looked like star-forming spiral arms and lay mostly beyond the red stars at the centers of the elliptical galaxies “we concluded that the bluish rings must be made of hot young stars,” Salim continued. “But if new stars are still being formed, that means the red-and-dead galaxies must have acquired some new gas to make them.”

How does a galaxy “acquire some gas?” Salim speculates that it was an act of theft. Sometimes galaxies have close encounters. If a gas-rich irregular galaxy passed close to a gas-poor elliptical galaxy, the gravity of the elliptical galaxy could steal some gas.

Further studies by Galaxy Evolution Explorer, Hubble and other telescopes are expected to reveal more about the process. One thing is certain, says Rich: “The evolution of galaxies is even more surprising and beautiful than we imagined.”

The press release is available at The full published article is “Star Formation Signatures in Optically Quiescent Early-Type Galaxies” by Samir Salim and R. Michael Rich, The Astrophysical Journal Letters 714: L290–L294, 2010 May 10.

Point the kids to the Photon Pile-up Game at, where they can have fun learning about the particle nature of light.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

New, long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope images of elliptical galaxies show a surprising amount of new star formation. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer UV space telescope helped to identify red elliptical galaxies that also emitted the strongest UV. These are detailed, long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope images of four of these galaxies that capture the UV-emitting rings and arcs indicative of new star formation.