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NOAO News & Reports

April 2, 2014

Sakurai’s Object: Stellar Evolution in Real Time

An oil painting done by Stephen Mack that represents what the present expanding shell of gas and dust around the star may look like. Mack is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Native American tribe on whose land the Kitt Peak National Observatory, which is managed by NOAO, is located.

Stellar lifetimes are measured in billions of years, so changes in their appearance rarely take place on a human timescale. Thus an opportunity to observe a star passing from one stage of life to another on a timescale of months to years is very exciting, as there are only a very few examples known. One such star is Sakurai’s Object (V4334 Sgr). First reported by a Japanese amateur astronomer in 1996 as a “nova-like object,” Sakurai’s Object had been only a few years before the faint central star of a planetary nebula.

Using the Altair adaptive optics (AO) system with the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i to compensate for distortions to starlight caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, two NOAO astronomers, Dr. Kenneth Hinkle & Dr. Richard Joyce, were able to observe the shell of escaping material around the star. Read more in NOAO Press Release 14-02.

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February 19, 2014

Astronomers at the National Observatory Continue to Watch Sn 2014J

Image of SN2014J taken through a filter which permits only red light at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope.

The astronomical community was very excited by the appearance of a supernova in a relatively nearby galaxy in late January 2014. Observations of this supernova, located in the galaxy M 82, and referred to as SN2014J revealed that it is a type Ia. These occur in a binary star system composed of a dense white dwarf star and a companion star, either another white dwarf or a bloated red giant star. These supernovae are especially interesting because they provide one of the best ways to measure distances to faint galaxies, and therefore calibrate the expansion of the universe. At Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), two different teams have been observing SN2014J.

NOAO Press Release 14-01

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December 9, 2013

Where do stars end and brown dwarfs begin?

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin (based on a figure from the publication) Image credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Stars come in a tremendous size range, from many tens of times bigger than the Sun to a tiny fraction of its size. But the answer to just how small an astronomical body can be, and still be a star, has never been known. What is known is that objects below this limit are unable to ignite and sustain hydrogen fusion in their cores: these objects are referred to as brown dwarfs.

Using observations from the SOAR 4.1-m telescope and the SMARTS 0.9-m telescope at CTIO in Chile, the RECONS group from Georgia State University has found clear observational evidence for the theoretically predicted break between very low mass stars and brown dwarfs. More in NOAO Press Release 13-11.

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September 3, 2013

Dark Energy Survey begins five-year mission to map southern sky in tremendous detail

This image of the NGC 1398 galaxy was taken with the Dark Energy Camera. This galaxy lives in the Fornax cluster, roughly 65 million light years from Earth. It is 135,000 light years in diameter, just slightly larger than our own Milky Way galaxy, and contains more than a hundred million stars. Credit: Dark Energy Survey.

Tonight, as the sun sinks below the horizon, the world’s most powerful digital camera will once again turn its gleaming eye skyward. Tonight, and for hundreds of nights over the next five years, a team of physicists and astronomers from around the globe, working from an observatory in Chile, will use this remarkable machine to try to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe.

On Aug. 31, the Dark Energy Survey (DES) officially began. Scientists on the survey team will systematically map one-eighth of the sky (5000 square degrees) in unprecedented detail. The start of the survey is the culmination of ten years of planning, building, and testing by scientists from 25 institutions in six countries.

NOAO Press Release 13-10

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July 25, 2013

M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, seen with new ODI Camera on WIYN Telescope

Cropped view of Spiral Galaxy M51, demonstrating the excellent sharpness of the One Degree Imager (ODI) on the WIYN 3.5-m telescope on Kitt Peak. Image credit: K. Rhode, M. Young and WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier 51) has been a popular night sky target for astronomers for centuries. Charles Messier first identified it in 1773 and listed it as number 51 in his catalog. To him, it looked like a faint, fuzzy object that might be a comet. William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, used his 72-inch telescope “Leviathan” to observe the Whirlpool in 1845. Since then, Messier 51 has likely been targeted by virtually every telescope in the northern hemisphere. It is found in the constellation Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs) and is a classic example of a spiral galaxy.

Now, a new camera on the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory has imaged the Whirlpool Galaxy anew. The wide field of the One Degree Imager (ODI) camera makes it possible to capture the entire galaxy and its companion in one pointing, something that even the Hubble Space Telescope cannot do.

NOAO Press Release 13-09

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