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NOAO News Archive: 2010


October 27, 2010

Buckyballs Discovered in Another Galaxy

Some of the forms of carbon compounds are depicted against a depiction of a planetary nebula similar to the one detected in another galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud. Credit: Pete Marenfeld (NOAO)

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have detected arrangements of carbon atoms known as buckyballs outside of the Milky Way galaxy for the first time. Sir Harry Kroto of Florida State University, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering buckyballs, says life may even owe its existence to the atom “cages” which resemble soccer balls. The discovery of buckyballs in the Small Magellanic Cloud suggests that these complex molecules may be present around many stars where it was predicted they would be unlikely to form. Extensive follow-up studies using ground-based telescopes will be used to establish the conditions helpful for the formation of buckyballs in our galaxy and other galaxies. NOAO Press Release 10-04


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September 21, 2010

Kitt Peak Night Sky is Still Dark

Fish-eyed lens image showing the night time sky as seen from Kitt Peak.

New measurements of the Kitt Peak National Observatory night sky brightness by Lowell Observatory astronomers show that, despite Tucson’s rapid growth, the sky brightness has remained remarkably constant over the past 20 years. The measurements suggest that the strengthened lighting ordinances adopted by Tucson and surrounding Pima County have been effective in suppressing the skyglow caused by outdoor lighting. NOAO Press Release 10-03


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May 19, 2010

Unique Eclipsing Binary Star System Discovered by UCSB/NOAO Team

In this artist conception of the unique binary star NLTT 11748, the larger but less massive helium white dwarf star is partially eclipsed by the smaller but more massive normal white dwarf, which is about the size of the earth.

Image credit: Steve Howell/Pete Marenfeld/NOAO

Astrophysicists at NOAO and UC Santa Barbara are the first scientists to identify two white dwarf stars in an eclipsing binary system, allowing for the first direct radius measurement of a rare white dwarf composed of pure helium. The results will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. These observations are the first to confirm a theory about a certain type of white dwarf star.


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March 10, 2010

The History of Iolkam Du’ag and the Birth of Kitt Peak National Observatory to be Explored on March 22nd

Our national astronomy observatory was dedicated on Kitt Peak 50 years ago in March 1960. In celebration of the 50th anniversary, Kitt Peak National Observatory’s first Director Dr. Aden B. Meinel will speak about the history of the national observatory and Bernard Siquieros, Education Curator of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Cultural Center and Museum, will share a Tohono O’odham perspective on the meaning and history of Iolkam Du’ag, or Kitt Peak, and the Baboquivari Range.


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March 3, 2010

GLOBE at Night 2010 Builds toward Breaking the Record Set During the International Year of Astronomy

Globe at night postcard

With half of the world’s population now living in cities, many urban dwellers have never experienced—and maybe never will—the wonderment of pristinely dark skies. This loss, caused by light pollution, is a concern on many other fronts as well: safety, energy conservation, cost, health, and effects on wildlife. Yet, even though light pollution is a serious and growing global concern, it’s one of the easiest environmental problems that you can address on local levels. Read more in the NOAO Press Release.



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March 1, 2010

National Observatory Holds Special Presentation for Public

Celebrated Astronomer to Speak

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of our national astronomy observatory, Dr. Alan Dressler will present “The Living History of the Universe” at the Marriott University Park, 880 E 2nd Street, on March 17 at 7:30 pm. This special program is available to the public at no cost.

Every minute of every day, light from the remote past arrives at Earth, much of it originating before the Earth itself was born. Astronomers look at the history of the Universe as it actually happened, by gathering the light from faint, distant galaxies that are frozen as slices in time. Drawing connections between what we see in the young, distant Universe to the one of our own time is challenging, however. A small history of this difficult endeavor, recounted by one of its key players, reveals how science works and the persistence of human curiosity.


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February 22, 2010

Nearby Galaxy shows spectacular X-ray tails with embedded active star formation

Left and Center: Composite X-ray/optical image of ESO137-001’s tail, Right: Velocity map of 33 H II regions derived from the Gemini data. Reproduced by permission of the AAS.

In one of the nearest giant clusters of galaxies, Abell 3627, astronomers have reported finding a galaxy with two distinct tails of gas. Of particular significance, there are unambiguous signs of current star formation in this gas tail, providing the first evidence that star formation can actively take place in the cold intergalactic medium. These results challenge ideas based on the current computer simulations and modeling.

This gas tail, emanating from a galaxy catalogued as ESO 137-001, was originally observed by these astronomers several years ago using a multitude of telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope in Chile. Chandra X-ray observations, which include x-ray point sources, have identified candidate H II regions which could be sites of active star formation, and follow-up spectroscopy confirmed the presence of such star formation. The spectroscopic observations, made with NOAO time on Gemini South, yielded spectra of the intracluster HII regions and X-ray binaries.

The team responsible include Ming Sun, the PI & Craig Sarazin (U of Virginia), Megan Donahue & Mark Voit, Michigan State University, E. Roediger, Jacobs University, Germany, and W. Forman & C. Jones, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This work is reported in the 2010 Jan 10 Astrophysical Journal.


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February 15, 2010

Dr. Sidney Wolff Honored at Chilean Dedication

The groundbreaking for the viewpoint Vista Sidney Wolff took place on February 1, 2010 on the road to the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. The site features a beautiful view of the SOAR and Gemini telescopes and also of the site selected for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). The construction of the vista point is a tribute to Dr. Sidney C. Wolff’s leadership in enabling the construction of these world-class facilities on Cerro Pachon high in the Andes mountains. Dr. Wolff served as President of the SOAR Board and first Director of the Gemini Observatory. The Press release can be read here.


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January 27, 2010

Former Kitt Peak Director Geoff Burbidge Passes Away

Dr. Geoffrey Burbidge, former Director of Kitt Peak National Observatory from 1978 to 1984 and astronomer at the University of California, San Diego passed away January 26th in San Diego. He was 84 years old. He was born in England in the Cotswolds in the small town of Chipping Norton, midway between Oxford and Stratford-on-Avon. When his father, a builder, found out that his son was good in mathematics, he wanted him to be an accountant. However, Burbidge studied Physics at the University of Bristol and received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at University College London in 1951. He got into astronomy in an interesting way. He was fond of saying that while he was a graduate student he met an astronomer and married her and that is how he got into astronomy. He continued “Thus I don’t always take very seriously people who say they have known from the beginning exactly what they wanted to do.”

Burbidge is most famous for his work with his wife Margaret Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle that showed how all of the elements except the very lightest ones are produced by nuclear reactions inside stars. In 1957, they produced the seminal paper “Synthesis of the Elements in the Stars” which showed that all of the elements from carbon to uranium could be produced by nuclear processes in stars. Fowler received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 for work in this area. Dr. Burbidge was the recipient of many awards including the American Astronomical Society Warner Prize, the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal, and the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal in 1999 from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Burbidge was the society’s president from 1974 to 1976.

The press release from the University of California San Diego is here.


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January 26, 2010

Caught in the act: a merging binary QSO

The NOAO i band image of the binary quasar on the right, with the Chandra X-ray image on the left. The X-ray image is contoured and those contours overlaid on the i-band image.

It has been assumed for some time that binary supermassive black holes (SMBH) should be common in the universe, given that galaxies regularly interact and merge and that most, if not all, galaxies contain a SMBH. Such a SMBH will only be detected as a quasar when it is accreting matter. And galaxy merging is a leading proposal to trigger such accretion. Now the first luminous, spatially resolved binary quasar that clearly inhabits an interacting/merging galaxy pair has been reported. ( SDSS J1254+0846: A Binary Quasar Caught in the Act of Merging, Green et. al., Ap. J accepted Jan. 2010 ). The unique properties of this system allow detailed numerical simulations to create plausible scenarios for the histories of both the host galaxies and the SMBH that inhabit them.

The first spectrum confirming this binary QSO was taken by A. Myers at the KPNO Mayall 4-meter using R-C Spectrograph on Feb 12, 2008. Subsequent Chandra/NOAO observations (P. Green, P.I.) with the MOSAIC imager on the Mayall 4m image obtained March 18, 2009 (Barkhouse, Myers observing) revealed the existence of the tidal arms in the host galaxy,seen in the figure above. Additional deeper imaging and spectroscopy with Magellan/IMACS were used by the authors to determine the properties and history of this merger.


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January 6, 2010

Massive Stars: Good Targets for Planet Hunts, Bad Targets for SETI

This artist’s conception shows a Jupiter-sized planet forming from a disk of dust and gas surrounding a young, massive star. The planet’s gravity has cleared a gap in the disk. Of more than 500 stars examined in the W5 star-forming region, 15 show evidence of central clearing that may be due to forming planets.
Credit: David A. Aguilar, CfA

Most searches for planets around other stars, also known as exoplanets, focus on Sun-like stars. Those searches have proven successful, turning up more than 400 alien worlds. However, Sun-like stars aren’t the only potential homes for planets. New research by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) confirms that planet formation is a natural by-product of star formation, even around stars much heftier than the Sun. CfA Press Release


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January 6, 2010

Beyond IYA2009

Although the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) comes to a formal close this weekend with a ceremony in Padua, Italy, numerous core programs conducted during the year will carry on in 2010 and beyond, many led by educators and outreach professionals in the United States, including NOAO’s Dr. Stephen Pompea (Galileoscope) and Dr. Connie Walker (Dark Skies Awareness). Read more in the Space Daily article.


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January 6, 2010

Ric and Jean Edelman Give 15,000 Galileoscopes to Classrooms in the US

Hundreds of thousands of school children around the country will be a ble to explore the Moon, planets, and our galaxy thanks to a $250,000 donation by Ric and Jean Edelman.

The Edelmans, founders of Edelman Financial Services, one of the country’s leading independent financial advisory firms, have donated $250,000 to the American Astronomical Society to fund the acquisition and distribution of more than 15,000 Galileoscopes to schoolteachers nationwide and train them on adding the telescope kits to their curriculum. The program is operated in partnership with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Read more in the Press Release.


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January 5, 2010

Centuries-Old Star Mystery Coming to a Close

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space telescope have found a likely solution to a centuries-old riddle of the night sky. Every 27 years, a bright star called Epsilon Aurigae fades over period of two years, then brightens back up again. Though amateur and professional astronomers have observed the system extensively, the nature of both the bright star and the companion object that periodically eclipses it have remained unclear. The companion is known to be surrounded by a dusty disk, as illustrated in this artist’s concept.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For almost two centuries, humans have looked up at a bright star called Epsilon Aurigae and watched with their own eyes as it seemed to disappear into the night sky, slowly fading before coming back to life again. Today, as another dimming of the system is underway, mysteries about the star persist. Though astronomers know that Epsilon Aurigae is eclipsed by a dark companion object every 27 years, the nature of both the star and object has remained unclear.

Now, new observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope — in combination with archived ultraviolet, visible and other infrared data — point to one of two competing theories, and a likely solution to this age-old puzzle. One theory holds that the bright star is a massive supergiant, periodically eclipsed by two tight-knit stars inside a swirling, dusty disk. The second theory holds that the bright star is in fact a dying star with a lot less mass, periodically eclipsed by just a single star inside a disk. The Spitzer data strongly support the latter scenario. NOAO Astronomer Steve Howell contributed to this discovery. Spitzer Press Release


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January 4, 2010

Runaway anti-matter production makes for a spectacular stellar explosion

The supernova can be seen in the image on the right (labeled “2007”) as the small “dot” in the center of the image. Note that this “dot” is not seen in the image labeled “2002 to 2006”.

University of Notre Dame astronomer Peter Garnavich and a team of collaborators used the NSF’s 4-m Blanco telescope in Cerro Tololo, Chile to discover a distant star that exploded when its center became so hot that matter and anti-matter particle pairs were created. The star, dubbed Y-155, began its life around 200 times the mass of the sun but probably became “pair-unstable” and triggered a runaway thermonuclear reaction that made it visible nearly halfway across the universe.

Garnavich and his collaborators discovered the exploding star during the ESSENCE supernova search, a six-year NOAO Survey Program, that identified more than 200 weaker stellar explosions. University of Notre Dame Press release


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