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NOAO News Archive: 2011

December 19, 2011

NOAO: New Insight into the Bar in the Center of the Milky Way

The BRAVA fields are shown in this image montage. The center of the Milky Way is at coordinates L= 0, B=0. The regions observed are marked with colored circles. This montage shows the southern Milky Way all the way to the horizon, as seen from CTIO. The telescope in silhouette is the Blanco 4-meter, where the observation were made.

Image Credit: D. Talent, K. Don, P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF and the BRAVA Project

It sounds like the start of a bad joke: do you know about the bar in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy? Astronomers first recognized almost 80 years ago that the Milky Way Galaxy, around which the sun and its planets orbit, is a huge spiral galaxy. This isn’t obvious when you look at the band of starlight across the sky, because we are inside the galaxy: it’s as if the sun and solar system is a bug on the spoke of a bicycle wheel. But in recent decades astronomers have suspected that the center of our galaxy has an elongated stellar structure, or bar, that is hidden by dust and gas from easy view. Many spiral galaxies in the universe are known to exhibit such a bar through the center bulge, while other spiral galaxies are simple spirals. And astronomers ask, why? In a recent paper Dr. Andrea Kunder, of Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in northern Chile, and a team of colleagues have presented data that demonstrates how this bar is rotating. NOAO Press Release 11-09

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November 30, 2011

NOAO: New Planet Kepler-21b discovery a partnership of both space and ground-based observations

The Kepler field as seen in the sky over Kitt Peak National Observatory. The approximate position of HD 179070 is indicated by the circle (sky imaged using a diffraction grating to show spectra of brighter stars, credit J. Glaspey; telescopes imaged separately and combined, credit P. Marenfeld)

The NASA Kepler Mission is designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way Galaxy to discover Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist, and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets. It now has another planet to add to its growing list. A research team led by Steve Howell, NASA Ames Research Center, has shown that one of the brightest stars in the Kepler star field has a planet with a radius only 1.6 that of the earth’s radius and a mass no greater that 10 earth masses, circling its parent star with a 2.8 day period. With such a short period, and such a bright star, the team of over 65 astronomers (that included David Silva, Ken Mighell and Mark Everett of NOAO) needed multiple telescopes on the ground to support and confirm their Kepler observations. These included the 4 meter Mayall telescope and the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. NOAO Press Release 11-08

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November 21, 2011

NOAO: Student’s Work Helps to Detect Near Earth Asteroids

Asteroid NEO2008 QT3: Above is a still image from a four-frame animation showing the asteroid moving through the sky. Image taken at the 2.1-meter telescope on Kitt Peak.

An asteroid impact with the earth can really ruin your day: just consider the dinosaurs. Most asteroids, also known as minor planets, orbit the sun beyond the planet Mars and present no danger, but there is a class of asteroids whose orbits cross the orbit of the earth. If one of these asteroids and the earth are at the same point in their orbits at the same time, a collision could occur. Called Near Earth Objects (NEOs), astronomers are interested in discovering as many of these as possible, and then tracking them in order to compute more accurate orbits. In this way, if a potential future collision were to be identified many years in advance, space probes could carry out steps to tweak the path of the NEO and deflect the collision. A program to track NEOs is being carried out at NOAO by Mark Trueblood with Robert Crawford (Rincon Ranch Observatory) and Larry Lebofsky (Planetary Science Institute). And last summer, a Beloit College student, Morgan Rehnberg, has developed a computer program (PhAst), available via the web, to help with this effort. NOAO Press Release 11-07

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October 19, 2011

Blue Stragglers shown to form from mass transfer in Binary systems

This image of the open star cluster NGC 188 was taken at the WIYN 0.9m in V, B and I. The blue stragglers discussed in this paper are circled. (image credit: K. Garmany, F. Haase NOAO/AURA)

In a paper just published in Nature, Aaron Geller (Northwestern U) and Robert Mathieu (U of Wisconsin) have shown that blue stragglers are most probably formed from mass transfer or mergers in binary systems, rather than originating from stellar collisions as has also been proposed. Observations made at the WIYN 3.5m of the old open cluster NGC 188 show that blue stragglers in long period binaries have companions with masses ~ 0.5 solar mass, with very little scatter. NOAO Press Release 11-06

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October 5, 2011

Aden Meinel, First Director of Kitt Peak National Observatory, Passed Away

Dr. Aden Meinel

Astronomy and optical science lost a great pioneer and innovator when Dr. Aden Meinel passed away on 2 October 2011. Meinel led the development, and became the first Director, of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, located near Tucson, AZ. He then went on to become Director of the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, where he also founded the Optical Sciences program. NOAO Press Release 11-05

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October 5, 2011

NOAO Telescopes Played Major Role in Nobel-Prize Winning Projects

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess for their discovery of the acceleration of the Universe, one of the more surprising cosmological results in modern astronomy. The discovery was enabled in large part through use of National Science Foundation (NSF) facilities operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) with head quarters in Tucson, Arizona and telescopes in Arizona and Chile. NOAO Press Release 11-04

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August 31, 2011

Reflection Nebula NGC 1999

This wide-field panorama of star formation was captured with the National Science Foundation’s Mayall 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak. Located in the constellation of Orion (the Hunter), the image show a portion of one of Orion’s giant molecular clouds (known as “Orion A”) where new stars are forming.

The bright object in the bottom-left corner is the reflection nebula NGC 1999, which contains the young star V380 Orionis. A small, triangle shaped patch of dusty material is seen in silhouette against the reflection nebula. NGC 1999 lies at the center of a network of nebulous filaments which billow out and away like the spokes of a bicycle wheel.

Many other smaller nebulous patches in this image mark small reflection nebulae, Herbig-Haro objects, and stellar jets. The rich detail in this image reveals one of the most fascinating areas of the night sky.

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August 10, 2011


Artist’s impression of the graphenes (C24) and fullerenes found in a Planetary Nebula. The detection of graphenes and fullerenes around old stars as common as our Sun suggests that these molecules and other allotropic forms of carbon may be widespread in space. Credits: IAC; original image of the Helix Nebula (NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner, STScI, & T.A. Rector, NRAO.)

A team of astronomers, using the Spitzer Space Telescope, have reported the first extragalactic detection of the C70 fullerene molecule, and the possible detection of planar C24 (“a piece of graphene”) in space. Letizia Stanghellini and Richard Shaw, members of the team at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona describe how collisional shocks powered by the winds from old stars in planetary nebulae could be responsible for the formation of fullerenes (C60 and C70) and graphene (planar C24). The team is led by Domingo Aníbal García-Hernández of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain and includes international astronomers and biochemists. NOAO Press Release 11-03

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July 18, 2011

Neighbor Galaxy Caught Stealing Stars

The Large Magellanic Cloud as imaged by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Overlaid in red and blue, with the colors representing their line-of-sight velocities, are the stars whose origin has been traced to the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Astronomers from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and their collaborators have found that hundreds of the stars found in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) were stolen from another nearby galaxy – the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are both neighbor galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy and easily visible to the unaided eye from the southern hemisphere. NOAO Press Release 11-02

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June 21, 2011

Astronomers Discover That Galaxies Are Either Asleep or Awake

Bluer galaxies are actively “awake” and forming stars, while redder galaxies have shut down and are “asleep.” (Image: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF team)

Astronomers using the NOAO Extremely Wide-Field Infrared Imager (NEWFIRM) on the Mayall 4-m telescope on Kitt Peak have probed into the distant universe and discovered that galaxies display one of two distinct behaviors: they are either awake or asleep, actively forming stars or are not forming any new stars at all. Yale Press Release

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March 17, 2011


Last year’s GLOBE at Night results. Credit: T. Baker (ESRI)

Poorly-aimed and unshielded outdoor lights are more than an annoyance. They waste more than $2 billion (17 billion kilowatt-hours) of energy in the United States each year. Poorly shielded roadway lights are also a safety and glare hazard, especially for older citizens. Under an unpolluted sky we ought to see more than 2000 stars, yet we see less than a hundred from many cities. The Milky Way is unknown to most city dwellers. NOAO Press Release

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February 3, 2011

BigBOSS Receives Favorable Review from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory

Under the BigBOSS proposal, the NOAO Mayall Telescope (left) would be modified (inset) to cover a wider field of view, and it would be equipped with a new spectrographic instrument of unprecedented astrophysical grasp, capable of precisely measuring nearly 5,000 galaxies or stars simultaneously. (Mayall Telescope photo by Pete Marenfeld, NOAO/AURA/NSF)

A plan to build the biggest galaxy-redshift map of the universe at Kitt Peak National Observatory

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) research and development center for ground-based astronomy, has announced its conditional approval of the BigBOSS Collaboration’s proposal to use 500 nights of valuable observing time on the NOAO 4‑meter Mayall Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona. The time would be used to build the biggest-ever map of the universe, for investigating the mysterious dark energy that permeates the universe. LBNL Press Release

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