NOAO >  News Releases

Small NOAO Logo
National Optical Astronomy Observatory

Current News at NOAO

December 7, 2007 Image of the Day  |  His Dark Materials to Create More Worlds

: :   : :   : :

November 29, 2007

Illustration of colliding planet embryos

Cosmic Cannonball |  Astronomers have discovered one of the fastest-moving stars ever seen, using a combination of data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the international ROSAT satellite, and the 0.9-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. A team observed a neutron star known as RX J0822-4300 over a period of about five years. During that span, three Chandra observations clearly show the neutron star moving away from the center of the Puppis A supernova remnant and the stellar debris field created during the same explosion in which the neutron star was formed, about 3,700 years ago. By combining how far the neutron star has moved across the sky with its distance from Earth, astronomers determined the star is moving at more than 3 million miles per hour. NASA Release

Image Credit: Chandra: NASA/CXC/Middlebury College/F.Winkler; ROSAT: NASA/GSFC/S.Snowden et al.; Optical: NOAO/AURA/NSF/Middlebury College/F.Winkler et al.

: :   : :   : :

October 17, 2007

Artist’s concept of black hole M33 X7

Orphan Stars Found in Long Galaxy Tail |  Astronomers have located and measured an exceptionally massive black hole in orbit around a huge companion star in the nearby galaxy M33. The mass of the black hole, known as M33 X-7, was determined to be 15.7 times that of the Sun (plus or minus only 1.4 solar masses). This makes M33 X-7 the most massive and precisely known “stellar-sized” black hole, as compared to the monsters that lurk at the heart of galaxies, which can have a mass of millions of times the Sun. This result, published today in the journal Nature, has intriguing implications for the evolution and ultimate fate of massive stars.

Data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in orbit around the Earth, the Gemini North 8-meter telescope on the island of Hawai’i, and the 2.1-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson were combined to make the discovery.

Previously published optical-light observations of the region using the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak were used to identify the large companion star, once observations from Chandra in 2004 pinned down the location of the X-ray source more precisely. Subsequent data from the WIYN telescope helped establish a precise light curve for the binary system. Gemini North imaging and spectroscopic data determined important properties of the star’s composition and its radial velocity as it is tugged upon by the black hole’s massive gravity.

NOAO astronomer Lucas Macri contributed an extremely precise distance to M33 (a crucial element of the fairly straightforward mathematics used to deduce the mass of the black hole), using four different methods that agree to an accuracy of better than three percent, getting a distance of 2.7 million light-years.

M33 X-7 was discovered by NASA’s Einstein satellite in 1981. It is known as an eclipsing binary system, because the objects appear to pass in front of each other as viewed from Earth, which was a key element of the astronomer’s ability to measure it so precisely. The black hole completes one orbit every 3.45 days around its massive companion star, which has a mass of roughly 70 times the Sun, putting it near the top of the theoretical limit for massive stars.

To have such a large black hole partnered with such a portly “normal” star is an exceptional situation that will eventually result in a pair of orbiting black holes when the massive star eventually goes supernova. However, it is challenging to understanding how a system like this could have formed. Since it is known that that more massive stars evolve more rapidly than less massive ones, the star that created the existing black hole in the pair must have already gone supernova, implying that it was even heavier than the 70 solar-mass behemoth that remains in the system.

This is puzzling, because at that size, the progenitor star of the black hole would have been large enough that it would have shared its atmosphere with its companion. Current theories of mass exchange between binary pairs lead to scenarios very different from what is seen in this system, meaning that how such an unusual binary formed remains an enigma.

For more info, see: Chandra Press Release.

For graphics and images, including an optical image of the galaxy M33 from Kitt Peak, see: Chandra Images and images from NOAO.

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

September 24, 2007

X-ray and H-alpha images

Orphan Stars Found in Long Galaxy Tail |  Astronomers have found evidence that stars have been forming in a long tail of gas that extends well outside its parent galaxy, using a combination of images in X-ray light from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and optical light from the Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope in Chile. This comet-like tail of newborn stars extends more than 200,000 light years, and suggests that such “orphan” stars may be much more prevalent than previously thought.

The feature was created as gas was stripped from a galaxy called ESO 137-001 that is plunging toward the center of Abell 3627, a giant cluster of galaxies.

“This is one of the longest tails like this we have ever seen,” said Ming Sun of Michigan State University, who led the study. “And, it turns out that this is a giant wake of creation, not of destruction.” The observations indicate that the gas in the tail has formed millions of stars. Because the large amounts of gas and dust needed to form stars are typically found only within galaxies, astronomers have previously thought it unlikely that large numbers of stars would form outside a galaxy.

“This isn’t the first time that stars have been seen to form between galaxies,” said team member Megan Donahue, also of MSU. “But the number of stars forming here is unprecedented.” The evidence for star formation in this tail includes 29 regions of ionized hydrogen glowing in optical light, thought to be from newly formed stars. These regions, identified in data from the SOAR telescope, are all downstream of the galaxy, located in or near the tail.

Two Chandra X-ray sources are near these regions, another indication of star formation activity. The researchers believe the orphan stars formed within the last 10 million years or so. The stars in the tail of this fast-moving galaxy, which is some 220 million light years away, would be much more isolated than the vast majority of stars in galaxies.

These results will appear in the December 10, 2007, issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The SOAR telescope is a joint project of MSU, Conselho Nacional de Pesquisas Científicas e Tecnológicas (CNPq-Brazil), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. For more, see Chandra Press Release.

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

September 3, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  The Colorful Clouds of Rho Ophiuchi

: :   : :   : :

August 6, 2007

Giant Galaxy Cluster CL0958+4702

Monster Galaxy Pileup |  Astronomers have combined data from the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope on Kitt Peak and NASA’s Spitzer and Chandra space telescopes to identify one of the biggest collisions of galaxies ever observed. Four large galaxies have been spotted in the process of tangling and, ultimately, merging into single gargantuan galaxy five billion light-years from Earth.

This merger, discovered with Spitzer observations, is occurring within a giant galaxy cluster called CL0958+4702, located in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major. Though the galaxies appear to be fairly intact, gravitational disturbances have caused them to distort and twist, flinging stars everywhere. This so-called “quadruple merger” is the largest known merger between galaxies of a similar size.

Three of galaxies are about the size of our Milky Way; the fourth is three times as big. All four of the galaxies are blob-shaped elliptical galaxies, not spirals like the Milky Way. The plume emanating from the biggest galaxy contains billions of stray stars—almost three times as many as are in the Milky Way—kicked out during the merger. About half of the stars in the plume will fall back and join the new galaxy, making it one of the biggest galaxies in the Universe.

“The WIYN telescope provides some of the sharpest images possible from ground-based telescopes. The WIYN images show that the four galaxies have well-defined cores that have held together during the merger, much like egg yolks stay together longer than egg whites if you ‘merge’ them in a mixing bowl,” said Kenneth Rines of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lead author of a paper accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“The colors from the WIYN and Spitzer data show that the stars are old, but the higher resolution WIYN images show that the light from the disrupted galaxy does not have small-scale structure but is instead smoothly distributed, telling us that the galaxies involved in the merger are elliptical rather than spiral galaxies,” said Jeffrey Kenney, professor and chair of astronomy at Yale.

The WIYN Consortium, which consists of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, owns and operates a 3.5-meter telescope and a 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. Yale Press Release | Spitzer Press Release

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

July 17, 2007

SN1999em in NGC 1637

Major Award for Dark Energy Discovery |  NOAO astronomers Chris Smith and Tom Matheson, and former scientific staff members Nicholas Suntzeff, Mark Phillips and Robert Schommer, have been awarded the prestigious Gruber Cosmology Prize as contributors to two scientific teams who simultaneously discovered the "crazy" phenomenon of the accelerating expansion of the Universe, known since by the name dark energy.

Both teams used observations of distant Type-Ia supernovae as standard light sources to make their independent discoveries (announced in 1998), including significant data from NOAO telescopes at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and Kitt Peak National Observatory. The $500,000 prize will be awarded at a ceremony at the University of Cambridge on September 7. For more info on the roles of NOAO staff and telescopes, see this article in the September 2006 NOAO/NSO Newsletter. Gruber Foundation Press Release

: :   : :   : :

June 28, 2007

Hands-on Optics

“Hands-on” Experience with Optics for Incoming Eighth Graders |  Not too many incoming eighth-grade students are familiar with optics concepts — such as reflection, infrared and ultraviolet light and the electromagnetic spectrum — but for a number of underserved middle school students in southern Arizona, they know these concepts as well as their locker combinations. The GEAR UP Hands-On Optics (HOO) camp, a collaborative effort between the UA’s GEAR UP project (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and the Flandrau Science Center is intended to help underserved incoming eighth-grade students from the Tucson and Sunnyside Unified School Districts prepare for college. University of Arizona Press Release

: :   : :   : :

June 24, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  All the Colors of the Sun

: :   : :   : :

June 19, 2007 Image of the Day  |  Hold Me in Your Spiral Arms

: :   : :   : :

June 1, 2007

Hands-on Optics

Science Foundation Arizona Awards $3.2 Million Through its K-12 Student & Teacher Discovery Program |  Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) has made nine investments totaling $3.2 million through its K-12 Student & Teacher Discovery program, which includes three complementary programs designed to advance K-12 education within Arizona in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

$225,000 to expand the Hands-On Optics Project through the Tucson-based National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), which will enable elementary and middle school students in rural locations to learn about optics concepts in conjunction with Boys & Girls Clubs and informal science educators in Bisbee, Amado, Safford, Nogales, Sells, and several other Arizona-based communities.

$125,000 to the Building Information Technology Skills (BITS) Through Astronomy program, facilitated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, which will enable math/science teachers to have research experiences in astronomy and image processing, and then implement these high-tech topics in their classrooms. The teachers will participate in multi-day astronomy workshops at NOAO and Kitt Peak National Observatory, beginning June 11-13 with eight teachers from Prescott, Flagstaff, Tucson and the Tohono O’odham Nation. Science Foundation Arizona Press Release [pdf]

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

May 31, 2007


Researchers take picture of the face of Altair, a first for a star like our own |  Using a suite of four telescopes, astronomers including Steve Ridgway of the NOAO scientific staff have captured an image of Altair, one of the closest stars to our own and a fixture in the summer sky.

While astronomers have recently imaged a few of the enormous, dying, red-giant stars, this is the first time anyone has seen the surface of a relatively tiny hydrogen-burning star like our own sun. “The galaxy is shaped by the effects of relatively rare but powerful hot, rapidly rotating stars,” says John Monnier of the University of Michigan, the lead author on the study that appeared on Science Express on May 31, 2007. “These stars have more in common with Altair than our own sun and understanding Altair will allow us to better understand how these influential stars scattered throughout the galaxy operate.”

Monnier was part of an international team of astronomers that captured the image using four of the six telescopes at a facility on Mt. Wilson, Calif., operated by the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) at Georgia State University in Atlanta with partial support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF Press Release

: :   : :   : :

May 29, 2007

NOAO In the News at the AAS |  NOAO Telescopes have contributed to a number of scientific discoveries released at the AAS meeting in Hawaii. Links to these articles below.

: :   : :   : :

May 28, 2007

Hilo, HI

Classic and Digital Versions of GLOBE at Night Thrive in 2007 |  The GLOBE at Night 2007 citizen-science campaign generated nearly double the number of measurements of the world’s dark (and not so dark) skies compared to its first year. The program also successfully demonstrated a prototype digital data-collection effort that aims to grow to a global scale by 2009 during the International Year of Astronomy. NOAO Press Release 07-07

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

May 27, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  The Horsehead Nebula

: :   : :   : :

May 21, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  In the Center of Reflection Nebula NGC 1333

: :   : :   : :

May 18, 2007 Image of the Day  |  Hot Young Stars

: :   : :   : :

May 17, 2007


Key instrument damaged at Gemini South Observatory |  A key infrared detector at the Gemini South telescope suffered major damage when a malfunctioning heater raised its temperature to 200° Celsius. It is one of the most advanced instruments of its kind in the world and will be out of commission for several months while it is repaired. New Scientist news article

: :   : :   : :

May 16, 2007

NGC 1333

Image of Star-Forming Region Released in Honor of Stephen Strom |  A dynamic image of the nearby star-forming region NGC 1333 taken at Kitt Peak National Observatory is being released today in honor of the retirement celebration for Stephen Strom, a two-time staff member of the U.S. national observatory who has led a multifaceted life in astronomy, public policy, and the arts. NOAO Press Release 07-06

: :   : :   : :

March 28, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  NGC 1365: Majestic Island Universe (from the SSRO-S/PROMPT2)

: :   : :   : :

March 21, 2007

One Degree Imager

WIYN telescope to get innovative billion-pixel, $6.6 million camera |  BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — A telescope used by Indiana University astronomers and their colleagues at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz., is about midway through a major improvement — the addition of a new kind of camera that will allow scientists to record the telescope’s entire exceptionally wide field of view for the first time.

Called the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope (representing the partners involved — the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory), it has an important and unique advantage because of its superb image quality over a very wide field of view, about 1 degree wide on the sky or twice the diameter of the full moon. The purpose of the four-year One-Degree-Imager Project is to take advantage of this wide but sharp field of view by creating a wide-field imager that can electronically make corrections for atmospheric blurring across the telescope’s entire field of view, an area about 100 times larger than the field of view of the Hubble telescope. By taking optimal advantage of the telescope’s superb image quality over an unusually wide field of view, ODI will provide WIYN astronomers with a unique observational facility. Indiana University Press Release

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

Dr. Buell Jannuzi

Buell T. Jannuzi Named Director of Kitt Peak National Observatory |  Astronomer Buell T. Jannuzi has been named to five-year term as the director of Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

“NOAO and AURA conducted a worldwide search to find the best person for this job, and we interviewed some extremely strong candidates. In the end, it was the overwhelming recommendation of the search committee and of the AURA Observatory Council that the job be offered to Buell,” said Todd Boroson, acting director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

“I look forward to leading Kitt Peak National Observatory during what is sure to be an exciting and challenging period, as we work to implement the improvements at Kitt Peak recommended by the National Science Foundation’s Senior Review,” Jannuzi said. “I place a high priority on regular interaction with the people of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the city of Tucson, Pima County, the state of Arizona, and the astronomical community, in order to promote and expand our mission of basic science research and education.” NOAO Press Release 07-05

: :   : :   : :

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  Molecular Cloud Barnard 163

: :   : :   : :

March 15, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  NGC 2442: Galaxy in Volans (from the SSRO-S/PROMPT2)

: :   : :   : :

March 12, 2007

Unobscured AGN in Bootes Field

NOAO Deep-Wide Data Helps Capture Black Hole Evolution |  Astronomers using data from the NOAO Deep Wide-Field Survey have captured an image of more than a thousand supermassive black holes. These results give astronomers a snapshot of a crucial period when these monster black holes are growing, and provide insight into the environments in which they occur.

The new black hole panorama was made with data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope and several ground-based optical telescopes, including the Kitt Peak National Observatory Mayall 4-meter telescope. The black holes in the image are hundreds of millions to several billion times more massive than the Sun and lie in the centers of galaxies. The Bootes field of the NOAO Deep Wide-Field survey was used to guide more than 126 separate Chandra exposures of 5,000-seconds each, making it the largest contiguous field ever obtained by the observatory. At 9.3 square degrees, the Chandra field within the Deep-Wide data is over 40 times larger than the full Moon seen on the night sky. Chandra Press Release

: :   : :   : :

March 11, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  The Einstein Cross Gravitational Lens

: :   : :   : :

March 7, 2007

GLOBE at Night 2007 poster

Two Ways to Participate in GLOBE at Night 2007: Classic and Digital |  The international star-counting activity known as GLOBE at Night returns from March 8-21 in two flavors: the “classic” GLOBE at Night exercise that anyone can have fun doing with their unaided eyes, and a new effort to obtain precise measurements of urban dark skies using digital sky-brightness meters. NOAO Press Release 07-04

Press mentions:

: :   : :   : :

February 21, 2007

Spiral Galaxy IC 342

Spiral Galaxy Image Benefits From Vigilance on Dark Skies |  A beautiful new image of spiral galaxy IC 342 that takes advantage of the dark night sky at Kitt Peak National Observatory is being released today in Washington, DC, at the opening of “The Night: Why Dark Hours Are So Important,” a two-day symposium hosted at the Carnegie Institution. NOAO Press Release 07-03

Mentions on the web:

: :   : :   : :

January 16, 2007

Slacker Astronomy: Interview With Astronomy Visualizer |  University of Alaska Anchorage astronomer Travis A. Rector was interviewed for the Slacker Astronomy video podcast about how he creates amazing astronomical images using data from the Mosaic imagers on NOAO telescopes, at the January 2007 meeting of the AAS in Seattle.

: :   : :   : :

January 9, 2007

RBSE Teachers honored by AIAA |  The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics honored former RBSE teachers Kareen Borders and Tim Spuck with their Educator Achievement Award.

: :   : :   : : Image of the Day  |  Cosmic Pearl

: :   : :   : :

January 7, 2007

Artist’s concept of the LSST

Calling Dr. Frankenstein! : Interactive Binaries Show Signs of Induced Hyperactivity |  Astronomers studying highly energetic binary stars called polars have obtained the first observational evidence that the intense magnetic fields produced by the white dwarf half of the interacting pair can induce flares, sunspots and other explosive activity in its otherwise low-wattage, low-mass partner.

“Like Dr. Frankenstein zapping an inert corpse, the white dwarfs in these systems produce very strong electrical currents inside the bodies of their partner star, which can create violent eruptions where there otherwise would be very little if any,” says Stella Kafka, an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and lead author of one of two related poster papers presented today in Seattle at the 209th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “These transitory phenomena occur on human timescales, lasting from minutes to years.” NOAO Press Release 07-01

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

Artist’s concept of the LSST

New Images of the Bubble Nebula and Barnard 163 from Kitt Peak |  The ghostly blue Bubble Nebula and a swan-like dark nebula known as Barnard 163 are featured in beautiful new images taken in 2006 using the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The newly released images are displayed in large format at the NOAO exhibit booth starting today in Seattle at the 209th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. NOAO Press Release 07-02

: :   : :   : :

Astronomers discover an enormous halo of red giant stars around Andromeda |  Astronomers, using data from the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, have found an enormous halo of stars bound to the Andromeda galaxy and extending far beyond the swirling disk seen in images of the famous galaxy, our nearest large galactic neighbor. The discovery, reported at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, suggests that Andromeda is as much as five times larger than astronomers had previously thought. UC Santa Cruz Press Release

Press Mentions:

: :   : :   : :

January 5, 2007

Artist’s concept of the LSST

Google Joins Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project |  Google has joined a group of nineteen universities and national labs that are building the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

Scheduled to begin operations in 2013, the 8.4-meter LSST will be able to survey the entire visible sky deeply in multiple colors every week with its three-billion pixel digital camera, probing the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and opening a movie-like window on objects that change or move rapidly: exploding supernovae, potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids as small as 100 meters, and distant Kuiper Belt Objects. LSST is a public-private partnership.

LSST and Google share many of the same goals: organizing massive quantities of data and making it useful. Over 30 thousand gigabytes (30TB) of images will be generated every night during the decade-long LSST sky survey. The massive amount of data from LSST must be managed efficiently and analyzed in real time. Key areas in the Google-LSST collaboration will be: organizing the massive ingestion of information, processing and analyzing the continuous data streams in a 24/7 fault tolerant manner, enabling the new discoveries coming out of the LSST to be made available to the public and researchers in real time, and working with and managing large parallel data systems.

NOAO leads the telescope design and site testing aspects of the LSST program, among other roles.

For more, see LSST Press Release LSSTC-05

: :   : :   : :

January 1, 2007

Astronomy Picture of the Day  |  NGC 6960: The Witch's Broom Nebula

: :   : :   : :

2006 News...

NOAO Newsletter

Image Gallery


NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc. under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

AURA, inc. NSF

NOAO >  News Releases

Small NOAO Logo