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Oh, Sweet Spiral Of Mine

See the video of our latest hangout here (or, if you prefer, click to download the podcast version):

Spiral galaxies are seemingly endless sources of fascination, perhaps because they’re so complex and diverse. But why does spiral structure exist? Why do some spiral galaxies have clearly defined spiral arms and others have flocculent structure that barely seems to hold together? What’s the difference between a 2-arm spiral and a 3-arm spiral? How many kinds of spirals do we actually observe? And what is happening to the stars and gas in spiral galaxy disks?

M81 spiral galaxy - panchromatic slide

Clockwise from top right: X-ray, UV, optical, near-IR, mid-IR, far-IR, radio

All of the above questions are related to a question we got right at the end of our last hangout: what is the significance of the number of spiral arms? Determining how many spiral arms a galaxy has is hard, and is often subjective — so why bother?

It’s a good question. Part of the reason spiral arm classification & count is a challenge is that it often depends on the wavelength at which you observe a galaxy. New stars tend to form along the spiral arms, whereas older stars have time to spread out into more uniform orbits. So ultraviolet observations of a galaxy, which tend to pick out the new and bright stars, often highlight the spiral arms much more strongly than longer-wavelength observations, which see more light from older stars.

It’s not quite that simple, though. As you get to longer and longer wavelengths, you start to pick up the heat radiated by clouds of gas and dust, which are often stellar nurseries — and often trace spiral arms. At a wavelength of 21 centimeters you can detect neutral Hydrogen, which provides raw material for the cooling and condensation of gas into cold, dense molecular clouds that form stars in their densest pockets. Each wavelength you observe at provides a glimpse at a different targeted feature of a spiral galaxy.

Milky Way HI map

A map of neutral Hydrogen in the Milky Way — complete with yellow “you are here” arrow.

Including our own, of course: we live in a spiral galaxy (though how many arms it has, and whether it’s flocculent, is a matter of debate), and it provides the best means of studying star formation up close. When studying other galaxies, it’s easy to get caught up in the race to discover the biggest, the smallest, the farthest and the most extreme, and forget that our own Universal neighborhood is pretty amazing too.

Horsehead Nebula in Herschel and HST images

Herschel sees much longer wavelengths than HST, so its resolution isn’t as high even though it has a bigger mirror. (Click to see a larger version.) Credit: ESA/NASA

For example, one of the most famous nebulae in the world was recently imaged by one of the most famous telescopes in the world — again — but this time in the near-infrared. The Horsehead Nebula is a well-known feature in the Orion star-forming complex, and the new Hubble images provide a great opportunity to learn even more about this region that has been studied for hundreds of years. How thick and cold is the gas and dust in the nebula? How long will it take for it to dissipate under the harsh radiation of the bright, young stars near it? What’s going on behind it?

The near-infrared view from HST is sort of the sweet spot in this spectacular space — the wavelengths aren’t so long that the resolution suffers, but they are long enough that you see through a bit more of the clouds than in the optical. So you see more of the structure of the cloud itself, and more of where it’s thin and thick. If you zoom in, you can even see distant galaxies peeking through! And not just on the edges: in some parts you can see galaxies through the middle of the nebula. Wow. This image alone contains spiral galaxy insights big and small, near and far, from the very distant universe and right in our own backyard.

Note: right at the end of the hangout, we again got another great question from a viewer that we didn’t have time to answer. So stay tuned for the next hangout when we just might have a thing or two to say about dark matter, dark energy and new projects!

Two Atoms Populate on a Dust Grain

I enjoy days where we get to use questions from the public to meander our way through the Universe. Our latest live hangout saw us discussing the latest update to the Galaxy Zoo site — made based on your clicks! — and doing a live, collective classification on a few example objects from our Hubble sample that we hope represent the kind of things you’ll be seeing more of from now on.

We debated, for example, whether this galaxy’s central “feature” was a bulge or a bar:

bar versus bulge? overlap versus merger?

We also discussed whether these galaxies are merging or overlapping.

Whether this relatively featureless galaxy’s blue smudge indicates a voorwerp:

GDS_13741

Depending on the redshift, a voorwerp in Hubble could be blue, green or red.

And how many spiral arms this galaxy has:

GDS_13741

Also, these two galaxies may have roughly the same proportions between them as between the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud.

We also talked about the origin and importance of dust in galaxies, and just what a green pea would look like in the Hubble data. Green peas are galaxies with incredibly high rates of star formation. They’re rare in the local Universe, but how rare do we think they were billions of years ago, at the epoch we’re looking back to with Hubble?

GDS_4792

Thing is, a “green pea” at redshift z=2 would be bright red.

And, for that matter, what were the stars like then? Astronomers very broadly group stars into three populations depending on their composition. The very earliest stars were made from the primordial elements forged during the Big Bang — almost entirely Hydrogen and Helium, nearly devoid of anything else (we call “anything else” a metal, including elements like Carbon and Oxygen). The next generation of stars had some metals, but the Universe has been around long enough that those stars (even the lower-mass ones that live for a long time) are past their prime and a new generation, one with compositions generally like our Sun, are now in their heyday.

Naturally, though, since the Sun is our First Star, we call its generation Population I. The slightly older stars, many of which are still around and living in our galaxy and others, are Population II; and the very massive rockstars of the early universe that have all died out are called Population III. So “Pop III” were the first stars — a slight reversal, but labels and names that seemed like a better idea at the time than with hindsight are nothing new in Astronomy. (Exhibit A: the magnitude system. Exhibit B: “planetary nebula“.)

Bonus: green peas, voorwerpjes, and planetary nebulae are just three of the phenomena that (at least in part) glow green to human eyes because of one particular frequency of light emitted by Oxygen at a certain temperature, an atomic transition seen only rarely on Earth but fairly often in the Universe.

Planetary Nebula IC 1295 - ESO

This VLT image shows the planetary nebula IC 1295 in ghostly green. Image Credit: ESO

Also, did you know that dust grains are the singles bars of the atomic universe, allowing atoms to meet and combine into molecules and cooling the gas clouds they live in — which in turn helps new stars form? Heating and cooling, gravity and pressure, and the interplay between atoms, molecules, and radiation are all a part of what gives us this amazingly diverse Universe. We understand quite a lot of it given that we are such a tiny part of it, but what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t. And that’s just the way astronomers like it… we love a challenge and we’re glad to have as much help as possible sorting things out.

Here’s the hangout video:

And click here to listen to the mp3 podcast version.

Blood Oranges are just like Hubble Galaxies

Hubble CANDELS zoom

Astronomers always want better images. Sometimes it’s possible right away; other times doing better requires new technology and/or waiting for the next generation of telescopes. We have both kinds of “fuzzy blobs” in Galaxy Zoo, and during this hangout we showed several examples. For a couple of hangouts now we’ve been meaning to address some of the most frequently asked questions about the faintest, most distant galaxies we ask volunteers to classify:

  • what are they?
  • why are the images so fuzzy?
  • can we get better images of them now or in the future?

Given the data we have, the short answer to the first question is that we don’t yet know for sure — and, perhaps most importantly, we don’t need to know all the details. We can learn quite a lot from classifying even faint, fuzzy objects. Some of the faint galaxies on Galaxy Zoo are among the most distant galaxies ever imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, and we don’t necessarily expect them to look like galaxies we see more nearby, so classifications from our volunteers are helping us to understand them even when we don’t have all the information we might want.

And what would it take to give us the information we want? What’s the future of astronomy after Hubble? How can we get better data than we have right now? Do we need to go into space to do it? (And what else are we working on right now, anyway?) Answers given in the video:

This is a great time to be working on Galaxy Zoo: there’s plenty to classify and analyze, and — of course — plenty to discuss. So stay tuned for next time!

Note: for those who prefer audio only, here’s a link to the podcast version.

Jargon Alert: Your IMF Just Messed With My SPS!

I remember going to a lecture as an undergraduate wherein my professor compared what astronomers do to a hypothetical alien crew on a fast-moving ship that can only take one photo of the Earth as it passes by. We can assume they have a special camera that can see through buildings, but otherwise they just get one photo of, say, a major city, and from that they have to try and learn as much as they can about the human race. How hard would it be to discover that our species has two genders? Or that both of them are required to propagate the species, but only one gives birth? Would it be possible to figure out the whole human life cycle? To discover what disease is? To distinguish between genetics and culture (nature and nurture)? Just having one picture is limiting, but with careful study you can learn more than you think.

H-R Diagram

One of the most fundamental plots in astronomy.

The professor was drawing an analogy with the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram in particular, which we’ve talked about before on our hangouts: to make it, you record the color and the luminosity of all the stars you can and plot them up against each other, one point per star. The stars group together in interesting ways in particular areas of the diagram, and it turns out that from this diagram alone you can recover an enormous amount about the life cycles of a population of stars (for example, in a star cluster, a neighborhood of our own galaxy, or a nearby galaxy). You can learn even more if you couple the diagram with spectra of stars from different parts of it. Studying stellar populations has helped us understand the fundamentals of what kinds of stars exist, how they are born and die, and how many stars of any given mass are likely to develop in a galaxy in relation to stars of different masses. That last thing is called the Initial Mass Function (IMF for short). Essentially it says that, when stars form in groups, more low-mass stars form than high-mass stars. Put that together with what we know about how much brighter high-mass stars shine and how much faster they die than low-mass stars, and you can start to understand how whole populations of stars in galaxies form and evolve.

And we can apply our studies of nearby galaxies and groups of stars to galaxies we observe much farther away. It’s a good thing, too, since most galaxies are far enough away that our current telescopes can’t resolve individual stars. We just get the sum of the light from all the stars. That combined light is sometimes made up of multiple populations of stars that formed in groups at different times and now all live together in a particular galaxy. Taking that single picture combining the light from billions (often hundreds of billions) of stars and using it to learn about the stars’ masses, ages and histories is an important process, and there are several ways to do it: one way combines models of stellar populations made by forming and evolving many stars in a computer simulation. This is sometimes called Stellar Population Synthesis, or SPS.

On today’s live Hangout, we once again let your questions guide us as we talked about IMFs and what they have to do with SPS and measuring the stellar masses of galaxies. The work that laid the foundations for today’s study of galaxy stellar populations was done in large part by women (Bill mentioned Beatrice Tinsley, for example), which is fitting since today is International Women’s Day. We talked about that too, and about diversity in general in astronomy. Just as you can learn a lot from even one snapshot of a galaxy, you can do a lot with just a bit of mindfulness about being an ally for diversity (Kyle noted on Twitter that World Day for Cultural Diversity is May 21), be it equality for women or for any other minority groups in science, or indeed any field.

Here’s the audio-only version of the Hangout: click to listen to mp3 version.

And the video:

We’ll post about our next hangout soon; in the meantime, keep those questions coming!

Green Valley: The Town Too Good To Die

Galaxies of different colors

I swear we are consistently trying to keep our live hangouts to about 15 minutes. We have so far failed at keeping to time, but hopefully also succeeded in the sense that we only run over because there’s so much to discuss.

We had a number of good questions from Twitter, Facebook and the blog about various types of galaxies — from red spirals to green peas and blue ellipticals — and I rather arbitrarily decided this was an indication that our hangout should have a color theme. That is, what exactly does “color” mean in the context of astronomy? What is going on physically when a galaxy is one color versus another, or has multiple colors? Is color information always telling us the same thing? We tried to address all those questions, as well as show some examples of different galaxies in the above queried categories. As a bonus, we learned how galaxy colors are related to the town my grandparents retired to. (This post’s title is a quote from the Green Valley Chamber of Commerce’s official website.) That was as much a surprise to me as it was to the viewers!

We also talked about what’s currently going on in Galaxy Zoo behind the scenes. Earlier today, Kyle sent around a really nice draft of the Galaxy Zoo 2 data paper for the team to read and comment on (you’ll have to watch the video to get a sneak peek at some of the figures).

And it’s that time again: Hubble Space Telescope proposals are due in about a week. We talked about the proposal process from concept to submission to review, discussing both specifics of certain telescopes and the general practices that (we hope) help lead to a successful proposal. Here’s a hint: it may not be what you think!

We covered all this and some other questions, too. No wonder we ran a little over…

And here’s the podcast version:

Download MP3 file

GZ4 merger or overlap set

Is it a triple merger? A double overlap? A hybrid?

Spiral Colors

A blue(ish) and red spiral.

Elliptical colors

A red and blue elliptical.

Green pea

A tiny green pea galaxy, and zoomed-in at right.

Ask us your questions for the next Live Chat!

Next Galaxy Zoo Live Chat: Friday, the 8th of February, 2013, 3:00 p.m. GMT

Topic: TBA! (Translation: we’re just going to wing it.)

We’ve already had some good questions submitted for our live chat, ranging from detailed inquiries about galaxy evolution to the orbital mechanics of moons. If you have a question for us, post it below and we’ll try to answer it! (You can also tweet questions @galaxyzoo at any time.)

Update: see questions answered in the Live Chat video here!

Spiral Galaxies and the Future of Citizen Science: a Live Chat

Last week Karen Masters suggested that we start doing Galaxy Zoo live chats a little more often. I thought that sounded like a great idea, and we figured we’d just have an informal chat about whatever galaxy/Zooniverse topic we felt like discussing that day.

We were joined by Kyle Willett and Kevin Schawinski, and the four of us started talking about this paper, which presents an automated system for classifying and measuring spiral arms. It compares to Galaxy Zoo 2 data within the text, and we talked about what the fact that the computers did pretty well means for the future of Galaxy Zoo. We didn’t prepare anything in advance, and I didn’t even start reading the paper until about 20 minutes before we got going. So my favorite part of the chat is where I put forward a few definitions of pitch angle and get them all wrong. Science in action!

We also introduced the jargon gong, which we used on each other whenever one of us said something in insider-speak. I think this is a feature worth keeping, and we also plan to invite viewers to gong us themselves via Google+ or Twitter for the next chat.

When will the next chat be? We’re not sure yet, but hopefully soon — I promise I’ll even try to make a blog post before we start next time!

Update: We’ve now extracted the audio into an mp3 file and started a podcast:

Download MP3 file

Galaxy Merger Gallery

I’m Joel Miller, I’m just about to start year 13 at The Marlborough School, Woodstock, and I am here at Oxford University working on mergers from the Galaxy Zoo Hubble data as part of my Nuffield Science Bursary. I have/will be looking at the data and plotting graphs to see how the fraction of galaxies which are mergers changes with other factors therefore determining if there is a correlation between these factors and galaxy mergers. Having looked though many images of merging galaxies I found some really amazing ones.

With some of the images from the SDSS I was able to find high-res HST images of the same galaxy and also find out some more information about them.

Spiral Galaxies NGC 5278 and NGC 5279 (Arp 239) in the Constellation of Ursa Major form an M-51-like interacting pair. This group is sometimes called the “telephone receiver”. The galaxies are not only connected via one spiral arm like M-51, but they also have a dimmer bridge between their disks. Spiral galaxies UGC 8671 and MCG +9-22-94 do not have measured red shifts and therefore there is no data on their distances. They may well be a part of a small cluster of galaxies that includes the “telephone receiver”, but this is not determined at this time.

NGC 5331 is a pair of interacting galaxies beginning to “link arms”. There is a blue trail which appears in the image flowing to the right of the system. NGC 5331 is very bright in the infrared, with about a hundred billion times the luminosity of the Sun. It is located in the constellation Virgo, about 450 million light-years away from Earth.

This pair of Spiral Galaxies in Virgo is known as “The Siamese Twins” or “The Butterfly Galaxies”. Both are classic spiral galaxies with small bright nuclei, several knotty arms, and arm segments. Both also have a hint of an inner ring. The pair is thought to be a member of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. NGC 4568 is currently the host galaxy of Supernova 2004cc (Type Ic) and was also the host of Supernova 1990B a Type Ic that reached a maximum magnitude of 14.4.

Arp 272 is a collision between two spiral galaxies, NGC 6050 and IC 1179, and is part of the Hercules Galaxy Cluster, located in the constellation of Hercules. The galaxy cluster is part of the Great Wall of clusters and superclusters, the largest known structure in the Universe. The two spiral galaxies are linked by their swirling arms and is located about 450 million light-years away from Earth.

This galaxy pair (Arp 240) is composed of two spiral galaxies of similar mass and size, NGC 5257 and NGC 5258. The galaxies are visibly interacting with each other via a bridge of dim stars connecting the two galaxies. Both galaxies have supermassive black holes in their centres and are actively forming new stars in their discs. Arp 240 is located in the constellation Virgo, approximately 300 million light-years away, and is the 240th galaxy in Arp’s Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies.

With the exception of a few foreground stars from our own Milky Way all the objects in this image are galaxies.

Beautiful galaxy Messier 106

Inspired by today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day Image, here’s a quick post about the beautiful nearby spiral galaxy, Messier 106 (or NGC 4258).

M106 Close Up (from APOD)
Credit: Composite Image Data – Hubble Legacy ArchiveAdrian Zsilavec, Michelle Qualls, Adam Block / NOAO / AURA / NSF
Processing – André van der Hoeven

This is a composite Hubble Space Telescope and ground based (from NOAO) image. The ground based image was used to add colour to the high resolution single filter (ie. black and white) image from HST.

M106 has traditionally been classified as an unbarred Sb galaxies (although some astronomers claim a weak bar). In the 1960s it was discovered that if you look at M106 in radio and X-ray two additional “ghostly arms” appear, almost at right angles to the optical arms. These are explained as gas being shock heated by jets coming out of the central supermassive black hole (see Spitzer press release).

In this composite image of spiral galaxy M106 (NGC 4258), optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey is shown as yellow, radio data from the Very Large Array appears as purple, X-ray data from Chandra is coded blue, and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope appears red. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Maryland/A.S. Wilson et al.; Optical: Palomar Observatory. DSS; IR:NASA/JPL-Caltech; VLA: NRAO/AUI/NSF



Messier 106 (or NGC 4258) is an extremely important galaxy for astronomers, due to it’s role in tying down the extragalactic distance scale. A search in the NASA Extragalactic Database (NED) will reveal this galaxy has 55 separate estimates of its distance, using many of the classic methods on the Cosmic distance ladder. Most importantly, M106 was the first galaxy to have an geometric distance measure using a new method which tracked the orbits of clumps of gas moving around the supermassive black hole in its centre. This remains one of the most accurate extragalactic distances ever measured with only a 4% error (7.2+/-0.3 Mpc, or 22+/-1 million light years). The error can be so low, because the number of assumptions is small (it’s based on our knowledge of gravity), and as a geometrically estimated distance it leap frogs the lower rungs of the distance ladder.

This result was published in Nature in 1999: A geometric distance to the galaxy NGC4258 from orbital motions in a nuclear gas disk, Hernstein et al. 1999 (link includes an open access copy on the ArXiV). 

Because M106 has so many different distances estimated using so many different methods, and is anchored by the extremely accurate geometric distance, it helps us to calibrate the distances to many other galaxies. Almost all cosmological results, and any result looking at the masses, or physical sizes of galaxies need a distance estimate. 

So M106 is not only beautiful, it’s important. 

The Connection between AGN Activity and Bars in Late Type Galaxies AAS

At the center of every massive galaxy lies a supermassive black hole. In a small percentage of galaxies, so called Active Galactic Nuclei or AGN, these black holes are currently accreting gas and dust and shinning luminously as that material looses energy. It is thought that some galaxies have this AGN activity at their center and others do not because of the presence or absence of gas near-enough to the black hole to be accreted. But many questions remain, including how the gas which can live any where in the galaxy, gets down to the very central regions.

One solution to this problem could lie in the bar-like structures seen in many galaxies like this one from the Hubble Space Telescope:

Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300
Source: Hubblesite.org

These bar features are easy to form in a big disk galaxy and are likely transitory, first coming together and then dissipating. Most importantly, models suggest that these bars can drive gas inward towards the central regions of galaxies.

Whether or not these galactic-scale structures, which can transport gas towards the central regions of a galaxy, could be related to episode of AGN activity has been debated for decades. One of the simplest ways to approach this issue is to observer whether or not a bar feature in a galaxy is observed to correlate with the presence of accretion at the very center of the galaxy. In other words, if galaxies containing bars are more likely to host AGN, than we can hypothesize that the bar may be responsible for feeding gas to that AGN.
Because the scale of the central supermassive black hole is many orders of magnitude smaller than the regions into which the bar can transport gas, the connection is not as straightforward as the simple story seems to suggestion.

Before Galaxy Zoo, investigations looking into the connection between the presence of an AGN and that of a bar in galaxies suffered from being too small or looking at galaxies with only one particular color. Now With Galaxy Zoo we can search 10,000 galaxies and look at each for the presence of a bar, and use the spectroscopic data from SDSS to identify any AGN activity. We look at the votes from the viewers in galaxy zoo and assign a probability that a bar exists in a single galaxy by comparing the number of people who indicated a presence of a bar to the total number of people who viewed the galaxy. As the image below shows, we can accurately identify barred galaxies by selecting those where at least 50% of the classifiers identified a bar in the galaxy.

Bars by Votes


We found that both the presence of an AGN and the presence of a bar are tightly correlated with the color of a galaxy and its size. This explains why so many previous samples might have found contradictory results, depending on which types of galaxies in their sample contained AGN activity and which contained bars.  However, because the sample of galaxies in Galaxy Zoo is so large,  we can look at samples of galaxies with similar sizes and colors.  And when we control for the effects of size and color, there is no longer a large correlation between the presence of a bar and central AGN activity.
This means that although the bar is responsible for driving gas inward in the galaxy, it doesn’t get it close-enough to the center to incite black hole accretion (or AGN activity). This result can have far reaching implications for models of galaxy evolution, which need to explain how galaxies (and their central black holes) grow.  Unfortunately it rules out one popular idea:  bars are not a key source of inciting black hole growth in galaxies.