My previous post on the Zooniverse blog gave some history of how having Galaxy Zoo participants call attention to backlit galaxies led to the galaxy pair VV191 being on the schedule for observations with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), what we expected to learn, and a final note to watch for the outcome in mid-2023. It is not yet mid-2023, and here we are with the outcome. A short-notice schedule reshuffling (which I suspect was enabled by how rapidly the commissioning process went, and the fact that this was a brief series of observations totaling only 30 minutes of exposure) brought these observations up to mid-July of this year.
Short form: we got what we came for, and the Universe provided interesting bonuses. NASA is releasing this nicely processed rendering of our combined Hubble and HST image sets today. The Hubble near-ultraviolet and red-light data are shown in blue, with green and red showing progressively deeper-infrared bands from JWST.
The dust in the spiral arms of the big spiral (VV191b) stands out where it is silhouetted by the bright light of the elliptical galaxy VV191a. In fact, the dusty arms can be traced farther from the spiral’s center than even the JWST data show bright spiral arms, cutting off very sharply at a radius of 20 kiloparsecs (66,000 light-years, about 8 times the distance from us to our own galactic center). This testifies to the past history of star formation in VV191b. Having a map of the light transmitted through the dust at different wavelengths lets us examine the so-called reddening law, the relative amount of light blocked at different wavelengths. This is characteristic of the sizes of interstellar dust grains, and how they are distributed on scales smaller than we can resolve in our data. This RGB display shows the transmitted light at wavelengths 0.6-1.5 microns (plus background galaxies and foreground star-forming regions we masked in numerical analysis). The dust lanes are redder (or, to my eye, browner) than the surroundings, illustrating how blue light is more effectively blocked than red (and red more effectively than deeper red, and both of those compared to near-infrared, until at the 4.4-micron longest-wavelength band of JWST’s NIRCam detectors the absorption is too small to measure)
Analyzing these maps pixel by pixel (after matching the image resolutions; JWST images at 1.5 microns are still sharper than HST data at 0.6 microns, a welcome outcome which was not guaranteed) we can ask more precisely how the dust in VV191b reddens light passing through the galaxy. The answer is – a lot like typical dust grains in our part of the Milky Way. This was a bit unexpected first because while both are large spiral galaxies, VV191b is considerably larger than the Milky Way, and we are examining its outermost spiral features in ways that are very difficult in our own Galaxy. Second, where there are clumps with more dust than their surrounding, so smaller that our data blur them together with their surroundings, we will measure less reddening than we would if we could use single stars as background sources (“greyer extinction”).
There is more to learn, but these data are a great step. The research paper has been submitted to the Astronomical Journal, and is now under review; a preprint version is at https://arxiv.org/abs/2208.14475
In our first looks at the JWST data, something else became obvious. Near the core of the elliptical galaxy VV191a is a very red arc appearing to partly wrap around its nucleus. Opposite the nucleus is a much smaller red spot. Together these fit perfectly for being a gravitational lens, light from a galaxy over 10 billion light-years away, seen as the gravity of the foreground galaxy distorts and magnifies it. While hundreds of such lenses are known from more distant galaxy clusters (eagerly sought to improve our knowledge of very early galaxies), only a handful of single-galaxy lenses have been found so nearby. (There is a bit of irony in finding this – the overall project these data came from, led by Rogier Windhorst at Arizona State University, acquired the name PEARLS, Prime Extragalactic Areas for Reionization and Lensing Science, so now VV191 honestly belongs through that L). Team members Giovanni Ferrami and Stuart Wyithe from the University of Melbourne in Australia were able to get a good match to the lensing distortion using the galaxy’s light distribution and estimating the background galaxy distance from its colors. In fact, because everything is connected if you look closely, this measurement tells how much mass including dim dwarf stars plus dark matter is in that part of the foreground galaxy. A second distant background galaxy has only a single image, but is distorted in a way similar to the arc. These distant galaxies are so red that the lensing was not seen in the Hubble images, even though the arc was obvious in each of the JWST images. This crop shows the arc and its counterimage on either side of the elliptical-galaxy core.
Around the edge of the image above (which comes from only a single one of the eight near-IR detectors in the NIRCam instrument), many other background galaxies appear (they are everywhere with JWST, even showing up the recent Jupiter image). To the upper left of the elliptical galaxy are two patchy spiral galaxies that look almost the same size but have very different colors (one so red that, again, Hubble data did not show it). Without further data they could be at similar distances but one so dusty that dust reddening change sits colors, something we need to know more about to interpret incoming results in the early Universe). Or the red one could be very bright and at a much higher redshift – in an expanding Universe, very distant objects can look large although dim (more or less because they were much closer to us when that light was emitted). This means that galaxies of the same actual size will look nearly the same size to us at any distance beyond about 5 billion light-years (although progressively more redshifted and a great deal dimmer with distance).
Some readers may have followed the public discussion about how JWST calibration uncertainties (since it’s so early in what we hope will be a very long mission) may have affected initial attempts to identify the highest-redshift galaxies. In this light, this was a very good project to do so early – for our dust analysis, all that matters is how the brightness in various parts of each galaxy is compared, using uniformity within a single detector and not at all needing to know its absolute sensitivity. To get the absolute sensitivity for colors of the gravitationally lensed galaxy (which we did not initially know we’d need to do), we were able to combine a Sloan Digital Sky Survey spectrum of the elliptical galaxy with the very well-known near-IR properties of giant ellipticals to reduce calibration uncertainties.
As said above, this all comes from 30 minutes’ worth of data using 1/8 of the field of view of JWST’s NIRCam camera. There are a lot more galaxies out there. Watch this space as we try to work out the best way to do JWST Galaxy Zoo.
Almost 15 years ago, what first attracted me to be involved with Galaxy Zoo was the ability of participants to pick out rare galaxy types, especially silhouetted or overlapping galaxy systems. These highlight the effects of dust in the foreground galaxy on passing light, and offer ways to study the dust which are complementary to, for example, observations in the deep infrared where the dust itself shines, giving off the energy it absorbs from starlight. Visible-light measurements of backlit galaxies show us the dust no matter how cold it might be, where it can hide from IR detection, and at the high resolution available to optical telescopes (including the Hubble Space Telescope) rather than the more modest, wavelength-limited resolution we can achieve at longer wavelength. Better measurements of dust in galaxies affect our understanding of their energy output, stellar content, and even our view of the more distant Universe. Galaxy Zoo volunteers contributed to a catalog of nearly 2000 suitable galaxy pairs from the first iteration of the project, since expanded from Galaxy Zoo 2, GZ Hubble, and the most recent examinations using the Legacy Survey data. We have used this list for number of followup studies – although, truth be told, I have also been distracted by other rare systems found by volunteers (cough, Hanny’s Voorwerp and the Voorwerpjes, for example).
The backlit-galaxy system VV191 was first reported in the Galaxy Zoo forum as a possible galaxy merger, by user Goniners on November 2, 2007. Despite its near-perfect geometry for study of foreground dust, VV191 had eluded our earlier searches because the inner regions, where one can see that this is a superposition of undisturbed galaxies rather a merging galaxy pair, are saturated in prints of the Palomar Sky Survey, which was the best visible-light survey before the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. At the time VV191 was selected for further study, catalogs showed a substantial redshift difference between the two galaxies, which is desirable so the two galaxies are unlikely to be physically interacting with each other, and light from the background galaxy scattered by the dust becomes much fainter. That has been revised by later data which put the redshifts closer; we can’t win them all, though the two galaxies are very symmetric and undisturbed in all our later data.
(Hubble red-light image of VV191, showing silhouetted dust in the foreground spiral arms)
We got a closer look with the STARSMOG project led by colleague Benne Holwerda, which was a Hubble snapshot program – one where short exposures are inserted into gaps in the telescope schedule, much like the Zoo Gems gap-filler project. STARSMOG drew promising overlapping-galaxy pairs from Galaxy Zoo forum posts and the GAMA (Galaxy And Mass Assembly) project. Over several years, it acquired images of 55 galaxy pairs of interest. Among those was VV191, generating a very detailed map of the dust silhouette of the spiral galaxy. This was one of the galaxy pairs analyzed in a project based on the master’s thesis work by Sarah Bradford at the University of Alabama which went into a poster presentation at the January 2017 meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Texas. In fact, I used a low-contrast version of the VV191 image as the poster background. (The poster should still just be legible in this compressed PNG version):
The data quality for VV191 stood out, because the background elliptical galaxy has its brightest region right behind the edge of the dust in the spiral. We then had a 2-dimensional map of how much light gets through the dust in the spiral at the wavelengths included in that single observation. The poster was viewed by my longtime collaborator Rogier Windhorst, who is one of the interdisciplinary scientists with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project. In this capacity, he had an allocation of so-called GTO (guaranteed-time) observations, asked what we could do with JWST. Rogier was struck by these images, and wondered what we could add to the science output with a little bit of JWST observing time.
This led to a plan of tracking the dust signature from ultraviolet to infrared in a single galaxy with a single technique. First Hubble had to do its part with more data, using not only its high resolution but UV sensitivity. We got Hubble images in filters around 2250 and 3360 Angstroms (0.22 and 0.34 microns) , with the short end limited mostly by the elliptical galaxy being so faint in the deeper UV that we couldn’t detect its light well enough in reasonable exposure times. These data have been processed, so we are ready for the next step – JWST. Its near-infrared camera (NIRCAM) will observe this system in four filters from 0.9-4.0 microns wavelength (two at a time since the camera can use short- and long-wavelength channels simultaneously). The wavelengths are chosen to trace the way the dust effects fall off toward longer wavelengths, which is affected both by the sizes of the interstellar dust grains and how strongly they are clumped together. One filter matches one of the wavelengths at which small grains (or indeed large molecules, so-called PAH particles) emit, so we might be able to tell how they correlate with the larger particles blocking most of the light.
Because of the enormous sensitivity of JWST and NIRCAM, each filter is exposed for only 15 minutes to get very high measurement accuracy. (The telescope will probably take longer than that to point to VV191, depending on what it’s doing beforehand). Based on when JWST can view this part of the sky, these observations are most likely to be made between December 2022-March 2023, or May-July of 2023 (we should know more in a couple of weeks when the first year’s observation schedule is released). Watch this space…
Since mid-2018, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken occasional short-exposure images, filling what would otherwise be gaps in its schedule, of galaxies in the list from “Gems of the Galaxy Zoos” (otherwise known as Zoo Gems). The Zoo Gems project just passed a milestone, with acceptance of a journal paper describing the project, including how votes from Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo participants were used to select some of the targeted galaxies, and acting as a sort of theatrical “teaser trailer” for the variety of science results coming from these data. (The preprint of the accepted version is here; once it is in “print”, the Astronomical Journal itself is now open-access as of last month). The journal reviewer really liked the whole project: “The use of the Galaxy Zoo project’s unique ability to spot outliers in galaxy morphology and use this input list for a HST gap filler program is a great use of both the citizen science project and the Hubble Space Telescope” and “I think it is a wonderful program with a clever, useful, and engaging use of both SDSS and Hubble.” (We seldom read statements that glowing in journal reviews).
Zoo Gems got its start in late 2017, when the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) asked for potential “gap-filler” projects. Even with what are known as snapshot projects, there remained gaps in Hubble’s schedule long enough to set up and take 10-15 minutes’ worth of high-quality data. We put together a shockingly brief proposal (STScI wanted 2 pages, originally to gauge interest) and were very pleased to find it one of 3 selected (the other two also deal with galaxies. Makes sense to me). We had long thought that the ideal proposal for further observations of some of the rare objects identified in Galaxy Zoo ran along the lines of “Our volunteers have found all these weird galaxies. We need a closer look”. That was essentially what the gap-filler project offered.
We estimated that we could identify 1100 particularly interesting galaxies (where short-exposure Hubble images would teach us something we could foresee) from Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo. We were allocated 300 by STScI, so some decisions had to be made. A key feature of our project was the wide range of galaxy science goals it could address, so we wanted to keep a broad mix of object types. Some types were rare and had fewer than 10 examples even from Galaxy Zoo, so we started by keeping those. When there were many to choose from, we did what Galaxy Zoo history (and STScI reviewers) suggested – asked for people to vote on which merging galaxies, overlapping galaxies, and so on should go into the final list. This happened in parallel for Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo objects (the latter largely managed by the late Jean Tate, not the last time we are sadly missing Jean’s contributions as one of the most assiduous volunteers). Even being on that observing list was no guarantee – gap-filler observations are selected more or less at random, taking whichever one (from whichever project’s list) fits in a gap in time and location in the sky. The STScI pilot project suggested that we could eventually expect close to half to be observed; we are now quite close to that, with 146 observations of 299 (one became unworkable due to a change in how guide stars are selected by Hubble). These include a fascinating range of galaxies. From Galaxy Zoo, the list includes Green Pea starburst galaxies, blue elliptical and red spiral galaxies, ongoing mergers, backlit spiral galaxies, galaxies with unusual central bars or rings, galaxy mergers with evidence for the spiral disks surviving the merger or reappearing shortly thereafter, and even a few gravitational lenses. From Radio Galaxy Zoo, we selected sets of emission-line galaxies (“RGZ Green”) and possibly spiral host galaxies of double radio sources (SDRAGNs, in the jargon, and so rare that we’ve more than doubled the known set already). Both kinds of RGZ selection were largely managed by Jean Tate, who we are missing once again. By now, of 300 possible objects, 146 have been successfully observed. One can no longer be observed due to changes in Hubble’s guide-star requirements, and two failed for onboard technical reasons (it was during one of those, a few months ago, that a computer failure sent the telescope into “safe mode”; I have been assured that it was not our fault).
Zoo Gems images show that every blue elliptical galaxy observed shows a tightly wound spiral pattern near the core, so small that it was blurred together in the Sloan Survey images used by Galaxy Zoo, and broadly fitting with the idea that these galaxies result from at least minor mergers bringing gas and dust into a formerly quiet elliptical system.
There is much more to come as harvesting the knowledge from these data continues. Already, a project led by Leonardo Clarke at the University of Minnesota used Zoo Gems images to demonstrate that Green Peas are embedded in redder surroundings, possibly the older stars in the galaxies that host these starbursts. Beyond these, these data can be used to examine the histories of poststarburst galaxies, dynamics and star-formation properties of 3-armed spirals, and nuclear disks and bars – some of these show galaxies-within-galaxies patterns where the central region nearly echoes the structure of the whole galaxy.
While going through some of the Zoo Gems images to see which should go in various montages in this paper, I considered the multilayer overlapping galaxy system including UGC 12281. It didn’t go into the paper, but the visual sense of deep space in this image is so profound that it became the 2nd most-retweeted thing I’ve sent out in more than 10 years.
In presenting these data, we wanted to make the case for the value of wide-ranging, even short, programs such as this. These gap-filler projects are continuing with Hubble, until STScI starts to have trouble filling the gaps and needs to call for more projects. Premature as it seems, I can’t help musing that someone may eventually work out a low-impact way for the James Webb Space Telescope to make brief stopovers as it slews between long-exposure targets – we have suggestions…
Data from the Zoo Gems project (like the other gap-filler programs, Julianne Dalcanton’s program on Arp peculiar galaxies and the one on SWIFT active galaxies led by Aaron Barth) are immediately public, accessible in the MAST archive under HST program number 15445 (the others are 15444 and 15446). Claude Cornen maintains image galleries for the Zoo Gems, Arp and SWIFT projects in Zoo Gems Talk. Our thanks go to everyone who helped draw attention to these galaxies, or voted in the Zoo Gems object selection.
Help vote for Radio Galaxy Zoo Gems!
At the Galaxy Zoos (both at Galaxy Zoo & Radio Galaxy Zoo), we are fizzling with excitement as we prepare for observations using the Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument on board the Hubble Space Telescope. These new Hubble maps will have greater resolution than those that we have from the Sloan Digital Sky Server.
As mentioned by Bill’s blogpost, we have been allocated fewer observing slots than our full list of candidates. Therefore, we invite all of you to help shape the observing priorities of our current target list. You will help determine which host galaxies would gain the most from these Hubble observations (and thus have highest priorities on the target list).
The main science targets specific to these Hubble observations are the host galaxies of Green Double Radio-lobed Active Galactic Nuclei (Green DRAGN — pronounced Green Dragon) and Spiral Double
Radio-lobed Active Galactic Nuclei (S-DRAGN).
Green DRAGN — The prominent green appearance in these DRAGN host galaxies come from the strong [OIII] emission line that dominate the emission in the Sloan r-band. Therefore, these galaxies appear very green in a Sloan 3-colour (g,r,i) image due the lack of equivalently-strong emission in the Sloan g– and i– bands (the blue- and red- filters, respectively). The Green Pea galaxies (Cardamone et al 2009) from the original Galaxy Zoo project are a class of green galaxies that appear to be dominated
by star formation. On the other hand, the Green Bean galaxies (Schirmer et al 2013) are thought to consists of quasar light echoes (eg Galaxy Zoo’s Hanny’s Voorwerp). However, the original Green Bean population show little to no emission at radio wavelengths.
In Radio Galaxy Zoo, we have found a population of Green Bean-like galaxies which host bright radio lobes. Therefore, what sort of feedback are galaxies getting from these “radio-active” Green DRAGNs and how do they relate to the other green galaxies and our understanding of galaxy evolution? Figure 1 shows an example of a Green DRAGN that also happened to be a Hybrid Morphology Radio Galaxy
found by Radio Galaxy Zoo and published by team scientist Anna Kapinska in collaboration with citizen scientist Ivan Terentev (see blogpost on their paper).
Spiral DRAGN — Typically, radio galaxies with big radio jets and lobes are hosted by early-type galaxies. Spiral galaxies are often thought to not be “mature” or massive enough to host giant radio lobes. However, a few S-DRAGNs have been found in the past by our very own Bill Keel (Keel et al 2006, see Figure 2) and Minnie Mao (Mao et al 2015). To shed light on this rare phenomena,
we seek your help through Radio Galaxy Zoo and this observing programme to assemble a more statistically significant number of this rare class of objects. Figure 2 shows a combined HST and VLA map of the S-DRAGN
published by Bill in 2006.
We have to finish this priority selection by the 16th February 2018. So, please help vote now by clicking here. We have uploaded the targets in batches of 24 and so please click on all the batches for a view of the full target list. A handy tip for inspecting these images is to ensure that your screen brightness is adjusted to its maximum because many of the host galaxy features can be very faint.
We thank Radio Galaxy Zooites, Jean and Victor, for their immense help with assembling the priority selection project interface. You can track what Hubble is observing by proceding to the Hubble archive link or the Hubble Legacy Archive interface here.
Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo participants have an unusual opportunity to help shape a list of galaxies to be observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, as part of the “Gems of the Galaxy Zoos” project.
The project came about when the Space Telescope Science Institute circulated a message in August of 2017, seeking proposals for a new category of observation – gap-fillers. These projects will provide lists of target objects around the sky for brief observations when high-priority projects leave gaps in the telescope schedule, allowing 10-12 minutes of observation at intermediate places in the sky. Read More…
Just in time to brighten our holiday season, we got word that the Astrophysical Journal has accepted out next paper on the Voorwerpje clouds around fading active galactic nuclei (AGN). The full paper is now linked on the arXiv preprint server.
This time, we concentrated on the clouds and what they can tell us about the history of these AGN. To do this, we worked pixel-by-pixel with the Hubble images of the clouds in the H-alpha and [O III] emission lines, augmented by a new (and very rich) set of integral-field spectroscopy measurements from the 8-meter Gemini North telescope, velocity maps from the Russian 6-meter telescope, and long-slit spectra from the 3-meter Shane telescope at Lick Observatory.
To examine the history of each AGN, our approach was that the AGN had to be at least bright enough to ionize the hydrogen we see glowing at each point at the time the light reaching that point was given off. Certainly we can’t expect each piece of the cloud to absorb all the deep-UV radiation, so this is a lower limit. Two external checks, on quasars unlikely to have faded greatly and on the Teacup AGN which has had detailed modeling done from spectra, suggests that the very brightest pixels at each radius absorb comparable fractions of the ionizing radiation. This gives confidence that we can track at least the behavior of a single object, underestimating its brightness by a single factor, if we look at the upper envelope of all pixels in the H-alpha images. We hoped this would be feasible all the way back to the original Hubble proposal to look at Hanny’s Voorwerp. Here is a graphic from the new paper comparing our AGN in this way. The distance in light-years at each point corresponds to the time delay between the AGN and cloud, and the curve labelled “Projection” shows how much one of these points would change if we view that location not perpendicular to the light but at angles up to 30 degrees each way. To be conservative, the plot shows the data corresponding to the bottom of this curve (minimum AGN luminosity at each point).
The common feature is the rapid brightness drop in the last 20,000 years for each (measured from the light now reaching us from the nuclei). Before that, most of them would not have stood out as having enough of an energy shortfall to enter our sample. Because of smearing due the large size of the clouds, and the long time it takes for electrons to recombine with protons at such low densities, we would not necessarily see the signature of similar low states more than about 40,000 years back.
We could also improve another measure of the AGN history – the WISE satellite’s mid-infrared sky survey gave us more accurate measure of these objects’ infrared output. That way, we can tell whether it is at least possible for the AGN to be bright enough to light up the gas, but so dust-blocked in our direction that we underestimate their brightness. The answer in most cases is “not at all”.
New data brought additional surprises (these objects have been gifts that just keep on giving). The Gemini data were taken with fiber-optic arrays giving us a spectrum for each tiny area 0.2 arcseconds on a side (although limited to 3.5×5 arc second fields), taken under extraordinarily steady atmospheric conditions so we can resolve structures as small as 0.5 arc second. We use these results to see how the gas is ionized and moves; some loops of gas that earlier looked as if they were being blown out from the nuclei are mostly rotating instead. Unlike some well-studied, powerful AGN with giant emission clouds, the Voorwerpje clouds are mostly just orbiting the galaxies (generally as part of tidal tails), being ionized by the AGN radiation but not shoved around by AGN winds. This montage shows the core of NGC 5972 seen by these various instruments, hinting at the level of mapping allowed by the Gemini spectra (and helping explain why it took so long to work finish the latest paper).
Work on the Voorwerpjes continues in many ways. Galaxy Zoo participants still find possible clouds (and the moderators have been excellent about making sure we see them). There is more to be learned from the Gemini data, while X-ray observatories are gradually bringing the current status of the AGN into sharper focus. A narrowband imaging survey from the ground can pick out fainter (and sometimes older) clouds. Colleagues with expertise in radio interferometry are addressing questions posed by the unexpected misalignments of optical and radio structures in some of our galaxies. Finally, the new DECaLS and Pan-STARRS survey data will eventually bring nearly the whole sky into our examination (for a huge range of projects, not just AGN history).
Once again, thanks to all who have helped us find and unravel these fascinating objects!
It’s a week until the 8th anniversary of the launch of Galaxy Zoo.
The Hubble Space Telescope observations of giant ionized Voorwerpje clouds near galaxies with active nuclei, many found for the first time though the effort of Galaxy Zoo participants gives us another 8 – one at the end of a long road of numbers. 16,000 galaxies with known or possible active nuclei, 200 highly-ranked cloud candidates based on input from 185 participants, 50 spectroscopic observations, 19 giant ionized clouds, among which we found 8 with evidence that the nucleus has faded dramatically (and then observed by one Hubble Space Telescope). (You wondered where the numeral 8 would come in by now… and there is another one hidden below.) The first batch of scientific results from analysis of these images was described here, and the NASA/ESA press release with beautiful visualizations of the multi-filter image data can be seen here. As a visual summary, here are the images, with starlight and emission from [O III] and H-alpha shown in roughly true visual color.
This project was an outgrowth of the discovery of Hanny’s Voorwerp, which remains probably the signature discovery of Galaxy Zoo. In astronomy, one is a pet rock, ten is a statistically valid sample – so we wanted to know more about how common such clouds might be, and what they could tell us about quasars more generally. Zoo participants answered this challenge magnificently.
The scientific interest in these objects and their history remains intense, and observations continue. I’ve recently finished processing integral-field spectra from the 8-meter Gemini-North telescope, where we have spectra at every point in a small field of view near the nucleus, and just recently we learned that our proposal for spectra in a few key areas at the high resolution of the Hubble telescope has been approved for the coming year.
Even (or especially) for kinds of objects behind its original statistical goals, Galaxy Zoo has provided an amazing ride these last 8 years. Stay with us – and if you see weirdly colored clouds around galaxies, feel free to flag them in Talk!
After two rounds of comments and questions from the journal referee, the first paper discussing the detailed results of the Hubble observations of the giant ionized clouds we’ve come to call Voorwerpjes has been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal. (In the meantime, and freely accessible, the final accepted version is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1408.5159 ) We pretty much always complain about the refereeing process, but this time the referee did prod us into putting a couple of broad statements on much more quantitively supported bases. Trying to be complete on the properties of the host galaxies of these nuclei and on the origin of the ionized gas, the paper runs to about 35 pages, so I’ll just hit some main points here.
These are all in interacting galaxies, including merger remnants. This holds as well for possibly all the “parent” sample including AGN which are clearly powerful enough to light up the surrounding gas. Signs include tidal tails of star as well as gas, and dust lanes which are chaotic and twisted. These twists can be modeled one the assumption that they started in the orbital plane of a former (now assimilated) companion galaxy, which gives merger ages around 1.5 billion years for the two galaxies where there are large enough dust lanes to use this approach. In 6 of 8 galaxies we studied, the central bulge is dominant – one is an S0 with large bulge, and only one is a mostly normal barred spiral (with a tidal tail).<?p>
Incorporating spectroscopic information on both internal Doppler shifts and chemical makeup of the gas we can start to distinguish smaller areas affected by outflow from the active nuclei and the larger surrounding regions where the gas is in orderly orbits around the galaxies (as in tidal tails). We have especially powerful synergy by adding complete velocity maps made by Alexei Moiseev using the 6-meter Russian telescope (BTA). In undisturbed tidal tails, the abundances of heavy elements are typically half or less of what we see in the Sun, while in material transported outward from the nuclei, these fractions may be above what the solar reference level. There is a broad match between disturbed motions indicating outward flows and heavy-element fractions. (By “transported” above, I meant “blasted outwards at hundreds of kilometers per second”). Seeing only a minor role for these outflows puts our sample in contrast to the extended gas around some quasars with strong radio sources, which is dominated by gas blasted out at thousands of kilometers per second. We’re seeing either a different process or a different stage in its development (one which we pretty much didn’t know about before following up this set of Galaxy Zoo finds.) We looked for evidence of recent star formation in these galaxies, using both the emission-line data to look for H-alpha emission from such regions and seeking bright star clusters. Unlike Hanny’s Voorwerp, we see only the most marginal evidence that these galaxies in general trigger starbirth with their outflows. Sometimes the Universe plays tricks. One detail we learned from our new spectra and the mid-infared data from NASA’s WISE survey satellite is that giant Voorwerpje UGC 7342 has been photobombed. A galaxy that originally looked as if it night be an interacting companion is in fact a background starburst galaxy, whose infrared emission was blended with that from the AGN in longer-wavelength IR data. So that means the “real” second galaxy has already merged, and the AGN luminosity has dropped more than we first thought. (The background galaxy has in the meantime also been observed by SDSS, and can be found in DR12).
Now we’re on to polishing the next paper analyzing this rich data set, moving on to what some colleagues find more interesting – what the gas properties are telling us about the last 100,000 years of history of these nuclei, and how their radiation correlates (or indeed anti-correlates) with material being blasted outward into the galaxy from the nucleus. Once again, stay tuned!
While preparing for more observations of the Galaxy Zoo giant AGN clouds (Voorwerpjes), this is a good time to introduce more complete ways of obtaining astronomical spectra. Traditionally, we’ve put a long slit in front of spectrographs, so we can measure everything along that line without worries about overlapping spectra of different objects or pieces of sky. In some cases, as with the optical fibers used by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, we get the light summed within a circular aperture on the sky (with Sloan, from hundreds of different objects at each pointing of the telescope). But many of the things we want to understand are large and oddly shaped, so these approaches limit us to a very partial view (or to making many observations to cover everything of interest). Enter the Integral-Field Unit (IFU), which is any kind of device that lets us get the spectrum of every point in some region of the sky. They often use fiber optics to rearrange light from the object, so each small region of it comes out at a different place on what would otherwise be the spectrograph slit. After that it all becomes a software problem.
IFUs are becoming more common on large telescopes. We’ve gotten excellent data on some Voorwerpje systems with the unit on the 8-meter Gemini North telescope. Here’s a sample of raw data on UGC 11185. Each horizontal streak is the spectrum of an area 0.2 arcseconds square. The sampling, sensitivity, and image quality are superb, revealing multiple clouds of gas moving within a total span of almost 1000 km/s.
On the other hand, if we want to use its whole wavelength range, the Gemini device covers only 3.5×5 arcseconds of sky at once. I’m headed to the 3.5m WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak to use a complementary device called Hexpak, newly commissioned by instrument designer Matt Bershady of the University of Wisconsin (who I’ve been emailing about this since I learned of the project three years ago). This fiber bundle plugs into the multipurpose spectrograph kept in a climate-controlled room below the telescope, and combines small and densely-packed fibers in the middle (for things like galactic nuclei, small and bright with lots of structure) and large fibers near the edges (collecting a lot of signal from large diffuse surrounding material – sound familiar?). Matt and his team were able to get a short exposure through thin clouds of UGC 11185 as a feasibility test – here’s a piece of that raw data frame, showing the small central fiber and the larger surrounding ones (which show brighter night-sky airglow lines as well as more object signal; the bright [O III] lines and H-beta are near the middle, with wavelength increasing to the right for each spectrum). I hope to get a lot more data like this shortly.
Elsewhere, the European Southern Observatory has commissioned an enormous IFU, and the Sloan team has rebuilt their fiber bundles so that each one now makes multiple IFUs which can be placed on many galaxies at a time – this part of the Sloan survey extension is known as MANGA. Then there is the Spanish-led CALIFA project for hundreds of galaxies, which has publicly released data for their first two subsets. Then there are SAURON (whose data ca be tamed in software by GANDALF) and the upgrade of SCORPIO-2 and more… Swimming in data as we sift for knowledge, I am reminded of this anonymous computer error message in haiku form:
Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky
but we never will.
We’re in the middle of an observing run at the Lick 3m Shane telescope, with the first part devoted to polarization measurements of the Voorwerpje clouds (which is to say, giant clouds of ionized gas around active galactic nuclei found in the Galaxy Zoo serendipitous and targeted searches), and just now switching to measure spectra to examine a few new candidate Voorwerpjes, and further AGN/companion systems that may shed light on similar issues of how long AGN episodes last.
Polarization measurements can be pretty abstruse, but can also provide unique information. In particular, when light is scattered, its spectra lines are preserved with high fidelity, but light whose direction of polarization (direction of oscillation of its electric field when considered as a wave) is perpendicular to the angle it makes during this operation is more likely to reach us instead of being absorbed. This is why polarized sunglasses are so useful – glare from such scattering light can be reduced by appropriate orientation of the polarizing filter.
In our context, polarization measurements tell us something about how much of the light we see is secondhand emission from the AGN rather than produced on the spot in the clouds (admittedly as a side effect of the intense UV radiation from the nucleus), and will show us whether we’re fortunate enough that there might be a dust cloud reflecting so much light that we could look there to measure the spectrum of the nucleus when it was a full-fledged quasar. (This trick has worked for supernovae in our galaxy, which is how we know just what kind of supernova was seen in 1572 despite not having spectrographs yet).
Polarization wizard Sebastian Hoenig (now at the Dark Cosmology Center in Copenhagen) has already produced preliminary calibrations and maps from these new data. Here are some visualizations. In each case, the lines show the direction of polarization. Their length and color show the fraction of light which is polarized at points where there is enough to measure. This fractional polarization tells about the mix of light arising on the spot (even if secondhand due to UV radiation ionizing the gas) and that reflected from dust particles. There is a telltale annular or bull’s-eye pattern when the scattered light originates in a central source, which we see over and over (as if we hadn’t figured out to blame the galaxy nuclei anyway).
First up is a personal favorite, UGC 7342 (the last one to have its Hubble images obtained, and among the largest and brightest of the Galaxy Zoo sample).
The next one, Markarian 78, is less familiar, oddly because it makes perfect sense (so it has not figured much in the followup observations). In this case, we see a bright and obvious active nucleus, one which is powerful enough to light up the giant gas clouds without having changed over the past 60,000 years or so.
For comparison, here is a polarization map of IC 2497 and Hanny’s Voorwerp itself, from data obtained last year (the first time the weather let us get useful results). Sometimes we can hear the Universe laughing – a quick simulation shows that the reflected light from the nucleus, when it was a quasar, is just a bit too faint for us to have seen its signature broad emission lines in any of the Voorwerp spectra.
As we switch into measuring spectra for the next few nights, the aim changes to a combination of looking at a few new Voorwerpje candidates from the Galaxy Zoo forom, and a set of newly-identified AGN/galaxy pairs which may let us study the same issues of AGN lifetimes. We can sort of settle into a routine – Anna Pancoast does calibrations and setup during the day and hands over to Vardha Bennert to finish observations during the night. I typically get to work before Vardha finishes the last galaxy observation (thanks to the time-zone difference) and transfer data to start analysis, so we can change the next night’s priorities if something interesting shows up. It takes a (global) vllage, but then if there’s been any single meta-lesson from Galaxy Zoo, that would be it.