Tag Archive | Dust

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:


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

And how many spiral arms this galaxy has:


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?


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.

Dust in the Zoo – chapters opening, continuing, and closing

Anna Manning and I are back at Kitt Peak, using the 3.5m WIYN telescope for
more observations of overlapping-galaxy systems from the Galaxy Zoo sample.
This trip started with an unexpected dust encounter. Indulging my fascination with some of the technological excesses of the Cold War, I dragged Anna (and my mother-in-law as well) to Tucson’s Pima Air and Space Museum. I particularly wanted to see their newly-restored B-36 aircraft, one of only 4 of these vintage giants left. The wind had been high already, but really whipped up and caught us in a dust storm (with added rain so it was like tiny mud droplets stinging the skin). Anna pointed out the irony, especially since I had announced on Twitter that “dust will be revealed, in detail”. Maybe next time it is I who should be more detailed.
Read More…

Galaxy Zoo Paper on Dust in Spirals Submitted.

Before Kevin starts sending me friendly emails that I haven’t blogged about this yet, I want to announce the submission of the latest Galaxy Zoo paper (submitted to Monthly Notices on August 17th):


I’m delighted that I finally got this work submitted. Now I feel like I can properly call myself part of the Galaxy Zoo team. My first entry on the blog Blue Sky and Red Spirals was about this work, and you can also check out the scientific poster I made about it. I hinted several times over the past 8 months that we were very close to submission, so it’s great to be able to say it’s actually now in the referee process. I actually think this is one of the quickest papers I’ve ever written – only 10 months from when I started working on it, to submission of the paper. Fingers crossed for an equally smooth referee process.

Our main conclusions ended up being:

  1. Spiral galaxies are reddened as they become more inclined due to the presence of dust (this effect is explained in great detail in Blue Sky and Red Spirals)
  2. Spiral galaxies with large bulges are much redder than spiral galaxies with no/small bulges. This effect is larger than the dust reddening – face-on spirals with large bulges are redder than edge-on spirals with no bulge (on average).
  3. There is more dust reddening in spiral galaxies with small bulges than in those with large bulges.
  4. There is a peak in the dust content of spirals at moderate luminosities. Very luminous and very dim spirals both have less dust reddening. Very dim spirals are physically smaller, and make less dust than brighter ones. Very bright spirals usually don’t have a lot of recent star formation, and as dust is destroyed over time we may just be seeing that effect.

We compared the observed trends to a model published in 2004 (Tuffs etal. 2004: Attenuation of Stellar Light in Spiral Galaxies for the very keen!) and concluded that it works pretty well (especially considering how much you have to simplify a spiral galaxy to be able to model it), but there are some problems at the shortest wavelengths covered by SDSS – we see a lot less reddening there than the model predicts.

We finished by talking about the impact all these things have on galaxy surveys. It’s a fairly small effect, but because dust always dims galaxies that means that inclined spirals are often “left out” of samples which people use to study cosmology, or do galaxy evolution (just because you can’t see them, or they’re below a cut in brightness you needed to make). I don’t think I need to tell this crowd that spiral and elliptical galaxies are quite different objects, they also have different clustering properties. So if you preferentially leave out some of the spirals that could introduce some subtle biases, which when people are trying to use galaxy surveys to get percent level accuracy on cosmological parameters might actually start to matter!

Unveiling the Mass of Galaxies with Vera Rubin

This week I am attending a conference at Queen’s University in Kingston (Ontario, Canada) with I think the longest name I have ever seen. It’s called “A Celebration of Vera Rubin’s Life. Unveiling the Mass: Extracting an Interpreting Galaxy Masses.” I was very excited to attend this conference. Vera Rubin has always been a role model of mine (hard to avoid as a women studying galaxies) and as well as her the list of speakers includes many people who’s work I know and respect. It also has the advantage of being held in Kingston where a close friend (and fellow astronomer) from graduate school is now living with her very new baby.

This morning the introductory talks did not disappoint. We heard anecdotes from Vera Rubin about her work as a young scientist just trying to interpret the observations she was making on the rotation curves of galaxies (observations that provided the first strong evidence for dark matter in galaxies). She talked about a 1962 paper she did with students measuring the rotation curve of the Milky Way, and her regrets on not noticing that dark matter must have been present when she measured a similar “flat” rotation curve for the Andromeda galaxy 13 years later. She further impressed me by dating another anecdote (about discovering a galaxy in which the stars rotated in two directions) by the year her youngest child learned to walk (1961). Not only is Vera Rubin an incredibly successful and famous astronomer, but she managed to have 4 children (at least one of whom followed her into astronomy) during the period she did most of her famous work. Wow! I got to talk with her a little bit this morning at coffee, and she’s also a very nice person.

As well as enjoying the many talks by leaders in the field of galaxy evolution, I am presenting a poster on my work on dust reddening of Galaxy Zoo spirals which you have heard about several times before (eg. Blue Sky and Red Spirals, and from when I presented it at the 2009 European Week of Astronomy). This work has relevance to the masses of galaxies as dust is a significant source of error on estimates of the total mass of stars in a galaxy – at the simplest level dust hides the stars.


I was encouraged to share my poster on this blog, so if you wish to have a closer look at it you can download it (pdf). Of course this poster is aimed at explaining my work to other astronomers not to a general audience. If you have questions about it I encourage you to first look at my more general explanation of the work Blue Sky and Red Spirals and I am also happy to answer questions in the comments below.

One little details which is not explained in the poster is that the images of galaxies on both the right and left are not random. On the right I show edge-on spiral galaxies ordered from bluest (at the bottom) to reddest (at the top). On the left I show all face-on galaxies, also ordered in the same way. My definition of blue versus red comes from a measured difference in the brightness seen through 2 filters (in this case the SDSS g and z filters), so is not always obvious to the eye – also remember that it is the average colour of the whole galaxy, and some have significantly different colours in their centres to in the outskirts. However one of the interesting results coming from this work is that even though on average dust reddens galaxies as they become more inclined (as they go from face-on to edge-on) some face-on galaxies are much redder than some edge-on galaxies. This shows that while dust is important to the colour of a spiral galaxy it is clearly not the most important factor. This is very good news for those of us interested in red spirals as an evolutionary stage!

If anyone is in the Kingston area there will be a public lecture at 8pm tomorrow night given by Prof. Sandy Faber. It’s on the Queen’s Campus in the Biosciences Building, Room 1101. I include the poster below. Sandy Faber was a student of Vera Rubin’s and gave a very nice review talk this morning about her early work on dark matter during this time. I encourage you to attend if you are able – I think it will be a very nice public astronomy talk.


Blue Sky and Red Spirals

This post is from Karen Masters at Portsmouth, who is working on red spirals….

When light travels through stuff it is scattered and absorbed. This is true of light passing through our atmosphere, and it is also true of light as it passes through galaxies. Light of different wavelengths is affected by this scattering and absorption in different ways. Bluer (or shorter wavelength) light is easier to scatter. The sky is blue on a cloudless day because the bluer light from the Sun is scattered out of the line of sight. This light “bounces around” off atoms and molecules in our atmosphere and eventually reaches our eye from some random direction – making the sky look blue. Obviously the light from the Sun itself appears slightly reddened by the same effect since the blue light is preferentially removed. At sunset or sunrise, when the Sun is close to the horizon the light from the Sun has to take a longer path through the atmosphere to get to us. More scattering takes place and the Sun appears redder than normal and makes a beautiful sight to see.

In spiral galaxies, the length of the path the light takes through the galaxy before it gets out and heads towards us depends on our viewing angle. When we see a spiral galaxy face-on the light has the shortest possible path out of the galaxy. By contrast, in an edge-on galaxy, the light must travel through most of the disk before getting out. We expect then that if scattering is important, edge-on galaxies will appear to be redder than face-on galaxies – for similar reasons that sunsets are red. The big question here though is “is scattering important”. Put another way we want to ask “are the disks of spiral galaxies transparent?”. We enjoy a fairly clear view of the extragalactic sky out of our spiral galaxy (the Milky Way), which suggested to early researchers than spiral galaxies probably were transparent. However it is also clear that there is a lot of “extinction due to dust” (our Astronomers terminology for the effect of scattering and absorption of light by particles in the inter-stellar medium) when we look towards the Galactic centre.

So what’s the problem of just looking at a bunch of spiral galaxies and seeing if they get redder as they get edge-on? Well nothing… except that you need to know you’re definitely looking at spirals, and you need to figure out how to measure how edge-on the spirals are. This of course is where Galaxy Zoo helps out so much. Thanks to you we now have an enormous number of visually classified unquestionably spiral galaxies. You even picked out the edge-on ones for us. We can also use the “axial ratios” (the ratio of the maximum dimension to the minimum dimension) of the galaxies from Sloan, which (with some assumptions about how thin the average galaxy is when it’s totally edge-on) gives an estimate of the exact angle of the galaxy’s orientation to us.

And what we’re finding is that spirals definitely get redder as they get more edge-on. So extinction due to dust is clearly important. Because Sloan measures the galaxies in 5 different wavelengths, we can make 4 Sloan colours (in Astronomy the colour is just the difference in the brightness in two different bands) and look at the relative amount of extinction with wavelength which provides information on the source of the scattering and absorption. We can also go to other surveys (for example UKIDSS which measures near-infra red light) to extend this further for some of the galaxies.

Extinction seems to be quite a hot topic lately with Sloan data, but what we have which other researchers don’t is the Galaxy Zoo classifications. They have to use other estimates of if the galaxy is a spiral or not, such as how concentrated the light is, or the exact details of the light profile. Neither is as simple or as reliable as having a human just look at the galaxy. Measuring the amount of extinction is important because it’s been largely neglected in studies using Sloan data up until now. The physical parameters of a galaxy ought not to depend on our viewing angle, but when researchers use colours and luminosities to estimate the star formation history or stellar mass of a spiral galaxy the answer will depend on viewing angle if extinction due to dust is not corrected for. More importantly, elliptical galaxies do not suffer from this effect, so if you compare the mean properties of ellipticals and spirals your answer will be biased by the effect of dust.

So most red spirals seem to be edge-on dusty star forming galaxies which would be normal blue spirals if seen face-on…. but this can’t explain all red spirals. We can still see a significant population of red face-on spirals, and by measuring the average amount of reddening we will even be able to pick out the edge-on spirals which would still be red if seen face-on.

I moved to Portsmouth in October and I was delighted to start working with the Galaxy Zoo team and data. I knew about the project (and even classified a handful of galaxies) before I moved here. I’m currently working on a short paper describing what I’ve told you about here and hope to have it submitted early in the New Year.

Merry Christmas!

Some example images:


A blue face-on spiral galaxy.


A red face-on spiral galaxy.


A red edge-on spiral galaxy.