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?
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.
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.
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!
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:
Whether this relatively featureless galaxy’s blue smudge indicates a voorwerp:
And how many spiral arms this galaxy has:
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?
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.
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:
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: