Two Stars, Three Dimensions, and Oodles of Energy



For decades, astronomers have known about irregular outbursts from the double star system V745 Sco, which is located about 25,000 light years from Earth. Astronomers were caught by surprise when previous outbursts from this system were seen in 1937 and 1989. When the system erupted on February 6, 2014, however, scientists were ready to observe the event with a suite of telescopes including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

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X-rays Reveal Temperament of Possible Planet-hosting Stars

illustration of planet orbiting a star
Illustration Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

A new study using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton suggests X-rays emitted by a planet's host star may provide critical clues to just how hospitable a star system could be. A team of researchers looked at 24 stars similar to the Sun, each at least one billion years old, and how their X-ray brightness changed over time.

Since stellar X-rays mirror magnetic activity, X-ray observations can tell astronomers about the high-energy environment around the star. In the new study the X-ray data from Chandra and XMM-Newton revealed that stars like the Sun and their less massive cousins calm down surprisingly quickly after a turbulent youth.

This artist's illustration depicts one of these comparatively calm, older Sun-like stars with a planet in orbit around it. The large dark area is a "coronal hole", a phenomenon associated with low levels of magnetic activity. The inset box shows the Chandra data of one of the observed objects, a two billion year old star called GJ 176, located 30 light years from Earth.

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What Chandra & X-ray Astronomy Give Back

Illustration of Chandra X-ray Observatory
Illustration of Chandra X-ray Observatory

This week marks the 18th anniversary of Chandra’s “First Light,” when the first publicly available images from NASA’s flagship X-ray mission were released back in 1999 . Week after week, month after month, year after year, Chandra continues to deliver amazing results and make truly extraordinary discoveries across space. Scientists know so much more about the Universe now than we did before this amazing telescope began its work.

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Women Who Chase The Sun

Sun & Moon
Credit: Kristin Divona, NASA/CXC

Women have played a key role in observing solar eclipses and expanding our understanding of how the Sun, our nearest star, works.

The total solar eclipse that will take place over North America in a couple of weeks is a chance for millions of people to experience an exciting event (with proper viewing glasses to protect our sensitive eyes, of course!). Given the population's demographics, it stands to reason that about half of those who will be under the spectacle of totality will be women.

This is rather appropriate to reflect on. To quote the title of the best seller by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl Dunn (by way of Mao Zedong), "women hold up half the sky." But women have been doing far more than just shouldering the weight of the heavens over the years. We have been actively studying the Sun, Moon, stars and beyond for millennia. Women have played a key role in observing solar eclipses and expanding our understanding of how the Sun, our nearest star, works.

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IC 10: A Starburst Galaxy with the Prospect of Gravitational Waves


IC 10

In 1887, American astronomer Lewis Swift discovered a glowing cloud, or nebula, that turned out to be a small galaxy about 2.2 million light years from Earth. Today, it is known as the "starburst" galaxy IC 10, referring to the intense star formation activity occurring there.

More than a hundred years after Swift's discovery, astronomers are studying IC 10 with the most powerful telescopes of the 21st century. New observations with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory reveal many pairs of stars that may one day become sources of perhaps the most exciting cosmic phenomenon observed in recent years: gravitational waves.

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Pathways to the Stars -- II

Jeff McClintock
Jeff McClintock

(A continuing series on how astrophysicists’ varied career paths. Pathways to the Stars -- I)

Jeff's Journey

Jeff McClintock is recognized around the world as one the pre-eminent experts on black holes. In 2009, he shared the American Astronomical Society’s prestigious Bruno Rossi prize, along with Ron Remillard and Charles Bailyn for his work on the measurement of the masses of black holes.

McClintock has also served on the board of directors for the Giant Magellan Telescope, a telescope under construction that when it is commissioned in 2022, will be the largest optical telescope in existence. As it turns out, Jeff has been interested in large telescopes for a long time, going back to his childhood in Port Orchard, Washington.

“I saw an ad in Popular Mechanics,” he remembered. “It said, ‘You can build a 100-power telescope for $1!’”

McClintock mailed in his dollar, and received two lenses in the mail.

“That was it. Two lenses. I inserted the lenses at the ends of a discarded 8-foot cardboard tube which had been used to store linoleum."

He didn’t have a mount for his telescope, so he put it on several chairs in the living room, and looked through it, at some lights across Port Orchard strait near Seattle.

“I could see blue lights across the bay, and read a sign. It was upside down! I took it up to the attic and looked at the moon. I was blown away!”

Inspired by the view of the craters on the moon, McClintock built a second telescope, a 6” reflector.

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W51: Chandra Peers into a Nurturing Cloud



In the context of space, the term 'cloud' can mean something rather different from the fluffy white collections of water in the sky or a way to store data or process information. Giant molecular clouds are vast cosmic objects, composed primarily of hydrogen molecules and helium atoms, where new stars and planets are born. These clouds can contain more mass than a million suns, and stretch across hundreds of light years.

The giant molecular cloud known as W51 is one of the closest to Earth at a distance of about 17,000 light years. Because of its relative proximity, W51 provides astronomers with an excellent opportunity to study how stars are forming in our Milky Way galaxy.

A new composite image of W51 shows the high-energy output from this stellar nursery, where X-rays from Chandra are colored blue. In about 20 hours of Chandra exposure time, over 600 young stars were detected as point-like X-ray sources, and diffuse X-ray emission from interstellar gas with a temperature of a million degrees or more was also observed. Infrared light observed with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope appears orange and yellow-green and shows cool gas and stars surrounded by disks of cool material.

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Arp 299: Galactic Goulash


Arp 299

What would happen if you took two galaxies and mixed them together over millions of years? A new image including data from NASA's X-ray Observatory reveals the cosmic culinary outcome.

Arp 299 is a system located about 140 million light years from Earth. It contains two galaxies that are merging, creating a partially blended mix of stars from each galaxy in the process.

However, this stellar mix is not the only ingredient. New data from Chandra reveals 25 bright X-ray sources sprinkled throughout the Arp 299 concoction. Fourteen of these sources are such strong emitters of X-rays that astronomers categorize them as "ultra-luminous X-ray sources," or ULXs.

These ULXs are found embedded in regions where stars are currently forming at a rapid rate. Most likely, the ULXs are binary systems where a neutron star or black hole is pulling matter away from a companion star that is much more massive than the Sun. These double star systems are called high-mass X-ray binaries.

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Watching a Volatile Stellar Relationship


R Aquarii
In biology, "symbiosis" refers to two organisms that live close to and interact with one another. Astronomers have long studied a class of stars – called symbiotic stars – that co-exist in a similar way. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, astronomers are gaining a better understanding of how volatile this close stellar relationship can be.

R Aquarii (R Aqr, for short) is one of the best known of the symbiotic stars. Located at a distance of about 710 light years from Earth, its changes in brightness were first noticed with the naked eye almost a thousand years ago. Since then, astronomers have studied this object and determined that R Aqr is not one star, but two: a small, dense white dwarf and a cool red, giant star.

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The Intermittent Growth of the First Supermassive Black Holes

Edwige Pezzulli
Dr. Edwige Pezzulli

It is a pleasure to welcome Edwige Pezzulli as a guest blogger. Edwige led the black hole study that is the subject of our latest press release. She is a Ph.D. student at the University la Sapienza in Rome (Italy), under the supervision of Raffaella Schneider. During her Ph.D., she spent several months at the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris (IAP) in France. She has mainly worked on the study of the origin and properties of the first black holes in the Universe.

“As an adult, I’d like to be sent into a black hole!” This is my first memory from childhood on the topic of space.

Since then, I have studied and discovered a lot more about black holes, and yet they still fascinate me in the same way. Considered, for many, the most exotic objects ever discovered, supermassive black holes are the tip of the iceberg of the “dark” side of the Universe. Supermassive black holes are behemoths located in the centers of galaxies and can be among the most luminous sources ever known, from the radiation of surrounding material.

In particular, observations of the Universe’s earliest supermassive black holes, with masses about a billion times that of the Sun, open the door to many questions, especially this one: how did these monsters form in such a short time?

Astronomers find black holes with similar masses in the present-day universe, but these black holes have grown to their enormous size over a much longer period of time – about 13.8 billion years – compared to those that formed about a billion years after the Big Bang. In order to tackle the question of how supermassive black holes formed in the very early Universe, it is imperative to make numerous observations of the light they generate while pulling in, ie accreting, matter as they grow.

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