Thursday, 6 February 2014

Early universe 'warmed up' later than previously believed, study finds - Feb 05, 2014

A new study from Tel Aviv University reveals that black holes, formed from the first stars in our universe, heated the gas throughout space later than previously thought. They also imprinted a clear signature in radio waves which astronomers can now search for. The work is a major new finding about the origins of the universe.
"One of the exciting frontiers in astronomy is the era of the formation of the first stars," explains Prof. Rennan Barkana of TAU's School of Physics and Astronomy, an author of the study. "Since the universe was filled with hydrogen atoms at that time, the most promising method for observing the epoch of the first stars is by measuring the emission of hydrogen using radio waves."
The study, just published in the journal Nature, was co-authored by Dr. Anastasia Fialkov of TAU and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and Dr. Eli Visbal of Columbia and Harvard Universities.
Cosmic archaeology
Astronomers explore our distant past, billions of years back in time. Unlike Earth-bound archaeologists, however, who can only study remnants of the past, astronomers can see the past directly. The light from distant objects takes a long time to reach the earth, and astronomers can see these objects as they were back when that light was emitted. This means that if astronomers look out far enough, they can see the first stars as they actually were in the early universe. Thus, the new finding that cosmic heating occurred later than previously thought means that observers do not have to search as far, and it will be easier to see this cosmic milestone.
Cosmic heating may offer a way to directly investigate the earliest black holes, since it was likely driven by star systems called "black-hole binaries." These are pairs of stars in which the larger star ended its life with a supernova explosion that left a black-hole remnant in its place. Gas from the companion star is pulled in towards the black hole, gets ripped apart in the strong gravity, and emits high-energy X-ray radiation. This radiation reaches large distances, and is believed to have re-heated the cosmic gas, after it had cooled down as a result of the original cosmic expansion. The discovery in the new research is the delay of this heating.
The cosmic radio show
"It was previously believed that the heating occurred very early," says Prof. Barkana, "but we discovered that this standard picture delicately depends on the precise energy with which the X-rays come out. Taking into account up-to-date observations of nearby black-hole binaries changes the expectations for the history of cosmic heating. It results in a new prediction of an early time (when the universe was only 400 million years old) at which the sky was uniformly filled with radio waves emitted by the hydrogen gas."

In order to detect the expected radio waves from hydrogen in the early universe, several large international groups have built and begun operating new arrays of radio telescopes. These arrays were designed under the assumption that cosmic heating occurred too early to see, so instead the arrays can only search for a later cosmic event, in which radiation from stars broke up the hydrogen atoms out in the space in-between galaxies. The new discovery overturns the common view and implies that these radio telescopes may also detect the tell-tale signs of cosmic heating by the earliest black holes.

Solving a 30-year-old problem in high mass star formation - 6 hours ago

Some 30 years ago, astronomers found that regions of ionized gas around young high mass stars remain small (under a third of a light-year) for ten times longer than they should if they were to expand as expected in simple models. Recent supercomputer simulations predicted that these regions actually flicker in brightness over this period rather than grow continuously. Observations from a team of researchers using the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) over a 23-year period have confirmed that such flickering actually occurs.
The lives of stars like the Sun are relatively easy to understand, because they are numerous, and live for billions of years. High mass stars, however, are rare and live for only a few million years. As a result, understanding their early evolution has been a challenge. Simple models would suggest that when high mass stars become hot enough to ionize the gas around them, heating it to thousands of degrees, the gas will quickly expand.  However, as this happens, the massive stars continue to collect material via their gravitational attraction. As a result, the regions of ionized gas around a star may not simply grow, but instead interact with the infalling material, causing them to flicker in size and brightness during the main assembly phase of the massive stars.
The new observations confirming the occurrence of such flickering were published recently in The Astrophysical Journal (Letters) by a collaboration of theorists and observers at Agnes Scott College, Universität Zürich, American Museum of Natural History, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, European Southern Observatory, and Universität Heidelberg.
Since the VLA was dedicated in 1980, astronomers have observed a large number of regions of ionized hydrogen (so-called H II regions) around high-mass stars that were very small, so small they were termed ultracompact. These early observations conflicted with existing models, which predicted that only the very youngest regions should be so small, and hence, they should be rarely seen. Several models have been proposed to explain this discrepancy, but the recent numerical work made a testable prediction that differed from the other models. If the cause of the small size was the continued infall of material, these radio sources should flicker and the changes in brightness should be detectable over a 20-year period. "In astronomy it is a rare occurrence to see sources vary on such short timescales, " said Thomas Peters from Universität Zürich, who led the numerical simulations. "But the regions we predicted to change are huge, almost a thousand times larger than the Solar System!”
The researchers, led by Chris De Pree, professor of astronomy and director of the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott College, used VLA observations of the Sagittarius B2 region made in 1989 and again in 2012. This massive star forming region located near the Galactic center contains many small regions of ionized gas around high mass stars, providing a large number of candidates for flickering.
"In the old theoretical model, a high-mass star forms, the HII region lights up and begins to expand, everything was neat and tidy," De Pree said. "But the group of theorists I am working with were running numerical models that showed accretion was continuing during star formation, and that material was continuing to fall in toward the star after the HII region had formed."
De Pree's group chose Sagittarius B2 because the region contains more than 40 ultracompact HII regions. "Since there are so many sources, you can look for changes in relative brightness," De Pree said. Between 1989 and 2012, four of the HII regions indeed changed in brightness significantly.

"The long term trend is still the same, that HII regions expand with time," De Pree said. "But in detail, they get brighter or get fainter and then recover. Careful measurements over time can observe this more detailed process."