Archive for Milky Way

The Complex Heart of the Milky Way

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 26, 2022 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this amazing radio image of the Galactic Centre made using the South African MeerKAT radio telescope:

Radio frequency electromagnetic radiation is able to penetrate the dust that permeates this region so can reveal what optical light can not. In particular you can see the very active region around the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, bubbles caused by exploding stars and – most interesting of all – a number of magnetized filamentary structures.

It’s an extraordinarily beautiful picture made from a mosaic of 20 separate observations. In fact I like it so much I’ve cross-filed it in my “Art” folder.

For more information about this image at the science behind it, see here.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 7, 2021 by telescoper

Time to announce another publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one was actually published on Friday actually, but I didn’t get time to post about it until just now. It is the fourth paper in Volume 4 (2021) and the 35th paper in all.

The latest publication is entitled The local vertical density distribution of ultracool dwarfs M7 to L2.5 and their luminosity function and the ultracool authors are Steve Warren (Imperial College), Saad Ahmed (Open University) and Richard Laithwaite (Imperial College).

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the abstract:

You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the arXiv version of the paper here. This one is in the Astrophysics of Galaxies section but it also has overlap with Solar and Stellar Astrophysics.

Over the last few months I have noticed that it has taken a bit longer to get referee reports on papers and also for authors to complete their revisions. I think that’s probably a consequence of the pandemic and people being generally overworked. We do have a number of papers at various stages of the pipeline, so although we’re a bit behind where we were last year in terms of papers published I think may well catch up in the next month or two.

I’ll end with a reminder to prospective authors that the OJA  now has the facility to include supplementary files (e.g. code or data sets) along with the papers we publish. If any existing authors (i.e. of papers we have already published) would like us to add supplementary files retrospectively then please contact us with a request!

Faraday Rotation in the Milky Way

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on February 13, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday I came across a very interesting paper on the arXiv by Sebastian Hutschenreuter et al. entitled The Galactic Faraday rotation sky 2020 which contains this stunning map of Faraday Rotation across the sky (presented in Galactic coordinates, so the plane of the Milky Way appears across the middle of the map):

The abstract of the paper is here:

If you’ll pardon a short trip down memory lane, this reminds me of a little paper I did back in 2005 with a former PhD student of mine, Patrick Dineen (which is cited in the  Hutschenreuter et al. paper).

What we had back in 2005 was a collection of  Faraday Rotation measurements of extragalactic radio sources dotted around the sky. Their distribution is fairly uniform but I hasten to add that it was not a controlled sample so it would be not possible to take the sources as representative of anything for statistical purposes and there weren’t so many of them: we had three samples, with 540, 644 and 744 sources respectively.

Faraday rotation occurs because left and right-handed polarizations of electromagnetic radiation travel at different speeds along a magnetic field line. The effect of this is for the polarization vector to be rotated as light waves travel and the net rotation angle (which can be either positive or negative) is related to the line integral of the component of the magnetic field along the line of sight travelled by the waves. The picture below shows the distribution of sources, plotted in Galactic coordinates and coded black for negative and white for positive.

rotation

Some radio galaxies have enormously large Faraday rotation measures because light reaches us through regions of the source that have strong magnetic fields. However, for most sources in our sample the rotation measures are smaller and are thought to be determined largely by the propagation of light not through the emitting galaxy, near the start of its journey towards us, but through our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, which is near the end of its path.

If this is true then the distribution of rotation measures across the sky should contain information about the magnetic field distribution inside our own Galaxy. Looking at the above picture doesn’t give much of a hint of what this structure might be, however.

What Patrick and I decided to do was to try to make a map of the rotation measure distribution across the sky based only on the information given at the positions where we had radio sources. This is like looking at the sky through a mask full of little holes at the source positions. Using a nifty (but actually rather simple) trick of decomposing into spherical harmonics and transforming to a new set of functions that are orthogonal on the masked sky we obtained maps of the Faraday sky for the different samples. Here is one:

uni_16_rmjoint

(The technical details are in the paper, if you’re interested.) You probably think it looks a bit ropey but, as far as I’m concerned, this turned out surprisingly well!

The most obvious features are a big blue blob to the left and a big red blob to the right, both in the Galactic plane. What you’re seeing in those regions is almost certainly the local spur (sometimes called the Orion Spur; see below), which is a small piece of spiral arm in which the local Galactic magnetic field is confined. The blobs show the field coming towards the observer on one side and receding on the other. The structure seen is relatively local, i.e. within a kiloparsec or so of the observer.

I was very pleased to see this come out so clearly from an apparently unpromising data set, although we had to confine ourselves to large-scale features because of instabilities in the reconstruction of high-frequency components.

Now, 15 years later we have the beautiful map produced by Hutschenreuter et al.

 

You’ll see the vastly bigger data set (almost a hundred times as many sources) and way more sophisticated analysis technique has produced much higher resolution and consequently more detail, especially near the Galactic plane, but we did at least do a fairly good job at capturing the large-scale distribution: the blue on the left and red on the right is clearly present in the new map.

There’s something very heartening about seeing scientific progress in action! This also illustrates how much astrophysics has changed over the last 15 years: from hundreds of data points to more than 50,000 and from two authors to 30!

 

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics!

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 23, 2020 by telescoper

Well, Maynooth University may well be still (partially) closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic but the The Open Journal of Astrophysics is definitely fully open.

In fact we have just published another paper! This one is in the Astrophysics of Galaxies section and is entitled A Bayesian Approach to the Vertical Structure of the Disk of the Milky Way. The authors are Phillip S Dobbie and Stephen J Warren of Imperial College, London.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay:

 

You can find the arXiv version of the paper here.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Editorial team and various referees for their efforts in keeping the Open Journal of Astrophysics going in these difficult times.

The Gaia Sausage

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by telescoper

I had to undertake a top secret mission on Friday, which turned out to be much less exciting than I’d hoped, but at least it gave me an excuse to catch some of the Royal Astronomical Society Open Meeting followed by dinner at the RAS Club. I actually sat next to the Club Guest Michael Duff, the eminent theoretical physicist Michael Duff who gave a nice after-dinner speech.

An artist’s impression of the Gaia Sausage. The Gaia fork has not yet been proved to exist.

The last talk at the RAS Meeting was by Neil Wyn Evans of Cambridge University in the Midlands on the subject of the `Gaia Sausage‘ (which, as you can see, has its own Wikipedia page). The Gaia Sausage is so named because it is consists of a marked anisotropy of the velocity distribution of stars in Milk Way, which is elongated in the radial direction (like a sausage) indicating that many stars are on near-radial (i.e. low angular momentum orbits). This feature has been revealed by studying the second data release from Gaia.

The work Wyn described in his talk is covered by a nice press release from Cambridge University which links to no fewer than five articles on it and related topics, which can all be found on the arXiv here, here, here, here and here.

The most plausible explanation of the Gaia Sausage is that it is a consequence of a major collision between the Milky Way with a smaller galaxy containing about 109 stars about 8-10 billion years ago, as illustrated in this simulation.

I vote that this explanation of the velocity structure of the Milky Way should henceforth be called the Big Banger Theory.

Geddit?

I’ll get my coat.

Gravitational Redshift around the Black Hole at the Centre of the Milky Way

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve just been catching up on the arXiv, and found this very exciting paper by the GRAVITY collaboration (see herefor background on the relevant instrumentation). The abstract of the new paper reads:

The highly elliptical, 16-year-period orbit of the star S2 around the massive black hole candidate Sgr A* is a sensitive probe of the gravitational field in the Galactic centre. Near pericentre at 120 AU, ~1400 Schwarzschild radii, the star has an orbital speed of ~7650 km/s, such that the first-order effects of Special and General Relativity have now become detectable with current capabilities. Over the past 26 years, we have monitored the radial velocity and motion on the sky of S2, mainly with the SINFONI and NACO adaptive optics instruments on the ESO Very Large Telescope, and since 2016 and leading up to the pericentre approach in May 2018, with the four-telescope interferometric beam-combiner instrument GRAVITY. From data up to and including pericentre, we robustly detect the combined gravitational redshift and relativistic transverse Doppler effect for S2 of z ~ 200 km/s / c with different statistical analysis methods. When parameterising the post-Newtonian contribution from these effects by a factor f, with f = 0 and f = 1 corresponding to the Newtonian and general relativistic limits, respectively, we find from posterior fitting with different weighting schemes f = 0.90 +/- 0.09 (stat) +\- 0.15 (sys). The S2 data are inconsistent with pure Newtonian dynamics.

Note the sentence beginning `Over the past 26 years…’!. Anyway, this remarkable study seems to have demonstrated that, although the star S2 has a perihelion over a thousand times the Schwarzschild radius of the central black hole, the extremely accurate measurements demonstrate departures from Newtonian gravity.

The European Southern Observatory has called a press conference at 14.00 CEST (13.00 in Ireland and UK) today to discuss this result.

A Ghost of a Jet?

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 4, 2012 by telescoper

Last week an article in Nature News caught my eye. Ghostly jets seen streaming from Milky Way’s core was the headline. It’s based on a paper by Su & Finkbeiner recently submitted to the arXiv. There’s even a picture showing the jets in glorious technicolour:

Wow! Impressive stuff. If the jets look like that it’s amazing nobody ever saw them before!

Oh, hang on. The picture is an “artist’s conception”. In other words, it’s what the jets might look like if they actually existed, as imagined by a bloke with a box of crayons.

And how strong is the evidence that they do exist? Here’s the last paragraph of the Nature article (my emphasis):

Although the emissions are dim and the observations don’t have the statistical significance that astronomers require for proof, Baganoff says that several properties make them compelling evidence of jets. They are brighter at higher γ-ray energies and also brighter than the surrounding interstellar medium. They also seem to be long and thin, as would be expected of jets. “Taking all of the evidence together, it appears highly plausible that the features are jets emanating from the Galactic Centre,“ he says.

If they “don’t have the statistical significance that astronomers require for proof” then one wonders why they’re being given so much publicity. In any case the “ghostly jets seen streaming from the Milky Way’s core” can’t be said to have really been “seen” for certain. But they are “highly plausible”. In other words, the authors would like them to be there.

All I can say is that it must have been a slow news day at Nature.

Still, nice drawing.

Dark Matter: Dearth Evaded

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 23, 2012 by telescoper

While I’m catching up on developments over the last week or so I thought I’d post an update on a story I blogged about a few weeks ago. This concerns the the topic of dark matter in the Solar Neighbourhood and in particular a paper on the arXiv by Moni Bidin et al. with the following abstract:

We measured the surface mass density of the Galactic disk at the solar position, up to 4 kpc from the plane, by means of the kinematics of ~400 thick disk stars. The results match the expectations for the visible mass only, and no dark matter is detected in the volume under analysis. The current models of dark matter halo are excluded with a significance higher than 5sigma, unless a highly prolate halo is assumed, very atypical in cold dark matter simulations. The resulting lack of dark matter at the solar position challenges the current models.

In my earlier post I remarked that this  study   makes a number of questionable assumptions about the shape of the Milky Way halo – they take it to be smooth and spherical – and the distribution of velocities within it is taken to have a very simple form.

Well, only last week a rebuttal paper by Bovy & Tremaine appeared on the arXiv. Here is its abstract:

An analysis of the kinematics of 412 stars at 1-4 kpc from the Galactic mid-plane by Moni Bidin et al. (2012) has claimed to derive a local density of dark matter that is an order of magnitude below standard expectations. We show that this result is incorrect and that it arises from the invalid assumption that the mean azimuthal velocity of the stellar tracers is independent of Galactocentric radius at all heights; the correct assumption—that is, the one supported by data—is that the circular speed is independent of radius in the mid-plane. We demonstrate that the assumption of constant mean azimuthal velocity is physically implausible by showing that it requires the circular velocity to drop more steeply than allowed by any plausible mass model, with or without dark matter, at large heights above the mid-plane. Using the correct approximation that the circular velocity curve is flat in the mid-plane, we find that the data imply a local dark-matter density of 0.008 +/- 0.002 Msun/pc^3= 0.3 +/- 0.1 Gev/cm^3, fully consistent with standard estimates of this quantity. This is the most robust direct measurement of the local dark-matter density to date.

So it seems reports of the dearth were greatly exaggerated..

Having read the paper I think this is a pretty solid refutation, and if you don’t want to take my word for it I’ll also add that Scott Tremaine is one of the undisputed world experts in the field of Galactic Dynamics. It will be interesting to see how Moni Bidin et al. respond.

This little episode raises the question that, if there was a problem with the assumed velocity distribution in the original paper (as many of us suspected), why wasn’t this spotted by the referee?

Of course to a scientist there’s nothing unusual about scientific results being subjected to independent scrutiny and analysis. That’s how science advances. There is a danger in all this, however, with regard to the public perception of science. The original claim – which will probably turn out to be wrong – was accompanied by a fanfare of publicity. The later analysis arrives at a much less spectacular conclusion,  so will probably attract much less attention. In the long run, though, it probably isn’t important if this is regarded as a disappointingly boring outcome. I hope what really matters for scientific progress is people doing things properly. Even if it  don’t make the headlines, good science will win out in the end. Maybe.

Milky Way Satellites and Dark Matter

Posted in Astrohype, Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 4, 2012 by telescoper

I found a strange paper on the ArXiv last week, and was interested to see that it had been deemed to merit a press release from the Royal Astronomical Society that had been picked up by various sites across the interwebs.

The paper, to appear in due course in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, describes a study of the positions and velocities of small satellite galaxies and other object around the Milky Way, which suggest the existence of a flattened structure orientated at right angles to the Galactic plane. They call this the “Vast Polar Structure”. There’s even a nifty video showing this arrangement:

They argue that this is is evidence that these structures have a tidal origin, having been thrown out   in the collision between two smaller galaxies during the formation of the Milky Way. One would naively expect a much more isotropic distribution of material around our Galaxy if matter had fallen into it in the relatively quiescent way envisaged by more standard theoretical models.

Definitely Quite Interesting.

However, I was rather taken aback by this quotation by one of the authors, Pavel Kroupa, which ends the press release.

Our model appears to rule out the presence of dark matter in the universe, threatening a central pillar of current cosmological theory. We see this as the beginning of a paradigm shift, one that will ultimately lead us to a new understanding of the universe we inhabit.

Hang on a minute!

One would infer from this rather bold statement that the paper concerned contained a systematic comparison between the observations – allowing for selection effects, such as incomplete sky coverage – and detailed theoretical calculations of what is predicted in the standard theory of galaxy formation involving dark matter.

But it doesn’t.

What it does contain is a simple statistical calculation of the probability that the observed distribution of satellite galaxies would have arisen in an exactly isotropic distribution function, which they conclude to be around 0.2 per cent.

However, we already know that galaxies like the Milky Way are not exactly isotropic, so this isn’t really a test of the dark matter hypothesis. It’s a test of an idealised unrealistic model. And even if it were a more general test of the dark matter hypothesis, the probability of this hypothesis being correct is not what has been calculated. The probability of a model given the data is not the same as the probability of the data given the model. To get that you need Bayes’ theorem.

What needs to be done is to calculate the degree of anisotropy expected in the dark matter theory and in the tidal theory and then do a proper (i.e. Bayesian) comparison with the observations to see which model gives the better account of the data. This is not any easy thing to do because it necessitates doing detailed dynamical calculations at very high resolution of what galaxy like the Milky Way should look like according to both theories.

Until that’s done, these observations by no means “rule out” the dark matter theory.

On the Dearth of Dark Matter in the Solar Neighbourhood

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2012 by telescoper

I’m a bit late getting onto the topic of dark matter in the Solar Neighbourhood, but it has been generating quite a lot of news, blogposts and other discussion recently so I thought I’d have a bash this morning. The result in question is a paper on the arXiv by Moni Bidin et al. which has the following abstract:

We measured the surface mass density of the Galactic disk at the solar position, up to 4 kpc from the plane, by means of the kinematics of ~400 thick disk stars. The results match the expectations for the visible mass only, and no dark matter is detected in the volume under analysis. The current models of dark matter halo are excluded with a significance higher than 5sigma, unless a highly prolate halo is assumed, very atypical in cold dark matter simulations. The resulting lack of dark matter at the solar position challenges the current models.

As far as I’m aware, Oort (1932, 1960) was the first to perform an analysis of the vertical equilibrium of the stellar distribution in the solar neighbourhood. He argued that there is more mass in the galactic disk than can be accounted for by star counts. A reanalysis of this problem by Bahcall (1984) argued for the presence of a dark “disk” of a scale height of about 700 pc. This was called into question by Bienaymé et al. (1987), and by Kuijken & Gilmore in 1989. In a later analysis based on a sample of stars with HIPPARCOS distances and Coravel radial velocities, within 125 pc of the Sun. Crézé et al. (1998) found that there is no evidence for dark matter in the disk of the Milky Way, claiming that all the matter is accounted for by adding up the contributions of gas, young stars and old stars.

The lack of evidence for dark matter in the Solar Neighbourhood is not therefore a particularly new finding; there’s never been any strong evidence that it is present in significant quantities out in the suburbs of the Milky Way where we reside. Indeed, I remember a big bust-up about this at a Royal Society meeting I attended in 1985 as a fledgling graduate student. Interesting that it’s still so controversial 27 years later.

Of course the result doesn’t mean that the dark matter isn’t there. It just means that its effect is too small compared to that of the luminous matter, i.e. stars, for it to be detected. We know that the luminous matter has to be concentrated more centrally than the dark matter, so it’s possible that the dark component is there, but does not have a significant effect on stellar motions near the Sun.

The latest, and probably most accurate, study has again found no evidence for dark matter in the vicinity of the Sun. If true, this may mean that attempts to detect dark matter particles using experiments on Earth are unlikely to be successful.

The team in question used the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, along with other telescopes, to map the positions and motions of more than 400 stars with distances up to 13000 light-years from the Sun. From these new data they have estimated the mass of material in a volume four times larger than ever considered before but found that everything is well explained by the gravitational effects of stars, dust and gas with no need for a dark matter component.

The reason for postulating the existence of large quantities of dark matter in spiral galaxies like the Milky Way is the motion of material in the outer parts, far from the Solar Neighbourhood (which is a mere 30,000 light years from Galactic Centre). These measurements are clearly inconsistent with the distribution of visible matter if our understanding of gravity is correct. So either there’s some invisible matter that gravitates or we need to reconsider our theories of gravitation. The dark matter explanation also fits with circumstantial evidence from other contexts (e.g. galaxy clusters), so is favoured by most astronomers. In the standard theory the Milky Way is surrounded by am extended halo of dark matter which is much less concentrated than the luminous material by virtue of it not being able to dissipate energy because it consists of particles that only interact weakly and can’t radiate. Luminous matter therefore outweighs dark matter in the cores of galaxies, but the situation is reversed in the outskirts. In between there should be some contribution from dark matter, but since it could be relatively modest it is difficult to estimate.

The study by Moni Bidin et al. makes a number of questionable assumptions about the shape of the Milky Way halo – they take it to be smooth and spherical – and the distribution of velocities within it is taken to have a very simple form. These may well turn out to be untrue. In any case the measurements they needed are extremely difficult to make, so they’ll need to be checked by other teams. It’s quite possible that this controversy won’t be actually resolved until the European Space Agency’s forthcoming GAIA mission.

So my take on this is that it’s a very interesting challenge to the orthodox theory, but the dark matter interpretation is far from dead because it’s not obvious to me that these observations would have uncovered it even if it is there. Moreover, there are alternative analyses (e.g. this one) which find a significant amount of dark matter using an alternative modelling method which seems to be more robust. (I’m grateful to Andrew Pontzen for pointing that out to me.)

Anyway, this all just goes to show that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence…