Tag Archives: Melissa Graham

Celestial Pig Pens and new tricks for old scopes

It takes a lot of detective work to figure out the nature of a type Ia supernova. Celestial Pig Pens and new tricks from old telescopes are contributing to the effort. That’s what we learned at the most recent meeting of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Messy Siblings: Supernovae in Binary Systems

Dr. Melissa Graham is a project science analyst for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, working out of the Astronomy Department at the University of Washington. Her main research focus is supernovae. In particular, she’s doing a lot of work on type Ia supernovae, which occur in binary star systems. One of the stars involved will be a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star.

“It’s a star that wasn’t massive enough to fuse anything else inside the carbon layers,” Graham explained. Outer layers of hydrogen and helium are thrown off in a planetary nebula phase, so the carbon and oxygen are what’s left.

Melissa Graham
Melissa Graham. UW photo.

“Carbon-oxygen white dwarf stars are very compact, very dense, about the size of the Earth but they can be up to about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun,” Graham said. These stars are pretty stable as stars go, so they don’t blow up under normal circumstances.

“When we do see these kind of supernovae that are clearly the explosion of carbon-oxygen white dwarf stars we have to wonder why,” she said. It turns out there are two possible scenarios. The binary can be a pair of carbon-oxygen white dwarf stars that spiral in on each other, merge, and then explode. Or the binary can include one white dwarf and a more typical hydrogen-rich companion star.

“In this case the companion star can feed material onto this carbon-oxygen white dwarf star, might make it go over 1.4 solar masses, become unstable, and then explode,” Graham said.

Which is which?

The key to figuring out which of these scenarios actually occurred is to take a look at the area around the supernova. If the companion is a more hydrogen-rich companion star, the neighborhood can get a little messy.

“It’s sort of like a celestial Pig Pen star that leaves a lot of material lying around,” Graham said. A blast from a supernova can interact with this material and cause it to brighten. The trouble is that astronomers typically only observe type Ia supernovae for a couple of months; they fade quickly. So if this extra material is far away from the event, they might not see the interaction. The answer is patience, to look at the supernova sites for up to 2-3 years after.

Graham did exactly that, using the Hubble Space Telescope to keep an eye on the locations of 65 type Ia supernovae.

“Out of these 65, I very luckily found one” in which there was brightening much later. They checked the spectrum of the light and found hydrogen, a sure sign that the companion in this particular type Ia supernova was a Pig Pen. Graham suspects that up to five percent of such explosions involve messy sibling stars.

Graham looks forward to having the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) come on line. She expects it will find some 10 million supernovae in a decade.

“This marks a massive increase in our ability to both find and characterize supernovae,” she said.

Old scope, new tricks

While we wait for LSST an old workhorse telescope is doing interesting work in a similar vein. Professor Eric Bellm of the UW works with the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), which uses the 48-inch telescope at Palomar observatory in California. The scope is a Schmidt, completed in 1948, and for years it was the largest Schmidt telescope in the world. It’s main function at first was to use its wide-field view of the sky to create maps that helped astronomers point Palomar Mountain’s 200-inch Hale Telescope.

Eric Bellm
Eric Bellm. UW photo.

The 48-inch was used to do numerous sky surveys over the years. It discovered many asteroids, and Mike Brown used it to find the dwarf planets he used to kill Pluto. The old photographic plates gave way to modern CCDs, and Bellm became the project scientist for the Zwicky Transient Facility—named for astronomer Fritz Zwicky, a prolific discoverer of supernovae—in 2011.

They outfitted the scope with a new camera with 16 CCDs that are four inches per side. They got some big filters for it and put in a robotic arm that could change the filters without getting in the way of the camera. They started surveying in March of last year and can photograph much of the sky on any given night.

“That’s letting us look for things that are rare, things that are changing quickly, things that are unusual,” Bellm said.

Examples of what the ZTF has found include a pair of white dwarfs that are spinning rapidly around each other, with a period of just seven minutes. They can see the orbits decay because of gravitational wave radiation. It has discovered more than 100 young type 1a supernovae. And it found an asteroid with the shortest “year” of any yet discovered; its orbit is entirely within that of Venus.

It’s doing the same sort of work that the LSST will do when it comes online.

“It’s super cool that we’ve got this more than 70 year old telescope that we’re doing cutting-edge science with thanks to the advances of technology,” Bellm said.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington, and typically meets on the fourth Wednesday of each month at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. The next event is set for September 25.

CSI Universe: Unraveling the mysteries of Tabby’s Star and supernovae

The universe is full of mysteries; that’s one of the reasons that astronomy is so interesting! We dug into a couple of puzzling phenomena at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. The session was dubbed “CSI: Universe,” and Brett Morris, one of the co-hosts of Astronomy on Tap Seattle and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, gave a talk about the star KIC 8462852, more commonly called Tabetha Boyajian’s star, thank goodness. His talk was titled, “The Weirdest Star Gets Weirder.”

You helped

Citizen scientists were the first to notice that there was something odd about Tabby’s Star. The Kepler Space Telescope was searching for exoplanets by watching for slight but regular dips in a stars brightness, a possible indication of a planet in orbit around a distant star. Morris noted that it can be difficult to write a computer algorithm to filter out noise in the data, so they enlisted the help of the public through the website PlanetHunters.org.

Brett Morris

Brett Morris (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

“What you can do on this website is help scientists look for things that are weird,” Morris said. People identify objects that don’t look right, then professional astronomers check them out. “Through this process they found a whole bunch of stars that misbehave.”

One of them was Boyajian’s.

“If we look at its colors, if we look at its spectrum, it behaves like all the other F-stars,” Morris said, “and so we were a little bit puzzled when we started looking at data.”

There were dips in light from Tabby’s Star, all right. There were smaller dips early in the mission that never really matched up. Then in March 2011 there was a huge dip of 15 percent of the star’s light, and it lasted for days, not hours as most transits do. Then in February 2013 there was an even bigger reduction in brightness of 20 percent. Nobody has come up with a plausible explanation for this.

“Whatever this is, this thing’s big,” Morris said.

No easy answer

An astounding array of possible explanations have been thrown out there. Examples include an object like Saturn with rings that could cause variations in the light curve, a passing comet, debris from a huge planetary impact like the one thought to have formed our Moon, and Tabby’s Star’s indigestion from having just swallowed a whole planet. The one in vogue at present is that a family of 10 to 20 comets, all giving off material, are creating these odd light curves. Morris doesn’t quite buy this one, either.

“The more bodies that you imagine being there, the easier it is to fit a light curve,” he said. “If you just keep adding new parameters into your model, eventually it will fit.”

“If you invoke wierdly shaped objects, you can fit it perfectly,” Morris added. “If you invoke the kinds of objects that we expect are most likely, it’s a lot harder. We really don’t know what this star is doing.”

Some have wondered if something between us and Tabby’s Star, maybe interstellar gas or dust, caused the strange light curves. Morris himself investigated this one. Back in May he got a Tweet—he said this is mostly how astronomers communicate these days!—noting that Tabby’s Star’s brightness was changing. He used the Apache Point Observatory to look for signs of absorption from interstellar gas or dust. But the spectra didn’t change even though the star was changing.

“We’re slowly ruling things out,” Morris said. “It’s not something in our solar system, it’s not something between us and the star; it’s got to be something near the star, but we don’t know what near the star could be doing this.”

As for wild speculation that the strange light curves could be caused by a Dyson Sphere or other “alien megastructure”:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I do not have any evidence to suggest that we can make a claim as extraordinary as that,” Morris said. He and a team of undergraduates at the University of Washington continue to work on the puzzle.

Coroner for the Stars

The second talk of CSI: Universe came from Prof. Melissa Graham of the UW, who does work on supernovae. These mark the death of a star, and Graham’s job is to figure out whodunnit.

Melissa Graham

Melissa Graham (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Graham pointed out that a star is considered alive if it’s in hydrostatic equilibrium; that is, when atomic fusion in the star’s core supports the star by counteracting gravity. Sometimes the death of a star is from natural causes. A typical star will fuse hydrogen and helium into carbon, then gradually fuses neon, oxygen, and heavier elements until eventually a core of iron forms. Graham said this means trouble, because fusing iron into something heavier is not exothermic; it doesn’t release energy.

“If you end up with a core of iron, your hydrostatic equilibrium suffers because you are losing out on that fusion in the core,” she said. “The core collapses because it can’t support itself anymore, the outer layers fall onto the inner layers, and you end up with a supernova explosion.”

Material blows away and leaves neutron star behind.

“That’s death by natural causes,” Graham said.

Type 1a supernovae are more interesting to stellar criminologists. These involve a white dwarf star, which is the remnant of a smaller star that doesn’t have enough mass to fuse carbon and oxygen into anything heavier.

“The carbon and oxygen core shrinks under its own self-gravity, and the outer layers are lost, which causes a really pretty planetary nebula,” Graham said. “The star is now supported by electron degeneracy pressure.”

This means the star isn’t alive because it’s not fusing elements.

“It’s more of a zombie star,” Graham said. “It’s died once and continues to live.”

The usual suspects

It’s a suspicious death when you see one of these explode. Graham rounded up the usual suspects: It could be a binary companion, such as a red giant or a sun-like star or another white dwarf. Sometimes it could be a pair of white dwarfs with a third companion star. A type 1a supernova also might from from a white dwarf’s impact with a primordial black hole or comet.

One way to figure this out is to simply look at the scene of the crime.

“Once this white dwarf star explodes, the other companion star would still be there,” Graham said. A companion would heat up and get brighter, so it might be detectable. Interstellar dust and gas may also light up from the energy of a supernova. Looking back at the scene later might detect such material that is at significant distance from the event. Graham is using the Hubble Space Telescope to check to find out if this is happening. She’s also looking forward to the completion of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is expected to find some ten million supernovae over its 10-year mission. With so many new examples we will, “really start to understand how these carbon-oxygen white dwarfs die,” Graham said.

More information:

Morris’s talk on YouTube

Ted Talk by Tabetha Boyajian

 

Good events and maybe actual observing as holiday weekend approaches

We hope you have had a chance to dust off the telescope and get in some observing with the recent good weather. Seattle Astronomy had some fine looks at Jupiter and Saturn over the weekend. The forecast looks promising for some public star parties next weekend, too.

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its free monthly public star parties for 9 p.m. Saturday, July 1 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather cancels these events, so watch the website for updates.

SAS is also involved, along with the Boeing and Tacoma clubs, with the Covington Community Park star party set for 9 p.m. Friday, June 30. This one, too, is weather dependent.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 1 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be about constellations and star-hopping. The telescopes will come out under clear skies.

The Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 27 at the Newport Way Library in Bellevue. The topic for the night will be the August total solar eclipse. EAS doesn’t meet during the summer, so this will be its last gathering until September.

AOT SeattleAstronomy on Tap Seattle will hold another of its gatherings at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 28. The topic for the evening will be CSI: Universe. AOT Seattle co-host Brett Morris will give a presentation titled “The Weirdest Star in the Universe Gets Weirder,” an update on Tabetha Boyajian’s star in light of its recent misbehavior. UW observational astrophysicist Dr. Melissa Graham will speak about her research as “Coroner For The Stars,” working to unravel the mysteries of supernovae.

There’s plenty of time for Q&A and prizes to win in astro-trivia.

It’s free, but buy beer, and bring a chair to create your own front-row seating.

Asteroid Awareness Day is Friday, June 28, and the Museum of Flight will offer educational activities and livestream lectures between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in its Alaska Airlines Aerospace Education Center.

Also Sprach Zarathustra

The Seattle Symphony is going to show the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey this weekend, and they’ll be providing some of the music live! Performances are at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, June 30 and July 1. Tickets, available online, range from $38 to $128.