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Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: The Asteroid Belt as a Relic From a Chaotic Early Solar System
Authors: Andre Izidoro, Sean N. Raymond, Arnaud Pierens, Alessandro Morbidelli, Othon C. Winter, David Nesvorny
First Author’s Institution: Laboratoire d’astrophysique de Bordeaux, Pessac, France
Status: Accepted to ApJ

The puzzling architecture of the Solar system has long been a headache for planetary dynamicists. We can sort of divide its structure (cover image, not to scale) into several zones. First, the terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, which are divided from the gas and ice giant planets by the asteroid belt. Beyond the ice giants there is the Kuiper belt, which spans out to very large distances from the Sun. One longstanding conundrum in this ordering is the relatively small mass of Mars and existence of the asteroid belt in between Mars and Jupiter. It shouldn’t be there, and Mars should be way bigger. In fact, Mars is only 10% of the mass of Earth and therefore seems to have never accreted enough material to become a fully fledged planet. In planet formation, Mars-sized objects are usually termed “planetary embryos”, as we think this is the intermediate stage of a planet’s growth.

Sailing adolescent Jupiter to blame?

To explain the apparent dip in the mass-distance relation of our solar system (increasing mass with planetary distance from the Sun until Jupiter, and then decreasing again), planetary scientists developed a model deeply rooted in dynamical principles: the “Grand Tack”. The idea of the model is that Jupiter, directly after its formation out of the early Solar nebula at ~3.5 AU (AU = distance Sun–Earth), migrated toward the Sun, became “tacked” on at ~1.5 AU and then migrated outward again to its current positon at 5.2 AU. By doing so it depleted the mass concentrated at the locations of nowadays Mars and the asteroid belt, and thus Mars was never able to grow bigger. It also successfully explains some other issues, such as the inclinations and excitations of asteroids and the transition from water-poor to water-rich asteroids in the middle of the belt.

Figure 2: Chaos in the giant planets's orbits and their long-term stability. During the gas disk phase the giant planets migrated inward toward the Sun and are eventually locked in so-called mean-motion resonances. After the gas dissipation Saturn and Jupiter orbit in chaotic, but stable orbits. (Fig. 8 from the paper)

Chaos in the giant planets’ orbits and their long-term stability. During the gas-disk phase the giant planets migrated inward toward the Sun and are eventually locked in so-called mean-motion resonances. After the gas dissipation, Saturn and Jupiter orbit in chaotic but stable orbits. [Izidoro et al. 2016]

A more “primordial” origin

Alternatively, the mass-depletion at Mars’ location could have very early roots, even before (or during) the formation of Jupiter, caused by microphysics in the disk, as was explained in this Astrobite about the pile-up and evolution of dust. Here, the initial small dust grains in the disks did not accumulate everywhere in the disk and start to form planets. Instead, they end up only in specific regions and thus planet formation is concentrated in some narrow zones. In our case, this could be in two locations: one in the inner region, where the terrestrial planets reside nowadays, and one in the outer region, possibly around the region of Jupiter (more details given in this recent review paper). Such a scenario however poses another problem. The Grand Tack scenario from above easily explains the current relatively high inclinations and excitations of the asteroids in the belt: Jupiter drops by and gives everyone a huge gravitational swing due to its enormous mass. In the other scenario this isn’t the case — so we would nominally expect the asteroids to remain in relatively calm and low-excitation orbits.

But Andé Izidoro and collaborators think differently. They propose that instead of migrating (like in the Grand Tack model), Jupiter and Saturn were on chaotic but stable orbits. This scenario is illustrated in the figure above, which shows how the gas and ice giants evolved over time in such a configuration. Essentially what happens is that all the planets roughly formed at approximately where they are today. However, as our early solar system was subject to dynamic evolution (we possibly lost some planetary embryos early on), the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn moved continously and chaotically through the disk (though not nearly as dramatically as in the Grand Tack scenario). Thus, Jupiter came close to the asteroid belt again and its gravity excited the asteroids. You’ll probably ask yourself now where the great difference lies. This is highlighted in the figure below, where the deviations between the Grand Tack and the “chaotic motion” pictures become readily apparent.

screenshot-2016-10-28-11-18-47

In the Grand Tack model, Jupiter is formed within a sea of primordial planetesimals/asteroids (which are divided into S- and C-types: water-poor and water-rich). It migrates inwards and then outwards, and scatters some of the outer asteroids to their current locations. In the “low-mass asteroid belt”/”chaotic motion” model the S- and C-type deviation and the mass-depletion at around Mars’ current location is primordial. Jupiter and Saturn form later and evolve in chaotic but stable orbits, which scatters some of the outer asteroids inside. [Morbidelli & Raymond, 2016, arXiv:1610.07202]

What now?

Instead of one we have now two models, both of which can give us an answer to why our solar system’s architecture looks like it does today. Fortunately, the two models make different predictions about how the dynamics evolved in the disks. In the coming years we may thus be able to distinguish between them by testing their differences, and we may be able to get deeper insights into how our home in the universe evolved into how it looks today.

About the author, Tim Lichtenberg:

I am a graduate student at ETH Zurich in planetary astrophysics. By combining astro- and geophysical numerical approaches I try to understand the influence of star-forming environments on the formation of terrestrial planets. Occasionally, when I am not at the bus swinging back and forth between the institutes, I enjoy doing sports or become involved in science outreach projects.

planets!

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: OGLE-2012-BLG-0950Lb: The First Planet Mass Measurement from Only Microlens Parallax and Lens Flux
Authors: N. Koshimoto, A. Udalski, J.P. Beaulieu et al.
First Author’s Institution: Department of Earth and Space Sciences, Osaka University, Japan
Status: Accepted in AJ

In today’s paper, we’re looking at a planet discovery. The planet in question is called OGLE-2012-BLG-0950Lb. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so for the purposes of this article I’m going to nickname it Oggy.

Oggy is an unusual planet. It’s intrinsically fairly normal: a planet roughly the size of Neptune, orbiting an M-dwarf star. But Oggy is 3 kiloparsecs, or 9,800 light years, away, making it one of the most distant planets ever discovered. That’s because it was discovered via the microlensing technique.

A Quick Microlensing Primer:

Microlensing is a bit of a forgotten relative of observational exoplanet science — we hear about transit and radial velocity planets all the time, and direct imaging is intuitively simple and makes pretty pictures, so it gets lots of press time too. The microlensing technique, meanwhile, has been quietly churning out planet detections since 2004. And yet, if you asked your average exoplanet scientist how microlensing works, they’d probably panic and mutter something about general relativity before running away as soon as possible.

Microlensing works like this: your system consists of a lens star, which magnifies light from a source star. The source star is moving relative to the lens, and the closer it gets to the lens, the more the light rays are bent, and the more the lens magnifies the source. One could plot contours of equal magnification — they would be circles, traced around the lens star, as I’ve tried to demonstrate in Figure 1. The closer to the lens, the more a source would be magnified. The background source will move across the diagram following the red arrow, and as the flux increases and then decreases a flux peak is observed.

Figure 1: On the left, the blue contours show regions of equal magnification — increasing towards the centre where the star is positioned. On the right is the sort of flux curve you’d observe as the source passes behind the lens, following the red arrow. [Astrobites]

Now, if the lens star also has a planet, this can warp the light rays even more. In fact, the interference between the two gravitational sources can even create places where the magnification of the source is infinite. Alternatively, depending on the system geometry, it can reduce the magnification of the lens for a very short time. As the source moves across the sky, there’s an added peak or trough, on top of the peak from the lens magnifying the source. Figure 2 shows a schematic of this setup.

Figure 2: Three lens diagrams for the three possible scenarios. Left: a source is magnified by a lens star. Centre and right: the lens star now hosts a planet, which also warps the light: either enhancing or reducing the lens effect for a short period of time, and creating an additional bump or dip on top of the lensing curve. [Astrobites]

Confused yet?

Applying this to Oggy:

During the summer of 2012, two different microlensing surveys — one called OGLE and one called MOA — both independently identified a flux ramp-up around the same star. A source was just beginning its journey behind a lens. They monitored the event, and I’ve shown their data in Figure 3. This matches the situation in Figure 2: there’s a wide peak as the source passes behind the star, and a teensy dip at day 6149, where the planet briefly dims the source — a zoom-in of this dip is shown in the bottom panel.

Figure 3: The microlensing event where planet Oggy was identified. Top: the whole event as the source star passes behind the lens. Bottom left: a close up of the effect of the planet on the observed flux. Bottom right: a close up of the final dimming of the event as the source passes out from behind the star. [Koshimoto et al. 2016]

All of these data can be fitted to gain an understanding of the lens and planet system, and work out what’s actually been seen by the team. However, there are a lot of free parameters in the system, and only a few free parameters for your curve, so the fit is degenerate. In other words, the curve isn’t enough to constrain all the parameters, and there are multiple different good fits. There are various ways to solve this problem: for example, the length of time that the source is magnified might tell you about the source diameter (since it will be magnified for slightly longer if it is slightly bigger). However, in the case of Oggy, the source size is consistent with zero — so the errors are too big for the magnification duration to give us any information.

However, the total passage of the star is a fairly long event, with the star being magnified for a total of ~120 days. This means that the orbital motion of the Earth during the microlensing event is actually detectable! The models that include the so-called ‘microlens parallax’ are shown in Figure 3, and they fit better than those that ignore the Earth’s motion. For completeness, the authors also use a third model, one they call the xallarap model, where the orbital motion of the lens is considered (kind of like a backwards parallax). However, this is found to be a less good fit than the parallax model.

By determining the microlens parallax, and with some additional Keck telescope observations that confirm the flux of the lens star, the authors calculate a mass for the planet and for the star. It’s 35 times the mass of the Earth, orbiting an M-dwarf host star, with a projected distance of three times the Earth–Sun distance. Oggy is the first planet for which a mass has been determined with just the parallax and the lens flux.

So, why should you care?

Microlensing is exciting as it’s the only method that can find these extremely far away planets. This allows us to figure out whether our part of the galaxy is representative: does the galactic bulge have as many planets as we do out here in a spiral arm? Are the planets in the galactic bulge generally bigger or smaller than ours? For now, microlensing is the only technique that can answer this question.

Since several microlensing surveys are now being carried out with simultaneous ground and space observations (using the Spitzer and Kepler telescopes), there will be more and more planets identified where the microlens parallax can be very precisely determined — so the method used here will be valuable in calculating masses for these future discoveries. Oggy is a great benchmark, proving that these missions will give valuable scientific output.

About the author, Elisabeth Matthews:

I’m currently a second year PhD student at the University of Exeter, in the south of England, where I’m aiming to detect and characterise extra-solar planets and debris disks via direct imaging. So far this has meant lots of detecting background stars that happen to be near bright, nearby stars and no detecting of actual planets — but hopefully my luck will change soon!

Perseus cloud clump

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: The JCMT Gould Belt Survey: Evidence for Dust Grain Evolution in Perseus Star-forming Clumps
Authors: Michael Chun-Yuan Chen, J. Di Francesco, D. Johnstone, et al.
First Author’s Institution: University of Victoria
Status: Published in ApJ

Deep in the cold and dusty corners of the universe, baby stars are formed. When a molecular cloud (aka an interstellar dust bunny) made out of gas and small dust particles reaches a critical density, it begins to form protostars as the gas in the cloud gravitationally collapses. Scientists can study these stellar nurseries to understand how gas is transformed into giant stars. Unfortunately, molecular hydrogen, which composes ~99% of a molecular cloud, is hard to measure at the low temperatures at which clouds form. Instead, the dust in the clouds is studied, as it behaves in a manner similar to the gas.

Recently, Mike Chen and his collaboration investigated several stellar nurseries in one molecular cloud, Perseus, in order to map the temperature and other parameters that they use to understand the evolution of dust grains in the regions. They look primarily at the regions’ temperatures and a parameter called the dust emissivity spectral index, or beta. This index is critical to estimating the mass and temperature of the star-forming structure and is dependent on the properties of the dust grains, like size and composition.

Using the JCMT sub-millimetre telescope, the group derived maps for temperature, dust emissivity spectral index and optical depth (i.e. how well you can see through it). Plotting known stars and young stellar objects on the map, they were able to see relations between these objects and the dust grain properties. The results from the temperature maps showed distinct warm regions within the clouds — though by warm we only mean about 15 K (-430°F). Most of the areas that had above average temperatures also had a young stellar object, which is likely responsible for the region’s extra warmth. However, not all regions containing young stellar objects were warm. It could be that these regions contain particularly infant objects that haven’t yet had the time to warm their dust blankets.

Screen Shot 2016-10-12 at 4.05.54 PM

Temperature maps for two dense regions in the Perseus molecular cloud. Red indicates higher temperatures and blue, colder. Circles, triangles and stars indicate young stellar objects and stars. [Chen et al. 2016]

Examination of the dust emissivity spectral index maps showed significant differences between star-forming clumps in the Perseus molecular cloud. Furthermore, the group noticed smooth structure on small scales which indicates that the dust emissivity spectral index is affected by its local environment. Different clumps in one cloud showed different distributions of the index. This shows that the dust grains are probably growing significantly as the clump itself evolves.

Screen Shot 2016-10-12 at 4.06.27 PM

Dust emissivity maps for two dense regions in the Perseus molecular cloud. Yellow indicates regions with higher emissivity index and blue, lower. Circles, triangles and stars indicate young stellar objects and stars. [Chen et al. 2016]

When comparing the dust emissivity spectral index and temperature maps, Chen and his collaborators noticed the colder temperature regions tended to have higher beta indices. This could indicate an evolution of the dust grains. As the temperature drops, ice can begin to grow on the dust grains, giving them a larger size and thus a higher beta index; in warmer regions where stars are forming, this ice sublimates and the index is lower. In other words, the beta index decreases when the grain size increases. A grain with a ice mantle, however, can have a higher beta index compared to a bare grain of the same size. However, it’s a complicated picture and another theory suggests that instead large grains are produced in the densest gas near protostars, which are typically warm. While this work begins to probe the origin of dust grains with low dust emissivity indices, further observations are necessary to see the full picture of grain evolution.

About the author, Mara Johnson-Groh:

Mara is working on her master’s at the University of Victoria, Canada. In a nutshell, her research is taking pretty pictures of the universe. She spends half of her time with the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey team trying to directly image new exoplanets, and the other half looking for galaxies responsible for damped Lyman alpha systems in the images of quasars. When she’s not looking at scientifically pretty pictures, she’s capturing earthly beauty with digital photography or trying to stay grounded with rock climbing.

Pulsar planet

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: Why Are Pulsar Planets Rare?
Authors: Rebecca G. Martin, Mario Livio, and Divya Palaniswamy
First Author’s Institution: University of Nevada Las Vegas
Status: Accepted to ApJ

Pulsar planets were the first type of planet ever discovered beyond the solar system, and this discovery shocked the astronomical world. These were not the planets we expected: solar system-like planets around a Sun-like star. Instead, these planets orbited a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star (the extremely dense core of a massive star that exploded as a supernova). However, since their initial discovery in 1992, only five such pulsar planets have been found, making them quite rare. Fewer than 1% of pulsars have been found to host planets. In this paper, the authors explore how these planets may have formed as a way to explain the rarity of pulsar planets.

lsgals

Figure 1:  The mass and semi-major axis of pulsar companions in colored circles (blue for confirmed planets, red for main-sequence stars, black for low-mass stars and brown dwarfs, green for neutron stars, purple for heavy white dwarfs, and yellow for low-mass white dwarfs). The violet asterisks are our eight solar-system planets, the Moon, and the asteroid-belt dwarf planet Ceres, for reference. The black lines are the detection limits for fast millisecond pulsars (bottom line) and more normal pulsars (top line). [Martin et al. 2016]

Formation scenarios

  • Planets that survive the supernova: The most obvious formation scenario is that the planets formed simultaneously with the original star just like our own solar system. However, many astronomers believe that stars above three solar masses (3x the mass of the Sun) can’t form planets, and stars that supernova into neutron stars are at least eight solar masses. Even if they could form, the planet would have to avoid being eaten when the star swells up into a red supergiant and then stick around after the supernova explosion removes most of the mass from the system, an unlikely scenario.
  • Supernova fallback disk: After the supernova, some of the material falls back into a disk where, just like with a protoplanetary disk, it might form planets. However, this “fallback disk” is expected to have little angular momentum, which means the material likely doesn’t have enough rotational speed to avoid falling back directly onto the neutron star. (For example, a rocket shot vertically up would fall back down to Earth. It needs “sideways” velocity to get into orbit and avoid hitting the Earth.)
  • Destruction of a companion star: A low-mass companion star orbiting a neutron star loses mass through evaporation — which, if strong enough, can entirely destroy the star. The star’s debris can then form a disk orbiting the neutron star with a mass about 10% the mass of Earth.
  • Evaporation of a companion: An alternative outcome of evaporation from the intense pulsar radiation is that the companion star just loses so much mass that it is reduced down to planetary size.
Artist's illustration of a binary system in which the left star is exploding as a supernova. [ESA/Justyn R. Maund (University of Cambridge)]

Artist’s illustration of a binary system in which the left star is exploding as a supernova. [ESA/Justyn R. Maund (University of Cambridge)]

The authors determine that pulsar planets are likely formed only when there is a low-mass companion star to the neutron star. Almost every star with enough mass to become a supernova is born with a companion star, but only 10% of these companions have low enough mass to make pulsar planets a realistic possibility. Of these, only about 10% are able to survive on a gravitationally bound orbit after the massive star goes supernova. This means that only ~1% of neutron-star progenitors (stars that eventually become neutron stars) even have the potential to form pulsar planets.

In the case of a star being disrupted and forming a disk, the disk receives intense radiation from the pulsar that heats and helps evaporate the disk. If the surface density of a disk is very large, dead zones are formed in the disk where material is able to build up to form planets. Disks with a lower surface density are not able to effectively shield the disk to prevent its evaporation and therefore cannot form any planets. Only when the companion star is disrupted into a massive enough disk is there a real possibility of a planet then forming.

Results

Only under a very specific set of circumstances can planets form around pulsars. They require a companion star with a low mass, which only about 10% of neutron star progenitors have. Of these, only 10% can then survive the supernova explosion. Of the survivors, some may be evaporated into a planetary mass, while others may be disrupted by the pulsar. In the case of disruption, the subsequent disk then needs to be dense enough to withstand the intense pulsar radiation long enough to create stars.

Out of the five pulsar planets known, the authors believe that the three planets in the PSR 1257+12 system were formed from the disk of a disrupted star, the planet orbiting PSR J1719-1438 is the core of an evaporated white dwarf, and the planet around PSR B1620-26 was captured along with its white dwarf, with the planet now orbiting both of them as a circumbinary planet.

About the author, Joseph Schmitt:

I’m a 5th year graduate student at Yale University. My main research is on the discovery, characterization, and statistics of exoplanets. I’m also one of the science leads on the citizen science project Planet Hunters, a website where the general public can join the search for exoplanets.

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: Gravity-Darkened Seasons: Insolation Around Rapid Rotators
Authors: John P. Ahlers
First Author’s Institution: University of Idaho
Status: Accepted to ApJ

On Earth, our seasons come about due to the Earth’s tilted rotational axis relative to its orbital plane (and not due to changes in distance from the Sun, as it is commonly mistaken!) Essentially, this is due to the varying amounts of radiation that the Earth receives from the Sun in each hemisphere. But what would happen if the Sun were to radiate at different temperatures across its surface?

It’s hard to imagine such a scenario, but a phenomenon known as gravity darkening causes rapidly spinning stars to have non-uniform surface temperatures due to their non-spherical shape. As a star spins, its equator bulges outwards as a result of centrifugal forces (specifically, into an oblate spheroid). Since a star is made of gas, this has interesting implications for its temperature. If its equator is bulging outwards, the gas at the equator experiences a lower surface gravity (being slightly further away from the star’s center) a lower density and temperature. The equator of a spinning star is thus considered to be “gravitationally darkened”. The gas at the star’s poles on the other hand, has a slightly higher density and temperature (“gravitational brightening”) since it is closer to the center of the star relative to the gas at the equatorial bulge. Thus, there is a temperature gradient between the poles and equator of a rapidly rotating star.

While this is an interesting phenomenon in itself, the author of today’s paper introduces a new twist: what if there’s a planet orbiting such a star, and what implication does this gravity darkening have on a planet’s seasonal temperature variations? Compared to Earth. exoplanets have potentially more complex factors governing its surface temperature variations. For example, if a planet’s orbit is inclined relative to the star’s equator (see Figure 1), it can preferentially receive radiation from different parts of its star during the course of its orbit.

Fig 1: All the parameters describing a planet's orbit. In this paper, the author mainly focuses on the inclination i, which is the angle of a planet's orbital plane relative to the star's equator. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Fig 1: All the parameters describing a planet’s orbit. In this paper, the author mainly focuses on the inclination i, which is the angle of a planet’s orbital plane relative to the star’s equator. [Wikipedia]

The author claims that this effect can cause a planet’s surface temperature to vary as much as 15% (Figure 2). This essentially doubles the number of seasonal temperature variations a planet can experience over the course of an orbit. However, the author does not attempt to model the complex heat transfer that occurs on the planet’s surface due to the atmosphere and winds.

Fig. 2: Some examples of seasonal temperature changes of a planet for various orbital parameters. The top left figure shows the orientation of the planet’s tilt (precession angle, color-coded to match the plots), and the times corresponding to one orbit around the host star. In each subplot, the author shows the flux a planet would receive for different orbital inclinations (i.e. the angle i in Fig. 1). [Ahlers 2016]

Not only that, but there is also some variation in the type of radiation that a planet receives during the course of its orbit. Since the poles of rotating star are at a higher temperature, it will radiate relatively more ultraviolet (UV) radiation compared to the equatorial regions. The author claims that a planet orbiting in a highly inclined orbit will alternate receiving radiation preferentially from a star’s poles or equator, causing the amount of UV radiation to vary as much as 80%. High levels of UV radiation can cause a planet’s atmosphere to evaporate, as well as other complex photochemical reactions (such as those responsible for the hazy atmosphere on Saturn’s moon Titan).

As we discover new exoplanets over the course of the coming years, we will likely find examples of planets potentially experiencing these gravitationally darkened seasons. This will have interesting implications on how we view the habitability of these other worlds.

About the author, Anson Lam:

I am a graduate student at UCLA, where I am working with Steve Furlanetto on models of galaxy clustering and their applications to the reionization era. My main interests involve high redshift cosmology, dark matter, and structure formation.
Previously, I was an undergraduate at Caltech, where I did my BS in astrophysics. When I’m not doing astronomy, I enjoy engaging in some linear combination of swimming/biking/running.

Project Starshot

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: The Interaction of Relativistic Spacecrafts with the Interstellar Medium
Authors: Thiem Hoang, A. Lazarian, Blakesley Burkhart, and Abraham Loeb
First Author’s Institution: Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Toronto
Status: Submitted to ApJ

On the Doorstep of the Solar System…

Proxima Centauri b

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b, orbiting in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. [ESO/M. Kornmesser]

On its voyage to Pluto, the New Horizons probe broke the speed record for a spacecraft (and anything humans have ever created, for that matter), traveling at a blistering speed 40 times faster than a bullet. However, even at these Earth-shattering speeds, it would take New Horizons about 75,000 years to reach the distance of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun. And now that we know this star has a potentially habitable Earth-like planet orbiting it, tens of thousands of years is just too long to wait.

Thankfully, physicist Steven Hawking, adventure capitalist Yuri Milner, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg concocted a better idea. They put their great minds (and loads of money) together to propose the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, a plan to send a fleet of centimeter-sized spacecraft to the nearest star system. These spacecraft would be accelerated to a significant fraction of the speed of light by the force of radiation pressure from high-powered, Earth-based lasers and light sail technology. Breakthrough Starshot claims that the technology will be developed to accelerate these spacecrafts to 20% of the speed of light, which means it would only take a quick 20 years to travel the 4 light-years to Proxima Centauri. However, every great idea has complications. Today we’ll confront one of the biggest ones: all that stuff that is between Earth and Proxima Centauri.

Another One Bites the Space Dust

On average, the interstellar medium (ISM) has only 1 atom inside of every cubic centimeter of space. However, a 1-square-centimeter spacecraft would still run about into two million trillion ISM atoms on its way to Proxima Centauri. Coincidently, this is about the number of atoms contained in a single grain of salt. Though getting hit with a grain of salt’s worth of atoms over the course of the journey doesn’t seem all too detrimental, keep in mind that the spacecraft are charging at these atoms at 20% of the speed of light, so that the spacecraft sees the atoms incoming at 60 million meters per second! These tiny atomic bullets can still alter the material structure of the spacecraft by creating microscopic holes and heating up the spacecraft material by imparting their kinetic energy to atoms of the spacecraft. If the bullet is bigger (say, grains of interstellar dust, which are typically made up of a few molecules and are about 1000 times larger in diameter than atoms), then the kinetic energy of the impact is also bigger. Hoang et al. analyze the effects that the gas and dust on the way the Proxima Centauri would have on the Starshot spacecraft.

Explosive evaporation of spacecraft material, in the frame of reference of the spacecraft. Figure from today's article.

Explosive evaporation of spacecraft material, in the frame of reference of the spacecraft. [Hoang et al. 2016]

By studying the effects of gas and dust bombardment on quartz and graphite, the authors gauged which particles would be the most detrimental to the spacecraft, how they would affect the spacecraft, and what protective measures could possibly be taken to reduce damage. First they analyzed the effect of interstellar gas. Though hydrogen and helium make up most of the material in the ISM, they found that the heavier and rarer atoms (such as oxygen) would have a more notable effect on the trip to Proxima Centauri. These atoms could produce tiny holes in the spacecraft, called damage tracks, that would penetrate up to a tenth of a millimeter deep.

Dust, though less plentiful than gas in the ISM, was found to be more harmful to the spacecraft over the course of the trip. Collision by a normal interstellar dust grain could provide enough energy to evaporate material at the impact site — known as explosive evaporation. Furthermore, the atoms at the impact site become ionized, and the energetic electrons can then transfer their kinetic energy to nearby atoms on the spacecraft, raising the heat of this material. Over the course of the journey to Proxima, the impact of such dust could result in a half-millimeter layer of the spacecraft to be completely eroded, which is larger than it sounds, since these are only centimeter-scale spacecraft. Subsequent melting from these dust collisions could result in damage another couple millimeters deeper into the material. The figure below shows some of the main results of the study, plotting the damage by dust and gas on material moving through the ISM at different fractions of the speed of light.

Screen Shot 2016-09-22 at 10.54.28 PM

The thickness of surface damaged by dust and gas bombardment for quartz (left) and graphite (right). The x-axis plots the column density (the amount of material along a given line of sight between an observer and an object), with the grey band indicating the column density expected towards Proxima Centauri. Though evaporation by dust is material-independent, graphite is a better conductor, which lessens melting by dust and track formation by gas. [Hoang et al. 2016]

What if the spacecraft was unfortunate enough to encounter an abnormally large dust grain? The authors found that grains larger than the width of a silk fiber would completely destroy the gram-scale spacecraft (for reference, the average interstellar dust molecule is about 1000 times smaller than this). However, since such large grains are quite rare, they found this concern to be negligible. Based on the quantity of these abnormally large grains in the ISM, the chance that one of these spacecraft would encounter such a grain on its journey to Proxima Centauri is 10-50, which is so incredibly unlikely that I can’t even think of a real-world analogy.

Interstellar Dust Buster

So what can we do about this dusty problem? Hoang et al. propose multiple means of protection, such as deflecting the incoming dust grains with an electric field or scattering them off the path of the spacecraft with the radiation pressure of little lasers. However, the best approaches seem to be the simplest. Adding a thin layer of highly-conducting material, such as graphite or beryllium, to the front of the spacecraft would prevent the track formation from gas bombardment. Though it would add weight to the spacecraft, if this layer is a few millimeters thick it would also protect the sensitive components of the spacecraft from explosive cratering and melting by dust. The authors stress that geometrical considerations should also be taken into account. If the spacecraft are needle-like, then they have a smaller cross-sectional area for gas and dust to impact.

Though something important to consider, the hindrance of gas and dust on the way to Proxima Centauri is not a deal-breaker for the Starshot initiative. The biggest test will be testing our patience, because though 25 years is a blink of the eye for our universe, I can’t say it is the same for me.

About the author, Michael Zevin:

I am a graduate student studying physics and astronomy at Northwestern University. I am part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and work with Dr. Vicky Kalogera studying gravitational wave astrophysics, particularly parameter estimation of gravitational wave sources for the Advanced LIGO era. I received my B.S. from the University of Illinois in astronomy, physics, and music. Outside of school I enjoy teaching science at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and Kids Science Labs, playing music around the Windy City, and looking up.

Lava Rivers

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: Predictions of the Atmospheric Composition of GJ 1132b
Authors: L. Schaefer, R. D. Wordsworth, Z. Berta-Thompson, and D. Sasselov
First Author’s Institution: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Status: Accepted for publication in ApJ

Pictured above is Mustafar, a world covered in red-hot magma (or lava, if you prefer). Mustafar is from Star Wars (and, I’m afraid, from the prequels), but there are several non-fictional planets that might be real-universe “lava worlds”, due to their intense heat. The Earth, and the other rocky planets of our solar system, are believed to have formed with temperatures high enough for their surfaces to be molten. In today’s article, we take a look at how this “ocean of magma” might affect the way that a planet’s atmosphere evolves.

The article’s authors studied the evolution of planets with water-dominated atmospheres — in particular, the rate of loss of the water’s constituent hydrogen and oxygen parts (the two are not necessarily lost at the same rate). This loss happens by several mechanisms. Of most interest to us today is a so-called “thermal escape mechanism”, in which a particle with enough energy can travel fast enough to break free of the planet’s gravity and escape into space. In this way, hydrogen will be lost faster than oxygen, because its lower mass means it needs less energy to escape. The energy in this case comes from radiation from the planet’s host star, particularly in the ultraviolet (UV) part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Indeed, much of the previous work in this area has found that hydrogen disappears from the planet’s atmosphere while some amount of oxygen is left behind, forming O2. This could be bad news for hopes that O2 might be used as a sign of life on other worlds. However, it also might not be the whole picture. The same models predict that Venus, in our own solar system, should have this residual atmosphere of O2, but we see no sign of it.

Where does the magma come in?

One possible solution to this puzzle might involve interactions between the planet’s atmosphere and its surface, particularly when the surface is molten, as water can dissolve in molten rock. Today’s authors attempted to include these interactions with the planet’s surface in their models of a planet’s atmosphere. The surface in their models begins as an ocean of magma, then slowly cools to solid rock. The team then attempted to model a water atmosphere, allowing H and O to both escape into space and dissolve into the surface.

solidification time

Figure 1: The solidification time of the magma ocean depended on the amount of water in the atmosphere — the more water there was, the slower the ocean solidified, because of the greenhouse effect. The ocean also lasted longer in models with less radiation from the star (magenta) than in models with more radiation (blue). For models in which more than 10% of the planet’s mass was water, (the top of the lines here), the magma lasted for the entire length of the calculations, a total of 5 billion years! [Schaefer et al. 2016]

The team found that the length of time it takes the ocean to solidify depends strongly on the amount of water they give the atmosphere at the start of their models — water is a greenhouse gas, and so the more water there is in the planet’s atmosphere, the longer it takes the planet to cool. They found that the atmospheric composition at the end of their models depended on the atmospheric composition at the start, on the amount of UV light hitting the planet, and on the composition of the magma ocean.

mantle and surface temperatures

Figure 2, above: the temperature of the planet’s mantle and surface evolving over time, for models with more stellar radiation (blue) and less (magenta). Below: The fraction of the total amount of water contained in the magma ocean, the atmosphere and the solid mantle over time. The magma ocean’s fraction drops off as the ocean solidifies, and almost all of the atmospheric fraction is lost to space; however, the fraction trapped in the solid mantle increases as the ocean solidifies, and remains after the rest is lost. [Schaefer et al. 2016]

GJ 1132b

Artist’s illustration of the rocky exoplanet GJ 1132b, which orbits a red dwarf star and may host an atmosphere. [Dana Berry]

The team applied their models to GJ 1132b, a recently discovered exoplanet about the size of the Earth that orbits 65x closer to its star than we do to ours. GJ 1132b is a planet whose atmosphere should not be too difficult to study, so today’s authors hope to use future measurements of its atmospheric composition to test the predictions of their models. Their predictions for GJ 1132b depend on their starting conditions: if they set models going with a large initial amount of water — more than 5% of the planet’s mass — they can produce atmospheres with a large amount of oxygen, steam or both (with oxygen atmospheres more likely if the planet receives a large amount of UV radiation). Due to the greenhouse effect, a steam atmosphere implies that the planet’s surface is probably still molten. However, most of their starting conditions — any model with less than 5% water — result in an atmosphere with only a thin shell of O2 and no steam.

Observations of GJ 1132b should be able to measure its atmospheric composition and test the team’s predictions. Until then, their model is applicable not only to plenty of other exoplanets, but also to Venus, where they expect the magma ocean to have cooled much faster due to Venus’ greater distance from the Sun.

About the author, Matthew Green:

I am a first year PhD student at the University of Warwick. I work with white dwarf binary systems, and in particular with AM CVn-type binaries. In my spare time I enjoy writing of all kinds, as well as playing music, board games and rock climbing. For more things written by me, take a look at my website.

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: Multi-phase Nature of a Radiation-driven Fountain with Nuclear Starburst in a Low-mass Active Galactic Nucleus
Authors: Keiichi Wada, Marc Schartmann, Rowin Meijerink
First Author’s Institution: Kagoshima University, Kagoshima 890-0065, Japan
Status: Accepted for publication in ApJL

What better way to start today’s astrobite than with a movie? Hit ‘play’ and I will explain.

On screen is the view around a computer-simulated active galactic nucleus (AGN) from today’s article, available at the first author’s personal webpage. An AGN is the center of a galaxy with a black hole actively feeding on gas while giving out luminous radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. The color reflects the temperature of the gas/dust around it; red/orange parts are hot and the dark parts are cool. The video starts with a face-on view of a gas disk, followed by an inclined view showing the cold, dusty molecular gas (the clumpy dark lanes) obscuring the central source.

The traditional unified model of AGN consists of a bright central radiation source surrounded by a donut-shaped dusty torus, as shown schematically in Figure 1. Different types of AGNs could then be understood as models with various jet structures and radiation power levels viewed from different angles. However, recent mid-infrared observations found that in some AGNs dust emission comes from the polar regions, but not from the dusty tori. Since we don’t expect any dust in the polar regions, the traditional picture is therefore shown to be incomplete!

Unified AGN

Figure 1. Schematic representation of the unified AGN model. Various types of AGN can be understood as the result of different viewing angles, whether the central black hole is producing a jet, and the power level of the central source. [Beckmann & Shrader 2012]

The dusty-torus picture proves to be very useful in explaining the nature of AGNs. However, no one really understands how these tori come to be and how exactly they determine the AGN properties. The lead author of today’s paper has come up with a model explaining the production of the torus structure, known as the “radiation-driven fountain” model. In this picture, the intense radiation from the central source drives a vertical circulation of gas, naturally creating a thick disk resembling a dusty torus. We will see at the end of this astrobite that this model could produce the polar dust emission unexplained by the traditional model.

Today’s paper applies the radiation-driven fountain model with improved radiation physics to produce synthetic observations of the nearest AGN — the Circinus Galaxy — and compares them with actual observations. In particular, the major improvement is the chemistry of the X-ray dominated regions near the central source, which is crucial in producing reliable synthetic observations. Model parameters are chosen to match those of the Circinus. The simulation starts with a central black hole of 2 million solar masses surrounded by an initially thin gas disk. The radiation from the central regions stirs up and drives a circulation of gas under the gravity of the black hole. Energy input from supernova explosions is also included.

Density distributions

Figure 2. Density distributions of atomic (upper) and molecular (lower) gas in the radiation-driven fountain model. Left and right panels correspond to face-on and edge-on views, respectively. [Wada et al. 2016]

Figure 2 shows the distributions of atomic and molecular gas. On the top right panel we see the edge-on view of the disk. The thickness of the disk is comparable to its diameter, demonstrating that the fountain flows can indeed produce a geometrically thick disk with hollow cones above and below. This is a big deal because we now have a natural way of getting a structure resembling the traditional dusty torus! Supernova feedback is also shown to be required to maintain the thick disk structure for low-mass AGN like the Circinus. The authors also perform radiation transfer calculations to predict the spectral energy distributions (SEDs) of the Circinus Galaxy. The model-predicted SEDs at different inclination angles (black) are plotted together with the actual observations (blue) in Figure 3. Models with inclination angles greater than 70° match the actual observations quite well. From mid-infrared image of Circinus the inclination angle is inferred to be ~75°, confirming the SED analysis.

SEDs

Figure 3. Modeled spectral energy distributions (SEDs) of the Circinus Galaxy at various inclined angles (top to bottom 0°, 30°, 60°, 70°, 80°, 90°). [Wada et al. 2016]

From the video we can see there is irregular bright emission along the polar axes. Such emission originates from the hot dust circulating the polar regions — a feature of the fountain model. The model therefore also naturally explains the polar dust emission! Although the model does not provide a full explanation for everything about AGNs, this work is undoubtedly a beautiful effort combining advanced theoretical modeling and cutting-edge observations to learn about the nature of these structures.

About the author, Benny Tsang:

I am a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin working with Prof. Milos Milosavljevic. Using Texas-sized supercomputers and computer simulations, I focus on understanding the effects of radiation from stars when massive star clusters are being assembled. When I am not staring at computer screens, you will find me running around Austin, exploring this beautiful city.

G29-38 Debris disc

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: A Subtle IR Excess Associated with a Young White Dwarf in the Edinburgh-Cape Blue Object Survey
Authors: E. Dennihy, John H. Debes, B. H. Dunlap et al.
First Author’s Institution: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Status: Accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal

How do planets meet their ends? For many of the smallest worlds, it maybe as debris discs strewn around the tiny white dwarfs that are all that is left of their stars. The faint infrared glow from nearly forty such discs have been discovered, their rocky origins given away by the chemical composition of the material falling onto the parent white dwarf. Today’s paper adds another disc to the sample, although not without difficulty.

At temperatures of a few hundred to a thousand Kelvin, discs around white dwarfs emit infrared light. This aids in their detection: as the central white dwarf gives off mostly blue and ultraviolet light, the light from the disc is not washed out. However, the downside is that the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared light at the wavelengths the disc emits, so such detections have to be made from space.

The authors use data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft, or WISE. As the name suggests, WISE was a survey mission, sweeping the whole sky looking for sources of infrared light. Taking a list of white dwarfs from the ground-based Edinburgh-Cape Blue Object survey, the authors crossed-matched their positions with the infrared sources spotted by WISE. They found that the position of the white dwarf EC 05365 had a strong WISE signal, giving off much more infrared light than expected. Could this be a planetary debris disc?

fig4

Figure 1:  The left panel shows an image from the VISTA survey, with the white dwarf in the centre along with two other sources. The right panel shows the much lower-resolution WISE data, which, whilst roughly centred on the white dwarf, could be coming from the object to its left (Source A). The lines show the strength of the WISE signal building up towards the centre (Dennihy et al. 2016).

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that simple. The resolution of WISE is low in comparison with many telescopes, such that it can be difficult to tell exactly where the infrared light is coming from between close-by objects. Figure 1 shows the WISE data on the right, and an image of the same spot from the VISTA survey on the left. EC 05365 is just off the centre of the WISE data, so is the most likely candidate for the infrared light. However, two other sources appear on the VISTA image. The top right object is too faint to matter, but the closer object to the left of the white dwarf, designated “Source A” could be contributing a portion of the WISE signal. Was it light from the second object, rather than a debris disc, that WISE was picking up?

To tease apart the two possible infrared sources, the authors took two approaches. The first was to precisely measure the strength of the WISE signal at each point. The red lines on Figure 1 show lines of equal strength of the WISE signal, building up towards the centre in a similar fashion to contour lines on a map. This technique shows the WISE signal to be roughly four times as strong at the position of the white dwarf than at Source A.

Secondly, the author used a technique called “forced photometry”, taking what they did know, such as the position of the objects, the distribution of the WISE signal, and the background noise, to simulate the relative signals of the two sources. They again found that the Source A contributed much less to the infrared signal than the white dwarf. With the two techniques argreeing, the authors are confident that they have indeed detected a debris disc around EC 05365.

fig3

Figure 2: The blue points show measurements of the light received from EC 05365 at different wavelengths, going from ultraviolet and blue light on the left to infrared on the right. The VISTA measurements of Source A are shown in red. The grey line shows the predicted signal from the white dwarf at each point. The green WISE points are clearly much higher than predicted, suggesting the presence of a debris disc. (Dennihy et al. 2016).

The detection is shown more clearly in Figure 2, which shows the amount of light detected from EC 05365 at different wavelengths, with the extra infrared light from the disc easily visible. Our sample of ruined planetary systems grows again. The authors go on to try to model the shape of the disc, as well as probe the chemical composition of the debris. They finish by looking forwards to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope which, with its powerful infrared vision, could revolutionise our knowledge of these planetary graveyards.

Astrobiter’s note: In the interests of brevity I’ve focused on just one area of the paper here, which I hope provides an insight into the level of work behind even outwardly simple discoveries. Many more aspects of the EC 05365 system are discussed, so if you want to know more I invite you to read the paper, and I can answer questions in the comments [on the original article].  

About the author, David Wilson:

PhD student at the University of Warwick working with Professor Boris Gaensicke. I study the remnants of planetary systems at white dwarfs, looking at what they reveal about planet compositions and searching for variability. When not doing that I mostly spend my time reading, writing, playing board games and building various little plastic people.

OB120169

Editor’s note: Astrobites is a graduate-student-run organization that digests astrophysical literature for undergraduate students. As part of the new partnership between the AAS and astrobites, we will be reposting astrobites content here at AAS Nova once a week. We hope you enjoy this post from astrobites; the original can be viewed at astrobites.org!

Title: A Search for Stellar-Mass Black Holes via Astrometric Microlensing
Authors: J. R. Lu, E. Sinukoff, E. O. Ofek, A. Udalski, S. Kozlowski
First Author’s Institution: Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawai’i
Status: Accepted for publication in ApJ

When high-mass (≥8 solar masses) stars end their lives in blinding explosions known as core-collapse supernovae, they can rip through the fabric of space-time and create black holes with similar masses, known as stellar-mass black holes. These vermin black holes dwarf in comparison to their big brothers, supermassive black holes that typically have masses of 106–109 solar masses. However, as vermin usually do, they massively outnumber supermassive black holes. It is estimated that 108–109 stellar-mass black holes are crawling around our own Milky Way, but we’ve only caught sight of a few dozens of them.

black hole binary

Artist’s illustration of Cygnus X-1, a black hole in a binary system with a massive star. Black holes in binaries typically emit lots of radiation, making them easier to find. Finding isolated black holes, on the other hand, is tricky. [NASA/CXC/M.Weiss]

As black holes don’t emit light, we can only infer their presence from their effects on nearby objects. All stellar-mass black holes detected so far reside in binary systems, where they actively accrete from their companions. As matter from the companion falls onto the accretion disk of the black hole, radiation is emitted. Isolated black holes don’t have any companions, so they can only accrete from the surrounding diffuse interstellar medium, producing a very weak signal. That is why isolated black holes, which make up the bulk of the black hole population, have long escaped our discovery. Perhaps, until now.

The authors of today’s paper turned the intense gravity of black holes against themselves. While isolated black holes do not produce detectable emission, their gravity can bend and focus light from background objects. This bending and focusing of light through gravity is known as gravitational lensing. Astronomers categorize gravitational lensing based on the source and degree of lensing: strong lensing (lensing by a galaxy or a galaxy cluster producing giant arcs or multiple images), weak lensing (lensing by a galaxy or a galaxy cluster where signals are weaker and detected statistically), and microlensing (lensing by a star or planet). During microlensing, as the lens approaches the star, the star will brighten momentarily as more and more light is being focused, up until maximum magnification at closest approach, after which the star gradually fades as the lens leaves. This effect is known as photometric microlensing (see this astrobite). Check out this microlensing simulation, courtesy of Professor Scott Gaudi at The Ohio State University: the star (orange) is located at the origin, the lens (open red circle) is moving to the right, the gray regions trace out the lensed images (blue) as the lens passes by the star, while the green circle is the Einstein radius. The Einsten radius is the radius of the annular image when the observer, the lens, and the star are perfectly aligned.

Something more subtle can also happen during microlensing, and that is the shifting of the center of light (on a telescope’s detector) relative to the true position of the source — astrometric microlensing. While photometric microlensing has been widely used to search for exoplanets and MACHOs (massive astrophysical compact halo objects), for instance by OGLE (Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment), astrometric microlensing has not been put to good use as it requires extremely precise measurements. Typical astrometric shifts caused by stellar-mass black holes are sub-milliarcsecond (sub-mas), whereas the best astrometric precision we can achieve from the ground is typically ~1 mas or more. Figure 1 shows the signal evolution of photometric and astrometric microlensing and the astrometric shifts caused by different masses.

 
fig1

Figure 1: Left panel shows an example of photometric magnification (dashed line) and astrometric shift (solid line) as function of time since the closest approach between the lens and the star. Note that the peak of the astrometric shift occurs after the peak of the photometric magnification. Right panel shows the astrometric shift as a function of the projected separation between the lens and the star, in units of the Einstein radius, for different lens masses. [Lu et al. 2016]

In this paper, the authors used adaptive optics on the Keck telescope to detect astrometric microlensing signals from stellar-mass black holes. Over a period of 1–2 years, they monitored three microlensing events detected by the OGLE survey. As astrometric shift reaches a maximum after the peak of photometric microlensing (see Figure 1), astrometric follow-up was started post-peak for each event. The authors fit an astrometric lensing model to their data, not all of which were taken under good observing conditions. Figure 2 shows the results of the fit: all three targets are consistent with linear motion within the uncertainties of their measurements, i.e. no astrometric microlensing. Nonetheless, as photometric microlensing is still present, the authors used their astrometric model combined with a photometric lensing model to back out various lensing parameters, the most important one being the lens masses. They found one lens to have comparable mass to a stellar-mass black hole, although verification would require future observations.

 
fig2

Figure 2: Results of fitting an astrometric model (blue dashed lines) to the proper motions of the three microlensing targets, where xE and xN are the observed positions in the East and North directions in milli-arcsecond. The results do not show any signs of astrometric microlensing. [Lu et al. 2016]

Despite not detecting astrometric microlensing signals, the authors demonstrated that they achieved the precision needed in a few epochs; had the weather goddess been on their side during some critical observing periods, some signals could have been seen. This study is also the first to combine both photometric and astrometric measurements to constrain lensing event parameters, ~20 years after this technique was first conceived. For now, we’ll give stellar-mass black holes a break, but it won’t be long until we catch up.

About the author, Suk Sien Tie:

I am a second year PhD student starting at the Department of Astronomy at The Ohio State University. I’m broadly interested in most things, i.e. I’m still figuring out where my interests lie. I’ve worked on X-ray transients and have had some stint in instrumentation as an undergrad. Currently, I am working on high-redshift (z ~ 6) quasars in the Dark Energy Survey (DES). Instrumentation is a prospect I intend to pursue, motivated by the observation that we need more builders. Outside of work, I like to read, run, bike, travel, and eat.

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