Cosmic Superbubble’s Magnetic Field Charted in 3D for the First Time
A first-of-its-kind map that could help answer decades-old questions about the origins of stars and the influences of magnetic fields in the cosmos has been unveiled by astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (<span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>CfA).
The map reveals the likely magnetic field structure of the Local Bubble — a giant, 1,000-<span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>light-year-wide hollow in space surrounding our Sun. Like a hunk of Swiss cheese, our galaxy is full of these so-called superbubbles. The explosive supernova deaths of massive stars blow up these bubbles, and in the process, concentrate gas and dust — the fuel for making new stars — on the bubbles’ outer surfaces. These thick surfaces accordingly serve as rich sites for subsequent star and planet formation.
Scientists’ overall understanding of superbubbles, however, remains incomplete. With the new 3D magnetic field map, researchers now have novel information that could better explain the evolution of superbubbles, their effects on star formation and on galaxies writ large.
Scientists have unveiled the first-of-its-kind map of a magnetic field in space. Specifically, the team has charted the magnetic field of our Local Bubble in 3D. The new strategy for tracing magnetized structures in 3D will help address key questions about the influence of magnetic fields in the cosmos. Credit: T. O’Neill, A. Goodman, J. Soler, J. Han and C. Zucker
“Putting together this 3D map of the Local Bubble will help us examine superbubbles in new ways,” says Theo O’Neill, who led the mapmaking effort during a 10-week, NSF-sponsored summer research experience at the CfA while still an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (UVA).
“Space is full of these superbubbles that trigger the formation of new stars and planets and influence the overall shapes of galaxies,” continues O’Neill, who graduated from UVA in December 2022 with a degree in astronomy-physics and statistics. “By learning more about the exact mechanics that drive the Local Bubble, in which the Sun lives today, we can learn more about the evolution and dynamics of superbubbles in general.”
Along with colleagues, O’Neill presented the findings at the American Astronomical Society’s 241st annual meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 11, in Seattle, Washington. 3D interactive figures and a pre-print of the research are currently available on Authorea. The research was conducted at CfA under the mentorship of Harvard professor and CfA astronomer Alyssa Goodman, in collaboration with Catherine Zucker, a Harvard PhD astronomy alumna, Jesse Han, a Harvard PhD student and Juan Soler, a magnetic field expert in Rome.
“From a basic physics standpoint, we’ve long known that magnetic fields must play important roles in many astrophysical phenomena,” says Goodman, who wrote her PhD thesis on the importance of cosmic magnetic fields thirty years ago. “But studying these magnetic fields has been notoriously difficult. The difficulty perpetually drives me away from magnetic field work, but then new observational tools, computational methods and enthusiastic colleagues tempt me back in. Today’s computer simulations and all-sky surveys may just finally be good enough to start really incorporating magnetic fields into our broader picture of how the universe works, from the motions of tiny dust grains on up to the dynamics of galaxy clusters.”
The Local Bubble has emerged as a hot topic in astrophysics by virtue of being the superbubble in which the Sun and our Solar System now find themselves. In 2020, the Local Bubble’s 3D geometry was initially worked out by researchers based in Greece and France. Then in 2021, Zucker, now of Space Telescope Science Institute, Goodman, João Alves of the University of Vienna, and their team showed that the Local Bubble’s surface is the source of all nearby, young stars.
Those studies, along with the new 3D magnetic field map, have relied on data in part from Gaia, a space-based observatory launched by the European Space Agency (ESA). While measuring the positions and motions of stars, Gaia was used to infer the location of cosmic dust as well, charting its local concentrations and showing the approximate boundaries of the Local Bubble.
These data were combined by O’Neill and colleagues with data from Planck, another ESA-led space telescope. Planck, which carried out an all-sky survey from 2009 to 2013, was primarily designed to observe the <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Big Bang’s relic light. In the process, the spacecraft compiled measurements of microwave wavelength light from all over the sky. The researchers used a portion of Planck observations that trace emission from dust within the <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Milky Way relevant to helping map the Local Bubble’s magnetic field.
Specifically, the observations of interest consisted of polarized light, meaning light that vibrates in a preferred direction. This polarization is produced by magnetically aligned dust particles in space. The alignment of the dust in turn speaks to the orientation of the magnetic field acting upon the dust particles.
Mapping the magnetic field lines in this way enabled researchers working on the Planck data to compile a 2D map of the magnetic field projected on to the sky as seen from Earth. In order to morph or “de-project” this map into three spatial dimensions, the researchers made two key assumptions: First, that most of the interstellar dust producing the polarization observed lies in the Local Bubble’s surface. And, second, that theories predicting that the magnetic field would be “swept up” into the bubble’s surface as it expands are correct.
O’Neill subsequently carried out the complicated geometrical analysis needed to create the 3D magnetic field map during the summer CfA internship.
Goodman likens the research team to pioneering mapmakers who created some of the first maps of Earth.
“We’ve made some big assumptions to create this first 3D map of a magnetic field; it’s by no means a perfect picture,” she says. “As technology and our physical understanding improve, we will be able to improve the <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>accuracy of our map and hopefully confirm what we are seeing.”
The 3D view of magnetic whorls that emerged represent the magnetic field structure of our neighborhood superbubble, if the field was indeed swept-up into the bubble’s surface, and if most of the polarization is produced there.
The research team further compared the resulting map to features along the Local Bubble’s surface. Examples included the Per-Tau Shell, a giant spherical region of star formation, and the Orion molecular cloud complex, another prominent stellar nursery. Future studies will examine the associations between magnetic fields and these and other surface features.
“With this map, we can really start to probe the influences of magnetic fields on star formation in superbubbles,” says Goodman. “And for that matter, get a better grasp on how these fields influence numerous other cosmic phenomena.”
Because magnetic fields only affect the movement and orientation of charged particles in astrophysical environments, Goodman says there has been a tendency to set aside the fields’ influence when building simulations and theories where gravity — which acts on all matter — is the primary force at play. Further discouraging its inclusion, magnetism can be a fiendishly complex force to model.
This omission of magnetic fields’ influence, while understandable, often leaves out a key factor controlling motions of gas in the universe. These motions include gas flowing onto stars as they form, and flowing away from stars in powerful jets emanating from them as they gather matter into a planet-forming disk. Even if the effect of magnetic fields is minuscule from moment to moment in the low-density environments where stars form, given the millions-of-year timescales it takes to gather gas and turn it into stars, magnetic effects can plausibly add up to something substantial over time.
Goodman, O’Neill, and their colleagues look forward to finding out.
“I’ve had a great experience doing this research at CfA and assembling something new and exciting with this 3D magnetic map,” says O’Neill. “I hope this map is a starting point for expanding our understanding of the superbubbles throughout our galaxy.”
About the 3D Milky Way Project
This research is part of an ongoing collaboration amongst several open-source software projects working together to create a 3D map of the Milky Way galaxy. The software packages, including glue, OpenSpace, and AAS WorldWide Telescope, are interconnected via API-like interfaces, and they access a wide variety of open data sets, including those from Planck and Gaia. Learn more about the 3D Milky Way project, which includes a collaboration with staff at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, where some results will be showcased, at MilkyWay3D.org. The 3D interactive figures in the Authorea preprint sharing this work are made possible via additional free software, including plot.ly and PyVista.
About the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian is a collaboration between Harvard and the Smithsonian designed to ask—and ultimately answer—humanity’s greatest unresolved questions about the nature of the universe. The Center for Astrophysics is headquartered in Cambridge, MA, with research facilities across the U.S. and around the world.
An SUV-sized asteroid zoom by Earth in close shave flyby in this time-lapse video
Asteroid 2023 BU zipped past Earth Thursday night (Jan. 26) to the delight of amateur astronomers worldwide. For skywatchers without access to a telescope or those who had their view hampered by bad weather, luckily the Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project was there to observe the event and livestream the whole thing for free.
The Virtual Telescope is a robotic telescope operated by Italian amateur astronomer Gianluca Masi near Rome, Italy. As 2023 BU hurtled toward Earth, the telescope was able to track the rock through a gap in the clouds when it was about 13,670 miles (22,000 kilometers) from the closest point on Earth’s surface (about the altitude of the GPS navigation satellite constellation) and 22,990 miles (37,000 km) from the Virtual Telescope.
Masi, who shared an hour-long webcast of the observations on the Virtual Telescope website, wasn’t able to capture the closest approach as clouds rolled in, however. Nonetheless, the Virtual Telescope Project was able to get a good look at the car-sized rock, seen in time-lapse above.
The rock, discovered less than a week ago on Saturday (Jan. 21), passed above the southern tip of South America at 7:27 p.m. EST on Thursday Jan. 26 (0027 GMT on Jan. 27), at a distance of only 2,240 miles (3,600 km) at its closest point to Earth’s surface.
Only 11.5 to 28 feet wide (3.5 to 8.5 meters), 2023 BU posed no danger to the planet. If the trajectories of the two bodies had intersected, the asteroid would mostly have burned up in the atmosphere with only small fragments possibly falling to the ground as meteorites.
In the videos and images shared by Masi, the asteroid is seen as a small bright dot in the center of the frame, while the longer, brighter lines are the surrounding stars. In reality, of course, it was the asteroid that was moving with respect to Earth, traveling at a speed of 21,000 mph (33,800 km/h) with respect to Earth. As Masi’s computerized telescope tracked its positionthe rock appeared stationary in the images while rendering the stars as these moving streaks.
The gravitational kick that 2023 BU received during its encounter with Earth will alter the shape of its orbit around the sun. Previously, the space rock followed a rather circular orbit, completing one lap around the sun in 359 days. From now on, BU 2023 will travel through the inner solar system on a more elliptical path, venturing half way toward Mars at the farthest point of its orbit. This alteration will add 66 days to BU 2023’s orbital period.
The asteroid was discovered by famed Crimea-based astronomer and astrophotographer Gennadiy Borisov, the same man who in 2018 found the first interstellar comet, which now bears his name, Borisov.
Green comet zooming our way, last visited 50,000 years ago
A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years.
The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years.
So do look up, contrary to the title of the killer-comet movie “Don’t Look Up.”
Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By Feb. 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark.
Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.
While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas.
Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 kilometers). Its nucleus is thought to be about a mile (1.6 kilometers) across, with its tails extending millions of miles (kilometers).
The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid to late 1990s.
But “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage … which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.
Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations putting the comet’s last swing through the solar system‘s planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
When it returns, though, is tougher to judge.
Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun.
“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said.
The comet—a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago—came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star.
While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.
Don’t fret if you miss it.
“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.”
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University of Guelph students are in the race to grow food in space
Growing food in space is a complex challenge, but students at the University of Guelph have a pretty good idea of how to go about it.
The team, Canada GOOSE — which stands for Growth Options for Outer Space Environments — is among five teams across Canada, including the University of Waterloo, competing in the multi-year competition from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) known as the Deep Space Food Challenge.
The team is currently on the second phase of the competition and hosted representatives from CSA on Thursday to showcase their idea.
The teams have been instructed to develop new technologies that would be able to produce food in space, but that could also be used for production here on Earth.
The Canada GOOSE team uses a hydroponic-like, high-density system to produce several kinds of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms.
“We have a multi-tier system growing a variety of plants, but the whole environment is being controlled so, air circulation, temperature, CO2 level, also light levels with the LEDs. So basically giving the best conditions for the plants to grow,” explained Serge Levesque, a second-year PhD student.
Rosemary Brockett, a second year masters student, explained the crops were developed and grown to produce as little waste as possible.
“We can’t have any kind of waste in space or in remote areas so we’re growing them all using fabric wicks,” she said.
“The fabric pulls up the water to the plants and then we have 3D-printed holders that support the plants and the fabric.”
Brockett said they can grow root vegetables like turnips and carrots; dwarf tomatoes and peppers; leafy greens like cabbage, lettuce and bok choy; smaller trays have herbs, radish microgreens and sprouts.
Levesque said they also grow mushrooms because they play a key role in the unit’s ecosystem.
“Plants photosynthesize and release oxygen and mushrooms need oxygen to release CO2, so it allows us to use CO2 more efficiently,” he said, adding the inedible parts of other vegetables can be used to help grow the mushrooms; a way to re-use and eliminate waste.
Tech can help feed, educate Earthlings
The Canadian grand prize won’t be announced until Spring 2024, but no matter the results, the students see applications for their technology closer to home.
First-year PhD student Ajwal Dsouza says it could be a useful education tool for youth, for example.
“Imagine putting this system up in a school or a university and educate people about the technological advancements happening but also [encourage] younger generations to study this,” and can also imagine applications in addressing food insecurity in other more remote parts of the world, like Canada’s northern communities.
“A system like this can be economically feasible. You can use it in remote areas where there is food insecurity using limited resources,” he said.
“We can grow food in places where the weather is not good, like Canada’s north or in a desert, where there’s limited resources. This can help people grow food in tough conditions,” said Dsouza.
The Canada GOOSE team will find out if they enter the third stage of the competition in March.
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