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In the early days of telescopic astronomy, you could only focus on one small region of the sky at a time. Careful observations had to be done by hand, and so much of the breakthrough work centered around a particular object in the sky. A nebula or galaxy, quasar or pulsar. But over the years we’ve been able to build telescopes capable of capturing a wide patch of sky all at once, and with automation, we can now map the entire sky. Early sky surveys took years to complete, but many modern sky surveys can look for changes on the order of weeks or days. This ability to watch for changes across the sky is changing the way we do astronomy, and it is beginning to yield some interesting results. As a case in point, an infrared sky survey is revealing hidden stars we hadn’t noticed before.

In a series of papers published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the authors have analyzed data from a decade-long survey called the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope (VISTA). VISTA allows astronomers to keep an eye on hundreds of millions of stars at infrared wavelengths. In these works, the team combed through the observations to focus on about 200 stars that showed the most dramatic shifts in brightness. These transient changes are important because they can reveal the subtle dynamics of stars.

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Artist’s impression of an eruption in the disc of matter around a newborn star. Credit: Philip Lucas/University of Hertfordshire

One goal of the studies was to look for very young stars. Stars in the earliest moments of transition toward becoming true fusion-powered stars. And within their selected stars they found 32 erupting protostars. All of them experienced a rapid increase of at least a factor of 40, and some brightened as much as a factor of 300. The outbursts lasted for months or years, and they seem to occur within the disk of matter surrounding the young stars. Based on the dynamics, these bursts can accelerate the growth of young stars, but they could also make it more difficult for planets to form. They refer to these turbulent protostars as squalling newborns.

The team also found a surprise. Deep within the center of our galaxy, they found 21 red giant stars with dramatic brightness changes. They turned out to be a new type of red giant known as old smokers. The center of our galaxy is rich with heavy elements, so these red giants have a high metalicity. As they age, they can cast off clouds of dust that can obscure the star for a time. So the star temporarily fades from view and then re-brightens as the clouds disperse. This discovery could change our understanding of how heavy elements are released into the galaxy to be used by new stars.

Reference: Lucas, P W, et al. “The most variable VVV sources: eruptive protostars, dipping giants in the nuclear disc and others.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 582.2 (2024): 1789–1822.

Reference: Guo, Zhen, et al. “Spectroscopic confirmation of high-amplitude eruptive YSOs and dipping giants from the VVV survey.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 582.2 (2024): 1769–1788.

Reference: Peña, Carlos Conteras, et al. “On the incidence of episodic accretion in Class I YSOs from VVV.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 582.2 (2024): 1823–1840.

Reference: Guo, Zhen, et al. “Multiwavelength detection of an ongoing FUOr-type outburst on a low-mass YSO.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 582.2 (2024): L115–L122.

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Astronomers See a Black Hole Wake Up from its Ancient Slumber

Four years ago, the supermassive black hole hidden in the heart of galaxy SDSS1335+0728 roared awake and announced its presence with a blast of radiation. It marks the first time astronomers witnessed a sudden activation of a supermassive black hole in real time.

“Imagine you’ve been observing a distant galaxy for years, and it always seemed calm and inactive,” said Paula Sánchez Sáez, an astronomer at ESO in Germany and lead author of the study of this object. “Suddenly, its [core] starts showing dramatic changes in brightness, unlike any typical events we’ve seen before.”

This is what happened to SDSS1335+0728, which is now officially classified as having an active galactic nucleus (AGN). It experienced what’s called a “nuclear transient.” Essentially, that means the galaxy now has a very bright compact region. However, it wasn’t always that bright and astronomers want to understand what caused it to wake up.

This artist’s impression shows two stages in the formation of a disc of gas and dust around the massive black hole at the center of the galaxy SDSS1335+0728. The core of this galaxy lit up in 2019 and keeps brightening today — the first time astronomers observed a massive black hole become active as it happened. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Looking for Transients in all the Right Places

The unusual brightness variations were detected by the Zwicky Transient Facility in California, which gives constant, real-time alerts about such things as transient flaring and brightening in the hearts of galaxies like SDSS1335+0728. In addition, several other facilities observed the variations, too, and brightness changes were found in archival data from several other observatories.

The sudden brightenings could be due to many things, including the cannibalization of stars and clouds of gas that stray too near supermassive black holes. How often they brighten and how a quiescent galaxy nucleus changes to an active one are topics that astronomers are using such surveys and observations to understand. They’re looking not just at distant galaxies, but activity within the neighborhood of our own galaxy’s supermassive black hole, too.

Galaxy and Its Supermassive Black Hole

Most galaxies have stupendously massive black holes at their hearts. They typically sequester away at least a hundred thousand times the mass of the Sun (sometimes more). It’s all trapped by gravity and nothing ever escapes, not even light. “These giant monsters usually are sleeping and not directly visible,” said study co-author Claudio Ricci, from Chile’s Diego Portales University. “In the case of SDSS1335+0728, we were able to observe the awakening of the massive black hole, [which] suddenly started to feast on gas available in its surroundings, becoming very bright.”

A black hole itself doesn’t emit any light at all. Instead, it sucks everything in, including light. However, the region around the black hole—called the accretion disk—is a pretty active place. It’s where material trapped by the intense gravitational pull of the black hole swirls around like water going down a drain. All that stuff—mostly gas, some dust—is threaded through with magnetic fields. Friction between accretions of the material heats it up. And, that act of heating gives off radiation. If there’s enough of it, we see light being given off. Intense active regions emit x-rays, which indicate the level of activity.

Gravity’s Slice-and-dice Activity

There’s also something called tidal disruption, which happens when something like a star or a cloud of gas gets trapped in the gravitational field. These things take time—on the order of years to occur. When they happen, the gravitational pull of the black hole eventually rips the star or cloud apart. That also gives off radiation. In fact, a very slow-motion tidal disruption event may be occurring at the heart of SDSS1335+0728. If so, it could be one of the longest and dimmest ones ever seen.

Regardless of what’s causing the brightening, the ultimate fate of some of the material is to end up inside the black hole. The rest of it gets superheated in the accretion disk and signals its fate through increased radiation.

Black Hole Growth and a Wake-up Call

The supermassive black holes in the hearts of galaxies grow from smaller ones to larger ones through mergers. We don’t see those growth patterns in real time, since they occur over millions of years. The merger scenario says that when galaxies come together, their central black holes (if they have them) do, too.

Simulation of merging supermassive black holes. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott NobleDid you miss our previous article…
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Photo Gallery: 40 Gorgeous Backcountry Lakes

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 44

By Michael Lanza

Water makes up about 60 percent of our bodies—and, I suspect, 100 percent of our hearts. We crave it not only physically, for survival, but emotionally, for spiritual rejuvenation. We love playing in it for hours as children and we paddle and swim in it as adults. We’re drawn by the calming effects of sitting beside a stream or lake in a beautiful natural setting, an experience that possesses a certain je ne sais quoi—a quality difficult to describe, but that we can all feel.

And nothing beats taking a swim in a gorgeous backcountry lake.

I’ve come across quite a few wonderful backcountry lakes over more than three decades of exploring wilderness—including about 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. I’ve just updated and expanded this list of my favorites—adding five new lakes from trips I took last year in two places that are crazy with gorgeous lakes, Glacier National Park and the Wind River Range—to give you some eye candy as well as ideas for future adventures, and perhaps compare against your list of favorite backcountry lakes.

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Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Click on the links to my stories in these brief writeups to learn more about each of these trips. Much of this story is free for anyone to read, but reading the entire story requires a paid subscription, which is also needed to read the individual stories about numerous trips at The Big Outside, and those include my tips on planning these trips. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan a trip to any of these lakes.

If you know some gorgeous lakes that are not on my list, please suggest them in the comments section below this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Here’s to your next peaceful moment beside a gorgeous lake deep in the mountains somewhere.

Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Early morning at Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan your Glacier trip.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park.” class=”wp-image-38774″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2.jpg 1080w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/06231037/Gla6-018-Elizabeth-Lake-in-Glacier-National-Park.-2.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park.

Elizabeth Lake, Glacier
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It’s Not Just Rocks, Scientists Want Samples Mars’s Atmosphere

Mars Percy parkingspot PIA26202

Mars holds a very special place in our hearts. Chiefly because of all the other planets in the Solar System Mars is probably the place we are going to find some tantalising clues or maybe even evidence of prehistoric life. NASA Perseverance Rover has been trundling around the Jezero Crater looking for evidence that it was once hospitable to life. To that end it has not only been collecting rock samples but air samples too and scientists can’t wait to get their hands on them. 

The Mars Perseverance Rover is part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. It launched on 30 July 2020 and landed in the Jezero Crater successfully on 18 February 2021. The site was picked because it’s a dried up river bed and if there is any evidence of ancient primitive life on Mars, it is a likely location. Perseverance is equipped with a host of instruments including a drone named Ingenuity to survey the planet. 

Mars Perseverence rover sent back this image of its parking spot during Mars Solar Conjunction. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars Perseverence rover sent back this image of its parking spot during Mars Solar Conjunction. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

One exciting element of the mission is the collection of rock samples as part of the Mars Sample Return Campaign. Twenty four core samples have been collected to date and deposited on the surface ready for collection by a future mission. It’s not just rock samples that have been collected though. Known as ‘headspace’ there is air in the space around the rock samples and it is this that has got scientists excited.

Not only do the rocks hold secrets about Mars but the atmosphere does too. It’s an atmosphere rich in Carbon Dioxide but is expected to have trace amounts of other gasses  too. Information about the current climate can be gained from the trapped gasses but it’s also possible to learn about the evolution of the atmosphere through analysis of the rocks. There is one particularly important tube that has been filled entirely with gas from the atmosphere. 

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Image of the Martian atmosphere and surface obtained by the Viking 1 orbiter in June 1976. (Credit: NASA/Viking 1)

With the sample sat on the surface of Mars potentially for many years, the gas trapped will interact with the rock in the sample tube. It will only be when the tubes are opened up when they arrive back here on the Earth that the interaction will cease. It’s hoped to understand more about the levels of water vapour near the Martian surface.

It isn’t just the water vapour that is of interest but the levels of trace gas too are of interest. Through analysing the gas samples we can tell if there are gasses like neon, argon and xenon which are non reactive gasses. Because these gasses do not react then there presence in the tube samples may suggest that Mars stated with an atmosphere. We know that it had a much thicker atmosphere in the past but we don’t know whether it has always been there or whether it developed later.

There are many benefits that will come from analysing the samples even, the prevalence of dust that will help future human exploration. As Justin Simon from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston said “The gas samples have a lot to offer Mars scientists, even those who don’t study Mars would be interested because it will shed light on how the planet forms and evolves.”

Source : Why Scientists Are Intrigued by Air in NASA’s Mars Sample Tubes

The post It’s Not Just Rocks, Scientists Want Samples Mars’s Atmosphere appeared first on Universe Today.

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