Pathways to the Stars -- II

Jeff McClintock
Jeff McClintock

(A continuing series on how astrophysicists’ varied career paths. Pathways to the Stars -- I)

Jeff's Journey

Jeff McClintock is recognized around the world as one the pre-eminent experts on black holes. In 2009, he shared the American Astronomical Society’s prestigious Bruno Rossi prize, along with Ron Remillard and Charles Bailyn for his work on the measurement of the masses of black holes.

McClintock has also served on the board of directors for the Giant Magellan Telescope, a telescope under construction that when it is commissioned in 2022, will be the largest optical telescope in existence. As it turns out, Jeff has been interested in large telescopes for a long time, going back to his childhood in Port Orchard, Washington.

“I saw an ad in Popular Mechanics,” he remembered. “It said, ‘You can build a 100-power telescope for $1!’”

McClintock mailed in his dollar, and received two lenses in the mail.

“That was it. Two lenses. I inserted the lenses at the ends of a discarded 8-foot cardboard tube which had been used to store linoleum."

He didn’t have a mount for his telescope, so he put it on several chairs in the living room, and looked through it, at some lights across Port Orchard strait near Seattle.

“I could see blue lights across the bay, and read a sign. It was upside down! I took it up to the attic and looked at the moon. I was blown away!”

Inspired by the view of the craters on the moon, McClintock built a second telescope, a 6” reflector.

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W51: Chandra Peers into a Nurturing Cloud



In the context of space, the term 'cloud' can mean something rather different from the fluffy white collections of water in the sky or a way to store data or process information. Giant molecular clouds are vast cosmic objects, composed primarily of hydrogen molecules and helium atoms, where new stars and planets are born. These clouds can contain more mass than a million suns, and stretch across hundreds of light years.

The giant molecular cloud known as W51 is one of the closest to Earth at a distance of about 17,000 light years. Because of its relative proximity, W51 provides astronomers with an excellent opportunity to study how stars are forming in our Milky Way galaxy.

A new composite image of W51 shows the high-energy output from this stellar nursery, where X-rays from Chandra are colored blue. In about 20 hours of Chandra exposure time, over 600 young stars were detected as point-like X-ray sources, and diffuse X-ray emission from interstellar gas with a temperature of a million degrees or more was also observed. Infrared light observed with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope appears orange and yellow-green and shows cool gas and stars surrounded by disks of cool material.

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Arp 299: Galactic Goulash


Arp 299

What would happen if you took two galaxies and mixed them together over millions of years? A new image including data from NASA's X-ray Observatory reveals the cosmic culinary outcome.

Arp 299 is a system located about 140 million light years from Earth. It contains two galaxies that are merging, creating a partially blended mix of stars from each galaxy in the process.

However, this stellar mix is not the only ingredient. New data from Chandra reveals 25 bright X-ray sources sprinkled throughout the Arp 299 concoction. Fourteen of these sources are such strong emitters of X-rays that astronomers categorize them as "ultra-luminous X-ray sources," or ULXs.

These ULXs are found embedded in regions where stars are currently forming at a rapid rate. Most likely, the ULXs are binary systems where a neutron star or black hole is pulling matter away from a companion star that is much more massive than the Sun. These double star systems are called high-mass X-ray binaries.

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Watching a Volatile Stellar Relationship


R Aquarii
In biology, "symbiosis" refers to two organisms that live close to and interact with one another. Astronomers have long studied a class of stars – called symbiotic stars – that co-exist in a similar way. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, astronomers are gaining a better understanding of how volatile this close stellar relationship can be.

R Aquarii (R Aqr, for short) is one of the best known of the symbiotic stars. Located at a distance of about 710 light years from Earth, its changes in brightness were first noticed with the naked eye almost a thousand years ago. Since then, astronomers have studied this object and determined that R Aqr is not one star, but two: a small, dense white dwarf and a cool red, giant star.

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The Intermittent Growth of the First Supermassive Black Holes

Edwige Pezzulli
Dr. Edwige Pezzulli

It is a pleasure to welcome Edwige Pezzulli as a guest blogger. Edwige led the black hole study that is the subject of our latest press release. She is a Ph.D. student at the University la Sapienza in Rome (Italy), under the supervision of Raffaella Schneider. During her Ph.D., she spent several months at the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris (IAP) in France. She has mainly worked on the study of the origin and properties of the first black holes in the Universe.

“As an adult, I’d like to be sent into a black hole!” This is my first memory from childhood on the topic of space.

Since then, I have studied and discovered a lot more about black holes, and yet they still fascinate me in the same way. Considered, for many, the most exotic objects ever discovered, supermassive black holes are the tip of the iceberg of the “dark” side of the Universe. Supermassive black holes are behemoths located in the centers of galaxies and can be among the most luminous sources ever known, from the radiation of surrounding material.

In particular, observations of the Universe’s earliest supermassive black holes, with masses about a billion times that of the Sun, open the door to many questions, especially this one: how did these monsters form in such a short time?

Astronomers find black holes with similar masses in the present-day universe, but these black holes have grown to their enormous size over a much longer period of time – about 13.8 billion years – compared to those that formed about a billion years after the Big Bang. In order to tackle the question of how supermassive black holes formed in the very early Universe, it is imperative to make numerous observations of the light they generate while pulling in, ie accreting, matter as they grow.

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Observatories Combine to Crack Open the Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula

Astronomers have produced a highly detailed image of the Crab Nebula, by combining data from telescopes spanning nearly the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves seen by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to the powerful X-ray glow as seen by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory. And, in between, the Hubble Space Telescope's crisp visible-light view and the infrared perspective of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The Crab Nebula, the result of a bright supernova explosion seen by Chinese and other astronomers in the year 1054, is 6,500 light-years from Earth. At its center is a super-dense neutron star, rotating once every 33 milliseconds, shooting out rotating lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light — a pulsar. The nebula's intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.

This image combines data from five different telescopes: The VLA (radio) in red; Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared) in yellow; Hubble Space Telescope (visible) in green; XMM-Newton (ultraviolet) in blue; and Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-ray) in purple.

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Astronomers Pursue Renegade Supermassive Black Hole

CXO J101527.2+625911

Supermassive holes are generally stationary objects, sitting at the centers of most galaxies. However, using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, astronomers recently hunted down what could be a supermassive black hole that may be on the move.

This possible renegade black hole, which contains about 160 million times the mass of our Sun, is located in an elliptical galaxy about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. Astronomers are interested in these moving supermassive black holes because they may reveal more about the properties of these enigmatic objects.

This black hole may have "recoiled," in the terminology used by scientists, when two smaller supermassive black holes collided and merged to form an even larger one. At the same time, this collision would have generated gravitational waves that emitted more strongly in one direction than others. This newly formed black hole could have received a kick in the opposite direction of those stronger gravitational waves. This kick would have pushed the black hole out of the galaxy's center, as depicted in the artist's illustration.

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Is Dark Matter "Fuzzy"?

Four of the 13 galaxies clusters used in the study. The clusters are, starting at the top left
and going clockwise, Abell 262, Abell 383, Abell 1413, and Abell 2390.

Astronomers have used data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the properties of dark matter, the mysterious, invisible substance that makes up a majority of matter in the universe. The study, which involves 13 galaxy clusters, explores the possibility that dark matter may be more "fuzzy" than "cold," perhaps even adding to the complexity surrounding this cosmic conundrum.

For several decades, astronomers have known about dark matter. Although it cannot be observed directly, dark matter does interact via gravity with normal, radiating matter (that is, anything made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons bundled into atoms). Capitalizing on this interaction, astronomers have studied the effects of dark matter using a variety of techniques, including observations of the motion of stars in galaxies, the motion of galaxies in galaxy clusters, and the distribution of X-ray emitting hot gas in galaxy clusters. Dark matter has also left an imprint on the radiation left over from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.

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The Arrhythmic Beating of a Black Hole Heart

NGC 4696

At the center of the Centaurus galaxy cluster, there is a large elliptical galaxy called NGC 4696. Deeper still, there is a supermassive black hole buried within the core of this galaxy.

New data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes has revealed details about this giant black hole, located some 145 million light years from Earth. Although the black hole itself is undetected, astronomers are learning about the impact it has on the galaxy it inhabits and the larger cluster around it.

In some ways, this black hole resembles a beating heart that pumps blood outward into the body via the arteries. Likewise, a black hole can inject material and energy into its host galaxy and beyond.

By examining the details of the X-ray data from Chandra, scientists have found evidence for repeated bursts of energetic particles in jets generated by the supermassive black hole at the center of NGC 4696. These bursts create vast cavities in the hot gas that fills the space between the galaxies in the cluster. The bursts also create shock waves, akin to sonic booms produced by high-speed airplanes, which travel tens of thousands of light years across the cluster.

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Pathways to the Stars -- I

Blog placeholder graphic
Illustration: NASA/CXC/K.DiVona

(A continuing series on how astrophysicists’ varied career paths. Pathways to the Stars -- II)

Our blogger today is Dr. Wallace Tucker, who has worked on the Chandra project since its inception and has been involved with high-energy astrophysics for several decades. In one of his many roles, Wallace has served as the Chandra Science Spokesperson, helping non-experts understand and enjoy the amazing discoveries Chandra makes. He is the author of several popular books including one published by Smithsonian Books.

How did you get to be an astrophysicist working with the Chandra X-ray Observatory?

This is a question that almost all of us who work with Chandra get asked at one point or another. Apart from cocktail party conversation — not that astrophysicists go to that many cocktail parties, in my experience — the answer is relevant in terms of ongoing efforts to increase the number of young people seeking careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And, on the principle that "none of us is as smart as all of us," it is important for maximizing the scientific return of Chandra to get as many people involved as possible. Think about it: some of the bright young minds working on Chandra data today were in elementary school when Chandra was launched!

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