Giving Birth to the Serpent’s Stars

Serpens Nebula in infrared. Some of the youngest stars in the Milky Way are seen in yellow and red, in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS

Serpens Nebula in infrared. Some of the youngest stars in the Milky Way are seen in yellow and red, in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS

Revealed in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) is the star-forming region called the Serpens Cloud Core. The cluster shown contains stars that are among the youngest found in our galaxy! Using infrared technology the telescopes captured details from within the stellar breeding ground that were previously unavailable.

By assigning visible colors to the infrared light within the structure, astronomers are able to peer through the fog of gas and dust to observe emerging stars taking shape. “They appear as red, orange and yellow points clustered near the center of the image. Other red features include jets of material ejected from these young stars” (NASA). The nebula’s central cloud, which is chock-full of star birthing ingredients, is colored blue.

Located 750 light-years away in the Serpens (Serpent’s) constellation, this region of space is lacking the existence of super luminous stars. “The core contains a dense, very young, low mass stellar cluster with more than 300 objects in all evolutionary phases, from collapsing gaseous condensations to pre-main sequence stars” (The Serpens Molecular Cloud). Stars, located in the foreground and background of the Serpent, provide most of the pinpricks of light seen in the picture. The formation itself consists of low to moderately sized stars, which appear dimmer in the night sky.

It took an over 16 hours of observation and a compilation of 82 individual photographs to construct the image above. Although the use of light filters makes it possible to examine portions of space that would normally be invisible to us, there is still a region within the Serpens Cloud Core, located to the left, which is too thick for even the infrared filter to penetrate.

By continuing to study such stellar nurseries in detail, scientists can begin to unravel the mystery of how stars with varying masses form within nebulae. It also allows us to understand in, further detail, how chemical composition contributes to the fusion process of star’s lifetime. The evolutionary actions that occur with nebulae contain a wealth of information that can then be applied to future examinations of the cosmos.


Written for From Quarks to Quasars, June 12, 2014. For more science news articles check them out!

Extremophiles: Life on Mars and What Causes Magenta Lakes

In terms of microbes, there’re none more remarkable than the extremophiles. These organisms may be the best contestants for finding life on Mars, and they are responsible for the most alluring pink lakes found here on Earth. Whether they inhabit environments with life-threatening temperatures or exist in acidic, salty waters, various kinds of these resourceful critters have existed for eons on our planet (and maybe on other worlds).

There are many types of extremophiles on Earth. Take, for example, halophiles. These are the salt lovers of extreme microbes. They thrive in locations that are nearly completely saturated with salt; in fact, they can live anywhere that the concentration is 5x more than that of the ocean. Halophiles are a type of archaea. The branch of life known as Archaea includes only those varieties of microbes that can exist in the most volatile environments.

Halophiles also go by the name Halobacterium; yet, genetically speaking, they are separate from bacteria. This can be slightly confusing, given their name; however, like bacteria, halophiles are single-celled and among the oldest living organisms on Earth. In fact, the word “archaea” is Greek, meaning “ancient.”


Lake Hillier via Ralph Roberts

Lake Hillier is one of the most uniquely colored lakes on Earth. It is located on Middle Island in Western Australia. Its bright pink hue isn’t due to clever photographic angling; in fact, if you were to remove a sample of the liquid from the lake, it would remain the same color. The water is believed to be blushing because it is chock full of Halobacterium. The Pepto-Bismol color is caused by the carotenoids producing pigments within the cellular membrane.

Scientists believe that the coloring produced by these microbes is beneficial for multiple reasons. Not only does it help protect against the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, it may also be useful in converting light into chemical energy, similar to the light-harvesting reactions of chlorophyll in green plants.

It is thought to be completely safe to swim in. Unfortunately, Lake Hillier is extremely remote and usually only seen by tourists as they fly past it. But if you still can’t get the dream of swimming in bubblegum lakes out of your head, you may have better luck at one of these other pink lakes.


n images taken of Newton Crater by the Mars Reconnisence Orbiter in 2011 show what may be salt water flowing on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

n images taken of Newton Crater by the Mars Reconnisence Orbiter in 2011 show what may be salt water flowing on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

In 2011, NASA released images of what may be the best evidence of salt water flowing on Mars. For this reason, the longevity of halophilic strains is of considerable interest to astronomers seeking to find life in outer-space. Since microorganisms were the first creatures to exist on Earth, they seem a good place to start in the search for life outside the boundaries of our planet.

Even if these mysterious streaks on Mars turn out not to be caused by liquid salt flows, the possibility still exists that halophiles may be found on the red planet. Chemical analysis of Mars’ SNC meteorites (shergottite, nakhlite, and chassigny) indicates the presence of halite rock salt. Halophiles could potentially be found somewhere on Mars where salt formations occur.

In 2009, Jong Soo Park of Dalhousie University examined ancient rock salt from varying locations and found that the oldest known DNA on Earth belongs to a form of halophilic bacterium that existed 419 million years ago. We know that these organisms can withstand extreme conditions, and they can do so for unimaginable lengths of time; but will they prove to be fruitful in finding life on other planets? Only further observations and analysis will tell.



Additional References:

Extremophiles: Archaea and Bacteria“. Map of Life. May 26, 2014

Extremely halophilic archaea and the issue of long-term microbial survival”.

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health


Secluded Lake Hillier is a Bubble Gum Pink” Lake Scientist. January 23, 2014

This article originally appeared at From Quarks to Quasars.

NASA’s New Technology Captures First High Resolution Images of Coronal Mass Ejection

NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) has taken its first images of a huge coronal mass ejection (CME). The spacecraft was launched with the hopes of studying the Sun in exquisite detail. The new technology, which was launched a year ago in June 2013, has the ability to gaze deeper into the atmosphere of the Sun, then ever before.

In images captured on May 9th 2014, scientists were able view a CME that blasted out of a Sun at 1.5 million miles per hour. NASA has compiled a video of the amazing footage. “The field of view [seen in this video] is about five Earths wide and about seven-and-a-half Earths tall” (NASA).

The original version of the video can be found here and is courtesy of NASA.

Though they are similar, coronal mass ejections occur in different atmospheric altitudes than solar flares. They are the result of magnetic fields being violently twisted within the Sun’s outermost atmosphere, the corona. During such ejections an immense amount of plasma, upwards of a billion tons, can be thrown out into the solar system.

It is interesting to note that it may take one to four days before the CME reaches us, and extremely energized particles being pushed by the shock front can reach Earth within an hour. As Earth’s magnetic field attempts to shield us from the harmful radiation, the opportunity to view aurorae arises.

The exact mechanisms of CMEs are not yet known, and since these surges are responsible for a great deal of our solar system’s weather, it is an important piece of information to pin down.

The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph is a Small Explorer Mission launched by NASA to improve our knowledge of solar material. It has the ability to measure in high-resolution, the temperature, velocity, and energy of substances moving through the inner layers of the Sun’s atmosphere.

A number of NASA affiliates work with the Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory on IRIS technology. They are committed to continually pushing the boundary of what we know about the Sun and its ferocious outbursts.


Additional sources:

Windows To The UniverseCoronal Mass Ejections.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

NASAIRIS Mission Overview

This article was originally published for From Quarks to Quasars. I highly recommend you check out their website if you not yet familiar with them!


Segue 1: Time Capsule of an Ancient Universe

There’s something fascinating about Segue 1, a galaxy first noticed in 2006 by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. From the beginning, this patch of sky was puzzling to astronomers because despite it being only 75,000 light years away, the stars were extremely dim. A year later in 2007, Dr. Marla Geha of Yale University looked at this section of space in more detail. Her team concluded that Segue 1 is among the oldest galaxies in the universe! The stars contained within are billions upon billions of years old, harking back the first moments in history when galaxies first emerged.

Segue 1, which is situated in the constellation Leo, is exclusive for a couple reasons. First off, it only contains around a thousand stars, so it’s pretty puny dwarf galaxy. In comparison, our Milky Way has far more stars, around 400 billion. Segue 1, on the other hand, is mostly comprised of dark matter. Its overall mass is thousands of times greater than what can be accounted for based on stars alone! It isn’t just the lack of stars that makes Segue 1 so alluring though, or its abundance of dark matter; what really sets it apart from other dwarf galaxies is its chemical composition.

Both images of Segue 1show that the galaxy is so barren, it’s hard to classify it as one (Image Credit: MIT)

Both images of Segue 1show that the galaxy is so barren, it’s hard to classify it as one (Image Credit: MIT)


In an article published in the Astrophysical Journal titled, “Segue 1: An Unevolved Fossil Galaxy From the Early Universe”(arXiv version), a team of astronomers – led by Anna Frebel, from the Department of Physics at MIT – detail the unique attributes of this ancient collection of stars. With the help of the Magellan Telescope in Chile and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the team members were able to study a few of the brightest red giants in the galaxy.

By reading the spectrum of light emitted from the red giants, it was concluded that there is an extreme lack of metallic elements present within the galaxy. This finding was perplexing because of the galaxy’s age. Surely it should have had enough time to produce an abundance of heavy elements, however, very few were found.

Nebulae are the breeding grounds of stellar evolution. Clouds of gas and dust coalesce with the help of gravity to eventually start the fusion process of hydrogen into helium. After a billion or so years of fusion, the star generally explodes as a supernova; spewing its material out into the universe to start the process over again. However, due to the lack of heavy elements, Frebel and her team have concluded that the stars within this galaxy never matured.


Due to the properties of fusion, heavy elements are usually formed in stars that are older and more massive. Stellar furnaces convert simple elements into heavier ones by fusing atomic nuclei; eventually it maxes out when the core begins to fuse into iron. The overall chemical fingerprint of Segue 1 shows it contains about 1/2,500th of the iron our Sun does, only a few dozen such stars have ever been discovered that fit this criteria to a point.

Dwarf galaxies are common and provide value because they don’t experience the same extensive evolution as their larger counterparts do. In other words, they don’t go through multiple generations of supernovae/nebulae cycles. Due to this, they are considered relics of earlier times and hold more clues to the state of the universe during those points than modern renderings ever could. These small galaxies may even influence the formation of larger ones.

For Segue 1 specifically, it is believed that the elements with a weight higher than helium are the result of a limited amount of supernova explosions. Until we find more galaxies like it. we can only speculate as to why its development stalled. What we do know is that Segue 1 was born near the beginning of time and only progressed for a few generations; its like looking into a time capsule of the early universe!


This article was written by me, and originally published by From Quarks to Quasars, May 17, 2004.