Traces of One of Universe’s First Stars Detected

n ancient star in the halo surrounding the Milky Way galaxy appears to contain traces of material released by the death of one of the universe’s first stars, a new study reports.

The chemical signature of the ancient star suggests that it incorporated material blasted into space by a supernova explosion that marked the death of a huge star in the early universe — one that may have been 200 times more massive than the sun.

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Messier 17: Omega Nebula

Messier 17, the Omega Nebula or Swan Nebula, is a star forming region located about 5,500 light years away towards the constellation Sagittarius. It is one of the most active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, and its fascinating shapes are created by the young, hot stars it contains.

These stars carve away at surrounding dust and gas, stripping away some material and shaping the rest. The ultraviolet radiation also ionizes hydrogen gas. In this process, radiation energizes electrons, stripping them from their nuclei. The electrons recombine into atoms, and release a photon of light, creating the characteristic red glow.

Image from National Geographic, information from HubbleSite.

GALEX ultraviolet image of the interacting galaxies M81 and M82

A GALEX ultraviolet image of the interacting galaxies M81 and M82, which lie 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The gravity from each galaxy dramatically affected the other during their last close encounter, 200 million years ago. Gas density waves rippling around M81 make it a grand design spiral. M82 is undergoing a starburst at its core, creating glowing fingers of hydrogen.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. de Mello (Catholic University of America/GSFC) & NASA/GALEX

Supernova seen in two lights

The destructive results of a mighty supernova explosion reveal themselves in a delicate blend of infrared and X-ray light, as seen in this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton.

The bubbly cloud is an irregular shock wave, generated by a supernova that would have been witnessed on Earth 3,700 years ago. The remnant itself, called Puppis A, is around 7,000 light-years away, and the shock wave is about 10 light-years across.

The pastel hues in this image reveal that the infrared and X-ray structures trace each other closely. Warm dust particles are responsible for most of the infrared light wavelengths, assigned red and green colors in this view. Material heated by the supernova’s shock wave emits X-rays, which are colored blue. Regions where the infrared and X-ray emissions blend together take on brighter, more pastel tones.

The shock wave appears to light up as it slams into surrounding clouds of dust and gas that fill the interstellar space in this region.

From the infrared glow, astronomers have found a total quantity of dust in the region equal to about a quarter of the mass of our sun. Data collected from Spitzer’s infrared spectrograph reveal how the shock wave is breaking apart the fragile dust grains that fill the surrounding space.

Supernova explosions forge the heavy elements that can provide the raw material from which future generations of stars and planets will form. Studying how supernova remnants expand into the galaxy and interact with other material provides critical clues into our own origins.

Image credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/IAFE

When you think about comets (you know, as often as you tend to do in your daily life…) you picture these cold, dusty, gaseous clumps of interplanetary rock which orbit through our solar system 18+ miles per second. Right?

The main image is of Comet Lovejoy, taken by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank while aboard the International Space Station as Commander in 2011. Other still images he captured can be viewed here.

Comets fall toward the sun. Most survive their trip, but the class that has achieved the most press are referred to as sungrazer comets (given the name due to their close approach to the sun). The sungrazers which happen to survive the harsh solar radiation and gravitational stress are slung back out unto the solar system, placed upon a new orbital path, only to return again on their next solar rendezvous (at perihelion) whence we are reminded to turn our eyes sky(universe)ward to observe them on their journey. Learn more from NASA Goddard on why we see so many sungrazing (Kreutz) comets.


Comet Hale-Bopp (credit: Jerry Lodriguss)

However, comets still remain quite a mystery to us. With the attention currently on our robotic emissaries Rosetta and Philae - the spacecraft/lander duo currently orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/C-G) - there’s still a grand amount of knowledge to be gained on these fragments of interplanetary material.



learn more about comet 67P(C-G)… (image credit: ESA)

Some of these sungrazers, for instance - whether they survive or not - offer insight into the comet and the sun itself:

Because the comet goes through a phase transition called sublimation - where the solid, frozen surface is boiled off in transition to a gas - this activity reveals the sun’s magnetic field lines as they effect the cometary “tail” of gasses being expelled.


the anatomy of a comet (credit: wiseGEEK)

This, of course, is why we are even able to observe a passing comet without the aid of binoculars or telescopes sometimes…due to their bright tails, which are the result of sublimation. With the aid of stellar space observatories like NASA’s SOHO/TRACE, SDO, STEREO, IBEX, and IRIS spacecraft, our understanding of the sun is improving; and subsequently, the sun’s influence on comets. Learn more about NASA’s Heliophysics Program.


More on NASA’s Heliophysics program (credit: NASA)

With such exquisite and meticulous spacecraft observing this sun/comet interaction, these once enigmatic bodies of planetary rock and dust have become a key component to understanding the early formation of our solar system. All of this brings into view NASA’s newly released 3-D maps to further identify and analyze the atmospheric composition of comets.

From a recent MOTHERBOARD piece:

We achieved truly first-of-a-kind mapping of important molecules that help us understand the nature of comets,

Martin Cordiner, Lead Researcher; NASA Goddard Center for Astrobiology

The basis of the study was a series of observations done in 2013 on comets Lemmon and ISON using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) of high-precision antennas in Chile.

In both Lemmon and ISON, the team found that formaldehyde and HNC (which is made of one hydrogen, one nitrogen and one carbon atom) were both produced in the comets’ comas.

The presence of formaldehyde confirmed existing theories about its presence in comets, but the HNC finding went one step beyond, settling a long-standing question about this material’s source.

Scientists Astronomers and astrophysicists once thought HNC was pristine interstellar material coming from a comet’s nucleus, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. This latest study suggests HNC is made when large materials in the comet break down into organic dust in its atmosphere.

ALMA observations combine high-resolution two-dimensional images of a comet’s gases with a detailed spectral image. This gives researchers a flat spread of the molecules present throughout the comet’s atmosphere (or coma). ALMA measurements also give researchers information about these molecules’ velocities and direction relative to their observational line of sight, information that can turn the 2D map into a 3D one, essentially giving the coma depth.


3-D observations from the NASA study provide a view into the inner coma, along with mapping of the molecule HCN and formaldehyde. (Credit: VisualizeAstronomy)


The team focused on three molecular species, tracing whether they flow outward evenly in all directions or come off from the nucleus in clumps. These kinds of detailed maps show what materials are lost from the comet’s nucleus as it hurtles through space and what materials are formed within the coma. This helped the team identify the source of key organic molecules, the kind that are necessary for life as we know it.

Understanding organic dust is important, because such materials are more resistant to destruction during atmospheric entry, and some could have been delivered intact to early Earth, thereby fueling the emergence of life…these observations open a new window on this poorly known component of cometary organics.

Michael Mumma, Co-author on the study and Director; Goddard Center for Astrobiology

We’ve observed comets since 239 B.C. Building on the knowledge we’ve gained, who could have imagined that these feared and awe-inspiring wonders from beyond deep space would reveal - to one band of curious, intelligent, life forms - the secrets of their solar system and quite possibly, the origin (or transportation) of life to their home planet itself…

Stay curious*


substitute: Surface of Mars, photographed by Mars Express, 31st May 2007.

84°S 280°E to 75°S 266°E; the top (southernmost) of the image shows the terminus of the Australe Scopuli, fading into Parva Planum.

The vivid violet areas at the bottom of the 3rd and 4th images are where the red channel was blown out; I used the infrared image for this, rather than the (visible) red light image because the latter was even more glitched.

Image credit: ESA. Composite: AgeOfDestruction.


So, in the last 3 months, I’ve…

+ Hung out (during the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs) with Bruce McCandless, a former NASA astronaut (pictured in every image above) who was the first human to ever test/operate the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) on February 7, 1984 during mission STS 41-B, along with becoming the first human to independently “fly freely” from a spacecraft…the first human satellite.

+ Produced business cards for Melissa and I where I had the most iconic photograph I could think of printed on the back: Bruce McCandless, embodying what it means to be an astronaut and a curious human being.

+ While attending the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL for the Space Camp Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, I spent my first evening hanging out with former NASA astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson who enlightened me to the reality that he was the photographer responsible for that iconic picture of Bruce McCandless…to which I encountered that very MMU on display, and then, once again, that photograph framed on the walls of the administration corridor on my final day.

+ I purchased these beautiful nebulous Vans and NEFF watch displaying…yep…that same photo of Bruce, taken by Hoot Gibson.

#astronautsBRO is a simple suggestion. When you’re struggling, when you lose confidence in yourself, remember the heroism, commitment and precision attention of the brave men and women who’ve experienced human spaceflight and remind yourself,


hey, astronauts…bro.

And support @AstronautMovie because WE ALL WANT TO GO TO SPACE.

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Quiz Show with Caitlin Hofmeister

Welcome back to Scishow Quizshow! In this episode Hank Green and Caitlin Hofmeister go head to head to compete for subbable subscribers.