Things got a little strange at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, and not just because we were all drinking beer at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom in Ballard and enjoying eats from the Cave Man Food Truck parked outside. The event, organized by astronomy graduate students at the University of Washington, took on space oddities like Hanny’s Voorwerp and Thorne-Żytkow Objects.
Seattle Astronomy gets all sentimental about Hanny’s Voorwerp because it has a cool name and it was a subject of our third post ever when we started this effort in January 2011. The Voorwerp was noticed by Hanny van Arkle, a Dutch schoolteacher who was categorizing galaxies in Sloan Digital Sky Survey images as part of the Galaxy Zoo project. The object (voorwerp is Dutch for thing or object) appeared as a blue blob near the galaxy IC 2497.
What’s a voorwerp?
During his talk titled, “Citizen Discovers Strange Black Hole Echoes: The Science Behind Hanny’s Voorwerp,” UW graduate student John Ruan said there were four ideas about what it was. All of them were wrong.
Imaging artifact. It could have been just a blip on the camera, Ruan said, but other observers were able to spot it.
Unknown solar system object. Ruan said solar system objects move rapidly, but the Voorwerp was found on photographic plates made more than 50 years ago, and it hadn’t budged.
Distant, high-redshift galaxy. The redshift was not high enough for the Voorwerp to be at great distance.
Milky Way nebula. Conversely, it wasn’t something in our own galaxy, either, this time because the redshift was not great enough.
It was in examining the spectra, though, that Ruan said a clue was found. The emission lines were strong.
“To get emission lines that are this strong, you need a really, really bright source that emits a lot of high-energy light,” Ruan said, the kind of light you get from gas falling onto a black hole. “This is evidence that this object was produced by a quasar.”
There was just one small problem with the idea. There’s no quasar in any of the photos. Ruan said the quasar was probably created when the galaxy merged with a smaller one.
“It disturbs the gas in this larger galaxy, and this gas, some of it, because it’s disturbed it will fall into the center of the galaxy and fall into the black hole,” Ruan explained. This ignited the quasar, but at some point it literally ran out of gas.
“That quasar became quiet again, and it looked like just a normal galaxy, however the gas cloud that the quasar was shining on still appears to be lit up,” he said. “And that is Hanny’s Voorwerp.”
Similar objects have been discovered and are generally referred to as quasar ionization echoes. Ruan said Hanny’s Voorwerp will gradually fade as the ionization of the gas wears off.
The weirdest stars in the universe
Emily Levesque is just finishing her first year on the astronomy faculty at the University of Washington, and her research bailiwick fit perfectly into space oddity night.
“I study weird stars, strange stars, the really oddball stars that we can’t easily explain,” Levesque said. Indeed, she started out looking at the odd couple of stars: red supergiants and neutron stars.
Red supergiants are enormous, massive, relatively cool stars. The largest one found so far is so big that it’s surface, if it were plunked into our solar system in place of the Sun, would reach almost out to the orbit of Saturn. Neutron stars are the small, dense remains of supernovae. They are no bigger than a city.
“There’s only one thing that I can do to red supergiants and neutron stars to make them weirder at this point,” Levesque said. “If we put a red supergiant and a neutron star into a binary, and we merge them, we get a very, very weird object.”
The weird object is called a Thorne-Żytkow Object (TŻO) because Kip Thorne of Caltech and Anna Żytkow of the University of Cambridge hypothesized just this sort of thing way back in 1977. Żytkow heard that Levesque was studying red supergiants, and sent an email asking if she’d like to give a shot at spotting a TŻO. It was quite a challenge.
“A neutron star is the size of the city of Seattle,” Levesque said. “A red supergiant is bigger than the orbit of Jupiter. If you embed a neutron star inside a red supergiant it’s virtually impossible to detect.”
As with Hanny’s Voorwerp, the spectra were the key. Inside a TŻO, convection pockets would circulate material and create bizarre chemical processes. As stuff nears the neutron star at the core it would be bombarded with protons, changing it into a different element. Then as it nears the surface of the star, it would decay into yet something else. The process repeats. If the spectrum reveals the presence of elements that you would not normally expect to see at the surface of a cold star, you may be onto something.
Two years ago Levesque and her team looked at 100 red supergiants, and 99 of them appeared normal. The spectrum of one of them, HV 2112, showed unusual concentrations of rubidium, lithium, and molybdenum.
“This was a signature that we’d actually found the first example of a Thorne-Żytkow Object in the universe,” Levesque said.
If true, it means a new way to make stars and a new way to make elements. Levesque said they’re still calling the star a candidate or possible TŻO because of the Sagan Standard that holds that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
“The evidence that we have is really compelling, but it’s three little blips in a spectrum,” Levesque said. “We desperately want to find more of these, we want to find other ways of detecting them. We’d ultimately love to have a whole set of Thorne-Żytkow Objects, and have a whole set of stars that we can look at that can hold the title of weirdest star in the universe.”