Mysterious Objects at the Edge of the Electromagnetic Spectrum

March 16, 2012: The human eye is crucial to astronomy. Without the ability to see, the luminous universe of stars, planets and galaxies would be closed to us, unknown forever. Nevertheless, astronomers cannot shake their fascination with the invisible.

Outside the realm of human vision is an entire electromagnetic spectrum of wonders. Each type of light–­from radio waves to gamma-rays–reveals something unique about the universe. Some wavelengths are best for studying black holes; others reveal newborn stars and planets; while others illuminate the earliest years of cosmic history.

NASA has many telescopes “working the wavelengths” up and down the electromagnetic spectrum. One of them, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope orbiting Earth, has just crossed a new electromagnetic frontier.

A new ScienceCast video takes viewers on a trip to the edge of the electromagnetic spectrum, where mysterious objects are puzzling astronomers.

“Fermi is picking up crazy-energetic photons,” says Dave Thompson, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “And it’s detecting so many of them we’ve been able to produce the first all-sky map of the very high energy universe.”

“This is what the sky looks like near the very edge of the electromagnetic spectrum, between 10 billion and 100 billion electron volts.”

The light we see with human eyes consists of photons with energies in the range 2 to 3 electron volts. The gamma-rays Fermi detects are billions of times more energetic, from 20 million to more than 300 billion electron volts. These gamma-ray photons are so energetic, they cannot be guided by the mirrors and lenses found in ordinary telescopes. Instead Fermi uses a sensor that is more like a Geiger counter than a telescope. If we could wear Fermi’s gamma ray “glasses,” we’d witness powerful bullets of energy – individual gamma rays – from cosmic phenomena such as supermassive black holes and hypernova explosions. The sky would be a frenzy of activity.

An artist’s concept of giant ‘Fermi bubbles’ emerging from the heart of the
Milky Way.

Before Fermi was launched in June 2008, there were only four known celestial sources of photons in this energy range. “In 3 years Fermi has found almost 500 more,” says Thompson.

What lies within this new realm?

“Mystery, for one thing,” says Thompson. “About a third of the new sources can’t be clearly linked to any of the known types of objects that produce gamma rays. We have no idea what they are.”

The rest have one thing in common: prodigious energy.

“Among them are super massive black holes called blazars; the seething remnants of supernova explosions; and rapidly rotating neutron stars called pulsars.”
And some of the gamma rays seem to come from the ‘Fermi bubbles’ – giant structures emanating from the Milky Way’s center and spanning some 20,000 light years above and below the galactic plane.

Exactly how these bubbles formed is another mystery.

Now that the first sky map is complete, Fermi is working on another, more sensitive and detailed survey.

“In the next few years, Fermi should reveal something new about all of these phenomena, what makes them tick, and why they generate such ‘unearthly’ levels of energy,” says David Paneque, a leader in this work from the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

For now, though, there are more unknowns than knowns about “Fermi’s world.”

Says Thompson: “It’s pretty exciting!”

Authors: Dauna Coulter, Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Mysterious Objects at the Edge of the Electromagnetic Spectrum – NASA Science.

New Planet Found in Our Solar System?

Odd orbits of remote objects hint at unseen world, new calculations suggest.

Artist’s conception of a small icy object beyond Pluto.
Illustration courtesy G. Bacon, STScI/NASA

Richard A. Lovett in Timberline Lodge, Oregon
for National Geographic News
Published May 11, 2012

An as yet undiscovered planet might be orbiting at the dark fringes of the solar system, according to new research.

Too far out to be easily spotted by telescopes, the potential unseen planet appears to be making its presence felt by disturbing the orbits of so-called Kuiper belt objects, said Rodney Gomes, an astronomer at the National Observatory of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.

Kuiper belt objects are small icy bodies—including some dwarf planets—that lie beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Once considered the ninth planet in our system, the dwarf planet Pluto, for example, is one of the largest Kuiper belt objects, at about 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) wide. Dozens of the other objects are hundreds of miles across, and more are being discovered every year.

What’s intriguing, Gomes said, is that, according to his new calculations, about a half dozen Kuiper belt objects—including the remote body known as Sedna—are in strange orbits compared to where they should be, based on existing solar system models.

The objects’ unexpected orbits have a few possible explanations, said Gomes, who presented his findings Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

“But I think the easiest one is a planetary-mass solar companion”—a planet that orbits very far out from the sun but that’s massive enough to be having gravitational effects on Kuiper belt objects.

Mystery Planet a Captured Rogue?

For the new work, Gomes analyzed the orbits of 92 Kuiper belt objects, then compared his results to computer models of how the bodies should be distributed, with and without an additional planet.

If there’s no distant world, Gomes concludes, the models don’t produce the highly elongated orbits we see for six of the objects.

How big exactly the planetary body might be isn’t clear, but there are a lot of possibilities, Gomes added.

Based on his calculations, Gomes thinks a Neptune-size world, about four times bigger than Earth, orbiting 140 billion miles (225 billion kilometers) away from the sun—about 1,500 times farther than Earth—would do the trick.

But so would a Mars-size object—roughly half Earth’s size—in a highly elongated orbit that would occasionally bring the body sweeping to within 5 billion miles (8 billion kilometers) of the sun.

Gomes speculates that the mystery object could be a rogue planet that was kicked out of its own star system and later captured by the sun’s gravity.

Or the putative planet could have formed closer to our sun, only to be cast outward by gravitational encounters with other planets.

However, actually finding such a world would be a challenge.

To begin with, the planet might be pretty dim. Also, Gomes’s simulations don’t give astronomers any clue as to where to point their telescopes—”it can be anywhere,” he said.

No Smoking Gun

Other astronomers are intrigued but say they’ll want a lot more proof before they’re willing to agree that the solar system—again—has nine planets.

“Obviously, finding another planet in the solar system is a big deal,” said Rory Barnes, an astronomer at the University of Washington. But, he added, “I don’t think he really has any evidence that suggests it is out there.”

Instead, he added, Gomes “has laid out a way to determine how such a planet could sculpt parts of our solar system. So while, yes, the evidence doesn’t exist yet, I thought the bigger point was that he showed us that there are ways to find that evidence.”

Douglas Hamilton, an astronomer from the University of Maryland, agrees that the new findings are far from definitive.

“What he showed in his probability arguments is that it’s slightly more likely. He doesn’t have a smoking gun yet.”

And Hal Levison, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says he isn’t sure what to make of Gomes’s finding.

“It seems surprising to me that a [solar] companion as small as Neptune could have the effect he sees,” Levison said.

But “I know Rodney, and I’m sure he did the calculations right.”

New Planet Found in Our Solar System?.

Evidence mounts for sun’s companion star

Public release date: 24-Apr-2006

NEWPORT BEACH, CA (April 24, 2006) – The Binary Research Institute (BRI) has found that orbital characteristics of the recently discovered planetoid, “Sedna”, demonstrate the possibility that our sun might be part of a binary star system. A binary star system consists of two stars gravitationally bound orbiting a common center of mass. Once thought to be highly unusual, such systems are now considered to be common in the Milky Way galaxy.

Walter Cruttenden at BRI, Professor Richard Muller at UC Berkeley, Dr. Daniel Whitmire of the University of Louisiana, amongst several others, have long speculated on the possibility that our sun might have an as yet undiscovered companion. Most of the evidence has been statistical rather than physical. The recent discovery of Sedna, a small planet like object first detected by Cal Tech astronomer Dr. Michael Brown, provides what could be indirect physical evidence of a solar companion. Matching the recent findings by Dr. Brown, showing that Sedna moves in a highly unusual elliptical orbit, Cruttenden has determined that Sedna moves in resonance with previously published orbital data for a hypothetical companion star.

In the May 2006 issue of Discover, Dr. Brown stated: “Sedna shouldn’t be there. There’s no way to put Sedna where it is. It never comes close enough to be affected by the sun, but it never goes far enough away from the sun to be affected by other stars… Sedna is stuck, frozen in place; there’s no way to move it, basically there’s no way to put it there – unless it formed there. But it’s in a very elliptical orbit like that. It simply can’t be there. There’s no possible way – except it is. So how, then?”

“I’m thinking it was placed there in the earliest history of the solar system. I’m thinking it could have gotten there if there used to be stars a lot closer than they are now and those stars affected Sedna on the outer part of its orbit and then later on moved away. So I call Sedna a fossil record of the earliest solar system. Eventually, when other fossil records are found, Sedna will help tell us how the sun formed and the number of stars that were close to the sun when it formed.”

Walter Cruttenden agrees that Sedna’s highly elliptical orbit is very unusual, but noted that the orbit period of 12,000 years is in neat resonance with the expected orbit periodicity of a companion star as outlined in several prior papers. Consequently, Cruttenden believes that Sedna’s unusual orbit is something indicative of the current solar system configuration, not merely a historical record. “It is hard to imagine that Sedna would retain its highly elliptical orbit pattern since the beginning of the solar system billions of years ago. Because eccentricity would likely fade with time, it is logical to assume Sedna is telling us something about current, albeit unexpected solar system forces, most probably a companion star”.

Outside of a few popular articles, and Cruttenden’s book “Lost Star of Myth and Time”, which outlines historical references and the modern search for the elusive companion, the possibility of a binary partner star to our sun has been left to the halls of academia. But with Dr. Brown’s recent discoveries of Sedna and Xena, (now confirmed to be larger than Pluto), and timing observations like Cruttenden’s, the search for a companion star may be gaining momentum.

Contact: Heidi Hall
Binary Research Institute


Evidence mounts for sun’s companion star.