Did Astronomers See a Distant, Dying Star? Or an Earth-bound Satellite? – Sky & Telescope

Apollo 11’s view of low-Earth orbitNASA

Last 12 months, astronomers caught a shocking flash of sunshine from essentially the most distant galaxy identified — GN-z11, which existed simply 400 million years after the Big Bang. The group proposed, after ruling out different prospects, that what that they had seen was the fading afterglow of a dying star. The occasion would have heralded the earliest instance of star demise within the identified universe.

That is, if the sunshine got here from a star in any respect. Two research showing October 4th in Nature Astronomy make the case that what the unique group noticed was not a pure phenomenon however the likelihood passing of a artifical object in Earth orbit.

The Flash

Linhua Jiang (Peking University, China) led a group in observing GN-z11 in close to-infrared mild utilizing the Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infrared Exploration (MOSFIRE) on the Keck I telescope in Hawai‘i.

The galaxy is so faint that the group was planning to mix greater than 100 photos earlier than measuring the spectrum. But throughout one in all these particular person exposures, which lasted 179 seconds, one thing occurred. A vivid supply of sunshine crossed the slit, apparently proper on the middle of the galaxy.

Jiang’s group checked whether or not different close by objects may have photobombed their observations and got here up clean. They concluded that they had seen the ultraviolet afterglow of a lengthy gamma-ray burst (GRB), the violent destruction of one of many universe’s earliest stars.

This illustration exhibits the commonest kind of gamma-ray burst, thought to happen when a large star collapses, kinds a black gap, and blasts particle jets outward at practically the pace of sunshine. Credit: NASA/GSFC

But there have been curiosities on this discovery. For one, the spectrum wasn’t fairly what one would count on for a GRB, although it was nonetheless inside the realm of risk. Curiouser nonetheless was how extremely fortunate the group needed to be: Based on the galaxy’s star formation price, it should host between 1 and 200 GRBs each million years. The likelihood of Jiang’s group truly catching one in all them throughout one in all their exposures was 1 in 10 billion.

What Are the Chances?

Immediately after the examine’s publication in Nature, different astronomers started placing concept papers on the astronomy preprint archive that examined the conclusion of seeing such an unlikely occasion.

Scientists don’t like flukes — they like repeatable, testable issues. That’s to not say unlikely issues don’t occur. But when one thing with a close to-zero likelihood of occurring truly involves go, it makes one suppose: Maybe that sort of factor isn’t so uncommon in any case.

“You shouldn’t believe you got a 1 in 10 billion lucky break,” says Charles Steinhardt (Cosmic Dawn Center, Denmark). “You should instead believe that you’ve misunderstood the physics of an area where we know we need to learn a lot about the physics.”

Indeed, many astronomers had been placing their heads collectively to contemplate what it was we’ve misunderstood. But as Steinhardt talked the invention over with colleagues down the corridor, he realized that in reality the chance of getting discovered a GRB was so low that that different actually unlikely issues may in reality be extra possible.

Together together with his colleagues, Steinhardt posted on the arXiv in January that maybe the flash had been a artifical object in Earth orbit. However unlikely, he argued, it was nonetheless price contemplating. (That paper seems at this time in Nature Astronomy’s Matter Arising.)

Then, simply a month later, Michał Michałowski (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland) and colleagues posted on the arXiv that that they had discovered the article: the Breeze-M higher stage of a Russian Proton rocket. (Their paper additionally seems at this time in Nature Astronomy’s Matter Arising.)

A Russian Proton-M rocket arrives for launch. Once such a rocket reaches low-Earth orbit, the Breeze M higher stage underneath the nosecone gives the extra oomph wanted to loft a satellite tv for pc into distant geostationary orbit. Once used, the booster stays for awhile in a extremely elliptical orbit round Earth.Alex Lane / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

“Our calculations showed that the [rocket booster] crossed through the slit that covered the distant galaxy GN-z11,” Michałowski explains.

Jiang’s group was truly conscious of this actual booster; that they had used a web site fashionable with beginner astronomers, Calsky.com, to calculate its trajectory and located that it handed exterior the telescope’s discipline of view.

“CalSky.com was a really useful website for determining when things in the sky (moonrise, Jupiter set, satellite passes, ISS crossing in front of the Moon) would occur from an observer’s location,” says S&T’s Kelly Beatty. “It shut down in October 2020 due to lack of funding.”

Both Jiang’s and Michałowski’s teams tried to contact the previous homeowners of Calsky, however to no avail. It stays unclear why the teams’ calculated trajectories for the booster had been completely different by a number of arcminutes.

But Michałowski is for certain the booster is guilty for the flash, including that his group has double-checked the calculations: “In addition to our own software, we used three publicly available satellite orbit software packages: JPL Horizons, OREKIT, and SkyField. The resulting orbits agree with our calculations within 0.1 km (1.5 arcsec).”

While Jiang’s group replied to the newly printed research sustaining the validity of their outcomes, in addition they clarify that they by no means conclusively claimed the flash was a GRB. “We just reported this event and provided our most probable interpretation,” Jiang says.

“I do think the original paper by Jiang and colleagues was a reasonable thing,” Steinhardt says. “Ultimately, when you see something weird as an observer, what do you do? You put it out there for the community to give their best guesses as to what it is.”

Satellite Interference

This wasn’t the primary incident of a artifical object posing as an astronomical phenomenon. In the mid-1980s, Sky & Telescope reported on a number of observers who’d seen mysterious, repeated flashes within the constellation Perseus. Ultimately, astronomers decided that the sadly named “Perseus Flasher” was in reality merely the glints of daylight off satellites.

Nor will this be the final of artifical interference with the skies — removed from it. The stuff in Earth orbit is growing exponentially. Most notable has been the Starlink community, which is able to in the end be made up of greater than 12,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit.

At the identical time, technological developments in astronomy are enabling telescopes to take quick, repeated exposures of the sky, turning single snapshots into movies. Astronomers can watch supernovae as they occur, catch Near-Earth objects transferring between frames. But they’ll additionally more and more discover their observations hindered, even blocked as satellites and area particles streak throughout photos.

Early morning on Monday, November 18th, Cliff Johnson (Northwestern University) and colleagues took this picture utilizing the Dark Energy Camera on the 4-meter Blanco Telescope on the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Trails from 19 not too long ago launched Starlink satellites crossed the picture throughout the six-minute publicity. CTIO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / DECam DELVE Survey

Jonathan McDowell (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian) has led a group in growing software program and databases, together with a “more robust” model of Calsky, that can assist astronomers cope with this downside.

“We’re focusing on mainly a couple applications,” he explains. “One is to figure out at what time tonight can I observe this object and not get ‘Starlinked.’ And another is, ok, I got streaked, what can I retrieve from my data.” He provides that astronomers may even be capable to use this software program in circumstances just like the GN-z11 flash, to find out if/when a satellite tv for pc or different particles has interfered with a previous commentary.

But software program isn’t a treatment-all. If low-Earth orbit fills to capability, it could develop into troublesome for telescopes to keep away from satellites. And whereas it’s attainable usually to take away a path, it’s practically inconceivable to look “underneath” it to see the celebs and galaxies.

More troubling, it’s attainable a satellite tv for pc may intrude with an commentary with out astronomers ever figuring out it. Satellite and true astronomical supply develop into notably troublesome to tease aside for transient occasions and for spectroscopy — each exemplified by the GN-z11 flash.

“We’re in this world now where every paper you write on observational astronomy is going to have to ask the question, ‘Is this real or is this a satellite?’” McDowell says. “It’s not always going to be possible to tell.”


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