Stars, Galaxies, XBONGs and Me

JWST's image; processing by J.Higdon, C.Struck, P.Appleton, K.Borne, R.Lucas; NASA's text: 'In yesterday's episode our hero, the Cartwheel galaxy, had survived a chance cosmic collision with a small intruder galaxy - triggering an expanding ring of star formation. Hot on the intruder's trail, a team of multiwavelength sleuths have compiled evidence tracking the reckless galaxy fleeing the scene. Presented for your consideration: a composite showing a visual image of the Cartwheel galaxy (at left) and smaller galaxies of the Cartwheel group, superposed with high resolution radio observations of neutral hydrogen (traced by the green contours). The neutral hydrogen trail suggestively leads to the culprit galaxy at the far right, presently about 250,000 light years distant from the Cartwheel!'
“The Trail of the Intruder”; J. Higdon, C. Struck, P. Appleton, K. Borne, R. Lucas (1997)

As I write this, scientists have not made contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, cured the common cold, or developed a process for using pocket lint as a pollution-free sustainable energy resource.

So I’ll be looking at galaxies, black holes, and a place where stars are forming. Scientists figure that last item will help them work out how the earliest stars formed.

But first, NASA’s APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), almost five years back. Make that pictures: of the Cartwheel Galaxy Region and HST WFPC2.

(HST WFPC2? I talked about star names and designations in “A Star by Any Other Name, and a Galilean Interlude” (November 13, 2021))

Getting back to the Cartwheel Galaxy and NASA’s APOD; I think the authors and editors, Robert Nemiroff (MTU) and Jerry Bonnell (USRA), were having fun with the text.

The Trail of the Intruder
J. Higdon (NRAO), C. Struck, P.Appleton (ISU), K. Borne (Hughes STX), R. Lucas (STScI), NASA (February 24, 1997)

“In yesterday’s episode our hero, the Cartwheel galaxy, had survived a chance cosmic collision with a small intruder galaxy – triggering an expanding ring of star formation. Hot on the intruder’s trail, a team of multiwavelength sleuths have compiled evidence tracking the reckless galaxy fleeing the scene. … a composite showing a visual image of the Cartwheel galaxy (at left) and smaller galaxies of the Cartwheel group, superposed with high resolution radio observations of neutral hydrogen (traced by the green contours)….”

The next “episode” after “The Trail of the Intruder” was “Star Wars in NGC 664” — two supernovae in a galaxy some 300,000,000 light-years out, in the constellation Pisces.1

Now, a quick look around our cosmic neighborhood.

“Every Known Nearby Galaxy”, Appreciating a Cosmic Scale

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's image: the LEDA 48062 galaxy (the faint, sparse, amorphous galaxy on the right) in the constellation Perseus. The large, disk-like lenticular galaxy on the left is UGC 8603. Other, more distant galaxies litter the background.
LEDA 48062 and other galaxies in the Constellation Perseus. (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully (2023))

The SNAP 15922 campaign has a catchier name: “Every Known Nearby Galaxy”.

Hubble Visits Galactic Neighbors
Claire Andreoli, Andrea Gianopoulos; European Space Agency (ESA) (last updated January 13, 2023) via NASA

“This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope features the galaxy LEDA 48062 in the constellation Perseus. LEDA 48062 is the faint, sparse, amorphous galaxy on the right side of the image, and it is accompanied by a more sharply defined neighbor on the left – the large, disk-like lenticular galaxy UGC 8603. A smattering of more distant galaxies litter the background while a handful of foreground stars shine brightly throughout the image.

Hubble recently spent some time studying our galactic neighbors….”

Andrew Z. Colvin's illustration: local group of galaxies. (2011) via Wikimedia CommonsThe “Every Known Nearby Galaxy” campaign is complete, so now we’ve mapped “our galactic neighbors”.

In this case, our neighborhood is every known galaxy within 10 megaparsecs: roughly 33,000,000 light-years.

Putting it another way, light from the most distant galaxies they’ve been studying has been heading our way since around the time Antarctica’s ice sheets began forming.

That’s way before 4004 B.C.; so maybe an explanation is in order, for why cosmic scales don’t bother me.

Even if it’s not, here goes —

It’s been some time, well over a year, since I’ve read “Christians believe”, followed by references to the Ussher Chronology,2 in some science-themed article.

Maybe word’s getting around that we’re not all trying desperately to deny what we’ve been learning about this universe. But it’s also been a while since I’ve explained why living in a vast and ancient creation doesn’t offend me.

Basically, I figure that God is large and in charge. Which is hardly a new idea.

“Terrible and awesome are you,
stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

“Yours are the heavens, yours the earth;
you founded the world and everything in it.”
(Psalms 89:12)

Getting upset because the “ancient mountains” are older than folks thought they were seems silly. Admiring what God’s been doing, on the other hand, makes sense.

Next, finding black holes by cross-indexing two catalogs.

Galaxies, XBONGs and Comparing Catalogs

NASA/CXC/SAO/D. Kim et al.'s images: 'A survey has revealed hundreds of previously unidentified black holes using data from the Chandra Source Catalog and the Sloan Digitized Sky Survey (SDSS). Researchers compared the X-ray and optical data for a class of objects known as “XBONGs” (X-ray bright, optically normal galaxies) to reveal about 400 supermassive black holes. These graphics show these XBONGs in X-rays from Chandra and optical light from SDSS.' Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/D. Kim et al.; Optical/IR: Legacy Surveys/D. Lang (Perimeter Institute)
LEDA 48062 and other galaxies in the Constellation Perseus. (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully (2023))

Astronomers Dig Out Buried Black Holes with NASA’s Chandra
Megan Watzke, Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Molly Porter, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (last updated January 12, 2023)

“Hundreds of black holes previously hidden, or buried, have been found using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This result helps give astronomers a more accurate census of black holes in the universe.

“The black holes in this new study are the supermassive variety that contain millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun. While astronomers think that almost all large galaxies harbor giant black holes in their centers, only some of the black holes will be actively pulling in material that produces radiation, and some will be buried underneath dust and gas….”

As far as I know, these scientists haven’t described comparing X-ray data from the Chandra Source Catalog (CSC) and optical data from the Catalog (CSC) and Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) as cross-indexing.

But my academic background includes library science — which isn’t actually a science the way physics is. And that’s another topic.

Anyway, between a little library science training and a lot of research done over the years, I think of what they’re doing as “cross indexing”.

For about four decades now, scientists have known about galaxies that don’t look like quasars (quasi-stellar objects) in visible light, but shine brightly in X-rays.

Since labeling things makes discussing them easier, they dubbed them “X-ray bright optically normal galaxies.” That’s an awkward mouthful, so they shortened it to XBONGs.

So far, they’ve found that about one out of every two XBONGs host previously-unknown supermassive black holes.

A supermassive black hole is an object with a mass 100,000 times that of our sun.

Black holes are what happens when oversize stars collapse, leaving a roughly-spherical region of space where stuff goes in but (almost) nothing gets out. Sort of like cosmic roach hotels, although I doubt that anyone’s going to use that phrase in a research paper.

I gather that black holes are in that class of phenomena where we have at least as many questions as we’ve got answers. So far.

That’s why finding 817 XBONG candidates is exciting.3 That’s 817 more weird and wonderful things that may give scientists enough data to answer some current questions.

And, likely enough, raise even more questions in the process.

NGC 346: Reliving the Cosmic Noon

(Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, O. Jones (UK ATC), G. De Marchi (ESTEC), and M. Meixner (USRA). Image processing: A. Pagan (STScI), N. Habel (USRA), L. Lenkic (USRA) and L. Chu (NASA/Ames))
NGC 346, a star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud. (ESA/Hubble/CSA/ESTEC/…) (2023))

NASA’s Webb Uncovers Star Formation in Cluster’s Dusty Ribbons
Laura Betz, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Christine Pulliam, Hannah Braun, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland (last updated January 12, 2023) via NASA

“Astronomers probed this region because the conditions and amount of metals within the SMC resemble those seen in galaxies billions of years ago, during an era in the universe known as ‘cosmic noon,’ when star formation was at its peak. Some 2 to 3 billion years after the big bang, galaxies were forming stars at a furious rate. The fireworks of star formation happening then still shape the galaxies we see around us today.

“A galaxy during cosmic noon wouldn’t have one NGC 346 like the Small Magellanic Cloud does; it would have thousands’ of star-forming regions like this one, said Margaret Meixner, an astronomer at the Universities Space Research Association and principal investigator of the research team. ‘But even if NGC 346 is now the one and only massive cluster furiously forming stars in its galaxy, it offers us a great opportunity to probe conditions that were in place at cosmic noon.’

“By observing protostars still in the process of forming, researchers can learn if the star formation process in the SMC is different from what we observe in our own Milky Way. Previous infrared studies of NGC 346 have focused on protostars heavier than about 5 to 8 times the mass of our Sun. ‘With Webb, we can probe down to lighter-weight protostars, as small as one tenth of our Sun, to see if their formation process is affected by the lower metal content,’ said Olivia Jones of the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, Royal Observatory Edinburgh, a co-investigator on the program….”

Compared to the galaxies LEDA 48062 and UGC 8603, NGC 346 is in our back yard.

NGC 346 is a nebula and open star cluster in what the article called the SMC. That’s the Small Magellanic Cloud: a dwarf galaxy orbiting the one we’re in: the Milky Way.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds got their name, I gather, because they look sort of like clouds.

And the Milky Way’s name comes from my branch of Western civilization’s obsession with all things Greek and Roman, back in the day.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the Milky Way re-named Bealach na Bó Finne, Mór-Chuing Argait, Smir Find Fedlimthi, or Earball na Lárach Báine. But that’s not going to happen. I rather like Earball na Lárach Báine, White Mare’s Tail. And I’m wandering off-topic.

I’m also missing something.

Metals! Right. When an astronomer talks about metals, it’s any stuff that’s not hydrogen or helium: the two most common elements.

“Cosmic noon” is defined in that article as the time, two or three billion years after this universe began, when star formation was happening faster than ever before or since.4

Studying a star-forming region that’s a bit like most places during the cosmic noon should help scientists learn more about how stars, galaxies and we came to where we are now.

“…Bright Immensities….”

NASA/ESA's image, detail: LH 95 stellar nursery in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (December 2006)

Howard Chandler Robbins’ “And Have the Bright Immensities” was in our hymnal, back when I was a Methodist. Since then I’ve learned that it’s an Episcopalian song, and I’ve decided that being Catholic makes sense.

The words come from a poem written, probably, in 1931.5

“And have the bright immensities received our risen Lord,
Where light years frame the Pleiades, and point Orion’s sword?
Do flaming suns his footsteps trace through corridors sublime,
The Lord of interstellar space and Conqueror of time?
The heaven that hides him from our sight knows neither near nor far;
An altar candle sheds its light as surely as a star:
And where his loving people meet to share the gift divine,
There stands he with unhurrying feet; there heavenly splendors shine.
(“And Have the Bright Immensities”, Howard Chandler Robbins (1876-1952); first printed in “The Living Church” (1931), later included in H.C.R.’s “Way of Light” (New York, 1933))

I liked “And Have the Bright Immensities” when I first sang it. I still do.

That’s partly because it’s among the best descriptions I’ve seen, of cosmic scale in the context of God’s presence.

First off, God isn’t so much in Heaven as Heaven is where God is. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32, 326, 1023-1029 …)

And God is: God. I don’t understand God. Not fully. Nobody can. If I thoroughly understood someone or something, it wouldn’t be God. (Catechism, 230)

The visible world, this universe, is big. It’s impressive. It’s got a ‘wow factor.’

But impressive as what we see — with or without instruments that let us “see” light that’s not in the visible spectrum — God is, like I said, God: almighty, infinite, eternal. Ineffable, beyond what can be expressed in words. (Catechism, 202, 206-209)

And, big and old as this universe is, tiny and ephemeral as might I feel in comparison, I can’t get lost in the shuffle. Looking at it another way, there’s no place I could go where I could hide from God. I see that as comforting, but that’s not the only possible response.

God is the Almighty, the great I AM. God is beyond this universe and God is “here”, in each place that was, is, and can be: immediately present at all times, past, present and future. (Catechism, 205-214, 268-274, 300, 600)

Lovecraft’s “Terrifying Vistas” and Wisdom

NGC 4848 and other galaxies, image by Hubble/ESA.

'Biblical' cosmologies: Babylonian and Aristotelian.H. P. Lovecraft had issues, and that’s yet another topic. But at least he didn’t try pretending that this universe is just a few thousand years old.

On the other hand, Lovecraft apparently didn’t see the beauty, order and harmony (Catechism, 32, 341) of this universe. Instead, he wrote about “terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein”, with madness or ignorance as our only options:

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. … The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

If anything, those “terrifying vistas” are even bigger and weirder than they were back in 1929; but I think this bit from Wisdom still makes sense:

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.”
(Wisdom 11:2223)

And that’s all I’ve got for this week.

Apart, of course, from the usual links:


1 A constellation, stars and galaxies:

2 It’s an old world:

3 A quick look at some of the weird stuff:

4 Myth, metals and the Milky Way:

5 Bright Immensities:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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