Two’s company, but three might not always be a crowd — at least in space.
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and a trick of nature, have confirmed the existence of a planet orbiting two stars in the system OGLE-2007-BLG-349, located 8,000 light-years away towards the center of our galaxy.
The planet orbits roughly 300 million miles from the stellar duo, about the distance from the asteroid belt to our sun. It completes an orbit around both stars roughly every seven years. The two red dwarf stars are a mere 7 million miles apart, or 14 times the diameter of the moon’s orbit around Earth.
The Hubble observations represent the first time such a three-body system has been confirmed using the gravitational microlensing technique. Gravitational microlensing occurs when the gravity of a foreground star bends and amplifies the light of a background star that momentarily aligns with it. The particular character of the light magnification can reveal clues to the nature of the foreground star and any associated planets.
The three objects were discovered in 2007 by an international collaboration of five different groups: Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA), the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE), the Microlensing Follow-up Network (MicroFUN), the Probing Lensing Anomalies Network (PLANET), and the Robonet Collaboration. These ground-based observations uncovered a star and a planet, but a detailed analysis also revealed a third body that astronomers could not definitively identify.
“The ground-based observations suggested two possible scenarios for the three-body system: a Saturn-mass planet orbiting a close binary star pair or a Saturn-mass and an Earth-mass planet orbiting a single star,” explained David Bennett of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the paper’s first author.
The sharpness of the Hubble images allowed the research team to separate the background source star and the lensing star from their neighbors in the very crowded star field. The Hubble observations revealed that the starlight from the foreground lens system was too faint to be a single star, but it had the brightness expected for two closely orbiting red dwarf stars, which are fainter and less massive than our sun.
“So, the model with two stars and one planet is the only one consistent with the Hubble data,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s team conducted the follow-up observations with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.
“We were helped in the analysis by the almost perfect alignment of the foreground binary stars with the background star, which greatly magnified the light and allowed us to see the signal of the two stars,” Bennett explained.
Kepler has discovered 10 other planets orbiting tight binary stars, but these are all much closer to their stars than the one studied by Hubble.
Now that the team has shown that microlensing can successfully detect planets orbiting double-star systems, Hubble could provide an essential role in this new realm in the continued search for exoplanets.
The team’s results have been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.
International teams of astronomers have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to explore the distant corner of the Universe first revealed in the iconic images of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF). These new ALMA observations are significantly deeper and sharper than previous surveys at millimetre wavelengths. They clearly show how the rate of star formation in young galaxies is closely related to their total mass in stars. They also trace the previously unknown abundance of star-forming gas at different points in time, providing new insights into the “Golden Age” of galaxy formation approximately 10 billion years ago.
The new ALMA results will be published in a series of papers appearing in the Astrophysical Journal and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. These results are also among those being presented this week at the Half a Decade of ALMA conference in Palm Springs, California, USA.
In 2004 the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images — pioneering deep-field observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope — were published. These spectacular pictures probed more deeply than ever before and revealed a menagerie of galaxies stretching back to less than a billion years after the Big Bang. The area was observed several times by Hubble and many other telescopes, resulting in the deepest view of the Universe to date.
This video sequence combines a background picture taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (blue/green) with a new very deep ALMA view of this field (orange, marked with circles). All the objects that ALMA sees appear to be massive star-forming galaxies. This image is based on the ALMA survey by J. Dunlop and colleagues, covering the full HUDF area. Credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/J. Dunlop
Astronomers using ALMA have now surveyed this seemingly unremarkable, but heavily studied, window into the distant Universe for the first time both deeply and sharply in the millimetre range of wavelengths . This allows them to see the faint glow from gas clouds and also the emission from warm dust in galaxies in the early Universe.
ALMA has observed the HUDF for a total of around 50 hours up to now. This is the largest amount of ALMA observing time spent on one area of the sky so far.
One team led by Jim Dunlop (University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom) used ALMA to obtain the first deep, homogeneous ALMA image of a region as large as the HUDF. This data allowed them to clearly match up the galaxies that they detected with objects already seen with Hubble and other facilities.
This study showed clearly for the first time that the stellar mass of a galaxy is the best predictor of star formation rate in the high redshift Universe. They detected essentially all of the high-mass galaxies  and virtually nothing else.
Jim Dunlop, lead author on the deep imaging paper sums up its importance:
“This is a breakthrough result. For the first time we are properly connecting the visible and ultraviolet light view of the distant Universe from Hubble and far-infrared/millimetre views of the Universe from ALMA.”
The second team, led by Manuel Aravena of the Núcleo de Astronomía, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile, and Fabian Walter of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, conducted a deeper search across about one sixth of the total HUDF .
“We conducted the first fully blind, three-dimensional search for cool gas in the early Universe,” said Chris Carilli, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico, USA and member of the research team. “Through this, we discovered a population of galaxies that is not clearly evident in any other deep surveys of the sky.” 
Some of the new ALMA observations were specifically tailored to detect galaxies that are rich in carbon monoxide, indicating regions primed for star formation. Even though these molecular gas reservoirs give rise to the star formation activity in galaxies, they are often very hard to see with Hubble. ALMA can therefore reveal the “missing half” of the galaxy formation and evolution process.
“The new ALMA results imply a rapidly rising gas content in galaxies as we look back further in time,” adds lead author of two of the papers, Manuel Aravena (Núcleo de Astronomía, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile). “This increasing gas content is likely the root cause for the remarkable increase in star formation rates during the peak epoch of galaxy formation, some 10 billion years ago.”
The results presented today are just the start of a series of future observations to probe the distant Universe with ALMA. For example, a planned 150-hour observing campaign of the HUDF will further illuminate the star-forming potential history of the Universe.
“By supplementing our understanding of this missing star-forming material, the forthcoming ALMA Large Program will complete our view of the galaxies in the iconic Hubble Ultra Deep Field,” concludes Fabian Walter.
 Astronomers specifically selected the area of study in the HUDF, a region of space in the faint southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), so ground-based telescopes in the southern hemisphere, like ALMA, could probe the region, expanding our knowledge about the very distant Universe.
Probing the deep, but optically invisible, Universe was one of the primary science goals for ALMA.
 In this context “high mass” means galaxies with stellar masses greater than 20 billion times that of the Sun ( 2 × 1010solar masses). For comparison, the Milky Way is a large galaxy and has a mass of around 100 billion solar masses.
 This region of sky is about seven hundred times smaller than the area of the disc of the full Moon as seen from Earth. One of the most startling aspects of the HUDF was the vast number of galaxies found in such a tiny fraction of the sky.
 ALMA’s ability to see a completely different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum from Hubble allows astronomers to study a different class of astronomical objects, such as massive star-forming clouds, as well as objects that are otherwise too faint to observe in visible light, but visible at millimetre wavelengths.
The search is referred to as “blind” as it was not focussed on any particular object.
The new ALMA observations of the HUDF include two distinct, yet complementary types of data: continuum observations, which reveal dust emission and star formation, and a spectral emission line survey, which looks at the cold molecular gas fueling star formation. The second survey is particularly valuable because it includes information about the degree to which light from distant objects has been redshifted by the expansion of the Universe. Greater redshift means that an object is further away and seen farther back in time. This allows astronomers to create a three-dimensional map of star-forming gas as it evolves over cosmic time.
Since 51 Pegasi b first swam into view 20 years ago, over 3,000 other exoplanets have been discovered. They vary in size, density and absurdity with some planets believed to have atmospheres of vaporized rock and mantles of liquid diamond. As such you’d think these would be boom times for space artists like Lynette Cook but in fact it’s been quite the opposite. Her space art career has never been more tenuous.
“The budgets to hire people like me on the part of publishers and science organizations has really dwindled in recent years,” she says. Partly this is due to recent changes in print economics. Cook has watched as publishers have become increasingly willing to use inaccurate and poorly rendered “no-fee” illustrations to keep costs down. “I saw a shift,” says Cook, “from commissioning new art, to wanting me to rework earlier images, so they looked different (but didn’t cost as much), to reusing older art “as is” for new discoveries.” Eventually her clients simply stopped calling, “as if they were stars in the heavens that were winking out.”
An international team using ALMA, along with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and other telescopes, has discovered the true nature of a rare object in the distant Universe called a Lyman-alpha Blob. Up to now astronomers did not understand what made these huge clouds of gas shine so brightly, but ALMA has now seen two galaxies at the heart of one of these objects and they are undergoing a frenzy of star formation that is lighting up their surroundings. These large galaxies are in turn at the centre of a swarm of smaller ones in what appears to be an early phase in the formation of a massive cluster of galaxies. The two ALMA sources are expected to evolve into a single giant elliptical galaxy.
Lyman-alpha Blobs (LABs) are gigantic clouds of hydrogen gas that can span hundreds of thousands of light-years and are found at very large cosmic distances. The name reflects the characteristic wavelength of ultraviolet light that they emit, known as Lyman-alpha radiation. Since their discovery, the processes that give rise to LABs have been an astronomical puzzle. But new observations with ALMA may now have now cleared up the mystery.
One of the largest Lyman-alpha Blobs known, and the most thoroughly studied, is SSA22-Lyman-alpha blob 1, or LAB-1. Embedded in the core of a huge cluster of galaxies in the early stages of formation, it was the very first such object to be discovered — in 2000 — and is located so far away that its light has taken about 11.5 billion years to reach us.
They then combined the ALMA images with observations from the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), which map the Lyman-alpha light. This showed that the ALMA sources are located in the very heart of the Lyman-alpha Blob, where they are forming stars at a rate over 100 times that of the Milky Way.
This video zoom sequence starts with a wide-field view of the dim constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier) and slowly closes in on one of the largest known single objects in the Universe, the Lyman-alpha blob LAB1. Observations with the ESO VLT show, for the first time, that the giant “blob” must be powered by galaxies embedded within the cloud. Credit: ESO/A. Fujii/Digitized Sky Survey 2/M. Hayes. Music: John Dyson (from the album Moonwind)
Deep imaging with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and spectroscopy at the W. M. Keck Observatory showed in addition that the ALMA sources are surrounded by numerous faint companion galaxies that could be bombarding the central ALMA sources with material, helping to drive their high star formation rates.
The team then turned to a sophisticated simulation of galaxy formation to demonstrate that the giant glowing cloud of Lyman-alpha emission can be explained if ultraviolet light produced by star formation in the ALMA sources scatters off the surrounding hydrogen gas. This would give rise to the Lyman-alpha Blob we see.
Jim Geach, lead author of the new study, explains:
“Think of a streetlight on a foggy night — you see the diffuse glow because light is scattering off the tiny water droplets. A similar thing is happening here, except the streetlight is an intensely star-forming galaxy and the fog is a huge cloud of intergalactic gas. The galaxies are illuminating their surroundings.”
Understanding how galaxies form and evolve is a massive challenge. Astronomers think Lyman-alpha Blobs are important because they seem to be the places where the most massive galaxies in the Universe form. In particular, the extended Lyman-alpha glow provides information on what is happening in the primordial gas clouds surrounding young galaxies, a region that is very difficult to study, but critical to understand.
Jim Geach concludes,
“What’s exciting about these blobs is that we are getting a rare glimpse of what’s happening around these young, growing galaxies. For a long time the origin of the extended Lyman-alpha light has been controversial. But with the combination of new observations and cutting-edge simulations, we think we have solved a 15-year-old mystery: Lyman-alpha Blob-1 is the site of formation of a massive elliptical galaxy that will one day be the heart of a giant cluster. We are seeing a snapshot of the assembly of that galaxy 11.5 billion years ago.”
 The negatively charged electrons that orbit the positively charged nucleus in an atom have quantised energy levels. That is, they can only exist in specific energy states, and they can only transition between them by gaining or losing precise amounts of energy. Lyman-alpha radiation is produced when electrons in hydrogen atoms drop from the second-lowest to the lowest energy level. The precise amount of energy lost is released as light with a particular wavelength, in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, which astronomers can detect with space telescopes or on Earth in the case of redshifted objects. For LAB-1, at redshift of z~3, the Lyman-alpha light is seen as visible light.
 Resolution is the ability to see that objects are separated. At low resolution, several bright sources at a distance would seem like a single glowing spot, and only at closer quarters would each source be distinguishable. ALMA’s high resolution has resolved what previously appeared to be a single blob into two separate sources.