Three New Species Discovered in the Milky Way

hidden.gifScientists this week have discovered three previously undiscovered species: a new species of reef lobster living off the cost of the Philippines, a new source of gamma-ray radiation associated with star forming regions, and a new class neutron star+supergiant binary found the Milky Way Galaxy. Each of these three discoveries leads it’s respective discoverers to believe there are a myriad of things still waiting to found in the oceans and outer space. In our cyinical era of “been there, done that,” it seems there is nothing new to wow the mind, but these three new critters indicate our planet and our universe still have a few surprises in store for explorers.

Using the INTEGRAL satellite, astronomers discovered 20 new binary systems that consist on neutron stars orbiting supergiant stars. These findings were presented by Dr. Sylvain Chaty (University Paris 7 / Service d’Astrophysique) at the first GLAST Symposium in Palo Alto, California. Using multi-wavelength observations, he and his team identified 20 sources of X-Ray light, and then did followup observations in optical and infrared light using ESO facilities (image above, credit: Paris 7). The IR and optical observations showed that the X-Rays originated from neutron stars passing through clouds of material surrounding super giant stars. The super giant stars 30 times the mass and 20 times the radius of the sun, and are at a stage in their life when they are puffing off roughly one Earth mass of material per year. This material forms a circumstellar cloud around the supergiant that blocks the majority of the giant stars light from reaching us here on Earth. Instead of a giant star, what we see is a cloud of hot dust and gas radiating in the infrared. (all warm things – including human readers of this blog – emit thermal energy in the form of infrared light). When a neutron star enters this gas cloud, its extreme gravity compresses and heats the gas around it until the material emits X-Ray light. In some of the observed systems, the neutron star’s entire orbit keeps it within the gas and dust cloud. In other systems, the neutron star’s orbit is shaped more like the orbit of a comet, and it spends some of its time in the cloud emitting X-Rays, and other time outside of the cloud. There is a really neat movie of this available on Chaty’s website.

In a second announcement at the same GLAST Symposium, a team of astronomers who operate the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in Namibia described how gamma-ray light can now be convincingly associated with star forming regions that contain massive young stars. These stars, Wolf-Rayet stars, are some of the highest mass stars known, and they live very short lives that are punctuated with a supernova burst and the formation of a black hole or neutron star. The HESS team found diffuse X-Ray emission surrounding a binary system of two Wolf-Rayet Stars. This system is the highest mass binary system known. The diffuse gamma rays come from an area roughly 28 pc in diameter – these is several 1000 times greater than the separation between the two stars! They suggest that the gamma-ray emission may be created by when accelerated particles from the high-energy region around the binary interacting with slower moving materials from the star forming region surrounding the binary. In this scenario, the binary Wolf-Rayet stars blow open a blister in the star forming region in which they reside. Particles within these region are shocked and accelerated. At the skin of the blister, surrounding material is able to leak in, and when it collides with the higher energy particles it is shocked into emitting gamma rays. This scenario has theorized for for a long time and was detailed in 1997 by Whiteoak and Uchida, but this is the first time all the pieces – gamma rays, Wolf-Rayet stars, and a star forming region – have all been found together.

So, what about the lobster? Currently we live during a period biologists refer to as the Holocene extinction. This is an extinction event that is largely driven by man. As we eat things, build things, and chemically treat thing we are killing off vast numbers of animals. It (may have) started with the wooly mammoth, a favorite cuisine of early man, and it continues today with sharks, sword fish, and modern elephants. I could continue my “We’re killing our planet” tirade, but others do it more effectively (see here, here, and here). So, back to the lobster. In a world where so many species are dieing off, it is really cool to find a new type of lobster, and indications that in the Philippines there may be 1000s of new critters just waiting to be classified. And, on a morbid note, each critter we find is one more critter whose genetic structure we can collect and save. Several groups have suggested DNA should be collected from as many life-forms on earth as possible so our planet can someday be re-populated with lost species. Admittedly, this would require cloning, and science still doesn’t know how to clone things consistently, but . . . You can’t clone species you don’t have dna for, so, I’m all for freezing genetic samples.

So, another day, another addition of species not covered in a text book that increase the diversity of our universe. Go science, go.

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