Tag Archives: Space telescope

JUMBOs in Orion

Modern science, with today’s technology, has accomplished a lot in exploring the universe, but now and then something happens that reminds us we don’t know everything. In October 2023 the James Webb Space Telescope, which detects infrared light of faint objects, found some objects in Orion that were surprising. It found objects that seem to be planets but they are not orbiting stars. Actually 540 of these objects were found in Orion. But the amazing thing was that 40 of them are planet-planet binary pairs. Planets orbiting each other instead of orbiting a star. There are also two cases of trinary objects that were found in Orion, with three objects orbiting each other. They were found in a star cluster called Trapezium, which is within the Orion Nebula. The Orion Nebula is the subject of many beautiful pictures. But a nebula is a hot inhospitable place. Star clusters may be made up of hundreds to thousands of stars (such as the Pleiades for instance). In star clusters the stars are relatively close together, which means they can affect each other. So what if the stars in a star cluster have planets? This puts those planets in a kind of danger zone, a high traffic region of space.

A few definitions are in order to appreciate how unusual these objects are. There are many stars in our galaxy that have extra-solar planets orbiting them. It is generally accepted by most planetary scientists that planets form from a spinning disk of gas and dust that spins around a star that recently formed. But, it is generally accepted that when exoplanets form, they can sometimes get kicked out and escape the gravity of their star. This could happen perhaps if two planets got too close to each other. Or perhaps if an exoplanet were in a long orbit that puts it a long distance from its star and then another nearby star comes close to the planet, pulling it away. Planets that escape their stars like this are called rogue planets, or unbound planets, or sometimes FFP’s, for Free-Floating Planets. In fact the word “planet” came from a Greek word that meant “wanderer.” It can be a challenge to determine what a “free-floating” object in space is. If an object is not giving off energy like a star and it is about 14 Jupiter masses or more, it is generally called a Brown Dwarf star. It was generally believed that an object smaller than that cannot form by compression of gases and material from its own gravity. Scientists generally believed for years that it was only near a star that gas and dust could become dense enough to form planets. But today some scientists are questioning this.

The objects found in Orion have one of two new acronyms. If they are wandering alone and not orbiting any other object they are called Jupiter Mass Objects, or JMOs. If they are in pairs they are called JUMBOs, which means Jupiter Mass Binary Objects. The trinary objects don’t seem to have their own acronym. I would say to be consistent you could call them Jupiter Mass Trinary Objects, or JUMTOs. The ones found in Orion range in mass from 0.6 Jupiter mass to 14 Jupiter masses. Again, 40 of them are binary pairs. There are some amazing photos showing these planet pairs in Orion. There are a number of puzzling questions raised by these objects.

For pictures, see this article from Scientific American. Title: Stunning Images Reveal Rogue Planets of the Orion Nebula

  1. Why are there so many JMOs in Orion?
  2. Why are there so many JUMBOs in Orion?
  3. How did they get there?
  4. Did they once orbit stars, or not? If they did orbit stars, what happened to those stars?
  5. Could JMOs become JUMBOs? Or, could JUMBOs become JMOs?
  6. How stable are the JUMBOs?

The James Webb telescope detected these new objects from their heat given off in infrared energy. You might expect that if they are not orbiting a star they would be cold objects, but not usually. They are hot; they would not be detectable if they were not. Two scientists from Leiden University in the Netherlands published on the internet a technical paper describing simulations they did examining four possible scenarios that might explain the JUMBOs. The paper is not peer reviewed and is not yet published in any scientific journal as far as I can tell. The copy I found was dated March 12, 2024 (search for arXiv:2312.04645). So, this is very recent. Their last names are Zwart and Hochart. When such things are detected, if you know the distance to them you can estimate their size and mass from how bright they are. Then, for the binary ones the distance between the bound objects can be estimated. Since these objects are in a star cluster near known stars, their distances can be determined well. So Zwart and Hochart estimate that the separation distance between the binaries ranges from 25 to 380 A.U. Recall that 1 Astronomical Unit is the distance from Earth to our Sun, or about 93 million miles. Zwart and Hochart argue that these binary objects are likely to be in very elliptical orbits.

What Ifs

Zwart and Hochart look into four scenarios for where the JUMBOs came from. Note that their models do not actually handle the formation of the objects. They seem to assume they formed either around a star as conventional secular theories say, or they formed in the star cluster with the stars. For them to form around a star is the conventional notion of naturalistic formation by gravity. The second option of forming in the nebula as the stars are believed to have formed is unconventional but still naturalistic. So the computer simulations of Zwart and Hochart only look at if you start with one arrangement of stars and planets and let it run, what happens? Then if you start with a different arrangement of stars and planets and let it run again, what happens?

The four scenarios modeled in the simulations were referred to with acronyms SPP, SPM, FFC, and ISF. SPP represents Star Planet-Planet. This assumes that in the star cluster some of the stars originally form with two planets orbiting them. Then something happens causing both planets to escape the gravity of their star. Of course, this would have to have happened for at least 20 different systems to explain 40 binaries. Then there is SPM, which means Star Planet-Moon. In this case stars in the cluster form with a planet that has at least one moon. Then the planet with its moon is ejected away from the star somehow. So, in this scenario, the moon continues to orbit the planet, though the planet moves away from the star and the orbit of the moon around the planet would change. The authors pointed out that in their simulations, for this to explain the number of Jupiter Mass Objects and JUMBOs, the planet would have to start a long distance from its star as it formed (such as up to 200 A.U.), so that it would be relatively easy for the planet to be pulled away from the star. Thus, this scenario is unrealistic for explaining so many JUMBOs.

The third scenario examined by the authors was FFC, for Free-Floating Capture. In this scenario, the planets initially form from in a disk surrounding a star by the conventional concept. But, then the planets become separate from their stars later. Then the separated planets come near enough to each other to capture each other and start orbiting together. This requires two mysterious events, first something making the planets escape their star and then another chance interaction where two planets come near enough to capture each other. In this scenario, the planets start conventionally, become JMOs, then become JUMBOs. Note that this is all happening within a nebula and within a star cluster, not in empty space. The authors made the following comment about the SPP and FFC scenarios: “The SPP and FFC models systematically fail to reproduce the observed population of JuMBOs by a factor of 50 to 400.

This leaves the ISF scenario, which represents “In situ” formation. This is where the planets are assumed to form in the star cluster in the same manner as the stars. However, in this scenario, many JUMBOs exist at the start. So many of the planets initially form as planet-planet pairs in the star cluster. How this would happen is left a mystery and not addressed by the authors of the paper. The authors also looked at what happens to the JUMBOs over time. They tend to break up and do not last long. They made the following statement about this: “Overall, the JuMBO survival rate decreases rapidly with a half-life < 1 Myr.” So after the star cluster formed, there would be many JUMBOs and the number of JUMBOs would decrease over time. Presumably some JUMBOs that separate and become JMOs could reform into binary pairs again. But the authors conclude that the ISF scenario best explains the large number of JMOs and JUMBOs. I was surprised the authors came to this conclusion.

It will be interesting to see how this is received by the scientific community. I suspect that planetary scientists will react against the authors ISF scenario because it raises difficult questions of how could planets form as binaries without a star? There is not a accepted scientific model for formation of planets like this. However, a variation on the ISF idea could be what you might call In situ Creation, or ISC. This would be to assume the binary planets were supernaturally created in the beginning with the star cluster (along with some JMOs). Then the number of JUMBOs decreases over time to the present. This would work in a young universe approach. Another possibility might involve some catastrophic scenario for the nebula or the star cluster that could explain how many planets could be pulled away from their star in a relatively short time. NASA has indicated the age of the Orion Nebula is only 2 million years. What effect would a supernova have if it were near a star cluster containing planets?

There will undoubtedly be more investigation of the possibilities to explain these surprising objects. There have been rogue planets found in other nebulas. What will the James Webb Space Telescope find in other nebulas? What other models will be put forward to explain objects like this? The density of stars in the cluster could be important in these models as well as the kind of matter in the nebula. I believe in not jumping to conclusions too quickly, as Treebeard said in Lord of the Rings, “Now now, don’t be hasty.” But I think belief in God is not undermined by new discoveries. Fortunately for us, our dear planet Earth was not placed in a star cluster like Trapezium. As we learn how to interpret the scientific evidence, new discoveries can actually validate a Biblical viewpoint.

Images from the James Webb Space Telescope

Recently in mid-July 2022 we began to see images from the James Webb Space Telescope. The new images are generating excitement and new questions in the scientific community. It is always exciting when new technology allows us to see something mankind has never seen before. The more we discover, the more new puzzles and mysteries are encountered as well. First of all, who was James Webb? He was administrator of NASA during the Apollo Mission years and gained a great reputation for helping accomplish important discoveries in space science. To go to the NASA official website for the James Webb Telescope, see https://www.jwst.nasa.gov/.

The James Webb Telescope (or JWST) is an infrared telescope and the successor of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared telescopes are more effective from in space where they can be kept very cold. The JWST has several sheets of material that shield it from heat radiating from the Earth and the Moon. It has been placed at a special location known as L2, which is one of the “Lagrange Points” for Earth. In this location gravity makes it quite stable and it is never in direct Sunlight since Earth lies between it and the Sun. The James Webb telescope is said to be so sensitive that it could detect the heat given off by a bumble bee at a distance to the Moon! The JWST has 18 mirrors that are very precisely aligned to look in the same direction. Thus it collects digital image data and the data is magnified in a way that is essentially like stacking the 18 images on top of each other. There are three ranges of infrared wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that can be viewed by the Webb telescope. Since all these wavelengths are invisible to our naked eyes, scientists essentially shift them to the visible range as desired to allow us to see them. Thus, the images generated do not show the objects in their “real” or “natural” colors, rather scientists can pick the colors to show different types of detail, depending on what they are wanting to study. This is how an infrared telescope is used and it makes for some beautiful images that are interesting to compare to the images from other telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, for example.

Webb’s First Deep Field

The Hubble Space Telescope was famous for its “Deep Field” images in long exposures of a piece of ‘dark’ sky. So, it’s not surprising one of the first images released on July 11 by the JWST has been called the Webb’s First Deep Field (shown below cropped and resized). It is a composite image that took a total of 12.5 hours. It captures galaxies farther away than anything the Hubble Space Telescope could obtain. It is mostly an image of galaxies, but there are some stars at relatively nearby distances that show up with spikes. The stars with diffraction spikes are not important, they are only an artifact of the telescope. The telescope is really looking at what lies behind the stars with spikes. Near the center of the image to the lower right of the large spikes is galaxy cluster known as SMACS-0723. This galaxy cluster is massive enough to bend the light from galaxies behind it. So, the galaxy cluster is magnifying and bending light from the galaxies behind it. This is an example of gravitational lensing, something Einstein predicted. The lensing effect causes the distant galaxies light to be smeared out in an arc. The arcs look almost concentric around the large cluster.

Galaxy cluster SMACS-0723. Shows gravitational lensing of very distant galaxies.

Stephen’s Quintet

Next is a very famous group of galaxies that are interacting known as Stephen’s Quintet. It gets its name from five galaxies. In the James Webb image, three of the large galaxies show up in somewhat different colors, one greenish, one blue, and the one on top is purple and reddish. The blue elliptical shaped galaxy is nearer to us than the others. But these galaxies are distorting each other’s shapes and pulling gases and stars off of each other. The one above the others with red and purple apparently collided with the greenish one. The JWST provides a unique view of Stephen’s Quintet. This image is from the MIRI instrument, which is seeing mid-infrared light. This means it is looking through some layers of dust and gas to see deeper inside.

James Webb Space Telescope image in mid-infrared. Multiple galaxies interacting.

The JWST image of Stephen’s Quintet above is interesting to compare with another image of the same thing, below. The image below is Stephen’s Quintet viewed with a combination of X-Rays and Visible light. There are distorted galaxy arms and a blue shock wave visible in this image that are not visible in the James Webb image above. This shows how the MIRI instrument can see through outer material. The same region of sky around Stephen’s Quintet can look very different, when you are seeing different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. There are actually more than five galaxies in these images. Astronomers have been fascinated by the Quintet for a long time.

Stephens Quintet in X-Rays and optical light
This image shows Stephens Quintet in X-Rays and optical light. Rotated about 45 degrees counterclockwise compared to the JWST image above.

The Southern Ring Nebula

Next is an interesting pair of images, both from the JWST. The Southern Ring Nebula is shown below using two different ranges of wavelengths in infrared light. The left image is from NIRCam, the James Webb telescope’s near infrared camera. This camera uses lower wavelength light, which is of higher energy. Then the image on the right is the MIRI instrument, for mid-infrared light. The mid-infrared uses higher wavelengths, which are of lower energy. So, its like NIRCam sees the hotter material and MIRI sees through the outer layers to the cooler material within. The Southern Ring Nebula has two stars within it that orbit each other. The two stars can be seen in the image on the right. The star that looks less bright has already shed some of its material to make the nebula. The other star (brighter) may do the same, some day. We are basically looking at the nebula end-on. If we could see it from a side view, it would look like two bowls stuck together at the bottom, with a hole in their centers where the stars are. Space telescopes not only help us see what we could not see with the naked eye, they allow us to highlight different elements in the gases or see particular features by studying the light spectrum from the object.

JWST Southern Ring Nebula
Two JWST images of the Southern Ring Nebula. Left image is in near-infrared. Right image is mid-infrared.

NIRSpec and Spectroscopy

One of the great technical innovations with the James Webb telescope I think is what’s called NIRSpec, for near-infrared spectroscopy. Spectroscopy breaks down or splits the light into its component wavelengths (like a prism but JWST has something way beyond what a prism does). So, spectroscopy allows astronomers to determine what chemical elements are present in what they see. What is more, the JWST NIRSpec instrument can observe 100 objects at the same time! There is a sophisticated micro-shutter system operated magnetically where each micro-shutter is about the width of a human hair. With this system two objects may be near each other in the sky but one could be blocked out and the other measured in a very precise way. The spectroscopic measurements of the JWST will be very important for study of nebulas and dust, extrasolar planets, and other objects. I’m particularly interested in what the Webb telescope discovers about exoplanets. Already, the JWST has done transit measurements of one exoplanet, WASP-96b. This exoplanet is only 1/9 of the distance to its star as Mercury is to our Sun. It is a gas planet of about ½ of the mass of our planet Jupiter but it is about 20% larger than Jupiter in size. It is very “puffed up” and close to its star. WASP-96b requires only 3 ½ Earth days to orbit its star. The Webb telescope gathered spectra as WASP-96b passed in front of its star. This spectra showed very clear evidence of water vapor in the planet’s gases. This is not the first evidence of water in an exoplanet but the extraordinary thing is the clarity of the data from the Webb telescope.

Surprising Galaxies

So far the main surprise to scientists from the James Webb Space Telescope comes from very distant galaxies that have been detected. There’s likely to be much more debate in the scientific community about these findings. The JWST has detected evidence for the most distant galaxies ever observed. The greatest distances in the universe are often expressed in terms of redshift. The redshift is expressed as a number; before the JWST, the most distance galaxies might have had a redshift value of 11-13. But even though it’s been only a few weeks since images started being released, the JWST is making a stir over distant galaxies. In some things our beliefs tend to determine what surprises us. Thus, there’s a need to understand a bit about Big Bang theory to understand what is surprising about the JWST images.

In the Big Bang theory, the universe begins with a hot fireball and a very rapid expansion of space. In the Big Bang model, it takes a few hundred thousand years for the expanding fireball to cool down enough that hydrogen atoms can form. When hydrogen can form and remain stable this is known as the decoupling of matter and radiation. From this time forward, the universe cools down as it expands. But all there is initially is hydrogen gas. There were no stars or galaxies or nebulas. But there were regions more dense than others and it is thought that gravity would begin forming clumps of matter. There has been a long debate among cosmologists over which came first, stars or galaxies. The general consensus today is that the first stars formed first, perhaps often in clusters, and then they collected together into galaxies. This is a process that requires a lot of time. The process is ill-defined actually and is very much still a mystery to scientists. How much time would it take to form the first galaxy? It’s thought that the earliest stars may have formed about 180 million years after the Big Bang. This means that in Big Bang theory, after the universe expands and cools down, there would be a period in which there are not yet any stars or galaxies. Then if the above scenario is correct, stars would have to form and then collect together into galaxies. So this period in which there was not yet any stars or galaxies has been referred to as the “dark age” of the universe.

The significant thing about the JWST is that it is thought to be able to see back to about what would be the approximate end of the “dark age”. So has JWST seen the end of galaxies? Not yet. Case in point is an object labeled as CEERS-93316; it is known officially as a “galaxy candidate.” Its redshift is 16.7, which scientists would say this puts it at about 250 million years after the Big Bang. There may be other “candidate galaxies” detected by JWST with redshifts of as much as 18. We may have to wait and see if these numbers are confirmed by other researchers. But, this is way out there!! By known effects such as gravity, it is challenging to explain how galaxies could form so early after the Big Bang. JWST will give better information on these distant objects than we have had before, thus these distant galaxies are going to be objects of much scrutiny. One scientist studying CEERS-93316 expressed the problem as below:

“The observations of this galaxy push observations back to the time when we think the first galaxies ever to exist were being formed. Already we’ve found more galaxies in the very early Universe than computer simulations predicted, so there is clearly a lot of open questions about how and when the first stars and galaxies formed.”
(To read more on this go to https://phys.org/news/2022-08-farthest-galaxy-broken-million-years.html )

Unlike what many Christians in the sciences say, I think the Bible conflicts completely with the Big Bang. The Bible doesn’t describe technical details of the beginning of the universe but it does give a time frame. The Earth and universe were completed in a week, from God’s miraculous activity. This implies that galaxies did not require a long process to form from gravity collecting stars together. Everything was complete and ready for the first man and woman when they were made on the sixth day. Thus, I suspect JWST will not see the end of galaxies. The most distant galaxies will look like galaxies usually look. But there could be surprises; there always are when we get to see with new technology. I think believing God created miraculously is more believable than believing that natural forces and processes did it all. Natural processes are just not up to the task of forming a universe.

Images: Public domain from NASA & the Space Telescope Science Institute (cropped and resized)