astronomy (10)

Primordial Black Holes...

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Snapshot from the central region of a numerical simulation of two merging neutron stars. It shows the stars stretched out by tidal forces just before their collision. Credit: CoRe/Jena FSU

 

Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Black Holes, Einstein, General Relativity


In the nearly five years since their first direct detection, gravitational waves have become one of the hottest topics in astronomy. With facilities such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), researchers have mostly used these ripples in spacetime to study the inner workings of merging black holes, but LIGO has also detected gravitational waves from other sorts of celestial crashes, such as the collisions of ultradense stellar remnants called neutron stars. Sometimes, however, LIGO serves up gravitational waves that leave astronomers scratching their heads—as was the case for GW190425, an event detected last April that was recently attributed to a neutron star merger.

The trouble is that LIGO’s data suggest this neutron star pair was substantially overweight—collectively, some 3.4 times the mass of the sun, which is half a solar mass heavier than the most massive neutron star binaries ever seen. “It is the heaviest known by a pretty wide margin,” says Chad Hanna, an astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University who hunts gravitational waves.

The trouble is that LIGO’s data suggest this neutron star pair was substantially overweight—collectively, some 3.4 times the mass of the sun, which is half a solar mass heavier than the most massive neutron star binaries ever seen. “It is the heaviest known by a pretty wide margin,” says Chad Hanna, an astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University who hunts gravitational waves.

 

Did Astronomers Just Discover Black Holes from the Big Bang? Nola Taylor Redd, Scientific American

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Through the Looking-Glass...

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An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky.
(Image: © NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

 

Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Radio Astronomy, Research, Space Exploration


“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass


HONOLULU — Mysterious ultra-fast pinpricks of radio energy keep lighting up the night sky and nobody knows why. A newly discovered example of this transient phenomenon has been traced to its place of origin — a nearby spiral galaxy — but it's only made things murkier for astronomers.

The problem concerns a class of blink-and-you'll-miss-them heavenly events known as fast radio bursts (FRBs). In a few thousandths of a second, these explosions produce as much energy as the sun does in nearly a century. Researchers have only known about FRBs since 2007, and they still don't have a compelling explanation regarding their sources.

"The big question is what can produce an FRB," Kenzie Nimmo, a doctoral student at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said during a news briefing on Monday (Jan. 6) here at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii.
 

FRB 180916.J0158+65, as the object is known, is a repeating FRB discovered by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) observatory, a radio telescope near Okanagan Falls in British Columbia that Nimmo called "the world's best FRB-finding machine."

Follow-up observations by a network of telescopes in Europe allowed the research team to produce a high-resolution image of the FRB's location. This location turned out to be a medium-sized spiral galaxy like our Milky Way that is surprisingly nearby, only 500 million light-years away, making it the closest-known FRB to date. The results were published yesterday (Jan. 6) in the journal Nature.

Origin of Deep-Space Radio Flash Discovered, and It's Unlike Anything Astronomers Have Ever Seen
Adam Mann, Live Science

#P4TC links:

FRBs...December 7, 2015
Fast Radio Bursts and Missing Matter...February 25, 2016
ET, FRBs and Light Sails...March 13, 2017

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Astronomy's Top Ten 2019...

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Exoplanet K2-18 b orbits a red dwarf star and has an extended atmosphere containing at least some water vapor, as seen in this artist's concept. The system also contains another exoplanet sitting closer to the star, but it lies inside of the star's habitable zone

 

Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Black Holes, Exoplanets, Hubble


Astronomers have finally uncovered water vapor in the atmosphere of a super-Earth exoplanet orbiting within the habitable zone of its star. The find means that liquid water could also exist on the rocky world's surface, potentially even forming a global ocean.

The discovery, made with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, serves as the first detection of water vapor in the atmosphere of such a planet. And because the planet, dubbed K2-18 b, likely sports a temperature similar to Earth, the newfound water vapor makes the world one of the most promising candidates for follow-up studies with next-generation space telescopes.

"This is the only planet right now that we know outside the solar system that has the correct temperature to support water, it has an atmosphere, and it has water in it, making this planet the best candidate for habitability that we know right now," lead author Angelos Tsiaras, an astronomer at University College London, said in a press conference.
 
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Researchers created this enhanced view of Enceladus’ south polar region by combining Cassini images taken through infrared, green, and ultraviolet filters. The tiger stripe fractures, the source of the plumes venting gas and dust into space, are prominently visible at center.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Lunar and Planetary Institute/Paul Schenk (LPI, Houston)

“In the old time Pallas [Athena] heaved on high Sicily, and on huge Enceladus dashed down the isle, which burns with the burning yet of that immortal giant, as he breathes fire underground.”

 


— Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy

 


Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus has a diameter of only 310 miles (500 kilometers), and a mass less than 1/50,000 that of Earth. When it comes to places to look for life, however, Enceladus is at the top of the list, and it’s right in our cosmic backyard.

A bit ignored at first

 


English astronomer William Herschel discovered Enceladus in 1789, but it remained an enigma until the Cassini mission began orbiting Saturn in 2004. Prior to Cassini, Enceladus was a bit ignored. We didn’t know liquid water could exist that far out in the solar system, so why would anyone be that interested in another boring, dead ball of ice?

 


That all changed one year later, when Cassini’s magnetometer (think: fancy compass) detected something strange in Saturn’s magnetic field near Enceladus. This suggested the moon was active. Subsequent passes by Enceladus revealed four massive fissures — dubbed “tiger stripes” — in a hot spot centered on the south pole. And emanating from those cracks was a massive plume of water vapor and ice grains. Enceladus lost its label of being a dead relic of a bygone era and leaped to center stage as a dynamic world with a subsurface ocean.
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Galactic Armageddon...

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The planet, called WASP-12b, is so close to its sunlike star that it is superheated to nearly 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit and stretched into a football shape by enormous tidal forces. The atmosphere has ballooned to nearly three times Jupiter's radius and is spilling material onto the star. The planet is 40 percent more massive than Jupiter.

 

Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Exoplanets, White Dwarfs


Some rocky exoplanets bear a striking resemblance to Earth, according to Alexandra Doyle, Edward Young and colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles. The team used the properties of light coming from six white-dwarf stars to calculate how much oxygen, iron and other elements were present in planets that once orbited the stars. Their observations suggest that these planets – which were consumed by their stars long ago – have the same geophysical and geochemical properties as Earth. While astronomers are able to observe rocky exoplanets, working out what they are made of is difficult and this research provides important clues regarding the composition of these Earth-like objects.

White dwarfs are the ancient remnants of stars that had masses less than about 10 Suns. This means that most stars in the Milky Way will eventually become white dwarfs – including the Sun. Many white dwarfs would have had planets, which would have been consumed by the stars at some point in their stellar evolution. The atmosphere of a white dwarf is expected to comprise only the lightest elements – hydrogen and helium – so the presence of heavier substances in the stellar atmosphere such as magnesium, iron and oxygen means that the star has probably ingested rocky planets or asteroids.

 

Doomed exoplanets were much like Earth, Hamish Johnston, Physics World

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The Whims of Tyche...

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Fossil of trilobite that evolved following the mid-Ordovician ice age. | Birger Schmitz

 

Topics: Asteroids, Astronomy, Biology, Planetary Science


Tyche: Modern Greek: [ˈti.çi] "luck"; Roman equivalent: Fortuna) was the presiding tutelary deity who governed the fortune and prosperity of a city, its destiny. In Classical Greek mythology, she is the daughter of Aphrodite and Zeus or Hermes. Source: Wikipedia

Dust from the breakup of a 150-kilometer- (93 mile) diameter asteroid may have caused — or at least intensified — an ice age half a billion years ago, providing the impetus for a sweeping array of aquatic animal adaptations that shaped today's spectacularly diverse ocean ecosystems, according to a new study published in the September 20 issue of Science Advances.

The authors uncovered extraterrestrial material in sediments that correlate the timing of asteroid breakup with a major dip in sea level frequently attributed to the onset of the Mid-Ordovician ice age. Their findings suggest that asteroid dust may have settled in Earth's atmosphere, shading the planet from the sun's radiation and cooling global temperatures.

While extraterrestrial dust only accounts for about one percent of the modern atmosphere and does not impact the climate, large quantities of dust lingering for several hundred thousand years or more would be expected to cause global cooling.

"This is the first time anyone has shown that asteroid breakups and asteroid dust can lead to ice ages," said Birger Schmitz, a professor of geology at Lund University in Sweden and the first author of the study. "This is also the first time since the discovery of the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs that an important event in the history of life has been tied to an astronomical event."

 

Asteroid Dust May Have Triggered Ice Age and Sea Life Explosion
Shannon Kelleher, American Association for the Advancement of Science

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Yggdrasil...

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The rings of Saturn take center stage in this portrait by the Hubble Space Telescope taken on June 20, 2019. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL Team

 

Topics: Astronomy, Planetary Science, Space Exploration


There was a strong temptation to use the Norse legend of Bifrost - the rainbow bridge made popular in Thor, but rings of trees tell their age, so...

Yggdrasil is the tree of life, and it is an eternal green Ash tree; the branches stretch out over all of the nine worlds in Norse mythology, and extend up and above the heavens. Norse mythology: Yggdrasil.

Against earlier studies estimating an age of just 100 million years, new research suggests the planet’s rings could be as old as the solar system itself.

The great Saturn ring debate is far from settled, a new study suggests.

For years, scientists have argued about the age of Saturn’s famous rings: Are they ancient, dating to the birth of the planet itself? Or did the ring system form more recently, in just the past hundred million years or so?

This latter hypothesis has been gaining steam in the last few years, with multiple papers reporting that the rings could be even younger than the dinosaurs. Such studies cite the rings’ composition—more than 95% pure water ice—and total mass, which NASA’s Cassini mission pegged at about 15.4 million billion metric tons shortly after the probe’s epic “grand finale” at Saturn in 2017. (For perspective, 15.4 million billion metric tons is about 40% the mass of the Saturn moon Mimas, which is 250 miles, or 400 kilometers, wide.)

 

Saturn’s Rings May Be Ancient After All, Mike Wall, Space.com and Scientific American

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Aleph Null or Not...

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No, it's not real. Credit: Getty Images

 

Topics: Astronomy, Drake Equation, Existentialism, SETI


For many people, "UFO" is synonymous with aliens, but it's worth reminding ourselves that it literally stands for "unidentified flying object." An unidentified object could be just about anything, because … well, it's unidentified. One of our mottoes in science is that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This doesn't mean that crazy-sounding things are never true; it means that we should practice due diligence when thinking about overturning well-understood or well-tested ideas. This motto also suggests we keep an eye on Occam's razor—the idea that the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true.

As enthusiastic as I had been regarding alien visitations (there was a cottage industry in the 1970s that still thrives in Internet circles), one has to ask the question: what would aliens want with Earth? Between here and there whatever their governments are in need of, they can either engineer it or find other options way before engaging warp speed.

Colonization: If history serves as guide, the First Nation/Native Americans encountered colonists that barely survived their first winter. They were repaid like the natives who met Columbus with slaughter.

Africans did trade captured rival tribesmen and women in the budding international slave trade that "made America great." They conferred with Europeans typically with superior weaponry for trade of valuables to compensate their treachery.

Any aliens that can travel parsecs from their home world to Earth doesn't have anything benevolent in mind once arriving, E.T. or Star Trek not withstanding.

Ignoring us: When is the last time you had a conversation with a moth? On the evolutionary scale, you have way more sophistication than something flitting from tree to flower. Aliens if existing and surviving millions of years older than us probably if anything might have the same relationship to us as we have to Lepidoptera.

The sobering possibility: climate change, conventional conflicts, mass shootings pollution and nuclear conflagration - humans are far smarter than the lowly moth, but moths nor butterflies are destroying their own habitat.

We may not see aliens because they may have caused their own extinction before they built starships.

 

No E.T. Life Yet? That might be a warning, Kelsey Johnson, Scientific American

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Remnants...

An artist's impression of the planetesimal orbiting on a 2-hour period within the gaseous disc around SDSS J1228+1040 (by Mark Garlick).

 

Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Exoplanets, Spectrograph, White Dwarfs


When the hydrogen fuel that keeps a star like our sun burning brightly is exhausted, the star expands into a red giant before collapsing into a hot, dense white dwarf. Although the stellar swelling engulfs nearby planets, theoretical models suggest that some planets and planetary cores up to hundreds of kilometers in diameter can survive the star’s death and fall into closer orbit. But identifying solid bodies around a dim stellar core is difficult. Now Christopher Manser (University of Warwick) and colleagues have used a new spectroscopic method to identify a planetesimal orbiting a white dwarf 400 light-years from our solar system.

Astronomers have discovered most exoplanets—including an asteroid-like body orbiting a white dwarf—via the transit method, identifying periodic dimming as an object passes in front of its host star. But the method requires a lucky geometry of the planetary system’s orbital plane relative to Earth. Manser and his team instead turned to short-cadence optical spectroscopy using data from the 10.4 m Gran Telescopio Canarias in Spain. They focused on one of just a few white dwarfs that, based on metal emission lines in the stellar and disk spectra, are suspected to be surrounded by disks of gas and dust. Minute-by-minute observations over several nights in 2017 and 2018 let the researchers deconstruct the light emanating from the disk and determine how much variation had occurred over a year.

 

A glimpse of a planetary system’s final stages, Rachel Berkowitz, Physics Today

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Lumpy Neutron Stars...

An artist’s rendition of a neutron star. Credit: Kevin Gill Flickr (CC by 2.0)

 

Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Einstein, Gravitational Waves, Neutron Stars


Gravitational waves—the ghostly ripples in spacetime first predicted by Einstein and finally detected a century later by advanced observatories—have sparked a revolution in astrophysics, revealing the otherwise-hidden details of merging black holes and neutron stars. Now, scientists have used these waves to open another new window on the universe, providing new constraints on neutron stars' exact shapes. The result will aid researchers in their ongoing quest to understand the inner workings of these exotic objects.

So far, 11 gravitational-wave events have been detected by the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) interferometers in Washington and Louisiana and the Virgo gravitational-wave observatory in Italy. Of these events, 10 came from mergers of binary black holes, and one from the merger of two neutron stars. In all cases, the form of the waves matched the predictions of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

For the binary black hole events, the passing waves lasted less than a second; for the merging neutron stars, the emissions occurred for about 100 seconds. But such rapid pulses aren't the only types of gravitational waves that could be streaming through the universe. In particular, solitary neutron stars might be emitting detectable gravitational waves as they spin—signals that could reveal important new details of the stars' topography and internal composition.

 

Gravitational Observatories Hunt for Lumpy Neutron Stars
David Appell, Scientific American

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Sagittarius A...

Getty Images


Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Black Holes, Cosmology, Einstein


They've captured our imaginations for decades, but we've never actually photographed a black hole before – until now.

Next Wednesday, at several press briefings around the world, scientists will apparently unveil humanity's first-ever photo of a black hole, the European Space Agency said in a statement. Specifically, the photo will be of "Sagittarius A," the supermassive black hole that's at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

But aren't black holes, well, black, and thus invisible, so none of our telescopes can "see" them? Yes – therefore the image we're likely to see will be of the "event horizon," the edge of the black hole where light can't escape. [1]

*****


Next week, a collection of countries around the world are going to make a big announcement, and no one is sure exactly what it’s going to be. However, there are some possibilities, and the most exciting one is that they are about to reveal the first-ever photograph of the event horizon of a black hole.

Taking a photo of a black hole is not an easy task. Not only are black holes famous for not letting any light escape, even the nearest known black holes are very far away. The specific black hole astronomers wanted to photograph, Sagittarius A*, lies at the center of our galaxy 25,000 light-years away.

The international Event Horizon Telescope project announced its plan to photograph Sagittarius A* back in 2017, and they enlisted some of the world’s biggest telescopes to help out. The researchers used half a dozen radio telescopes, including the ALMA telescope in Chile and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii, to stare at Sagittarius A* over the past two years.

And while a picture of the black hole itself is impossible, the EHT astronomers were really aiming at the next best thing: the event horizon, the border of the black hole beyond which not even light can escape. At the event horizon, gravity is so strong that light will orbit the black hole like planets orbit stars, and our telescopes should be able to pick that up. [2]
 

1. 'Something no human has seen before': The first-ever photograph of a black hole will likely be unveiled next week, Doyle Rice, USA Today
2. We Might Be About to See the First Ever Photo of a Black Hole, Avery Thomson, Popular Mechanics

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