Meet The Universe’s First-Ever Supermassive Binary Black Holes
“In 1891, the object OJ 287, 3.5 billion light years distant and a blazar itself, optically bursted. Every 11-12 years since, it’s produced another burst, recently discovered to have two, narrowly-separated peaks. Its central, supermassive black hole is 18 billion solar masses, one of the largest known in the Universe. This periodic double-burst arises from a 100-150 million solar mass black hole punching through the primary’s accretion disk.”
The big problem with black holes is that, well, they’re so dark. They don’t emit any detectable light of their own, so we have to rely on indirect, secondary signals to infer their existence. That usually arises in the form of radio and X-ray radiation from matter that gets accelerated by the black hole’s extreme gravity, as well as from the magnetic fields that an accretion disk around the black hole can create. The radiation can form jets, and when a jet points at our eyes, we see a blazar. Well, the system OJ 287 has a periodic blazar that flares in a double-burst every 11-12 years, indicative of a large, supermassive black hole orbiting an even more massive behemoth, punching through the accretion disk twice with every orbit.
Come meet OJ 287, first found to burst way back in 1891, and still one of only two supermassive black hole binaries known in the Universe!
Remnants Of Our Solar System’s Formation Found In Our Interplanetary Dust
“Our naive picture of a disk that gets very hot, fragments, and cools to then form planets may be hopelessly oversimplified. Instead, we’ve learned that it may actually be cold, outer material that holds the key to our planetary backyard. If the conclusions of the Ishii et al. paper stand the test of time, we may have just revolutionized our understanding of how all planetary systems come into being.”
How did Earth (and the other planets) form? According to conventional wisdom, a molecular cloud collapsed, formed a protoplanetary disk, funneled material into the center, and gave birth to a star. This star then blew off the gas and light elements from the inner Solar System, with the planets we have today representing the survivors from these hot, early stages. Only, what if that picture weren’t correct after all? What if the material that gave rise to our (and other) worlds wasn’t forged in an inferno, but in a colder, more distant environment that only fell into the inner reaches at a later time?
The way to decide would be to identify and examine material left over from these early stages of Solar System formation in enough detail. For the first time, we’ve done exactly that. Don’t miss the results!
New Stars Turn Galaxies Pink, Even Though There Are No ‘Pink Stars’
“New star-forming regions produce lots of ultraviolet light, which ionizes atoms by kicking electrons off of their nuclei.
These electrons then find other nuclei, creating neutral atoms again, eventually cascading down through its energy levels.
Hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe, and the strongest visible light-emitting transition is at 656.3 nanometers.
The combination of this red emission line — known as the Balmer alpha (or Hα) line — with white starlight adds up to pink.”
When you look through a telescope’s eyepiece at a distant galaxy, it will always appear white to you. That’s because, on average, starlight is white, and your eyes are more sensitive to white light than any color in particular. But with the advent of a CCD camera, collecting individual photons one-at-a-time, you can more accurately gauge an astronomical object’s natural color. Even though new stars are predominantly blue in color, star-forming regions and galaxies appear pink. The problem compounds itself when you realize there isn’t any such thing as a pink star! And yet, there’s a straightforward physical explanation for what we see.
It’s a combination of ultraviolet radiation, white starlight, and the physics of hydrogen atoms that turn galaxies pink. Find out how, with some incredible visuals, today!
The 5 Most Important Rules For Scientists Who Write About Science
“Remember that your number one goal, if you’re a scientist writing about your science, is to increase the excitement and knowledge of your audience about what it is that you do. What we’re learning about all aspects of the Universe is expanding and increasing every day, and that joy and wonder should carry over to all of us in our daily lives. We cannot be experts in each and every field, but that underscores exactly why we need experts, and to respect true expertise when we encounter it.
If we take care to communicate responsibly, we can all gain a greater awareness of what it is that we do understand, as well as an appreciation for what that knowledge means. We may never run out of questions to ponder about the Universe itself, but with a little care and effort, we can all come a little bit closer to comprehending the answers.”
For most of us, we recognize that our expertise is extremely limited in all but a few areas. In order to learn what’s going on at the cutting edge of human knowledge, we have to go to the experts. In fields like physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry, that means going to the scientists who study those fields. Yet scientists who communicate their own science often are some of the worst communicators out there, either getting mired in the details and losing the big picture or oversimplifying things to the point where they misinform their audience. Yet, if they just followed these five rules, they could avoid the most common mistakes and do what they set out to: inform the world about what they do and why it matters.
Come get the five most important rules for scientists who write about science. I bet you find value here even if you’re not a scientist yourself!
Is Humanity Ignoring Our First Chance For A Mission To An Oort Cloud Object?
“In 2003, scientists discovered an object beyond Neptune that was unlike any other: Sedna. While there were larger dwarf planets beyond Neptune, and comets that would travel farther from the Sun, Sedna was unique for how far it always remained from the Sun. It always remained more than twice as distant from the Sun as Neptune was, and would achieve a maximum distance nearly 1,000 times as far as the Earth-Sun distance. And despite all that, it’s extremely large: perhaps 1,000 kilometers in diameter. It’s the first object we’ve ever found that might have originated from the Oort cloud. And we’ll only get two chances if we want to send a mission there: in 2033 and 2046. Right now, there isn’t even a proposed NASA mission looking at the possibility. If we do nothing, the opportunity will simply pass us by.”
Out beyond the eight planets of our Solar System, a large number of regions, all containing frozen objects, are theorized to exist. Innermost is the Kuiper belt, consisting of a wide variety of bodies, but all of which come quite close to Neptune’s orbit and feel its gravitational influence. Beyond that are the scattered disk objects: objects kicked by one of the gas giants out to greater distances. Beyond that are the detached objects, which have undergone multiple gravitational interactions and no longer come close to Neptune. And finally, there are the sednoids: objects that never come within double the Sun-Neptune distance of the Sun. There are only two known, and the first one, Sedna, is so large that it’s surely a dwarf planet. With an aphelion of approximately 1000 A.U., it may well have an origin in the inner Oort cloud, which is hitherto only theorized.
Fantastically, we have two launch windows for a mission to Sedna, if we were interested in going. Why are we not clamoring for this mission, and for the potential chance to explore the Oort cloud for the first time?!
Hubble Catches New Stars, Individually, Forming In Galaxies Beyond The Milky Way
“There are a massive variety of star-forming regions nearby, and Hubble’s new Legacy ExtraGalactic UV Survey (LEGUS) is now the sharpest, most comprehensive one ever.
By imaging 50 nearby, star-forming spiral and dwarf galaxies, astronomers can see how the galactic environment affects star-formation.”
Within galaxies, new stars are going to be formed from the existing population of gas. But how that gas collapses and forms stars, as well as the types, numbers, and locations of the stars that will arise, is highly dependent on the galactic environment into which they are born. Dwarf galaxies, for example, tend to form stars when a nearby gravitational interaction triggers them. These bursts occur periodically, leading to multiple populations of stars of different ages. Spirals, on the other hand, form their new stars mostly along the lines traced by their arms, where the dust and gas is densest. Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we’re capable of finding these stars and resolving them individually, using a combination of optical and ultraviolet data.
The best part? These are individually resolved stars from well outside our own galaxy: in 50 independent ones. Here’s what Hubble’s new LEGUS survey is revealing.
Astronomers Confirm Second Most-Distant Galaxy Ever, And Its Stars Are Already Old
“Scientists have just confirmed the second most distant galaxy of all: MACS1149-JD1, whose light comes from when the Universe was 530 million years old: less than 4% of its present age. But what’s remarkable is that we’ve been able to detect oxygen in there, marking the first time we’ve seen this heavy element so far back. From the observations we’ve made, we can conclude this galaxy is at least 250 million years old, pushing the direct evidence for the first stars back further than ever.”
When it comes to the most distant galaxies of all, our current set of cutting-edge telescopes simply won’t get us there. The end of the cosmic dark ages and the dawn of the first cosmic starlight is a mystery that will remain until at least 2020: when the James Webb Space Telescope launches. Using the power of a multitude of observatories, we’ve managed to find a gravitationally lensed galaxy whose light comes to us from over 13 billion years ago. But unlike previous galaxies discovered near that distance, we’ve detected oxygen in this one, allowing us to get a precise measurement and to estimate its age.
For the first time, we have evidence from galaxies, directly, that the Universe’s first stars formed no later than 250 million years after the Big Bang. Here’s how we know.
Mysterious Light Seen Around A Newly Forming Star; Here’s What Astronomers Think It Means
“In order to reproduce the signatures we see, the disk has to be practically edge-on to our line of sight. Which seems weird, because the main binary system that is CS Cha has a disk that’s inclined, somewhere between edge-on and face-on. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen such a misalignment, as dusty, misaligned binary and trinary systems have been seen before. But it already marks the very first time we’ve detected a polarized companion outside of one of these protoplanetary disks! Because so much of the light is blocked by this dust disk, though, we have a hard time telling what the mass of this companion is. Is it a Jupiter-class planet? A super-Jupiter? Or, as the authors conjecture, is it a low-mass brown dwarf: a failed star?
With a dusty disk around the companion, there’s a near-certainty that whatever it is, it will be developing its own orbiting companions in the imminent future!”
600 light years away, in a small constellation in the southern skies, there’s a new binary star system that’s just in the process of forming: CS Cha. It’s only 2 or 3 million years old, a blip in a star’s lifetime. And all around it for billions of kilometers is a dusty, protoplanetary disk. But far outside that disk is a surprise: a companion object. Most companions will be either large planets or brown dwarfs, and that’s not a surprise. But when you look at the light, it should barely be polarized at all: 1% at most. Yet when we looked at the companion with SPHERE, a new instrument aboard the Very Large Telescope in Chile, we found that a whopping 14% of the light was polarized!
This was no mistake, but the implications are tremendous. After some very careful research, scientists think they know the answer to what’s going on: there’s a dusty disk around the companion object, too!