Astronomers Have Detected 83 Black Holes in The Early Universe, Challenging Cosmology
19 MAR 2019
Astronomers have just found 83 quasars, powered by supermassive black holes and dating back to the infancy of the Universe, when it was less than 10 percent of its current age.
This discovery reveals that such objects were more common at the dawn of time than we thought, and challenges our entire cosmological model.
Quasars are among the brightest objects in the Universe, extremely luminous galactic cores powered by actively feeding supermassive black holes. As material swirls around the black hole, its friction generates such intense radiation that it can be seen, even from billions of light-years away.
There’s just one big problem. We think we know how black holes form – they are the collapsed cores of massive stars. And supermassive black holes can have up to billions of times the mass of the Sun.
This takes time, and requires copious amounts of matter. So how the heck did all these quasars pop up so early in the Universe’s history?
But these – although still a puzzle – were thought to be relatively rare. So astronomers from Japan, Taiwan and the US broadened the search, using data from the Hyper Suprime-Cam mounted on the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.
With this instrument, they could look for much fainter quasars than ones discovered previously. The oldest quasar they found was a massive 13.05 billion light-years away, tying for the second-most distant quasar ever found.
The Universe is thought to be about 13.8 billion years old, and the first stars – we think – didn’t appear until around 500 million years after the Big Bang, after the neutral hydrogen of the early-early Universe was reionised. That just leaves a couple of hundred million years for the quasars to form.
The team’s survey suggests that these objects were actually fairly abundant back then. They identified candidate quasars in the HSC data, then conducted a dedicated survey using multiple telescopes to obtain light signatures, or spectra, from these objects.
(National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)
These spectra turned up the 83 new quasars, over the last few years. Together with 17 previously known quasars in the survey region, the team calculated that there’s roughly one quasar for every cubic giga-light-year; that is, cube of space with a billion light-years per side.
While that’s more than previously thought, it’s not quite enough for another hypothesis.
Just after the Big Bang, the Universe was a sort of dark, hot “primordial soup” on a cosmic scale, rapidly expanding.
As it expanded, it cooled, causing protons and neutrons to start to combine into ionised hydrogen atoms; around 240,000-300,000 years after the Big Bang, these hydrogen atoms attracted electrons, coalescing into neutral hydrogen.
But it wasn’t until gravity started to pull together the first stars and galaxies in this murky, hydrogen-filled void that starlight appeared… and not long after that, according to current theories, the neutral hydrogen was excited by the ultraviolet light of these newborn stars, galaxies, as-yet undetected quasars, or a combination of all three.
This is called the Epoch of Reionisation, and we just don’t know how it happened. But now we know – based on this research – there weren’t enough quasars to be solely responsible for this process.
The new quasar population data will help us learn more about the formation of supermassive black holes in the early Universe – and the team is going to continue the search to see if they can find quasars that are even older. This could help researchers to figure out when the first black holes were born.
“The quasars we discovered will be an interesting subject for further follow-up observations with current and future facilities,” said astronomer Yoshiki Matsuoka of Ehime University in Japan.
“We will also learn about the formation and early evolution of supermassive black holes, by comparing the measured number density and luminosity distribution with predictions from theoretical models.”
The discoveries have been detailed in five papers, which can be found here, here, here, here and here.
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Something strange is going on at the top of the world. Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.
On 15 January, they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.
The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. “The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information.
The problem lies partly with the moving pole and partly with other shifts deep within the planet. Liquid churning in Earth’s core generates most of the magnetic field, which varies over time as the deep flows change. In 2016, for instance, part of the magnetic field temporarily accelerated deep under northern South America and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Satellites such as the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission tracked the shift.
By early 2018, the World Magnetic Model was in trouble. Researchers from NOAA and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh had been doing their annual check of how well the model was capturing all the variations in Earth’s magnetic field. They realized that it was so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors.
“That was an interesting situation we found ourselves in,” says Chulliat. “What’s happening?” The answer is twofold, he reported last month at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC.
First, that 2016 geomagnetic pulse beneath South America came at the worst possible time, just after the 2015 update to the World Magnetic Model. This meant that the magnetic field had lurched just after the latest update, in ways that planners had not anticipated.
Second, the motion of the north magnetic pole made the problem worse. The pole wanders in unpredictable ways that have fascinated explorers and scientists since James Clark Ross first measured it in 1831 in the Canadian Arctic. In the mid-1990s it picked up speed, from around 15 kilometres per year to around 55 kilometres per year. By 2001, it had entered the Arctic Ocean — where, in 2007, a team including Chulliat landed an aeroplane on the sea ice in an attempt to locate the pole.
In 2018, the pole crossed the International Date Line into the Eastern Hemisphere. It is currently making a beeline for Siberia.
The geometry of Earth’s magnetic field magnifies the model’s errors in places where the field is changing quickly, such as the North Pole. “The fact that the pole is going fast makes this region more prone to large errors,” says Chulliat.
To fix the World Magnetic Model, he and his colleagues fed it three years of recent data, which included the 2016 geomagnetic pulse. The new version should remain accurate, he says, until the next regularly scheduled update in 2020.
In the meantime, scientists are working to understand why the magnetic field is changing so dramatically. Geomagnetic pulses, like the one that happened in 2016, might be traced back to ‘hydromagnetic’ waves arising from deep in the core1. And the fast motion of the north magnetic pole could be linked to a high-speed jet of liquid iron beneath Canada2.
The jet seems to be smearing out and weakening the magnetic field beneath Canada, Phil Livermore, a geomagnetist at the University of Leeds, UK, said at the American Geophysical Union meeting. And that means that Canada is essentially losing a magnetic tug-of-war with Siberia.
“The location of the north magnetic pole appears to be governed by two large-scale patches of magnetic field, one beneath Canada and one beneath Siberia,” Livermore says. “The Siberian patch is winning the competition.”
Which means that the world’s geomagnetists will have a lot to keep them busy for the foreseeable future.
Nature565, 143-144 (2019)
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For The First Time Ever, Astronomers Detected Planets Outside Our Galaxy in 2018
23 DEC 2018
In an incredible world first, astrophysicists detected multiple planets in another galaxy earlier this year, ranging from masses as small as the Moon to ones as great as Jupiter.
Given how difficult it is to find exoplanets even within our Milky Way galaxy, this is no mean feat. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma achieved this in February thanks to clever use of gravitational microlensing.
The technique, first predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, has been used to find exoplanets within Milky Way, and it’s the only known way of finding the smallest and most distant planets, thousands of light-years from Earth.
As a planet orbits a star, the gravitational field of the system can bend the light of a distant star behind it.
We know what this looks like when it’s just two stars, so when a planet enters the mix, it creates a further disturbance in the light that reaches us – a recognisable signature for the planet.
So far, 53 exoplanets within the Milky Way have been detected using this method. To find planets farther afield, though, something a little bit more powerful than a single star was required.
Oklahoma University astronomers Xinyu Dai and Eduardo Guerras studied a quasar 6 billion light-years away called RX J1131-1231, one of the best gravitationally lensed quasars in the sky.
The gravitational field of a galaxy 3.8 billion light-years away between us and the quasar bends light in such a way that it creates four images of the quasar, which is an active supermassive black hole that’s extremely bright in X-ray, thanks to the intense heat of its accretion disc.
Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, the researchers found that there were peculiar line energy shifts in the quasar’s light that could only be explained by planets in the galaxy lensing the quasar.
It turned out to be around 2,000 unbound planets with masses ranging between the Moon and Jupiter, between the galaxy’s stars.
“We are very excited about this discovery. This is the first time anyone has discovered planets outside our galaxy,” Dai said.
Of course, we haven’t seen the planets directly, and are unlikely to in the lifetime of anyone alive today. But being able to detect them at all is an incredible testament to the power of microlensing, not to mention being evidence that there are planets in other galaxies.
Of course, common sense would dictate that planets are out there – but evidence is always nice.
“This is an example of how powerful the techniques of analysis of extragalactic microlensing can be,” said Guerras.
“This galaxy is located 3.8 billion light years away, and there is not the slightest chance of observing these planets directly, not even with the best telescope one can imagine in a science fiction scenario.
“However, we are able to study them, unveil their presence and even have an idea of their masses. This is very cool science.”
Collimated jets provide astronomers with some of the most powerful evidence that a supermassive black hole lurks in the heart of most galaxies. Some of these black holes appear to be active, gobbling up material from their surroundings and launching jets at ultra-high speeds, while others are quiescent, even dormant. Why are some black holes feasting and others starving? Recent observations from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, are shedding light on this question.
SOFIA data indicate that magnetic fields are trapping and confining dust near the center of the active galaxy, Cygnus A, and feeding material onto the supermassive black hole at its center.
The unified model, which attempts to explain the different properties of active galaxies, states that the core is surrounded by a donut-shaped dust cloud, called a torus. How this obscuring structure is created and sustained has never been clear, but these new results from SOFIA indicate that magnetic fields may be responsible for keeping the dust close enough to be devoured by the hungry black hole. In fact, one of the fundamental differences between active galaxies like Cygnus A and their less active cousins, like our own Milky Way, may be the presence or absence of a strong magnetic field around the black hole.
Although celestial magnetic fields are notoriously difficult to observe, astronomers have used polarized light—optical light from scattering and radio light from accelerating electrons—to study magnetic fields in galaxies. But optical wavelengths are too short and the radio wavelengths are too long to observe the torus directly. The infrared wavelengths observed by SOFIA are just right, allowing scientists, for the first time, to target and isolate the dusty torus.
SOFIA’s new instrument, the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-plus (HAWC+), is especially sensitive to the infrared emission from aligned dust grains. This has proven to be a powerful technique to study magnetic fields and test a fundamental prediction of the unified model: the role of the dusty torus in the active-galaxy phenomena.
“It’s always exciting to discover something completely new,” noted Enrique Lopez-Rodriguez, a scientist at the SOFIA Science Center, and the lead author on the report of this new discovery. “These observations from HAWC+ are unique. They show us how infrared polarization can contribute to the study of galaxies.”
Recent observations of the heart of Cygnus A made with HAWC+ show infrared radiation dominated by a well-aligned dusty structure. Combining these results with archival data from the Herschel Space Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the research team found that this powerful active galaxy, with its iconic large-scale jets, is able to confine the obscuring torus that feeds the supermassive black hole using a strong magnetic field.
The results of this study were published in the July 10th issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Cygnus A is in the perfect location to learn about the role magnetic fields play in confining the dusty torus and channeling material onto the supermassive black hole because it is the closest and most powerful active galaxy. More observations of different types of galaxies are necessary to get the full picture of how magnetic fields affect the evolution of the environment surrounding supermassive black holes. If, for example, HAWC+ reveals highly polarized infrared emission from the centers of active galaxies but not from quiescent galaxies, it would support the idea that magnetic fields regulate black hole feeding and reinforce astronomers’ confidence in the unified model of active galaxies.
(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NORTH CAROLINA NEWS AGENCY, THE VERGE)
A new discovery is strengthening the idea that a large, mysterious planet — known as Planet 9 or Planet X — may be lurking unseen at the Solar System’s edge. Astronomers say they have found a tiny object orbiting far out from the Sun that fits with the Planet X theory. In fact, the object may have even been pushed onto the path it takes now by this hidden planet’s gravity.
The tiny rock — eloquently named TG387 and nicknamed “The Goblin” — was spotted by astronomers at the Carnegie Institution of Science using a giant Japanese observatory in Hawaii called Subaru. The Carnegie team first spotted the object in 2015 and then followed it on its journey around the Sun for the last four years. Those observations revealed an incredibly distant target. TG387 takes a whopping 40,000 years to complete just one orbit around the Sun. And it’s on a very elliptical path far from the inner Solar System; the closest it ever gets to the Sun is 65 Astronomical Units (AU), or 65 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth. For reference, Pluto only gets as far as 49 AU’s from the Sun.
This orbit is particularly enticing since it puts TG387 in a select group of distant Solar System objects that all point to the possible existence of Planet X. Right now, there are 14 far-out space rocks that all share similar orbit patterns, suggesting that this planet is out there. Their paths are all super elongated, and they all cluster together in the same area when they approach the Sun. Plus, their orbits are all tilted alike, and they point in the same general direction, as if something big has pushed them into similar places. These objects are the strongest lines of evidence astronomers have for Planet X, and finding a new one that matches this pattern reinforces that idea that this planet is more than just a theory.
Plus, each new find helps astronomers narrow down where to look for Planet X. “Each time we find another one of these smaller objects, it will lead us to constrain where the bigger planet could be,” Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at Carnegie Science and the lead author of a study in The Astronomical Journal detailing the discovery, tells The Verge. “They’re all on very similar orbits, but their orbits are all slightly different, which [limits] where the planet could be.”
The idea that a giant planet is lurking beyond Neptune is an idea that astronomers have speculated for the last century. However, the hunt for this planet turned much more serious in 2012, when Sheppard and his team found a far-flung object that was truly unique. It was an object called VP113, and it currently holds the record for the most distant object orbiting the Sun. The closest it ever gets to the star is 80 AU’s, or 80 times the Earth-Sun distance. Sheppard noticed that this object also followed a path similar to those of a few other distant space rocks, as well as a far-off dwarf planet called Sedna. “They all have this clustering, and so that suggested that something was pushing them into similar types of orbits,” says Sheppard.
Then, in 2016, a pair of researchers from Cal Tech, Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin, did the math. Based on the orbits of six of these objects, they estimated that there’s a planet roughly 10 times the mass of Earth orbiting far beyond Neptune. Their calculations showed that it possibly takes 10,000 to 20,000 years to orbit the Sun. Brown and Batygin dubbed the phantom planet “Planet 9,” though others had been calling it Planet X years before.
Since then, more and more objects have been found that fit this orbit pattern. The idea is that these objects are in just the right orbits needed to survive Planet X’s gravitational wrath. If they followed any other path, they would likely collide with the big planet or the planet’s gravity would send them hurtling out of the Solar System. However, all of these very distant extreme objects orbit in such a way that they never get close to Planet X when it crosses their orbits. “Whenever the planet is crossing the orbit of one of these objects, these objects are on the other side of the Solar System. So they never get close to each other,” says Sheppard.
But not all of these objects are as reliable narrators as they could be. “Among these 14 objects, some tell a more precise story than others,” Batygin, who was not involved with today’s study, tells The Verge. For one thing, some of the objects cross the orbit of Neptune, and that planet’s gravity might have some influence on the objects and warp their routes. “Neptune has the effect of muddying things up, even if you have an orbit carefully sculpted by Planet 9.” That makes it hard to know whether or not the object is truly pushed about by this unseen planet.
But this new discovery, TG387, is special because its orbit is so distant. When it’s farthest from the Sun, the rock will be at an extreme 2,300 AU’s away. In fact, it’s remarkable that astronomers found it all since it’s about seven times smaller than Pluto and so far off. But because of its extreme distance, TG387 is not influenced in any way by the large objects in the inner Solar System. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune don’t have any effect on its orbit. That means if this object was truly batted around by Planet X, it might hold more information about the planet’s orbit than other objects do. And when the team ran simulations of the Solar System with a Planet X in it, they found that this object’s orbit isn’t subject to change. “This one joins an elite group of six objects that are stable,” says Batygin.
Of course, Planet X is nowhere near a done deal. There are only 14 objects that potentially support its existence. That’s a super low number by statistical standards. “We don’t have tens of these objects,” Michele Bannister, an astronomer studying distant small bodies at Queen’s University Belfast, who was not involved with this research, tells The Verge. “I’d be very happy if we had tens, but there’s barely even a handful.” Additionally, Bannister says it’s important to remember that astronomers still don’t have a comprehensive snapshot of the distant Solar System. The time of year, the weather, and the part of the sky a telescope observes all influence the kind of objects that are discovered out there, adding bias to the sample.
Plus, the objects that we find are typically on their closest approaches to the Sun on their super distant orbits, and that skews our discoveries a bit. For instance, TG387 was found when it was around 80 AU’s away, not thousands of AU’s away. That means we may not have a good idea of what all is out there because we can’t see the objects that are super far out on their orbits. “Each of these objects we detect is the tip of an iceberg for a larger population,” says Bannister. For every new discovery made, there must be hundreds of thousands of more objects that astronomers can’t see. And those objects could tell a different story than the Planet X one.
However, Bannister, who predicted that an object like TG387 could exist in the Solar System, does say this discovery is instrumental in helping to shape our understanding of the distant Solar System. We still don’t understand why there are objects like this one that are completely detached from the rest of the planets. “They’ve made a great discovery,” she says. “These are exactly the objects we need to be finding to understand the formation and history of our Solar System.”
Meanwhile, our best hope in the search for Planet X is to find more objects that corroborate its existence. “We don’t expect every object we find to fit this pattern, though that is what is happening right now,” says Sheppard. Better yet, finding Planet X would be pretty convincing, too. The problem is that there’s a lot of sky to scour and our telescopes don’t cover that much area at a time. The Subaru telescope in Hawaii is perhaps the best tool since it can observe the area of about six full Moons at a time. But it’s still tough to pinpoint the exact location of such a faraway, faint planet. “It’s a lot like looking for your target with a sniper rifle,” says Batygin. “You have to know where to look.”
But TG387 does help point astronomers in a slightly better direction. Before this discovery, there were about 30 orbits that Sheppard and his team thought Planet X could be on. Now, there are only 25 or so, he says. And the astronomers will be back at Subaru in mid-October to pick up the search. “We’ve covered about 30 percent of the prime area, and we hope by the end of this year, we’ll have covered 60 to 70 percent of that prime area,” says Sheppard.
If Planet X is found, then a whole new crop of questions will arise. Perhaps the biggest one of all is where did it come from? Most don’t think it’s possible for this planet to have formed where it is now. It likely formed in the inner Solar System and got flung outward, perhaps by Jupiter or Saturn. “That would suggest a lot of big things formed in our Solar System, and it was a very chaotic place in the formation era,” says Sheppard.
But before those questions can be answered, Planet X must be found. And those on the hunt are sure it will happen. “I’m really quite confident — about a 99 percent level of confidence — that Planet 9 is really out there,” says Batygin. “It might take on the order of a decade to find, but I’m quite confident it’s there.”
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Elon Musk and his rocket company, SpaceX, plan to launch a private passenger named Yusaku Maezawa around the moon.
Yusaku Maezawa is a Japanese entrepreneur and art collector. If all goes according to plan, Maezawa will take a lunar voyage on the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR: a launch system that SpaceX is developing to colonize Mars.
Maezawa purchased all seats on the spaceship, and plans to select six to eight artists from a variety of disciplines to take the lunar journey with him in 2023.
The mission won’t land on the surface of the moon but will ferry Maezawa and his artist crewmates around Earth’s natural satellite.
HAWTHORNE, California — Elon Musk and his rocket company, SpaceX, have revealed who will fly their spaceship around the moon for the first time: a Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire named Yusaku Maezawa.
“Finally I can tell you that I choose to go to the moon!” Maezawa said during an announcement Monday evening.
Maezawa also revealed that he has purchased all seats on the first crewed flight of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket— anew launch system that’s being designed to colonize Mars. Besides himself, Maezawa plans to select six to eight artists to accompany him on his journey around the moon. The artists have not yet been chosen, but part of the project will involve them creating work inspired by their lunar journey after they return to Earth.
“If you should hear from me, please say yes and accept my invitation. Please don’t say no,” Maezawa said.
SpaceX did not reveal how much Maezawa paid for the lunar flight, but said it was a significant sum and that he already made a down payment.
“He’s paying a lot of money that would help with the ship and its booster,” Musk said on Monday. “He’s ultimately paying for the average citizen to travel to other planets.”
Maezawa was a skateboarder and drummer in his youth, and founded the custom fashion company Zozo 20 years ago. The billionaire made news last year when he spent $110 million on a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. He said that he was inspired to bring a group of renowned artists with him around the moon after thinking of the masterpieces Basquiat would have created had he flown through space.
If all goes according to plan, Maezawa and his artist crew may become the first-ever private lunar tourists in history. The mission is slated to launch as soon as 2023, though Musk said he can’t be sure about that timeline yet.
Musk described Maezawa as incredibly brave.
“This is going to be dangerous. This is no walk in the park,” Musk said.
Musk also revealed some major design changes to the BFR. Instead of standing 347 feet tall, it will be 387 feet tall. It will have front actuator fins, as well as three back wings that will function as its landing pads.
The system’s spaceship, which will ride atop a rocket booster, is expected to carry up to 100 people and 150 tons of supplies.
The project is incredibly ambitious and expensive — the total development costs for BFR are somewhere between $2 billion and $10 billion, Musk said.
“It’s hard to say what the development cost is,” he said. “I think it’s roughly $5 billion”
Prior to Monday’s announcement, Musk last publicly described the BFR and showed renderings of the system at the 2017 International Aeronautical Congress.
Although the design for the exterior has been altered since then, Musk said on Monday that SpaceX still only has “some concepts” for the interior of the ship.
“What is the most fun you can have in zero G?” Musk said when asked about the interior design. “We’ll do that”
Aerospace experts who follow Musk and SpaceX’s activities suggest that there could likely be more iterations of the BFR design before the company’s first lunar voyage lifts off the launch pad.
“I think it is really healthy to see this iterative change happening, because I believe we can assume it is based on actual development and simulation going on,” Greg Autry, the director of the Southern California Spaceflight Initiative, told Business Insider in an email before Musk’s announcement.
But Musk said “this is the final iteration in terms of broad architectural design.”
He added that SpaceX plans to shift a majority of the company’s engineering efforts towards BFR by the end of next year, and welcomes the growing competition in the private space race.
“Why is it 2018 and there’s no damn base on the moon?” Musk said. “We should have one and go there. A lot.”
This story is developing. Please refresh this page for updates.
Increasingly more astronomers from all around the world believe that there is the so-called “Planet Nine,” hiding beyond Neptune. On the other hand, circumstantial evidence of its existence continues to gather, while some scientists also think that the mysterious planet might be invisible to our current observatories.
“Every time we take a picture, there is this possibility that Planet Nine exists in the shot,” said Surhud More from the University of Tokyo.
On the other hand, Michael Brown from the California Institute of Technology believes that “Planet Nine” will eventually be discovered by astronomers, but, so far, our existing observatories are not capable of detecting the mysterious space object.
Also, in 2016, Michael Brown, along with his team, studied the planetoid found in 2014 and which revealed that some mini ice-worlds at the outermost border of our Solar System followed similar paths around the Sun. This discovery boosted the beliefs in the existence of the so-called “Planet Nine.”
If there’s a “Planet Nine” hiding far beyond Neptune, it is invisible for us
According to Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin, the mysterious planet would weigh between five and 20 Earth masses, while it would follow an elliptical orbit hundreds or even 1,000 times more distant from the Sun in comparison to the Earth’s orbit.
At such a distance, space is too dark for the current observatories to spot the “Planet Nine” directly. Accordingly, this strange object would be by 160,000 times dimmer than Neptune is at 30 AU (astronomical unit – Earth-Sun distance). So, at about 1,000 AU, “Planet Nine” would be by 1 million times dimmer.
On the other hand, even if the scientists use the most potent observatory of the moment, the Subaru telescope in Hawaii which has a wide field of view permitting astronomers to access a search area of the size of 4,000 full moons, there is very challenging to observe such a distant world.
At the moment of the observation, the “Planet Nine” might hide in the light pollution of the Milky Way, could find itself in the shine of a bright star, or, even worse, it might be at a specific point of its orbit beyond the 1,000 AU-limit which would make it entirely invisible for at least a thousand years.
So, at the moment, the scientists believe there’s something beyond Neptune that causes some disturbances in the orbit of other space objects, but could that be “Planet Nine?” So far, nobody knows.
Jasmine holds a Master’s in Journalism from Ryerson University in Toronto and writes professionally in a broad variety of genres. She has worked as a senior manager in public relations and communications for major telecommunication companies, and is the former Deputy Director for Media Relations with the Modern Coalition. Jasmine writes primarily in our LGBTTQQIAAP section.
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ST. GEORGE — Earth’s ancient relative, the Smith-Tuttle comet, is set to be the headliner for three nights in August, producing a brilliant light show as fragments of the 4-billion-year-old snowy dirtball streak across the skies during one of the most active meteor showers of the year.
The Perseid meteor shower will make its peak three-night appearance from Aug. 11-13, and is known to be a rich, steady meteor shower that sends 60-70 meteors slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 130,000 mph every hour. This year’s meteor shower event will be make even more spectacular by the “slender waxing crescent moon,” according to EarthSky’s 2018 Meteor Shower Guide.
Meteors are small fragments of cosmic debris entering the earth’s atmosphere at extremely high speed. They are caused by the copious amounts of particles produced each time a comet swings around the sun and eventually spread out along the entire orbit of the comet to form a meteoroid stream.
If the Earth’s orbit intersects with the comet’s orbit, as it does with the Swift-Tuttle Comet, then it passes through that stream, which produces a meteor shower. If that intersection occurs at roughly the same time each year, then it becomes an annual shower, according to the American Meteor Society.
Swift-Tuttle has an eccentric, oblong orbit around the sun that takes 133 years. The comet’s orbit takes it outside the orbit of Pluto when farthest from the sun, and inside the Earth’s orbit when closest to the sun, releasing particles of ice and dust that become part of the Perseid meteor shower.
Perseid showers last for weeks instead of days and have been streaking across the sky since July 17, and while they are heaviest during the three-day period beginning Saturday, they will continue for at least 10 days after.
The fast, bright meteors appear in all parts of the sky, roughly 50 to 75 miles above the earth’s surface and leave continual trains, which is the persistent glow caused by the luminous interplanetary rock and dust left in the wake of the meteoroid, and often remain long after the light trail has dissipated.
These meteors, which can reach temperatures of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, start from northerly latitudes during mid-to-late evening and tend to strengthen in number as the night continues, typically producing the greatest number of showers in the hours just before dawn, which is also moonless and makes them easier to see against the black backdrop.
Because meteor shower particles are all traveling in parallel paths at the same velocity, they appear to radiate from a single point in the sky, similar to railroad tracks converging to a single point as they vanish beyond the horizon. The Perseid shower originates from a point in front of the constellation Perseus, which ranks 24 on the list of largest constellations and is visible from August to March in the Northern Hemisphere.
Here are Perseid meteor shower viewing tips:
An open sky is essential as these meteors streak across the sky in many different directions and in front of a number of constellations.
Getting as far away from city lights will provide the best view, and the best time to watch the showers is between midnight and dawn.
Provide at least an hour to sky watch, as it can take the eyes up to 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night.
Put away the telescope or binoculars, as using either one reduces the amount of sky you can see at one time, and lowers the odds that you’ll see a meteor.
Let your eyes relax and don’t look in any one specific spot. Relaxed eyes will quickly catch any movement in the sky and you’ll be able to spot more meteors.
Be sure to dress appropriately – wear clothing appropriate for cold overnight temperatures.
Bring something comfortable on which to sit or lie. A reclining chair or pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky.
Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light, as both destroy night vision.
To mix things up a bit, the Delta Aquariids meteor shower, which peaked July 27, the same night as the century’s longest lunar eclipse, is still showering icy space dust across the sky and is running simultaneously with the Perseid’s.
Supernovae, or exploding stars, are relatively common. But now astronomers have observed a baffling new type of cosmic explosion, believed to be some 10 to 100 times brighter than an ordinary supernova.
Discovery image of AT2018cow – nicknamed The Cow by astronomers – acquired by the ATLAS telescopes. Image via Stephen Smartt/ATLAS.
Space might seem unchanging as you stand on Earth looking up at the inky blackness, but it isn’t, always. Indeed, the stillness can be punctuated at times by immense explosions, such as when stars go supernova in brilliant bursts of light. Supernovae are common, relatively speaking. But now scientists have observed a new type of explosion in space, and so far they don’t have an explanation for it. A science team reported the explosion on June 17, 2018, in The Astronomer’s Telegram, which is an internet-based publication service for disseminating new astronomical information quickly. The discovery team then discussed the explosion in a June 22 article in the popular weekly science magazine New Scientist. They said they saw the immense flash coming to us from another galaxy, 200 million light-years away. And, they said, this flash must have been 10 to 100 times brighter than a typical supernova.
The mysterious flash has been nicknamed The Cow by astronomers since it was listed as AT2018cow in a database, thanks to the randomized three-letter naming system.
The asteroid-tracking ATLAS telescopes at Keck Observatory in Hawaii were the first to see the mystery explosion. At first, astronomers thought it originated in our own galaxy. They thought it might be what’s called a cataclysmic variable star, typically two stars orbiting one another and interacting in a way that increases the whole system’s brightness irregularly. But subsequent spectroscopic observations showed the explosion came from another galaxy – labeled CGCG 137-068 – located some 200 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Hercules.
The ATLAS telescopes acquired these images of AT2018cow, before the explosion (middle) and after it (left) in the galaxy CGCG 137-068. The far-right image shows the difference between the two and reveals the sudden brightening. Image via Stephen Smartt/ATLAS.
Indeed, and it certainly took astronomers by surprise. But apart from the brightness, the most unusual aspect of the explosion was its speed, reaching peak brightness in just two days; most supernovae take weeks to do that. As Maguire also noted:
There are other objects that have been discovered that are as fast, but the fastness and the brightness, that’s quite unusual. There hasn’t really been another object like this.
Stephen Smartt, an astrophysicist at Queen’s University Belfast and a lead scientist for the ATLAS survey, commentedto the Washington Post on June 25 that:
I’ve never seen anything like this before in the local universe.
As to what caused this intense blast, scientists don’t know yet, but they say that it is composed of a 16,000 degree Fahrenheit (9,000 degree Celsius) cloud of high-energy particles, expanding outward at 12,000 miles (20,000 kilometers) per second. It is also very bright in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and its spectrum is also “surprisingly smooth,” unlike most supernovae which have distinct absorption lines. According to Smartt:
No one has successfully matched them yet to the known features we normally see in supernova.
Artist’s concept shows dust forming in an environment around a supernova explosion. Could The Cow be an object like this? If so, why is it so much brighter than an ordinary supernova? Image via ESO/M. Kornmesser.
After the flash was reported to The Astronomer’s Telegram, astronomy teams used at least 18 telescopes from around the world to study the occurrence. According to Robert Rutledge, editor-in-chief of The Astronomer’s Telegram and an astrophysicist at McGill University in Canada:
I think it’s the most notices for any individual object in such a short period of time. It has produced a lot of interest.
But if the flash isn’t a typical supernova, then what is it? As Maguire noted:
We’re not sure yet what it is, but the normal powering mechanism for a supernova is radioactive decay of nickel, and this event is too bright and too fast for that.
It could be a type 1c supernova, where the core has collapsed in a massive star that has already lost its outer veil of hydrogen and helium, but only further observations will help to determine that, or rule it out as an explanation. Astronomers will continue to study this fascinating mystery, even though the blast has already started to fade now.
Location of AT2018cow in the distant galaxy CGCG 137-068, located in our sky in the direction of the constellation Hercules. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom line: Astronomers have another fascinating mystery on their hands, as they try to figure out the nature of a huge, unusual explosion – labeled AT2018cow, nicknamed The Cow by astronomers – in a distant galaxy. Is it a type of supernova, or something more exotic?
Paul Scott Anderson has had a passion for space exploration that began when he was a child when he watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. While in school he was known for his passion for space exploration and astronomy. He started his blog The Meridiani Journal in 2005, which was a chronicle of planetary exploration. In 2015, the blog was renamed as Planetaria. While interested in all aspects of space exploration, his primary passion is planetary science. In 2011, he started writing about space on a freelance basis, and now currently writes for AmericaSpace and Futurism (part of Vocal). He has also written for Universe Today and SpaceFlight Insider, and has also been published in The Mars Quarterly and has done supplementary writing for the well-known iOS app Exoplanet for iPhone and iPad.
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(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NBC NEWS AND ‘MARCH’)
Mysterious ‘Oumuamua’ space object has finally been identified
Astronomers say the cigar-shaped interstellar visitor isn’t an asteroid, but a comet.
by David Freeman /
Observations show that the interstellar visitor “Oumuamua” was traveling through space for millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.M. Kornmesser/European Southern Observatory / NASA
Now they know. A study published Wednesday in the journal Nature indicates that the interstellar visitor, dubbed Oumuamua, is neither an asteroid nor an alien spacecraft (as some wags had suggested) but a small interstellar comet.
“It’s the only such object discovered so far,” Marco Micheli, an astronomer with the European Space Agency and the lead author of the new study, told NBC News MACH in an email.
Comets — icy, dusty objects that have been likened to “dirty snowballs” — typically form long tails when they come close to the sun. No such tail was visible in earlier observations of Oumuamua (which means “scout” in Hawaiian), a fact that helped lead other astronomers to conclude that it was an asteroid.
But an analysis of new observations made by ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope yielded a surprise: Oumuamua’s trajectory couldn’t be explained solely by the gravitational forces exerted on it by the sun and the planets — as would be the case if it were an asteroid, or space rock.
“Unexpectedly, we found that Oumuamua was not slowing down as fast as it should have under gravitational forces alone,” Micheli said in a statement.
His team concluded that the unexpected motion of Oumuamua had to be caused by the spewing out of small quantities of gaseous materials from its surface. This “outgassing” — commonly seen in comets — was too small to be visible but significant enough to affect Oumuamua’s trajectory.
But not everyone is buying that explanation — at least not completely.
Alan Jackson, an astronomer at the University of Toronto Scarborough, told MACH in an email that if Oumuamua is a comet, it must be one that lost much of its ice before leaving its home star system.
“A comet that has lost enough of its ice is essentially the same as an asteroid,” he said. “Oumuamua thus seems to be in that ambiguous region between the two.”
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Jackson conducted previous research on Oumuamua but was not involved in the new study.
Whatever its precise identity, Oumuamua might be just the first of many such interstellar visitors we’ll encounter. Jackson said new telescopes should help astronomers find “a lot more objects like Oumuamua and we will then be able to put together a more complete picture of what the building blocks of planets look like in other planetary systems, which will also help us to understand how planets form.”