Astronomers just discovered a super massive black hole from the dawn of the universe

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POPULAR SCIENCE)

 

Astronomers just discovered a supermassive black hole from the dawn of the universe

And it’s much bigger than we expected.

black hole and quasar

An artist’s image of a black hole with an accretion disk and a quasar shooting away from it.

Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science

There was a bang. A big one. It was the beginning of everything, but for several hundred million years, all was darkness. Then, lights started flickering to life, stars and gases and galaxies all coming online.

One of the brightest lights during that dawn had a dark and hungry hole at its heart. More massive than 800 million suns, the black hole existed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was still an infant.


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Researchers, including Eduardo Bañados, reported the existence of the black hole and its accompanying bright quasar in a paper in Nature this week. The astronomers were looking for evidence of black holes in these early days of the universe, but they were still surprised at the sheer size of this one, named J1342+0928.

Black holes are points in the universe where gravity is so intense that nothing can escape. Not rocks, not gas, not even light. Near large black holes, surrounding material swirls around to form something called an accretion disk. Material in the disk spins at thousands of miles per second, heating up as it moves and slams into other bits of dusts and gas, all riding the same frantic carousel toward doom.

The material itself spins down into the black hole, never to be seen again, but its jostling releases energy that heads out into the universe in the form of immensely bright heat and light. That light made the quasar that Bañados and his co-authors were able to detect, which they used to estimate J1342+0928’s surprising mass.

Bañados says that a typical black hole, forming as a star collapses, might have the mass of 50 to 100 suns. “If you make it grow, feed it material like gas from its surroundings and let it grow for 690 million years, you wouldn’t be able to reach the size of this supermassive black hole,” Bañados says.

To figure out how this black hole could have gotten so large so quickly, observational astronomers like Bañados must team up with theoretical astronomers and astrophysicists. In the process, they’re also looking into ever-so-slightly broader questions, like the evolution of everything. “This object is so distant and so luminous that it provides a laboratory to study the early universe,” Bañados says.

Bañados has discovered about half of the most distant quasars on record, but this one—while not the most massive—is the furthest of them all. Because light takes time to travel, the more distant an object is, the earlier back in history we’re peering when we look at it. So this object comes from earlier in the universe’s lifespan than any of the others scientists have observed.

“This record is nice, but we’re not doing this for the record,” Bañados says. “This is so mature that I would be very surprised if this is the first quasar ever formed. I hope we or someone else will break this record soon.”

This particular quasar is so bright that it outshines the galaxy where it’s located—it’s 1000 times more luminous. And it’s not like that galaxy is a slouch either, even though the quasar at its heart drowns it out in both the optical and ultraviolet wavelengths of light. Fortunately, if you look at the galaxy in longer wavelengths, you can start to see some details. Bañados is a co-author on another paper that came out this week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters that focuses on the galaxy around the black hole. They the galaxy was positively choked with interstellar dust, producing somewhere around 100 new solar masses (the mass of our star) per year. Our galaxy only makes about one solar mass per year.

They were also able to detect something about the neighborhood of space around the black hole, finding that about half of the area had un-ionized hydrogen (which would have blocked out light, leading to those first few hundreds of millions of years of darkness in the universe) and half had ionized hydrogen, indicating that this black hole could have existed at the time when the universe switched from being dominated by the former to the latter.

“How this happened and when this happened have fundamental implications for the evolution of the universe later on,” Bañados says. “But we need to find and keep searching for more objects even further away and try to repeat that experiment.”

Luckily, there are now more opportunities to look into those universal origins. In 2018, Bañados and other researchers around the world will use a variety of telescopes to explore this object more thoroughly and look for others in the night sky.

“We’re a very fortunate generation,” Bañados says. “We’re the first human beings to have the technology to study and characterize in detail some of the first galaxies and black holes that formed in the universe. If that’s not fascinating, I don’t know what is.”

Little Green Men? Pulsars Presented a Mystery 50 Years Ago

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF SPACE.COM)

 

Little Green Men? Pulsars Presented a Mystery 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago this month, a small group of astronomers made a revolutionary cosmic discovery — explaining a phenomenon that they initially thought might come from an intelligent alien civilization.

In November 1967, Jocelyn Bell (now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell), a graduate student at Cambridge University in England, made what turned out to be the first detection of a pulsar — an incredibly dense ball of material formed when a massive star runs out of fuel and collapses in on itself. In the time since the discovery of pulsars, the objects have provided insight about the life cycle of stars and extreme states of matter, and provided evidence that supports Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. There are currently efforts underway to use pulsars to detect gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of the universe, and another to use pulsars as part of a space-based navigation system.

Pulsars spin rapidly, while simultaneously radiating opposing beams of radio waves out into space. The setup is similar to a lighthouse that spins around one up-and-down axis and radiates two beams of light from a second axis. To ships on the water, the steady beams looks like a light pulsing on and off. The same is true for pulsars; if one of the beams happens to sweep across the Earth, it appears to astronomers as though the object is blinking or pulsing. [What Are Pulsars?]

Bell Burnell was studying objects using a radio telescope she helped build at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, outside Cambridge, under the supervision of her adviser, Antony Hewish, who designed the instrument. The telescope was intended to help study the radio cosmos using a technique called interplanetary scintillation. Hewish intended to use this method on objects called quasars, or incredibly bright centers of massive galaxies, illuminated by material swirling around monster black holes. Quasars vary in brightness, and Hewish thought the interplanetary scintillation technique was appropriate for identifying those changes.

“We were looking far beyond [what could be seen with] optical telescopes,” Hewish told the BBC of the radio astronomy he and his colleagues were doing then. “You felt very privileged actually. It was like opening a new window onto the universe, and you were the first people to have a look out through and see what was there.”

Most known neutron stars are observed as pulsars, emitting narrow, sweeping beams of radiation. They squeeze up to two solar masses into a city-size volume, crushing matter to the highest possible stable densities.

Most known neutron stars are observed as pulsars, emitting narrow, sweeping beams of radiation. They squeeze up to two solar masses into a city-size volume, crushing matter to the highest possible stable densities.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Bell Burnell was in charge of operating the telescope and analyzing the data, according to an article she wrote for Cosmic Search Magazine in the 1970s. Using this technique, Bell Burnell spotted an object that appeared to be flickering every 1.3 seconds; this pattern repeated for days on end. The object didn’t match the profile of a quasar. The signal conflicted with the generally chaotic nature of most cosmic phenomenon, the researchers would later explain. In addition, the light was of a very specific radio frequency, whereas most natural sources typically radiate across a wider range.

For those reasons, Bell Burnell, Hewish and some other members of the astronomy department had to acknowledge that they might have found an artificially created signal — something emitted by an intelligence species. Burnell even labeled the first pulsar LGM1, which stood for “little green men 1.”

Bell Burnell would later report that Hewitt called a meeting without her, in which he discussed with other members of the department how they should handle presenting their results to the world. While their fellow scientists might practice restraint and skepticism, it was likely that the possible detection of an intelligent alien civilization could create chaos among the public, the scientists said. The press would very likely blow the story out of proportion and descend on the Cambridge researchers. According to Hewitt, one person even suggested (perhaps only partly joking) that they burn their data and forget the whole thing.

Years later, Burnell wrote that she was rather annoyed at the appearance of the strange signal for another reason. As a graduate student, she was trying to get her thesis work done before her funding ran out, but work on the pulsar was taking away from her primary pursuit.

“Here I trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us,” she wrote in the article for Cosmic Search Magazine.

Pulsars are fast-spinning and highly magnetized stars. See how they work here.

Pulsars are fast-spinning and highly magnetized stars. See how they work here.

Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics artist

But then, Bell Burnell resolved the problem. She went back through some of the data from the radio array and found what looked like a similar, regularly repeating signal, this one coming from an entirely different part of the galaxy. That second signal indicated that this was a family of objects, rather than a single civilization trying to make contact.

“It finally scotched the little green men hypothesis,” Bell Burnell said in the a BBC documentary filmed in 2010. “Because it’s highly unlikely there’s two lots of little green men, on opposite sides of the universe, both deciding to signal to a rather inconspicuous planet, Earth, at the same time, using a daft technique and a rather commonplace frequency.”

“It had to be some new kind of star, not seen before,” she said. “And that then cleared the way for us publishing, going public.”

In 1974, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hewish, along with radio astronomer Martin Ryle, “for their pioneering research in radio astrophysics: Ryle for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture-synthesis technique, and Hewish for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars.” The omission of Bell Burnell’s name as a contributor to the pulsar discovery has stirred controversy among scientists and members of the public, though Bell Burnell has not publicly contested the Nobel committee’s decision.

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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AUTHOR BIO


Calla Cofield

Calla Cofield, Space.com Senior Writer

Calla Cofield joined the crew of Space.com in October, 2014. She enjoys writing about black holes, exploding stars, ripples in space-time, science in comic books, and all the mysteries of the cosmos. She has been underground at three of the largest particle accelerators in the world. She’d really like to know what the heck dark matter is. Prior to joining Space.com Calla worked as a freelance science writer. Her work has appeared in APS News, Symmetry magazine, Scientific American, Nature News, Physics World, and others. From 2010 to 2014 she was a producer for The Physics Central Podcast. Previously, Calla worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (hands down the best office building ever) and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. Calla studied physics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is originally from Sandy, Utah. Contact Calla via: E-Mail – Twitter

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