Measuring Distances in the Universe With Fast Radio Bursts

FAST catches a real pulse from FRB 121102. Credit: NAOC

Now and then there is a bright radio flash somewhere in the sky. It can last anywhere from a few milliseconds to a few seconds. They appear somewhat at random, and we still aren’t sure what they are. We call them fast radio bursts (FRBs). Right now the leading theory is that they are caused by highly magnetic neutron stars known as magnetars. With observatories such as CHIME we are now able to see lots of them, which could give astronomers a new way to measure the rate of cosmic expansion.

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The Event Horizon Telescope Zooms in on a Black Hole's Jet

The jet of the black hole in 3C 84 at different spatial scales. Credit: Georgios Filippos Paraschos (MPIfR)

Although supermassive black holes are common throughout the Universe, we don’t have many direct images of them. The problem is that while they can have a mass of millions or billions of stars, even the nearest supermassive black holes have tiny apparent sizes. The only direct images we have are those of M87* and Sag A*, and it took a virtual telescope the size of Earth to capture them. But we are still in the early days of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), and improvements are being made to the virtual telescope all the time. Which means we are starting to look at more supermassive black holes.

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Did the Galileo Mission Find Life on Earth?

An image of Earth taken by the Galileo spacecraft in 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the Fall of 1989, the Galileo spacecraft was launched into space, bound for Jupiter and its family of moons. Given the great distance to the king of planets, Galileo had to take a roundabout tour through the inner solar system, making a flyby of Venus in 1990 and Earth in 1990 and 1992 just to gain enough speed to reach Jupiter. During the flybys of Earth Galileo took several images of our planet, which astronomers have used to discover life on Earth.

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Dust Ruins Another Way of Measuring Distance in the Universe

A dusty spiral galaxy known as M66. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble

Astronomers have many ways to measure the distance to galaxies billions of light years away, but most of them rely upon standard candles. These are astrophysical processes that have a brightness we can calibrate, such as Cepheid variable stars or Type Ia supernovae. Of course, all of these standard candles have some inherent variability, so astronomers also look for where our assumptions about them can lead us astray. As a case in point, a recent study in The Astrophysical Journal shows how galactic dust can bias distance observations.

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Astronomers Measure the Mass of the Milky Way by Calculating How Hard it is to Escape

Artist view of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: ESA

If you want to determine your mass, it’s pretty easy. Just step on a scale and look at the number it gives you. That number tells you the gravitational pull of Earth upon you, so if you feel the number is too high, take comfort that Earth just finds you more attractive than others. The same scale could also be used to measure the mass of Earth. If you place a kilogram mass on the scale, the weight it gives is also the weight of Earth in the gravitational field of the kilogram. With a bit of mass, you have the mass of Earth.

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How Could Laser-Driven Lightsails Remain Stable?

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

It’s a long way to the nearest star, which means conventional rockets won’t get us there. The fuel requirements would make our ship prohibitively heavy. So an alternative is to travel light. Literally. Rather than carrying your fuel with you, simply attach your tiny starship to a large reflective sail, and shine a powerful laser at it. The impulse of photons would push the starship to a fraction of light speed. Riding a beam of light, a lightsail mission could reach Proxima Centauri in a couple of decades. But while the idea is simple, the engineering challenges are significant, because, across decades and light-years, even the smallest problem can be difficult to solve.

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Atmospheres in the TRAPPIST-1 System Should be Long Gone

Illustration of the Trappist-1 system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Trappist-1 is a fascinating exoplanetary system. Seven worlds orbiting a red dwarf star just 40 light-years away. All of the worlds are similar to Earth in mass and size, and 3 or 4 of them are potentially habitable. Imagine exploring a system of life-rich worlds within easy traveling distance of each other. It’s a wonderful dream, but as a new study shows it isn’t likely that life exists in the system. It’s more likely the planets are barren and stripped of their atmospheres.

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How Dangerous are Kilonovae?

An illustration of the kilonova GW170817. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

When we look up at the sky on a particularly dark night, there is a sense of timelessness. We might see the flash of a meteor, and occasionally a comet is visible to the naked eye, but the cold and distant stars are unchanging. Or so it seems. There can also be a sense of calm, that despite all the uncertainty of the world, the stars will always watch over us. So it’s hard to imagine that light years away there could be a lurking event that poses an existential threat to humanity. That threat is extremely tiny, but not zero, and it is the focus of a recent paper published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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Dark Matter Might Help Explain How Supermassive Black Holes Can Merge

A lopsided starburst galaxy known as NGC 1313. Credit: International Gemini Observatory

Although the exact nature of dark matter continues to elude astronomers, we have gained some understanding of its general physical properties. We know how it clusters around galaxies, how it makes up much of the matter in the Universe, and even how it can interact with itself. Now a new study looks at just how fast dark matter can move.

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Even Early Galaxies Grew Hand-in-Hand With Their Supermassive Black Holes

An artist’s impression of a quasar. Credit: NASA / ESA / J. Olmsted, STScI

Within almost every galaxy there is a supermassive black hole. This by itself implies some kind of formative connection between the two. We have also observed how gas and dust within a galaxy can drive the growth of galactic black holes, and how the dynamics of black holes can both drive star formation or hinder it depending on how active a black hole is. But one area where astronomers still have little information is how galaxies and their black holes interacted in the early Universe. Did black holes drive the formation of galaxies, or did early galaxies fuel the growth of black holes? A recent study suggests the two evolved hand in hand.

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