The Entire Milky Way Might Be a Huge Wormhole That’s Stable and Navigable

Our very own Milky Way could be home to a giant tunnel in spacetime.

At least, that’s what the authors of a new study have proposed. According to the team, a collaboration between Indian, Italian, and North American researchers at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Italy, the central halo of our galaxy may harbor enough dark matter to support the creation and sustenance of a “stable and navigable” shortcut to a distant region of spacetime – a phenomenon known as a wormhole.

Wormholes were first conceptualized by Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen in 1935. Far from being fodder for science fiction, the two scientists instead proposed their idea as a way to get around the idea of black hole singularities. Rather than creating a knot of infinite density, Einstein and Rosen thought, the hefty energy inherent in such a massive body would distort spacetime to such an extent that it bent over on itself, allowing a bridge to form between two distant areas of the Universe. Alas, these wormholes would be extremely unstable and would require enormous amounts of “negative energy” to remain open.

Wormhole diagram. Image credit: NASA
A graphic of the structure of a theorized wormhole (NASA)

But according to the team at SISSA, large amounts of dark matter could provide this fuel. Using a model of dark matter’s abundance that is based on the rotation curves of other spiral galaxies, the researchers found that the distribution of dark matter in the Milky Way produced solutions in general relativity that would, theoretically, allow a stable wormhole to arise.

Paulo Salucci, an astrophysicist on the the team from SISSA, explained: “If we combine the map of the dark matter in the Milky Way with the most recent Big Bang model to explain the universe and we hypothesise the existence of space-time tunnels, what we get is that our galaxy could really contain one of these tunnels, and that the tunnel could even be the size of the galaxy itself.” He continued, “But there’s more. We could even travel through this tunnel, since, based on our calculations, it could be navigable. Just like the one we’ve all seen in the recent film Interstellar.”

Of course, Salucci and the other researchers were working on this project long before Interstellar was released, but their result does lend some theoretical support to the ideas in the film – ideas that were also fact-tested and revised by physics guru Kip Thorne of Caltech.

The authors believe that their result reinforces the importance of discerning the true nature of dark matter. According to Salucci, “Dark matter may be ‘another dimension’, perhaps even a major galactic transport system. In any case, we really need to start asking ourselves what it is”.

It is important to understand that this is purely a mathematical result. Indeed, such a wormhole may be theroretically possible… but that doesn’t mean it’s probable. Salucci ventured, “Obviously we’re not claiming that our galaxy is definitely a wormhole, but simply that, according to theoretical models, this hypothesis is a possibility.”

The researchers went on to explain that their idea could be tested experimentally by comparing our own Milky Way, a spiral galaxy, with a nearby galaxy of a different type. By comparing the dark matter distributions between the two galaxies, scientists would potentially be able to use general relativity to probe differences in their spacetime dynamics.

Realistically, the technology that would allow researchers to do that is a long way off. But never fear, science (and scifi) fans – you can still check out the team’s wormhole simulation in the animation below, watch the movie if you haven’t already, and/or get your hands on a copy of Kip Thorne’s book, The Science of Interstellar.

The team’s research was published in the November 2014 issue of Annals of Physics. A pre-print of the paper is available here.

Disorderly Conduct: Andromeda’s Mature Stars Exhibit Surprising Behavior, Says Study

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans

To a distant observer, our own Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy would probably look very similar. Although Andromeda is longer, more massive, and more luminous than the Milky Way, both galaxies are vast spirals composed of hundreds of millions of stars. But new research presented at this week’s AAS conference in Seattle suggests that there are other differences as well – namely, in the movement and behavior of certain stellar age groups. This observation is the first of its kind, and raises new questions about the factors that contribute to the formation of spiral galaxies like our own.

Armed with data from both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, a group of astronomers from UC Santa Cruz resolved 10,000 tiny points of light in the Andromeda galaxy into individual stars and used their spectra to calculate the stars’ ages and velocities – a feat never before accomplished for a galaxy outside of our own.

Led by Puragra Guhathakurta, a professor of astrophysics, and Claire Dorman, a graduate student, the researchers found that in Andromeda, the behavior of older stars is surprisingly more frazzled than that of their younger counterparts; that is, they have a much wider range of velocities around the galactic center. Meanwhile, in the Milky Way, stars of all ages seem to coexist far more peacefully, moving along at the same speed in a consistent, ordered pack.

The astronomers believe that this asymmetry causes Andromeda to look more distinct from our own galaxy than previously thought. “If you could look at [Andromeda’s] disk edge on, the stars in the well-ordered, coherent population would lie in a very thin plane, whereas the stars in the disordered population would form a much puffier layer,” said Dorman.

What could account for such disorderly conduct among Andromeda’s older generation? It is possible that these more mature stars could have been disturbed long ago, during episodes of the kind of “galactic cannibalism” that is thought to go on among most spiral galaxies. Indeed, trails of stars in its outer halo suggest that Andromeda has collided with and consumed a number of smaller galaxies over the course of its lifetime; however, these effects cannot completely account for the jumbled flow of Andromeda’s most elderly stars.

A few examples of merging galaxies. NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University), K. Noll (STScI), and J. Westphal (Caltech)
A few examples of galactic cannibalism. NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University), K. Noll (STScI), and J. Westphal (Caltech)

Astronomers believe that a second explanation could fill in the blanks – one that owes to events occurring far earlier in history, during the birth of the galaxy itself. After all, if Andromeda originated from a lumpy, irregular gas cloud, its oldest stars would naturally appear fairly disordered. Over time, the parent gas would have settled down, giving rise to ever more organized generations of stars.

Guhathakurta, Dorman, and the rest of the team hope that their work will encourage other scientists to create simulations that will better constrain these possibilities. To them, understanding Andromeda is a vital key to learning more about our own galaxy. Guhathakurta explained, “In the Andromeda galaxy we have the unique combination of a global yet detailed view of a galaxy similar to our own. We have lots of detail in our own Milky Way, but not the global, external perspective.”

Now, thanks to this new research, scientists can cite our own galaxy’s comparative orderliness as strong evidence that we live in a quieter, less cannibalistic neighborhood than most other spiral galaxies in the Universe. “Even the most well ordered Andromeda stars are not as well ordered as the stars in the Milky Way’s disk,” said Dorman.

At least until 4 billion years from now, when the Milky Way and Andromeda collide.

We may as well enjoy the A+ for conduct while we can.

Hearing the Early Universe’s Scream: Sloan Survey Announces New Findings

Imagine a single mission that would allow you to explore the Milky Way and beyond, investigating cosmic chemistry, hunting planets, mapping galactic structure, probing dark energy and analyzing the expansion of the wider Universe. Enter the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a massive scientific collaboration that enables one thousand astronomers from 51 institutions around the world to do just that.

At Tuesday’s AAS briefing in Seattle, researchers announced the public release of data collected by the project’s latest incarnation, SDSS-III. This data release, termed “DR12,” represents the survey’s largest and most detailed collection of measurements yet: 2,000 nights’ worth of brand-new information about nearly 500 million stars and galaxies.

One component of SDSS is exploring dark energy by “listening” for acoustic oscillation signals from the the acceleration of the early Universe, and the team also shared a new animated “fly-through” of the Universe that was created using SDSS data.

The SDSS-III collaboration is based at the powerful 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The project itself consists of four component surveys: BOSS, APOGEE, MARVELS, and SEGUE. Each of these surveys applies different trappings to the parent telescope in order to accomplish its own, unique goal.

BOSS (the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey) visualizes the way that sound waves produced by interacting matter in the early Universe are reflected in the large-scale structure of our cosmos. These ancient imprints, which date back to the first 500,000 years after the Big Bang, are especially evident in high-redshift objects like luminous-red galaxies and quasars. Three-dimensional models created from BOSS observations will allow astronomers to track the expansion of the Universe over a span of 9 billion years, a feat that, later this year, will pave the way for rigorous assessment of current theories regarding dark energy.

At the press briefing, Daniel Eistenstein from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained how BOSS requires huge volumes of data and that so far 1.4 million galaxies have been mapped. He indicated the data analyzed so far strongly confirm dark energy’s existence.

This tweet from the SDSS twitter account uses a bit of humor to explain how BOSS works:

APOGEE (the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) employs a sophisticated, near-infrared spectrograph to pierce through thick dust and gather light from 100,000 distant red giants. By analyzing the spectral lines that appear in this light, scientists can identify the signatures of 15 different chemical elements that make up the faraway stars – observations that will help researchers piece together the stellar history of our galaxy.

MARVELS (the Multi-Object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-Area Survey) identifies minuscule wobbles in the orbits of stars, movements that betray the gravitational influence of orbiting planets. The technology itself is unprecedented. “MARVELS is the first large-scale survey to measure these tiny motions for dozens of stars simultaneously,” explained the project’s principal investigator Jian Ge, “which means we can probe and characterize the full population of giant planets in ways that weren’t possible before.”

At the press briefing, Ge said that MARVELS observed 5,500 stars repeatedly, looking for giant exoplanets around these stars. So far, the data has revealed 51 giant planet candidates as well as 38 brown dwarf candidates. Ge added that more will be found with better data processing.

A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS -- just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.
A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS — just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

SEGUE (the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration) rounds out the quartet by analyzing visible light from 250,000 stars in the outer reaches of our galaxy. Coincidentally, this survey’s observations “segue” nicely into work being done by other projects within SDSS-III. Constance Rockosi, leader of the SDSS-III domain of SEGUE, recaps the importance of her project’s observations of our outer galaxy: “In combination with the much more detailed view of the inner galaxy from APOGEE, we’re getting a truly holistic picture of the Milky Way.”

One of the most exceptional attributes of SDSS-III is its universality; that is, every byte of juicy information contained in DR12 will be made freely available to professionals, amateurs, and lay public alike. This philosophy enables interested parties from all walks of life to contribute to the advancement of astronomy in whatever capacity they are able.

As momentous as the release of DR12 is for today’s astronomers, however, there is still much more work to be done. “Crossing the DR12 finish line is a huge accomplishment by hundreds of people,” said Daniel Eisenstein, director of the SDSS-III collaboration, “But it’s a big universe out there, so there is plenty more to observe.”

DR12 includes observations made by SDSS-III between July 2008 and June 2014. The project’s successor, SDSS-IV, began its run in July 2014 and will continue observing for six more years.

Here is the video animation of the fly-through of the Universe:

New Simulation Models Galaxies Like Never Before

Astronomy is, by definition, intangible. Traditional laboratory-style experiments that utilize variables and control groups are of little use to the scientists who spend their careers analyzing the intricacies our Universe. Instead, astronomers rely on simulations – robust, mathematically-driven facsimiles of the cosmos – to investigate the long-term evolution of objects like stars, black holes, and galaxies. Now, a team of European researchers has broken new ground with their development of the EAGLE project: a simulation that, due to its high level of agreement between theory and observation, can be used to probe the earliest epochs of galaxy formation, over 13 billion years ago.

The EAGLE project, which stands for Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environments, owes much of its increased accuracy to the better modeling of galactic winds. Galactic winds are powerful streams of charged particles that “blow” out of galaxies as a result of high-energy processes like star formation, supernova explosions, and the regurgitation of material by active galactic nuclei (the supermassive black holes that lie at the heart of most galaxies). These mighty winds tend to carry gas and dust out of the galaxy, leaving less material for continued star formation and overall growth.

Previous simulations were problematic for researchers because they produced galaxies that were far older and more massive than those that astronomers see today; however, EAGLE’s simulation of strong galactic winds fixes these anomalies. By accounting for characteristic, high-speed ejections of gas and dust over time, researchers found that younger and lighter galaxies naturally emerged.

After running the simulation on two European supercomputers, the Cosmology Machine at Durham University in England and Curie in France, the researchers concluded that the EAGLE project was a success. Indeed, the galaxies produced by EAGLE look just like those that astronomers expect to see when they look to the night sky. Richard Bower, a member of the team from Durham, raved, “The universe generated by the computer is just like the real thing. There are galaxies everywhere, with all the shapes, sizes and colours I’ve seen with the world’s largest telescopes. It is incredible.”

The upshots of this new work are not limited to scientists alone; you, too, can explore the Universe with EAGLE by downloading the team’s Cosmic Universe app. Videos of the EAGLE project’s simulations are also available on the team’s website.

A paper detailing the team’s work is published in the January 1 issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. A preprint of the results is available on the ArXiv.

What Does It Mean To Be ‘Star Stuff’?

At one time or another, all science enthusiasts have heard the late Carl Sagan’s infamous words: “We are made of star stuff.” But what does that mean exactly? How could colossal balls of plasma, greedily burning away their nuclear fuel in faraway time and space, play any part in spawning the vast complexity of our Earthly world? How is it that “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies” could have been forged so offhandedly deep in the hearts of these massive stellar giants?

Unsurprisingly, the story is both elegant and profoundly awe-inspiring.

All stars come from humble beginnings: namely, a gigantic, rotating clump of gas and dust. Gravity drives the cloud to condense as it spins, swirling into an ever more tightly packed sphere of material. Eventually, the star-to-be becomes so dense and hot that molecules of hydrogen in its core collide and fuse into new molecules of helium. These nuclear reactions release powerful bursts of energy in the form of light. The gas shines brightly; a star is born.

The ultimate fate of our fledgling star depends on its mass. Smaller, lightweight stars burn though the hydrogen in their core more slowly than heavier stars, shining somewhat more dimly but living far longer lives. Over time, however, falling hydrogen levels at the center of the star cause fewer hydrogen fusion reactions; fewer hydrogen fusion reactions mean less energy, and therefore less outward pressure.

At a certain point, the star can no longer maintain the tension its core had been sustaining against the mass of its outer layers. Gravity tips the scale, and the outer layers begin to tumble inward on the core. But their collapse heats things up, increasing the core pressure and reversing the process once again. A new hydrogen burning shell is created just outside the core, reestablishing a buffer against the gravity of the star’s surface layers.

While the core continues conducting lower-energy helium fusion reactions, the force of the new hydrogen burning shell pushes on the star’s exterior, causing the outer layers to swell more and more. The star expands and cools into a red giant. Its outer layers will ultimately escape the pull of gravity altogether, floating off into space and leaving behind a small, dead core – a white dwarf.

Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel
Lower-mass stars like our sun eventually enter a swollen, red giant phase. Ultimately, its outer layers will be thrown off altogether, leaving nothing but a small white dwarf star. Image Credit: ESO/S. Steinhofel

Heavier stars also occasionally falter in the fight between pressure and gravity, creating new shells of atoms to fuse in the process; however, unlike smaller stars, their excess mass allows them to keep forming these layers. The result is a series of concentric spheres, each shell containing heavier elements than the one surrounding it. Hydrogen in the core gives rise to helium. Helium atoms fuse together to form carbon. Carbon combines with helium to create oxygen, which fuses into neon, then magnesium, then silicon… all the way across the periodic table to iron, where the chain ends. Such massive stars act like a furnace, driving these reactions by way of sheer available energy.

But this energy is a finite resource. Once the star’s core becomes a solid ball of iron, it can no longer fuse elements to create energy. As was the case for smaller stars, fewer energetic reactions in the core of heavyweight stars mean less outward pressure against the force of gravity. The outer layers of the star will then begin to collapse, hastening the pace of heavy element fusion and further reducing the amount of energy available to hold up those outer layers. Density increases exponentially in the shrinking core, jamming together protons and electrons so tightly that it becomes an entirely new entity: a neutron star.

At this point, the core cannot get any denser. The star’s massive outer shells – still tumbling inward and still chock-full of volatile elements – no longer have anywhere to go. They slam into the core like a speeding oil rig crashing into a brick wall, and erupt into a monstrous explosion: a supernova. The extraordinary energies generated during this blast finally allow the fusion of elements even heavier than iron, from cobalt all the way to uranium.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements. Massive stars can fuse elements up to Iron (Fe), atomic number 26. Elements with atomic numbers 27 through 92 are produced in the aftermath of a massive star’s core collapse.

The energetic shock wave produced by the supernova moves out into the cosmos, disbursing heavy elements in its wake. These atoms can later be incorporated into planetary systems like our own. Given the right conditions – for instance, an appropriately stable star and a position within its Habitable Zone – these elements provide the building blocks for complex life.

Today, our everyday lives are made possible by these very atoms, forged long ago in the life and death throes of massive stars. Our ability to do anything at all – wake up from a deep sleep, enjoy a delicious meal, drive a car, write a sentence, add and subtract, solve a problem, call a friend, laugh, cry, sing, dance, run, jump, and play – is governed mostly by the behavior of tiny chains of hydrogen combined with heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus.

Other heavy elements are present in smaller quantities in the body, but are nonetheless just as vital to proper functioning. For instance, calcium, fluorine, magnesium, and silicon work alongside phosphorus to strengthen and grow our bones and teeth; ionized sodium, potassium, and chlorine play a vital role in maintaining the body’s fluid balance and electrical activity; and iron comprises the key portion of hemoglobin, the protein that equips our red blood cells with the ability to deliver the oxygen we inhale to the rest of our body.

So, the next time you are having a bad day, try this: close your eyes, take a deep breath, and contemplate the chain of events that connects your body and mind to a place billions of lightyears away, deep in the distant reaches of space and time. Recall that massive stars, many times larger than our sun, spent millions of years turning energy into matter, creating the atoms that make up every part of you, the Earth, and everyone you have ever known and loved.

We human beings are so small; and yet, the delicate dance of molecules made from this star stuff gives rise to a biology that enables us to ponder our wider Universe and how we came to exist at all. Carl Sagan himself explained it best: “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return; and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

New Signal May Be Evidence of Dark Matter, Say Researchers

Dark Matter Halo

Dark matter is the architect of large-scale cosmic structure and the engine behind proper rotation of galaxies. It’s an indispensable part of the physics of our Universe – and yet scientists still don’t know what it’s made of. The latest data from Planck suggest that the mysterious substance comprises 26.2% of the cosmos, making it nearly five and a half times more prevalent than normal, everyday matter. Now, four European researchers have hinted that they may have a discovery on their hands: a signal in x-ray light that has no known cause, and may be evidence of a long sought-after interaction between particles – namely, the annihilation of dark matter.

When astronomers want to study an object in the night sky, such as a star or galaxy, they begin by analyzing its light across all wavelengths. This allows them to visualize narrow dark lines in the object’s spectrum, called absorption lines. Absorption lines occur because a star’s or galaxy’s component elements soak up light at certain wavelengths, preventing most photons with those energies from reaching Earth. Similarly, interacting particles can also leave emission lines in a star’s or galaxy’s spectrum, bright lines that are created when excess photons are emitted via subatomic processes such as excitement and decay. By looking closely at these emission lines, scientists can usually paint a robust picture of the physics going on elsewhere in the cosmos.

But sometimes, scientists find an emission line that is more puzzling. Earlier this year, researchers at the Laboratory of Particle Physics and Cosmology (LPPC) in Switzerland and Leiden University in the Netherlands identified an excess bump of energy in x-ray light coming from both the Andromeda galaxy and the Perseus star cluster: an emission line with an energy around 3.5keV. No known process can account for this line; however, it is consistent with models of the theoretical sterile neutrino – a particle that many scientists believe is a prime candidate for dark matter.

The researchers believe that this strange emission line could result from the annihilation, or decay, of these dark matter particles, a process that is thought to release x-ray photons. In fact, the signal appeared to be strongest in the most dense regions of Andromeda and Perseus and increasingly more diffuse away from the center, a distribution that is also characteristic of dark matter. Additionally, the signal was absent from the team’s observations of deep, empty space, implying that it is real and not just instrumental artifact.

In a pre-print of their paper, the researchers are careful to stress that the signal itself is weak by scientific standards. That is, they can only be 99.994% sure that it is a true result and not just a rogue statistical fluctuation, a level of confidence that is known as 4σ. (The gold standard for a discovery in science is 5σ: a result that can be declared “true” with 99.9999% confidence) Other scientists are not so sure that dark matter is such a good explanation after all. According to predictions made based on measurements of the Lyman-alpha forest – that is, the spectral pattern of hydrogen absorption and photon emission within very distant, very old gas clouds – any particle purporting to be dark matter should have an energy above 10keV – more than twice the energy of this most recent signal.

As always, the study of cosmology is fraught with mysteries. Whether this particular emission line turns out to be evidence of a sterile neutrino (and thus of dark matter) or not, it does appear to be a signal of some physical process that scientists do not yet understand. If future observations can increase the certainty of this discovery to the 5σ level, astrophysicists will have yet another phenomena to account for – an exciting prospect, regardless of the final result.

The team’s research has been accepted to Physical Review Letters and will be published in an upcoming issue.

Gamma Ray Bursts Limit The Habitability of Certain Galaxies, Says Study

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the brightest, most dramatic events in the Universe. These cosmic tempests are characterized by a spectacular explosion of photons with energies 1,000,000 times greater than the most energetic light our eyes can detect. Due to their explosive power, long-lasting GRBs are predicted to have catastrophic consequences for life on any nearby planet. But could this type of event occur in our own stellar neighborhood? In a new paper published in Physical Review Letters, two astrophysicists examine the probability of a deadly GRB occurring in galaxies like the Milky Way, potentially shedding light on the risk for organisms on Earth, both now and in our distant past and future.

There are two main kinds of GRBs: short, and long. Short GRBs last less than two seconds and are thought to result from the merger of two compact stars, such as neutron stars or black holes. Conversely, long GRBs last more than two seconds and seem to occur in conjunction with certain kinds of Type I supernovae, specifically those that result when a massive star throws off all of its hydrogen and helium during collapse.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, long GRBs are much more threatening to planetary systems than short GRBs. Since dangerous long GRBs appear to be relatively rare in large, metal-rich galaxies like our own, it has long been thought that planets in the Milky Way would be immune to their fallout. But take into account the inconceivably old age of the Universe, and “relatively rare” no longer seems to cut it.

In fact, according to the authors of the new paper, there is a 90% chance that a GRB powerful enough to destroy Earth’s ozone layer occurred in our stellar neighborhood some time in the last 5 billion years, and a 50% chance that such an event occurred within the last half billion years. These odds indicate a possible trigger for the second worst mass extinction in Earth’s history: the Ordovician Extinction. This great decimation occurred 440-450 million years ago and led to the death of more than 80% of all species.

Today, however, Earth appears to be relatively safe. Galaxies that produce GRBs at a far higher rate than our own, such as the Large Magellanic Cloud, are currently too far from Earth to be any cause for alarm. Additionally, our Solar System’s home address in the sleepy outskirts of the Milky Way places us far away from our own galaxy’s more active, star-forming regions, areas that would be more likely to produce GRBs. Interestingly, the fact that such quiet outer regions exist within spiral galaxies like our own is entirely due to the precise value of the cosmological constant – the factor that describes our Universe’s expansion rate – that we observe. If the Universe had expanded any faster, such galaxies would not exist; any slower, and spirals would be far more compact and thus, far more energetically active.

In a future paper, the authors promise to look into the role long GRBs may play in Fermi’s paradox, the open question of why advanced lifeforms appear to be so rare in our Universe. A preprint of their current work can be accessed on the ArXiv.

New Research Suggests Better Ways To Seek Out Pale Blue Dots

The search for worlds beyond our own is one of humankind’s greatest quests. Scientists have found thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way, but are still ironing out the details of what factors truly make a planet habitable. But thanks to researchers at Cornell University, their search may become a little easier. A team at the Institute for Pale Blue Dots has zeroed in on the range of habitable orbits for very young Earth-like planets, giving astronomers a better target to aim at when searching for rocky worlds that contain liquid water and could support the evolution of life.

The Habitable Zone (HZ) of a star is its so-called “Goldilocks region,” the not-too-hot, not-too-cold belt within which liquid water could exist on orbiting rocky planets. Isolating planets in the HZ is the primary objective for scientists hoping to find evidence of life. Until now, astronomers have mainly been searching for worlds that lie in the HZ of stars that are in the prime of their lives: those that are on the Main Sequence, the cosmic growth chart for stellar evolution. According to the group at Cornell, however, scientists should also be looking at cooler, younger stars that have not yet reached such maturity.

The increased distance of the Habitable Zone from pre-main sequence stars makes it easier to spot infant Earths. Credit: Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The increased distance of the Habitable Zone from pre-main sequence stars makes it easier to spot infant Earths. Credit: Astrophysical Journal Letters.

As shown in the figure above, cool stars in classes F, G, K, and M are more luminous in their pre-Main Sequence stage than they are once they mature. Planets that circle around such bright stars tend to have more distant orbits than those that accompany dimmer stars, making transits more visible and providing a larger HZ for astronomers to probe. In addition, the researchers found that fledgling planets can spend up to 2.5 billion years in the HZ of a young M-class star, a period of time that would allow ample time for life to flourish.

But just because liquid water could exist on a planet doesn’t mean that it does. A rocky planet must first acquire water, and then retain it long enough for life to develop. The Cornell group found that a watery world could lose its aqueous environment to a runaway greenhouse effect if if forms too close to a cool parent star, even if the planet was on course to eventually stray into the star’s HZ. These seemingly habitable planets would have to receive a second supply of water later on in order to truly support life. “Our own planet gained additional water after this early runaway phase from a late, heavy bombardment of water-rich asteroids,” offered Ramses Ramirez, one author of the study. “Planets at a distance corresponding to modern Earth or Venus orbiting these cool stars could be similarly replenished later on.”

Estimations for the HZs of cool, young stars and probable amounts of water loss for exoplanets orbiting at various distances are provided in a preprint of the paper, available here. The research will be published in the January 1, 2015, issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

New Cosmological Theory Goes Inflation-Free

The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation is one of the greatest discoveries of modern cosmology. Astrophysicist George Smoot once likened its existence to “seeing the face of God.” In recent years, however, scientists have begun to question some of the attributes of the CMB. Peculiar patterns have emerged in the images taken by satellites such as WMAP and Planck – and they aren’t going away. Now, in a paper published in the December 1 issue of The Astronomical Journal, one scientist argues that the existence of these patterns may not only imply new physics, but also a revolution in our understanding of the entire Universe.

Let’s recap. Thanks to a blistering ambient temperature, the early Universe was blanketed in a haze for its first 380,000 years of life. During this time, photons relentlessly bombarded the protons and electrons created in the Big Bang, preventing them from combining to form stable atoms. All of this scattering also caused the photons’ energy to manifest as a diffuse glow. The CMB that cosmologists see today is the relic of this glow, now stretched to longer, microwave wavelengths due to the expansion of the Universe.

As any fan of the WMAP and Planck images will tell you, the hallmarks of the CMB are the so-called anisotropies, small regions of overdensity and underdensity that give the picture its characteristic mottled appearance. These hot and cold spots are thought to be the result of tiny quantum fluctuations born at the beginning of the Universe and magnified exponentially during inflation.

Temperature and polarization around hot and cold spots (Credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team)
Temperature and polarization around hot and cold spots (Credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team)

Given the type of inflation that cosmologists believe occurred in the very early Universe, the distribution of these anisotropies in the CMB should be random, on the order of a Gaussian field. But both WMAP and Planck have confirmed the existence of certain oddities in the fog: a large “cold spot,” strange alignments in polarity known as quadrupoles and octupoles, and, of course, Stephen Hawking’s initials.

In his new paper, Fulvio Melia of the University of Arizona argues that these types of patterns (Dr. Hawking’s signature notwithstanding) reveal a problem with the standard inflationary picture, or so-called ΛCDM cosmology. According to his calculations, inflation should have left a much more random assortment of anisotropies than the one that scientists see in the WMAP and Planck data. In fact, the probability of these particular anomalies lining up the way they do in the CMB images is only about 0.005% for a ΛCDM Universe.

Melia posits that the anomalous patterns in the CMB can be better explained by a new type of cosmology in which no inflation occurred. He calls this model the R(h)=ct Universe, where c is the speed of light, t is the age of the cosmos, and R(h) is the Hubble radius – the distance beyond which light will never reach Earth. (This equation makes intuitive sense: Light, traveling at light speed (c) for 13.7 billion years (t), should travel an equivalent number of light-years. In fact, current estimates of the Hubble radius put its value at about 13.4 billion light-years, which is remarkably close to the more tightly constrained value of the Universe’s age.)

R(h)=ct holds true for both the standard cosmological scenario and Melia’s model, with one crucial difference: in ΛCDM cosmology, this equation only works for the current age of the Universe. That is, at any time in the distant past or future, the Universe would have obeyed a different law. Scientists explain this odd coincidence by positing that the Universe first underwent inflation, then decelerated, and finally accelerated again to its present rate.

Melia hopes that his model, a Universe that requires no inflation, will provide an alternative explanation that does not rely on such fine-tuning. He calculates that, in a R(h)=ct Universe, the probability of seeing the types of strange patterns that have been observed in the CMB by WMAP and Planck is 7–10%, compared with a figure 1000 times lower for the standard model.

So, could this new way of looking at the cosmos be a death knell for ΛCDM? Probably not. Melia himself cites a few less earth-shattering explanations for the anomalous signals in the CMB, including foreground noise, statistical biases, and instrumental errors. Incidentally, the Planck satellite is scheduled to release its latest image of the CMB this week at a conference in Italy. If these new results show the same patterns of polarity that previous observations did, cosmologists will have to look into each possible explanation, including Melia’s theory, more intensively.

New Simulation Offers Stunning Images of Black Hole Merger

A black hole is an extraordinarily massive, improbably dense knot of spacetime that makes a living swallowing or slinging away any morsel of energy that strays too close to its dark, twisted core. Anyone fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to directly observe one of these beasts in the wild would immediately notice the way its colossal gravitational field warps all of the light from the stars and galaxies behind it, a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.

Thanks to the power of supercomputers, a curious observer no longer has to venture into outer space to see such a sight. A team of astronomers has released their first simulated images of the lensing effects of not just one, but two black holes, trapped in orbit by each other’s gravity and ultimately doomed to merge as one.

Astronomers have been able to model the gravitational effects of a single black hole since the 1970s, but the imposing mathematics of general relativity made doing so for a double black-hole system a much larger challenge. Over the last ten years, however, scientists have improved the accuracy of computer models that deal with these types of calculations in an effort to match observations from gravitational wave detectors like LIGO and VIRGO.

The research collaboration Simulating Extreme Spacetimes (SXS) has begun using these models to mimic the lensing effects of high-gravity systems involving objects such as neutron stars and black holes. In their most recent paper, the team imagines a camera pointing at a binary black hole system against a backdrop of the stars and dust of the Milky Way. One way to figure out what the camera would see in this situation would be to use general relativity to compute the path of each photon traveling from every light source at all points within the frame. This method, however, involves a nearly impossible number of calculations.  So instead, the researchers worked backwards, mapping only those photons that would reach the camera and result in a bright spot on the final image – that is, photons that would not be swallowed by either of the black holes.

A binary black hole system, viewed from above. Image Credit: Bohn et al. (see http://arxiv.org/abs/1410.7775)
The same binary black hole system, viewed from above. Image Credit: Bohn et al. (see http://arxiv.org/abs/1410.7775)

As you can see in the image above, the team’s simulations testify to the enormous effect that these black holes have on the fabric of spacetime. Ambient photons curl into a ring around the converging binaries in a process known as frame dragging. Background objects appear to multiply on opposite sides of the merger (for instance, the yellow and blue pair of stars in the “northeast” and the “southwest” areas of the ring). Light from behind  the camera is even pulled into the frame by the black holes’ mammoth combined gravitational field. And each black hole distorts the appearance of the other, pinching off curved, comma-shaped regions of shadow called “eyebrows.” If you could zoom in with unlimited precision, you would find that there are, in fact, an infinite number of these eyebrows, each smaller than the last, like a cosmic set of Russian dolls.

In case you thought things couldn’t get any more amazing, SXS has also created two videos of the black hole merger: one simulated from above, and the other edge-on.
 



 



The SXS collaboration will continue to investigate gravitationally ponderous objects like black holes and neutron stars in an effort to better understand their astronomical and physical properties. Their work will also assist observational scientists as they search the skies for evidence of gravitational waves.

Check out the team’s ArXiv paper describing this work and their website for even more fascinating images.