How to Listen to the Background Hum of Gravitational Waves From all the Black Holes Colliding into Each Other

The first-ever detection of gravitational waves (which took place in September of 2015) triggered a revolution in astronomy. Not only did this event confirm a theory predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity a century before, it also ushered in a new era where the mergers of distant black holes, supernovae, and neutron stars could be studied by examining their resulting waves.

In addition, scientists have theorized that black hole mergers could actually be a lot more common than previously thought. According to a new study conducted by pair of researchers from Monash University, these mergers happen once every few minutes. By listening to the background noise of the Universe, they claim, we could find evidence of thousands of previously undetected events.

Their study, titled “Optimal Search for an Astrophysical Gravitational-Wave Background“, recently appeared in the journal Physical Review X. The study was conducted by Rory Smith and Eric Thrane, a senior lecturer and a research fellow at Monash University, respectively. Both researchers are also members of the ARC Center of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav).

Drs. Eric Thrane and Rory Smith. Credit: Monash University

As they state in their study, every 2 to 10 minutes, a pair of stellar-mass black holes merge somewhere in the Universe. A small fraction of these are large enough that the resulting gravitational wave event can be detected by advanced instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and Virgo observatory. The rest, however, contribute to a sort of stochastic background noise.

By measuring this noise, scientists may be able to study much more in the way of events and learn a great deal more about gravitational waves. As Dr Thrane explained in a Monash University press statement:

“Measuring the gravitational-wave background will allow us to study populations of black holes at vast distances. Someday, the technique may enable us to see gravitational waves from the Big Bang, hidden behind gravitational waves from black holes and neutron stars.”

Drs Smith and Thrane are no amateurs when it comes to the study of gravitational waves. Last year, they were both involved in a major breakthrough, where researchers from LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and the Virgo Collaboration measured gravitational waves from a pair of merging neutron stars. This was the first time that a neutron star merger (aka. a kilonova) was observed in both gravitational waves and visible light.

The pair were also part of the Advanced LIGO team that made the first detection of gravitational waves in September 2015. To date, six confirmed gravitational wave events have been confirmed by the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations. But according to Drs Thrane and Smith, there could be as many as 100,000 events happening every year that these detectors simply aren’t equipped to handle.

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

These waves are what come together to create a gravitational wave background; and while the individual events are too subtle to be detected, researchers have been attempting to develop a method for detecting the general noise for years. Relying on a combination of computer simulations of faint black hole signals and masses of data from known events, Drs. Thrane and Smith claim to have done just that.

From this, the pair were able to produce a signal within the simulated data that they believe is evidence of faint black hole mergers. Looking ahead, Drs Thrane and Smith hope to apply their new method to real data, and are optimistic it will yield results. The researchers will also have access to the new OzSTAR supercomputer, which was installed last month at the Swinburne University of Technology to help scientists to look for gravitational waves in LIGO data.

This computer is different from those used by the LIGO community, which includes the supercomputers at CalTech and MIT. Rather than relying on more traditional central processing units (CPUs), OzGrav uses graphical processor units – which can be hundreds of times faster for some applications. According to Professor Matthew Bailes, the Director of the OzGRav supercomputer:

“It is 125,000 times more powerful than the first supercomputer I built at the institution in 1998… By harnessing the power of GPUs, OzStar has the potential to make big discoveries in gravitational-wave astronomy.”

What has been especially impressive about the study of gravitational waves is how it has progressed so quickly. From the initial detection in 2015, scientists from Advanced LIGO and Virgo have now confirmed six different events and anticipate detecting many more. On top of that, astrophysicists are even coming up with ways to use gravitational waves to learn more about the astronomical phenomena that cause them.

All of this was made possible thanks to improvements in instrumentation and growing collaboration between observatories. And with more sophisticated methods designed to sift through archival data for additional signals and background noise, we stand to learn a great deal more about this mysterious cosmic force.

Further Reading: Monash, Physical Review X

Dense Star Clusters Could be the Places Where Black Hole Mergers are Common

In February of 2016, scientists working for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Not only did this discovery confirm a century-old prediction made by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it also confirmed the existence of stellar binary black holes – which merged to produce the signal in the first place.

And now, an international team led by MIT astrophysicist Carl Rodriguez has produced a study that suggests that  black holes may merge multiple times. According to their study, these “second-generation mergers” likely occur within globular clusters, the large and compact star clusters that typically orbit at the edges of galaxies – and which are densely-packed with hundreds of thousands to millions of stars.

The study, titled “Post-Newtonian Dynamics in Dense Star Clusters: Highly Eccentric, Highly Spinning, and Repeated Binary Black Hole Mergers“, recently appeared in the Physical Review Letters. The study was led by Carl Rodriguez, a Pappalardo fellow in MIT’s Department of Physics and the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, and included members from the Institute of Space Sciences and the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

As Carl Rodriguez explained in a recent MIT press release:

“We think these clusters formed with hundreds to thousands of black holes that rapidly sank down in the center. These kinds of clusters are essentially factories for black hole binaries, where you’ve got so many black holes hanging out in a small region of space that two black holes could merge and produce a more massive black hole. Then that new black hole can find another companion and merge again.”

Globular clusters have been a source of fascination ever since astronomers first observed them in the 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stars in the Universe, and can be found in most galaxies. Depending on the size and type of galaxy they orbit, the number of clusters varies, with elliptical galaxies hosting tens of thousands while galaxies like the Milky Way have over 150.

For years, Rodriguez has been investigating the behavior of black holes within globular clusters to see if they interact with their stars differently from black holes that occupy less densely-populated regions in space. To test this hypothesis, Rodriguez and his colleagues used the Quest supercomputer at Northwestern University to conduct simulations on 24 stellar clusters.

These clusters ranged in size from 200,000 to 2 million stars and covered a range of different densities and metallic compositions. The simulations modeled the evolution of individual stars within these clusters over the course of 12 billion years. This span of time was enough to follow these stars as they interacted with each other, and eventually formed black holes.

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

The simulations also modeled the evolution and trajectories of black holes once they formed. As Rodriguez explained:

“The neat thing is, because black holes are the most massive objects in these clusters, they sink to the center, where you get a high enough density of black holes to form binaries. Binary black holes are basically like giant targets hanging out in the cluster, and as you throw other black holes or stars at them, they undergo these crazy chaotic encounters.”

Whereas previous simulations were based on Newton’s physics, the team decided to add Einstein’s relativistic effects into their simulations of globular clusters. This was due to the fact that gravitational waves were not predicted by Newton’s theories, but by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. As Rodriguez indicated, this allowed for them to see how gravitational waves played a role:

“What people had done in the past was to treat this as a purely Newtonian problem. Newton’s theory of gravity works in 99.9 percent of all cases. The few cases in which it doesn’t work might be when you have two black holes whizzing by each other very closely, which normally doesn’t happen in most galaxies… In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, where I can emit gravitational waves, then when one black hole passes near another, it can actually emit a tiny pulse of gravitational waves. This can subtract enough energy from the system that the two black holes actually become bound, and then they will rapidly merge.”

Artist’s conception shows two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017. Credit: LIGO/Caltech

What they observed was that inside the stellar clusters, black holes merge with each other to create new black holes. In previous simulations, Newtonian gravity predicted that most binary black holes would be kicked out of the cluster before they could merge. But by taking relativistic effects into account, Rodriguez and his team found that nearly half of the binary black holes merged to form more massive ones.

As Rodriguez explained, the difference between those that merged and those that were kicked out came down to spin:

“If the two black holes are spinning when they merge, the black hole they create will emit gravitational waves in a single preferred direction, like a rocket, creating a new black hole that can shoot out as fast as 5,000 kilometers per second — so, insanely fast. It only takes a kick of maybe a few tens to a hundred kilometers per second to escape one of these clusters.”

This raised another interesting fact about previous simulations, where astronomers believed that the product of any black hole merger would be kicked out of the cluster since most black holes are assumed to be rapidly spinning. However, the gravity wave measurements recently obtained from LIGO appear to contradict this, which has only detected the mergers of binary black holes with low spins.

Artist’s impression of two merging black holes. Credit: Bohn, Throwe, Hébert, Henriksson, Bunandar, Taylor, Scheel/SXS

This assumption, however, seems to contradict the measurements from LIGO, which has so far only detected binary black holes with low spins. To test the implications of this, Rodriguez and his colleagues reduced the spin rates of the black holes in their simulations. What they found was that nearly 20% of the binary black holes from clusters had at least one black hole that ranged from being 50 to 130 solar masses.

Essentially, this indicated that these were “second generation” black holes, since scientists believe that this mass cannot be achieved by a black hole that formed from a single star. Looking ahead, Rodriguez and his team anticipate that if LIGO detects an object with a mass within this range, it is likely the result of black holes merging within dense stellar cluster, rather than from a single star.

“If we wait long enough, then eventually LIGO will see something that could only have come from these star clusters, because it would be bigger than anything you could get from a single star,” Rodriguez says. “My co-authors and I have a bet against a couple people studying binary star formation that within the first 100 LIGO detections, LIGO will detect something within this upper mass gap. I get a nice bottle of wine if that happens to be true.”

The detection of gravitational waves was a historic accomplishment, and one that has enabled astronomers to conduct new and exciting research. Already, scientists are gaining new insight into black holes by studying the byproduct of their mergers. In the coming years, we can expect to learn a great deal more thanks to improve methods and increased cooperation between observatories.

Further Reading: MIT, Physical Review Letters

Researchers Create the Most Detailed Simulation of the Universe Ever Made

Since time immemorial, philosophers and scholars have sought to determine how existence began. With the birth of modern astronomy, this tradition has continued and given rise to the field known as cosmology. And with the help of supercomputing, scientists are able to conduct simulations that show how the first stars and galaxies formed in our Universe and evolved over the course of billions of years.

Until recently, the most extensive and complete study was the “Illustrus” simulation, which looked at the process of galaxy formation over the course of the past 13 billion years. Seeking to break their own record, the same team recently began conducting a simulation known as “Illustris, The Next Generation,” or “IllustrisTNG”. The first round of these findings were recently released, and several more are expected to follow.

These findings appeared in three articles recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The Illustris team consists of researchers from the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, the Max-Planck Institutes for Astrophysics and for Astronomy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York.

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Image: NASA

Using the Hazel Hen supercomputer at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) – one of the three world-class German supercomputing facilities that comprise the Gauss Centre for Supercomputing (GCS) – the team conducted a simulation that will help to verify and expand on existing experimental knowledge about the earliest stages of the Universe – i.e. what happened from 300,000 years after the Big Bang to the present day.

To create this simulation, the team combined equations (such as the Theory of General Relativity) and data from modern observations into a massive computational cube that represented a large cross-section of the Universe. For some processes, such as star formation and the growth of black holes, the researchers were forced to rely on assumptions based on observations. They then employed numerical models to set this simulated Universe in motion.

Compared to their previous simulation, IllustrisTNG consisted of 3 different universes at three different resolutions – the largest of which measured 1 billion light years (300 megaparsecs) across. In addition, the research team included more precise accounting for magnetic fields, thus improving accuracy. In total, the simulation used 24,000 cores on the Hazel Hen supercomputer for a total of 35 million core hours.

As Prof. Dr. Volker Springel, professor and researcher at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and principal investigator on the project, explained in a Gauss Center press release:

“Magnetic fields are interesting for a variety of reasons. The magnetic pressure exerted on cosmic gas can occasionally be equal to thermal (temperature) pressure, meaning that if you neglect this, you will miss these effects and ultimately compromise your results.”

Illustris simulation overview poster. Shows the large scale dark matter and gas density fields in projection (top/bottom). Credit: Illustris Project

Another major difference was the inclusion of updated black hole physics based on recent observation campaigns. This includes evidence that demonstrates a correlation between supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and galactic evolution. In essence, SMBHs are known to send out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets, which can have an arresting effect on star formation in a galaxy.

While the researchers were certainly aware of this process during the first simulation, they did not factor in how it can arrest star formation completely. By including updated data on both magnetic fields and black hole physics in the simulation, the team saw a greater correlation between the data and observations. They are therefore more confident with the results and believe it represents the most accurate simulation to date.

But as Dr. Dylan Nelson – a physicist with the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy and an llustricTNG member – explained, future simulations are likely to be even more accurate, assuming advances in supercomputers continue:

“Increased memory and processing resources in next-generation systems will allow us to simulate large volumes of the universe with higher resolution. Large volumes are important for cosmology, understanding the large-scale structure of the universe, and making firm predictions for the next generation of large observational projects. High resolution is important for improving our physical models of the processes going on inside of individual galaxies in our simulation.”

Gas density (left) and magnetic field strength (right) centered on the most massive galaxy cluster. Credit: Illustris Team

This latest simulation was also made possible thanks to extensive support provided by the GCS staff, who assisted the research team with matters related to their coding. It was also the result of a massive collaborative effort that brought together researchers from around the world and paired them with the resources they needed. Last, but not least, it shows how increased collaboration between applied research and theoretical research lead to better results.

Looking ahead, the team hopes that the results of this latest simulation proves to be even more useful than the last. The original Illustris data release gained over 2,000 registered users and resulted in the publication of 130 scientific studies. Given that this one is more accurate and up-to-date, the team expects that it will find more users and result in even more groundbreaking research.

Who knows? Perhaps someday, we may create a simulation that captures the formation and evolution of our Universe with complete accuracy. In the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the first Illustris Simulation, courtesy of team member and MIT physicist Mark Vogelsberger:

Further Reading: GCS, Illustrus

Maybe There’s no Connection Between Supermassive Black Holes and Their Host Galaxies?

For decades, astrophysicists have puzzled over the relationship between Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) and their respective galaxies. Since the 1970s, it has been understood the majority of massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center, and that these are surrounded by rotating tori of gas and dust. The presence of these black holes and tori are what cause massive galaxies to have an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN).

However, a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers revealed a startling conclusion when studying this relationship. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe an active galaxy with a strong ionized gas outflow from the galactic center, the team obtained results that could indicate that there is no relationship between a an SMBH and its host galaxy.

The study, titled “No sign of strong molecular gas outflow in an infrared-bright dust-obscured galaxy with strong ionized-gas outflow“, recently appeared in the Astrophysical Journal. The study was led by Yoshiki Toba of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and included members from Ehime University, Kogakuin University, and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI), and Johns Hopkins University.

Images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) (left), and mid-infrared image from WISE (right), respectively. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey/NASA/JPLCaltech

The question of how SMBHs have affected galactic evolution remains one of the greatest unresolved questions in modern astronomy. Among astrophysicists, it is something of a foregone conclusion that SMBHs have a significant impact on the formation and evolution of galaxies. According to this accepted notion, SMBHs significantly influence the molecular gas in galaxies, which has a profound effect on star formation.

Basically, this theory holds that larger galaxies accumulate more gas, thus resulting in more stars and a more massive central black hole. At the same time, there is a feedback mechanism, where growing black holes accrete more matter on themselves. This results in them sending out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets, which is believed to curtail star formation in their vicinity.

However, when observing an infrared (IR)-bright dust-obscured galaxy (DOG) – WISE1029+0501 – Yoshiki and his colleagues obtained results that contradicted this notion. After conducting a detailed analysis using ALMA, the team found that there were no signs of significant molecular gas outflow coming from WISE1029+0501. They also found that star-forming activity in the galaxy was neither more intense or suppressed.

This indicates that a strong ionized gas outflow coming from the SMBH in WISE1029+0501 did not significantly affect the surrounding molecular gas or star formation. As Dr. Yoshiki Toba explained, this result:

“[H]as made the co-evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes more puzzling. The next step is looking into more data of this kind of galaxies. That is crucial for understanding the full picture of the formation and evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes”.

Emission from Carbon Monoxide (Left) and Cold Dust (Right) in WISE1029 Observed by ALMA (image). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Toba et al.

This not only flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but also in the face of recent studies that showed a tight correlation between the mass of central black holes and those of their host galaxies. This correlation suggests that supermassive black holes and their host galaxies evolved together over the course of the past 13.8 billion years and closely interacted as they grew.

In this respect, this latest study has only deepened the mystery of the relationship between SMBHs and their galaxies. As Tohru Nagao, a Professor at Ehime University and a co-author on the study, indicated:

“[W]e astronomers do not understand the real relation between the activity of supermassive black holes and star formation in galaxies. Therefore, many astronomers including us are eager to observe the real scene of the interaction between the nuclear outflow and the star-forming activities, for revealing the mystery of the co-evolution.”

The team selected WISE1029+0501 for their study because astronomers believe that DOGs harbor actively growing SMBHs in their nuclei. In particular, WISE1029+0501 is an extreme example of galaxies where outflowing gas is being ionized by the intense radiation from its SMBH. As such, researchers have been highly motivated to see what happens to this galaxy’s molecular gas.

Artist’s impression of the black hole wind at the center of a galaxy. Credit: ESA

The study was made possible thanks to ALMA’s sensitivity, which is excellent when it comes to investigating the properties of molecular gas and star-forming activity in galaxies. In fact, multiple studies have been conducted in recent years that have relied on ALMA to investigate the gas properties and SMBHs of distant galaxies.

And while the results of this study contradict widely-held theories about galactic evolution, Yoshiki and his colleagues are excited about what this study could reveal. In the end, it may be that radiation from a SMBH does not always affect the molecular gas and star formation of its host galaxy.

“[U]nderstanding such co-evolution is crucial for astronomy,” said Yoshiki. “By collecting statistical data of this kind of galaxies and continuing in more follow-up observations using ALMA, we hope to reveal the truth.”

Further Reading: ALMA Observatory, Astrophysical Journal

Astronomers Observe the Rotating Accretion Disk Around the Supermassive Black Hole in M77

During the 1970s, scientists confirmed that radio emissions coming from the center of our galaxy were due to the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH). Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellation, this feature came to be known as Sagittarius A*. Since that time, astronomers have come to understand that most massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center.

What’s more, astronomers have come to learn that black holes in these galaxies are surrounded by massive rotating toruses of dust and gas, which is what accounts for the energy they put out. However, it was only recently that a team of astronomers, using the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), were able to capture an image of the rotating dusty gas torus around the supermassive black hole of M77.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in the Astronomical Journal Letters under the title “ALMA Reveals an Inhomogeneous Compact Rotating Dense Molecular Torus at the NGC 1068 Nucleus“. The study was conducted by a team of Japanese researchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan – led by Masatoshi Imanishi – with assistance from Kagoshima University.

The central region of the spiral galaxy M77. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope imaged the distribution of stars. ALMA revealed the distribution of gas in the very center of the galaxy. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Imanishi et al./NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and A. van der Hoeven

Like most massive galaxies, M77 has an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), where dust and gas are being accreted onto its SMBH, leading to higher than normal luminosity. For some time, astronomers have puzzled over the curious relationship that exists between SMBHs and galaxies. Whereas more massive galaxies have larger SMBHs, host galaxies are still 10 billion times larger than their central black hole.

This naturally raises questions about how two objects of vastly different scales could directly affect each other. As a result, astronomers have sought to study AGN is order to determine how galaxies and black holes co-evolve. For the sake of their study, the team conducted high-resolution observations of the central region of M77, a barred spiral galaxy located about 47 million light years from Earth.

Using ALMA, the team imaged the area around M77’s center and were able to resolve a compact gaseous structure with a radius of 20 light-years. As expected, the team found that the compact structure was rotating around the galaxies central black hole. As Masatoshi Imanishi explained in an ALMA press release:

“To interpret various observational features of AGNs, astronomers have assumed rotating donut-like structures of dusty gas around active supermassive black holes. This is called the ‘unified model’ of AGN. However, the dusty gaseous donut is very tiny in appearance. With the high resolution of ALMA, now we can directly see the structure.”

Motion of gas around the supermassive black hole in the center of M77. The gas moving toward us is shown in blue and that moving away from us is in red. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Imanishi et al.

In the past, astronomers have observed the center of M77, but no one has been able to resolve the rotating torus at its center until now. This was made possible thanks to the superior resolution of ALMA, as well as the selection of molecular emissions lines. These emissions lines include hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formyl ions (HCO+), which emit microwaves only in dense gas, and carbon monoxide – which emits microwaves under a variety of conditions.

The observations of these emission lines confirmed another prediction made by the team, which was that the torus would be very dense. “Previous observations have revealed the east-west elongation of the dusty gaseous torus,” said Imanishi. “The dynamics revealed from our ALMA data agrees exactly with the expected rotational orientation of the torus.”

However, their observations also indicated that the distribution of gas around an SMBH is more complicated that what a simple unified model suggests. According to this model, the rotation of the torus would follow the gravity of the black hole; but what Imanishi and his team found indicated that gas and dust in the torus also exhibit signs of highly random motion.

These could be an indication that the AGN at the center of M77 had a violent history, which could include merging with a small galaxy in the past. In short, the team’s observations indicate that galactic mergers may have a significant impact on how AGNs form and behave. In this respect, their observations of M77s torus are already providing clues as to the galaxy’s history and evolution.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The study of SMBHs, while intensive, is also very challenging. On the one hand, the closest SMBH (Sagitarrius A*) is relatively quiet, with only a small amount of gas accreting onto it. At the same time, it is located at the center of our galaxy, where it is obscured by intervening dust, gas and stars. As such, astronomers are forced to look to other galaxies to study how SMBHs and their galaxies co-exist.

And thanks to decades of study and improvements in instrumentation, scientists are beginning to get a clear glimpse of these mysterious regions for the first time. By being able to study them in detail, astronomers are also gaining valuable insight into how such massive black holes and their ringed structures could coexist with their galaxies over time.

Further Reading: ALMA, arXiv

The First Results From The IllustrisTNG Simulation Of The Universe Has Been Completed, Showing How Our Cosmos Evolved From The Big Bang

The first results of the IllustrisTNG Project have been published in three separate studies, and they’re shedding new light on how black holes shape the cosmos, and how galaxies form and grow. The IllustrisTNG Project bills itself as “The next generation of cosmological hydrodynamical simulations.” The Project is an ongoing series of massive hydrodynamic simulations of our Universe. Its goal is to understand the physical processes that drive the formation of galaxies.

At the heart of IllustriousTNG is a state of the art numerical model of the Universe, running on one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world: the Hazel Hen machine at the High-Performance Computing Center in Stuttgart, Germany. Hazel Hen is Germany’s fastest computer, and the 19th fastest in the world.

The Hazel Hen Supercomputer is based on Intel processors and Cray network technologies. Image: IllustrisTNG

Our current cosmological model suggests that the mass-energy density of the Universe is dominated by dark matter and dark energy. Since we can’t observe either of those things, the only way to test this model is to be able to make precise predictions about the structure of the things we can see, such as stars, diffuse gas, and accreting black holes. These visible things are organized into a cosmic web of sheets, filaments, and voids. Inside these are galaxies, which are the basic units of cosmic structure. To test our ideas about galactic structure, we have to make detailed and realistic simulated galaxies, then compare them to what’s real.

Astrophysicists in the USA and Germany used IllustrisTNG to create their own universe, which could then be studied in detail. IllustrisTNG correlates very strongly with observations of the real Universe, but allows scientists to look at things that are obscured in our own Universe. This has led to some very interesting results so far, and is helping to answer some big questions in cosmology and astrophysics.

How Do Black Holes Affect Galaxies?

Ever since we’ve learned that galaxies host supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at their centers, it’s been widely believed that they have a profound influence on the evolution of galaxies, and possibly on their formation. That’s led to the obvious question: How do these SMBHs influence the galaxies that host them? Illustrious TNG set out to answer this, and the paper by Dr. Dylan Nelson at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics shows that “the primary driver of galaxy color transition is supermassive blackhole feedback in its low-accretion state.”

“The only physical entity capable of extinguishing the star formation in our large elliptical galaxies are the supermassive black holes at their centers.” – Dr. Dylan Nelson, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics,

Galaxies that are still in their star-forming phase shine brightly in the blue light of their young stars. Then something changes and the star formation ends. After that, the galaxy is dominated by older, red stars, and the galaxy joins a graveyard full of “red and dead” galaxies. As Nelson explains, “The only physical entity capable of extinguishing the star formation in our large elliptical galaxies are the supermassive black holes at their centers.” But how do they do that?

Nelson and his colleagues attribute it to supermassive black hole feedback in its low-accretion state. What that means is that as a black hole feeds, it creates a wind, or shock wave, that blows star-forming gas and dust out of the galaxy. This limits the future formation of stars. The existing stars age and turn red, and few new blue stars form.

This is a rendering of gas velocity in a massive galaxy cluster in IllustrisTNG. Black areas are hardly moving, and white areas are moving at greater than 1000km/second. The black areas are calm cosmic filaments, the white areas are near super-massive black holes (SMBHs). The SMBHs are blowing away the gas and preventing star formation. Image: IllustrisTNG

How Do Galaxies Form and How Does Their Structure Develop?

It’s long been thought that large galaxies form when smaller galaxies join up. As the galaxy grows larger, its gravity draws more smaller galaxies into it. During these collisions, galaxies are torn apart. Some stars will be scattered, and will take up residence in a halo around the new, larger galaxy. This should give the newly-created galaxy a faint background glow of stellar light. But this is a prediction, and these pale glows are very hard to observe.

“Our predictions can now be systematically checked by observers.” – Dr. Annalisa Pillepich (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)

IllustrisTNG was able to predict more accurately what this glow should look like. This gives astronomers a better idea of what to look for when they try to observe this pale stellar glow in the real Universe. “Our predictions can now be systematically checked by observers,” Dr. Annalisa Pillepich (MPIA) points out, who led a further IllustrisTNG study. “This yields a critical test for the theoretical model of hierarchical galaxy formation.”

A composite image from IllustrisTNG. Panels on the left show galaxy-galaxy interactions and the fine-grained structure of extended stellar halos. Panels on the right show stellar light projections from two massive central galaxies at the present day. It’s easy to see how the light from massive central galaxies overwhelms the light from stellar halos. Image: IllustrisTNG

IllustrisTNG is an on-going series of simulations. So far, there have been three IllustrisTNG runs, each one creating a larger simulation than the previous one. They are TNG 50, TNG 100, and TNG 300. TNG300 is much larger than TNG50 and allows a larger area to be studied which reveals clues about large-scale structure. Though TNG50 is much smaller, it has much more precise detail. It gives us a more detailed look at the structural properties of galaxies and the detailed structure of gas around galaxies. TNG100 is somewhere in the middle.

TNG 50, TNG 100, and TNG 300. Image: IllustrisTNG

IllustrisTNG is not the first cosmological hydrodynamical simulation. Others include Eagle, Horizon-AGN, and IllustrisTNG’s predecessor, Illustris. They have shown how powerful these predictive theoretical models can be. As our computers grow more powerful and our understanding of physics and cosmology grow along with them, these types of simulations will yield greater and more detailed results.

Outflows From Black Holes are Creating New Molecules Where There Should Only be Destruction

During the 1960s, scientists discovered a massive radio source (known as Sagittarius A*) at the center of the Milky Way, which was later revealed to be a Supermassive Black Holes (SMBH). Since then, they have learned that these SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies. The presence of these black holes is also what allows the centers of these galaxies to have a higher than normal luminosity – aka. Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs).

In the past few years, astronomers have also observed fast molecular outflows emanating from AGNs which left them puzzled. For one, it was a mystery how any particles could survive the heat and energy of a black hole’s outflow. But according to a new study produced by researchers from Northwestern University, these molecules were actually born within the winds themselves. This theory may help explain how stars form in extreme environments.

The study recently appeared in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “The origin of fast molecular outflows in quasars: molecule formation in AGN-driven galactic winds.” The study was conducted by Lindheimer post-doctoral fellow Alexander J Richings and assistant professor Claude-André Faucher-Giguère from Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Exploration in Astrophysics (CIERA).

Artist’s impression of a black hole’s wind sweeping away galactic gas. Credit: ESA

For the sake of their study, Richings developed the first-ever computer code capable of modeling the detailed chemical processes in interstellar gas which are accelerated by a growing SMBH’s radiation. Meanwhile, Claude-André Faucher-Giguère contributed his expertise, having spent his career studying the formation and evolution of galaxies. As Richings explained in a Northwestern press release:

“When a black hole wind sweeps up gas from its host galaxy, the gas is heated to high temperatures, which destroy any existing molecules. By modeling the molecular chemistry in computer simulations of black hole winds, we found that this swept-up gas can subsequently cool and form new molecules.”

The existence of energetic outflows form SMBHs was first confirmed in 2015, when researchers used the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory and data from the Japanese/US Suzaku satellite to observe the AGN of a galaxy known as IRAS F11119+3257. Such outflows, they determined, are responsible for draining galaxies of their interstellar gas, which has an arresting effect on the formation of new stars and can lead to “red and dead” elliptical galaxies.

This was followed-up in 2017 with observations that indicated that rapidly moving new stars formed in these outflows, something that astronomers previously thought to be impossible because of the extreme conditions present within them. By theorizing that these particles are actually the product of black hole winds, Richings and Faucher-Giguère have managed to address questions raised by these previous observations.

Artist's concept of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s concept of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL

Essentially, their theory helps explain predictions made in the past, which appeared contradictory at first glance. On the one hand, it upholds the prediction that black hole winds destroy molecules they collide with. However, it also predicts that new molecules are formed within these winds – including hydrogen, carbon monoxide and water – which can give birth to new stars. As Faucher-Giguère explained:

“This is the first time that the molecule formation process has been simulated in full detail, and in our view, it is a very compelling explanation for the observation that molecules are ubiquitous in supermassive black hole winds, which has been one of the major outstanding problems in the field.”

Richings and Faucher-Giguère look forward to the day when their theory can be confirmed by next-generation missions. They predict that new molecules formed by black hole outflows would be brighter in the infrared wavelength than pre-existing molecules. So when the James Webb Space Telescope takes to space in the Spring of 2019, it will be able to map these outflows in detail using its advance IR instruments.

One of the most exciting things about the current era of astronomy is the way new discoveries are shedding light on decades-old mysteries. But when these discoveries lead to theories that offer symmetry to what were once thought to be incongruous pieces of evidence, that’s when things get especially exciting. Basically, it lets us know that we are moving closer to a greater understanding of our Universe!

Further Reading: Northwestern University, MNRAS

A Black Hole is Pushing the Stars Around in this Globular Cluster

Astronomers have been fascinated with globular clusters ever since they were first observed in 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stellar systems in the Universe, dating back to the early Universe when galaxies were just beginning to grow and evolve. Such clusters orbit the centers of most galaxies, with over 150 known to belong to the Milky Way alone.

One of these clusters is known as NGC 3201, a cluster located about 16,300 light years away in the southern constellation of Vela. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, a team of astronomers recently studied this cluster and noticed something very interesting. According to the study they released, this cluster appears to have a black hole embedded in it.

The study appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “A detached stellar-mass black hole candidate in the globular cluster NGC 3201“. The study was led by Benjamin Giesers of the Georg-August-University of Göttingen and included members from Liverpool John Moores University, Queen Mary University of London, the Leiden Observatory, the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences, ETH Zurich, and the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP).

For the sake of their study, the team relied on the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on the VLT to observe NGC 3201. This instrument is unique because of the way it allows astronomers to measure the motions of thousands of far away stars simultaneously. In the course of their observations, the team found that one of the cluster’s stars was being flung around at speeds of several hundred kilometers an hour and with a period of 167 days.

As Giesers explained in an ESO press release:

It was orbiting something that was completely invisible, which had a mass more than four times the Sun — this could only be a black hole! The first one found in a globular cluster by directly observing its gravitational pull.

This finding was rather unexpected, and constitutes the first time that astronomers have been able to detect an inactive black hole at the heart of a globular cluster – meaning that it is not currently accreting matter or surrounded by a glowing disc of gas. They were also able to estimate the black hole’s mass by measuring the movements of the star around it and thus extrapolating its enormous gravitational pull.

From its observed properties, the team determined that the rapidly-moving star is about 0.8 times the mass of our Sun and the mass of its black hole counterpart to be around 4.36 times the Sun’s mass. This put’s it in the “stellar-mass black hole” category, which are stars that exceeds the maximum mass allowance of a neutron star, but are smaller than supermassive black holes (SMBHs) – which exist at the centers of most galaxies.

This finding is highly significant, and not just because it was the first time that astronomers have observed a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. In addition, it confirms what scientists have been suspecting for a few years now, thanks to recent radio and x-ray studies of globular clusters and the detection of gravity wave signals. Basically, it indicates that black holes are more common in globular clusters than previously thought.

“Until recently, it was assumed that almost all black holes would disappear from globular clusters after a short time and that systems like this should not even exist!” said Giesers. “But clearly this is not the case – our discovery is the first direct detection of the gravitational effects of a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. This finding helps in understanding the formation of globular clusters and the evolution of black holes and binary systems – vital in the context of understanding gravitational wave sources.”

This find was also significant given that the relationship between black holes and globular clusters remains a mysterious, but highly important one. Due to their high masses, compact volumes, and great ages, astronomers believe that clusters have produced a large number of stellar-mass black holes over the course of the Universe’s history. This discovery could therefore tell us much about the formation of globular clusters, black holes, and the origins of gravitational wave events.

And be sure to enjoy this ESO podcast explaining the recent discovery:

Further Reading: ESO, MNRAS

Astronomers Figure Out How Black Holes Can Blast Out Relativistic Jets of Material Across Light Years of Space

Black holes have been an endless source of fascination ever since Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted their existence. In the past 100 years, the study of black holes has advanced considerably, but the awe and mystery of these objects remains. For instance, scientists have noted that in some cases, black holes have massive jets of charged particles emanating from them that extend for millions of light years.

These “relativistic jets” – so-named because they propel charged particles at a fraction of the speed of light – have puzzled astronomers for years. But thanks to a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers, new insight has been gained into these jets. Consistent with General Relativity, the researchers showed that these jets gradually precess (i.e. change direction) as a result of space-time being dragged into the rotation of the black hole.

Their study, titled “Formation of Precessing Jets by Tilted Black Hole Discs in 3D General Relativistic MHD Simulations“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team consisted of members from the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy at the University of Amsterdam and a professor from the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) at Northwestern University.

For the sake of their study, the team conducted simulations using the Blue Waters supercomputer at the University of Illinois. The simulations they conducted were the first ever to model the behavior of relativistic jets coming from Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs). With close to a billion computational cells, it was also the highest-resolution simulation of an accreting black hole ever achieved.

As Alexander Tchekhovskoy, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, explained in a recent Northwestern Now press release:

“Understanding how rotating black holes drag the space-time around them and how this process affects what we see through the telescopes remains a crucial, difficult-to-crack puzzle. Fortunately, the breakthroughs in code development and leaps in supercomputer architecture are bringing us ever closer to finding the answers.”

Much like all Supermassive Black Holes, rapidly spinning SMBHs regularly engulf (aka. accrete) matter. However, rapidly spinning black holes are also known for the way they emit energy in the form of relativistic jets. The matter that feeds these black holes forms a rotating disk around them – aka. an accretion disk – which is characterized by hot, energized gas and magnetic field lines.

It is the presence of these field lines that allows black holes to propel energy in the form of these jets. Because these jets are so large, they are easier to study than the black holes themselves. In so doing, astronomers are able to understand how quickly the direction of these jets change, which reveals things about the rotation of the black holes themselves – such as the orientation and size of their rotating disks.

Advanced computer simulations are necessary when it comes to the study of black holes, largely because they are not observable in visible light and are typically very far away. For instance, the closest SMBH to Earth is Sagittarius A*, which is located about 26,000 light-years away at the center of our galaxy. As such, simulations are the only way to determine how a highly complex system like a black hole operates.

In previous simulations, scientists operated under the assumption that black hole disks were aligned. However, most SMBHs have been found to have tilted disks – i.e. the disks rotate around a separate axis than the black hole itself. This study was therefore seminal in that it showed how disks can change direction relative to their black hole, leading to precessing jets that periodically change their direction.

This was previously unknown because of the incredibly amount of computing power that is needed to construct 3-D simulations of the region surrounding a rapidly spinning black hole. With the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the team was able to achieve this by using the Blue Waters, one of the largest supercomputers in the world.

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

With this supercomputer at their disposal, the team was able to construct the first black hole simulation code, which they accelerated using graphical processing units (GPUs). Thanks to this combination, the team was able to carry out simulations that had the highest level of resolution ever achieved – i.e. close to a billion computational cells. As Tchekhovskoy explained:

“The high resolution allowed us, for the first time, to ensure that small-scale turbulent disk motions are accurately captured in our models. To our surprise, these motions turned out to be so strong that they caused the disk to fatten up and the disk precession to stop. This suggests that precession can come about in bursts.”

The precession of relativistic jets could explain why light fluctuations have been observed coming from around black holes in the past – which are known as quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs). These beams, which were first discovered by Michiel van der Klis (one of the co-authors on the study), operate in much the same way as a quasar’s beams, which appear to have a strobing effect.

This study is one of many that is being conducting on rotating black holes around the world, the purpose of which is to gain a better understanding about recent discoveries like gravitational waves, which are caused by the merger of black holes. These studies are also being applied to observations from the Event Horizon Telescope, which captured the first images of Sagittarius A*’s shadow. What they will reveal is sure to excite and amaze, and potentially deepen the mystery of black holes.

In the past century, the study of black holes has advanced considerably – from the purely theoretical, to indirect studies of the effects they have on surrounding matter, to the study of gravitational waves themselves. Perhaps one day, we might actually be able to study them directly or (if it’s not too much to hope for) peer directly inside them!

Further Reading: Northwestern Now, MNRAS

Mysterious Filament is Stretching Down Towards the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The core of the Milky Way Galaxy has always been a source of mystery and fascination to astronomers. This is due in part to the fact that our Solar System is embedded within the disk of the Milky Way – the flattened region that extends outwards from the core. This has made seeing into the bulge at the center of our galaxy rather difficult. Nevertheless, what we’ve been able to learn over the years has proven to be immensely interesting.

For instance, in the 1970s, astronomers became aware of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of our galaxy, known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). In 2016, astronomers also noticed a curved filament that appeared to be extending from Sgr A*. Using a pioneering technique, a team of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) recently produced the highest-quality images of this structure to date.

The study which details their findings, titled “A Nonthermal Radio Filament Connected to the Galactic Black Hole?“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. In it, the team describes how they used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Very Large Array to investigate the non-thermal radio filament (NTF) near Sagittarius A* – now known as the Sgr A West Filament (SgrAWF).

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

As Mark Morris – a professor of astronomy at the UCLA and the lead authority the study – explained in a CfA press release:

“With our improved image, we can now follow this filament much closer to the Galaxy’s central black hole, and it is now close enough to indicate to us that it must originate there. However, we still have more work to do to find out what the true nature of this filament is.”

After examining the filament, the research team came up with three possible explanations for its existence. The first is that the filament is the result of inflowing gas, which would produce a rotating, vertical tower of magnetic field as it approaches and threads Sgr A*’s event horizon. Within this tower, particles would produce radio emissions as they are accelerated and spiral in around magnetic field lines extending from the black hole.

The second possibility is that the filament is a theoretical object known as a cosmic string. These are basically long, extremely thin cosmic structures that carry mass and electric currents that are hypothesized to migrate from the centers of galaxies. In this case, the string could have been captured by Sgr A* once it came too close and a portion crossed its event horizon.

The third and final possibility is that there is no real association between the filament and Sgr A* and the positioning and direction it has shown is merely coincidental. This would imply that there are many such filaments in the Universe and this one just happened to be found near the center of our galaxy. However, the team is confident that such a coincidence is highly unlikely.

Labelled image of the center of our galaxy, showing the mysterious radio filament & the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Credit: NSF/VLA/UCLA/M. Morris et al.

As Jun-Hui Zhao of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, said:

“Part of the thrill of science is stumbling across a mystery that is not easy to solve. While we don’t have the answer yet, the path to finding it is fascinating. This result is motivating astronomers to build next generation radio telescopes with cutting edge technology.”

All of these scenarios are currently being investigated, and each poses its own share of implications. If the first possibility is true – in which the filament is caused by particles being ejected by Sgr A* – then astronomers would be able to gleam vital information about how magnetic fields operate in such an environment. In short, it could show that near an SMBH, magnetic fields are orderly rather than chaotic.

This could be proven by examining particles farther away from Sgr A* to see if they are less energetic than those that are closer to it. The second possibility, the cosmic string theory, could be tested by conducting follow-up observations with the VLA to determine if the position of the filament is shifting and its particles are moving at a fraction of the speed of light.

If the latter should prove to be the case, it would constitute the first evidence that theoretical cosmic strings actually exists. It would also allow astronomers to conduct further tests of General Relativity, examining how gravity works under such conditions and how space-time is affected. The team also noted that, even if the filament is not physically connected to Sgr A*, the bend in the filament is still rather telling.

In short, the bend appears to be coincide with a shock wave, the kind that would be caused by an exploding star. This could mean that one of the massive stars which surrounds Sgr A* exploded in proximity to the filament in the past, producing the necessary shock wave that altered the course of the inflowing gas and its magnetic field. All of these mysteries will be the subject of follow-up surveys conducted with the VLA.

As co-author Miller Goss from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico (and a co-author on the study) said, “We will keep hunting until we have a solid explanation for this object. And we are aiming to next produce even better, more revealing images.”

Further Reading: CfA, AJL