Astronomers Detect Two Black Holes in a Cosmic Dance

Artist's conception of the binary supermassive black hole system. Credit P. Marenfeld, NOAO

Artist's conception of the binary supermassive black hole system. Credit P. Marenfeld, NOAO

Paired black holes are theorized to be common, but have escaped detection — until now.

Astronomers Todd Boroson and Tod Lauer, from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Arizona, have found what looks like two massive black holes orbiting each other in the center of one galaxy. Their discovery appears in this week’s issue of Nature.

Astronomers have long suspected that most large galaxies harbor black holes at their center, and that most galaxies have undergone some kind of merger in their lifetime. But while binary black hole systems should be common, they have proved hard to find.  Boroson and Lauer believe they’ve found a galaxy that contains two black holes, which orbit each other every 100 years or so. They appear to be separated by only 1/10 of a parsec, a tenth of the distance from Earth to the nearest star. 

After a galaxy forms, it is likely that a massive black hole can also form at its center. Since many galaxies are found in cluster of galaxies, individual galaxies can collide with each other as they orbit in the cluster. The mystery is what happens to these central black holes when galaxies collide and ultimately merge together. Theory predicts that they will orbit each other and eventually merge into an even larger black hole.

“Previous work has identified potential examples of black holes on their way to merging, but the case presented by Boroson and Lauer is special because the pairing is tighter and the evidence much stronger,” wrote Jon Miller, a University of Michigan astronomer, in an accompanying editorial.

The material falling into a black hole emits light in narrow wavelength regions, forming emission lines which can be seen when the light is dispersed into a spectrum. The emission lines carry the information about the speed and direction of the black hole and the material falling into it. If two black holes are present, they would orbit each other before merging and would have a characteristic dual signature in their emission lines. This signature has now been found.

The smaller black hole has a mass 20 million times that of the sun; the larger one is 50 times bigger, as determined by the their orbital velocities.

Boroson and Lauer used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a 2.5-meter (8-foot) diameter telescope at Apache Point in southern New Mexico to look for this characteristic dual black hole signature among 17,500 quasars. 

Quasars are the most luminous versions of the general class of objects known as active galaxies, which can be a hundred times brighter than our Milky Way galaxy, and powered by the accretion of material into supermassive black holes in their nuclei. Astronomers have found more than 100,000 quasars.

Boroson and Lauer had to eliminate the possibility that they were seeing two galaxies, each with its own black hole, superimposed on each other. To try to eliminate this superposition possibility, they determined that the quasars were at the same red-shift determined distance and that there was a signature of only one host galaxy.

“The double set of broad emission lines is pretty conclusive evidence of two black holes,” Boroson said. “If in fact this were a chance superposition, one of the objects must be quite peculiar.  One nice thing about this binary black hole system is that we predict that we will see observable velocity changes within a few years at most.  We can test our explanation that the binary black hole system is embedded in a galaxy that is itself the result of a merger of two smaller galaxies, each of which contained one of the two black holes.”  

LEAD IMAGE CAPTION (more): Artist’s conception of the binary supermassive black hole system. Each black hole is surrounded by a disk of material gradually spiraling into its grasp, releasing radiation from x-rays to radio waves.  The two black holes complete an orbit around their center of mass every 100 years, traveling with a relative velocity of 6000 kilometers (3,728 miles) per second.  (Credit P. Marenfeld, NOAO)

Source: NOAO

 

 

 

 

 

Is There a Mysterious Black Hole Constant?

Space-time warping as a small black hole orbits a larger black hole (Don Davis)

[/caption]If you found yourself in the unfortunate situation of orbiting a black hole, you may be in for a rather dizzying and unpredictable ride. If the black hole is spinning, it will flatten out under centrifugal forces, much like the Earth bulges slightly at the equator, but the black hole’s bulge will be radically greater. As the shape of the black hole changes, so does its gravitational profile.

As you are not orbiting a spherical black hole, you can no longer expect to have a boring, predictable orbit; your orbit will become wild and chaotic, seemingly random. However, it would appear that there is an underlying constant to the mayhem, and what’s more, it seems this constant has also been observed in a more pedestrian system: a three-body Newtonian system. So what’s the link? Physicists aren’t quite sure

When a massive star exhausts its fuel, it may collapse in on itself to create a black hole (after some exciting supernova action). The angular momentum of the original star is expected to be preserved, producing a rapidly spinning black hole. If the black hole “has no hair” (i.e. it has no electrical charge), the gravitational field solely depends on its mass and spin. If there is deformation due to the spin, the gravitational field changes, sending any orbiting body (like a neutron star) on a crazy roller-coaster ride.

In a new paper by Clifford Will of Washington University in St. Louis, the excited physicist describes the scenario. “The orbits go wild — they gyrate and spin, they’re incredibly complex. It’s fantastic,” Will says.

However, physicist Brandon Carter discovered a mathematical constant back in 1968, showing these apparently chaotic orbits are predictable, and that it even applies to orbits around extremely warped space-time. “Black holes have this extra constant that restores the regularity of the orbits,” comments Saul Teukolsky of Cornell University. “It’s a mystery. Every other situation where we have these extra constants, we have symmetry. But there’s no symmetry for an orbiting black hole — that’s why it is regarded as a miracle.”

Quite simply, physicists have no idea why the Carter constant could arise from the General Relativity description of a spinning black hole. Now, to make the problem even more perplexing, Will carried out a classical (Newtonian) 2-body simulation with a third body orbiting. Again, the same constant appeared. It would appear that there is something special about the predictability of an orbit around this black hole configuration.

Teukolsky, who worked on similar problems for his Ph.D. in 1970, remains baffled by these results. However, Will continues to investigate the problem, by including a term for black hole frame dragging. In this situation, the spinning black hole will drag space-time around it, “creases” (or ripples) in space time being pulled with the direction of spin. In this case, the Carter constant disappears, only to return when higher order terms are added to the equations.

This all means one of two things. Either it is simply an artefact in the mathematics, a curiosity that will eventually be rooted out of the equations. However, there is a tantalising possibility that we are seeing a characteristic of exotic rotating black holes, where the configuration of the surrounding fabric of space-time can allow a predictable orbit to come out of the apparent chaos…

Source: Science News

Here’s an article about black body radiation.

NuSTAR Will Ride Pegasus XL to Orbit

Artist concept of NuSTAR in orbit. Credit: NASA/JPL

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NASA announced today Orbital Sciences Corporation will launch the first high energy X-ray telescope, NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) on board a Pegasus XL rocket. Orbital has also been the prime industrial contractor for building NuSTAR itself. The spacecraft will fly in 2011, launching from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site located at the Pacific Ocean’s Kwajalein Atoll. NuSTAR is the first satellite to fly a focusing X-ray telescope in space for energies in the 8-80 keV range, searching for black holes and supernova remnants.

NuSTAR was canceled in February 2006, but NASA restarted the program in September 2007, after Alan Stern took over as associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate NASA. “NuSTAR has more than 500 times the sensitivity of previous instruments that detect black holes,” Stern said in 2007. “It’s a great opportunity for us to explore an important astronomical frontier.”

NuSTAR will conduct a census for black holes, map radioactive material in young supernovae remnants, and study the origins of cosmic rays and the extreme physics around collapsed stars.

A Pegasus rocket in flight.  Credit: Orbital Science Corp.
A Pegasus rocket in flight. Credit: Orbital Science Corp.

The Pegasus is one of the most reliable launch system for the deployment of small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Its patented air-launch system, where the rocket is launched from beneath Orbital’s “Stargazer” L-1011 carrier aircraft over the ocean, reduces cost and provides customers with unparalleled flexibility to operate from virtually anywhere on Earth. The Pegasus rocket has been flying since 1990, and has successfully conducted over 54 space launch missions.

The total cost of the NuSTAR launch services is approximately $36 million dollars. This estimated cost includes the task ordered launch service for a Pegasus XL rocket, plus additional services under other contracts for payload processing, launch vehicle integration, and tracking, data and telemetry support.

Source: NASA

A Disturbance in the Force in Centaurus A

Centaurus A. Credit: ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)

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There are some interesting dynamics going on with Centaurus A, an elliptical galaxy about 13 million light-years away. This is a very active and luminous region of space and a great disturbance is going on as another spiral galaxy is trying to get in on the action by merging with Centaurus A. But astronomers now have new insight on what causing all the ruckus: a supermassive black hole at the core of Centaurus A. Jets and lobes emanating from the central black hole have been imaged at submillimeter wavelengths for the first time by using the 12-meter Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile. By using a combination of visible and X-ray wavelengths, astronomers were able to produce this striking new image. Help me APEX, you are our only hope!


Centaurus A (NGC 5128) is one of our closest galactic neighbors, and is located in the southern constellation of Centaurus. The supermassive black hole is the source of the force: strong radio and X-ray emissions. Visible in the image is a dust ring encircling the giant galaxy, and the fast-moving radio jets ejected from the galaxy center. In submillimeter light, the heat glow from the central dust disc can be seen and also the emission from the central radio source.

APEX was also able to discern – for the first time in the submillimeter – the inner radio lobes north and south of the disc. Measurements of this emission, which occurs when fast-moving electrons spiral around the lines of a magnetic field, reveal that the material in the jet is travelling at approximately half the speed of light. In the X-ray emission, we see the jets emerging from the centre of Centaurus A and, to the lower right of the galaxy, the glow where the expanding lobe collides with the surrounding gas, creating a shockwave.

Related paper.

Source: ESO

Zoom 13 Million Light-years to See Heart of Active Galaxy

Galaxy NGC 253 is shown here as observed with the WFI instrument, while the insert shows a close-up of the central parts as observed with the NACO instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope and the ACS on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESO

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Using data from the Very Large Telescope’s powerful near-infrared eyes, astronomers have created a movie that takes you across 13 million light-years to galaxy NGC 253, an active galaxy filled with young, massive and dusty stellar nurseries. “We now think that these are probably very active nurseries that contain many stars bursting from their dusty cocoons,” says Jose Antonio Acosta-Pulido, a member of the team from Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain. NGC 253 is known as a starburst galaxy, after its very intense star formation activity. Each bright region could contain as many as one hundred thousand young, massive stars. And in the center of this galaxy appears a strikingly familiar sight: a virtual twin of our own Milky Way’s supermassive black hole.

Watch the movie. (For different viewing options, click here).

The astronomers used NACO, a sharp-eyed adaptive optics instrument on the VLT to study the fine detail in NGC 253, one of the brightest and dustiest spiral galaxies in the sky. Adaptive Optics (AO) corrects for the blurring effect introduced by the Earth’s atmosphere. This turbulence causes the stars to twinkle in a way that delights poets, but frustrates astronomers, since it smears out the images. With AO in action the telescope can produce images that are as sharp as is theoretically possible, as if the telescope were in space.

NACO revealed features in the galaxy that were only 11 light-years across. “Our observations provide us with so much spatially resolved detail that we can, for the first time, compare them with the finest radio maps for this galaxy — maps that have existed for more than a decade,” says Juan Antonio Fernández-Ontiveros, the lead author of the paper reporting the results.

Close-up of the central regions of the starburst galaxy NGC 253.  Credit:  ESO
Close-up of the central regions of the starburst galaxy NGC 253. Credit: ESO

Astronomers identified 37 distinct bright regions packed into a tiny region at the core of the galaxy, comprising just one percent of the galaxy’s total size. This is three times more than seen previously. The astronomers combined their NACO images with data from the infrared instrument on VLT, the VISIR, as well as with images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and radio observations made by the Very Large Array and the Very Large Baseline Interferometer. Combining these observations, taken in different wavelength regimes, provided a clue to the nature of these regions.

In looking at all the data together, astronomers concluded that the center of NGC 253 hosts a scaled-up version of Sagittarius A*, the bright radio source that lies at the core of the Milky Way and which we know harbors a massive black hole. “We have thus discovered what could be a twin of our Galaxy’s Centre,” says co-author Almudena Prieto.

Source: ESO

Which Comes First: Galaxy or Black Hole?

Enlarge VLA image (right) of gas in young galaxy seen as it was when the Universe was only 870 million years old. Image: NRAO/AUI/NSF, SDSS

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Do galaxies form first and then a black hole springs up in the center, or possibly, do galaxies form around an already existing black hole? That’s the cosmic chicken-and-the-egg problem astronomers have been trying to figure out. The answer? “It looks like the black holes form before the host galaxy, and somehow grow a galaxy around them. The evidence is piling up,” said Chris Carilli, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), speaking at today’s press conference at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting. By observing with the Very Large Array radio telescope and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in France at sub-kiloparsec resolution, the researchers have been “weighing” the earliest galaxies, ones that formed within a billion years of the Big Bang.

Previous studies of galaxies and their central black holes in the nearby Universe revealed an intriguing connection between the masses of the black holes and of the central “bulges” of stars and gas in the galaxies. The ratio of the black hole and the bulge mass is nearly the same for a wide range of galactic sizes and ages. For central black holes from a few million to many billions of times the mass of our Sun, the black hole’s mass is about one one-thousandth of the mass of the surrounding galactic bulge.

“This constant ratio indicates that the black hole and the bulge affect each others’ growth in some sort of interactive relationship,” said Dominik Riechers, of Caltech. “The big question has been whether one grows before the other or if they grow together, maintaining their mass ratio throughout the entire process.”

“We finally have been able to measure black-hole and bulge masses in several galaxies seen as they were in the first billion years after the Big Bang, and the evidence suggests that the constant ratio seen nearby may not hold in the early Universe. The black holes in these young galaxies are much more massive compared to the bulges than those seen in the nearby Universe,” said Fabian Walter of the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy (MPIfR) in Germany.

“The implication is that the black holes started growing first.”

The next challenge is to figure out how the black hole and the bulge affect each others’ growth. “We don’t know what mechanism is at work here, and why, at some point in the process, the ‘standard’ ratio between the masses is established,” Riechers said.

New telescopes now under construction will be key tools for unraveling this mystery, Carilli explained. “The Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) will give us dramatic improvements in sensitivity and the resolving power to image the gas in these galaxies on the small scales required to make detailed studies of their dynamics,” he said.

“To understand how the Universe got to be the way it is today, we must understand how the first stars and galaxies were formed when the Universe was young. With the new observatories we’ll have in the next few years, we’ll have the opportunity to learn important details from the era when the Universe was only a toddler compared to today’s adult,” Carilli said.

Carilli, Riechers and Walter worked with Frank Bertoldi of Bonn University; Karl Menten of MPIfR; and Pierre Cox and Roberto Neri of the Insitute for Millimeter Radio Astronomy (IRAM) in France.

Source: NRAO, AAS Press Conference

With No Smoke or Mirrors, Spacecraft Hunts for Active Galaxies with Central Black Holes

Swift's Hard X-ray Survey offers the first unbiased census of active galactic nuclei in decades. Dense clouds of dust and gas, illustrated here, can obscure less energetic radiation from an active galaxy's central black hole. High-energy X-rays, however, easily pass through. Credit: ESA/NASA/AVO/Paolo Padovani

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NASA’s Swift spacecraft is designed to hunt for gamma-ray bursts. But in the time between these almost-daily cosmic explosions, Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) scans the sky, performing an ongoing X-ray survey. Some of the first results of that survey were shared at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California. The BAT is revealing differences between nearby active galaxies and those located about halfway across the universe. Understanding these differences will help clarify the relationship between a galaxy and its central black hole. But unlike most telescopes, the BAT observations are not done with mirrors, optics or direct focusing. Instead, images are made by analyzing the shadows cast by 52,000 randomly placed lead tiles on 32,000 hard X-ray detectors. And BAT is becoming a workhorse: The survey is now the largest and most sensitive census of the high-energy X-ray sky.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about the workings of supermassive black holes,” says Richard Mushotzky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Astronomers think the intense emission from the centers, or nuclei, of active galaxies arises near a central black hole containing more than a million times the sun’s mass. “Some of these feeding black holes are the most luminous objects in the universe. Yet we don’t know why the massive black hole in our own galaxy and similar objects are so dim.”

“The BAT sees about half of the entire sky every day,” Mushotzky said. “Now we have cumulative exposures for most of the sky that exceed 10 weeks.”
A beautiful "blue and booming" spiral galaxy sparkles with the light of rich clusters containing hot, young, massive stars. The blue color indicates the galaxy has a healthy "pulse" of star formation. The galaxy was imaged using the 2m telescope at Kitt Peak. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss (Univ. of Maryland) and Richard Mushotzky
Galaxies that are actively forming stars have a distinctly bluish color (“new and blue”), while those not doing so appear quite red (“red and dead”). Nearly a decade ago, surveys with NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton showed that active galaxies some 7 billion light-years away were mostly massive “red and dead” galaxies in normal environments.

The BAT survey looks much closer to home, within about 600 million light-years. There, the colors of active galaxies fall midway between blue and red. Most are spiral and irregular galaxies of normal mass, and more than 30 percent are colliding. “This is roughly in line with theories that mergers shake up a galaxy and ‘feed the beast’ by allowing fresh gas to fall toward the black hole,” Mushotzky says.
This image shows a typical "red and dead" galaxy as seen by the Kitt Peak 2m telescope. The galaxy shows no sign of active star formation. Its color reddens as existing stars age. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss (Univ. of Maryland) and Richard Mushotzky
Until the BAT survey, astronomers could never be sure they were seeing most of the active galactic nuclei. An active galaxy’s core is often obscured by thick clouds of dust and gas that block ultraviolet, optical and low-energy (“soft”) X-ray light. Dust near the central black hole may be visible in the infrared, but so are the galaxy’s star-formation regions. And seeing the black hole’s radiation through dust it has heated gives us a view that is one step removed from the central engine. “We’re often looking through a lot of junk,” Mushotzky says.

But “hard” X-rays — those with energies between 14,000 and 195,000 electron volts — can penetrate the galactic junk and allow a clear view. Dental X-rays work in this energy range.

Astronomers think that all big galaxies have a massive central black hole, but less than 10 percent of these are active today. Active galaxies are thought to be responsible for about 20 percent of all energy radiated over the life of the universe, and are thought to have had a strong influence on the way structure evolved in the cosmos.

The Swift spacecraft was launched in 2004.

Source: NASA

AAS Session 328: Black Holes I, January 6th

Artist concept of a black hole.

The debate of whether or not a supermassive black hole (SMBH) was kicked out of the centre of a galaxy continues in the Black Holes I session at the A A S. According to Stefanie Komossa and her team at the Max Plank Institute for extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) back in May 2008, spectroscopic data of a galactic core appeared to show a collision event between two SMBHs. In this case, the smaller SMBH was propelled out of its host galaxy by an intense and focused “superkick” by gravitational waves.

However, the delegates attending Session 328 have other ideas…

Tamara Bogdanovic, University of Maryland, kicked off the Black Hole I Session with an investigation into the spectroscopic data derived by Komossa et al. Bogdanovic presented her research on the possibility that rather than showing a superkick, the data could be showing the motion of binary SMBHs around the galactic core after a galactic merger. She made the rather sobering statement that there were, “more publications than data,” highlighting the fact that far from being conclusive evidence of a superkick, that more subtle mechanisms may be at work. Model data of orbiting binaries appear to fit the same spectroscopic analysis just as well as the superkick situation. As binary SMBHs would be long-lived objects, there’s a good (statistical) chance of observing them. Further work is required, however, possibly using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA).

Dipanker Maitra, of the University of Amsterdam, then presented his results of time-dependent modelling of Sagittarius A* (the SBH at the centre of our galaxy). It turns out that there are more high energy flare events detected from Sag A* than expected from the predicted accretion rate. Maitra models the time lag observed in radio data between the first high-energy flares and the following low energy flares.

Jen Blum, from the University of Maryland, then took on the emissions from a stellar black hole in the X-ray binary GRS 1915+105. Key to Blum’s research is to investigate the strange asymmetric iron emission line. It looks like this asymmetry can be explained by a combination of special relativity and general relativity effects near the space-time warping black hole.

David Garofalo, who works at JPL/Caltech, then followed quickly with his research of the “central engine” inside galactic nuclei, investigating how strong a SMBH’s magnetic field can be. In his models, he finds the spin of the black hole is key to magnetic field strength. Counter-intuitively, Garofalo’s work suggests that the fastest spinning black holes may have the weakest magnetic field. Also, slowly spinning SMBHs appear to have a larger gap region. He is quick to point out that his model only shows us what configurations are possible, but concludes with the suggestion that you don’t need a fast-spinning SMBH for powerful jets to be generated. “[It’s a] tug-o-war between gravity and the Lorentz forces,” he said when referring to his model, “but other [unaccounted for] physics may significantly modify the model.”

Avery Broderick, from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, examines jets produced by the Milky Way’s SMBH and M87. Both are fantastic objects to study as they are relatively close. However, the angular resolution of instrumentation needs to be boosted, or new techniques are needed to understand jet mechanisms.

Massimo Dotti, from the University of Michigan, re-explored Komossa’s research, also supporting Tamara Bogdanovic’s work that a superkick may not have caused the emissions studied by Komossa. He also shows that a galactic merger and then SMBH binary can generate similar red-shifted and blue-shifted components of emission profiles. Dotti then showed details of his model and proposed some observational constrains.

Bonus speaker and NASA scientist Teddy Cheung then discussed his search for “offset galactic nuclei” that may be evidence for SMBH collisions in the centre of galaxies. According to Cheung, the calculations to find the black hole masses can be “done on the back of an envelope… the flap of the envelope!” He then showed some results of the observation campaign, pointing to a few candidates that might reveal a SMBH binary partner may have achieved escape velocity (i.e. been kicked out of the galaxy), but he emphasised that this number was small. Radio data of pre-merger and post-merger lobes were also presented, helping future studies characterize collision and merger events.

All in all, Session 328 was a superb start to the conference for me, really opening my eyes to the cutting edge supermassive black hole research going on around the world. There’s a lot more where that came from…

Article source: AAS meeting.

Young Stars Forming Near Galactic Black Hole

Artist's concept shows young, blue stars encircling a supermassive black hole at the core of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Schaller (for STScI)

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Just as young children need safe, nurturing environments to develop and grow, young stars, too need just the right environment to get their start in life. Or do they? At the center of our galaxy is a 4 million solar-mass black hole. If molecular clouds that form stellar nurseries were nearby, they should be ripped apart by powerful, black-hole-induced gravitational tides. But yet, astronomers have found two young protostars located just a few light-years from the galactic center. Using the Very Large Array of radio telescopes, astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy made this discovery, showing that stars indeed can form close to a black hole. “We literally caught these stars in the act of forming,” said Smithsonian astronomer Elizabeth Humphreys, who presented the finding today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, California.

It’s difficult to study the mysterious region near the Milky Way’s center. Visible light can’t penetrate the dominant gas and dust, so astronomers use other wavelengths like infrared and radio to penetrate the dust more easily.

Humphreys and her colleagues searched for water masers—radio signals that serve as signposts for protostars still embedded in their birth cocoons. They found two protostars located seven and 10 light-years from the galactic center. Combined with one previously identified protostar, the three examples show that star formation is taking place near the Milky Way’s core.

Their finding suggests that molecular gas at the center of our galaxy must be denser than previously believed. A higher density would make it easier for a molecular cloud’s self-gravity to overcome tides from the black hole, allowing it to not only hold together but also collapse and form new stars.

The discovery of these protostars corroborates recent theoretical work, in which a supercomputer simulation produced star formation within a few light-years of the Milky Way’s central black hole.

“We don’t understand the environment at the galactic center very well yet,” Humphreys said. “By combining observational studies like ours with theoretical work, we hope to get a better handle on what’s happening at our galaxy’s core. Then, we can extrapolate to more distant galaxies.”

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics

Studying Black Holes Using a PlayStation 3

Binary waves from black holes. Image Credit: K. Thorne (Caltech) , T. Carnahan (NASA GSFC)

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If you’re a PlayStation 3 fan, or if you just received one as a holiday gift, you may be able to do more with the system than just gaming. A group of gravity researchers have configured 16 PlayStation 3’s together to create a type of supercomputer that is helping them estimate properties of the gravitational waves produced by the merger of two black holes. The research team from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, calls their configuration the Gravity Grid, and they say the Sony PlayStation 3 has a number of unique features that make it particularly suited for scientific computation. Equally important, the raw computing power per dollar provided by the PS3 is significantly higher than anything else on the market today.

PlayStation 3s have also been used by the Folding@Home project, to harness the PS3’s technology to help study how proteins are formed in the human body and how they sometimes form incorrectly. This helps in research in several diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, and even Mad-Cow disease.

Front view of the cluster of PS3's. Credit:  GravityGrid
Front view of the cluster of PS3's. Credit: GravityGrid

The PS3 uses a powerful new processor called the Cell Broadband Engine to run its highly realistic games, and can connect to the Internet so gamers can download new programs and take each other on.

The PlayStation 3 cluster used by the gravity research team can solve some astrophysical problems, such as ones involving many calculations but low memory usage, equaling the speed of a rented super-computer.
“If we had rented computing time from a supercomputer center it would have cost us about $5,000 to run our [black hole] simulation one time. For this project we ran our simulation several dozens of times to test different parameters and circumstances,” study author Lior Burko told Inside Science News Service.

One of the unique features of the PS3 is that it is an open platform, where different system software can be run on it. It’s special processor has a main CPU (called the PPU) and six special compute engines (called SPUs) available for raw computation. Moreover, each SPU performs vector operations, which implies that they can compute on multiple data, in a single step.

But the low cost is especially attractive to university researchers. The Gravity Grid team received a partial donation from Sony, and are using “stock” PS3s for the cluster, with no hardware modifications and are networked together using inexpensive equipment.

Gravitational waves are “ripples” in space-time that travel at the speed of light. These were theoretically predicted by Einstein’s general relativity, but have never been directly observed. Other research is being done in this area by the newly constructed NSF LIGO laboratory and various other such observatories in Europe and Asia. The ESA and NASA also have a mission planned in the near future – the LISA mission – that will also be attempting to detect these waves. To learn more about these waves and the recent attempts to observe them, please visit the LISA mission website.

More information on the PS3 Gravity Grid.

Sources: USA Today, Gravity Grid