Astronomers Think They’ve Found Examples of the First Stars in the Universe

An artist's illustration of some of the Universe's first stars. Called Population 3 stars, they formed a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Image Credit: By NASA/WMAP Science Team - https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/fuse_fossil_galaxies.html (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1582286

When the first stars in the Universe formed, the only material available was primordial hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang. Astronomers call these original stars Population Three stars, and they were extremely massive, luminous, and hot stars. They’re gone now, and in fact, their existence is hypothetical.

But if they did exist, they should’ve left their fingerprints on nearby gas, and astrophysicists are looking for it.

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eROSITA Sees Changes in the Most Powerful Quasar

Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva
Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

After almost seventy years of study, astronomers are still fascinated by active galactic nuclei (AGN), otherwise known as quasi-stellar objects (or “quasars.”) These are the result of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of massive galaxies, which cause gas and dust to fall in around them and form accretion disks. The material in these disks is accelerated to close to the speed of light, causing it to release tremendous amounts of radiation in the visible, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, gamma-ray, and X-ray wavelengths. In fact, quasars are so bright that they temporarily outshine every star in their host galaxy’s disk combined.

The brightest quasar observed to date, 100,000 billion times as luminous as our Sun, is known as SMSS J114447.77-430859.3 (J1144). This AGN is hosted by a galaxy located roughly 9.6 billion light years from Earth between the constellations Centaurus and Hydra. Using data from the eROSITA All Sky Survey and other space telescopes, an international team of astronomers conducted the first X-ray observations of J1144. This data allowed the team to investigate prevailing theories about AGNs that could provide new insight into the inner workings of quasars and how they affect their host galaxies.

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Galactic Black Hole Winds Blow Up to a Third the Speed of Light. The Impact on Their Galaxies is Impressive.

An artist’s impression of what the dust around a quasar might look like from a light year away. Credit Peter Z. Harrington

They are known as ultra-fast outflows (UFOs), powerful space winds emitted by the supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of active galactic nuclei (AGNs) – aka. “quasars.” These winds (with a fun name!) move close to the speed of light (relativistic speeds) and regulate the behavior of SMBHs during their active phase. These gas emissions are believed to fuel the process of star formation in galaxies but are not yet well understood. Astronomers are interested in learning more about them to improve our understanding of what governs galactic evolution.

This is the purpose of the SUper massive Black hole Winds in the x-rAYS (SUBWAYS) project, an international research effort dedicated to studying quasars using the ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope. The first results of this project were shared by a group of scholars led by the University of Bologna and the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Italy. In the paper that describes their findings, the team presented X-ray spectroscopic data to characterize the properties of UFOs in 22 luminous galaxies.

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Dust is Hiding how Powerful Quasars Really are

An artist’s impression of what the dust around a quasar might look like from a light year away. Credit Peter Z. Harrington

In the 1970s, astronomers discovered that the persistent radio source at the center of our galaxy was a supermassive black hole (SMBH). Today, this gravitational behemoth is known as Sagittarius A* and has a mass roughly 4 million times that of the Sun. Since then, surveys have shown that SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies and play a vital role in star formation and galactic evolution. In addition, the way these black holes consume gas and dust causes their respective galaxies to emit a tremendous amount of radiation from their Galactic Centers.

These are what astronomers refer to as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), or quasars, which can become so bright that they temporarily outshine all the stars in their disks. In fact, AGNs are the most powerful compact steady sources of energy in the Universe, which is why astronomers are always trying to get a closer look at them. For instance, a new study led by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) indicates that scientists have substantially underestimated the amount of energy emitted by AGN by not recognizing the extent to which their light is dimmed by dust.

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This is How a Supermassive Black Hole Feeds

Artist's impression of a quasar and a relativistic jet emanating from the center. Credit: NASA

At the heart of most massive galaxies in our Universe, there are supermassive black holes (SMBH) on the order of millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. As these behemoths consume gas and dust that’s slowly fed into their maws, they release tremendous amounts of energy. This leads to what is known as an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) – aka. a quasar – which can sometimes send hypervelocity jets of material for light-years.

Since they were first discovered, astrophysicists have suspected that SMBHs play an important role in the formation and evolution of galaxies. However, as a result, there has also been considerable research dedicated to how these massive objects form and evolve themselves. Recently, a team of astrophysicists conducted a high-powered simulation that showed exactly how SMBHs feed and determined that a galaxy’s arms play a vital role.

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You can Tell how big a Black Hole is by how it Eats

An artist’s impression of an accretion disk rotating around an unseen supermassive black hole. Credit: Mark A. Garlick/Simons Foundation

Black holes don’t emit light, which makes them difficult to study. Fortunately, many black holes are loud eaters. As they consume nearby matter, surrounding material is superheated. As a result, the material can glow intensely, or be thrown away from the black hole as relativistic jets. By studying the light from this material we can study black holes. And as a recent study shows, we can even determine their size.

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The Event Horizon Telescope Zooms in on Another Supermassive Black Hole

Credit: M. Janssen, H. Falcke, M. Kadler, E. Ros, M. Wielgus et al.

On April 10th, 2019, the world was treated to the first image of a black hole, courtesy of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Specifically, the image was of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of the supergiant elliptical galaxy known as M87 (aka. Virgo A). These powerful forces of nature are found at the centers of most massive galaxies, which include the Milky Way (where the SMBH known as Sagittarius A* is located).

Using a technique known as Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), this image signaled the birth of a new era for astronomers, where they can finally conduct detailed studies of these powerful forces of nature. Thanks to research performed by the EHT Collaboration team during a six-hour observation period in 2017, astronomers are now being treated to images of the core region of Centaurus A and the radio jet emanating from it.

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Supermassive Black Hole Orbits an Even More Massive Black Hole, Crashing Through its Accretion Disk Every 12 Years

This image shows two massive black holes in the OJ 287 galaxy. The smaller black hole orbits the larger one, which is also surrounded by a disk of gas. When the smaller black hole crashes through the disk, it produces a flare brighter than 1 trillion stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope may be retired, but the things it witnessed during its sixteen and a half year mission will be the subject of study for many years to come. For instance, Spitzer is the only telescope to witness something truly astounding occurring at the center of the distant galaxy OJ 287: a supermassive black hole (SMBH) orbited by another black hole that regularly passes through its accretion disk.

Whenever this happens, it causes a flash that is brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined. Using Spitzer‘s observations, an international team of astronomers was able to finally create a model that accurately predicts the timing of these flashes and the orbit of the smaller black hole. In addition to demonstrating General Relativity in action, their findings also provide validation to Stephen Hawking‘s “no-hair theorem.”

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New Technique for Estimating the Mass of a Black Hole

A Hubble Space Telescope view of M87's core and its jet. it points nearly directly at us and is also known as a blazar. Astronomers are studying other blazars that have meandering jets and think that binary black holes may be hidden inside some of them. Courtesy STScI.
A Hubble Space Telescope view of M87's core and its jet. it points nearly directly at us and is also known as a blazar. Astronomers are studying other blazars that have meandering jets and think that binary black holes may be hidden inside some of them. Courtesy STScI.

Black holes are the one the most intriguing and awe-inspiring forces of nature. They are also one of the most mysterious because of the way the rules of conventional physics break down in their presence. Despite decades of research and observations there is still much we don’t know about them. In fact, until recently, astronomers had never seen an image of black hole and were unable to guage their mass.

However, a team of physicist from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) recently announced that they had devised a way to indirectly measure the mass of a black hole while also confirming its existence. In a recent study, they showed how they tested this method on the recently-imaged supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 active galaxy.

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The Universe’s Missing Matter. Found!

A simulation of the cosmic web, diffuse tendrils of gas that connect galaxies across the universe. Credit: Illustris Collaboration

In the 1960s, astronomers began to notice that the Universe appeared to be missing some mass. Between ongoing observations of the cosmos and the the Theory of General Relativity, they determined that a great deal of the mass in the Universe had to be invisible. But even after the inclusion of this “dark matter”, astronomers could still only account for about two-thirds of all the visible (aka. baryonic) matter.

This gave rise to what astrophysicists dubbed the “missing baryon problem”. But at long last, scientists have found what may very well be the last missing normal matter in the Universe. According to a recent study by a team of international scientists, this missing matter consists of filaments of highly-ionized oxygen gas that lies in the space between galaxies.

The study, titled “Observations of the missing baryons in the warm–hot intergalactic medium“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study was led by Fabrizio Nicastro, a researcher from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) in Rome, and included members from the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Instituto de Astronomia Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica, the Instituto de Astrofísica de La Plata (IALP-UNLP) and multiple universities.

Artist’s impression of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from a series of instruments to examine the space near a quasar called 1ES 1553. Quasars are extremely massive galaxies with Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) that emit tremendous amounts of energy. This energy is the result of gas and dust being accreted onto supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of their galaxies, which results in the black holes emitting radiation and jets of superheated particles.

In the past, researchers believed that of the normal matter in the Universe, roughly 10% was bound up in galaxies while 60% existed in diffuse clouds of gas that fill the vast spaces between galaxies. However, this still left 30% of normal matter unaccounted for. This study, which was the culmination of a 20-year search, sought to determine if the last baryons could also be found in intergalactic space.

This theory was suggested by Charles Danforth, a research associate at CU Boulder and a co-author on this study, in a 2012 paper that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “The Baryon Census in a Multiphase Intergalactic Medium: 30% of the Baryons May Still be Missing“. In it, Danforth suggested that the missing baryons were likely to be found in the warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM), a web-like pattern in space that exists between galaxies.

As Michael Shull – a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the co-authors on the study – indicated, this wild terrain seemed like the perfect place to look.“This is where nature has become very perverse,” he said. “This intergalactic medium contains filaments of gas at temperatures from a few thousand degrees to a few million degrees.”

Close-up of star near a supermassive black hole (artist’s impression). Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

To test this theory, the team used data from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) on the Hubble Space Telescope to examine the WHIM near the quasar 1ES 1553. They then used the European Space Agency’s (ESA) X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) to look closer for signs of the baryons, which appeared in the form of highly-ionized jets of oxygen gas heated to temperatures of about 1 million °C (1.8 million °F).

First, the researchers used the COS on the Hubble Space Telescope to get an idea of where they might find the missing baryons in the WHIM. Next, they homed in on those baryons using the XMM-Newton satellite. At the densities they recorded, the team concluded that when extrapolated to the entire Universe, this super-ionized oxygen gas could account for the last 30% of ordinary matter.

As Prof. Shull indicated, these results not only solve the mystery of the missing baryons but could also shed light on how the Universe began. “This is one of the key pillars of testing the Big Bang theory: figuring out the baryon census of hydrogen and helium and everything else in the periodic table,” he said.

Looking ahead, Shull indicated that the researchers hope to confirm their findings by studying more bright quasars. Shull and Danforth will also explore how the oxygen gas got to these regions of intergalactic space, though they suspect that it was blown there over the course of billions of years from galaxies and quasars. In the meantime, however, how the “missing matter” became part of the WHIM remains an open question. As Danforth asked:

“How does it get from the stars and the galaxies all the way out here into intergalactic space?. There’s some sort of ecology going on between the two regions, and the details of that are poorly understood.”

Assuming these results are correct, scientists can now move forward with models of cosmology where all the necessary “normal matter” is accounted for, which will put us a step closer to understanding how the Universe formed and evolved. Now if we could just find that elusive dark matter and dark energy, we’d have a complete picture of the Universe! Ah well, one mystery at a time…

Further Reading: UCB, Nature