We’ve come a long way since gamma rays were discovered.
The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great scientific advancements. Scientists were just getting a handle on the different types of radiation. Radium featured prominently in the experiments, including one by French scientist Paul Ulrich Villard in 1900.
Radium decays readily, and scientists had already identified alpha and beta radiation coming from radium samples. But Villard was able to identify a third type of penetrating radiation so powerful even a layer of lead couldn’t stop it: gamma rays.
Now we have a gamma ray detector in space, and it’s showing us how the Universe sparkles with this powerful energy.
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.”
Way up in the constellation Cancer there’s a 14th magnitude speck of light you can claim in a 10-inch or larger telescope. If you saw it, you might sniff at something so insignificant, yet it represents the final farewell of chewed up stars as their remains whirl down the throat of an 18 billion solar mass black hole, one of the most massive known in the universe.
Astronomers know the object as OJ 287, a quasar that lies 3.5 billion light years from Earth. Quasars or quasi-stellar objects light up the centers of many remote galaxies. If we could pull up for a closer look, we’d see a brilliant, flattened accretion disk composed of heated star-stuff spinning about the central black hole at extreme speeds.
As matter gets sucked down the hole, jets of hot plasma and energetic light shoot out perpendicular to the disk. And if we’re so privileged that one of those jet happens to point directly at us, we call the quasar a “blazar”. Variability of the light streaming from the heart of a blazar is so constant, the object practically flickers.
A recent observational campaign involving more than two dozen optical telescopes and NASA’s space based SWIFT X-ray telescope allowed a team of astronomers to measure very accurately the rotational rate the black hole powering OJ 287 at one third the maximum spin rate — about 56,000 miles per second (90,000 kps) — allowed in General Relativity A careful analysis of these observations show that OJ 287 has produced close-to-periodic optical outbursts at intervals of approximately 12 years dating back to around 1891. A close inspection of newer data sets reveals the presence of double-peaks in these outbursts.
To explain the blazar’s behavior, Prof. Mauri Valtonen of the University of Turku (Finland) and colleagues developed a model that beautifully explains the data if the quasar OJ 287 harbors not one buy two unequal mass black holes — an 18 billion mass one orbited by a smaller black hole.
OJ 287 is visible due to the streaming of matter present in the accretion disk onto the largest black hole. The smaller black hole passes through the larger’s the accretion disk during its orbit, causing the disk material to briefly heat up to very high temperatures. This heated material flows out from both sides of the accretion disk and radiates strongly for weeks, causing the double peak in brightness.
The orbit of the smaller black hole also precesses similar to how Mercury’s orbit precesses. This changes when and where the smaller black hole passes through the accretion disk. After carefully observing eight outbursts of the black hole, the team was able to determine not only the black holes’ masses but also the precession rate of the orbit. Based on Valtonen’s model, the team predicted a flare in late November 2015, and it happened right on schedule.
The timing of this bright outburst allowed Valtonen and his co-workers to directly measure the rotation rate of the more massive black hole to be nearly 1/3 the speed of light. I’ve checked around and as far as I can tell, this would make it the fastest spinning object we know of in the universe. Getting dizzy yet?
Have an 8-inch or larger telescope? Don’t mind staying up late? Excellent. Here’s a chance to stare deeper into the known fabric of the universe than perhaps you’ve ever done before. The violent blazer 3C 454.3 is throwing a fit again, undergoing its most intense outburst seen since 2010. Normally it sleeps away the months around 17th magnitude but every few years, it can brighten up to 5 magnitudes and show in amateur telescopes. While magnitude +13 doesn’t sound impressive at first blush, consider that 3C 454.3 lies 7 billion light years from Earth. When light left the quasar, the sun and planets wouldn’t have skin in the game for another two billion years.
Blazars form in the the cores of active galaxies where supermassive black holes reside. Matter falling into the black hole spreads into a spinning accretion disk before spiraling down the hole like water down a bathtub drain.
Superheated to millions of degrees by gravitational compression the disk glows brilliantly across the electromagnetic spectrum. Powerful spun-up magnetic fields focus twin beams of light and energetic particles called jets that blast into space perpendicular to the disk.
Blazars and quasars are thought to be one and the same, differing only by the angle at which we see them. Quasars – far more common – are actively- munching supermassive black holes seen from the side, while in blazars – far more rare – we stare directly or nearly so into the jet like looking into the beam of a flashlight.
3C 454.3 is one of the top ten brightest gamma ray sources in the sky seen by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. During its last major flare in 2005, the blazar blazed with the light of 550 billion suns. That’s more stars than the entire Milky Way galaxy! It’s still not known exactly what sets off these periodic outbursts but possible causes include radiation bursts from shocked particles within the jet or precession (twisting) of the jet bringing it close to our line of sight.
The current outburst began in late May when the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite detected an increase in gamma rays from the blazar. Now it’s bright visually at around magnitude +13.6 and fortunately not difficult to find, located in the constellation Pegasus near the bright star Alpha Pegasi (Markab) in the lower right corner of the Great Square asterism.
Using the wide view map, find your way to IM Peg via Markab and then make a copy of the detailed map below to use at the telescope to star hop to 3C 454.3. The blazar lies immediately south of a star of similar magnitude. If you see what looks like a ‘double star’ at the location, you’ve nailed it. Incredible isn’t it to look so far into space back to when the universe was just a teenager? Blows my mind every time.
To further explore 3C 454.3 and blazars vs. quasars I encourage you to visit check out Stefan Karge’s excellent Frankfurt Quasar Monitoring site. It’s packed with great information and maps for finding the best and brightest of this rarified group of observing targets. Karge suggests that flickering of the blazar may cause it to appear somewhat brighter or fainter than the current magnitude. You’re watching a violent event subject to rapid and erratic changes. For an in-depth study of 3C 454.3, check out the scientific paper that appeared in the 2010 Astrophysical Journal.
Learn more about quasars and blazers with a bit of great humor
Finally, I came across a wonderful video while doing research for this article I thought you’d enjoy as well.
When it comes to sheer wattage, blazars definitely rule. As the brightest of active galactic nuclei, these sources of extreme high-energy gamma rays are usually associated with relativistic jets of material spewing into space and enabled by matter falling into a host galaxy’s black hole. The further away they are, the dimmer they should be, right? Not necessarily. According to new observations of blazar PKS 1424+240, the emission spectrum might hold a new twist… one that can’t be readily explained.
David Williams, adjunct professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, said the findings may indicate something new about the emission mechanisms of blazars, the extragalactic background light, or the propagation of gamma-ray photons over long distances. “There may be something going on in the emission mechanisms of the blazar that we don’t understand,” Williams said. “There are more exotic explanations as well, but it may be premature to speculate at this point.”
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was the first instrument to detect gamma rays from PKS 1424+240, and the observation was then seconded by VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) – a terrestrially based tool designed to be sensitive to gamma-rays in the very high-energy (VHE) band. However, these weren’t the only science gadgets in action. To help determine the redshift of the blazar, researchers also employed the Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.
To help understand what they were seeing, the team then set a lower limit for the blazar’s redshift, taking it to a distance of at least 7.4 billion light-years. If their guess is correct, such a huge distance would mean that the majority of the gamma rays should have been absorbed by the extragalactic background light, but again the answers didn’t add up. For that amount of absorption, the blazar itself would be creating a very unexpected emission spectrum.
“We’re seeing an extraordinarily bright source which does not display the characteristic emission expected from a very high-energy blazar,” said Amy Furniss, a graduate student at the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP) at UCSC and first author of a paper describing the new findings.
Bright? You bet. In this circumstance it has to over-ride the ever-present extragalactic background light (EBL). The whole Universe is filled with this “stellar light pollution”. We know it’s there – produced by countless stars and galaxies – but it’s just hard to measure. What we do know is that when a high-energy gamma ray photo meets with a low-energy EBL photon, they essentially cancel each other out. It stands to reason that the further a gamma ray has to travel, the more likely it is to encounter the EBL, putting a limit on the distance to which we can detect high-energy gamma ray sources. By lowering the limit, the new model was then used to ” calculate the expected absorption of very high-energy gamma rays from PKS 1424+240″. This should have allowed Furniss’ team to gather an intrinsic gamma-ray emission spectrum for the most distant blazar yet captured – but all it did was confuse the issue. It just doesn’t coincide with expected emissions using current models.
“We’re finding very high-energy gamma-ray sources at greater distances than we thought we might, and in doing so we’re finding some things we don’t entirely understand,” Williams said. “Having a source at this distance will allow us to better understand how much background absorption there is and test the cosmological models that predict the extragalactic background light.”