“Spotters Guide” for Detecting Black Hole Collisions

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it comes to the many mysteries of the Universe, a special category is reserved for black holes. Since they are invisible to the naked eye, they remain visibly undetected, and scientists are forced to rely on “seeing” the effects their intense gravity has on nearby stars and gas clouds in order to study them.

That may be about to change, thanks to a team from Cardiff University. Here, researchers have achieved a breakthrough that could help scientists discover hundreds of black holes throughout the Universe.

Led by Dr. Mark Hannam from the School of Physics and Astronomy, the researchers have built a theoretical model which aims to predict all potential gravitational-wave signals that might be found by scientists working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors.

These detectors, which act like microphones, are designed to search out remnants of black hole collisions. When they are switched on, the Cardiff team hope their research will act as a sort of “spotters guide” and help scientists pick up the faint ripples of collisions – known as gravitational waves – that took place millions of years ago.

X-ray/radio composite image of two supermassive black holes spiral towards each other near the center of a galaxy cluster named Abell 400. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/AIfA/D.Hudson & T.Reiprich et al.; Radio: NRAO/VLA/NRL
X-ray/radio composite image of two supermassive black holes spiraling towards each other near the center of Abell 400 galaxy cluster. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/AIfA/D.Hudson & T.Reiprich et al.; Radio: NRAO/VLA/NRL

Made up of postdoctoral researchers, PhD students, and collaborators from universities in Europe and the United States, the Cardiff team will work with scientists across the world as they attempt to unravel the origins of the Universe.

“The rapid spinning of black holes will cause the orbits to wobble, just like the last wobbles of a spinning top before it falls over,” Hannam said. “These wobbles can make the black holes trace out wild paths around each other, leading to extremely complicated gravitational-wave signals. Our model aims to predict this behavior and help scientists find the signals in the detector data.”

Already, the new model has been programmed into the computer codes that LIGO scientists all over the world are preparing to use to search for black-hole mergers when the detectors switch on.

Dr Hannam added: “Sometimes the orbits of these spinning black holes look completely tangled up, like a ball of string. But if you imagine whirling around with the black holes, then it all looks much clearer, and we can write down equations to describe what is happening. It’s like watching a kid on a high-speed spinning amusement park ride, apparently waving their hands around. From the side lines, it’s impossible to tell what they’re doing. But if you sit next to them, they might be sitting perfectly still, just giving you the thumbs up.”

Researchers crunched Einstein's theory of general relativity on the Columbia supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center to create a three-dimensional simulation of merging black holes. Image Credit: Henze, NASA
Researchers crunched Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the Columbia supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center to create a three-dimensional simulation of merging black holes. Credit: Henze, NASA

But of course, there’s still work to do: “So far we’ve only included these precession effects while the black holes spiral towards each other,” said Dr. Hannam. “We still need to work our exactly what the spins do when the black holes collide.”

For that they need to perform large computer simulations to solve Einstein’s equations for the moments before and after the collision. They’ll also need to produce many simulations to capture enough combinations of black-hole masses and spin directions to understand the overall behavior of these complicated systems.

In addition, time is somewhat limited for the Cardiff team. Once the detectors are switched on, it will only be a matter of time before the first gravitational wave-detections are made. The calculations that Dr. Hannam and his colleagues are producing will have to ready in time if they hope to make the most of them.

But Dr. Hannam is optimistic. “For years we were stumped on how to untangle the black-hole motion,” he said. “Now that we’ve solved that, we know what to do next.”

Further Reading: News Center – Cardiff U

Where Have All the Pulsars Gone? The Mystery at the Center of Our Galaxy

The galactic center is a happening place, with lots of gas, dust, stars, and surprising binary stars orbiting a supermassive black hole about three million times the size of our sun. With so many stars, astronomers estimate that there should be hundreds of dead ones. But to date, scientists have found only a single young pulsar at the galactic center where there should be as many as 50.

The question thus arises: where are all those rapidly spinning, dense stellar corpses known as pulsars? Joseph Bramante of Notre Dame University and astrophysicist Tim Linden of the University of Chicago have a possible solution to this missing-pulsar problem, which they describe in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Maybe those pulsars are absent because dark matter, which is plentiful in the galactic center, gloms onto the pulsars, accumulating until the pulsars become so dense they collapse into a black hole. Basically, they disappeared into the fabric of space and time by becoming so massive that they punched a hole right through it.

Dark matter, as you may know, is the theoretical mass that astrophysicists believe fills roughly a quarter of our universe. Alas, it is invisible and undetectable by conventional means, making its presence known only in how its gravitational pull interacts with other stellar objects.

One of the more popular candidates for dark matter is Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, otherwise known as WIMPs. Underground detectors are currently hunting for WIMPs and debate has raged over whether gamma rays streaming from the galactic center come from WIMPs annihilating one another.

In general, any particle and its antimatter partner will annihilate each other in a flurry of energy. But WIMPs don’t have an antimatter counterpart. Instead, they’re thought to be their own antiparticles, meaning that one WIMP can annihilate another.

But over the last few years, physicists have considered another class of dark matter called asymmetric dark matter. Unlike WIMPs, this type of dark matter does have an antimatter counterpart.

Numerical simulation of the density of matter when the universe was one billion years old. Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRIment (CIBER) Credit: Caltech/Jamie Bock
 Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRIment (CIBER) simulation of the density of matter when the universe was one billion years old, as produced by large-scale structures from dark matter. Credit: Caltech/Jamie Bock

Asymmetric dark matter appeals to physicists because it’s intrinsically linked to the imbalance of matter and antimatter. Basically, there’s a lot more matter in the universe than antimatter – which is good considering anything less than an imbalance would lead to our annihilation. Likewise, according to the theory, there’s much more dark matter than anti-dark-matter.

Physicists think that in the beginning, the Big Bang should’ve created as much matter as antimatter, but something altered this balance. No one’s sure what this mechanism was, but it might have triggered an imbalance in dark matter as well – hence it is “asymmetric”.

Dark matter is concentrated at the galactic center, and if it’s asymmetric, then it could collect at the center of pulsars, pulled in by their extremely strong gravity. Eventually, the pulsar would accumulate so much mass from dark matter that it would collapse into a black hole.

The idea that dark matter can cause pulsars to implode isn’t new.  But the new research is the first to apply this possibility to the missing-pulsar problem.

If the hypothesis is correct, then pulsars around the galactic center could only get so old before grabbing so much dark matter that they turn into black holes. Because the density of dark matter drops the farther you go from the center, the researchers predict that the maximum age of pulsars will increase with distance from the center. Observing this distinct pattern would be strong evidence that dark matter is not only causing pulsars to implode, but also that it’s asymmetric.

“The most exciting part about this is just from looking at pulsars, you can perhaps say what dark matter is made of,” Bramante said. Measuring this pattern would also help physicists narrow down the mass of the dark matter particle.

    Artist's illustration of a pulsar that was found to be an ultraluminous X-ray source. Credit: NASA, Caltech-JPL
Artist’s illustration of a pulsar that was found to be an ultraluminous X-ray source.
Credit: NASA, Caltech-JPL

But as Bramante admits, it won’t be easy to detect this signature. Astronomers will need to collect much more data about the galactic center’s pulsars by searching for radio signals, he claims. The hope is that as astronomers explore the galactic center with a wider range of radio frequencies, they will uncover more pulsars.

But of course, the idea that dark matter is behind the missing pulsar problem is still highly speculative, and the likelihood of it is being called into question.

“I think it’s unlikely—or at least it is too early to say anything definitive,” said Zurek, who was one of the first to revive the notion of asymmetric dark matter in 2009. The tricky part is being able to know for sure that any measurable pattern in the pulsar population is due to dark-matter-induced collapse and not something else.

Even if astronomers find this pulsar signature, it’s still far from being definitive evidence for asymmetric dark matter. As Kathryn Zurek of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory explained: “Realistically, when dark matter is detected, we are going to need multiple, complementary probes to begin to be convinced that we have a handle on the theory of dark matter.”

And asymmetric dark matter may not have anything to do with the missing pulsar problem at all. The problem is relatively new, so astronomers may find more plausible, conventional explanations.

“I’d say give them some time and maybe they come up with some competing explanation that’s more fleshed out,” Bramante said.

Nevertheless, the idea is worth pursuing, says Haibo Yu of the University of California, Riverside. If anything, this analysis is a good example of how scientists can understand dark matter by exploring how it may influence astrophysical objects. “This tells us there are ways to explore dark matter that we’ve never thought of before,” he said. “We should have an open mind to see all possible effects that dark matter can have.”

There’s one other way to determine if dark matter can cause pulsars to implode: To catch them in the act. No one knows what a collapsing pulsar might look like. It might even blow up.

“While the idea of an explosion is really fun to think about, what would be even cooler is if it didn’t explode when it collapsed,” Bramante said. A pulsar emits a powerful beam of radiation, and as it spins, it appears to blink like a lighthouse with a frequency as high as several hundred times per second. As it implodes into a black hole, its gravity gets stronger, increasingly warping the surrounding space and time.

Studying this scenario would be a great way to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Bramante says. According to theory, the pulse rate would get slower and slower until the time between pulses becomes infinitely long. At that point, the pulses would stop entirely and the pulsar would be no more.

Further Reading: APS Physics, WIRED

Remembering the “World War I Eclipse”

The paths of total solar eclipses care not for political borders or conflicts, often crossing over war-torn lands.

Such was the case a century ago this week on August 21st, 1914 when a total solar eclipse crossed over Eastern Europe shortly after the outbreak of World War I.

Known as the “War to End All Wars,” — which, of course, it didn’t — World War I would introduce humanity to the horrors of modern warfare, including the introduction of armored tanks, aerial bombing and poison gas. And then there was the terror of trench warfare, with Allied and Central Powers slugging it out for years with little gain.

The path of the total solar eclipse of August 21st, 1914 laid out across modern day Europe. Credit: Google Maps/Fred Espenak/NASA/GSFC.

But ironically, the same early 20th century science that was hard at work producing mustard gas and a better machine gun was also pushing back the bounds of astronomy. Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis or “miracle year” occurred less than a decade earlier on 1905. And just a decade later in 1924, Edwin Hubble would expand our universe a million-fold with the revelation that “spiral nebulae” were in fact, island universes or galaxies in their own right.

Indeed, it’s tough to imagine that many of these discoveries are less than a century in our past. It was against this backdrop that the total solar eclipse of August 21st, 1914 crossed the eastern European front embroiled in conflict.

Solar eclipses have graced the field of battle before. An annular solar eclipse occurred during the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 during the Zulu Wars, and a total solar eclipse in 585 B.C. during the Battle of Thales actually stopped the fighting between the Lydians and the Medes.

A photograph of an “eclipse camp” in the Crimea in 1914. Credit: University of Cambridge DSpace.

But unfortunately, no celestial spectacle, however grand, would save Europe from the conflagration war. In fact, several British eclipse expeditions were already en route to parts of Russia, the Baltic, and Crimea when the war broke out less than two months prior to the eclipse with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914. Teams arrived to a Russia already mobilized for war, and Britain followed suit on August 4th, 1914 and entered the war when Germany invaded Belgium.

You can see an ominous depiction of the path of totality from a newspaper of the day, provided from the collection of Michael Zeiler:

An illustration of the 1914 total solar eclipse “scorching” a war-ravaged Europe. Credit: From the collection of Michael Zeiler. Used with permission.

Note that the graphic depicts a Europe aflame and adds in the foreboding description of Omen faustum, inferring that the eclipse might be an “auspicious omen…” eclipses have never shaken their superstitious trappings in the eyes of man, which persists even with today’s fears of a “Blood Moon.”

A race was also afoot against the wartime backdrop to get an expedition to a solar eclipse to prove or disprove Einstein’s newly minted theory of general relativity. One testable prediction of this theory is that gravity bends light, and astronomers soon realized that the best time to catch this in action would be to measure the position of a star near the limb of the Sun — the most massive light bending object in our solar system — during a total solar eclipse. The advent of World War I would scrub attempts to observe this effect during the 1914 and 1916 eclipses over Europe.

An expedition led by astronomer Arthur Eddington to observe an eclipse from the island of Principe off of the western coast of Africa in 1919 declared success in observing this tiny deflection, measuring in less than two seconds of arc. And it was thus that a British expedition vindicated a German physicist in the aftermath of the most destructive war up to that date.

The total solar eclipse of August 21st 1914 was a member of saros cycle 124, and was eclipse number 49 of 73 in that particular series. Eclipses in the same saros come back around to nearly the same circumstances once every triple saros period of 3 times 18 years and 11.3 days, or about every 54+ years, and there was an eclipse with similar circumstances slightly east of the 1914 eclipse in 1968 — the last total eclipse of saros 124 — and a partial eclipse from the same saros will occur again on October 25th, 2022.

All historical evidence we’ve been able to track down suggests that observers that did make it into the path of totality were clouded out at show time, or at very least, no images of the August 21st 1914 eclipse exist today. Can any astute reader prove us wrong? We’d love to see some images of this historical eclipse unearthed!

Starry Night
A simulation of the total solar eclipse of August 21st 1914 as seen from Latvia. Created using Starry Night Education software.

And, as with all things eclipse related, the biggest question is always: when’s the next one? Well, we’ve got another of total lunar eclipse coming right up on October 8th, 2014, again favoring North America. The next total solar eclipse occurs on March 20th, 2015 but is only visible along a path covering the Faroe and Svalbard Islands, with a path crossing the Norwegian Sea.

But, by happy coincidence, we’re also only now three years out this week from the total solar eclipse of August 21st, 2017 that spans the contiguous “Lower 48” of the United States. The shadow of the Moon will race from the northwest and make landfall off of the Pacific coast of Oregon before reaching a maximum duration for totality at 2 minutes and 40 seconds across Missouri, southern Illinois and Kentucky and will then head towards the southeastern U.S. to depart land off of the coast of South Carolina. Millions will witness this event, and it will be the first total solar eclipse for many. A total solar eclipse hasn’t crossed the contiguous United States since 1979, so you could say that we’re “due”!

The path of the 2017 total solar eclipse across the United States. Credit: Eclipse-Maps.

Already, towns in Kentucky to Nebraska have laid plans to host this event. The eclipse occurs towards the afternoon for residents of the eastern U.S., which typically sees afternoon thunderstorms popping up in the sultry August summer heat. Eclipse cartographer Michael Zeiler states that the best strategy for eclipse chasers three years hence is to “go west, young man…”

It’s fascinating to ponder tales of eclipses past, present, and future and the role that they play in human history… where will you be on August 21st, 2017?

–      Check out Michael Zeiler’s  new site, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

–      Eclipses pop up in science fiction on occasion as well… check out our history spanning eclipse tale Exeligmos.

NASA’S NuSTAR Catches a Black Hole Bending Light, Space, and Time

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) has captured a spectacular event: a supermassive black hole’s gravity tugging on nearby X-ray light.

In just a matter of days, the corona — a cloud of particles traveling near the speed of light — fell in toward the black hole. The observations are a powerful test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which says gravity can bend space-time, the fabric that shapes our universe, and the light that travels through it.

“The corona recently collapsed in toward the black hole, with the result that the black hole’s intense gravity pulled all the light down onto its surrounding disk, where material is spiraling inward,” said coauthor Michael Parker from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, United Kingdom, in a press release.

The supermassive black hole, known as Markarian 335, is about 324 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Pegasus. Such an extreme system squeezes about 10 million times the mass of our Sun into a region only 30 times the diameter of the Sun. It spins so rapidly that space and time are dragged around with it.

NASA’s Swift satellite has monitored Mrk 335 for years, recently noting a dramatic change in its X-ray brightness. So NuSTAR was redirected to take a second look at the system.

NuSTAR has been collecting X-rays from black holes and dying stars for the past two years. Its specialty is analyzing high-energy X-rays in the range of 3 to 79 kiloelectron volts. Observations in lower-energy X-ray light show a black hole obscured by clouds of gas and dust. But NuSTAR can take a detailed look at what’s happening near the event horizon, the region around a black hole form which light can no longer escape gravity’s grasp.

Specifically, NuSTAR is able to see the corona’s direct light, and its reflected light off the accretion disk. But in this case, the light is blurred due to the combination of a few factors. First, the doppler shift is affecting the spinning disk. On the side spinning away from us, the light is shifted to redder wavelengths (and therefore lower energy), whereas on the side spinning toward us, the light is shifted to bluer wavelengths (and therefore higher energy). A second effect has to do with the enormous speeds of the spinning black hole. And a final effect is from the gravity of the black hole, which pulls on the light, causing it to lose energy.

All of these factors cause the light to smear.

Intriguingly, NuSTAR observations also revealed that the grip of the black hole’s gravity pulled the corona’s light onto the inner portion of the accretion disk, better illuminating it. NASA explains that as if somebody had shone a flashlight for the astronomers, the shifting corona lit up the precise region they wanted to study.

“We still don’t understand exactly how the corona is produced or why it changes its shape, but we see it lighting up material around the black hole, enabling us to study the regions so close in that effects described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity become prominent,” said NuSTAR Principal Investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology. “NuSTAR’s unprecedented capability for observing this and similar events allows us to study the most extreme light-bending effects of general relativity.”

The new data will likely shed light on these mysterious coronas, where the laws of physics are pushed to their limit.

The article has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online.