If Our Part of the Universe is Less Dense, Would That Explain the Hubble Tension?

Ten areas in the sky were selected as “deep fields” that the Dark Energy Camera imaged several times during the survey, providing a glimpse of distant galaxies and helping determine their 3D distribution in the cosmos. Credit: NSF/DES/NOIRLab/DOE/FNAL/AURA/University of Alaska Anchorage/
Ten areas in the sky were selected as “deep fields” that the Dark Energy Camera imaged several times during the survey, providing a glimpse of distant galaxies and helping determine their 3D distribution in the cosmos. Credit: NSF/DES/NOIRLab/DOE/FNAL/AURA/University of Alaska Anchorage/

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre made a startling discovery that forever changed our perception of the Universe. Upon observing galaxies beyond the Milky Way and measuring their spectra, they determined that the Universe was expanding. By the 1990s, with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists took the deepest images of the Universe to date and made another startling discovery: the rate of expansion is speeding up! This parameter, denoted by Lambda, is integral to the accepted model of cosmology, known as the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) model.

Since then, attempts to measure distances have produced a discrepancy known as the “Hubble Tension.” While it was hoped that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would resolve this “crisis in cosmology,” its observations have only deepened the mystery. This has led to several proposed resolutions, including the idea that there was an “Early Dark Energy” shortly after the Big Bang. In a recent paper, an international team of astrophysicists proposed a new solution based on an alternate theory of gravity that states that our galaxy is in the center of an “under-density.”

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An Epic Collaboration Between Hubble and JWST

This panchromatic view of galaxy cluster MACS0416 was created by combining infrared observations from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope with visible-light data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

In 2012, as part of the MAssive Cluster Survey (MACS), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) discovered a pair of colliding galaxy clusters (MACS0416) that will eventually combine to form an even bigger cluster. Located about 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, the MACS0416 cluster contains multiple gravitational lenses that allow astronomers to look back in time and view galaxies as they appeared when the Universe was young. In a new collaboration that symbolizes the passing of the torch, the venerable Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) teamed up to conduct an extremely detailed study of MACS0416.

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Dark Matter Might Interact in a Totally Unexpected Way With the Universe

Image from Dark Universe, showing the distribution of dark matter in the universe. Credit: AMNH

According to Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of Universal Gravitation, gravity is an action at a distance, where one object feels the influence of another regardless of distance. This became a central feature of Classical Newtonian Physics that remained the accepted canon for over two hundred years. By the 20th century, Einstein began reconceptualizing gravity with his theory of General Relativity, where gravity alters the curvature of local spacetime. From this, we get the principle of locality, which states that an object is directly influenced by its surroundings, and distant objects cannot communicate instantaneously.

However, the birth of quantum mechanics has caused yet another conceptualization, as physicists discovered that non-local phenomena not only exist but are fundamental to reality as we know it. This includes quantum entanglement, where the properties of one particle can be transferred to another instantaneously and regardless of distance. In a new study by the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy, a team of researchers suggests that Dark Matter might interact with gravity in a non-local way.

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Two New Space Telescopes Will Bring Dark Energy Into Focus

High-resolution illustration of the Euclid and Roman spacecraft against a starry background. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, ESA/ATG medialab

Since the 1990s, thanks to observations by the venerable Hubble Space Telescope (HST), astronomers have contemplated the mystery of cosmic expansion. While scientists have known about this since the late-1920s and early-30s, images acquired by Hubble‘s Ultra Deep Fields campaign revealed that the expansion has been accelerating for the past six billion years! This led scientists to reconsider Einstein’s theory that there is an unknown force in the Universe that “holds back gravity,” which he named the Cosmological Constant. To astronomers and cosmologists today, this force is known as “Dark Energy.”

However, not everyone is sold on the idea of Dark Energy, and some believe that cosmic expansion could mean there is a flaw in our understanding of gravity. In the near future, scientists will benefit from next-generation space telescopes to provide fresh insight into this mysterious force. These include the ESA’s Euclid mission, scheduled for launch this July, and NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST), the direct successor to Hubble that will launch in May 2027. Once operational, these space telescopes will investigate these competing theories to see which holds up.

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Astronomers See the Same Supernova Four Times Thanks to a Gravitational Lens

A gravitational lens caused by a galaxy in the foreground leading to an "Einstein Cross." Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
A gravitational lens caused by a galaxy in the foreground leading to an "Einstein Cross." Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Measuring cosmic distances is challenging, and astronomers rely on multiple methods and tools to do it – collectively referred to as the Cosmic Distance Ladder. One particularly crucial tool is Type Ia supernovae, which occur in binary systems where one star (a white dwarf) consumes matter from a companion (often a red giant) until it reaches the Chandrasekhar Limit and collapses under its own mass. As these stars blow off their outer layers in a massive explosion, they temporarily outshine everything in the background.

In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by Ariel Goobar of the Oskar Klein Centre at Stockholm University discovered an unusual Type Ia supernova, SN Zwicky (SN 2022qmx). In an unusual twist, the team observed an “Einstein Cross,” an unusual phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity where the presence of a gravitational lens in the foreground amplifies light from a distant object. This was a major accomplishment for the team since it involved observing two very rare astronomical events that happened to coincide.

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Pulsars Could Help Map the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) looked at Sagittarius A*, (image of Sag A* by the EHT Collaboration) to study something bright in the region around Sag A*. Credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado.

The Theory of General Relativity (GR), proposed by Einstein over a century ago, remains one of the most well-known scientific postulates of all time. This theory, which explains how spacetime curvature is altered in the presence of massive objects, remains the cornerstone of our most widely-accepted cosmological models. This should come as no surprise since GR has been verified nine ways from Sunday and under the most extreme conditions imaginable. In particular, scientists have mounted several observation campaigns to test GR using Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Last year, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – an international consortium of astronomers and observatories – announced they had taken the first images of Sag A*, which came just two years after the release of the first-ever images of an SMBH (M87). In 2014, the European members of the EHT launched another initiative known as BlackHoleCam to gain a better understanding of SMBHs using a combination of radio imaging, pulsar observations, astrometry, and GR. In a recent paper, the BHC initiative described how they tested GR by observing pulsars orbiting Sgr A*.

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When Black Holes Merge, They'll Ring Like a Bell

Artist view of a black hole ringing down into a stable state. Credit: Yasmine Steele at University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign

When two black holes collide, they don’t smash into each other the way two stars might. A black hole is an intensely curved region of space that can be described by only its mass, rotation, and electric charge, so two black holes release violent gravitational ripples as merge into a single black hole. The new black hole continues to emit gravitational waves until it settles down into a simple rotating black hole. That settling down period is known as the ring down, and its pattern holds clues to some of the deepest mysteries of gravitational physics.

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Is This a Black Hole or a New Type of Star?

A boson star as it would appear to the EHT. Credit: Olivares et al

Within general relativity, black holes are easy to define. They are objects with an event horizon. This horizon is like a line in the sand, where anything crossing it is forever trapped within the black hole. Quantum theory might allow for energy to escape through Hawking radiation, but classical black holes are a one-way trip.

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Are Black Holes the Source of Dark Energy?

An illustration of cosmic expansion. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

By the 1920s, astronomers learned that the Universe was expanding as Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted. This led to a debate among astrophysicists between those who believed the Universe began with a Big Bang and those who believed the Universe existed in a Steady State. By the 1960s, the first measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) indicated that the former was the most likely scenario. And by the 1990s, the Hubble Deep Fields provided the deepest images of the Universe ever taken, revealing galaxies as they appeared just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

Over time, these discoveries led to an astounding realization: the rate at which the Universe is expanding (aka. the Hubble Constant) has not been constant over time! This led to the theory of Dark Energy, an invisible force that counteracts gravity and causes this expansion to accelerate. In a series of papers, an international team of researchers led by the University of Hawaii reported that black holes in ancient and dormant galaxies were growing more than expected. This constitutes (they claim) the first evidence that black holes could be the source of Dark Energy.

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Shortly Before They Collided, two Black Holes Tangled Spacetime up Into Knots

A binary black hole system, viewed from above. Image Credit: Bohn et al. (see http://arxiv.org/abs/1410.7775)

In February 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves (GWs). Originally predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, these waves are ripples in spacetime that occur whenever massive objects (like black holes and neutron stars) merge. Since then, countless GW events have been detected by observatories across the globe – to the point where they have become an almost daily occurrence. This has allowed astronomers to gain insight into some of the most extreme objects in the Universe.

In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by Cardiff University observed a binary black hole system originally detected in 2020 by the Advanced LIGO, Virgo, and Kamioki Gravitational Wave Observatory (KAGRA). In the process, the team noticed a peculiar twisting motion (aka. a precession) in the orbits of the two colliding black holes that was 10 billion times faster than what was noted with other precessing objects. This is the first time a precession has been observed with binary black holes, which confirms yet another phenomenon predicted by General Relativity (GR).

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