Astronomy Cast Ep. 503: Gravity Mapping

The Earth looks like a perfect sphere, but down here on the surface we see that there are mountains, rivers, oceans, glaciers, all kinds of features with different densities and shapes. Scientists can map this produce a highly detailed gravity map of our planet. And it turns out, this is very useful for other worlds too.

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Stars Orbiting Supermassive Black Hole Show Einstein was Right Again!

At the center of our galaxy, roughly 26,000 light years from Earth, lies the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*. Measuring 44 million km across, this object is roughly 4 million times as massive as our Sun and exerts a tremendous gravitational pull. Since astronomers cannot detect black holes directly, its existence has been determined largely from the effect it has on the small group of stars orbiting it.

In this respect, scientists have found that observing Sagittarius A* is an effective way of testing the physics of gravity. For instance, in the course of observing these stars, a team of German and Czech astronomers noted subtle effects caused by the black hole’s gravity. In so doing, they were able to yet again confirm some of the predictions made by Einstein’s famous Theory of General Relativity.

Their study, titled “Investigating the Relativistic Motion of the Stars Near the Supermassive Black Hole in the Galactic Center“, was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal. As is indicated in the course of it, the team applied new analysis techniques to existing observations that were made by European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) and other telescopes over the course of the past 20 years.

Artist’s impression of part of S2s orbit around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/M. Parsa/L. Calçada

From this, they measured the orbits of the stars that orbit Sagittarius A* to test predictions made by classical Newtonian physics (i.e. Universal Gravitation), as well as predictions based on general relativity. What they found was that one of the stars (S2) showed deviations in its orbit which were defied the former, but were consistent with the latter.

This star, which has 15 times the mass of our Sun, follows an elliptical orbit around the SMBH, completing a single orbit in about 15.6 years. At its closest, it gets to within 17 light hours of the black hole, which is the equivalent of 120 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth (120 AU). Essentially, the research team noted that S2 had the most elliptical orbit of any star orbiting the Supermassive Black Hole.

They also noted a slight change in its orbit – a few percent in the shape and about one-sixth of a degree in orientation. This could only be explained as being due to the relativistic effects caused by Sagittarius A* intense gravity, which cause a precession in its orbit.  What this means is, the elliptical loop of S2’s orbit rotates around the SMBH over time, with its perihelion point aimed in different directions.

Interestingly enough, this is similar to the effect that was observed in Mercury’s orbit – aka. the “perihelion precession of Mercury” – during the late 19th century. This observation challenged classical Newtonian mechanics and led scientists to conclude that Newton’s theory of gravity was incomplete. It is also what prompted Einstein to develop his theory of General Relativity, which offered a satisfactory explanation for the issue.

Should the results of their study be confirmed, this will be the first time that the effects of general relativity have been precisely calculated using the stars that orbit a Supermassive Black Hole. Marzieh Parsa – a PhD student at the University of Cologne, Germany and lead author of the paper – was understandably excited with these results. As she stated in an ESO press statement:

The Galactic Center really is the best laboratory to study the motion of stars in a relativistic environment. I was amazed how well we could apply the methods we developed with simulated stars to the high-precision data for the innermost high-velocity stars close to the supermassive black hole.

This study was made possible thanks to the high-accuracy of the VLT’s instruments; in particular, the adaptive optics on the NACO camera and the SINFONI near-infrared spectrometer. These instruments were vital in tracking the star’s close approach and retreat from the black hole, which allowed for the team to precisely determine the shape of its orbit and thusly determine the relativistic effects on the star.

In addition to the more precise information about S2’s orbit, the team’s analysis also provided new and more accurate estimates of Sagittarius A* mass, as well as its distance from Earth. This could open up new avenues of research for this and other Supermassive Black Holes, as well as additional experiments that could help scientists to learn more about the physics of gravity.

The central parts of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, as observed in the near-infrared with the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/MPE/S. Gillessen et al.

The results also provided a preview of the measurements and tests that will be taking place next year. In 2018, the star S2 will be making a very close approach to Sagittarius A*. Scientists from around the world will be using this opportunity to test the GRAVITY instrument, a second-generation instrument that was recently installed on the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI).

Developed by an international consortium led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, this instrument has been conducting observations of the Galactic Center since 2016. In 2018, it will be used to measure the orbit of S2 with even greater precision, which is expected to be most revealing.  At this time, astrophysicists will be seeking to make additional measurements of the SMBH’s general relativistic effects.

Beyond that, they also hope to detect additional deviations in the star’s orbit that could hint at the existence of new physics! With the right tools trained on the right place, and at the right time, scientists just might find that even Einstein’s theories of gravity were not entirely complete. But in the meantime, it looks like the late and great theoretical physicist was right again!

And be sure to check out this video of the recent study, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Astrophysical Journal

Mouse Sperm Went to Space and Produced Healthy Mice

With proposed missions to Mars and plans to establish outposts on the Moon in the coming decades, there are several questions about what effects time spent in space or on other planets could have on the human body. Beyond the normal range of questions concerning the effects of radiation and lower-g on our muscles, bones, and organs, there is also the question of how space travel could impact our ability to reproduce.

Earlier this week – on Monday, May 22nd – a team of Japanese researchers announced findings that could shed light on this question. Using a sample of freeze-dried mouse sperm, the team was able to produce a litter of healthy baby mice. As part of a fertility study, the mouse sperm had spent nine months aboard the International Space Station (between 2013 and 2014). The real question now is, can the same be done for human babies?

The study was led by Sayaka Wakayama, a student researcher at the University of Yamanashi‘s Advanced Biotechnology Center. As she and her colleagues explain in their study – which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – assisted reproductive technology will be needed if humanity ever intends to live in space long-term.

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

As such, studies that address the effect that living in space could have on human reproduction are needed first. These need to address the impact microgravity (or low-gravity) could have on fertility, human abilities to conceive, and the development of children. And more importantly, they need to deal with one of the greatest hazards of spending time in space – which is the threat posed by solar and cosmic radiation.

To be fair, one need not go far to feel the effects of space radiation. The ISS regularly receives more than 100 times the amount of radiation that Earth’s surface does, which can result in genetic damage if sufficient safeguards are not in place. On other Solar bodies – like Mars and the Moon, which do not have a protective magnetosphere – the situation is similar.

And while the effects of radiation on adults has been studied extensively, the potential damage that could be caused to our offspring has not. How might solar and cosmic radiation affect our ability to reproduce, and how might this radiation affect children when they are still in the womb, and once they are born? Hoping to take the first steps in addressing these questions, Wakayama and her colleagues selected the spermatozoa of mice.

They specifically chose mice since they are a mammalian species that reproduces sexually. As Sayaka Wakayama explained Universe Today via email:

“So far, only fish or salamanders were examined for reproduction in space. However, mammalian species are very different compared to those species, such as being born from a mother (viviparity). To know whether mammalian reproduction is possible or not, we must use mammalian species for experiments. However, mammalian species such as mice or rats are very sensitive and difficult to take care of by astronauts aboard the ISS, especially for a reproduction study. Therefore, we [have not conducted these studies] until now. We are planning to do more experiments such as the effect of microgravity for embryo development.”

Human sperm stained for semen quality testing in the clinical laboratory. Credit: Bobjgalindo/Wikipedia Commons

The samples spent nine months aboard the ISS, during which time they were kept at a constant temperature of -95 °C (-139 °F). During launch and recovery, however, they were at room temperature. After retrieval, Wakayama and her team found that the samples had suffered some minor damage,.

“Sperm preserved in space had DNA damage even after only 9 months by space radiation,” said Wakayama. “However, that damage was not strong and could be repaired when fertilized by oocytes capacity. Therefore, we could obtain normal, healthy offspring. This suggests to me that we must examine the effect when sperm are preserved for longer periods.”

In addition to being reparable, the sperm samples were still able to fertilize mouse embryos (once they were brought back to Earth) and produce mouse offspring, all of which grew to maturity and showed normal fertility levels. They also noted that the fertilization and birth rates were similar to those of control groups, and that only minor genomic differences existed between those and the mouse created using the test sperm.

From all this, they demonstrated that while exposure to space radiation can damage DNA, it need not affect the production of viable offspring (at least within a nine month period). Moreover, the results indicate that human and domestic animals could be produced from space-preserved spermatozoa, which could be mighty useful when it comes to colonizing space and other planets.

A Pacific pocket mouse pup and its mother appear outside their artificial burrow at the San Diego Zoo. Credit: Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo/AP

As Wakayama put it, this research builds on fertilization practices already established on Earth, and demonstrated that these same practices could be used in space:

“Our main subject is domestic animal reproduction. In the current situation on the ground, many animals are born from preserves spermatozoa. Especially in Japan, 100% of milk cows were born from preserved sperm due to economic and breeding reasons. Sometimes, sperm that has been stored for more than 10 years was used to produce cows. If humans live in space for many years, then, our results showed that we can eat beefsteak in the space. For that purpose, we did this study. For humans, our finding will probably help infertile couples.”

This research also paves the way for additional tests that would seek to measure the effects of space radiation on ova and the female reproduction system. Not only could these tests tell us a great deal about how time in space could affect female fertility, it could also have serious implications for astronaut safety. As Ulrike Luderer, a professor of medicine at the University of California and one of the co-authors on the paper said in a statement to the AFP:

“These types of exposures can cause early ovarian failure and ovarian cancer, as well as other osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and neurocognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s. Half the astronauts in the NASA’s new astronaut classes are women. So it is really important to know what chronic health effects there could be for women exposed to long-term deep space radiation.”

Future space colonies could rely on frozen sperm and ova to produce livestock, and maybe even humans. Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center

However, a lingering issue with these sorts of tests is being able to differentiate between the effects of microgravity and radiation. In the past, research has been conducted that showed how exposure to simulated microgravity can reduce DNA repair capacity and induce DNA damage in humans. Other studies have raised the issue of the interplay between the two, and how further experiments are needed to address the precise impact of each.

In the future, it may be possible to differentiate between the two by placing samples of spermatazoa and ova in a torus that is capable of simulating Earth gravity (1 g). Similarly, shielded modules could be used to isolate the effects of low or even micro-gravity. Beyond that, there will likely be lingering uncertainties until such time as babies are actually born in space, or in a lunar or Martian environment.

And of course, the long-terms impact of reduced gravity and radiation on human evolution remains to be seen. In all likelihood, that won’t become clear for generations to come, and will require multi-generational studies of children born away from Earth to see how they and their progeny differ.

Further Reading: PNAS, AFP

Watch Stars Orbit The Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), is arrowed in the image made of the innermost galactic center in X-ray light by NASA’s Chandra Observatory. To the left or east of Sgr A* is Sgr A East, a large cloud that may be the remnant of a supernova. Centered on Sgr A* is a spiral shaped group of gas streamers that might be falling onto the hole. Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/Frederick K. Baganoff et al.

When your ordinary citizen learns there’s a supermassive black hole with a mass of 4 million suns sucking on its teeth in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, they might kindly ask exactly how astronomers know this. A perfectly legitimate question. You can tell them that the laws of physics guarantee their existence or that people have been thinking about black holes since 1783. That year, English clergyman John Michell proposed the idea of “dark stars” so massive and gravitationally powerful they could imprison their own light.

This time-lapse movie in infrared light shows how stars in the central light-year of the Milky Way have moved over a period of 14 years. The yellow mark at the image center represents the location of Sgr A*, site of an unseen supermassive black hole.
Credit: A. Eckart (U. Koeln) & R. Genzel (MPE-Garching), SHARP I, NTT, La Silla Obs., ESO

Michell wasn’t making wild assumptions but taking the idea of gravity to a logical conclusion. Of course, he had no way to prove his assertion. But we do. Astronomers  now routinely find bot stellar mass black holes — remnants of the collapse of gas-guzzling supergiant stars — and the supermassive variety in the cores of galaxies that result from multiple black hole mergers over grand intervals of time.

Some of the galactic variety contain hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses, all of it so to speak “flushed down the toilet” and unavailable to fashion new planets and stars. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking has shown that black holes evaporate over time, returning their energy to the knowable universe from whence they came, though no evidence of the process has yet been found.

On September 14, 2013, astronomers caught the largest X-ray flare ever detected from Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.  This event was 400 times brighter than the usual X-ray output from the source and was possibly caused when Sgr A*’s strong gravity tore apart an asteroid in its neighborhood, heating the debris to X-ray-emitting temperatures before slurping down the remains.The inset shows the giant flare. Credit: NASA

So how do we really know a massive, dark object broods at the center of our sparkling Milky Way? Astronomers use radio, X-ray and infrared telescopes to peer into its starry heart and see gas clouds and stars whirling about the center at high rates of speed. Based on those speeds they can calculate the mass of what’s doing the pulling.

The Hubble Space Telescope took this photo of the  5000-light-year-long jet of radiation ejected from the active galaxy M87’s supermassive black hole, which is aboutt 1,000 times more massive than the Milky Way’s black hole. Although black holes are dark, matter whirling into their maws at high speed is heated to high temperature, creating a bright disk of material and jets of radiation. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

In the case of the galaxy M87 located 53.5 million light years away in the Virgo Cluster, those speeds tell us that something with a mass of 3.6 billion suns is concentrated in a space smaller than our Solar System. Oh, and it emits no light! Nothing fits the evidence better than a black hole because nothing that massive can exist in so small a space without collapsing in upon itself to form a black hole. It’s just physics, something that Mr. Scott on Star Trek regularly reminded a panicky Captain Kirk.

So it is with the Milky Way, only our black hole amounts to a piddling 4 million-solar-mass light thief confined within a spherical volume of space some 27 million miles in diameter or just shy of Mercury’s perihelion distance from the Sun. This monster hole resides at the location of Sagittarius A* (pronounced A- star), a bright, compact radio source at galactic center about 26,000 light years away.


Video showing a 14-year-long time lapse of stars orbiting Sgr A*

The time-lapse movie, compiled over 14 years, shows the orbits of several dozen stars within the light year of space centered on Sgr A*. We can clearly see the star moving under the influence of a massive unseen body — the putative supermassive black hole. No observations of Sgr A* in visible light are possible because of multiple veils of interstellar dust that lie across our line of sight. They quench its light to the tune of 25 magnitudes.


Merging black holes (the process look oddly biological!). Credit: SXS

How do these things grow so big in the first place? There are a couple of ideas, but astronomers don’t honestly know for sure. Massive gas clouds around early in the galaxy’s history could have collapsed to form multiple supergiants that evolved into black holes which later then coalesced into one big hole. Or collisions among stars in massive, compact star clusters could have built up stellar giants that evolved into black holes. Later, the clusters sank to the center of the galaxy and merged into a single supermassive black hole.

Whichever you chose, merging of smaller holes may explain its origin.

On a clear spring morning before dawn, you can step out to face the constellation Sagittarius low in the southern sky. When you do, you’re also facing in the direction of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Although you cannot see it, does it not still exert a certain tug on your imagination?

How Strong is the Force of Gravity on Earth?

Gravity is a pretty awesome fundamental force. If it wasn’t for the Earth’s comfortable 1 g, which causes objects to fall towards the Earth at a speed of 9.8 m/s², we’d all float off into space. And without it, all us terrestrial species would slowly wither and die as our muscles degenerated, our bones became brittle and weak, and our organs ceased to function properly.

So one can say without exaggerations that gravity is not only a fact of life here on Earth, but a prerequisite for it. However, since human beings seem intent on getting off this rock – escaping the “surly bonds of Earth”, as it were – understanding Earth’s gravity and what it takes to escape it is necessary. So just how strong is Earth’s gravity?

Definition:

To break it down, gravity is a natural phenomena in which all things that possess mass are brought towards one another – i.e. asteroids, planets, stars, galaxies, super clusters, etc. The more mass an object has, the more gravity it will exert on objects around it. The gravitational force of an object is also dependent on distance – i.e. the amount it exerts on an object decreases with increased distance.

Artist's impression of the effect Earth's gravity has on spacetime. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the effect Earth’s gravity has on spacetime. Credit: NASA

Gravity is also one of the four fundamental forces which govern all interactions in nature (along with weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism). Of these forces, gravity is the weakest, being approximately 1038 times weaker than the strong nuclear force, 1036 times weaker than the electromagnetic force and 1029 times weaker than the weak nuclear force.

As a consequence, gravity has a negligible influence on matter at the smallest of scales (i.e. subatomic particles). However, at the macroscopic level – that of planets, stars, galaxies, etc. – gravity is the dominant force affecting the interactions of matter. It causes the formation, shape and trajectory of astronomical bodies, and governs astronomical behavior. It also played a major role in the evolution of the early Universe.

It was responsible for matter clumping together to form clouds of gas that underwent gravitational collapse, forming the first stars – which were then drawn together to form the first galaxies. And within individual star systems, it caused dust and gas to coalesce to form the planets. It also governs the orbits of the planets around stars,  of moons around planets, the rotation of stars around their galaxy’s center, and the merging of galaxies.

Universal Gravitation and Relativity:

Since energy and mass are equivalent, all forms of energy, including light, also cause gravitation and are under the influence of it. This is consistent with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which remains the best means of describing gravity’s behavior. According to this theory, gravity is not a force, but a consequence of the curvature of spacetime caused by the uneven distribution of mass/energy.

Artist's impression of the frame-dragging effect in which space and time are dragged around a massive body. Credit: einstein.stanford.edu
Artist’s impression of the frame-dragging effect in which space and time are dragged around a massive body. Credit: einstein.stanford.edu

The most extreme example of this curvature of spacetime is a black hole, from which nothing can escape. Black holes are usually the product of a supermassive star that has gone supernova, leaving behind a white dwarf remnant that has so much mass, it’s escape velocity is greater than the speed of light. An increase in gravity also results in gravitational time dilation, where the passage of time occurs more slowly.

For most applications though, gravity is best explained by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, which states that gravity exists as an attraction between two bodies. The strength of this attraction can calculated mathematically, where the attractive force is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Earth’s Gravity:

On Earth, gravity gives weight to physical objects and causes the ocean tides. The force of Earth’s gravity is the result of the planets mass and density – 5.97237 × 1024 kg (1.31668×1025 lbs) and 5.514 g/cm3, respectively. This results in Earth having a gravitational strength of 9.8 m/s² close to the surface (also known as 1 g), which naturally decreases the farther away one is from the surface.

In addition, the force of gravity on Earth actually changes depending on where you’re standing on it. The first reason is because the Earth is rotating. This means that the gravity of Earth at the equator is 9.789 m/s2, while the force of gravity at the poles is 9.832 m/s2. In other words, you weigh more at the poles than you do at the equator because of this centripetal force, but only slightly more.

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station (ISS), seen here from an undocked crew mission with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

Finally, the force of gravity can change depending on what’s under the Earth beneath you. Higher concentrations of mass, like high-density rocks or minerals can change the force of gravity that you feel. But of course, this amount is too slight to be noticeable. NASA missions have mapped the Earth’s gravity field with incredible accuracy, showing variations in its strength, depending on location.

Gravity also decreases with altitude, since you’re further away from the Earth’s center. The decrease in force from climbing to the top of a mountain is pretty minimal (0.28% less gravity at the top of Mount Everest), but if you’re high enough to reach the International Space Station (ISS), you would experience 90% of the force of gravity you’d feel on the surface.

However, since the station is in a state of free fall (and also in the vacuum of space) objects and astronauts aboard the ISS are capable of floating around. Basically, since everything aboard the station is falling at the same rate towards the Earth, those aboard the ISS have the feeling of being weightless – even though they still weight about 90% of what they would on Earth’s surface.

Earth’s gravity is also responsible for our planet having an “escape velocity” of 11.186 km/s (or 6.951 mi/s). Essentially, this means that a rocket needs to achieve this speed before it can hope to break free of Earth’s gravity and reach space. And with most rocket launches, the majority of their thrust is dedicated to this task alone.

Because of the difference between Earth’s gravity and the gravitational force on other bodies – like the Moon (1.62 m/s²; 0.1654 g) and Mars (3.711 m/s²; 0.376 g) – scientists are uncertain what the effects would be to astronauts who went on long-term missions to these bodies.

While studies have shown that long-duration missions in microgravity (i.e. on the ISS) have a detrimental effect on astronaut health (including loss of bone density, muscle degeneration, damage to organs and to eyesight) no studies have been conducted regarding the effects of lower-gravity environments. But given the multiple proposals made to return to the Moon, and NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars“, that information should be forthcoming!

As terrestrial beings, we humans are both blessed and cursed by the force of Earth’s gravity. On the one hand, it makes getting into space rather difficult and expensive. On the other, it ensures our health, since our species is the product of billions of years of species evolution that took place in a 1 g environment.

If we ever hope to become a truly space-faring and interplanetary species, we better figure out how we’re going to deal with microgravity and lower-gravity. Otherwise, none of us are likely to get off-world for very long!

We have written many articles about the Earth for Universe Today. Here’s Where Does Gravity Come From?, Who Discovered Gravity?, Why is the Earth Round?, Why Doesn’t the Sun Steal the Moon?, Could We Make Artificial Gravity?, and The “Potsdam Gravity Potato” Shows Variations in Earth’s Gravity.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth, and Episode 318: Escape Velocity.

Sources:

What Happens When Black Holes Collide?

The sign of a truly great scientific theory is by the outcomes it predicts when you run experiments or perform observations. And one of the greatest theories ever proposed was the concept of Relativity, described by Albert Einstein in the beginning of the 20th century.

In addition to helping us understand that light is the ultimate speed limit of the Universe, Einstein described gravity itself as a warping of spacetime.

He did more than just provide a bunch of elaborate new explanations for the Universe, he proposed a series of tests that could be done to find out if his theories were correct.

One test, for example, completely explained why Mercury’s orbit didn’t match the predictions made by Newton. Other predictions could be tested with the scientific instruments of the day, like measuring time dilation with fast moving clocks.

Since gravity is actually a distortion of spacetime, Einstein predicted that massive objects moving through spacetime should generate ripples, like waves moving through the ocean.

The more massive the object, the more it distorts spacetime. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle
The more massive the object, the more it distorts spacetime. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

Just by walking around, you leave a wake of gravitational waves that compress and expand space around you. However, these waves are incredibly tiny. Only the most energetic events in the entire Universe can produce waves we can detect.

It took over 100 years to finally be proven true, the direct detection of gravitational waves. In February, 2016, physicists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO announced the collision of two massive black holes more than a billion light-years away.

Any size of black hole can collide. Plain old stellar mass black holes or supermassive black holes. Same process, just on a completely different scale.

Colliding black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet
Colliding black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet

Let’s start with the stellar mass black holes. These, of course, form when a star with many times the mass of our Sun dies in a supernova. Just like regular stars, these massive stars can be in binary systems.

Imagine a stellar nebula where a pair of binary stars form. But unlike the Sun, each of these are monsters with many times the mass of the Sun, putting out thousands of times as much energy. The two stars will orbit one another for just a few million years, and then one will detonate as a supernova. Now you’ll have a massive star orbiting a black hole.  And then the second star explodes, and now you have two black holes orbiting around each other.

As the black holes zip around one another, they radiate gravitational waves which causes their orbit to decay. This is kind of mind-bending, actually. The black holes convert their momentum into gravitational waves.

As their angular momentum decreases, they spiral inward until they actually collide.  What should be one of the most energetic explosions in the known Universe is completely dark and silent, because nothing can escape a black hole. No radiation, no light, no particles, no screams, nothing. And if you mash two black holes together, you just get a more massive black hole.

The gravitational waves ripple out from this momentous collision like waves through the ocean, and it’s detectable across more than a billion light-years.

Arial view of LIGO Livingston. (Image credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration).
Arial view of LIGO Livingston. Credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration

This is exactly what happened earlier this year with the announcement from LIGO. This sensitive instrument detected the gravitational waves generated when two black holes with 30 solar masses collided about 1.3 billion light-years away.

This wasn’t a one-time event either, they detected another collision with two other stellar mass black holes.

Regular stellar mass black holes aren’t the only ones that can collide. Supermassive black holes can collide too.

From what we can tell, there’s a supermassive black hole at the heart of pretty much every galaxy in the Universe. The one in the Milky Way is more than 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun, and the one at the heart of Andromeda is thought to be 110 to 230 million times the mass of the Sun.

In a few billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda are going to collide, and begin the process of merging together. Unless the Milky Way’s black hole gets kicked off into deep space, the two black holes are going to end up orbiting one another.

Just with the stellar mass black holes, they’re going to radiate away angular momentum in the form of gravitational waves, and spiral closer and closer together. Some point, in the distant future, the two black holes will merge into an even more supermassive black hole.

View of Milkdromeda from Earth "shortly" after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger
View of Milkdromeda from Earth “shortly” after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now. Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger

The Milky Way and Andromeda will merge into Milkdromeda, and over the future billions of years, will continue to gather up new galaxies, extract their black holes and mashing them into the collective.

Black holes can absolutely collide. Einstein predicted the gravitational waves this would generate, and now LIGO has observed them for the first time. As better tools are developed, we should learn more and more about these extreme events.

Physicists Maybe, Just Maybe, Confirm the Possible Discovery of 5th Force of Nature

For some time, physicists have understood that all known phenomena in the Universe are governed by four fundamental forces. These include weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity. Whereas the first three forces of are all part of the Standard Model of particle physics, and can be explained through quantum mechanics, our understanding of gravity is dependent upon Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Understanding how these four forces fit together has been the aim of theoretical physics for decades, which in turn has led to the development of multiple theories that attempt to reconcile them (i.e. Super String Theory, Quantum Gravity, Grand Unified Theory, etc). However, their efforts may be complicated (or helped) thanks to new research that suggests there might just be a fifth force at work.

In a paper that was recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters, a research team from the University of California, Irvine explain how recent particle physics experiments may have yielded evidence of a new type of boson. This boson apparently does not behave as other bosons do, and may be an indication that there is yet another force of nature out there governing fundamental interactions.

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

As Jonathan Feng, a professor of physics & astronomy at UCI and one of the lead authors on the paper, said:

“If true, it’s revolutionary. For decades, we’ve known of four fundamental forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. If confirmed by further experiments, this discovery of a possible fifth force would completely change our understanding of the universe, with consequences for the unification of forces and dark matter.”

The efforts that led to this potential discovery began back in 2015, when the UCI team came across a study from a group of experimental nuclear physicists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Nuclear Research. At the time, these physicists were looking into a radioactive decay anomaly that hinted at the existence of a light particle that was 30 times heavier than an electron.

In a paper describing their research, lead researcher Attila Krasznahorka and his colleagues claimed that what they were observing might be the creation of “dark photons”. In short, they believed that they might have at last found evidence of Dark Matter, the mysterious, invisible mass that makes up about 85% of the Universe’s mass.

This report was largely overlooked at the time, but gained widespread attention earlier this year when Prof. Feng and his research team found it and began assessing its conclusions. But after studying the Hungarian teams results and comparing them to previous experiments, they concluded that the experimental evidence did not support the existence of dark photons.

This is the signature of one of 100s of trillions of particle collisions detected at the Large Hadron Collider. The combined analysis lead to the discovery of the Higgs Boson. This article describes one team in dissension with the results. (Photo Credit: CERN)
Signature of one of 100s of trillions of particle collisions detected by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Credit: CERN

Instead, they proposed that the discovery could indicate the possible presence of a fifth fundamental force of nature. These findings were published in arXiv in April, which was followed-up by a paper titled “Particle Physics Models for the 17 MeV Anomaly in Beryllium Nuclear Decays“, which was published in PRL this past Friday.

Essentially, the UCI team argue that instead of a dark photon, what the Hungarian research team might have witnessed was the creation of a previously undiscovered boson – which they have named the “protophobic X boson”. Whereas other bosons interact with electrons and protons, this hypothetical boson interacts with only electrons and neutrons, and only at an extremely limited range.

This limited interaction is believed to be the reason why the particle has remained unknown until now, and why the adjectives “photobic” and “X” are added to the name. “There’s no other boson that we’ve observed that has this same characteristic,” said Timothy Tait, a professor of physics & astronomy at UCI and the co-author of the paper. “Sometimes we also just call it the ‘X boson,’ where ‘X’ means unknown.”

If such a particle does exist, the possibilities for research breakthroughs could be endless. Feng hopes it could be joined with the three other forces governing particle interactions (electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces) as a larger, more fundamental force. Feng also speculated that this possible discovery could point to the existence of a “dark sector” of our universe, which is governed by its own matter and forces.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Credit: CERN/LHC
The existence of a fifth fundamental force could mean big things for the experiments being conducted with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Credit: CERN/LHC

“It’s possible that these two sectors talk to each other and interact with one another through somewhat veiled but fundamental interactions,” he said. “This dark sector force may manifest itself as this protophopic force we’re seeing as a result of the Hungarian experiment. In a broader sense, it fits in with our original research to understand the nature of dark matter.”

If this should prove to be the case, then physicists may be closer to figuring out the existence of dark matter (and maybe even dark energy), two of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics. What’s more, it could aid researchers in the search for physics beyond the Standard Model – something the researchers at CERN have been preoccupied with since the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012.

But as Feng notes, we need to confirm the existence of this particle through further experiments before we get all excited by its implications:

“The particle is not very heavy, and laboratories have had the energies required to make it since the ’50s and ’60s. But the reason it’s been hard to find is that its interactions are very feeble. That said, because the new particle is so light, there are many experimental groups working in small labs around the world that can follow up the initial claims, now that they know where to look.”

As the recent case involving CERN – where LHC teams were forced to announce that they had not discovered two new particles – demonstrates, it is important not to count our chickens before they are roosted. As always, cautious optimism is the best approach to potential new findings.

Further Reading: University of California, Irvine

A Star Is About To Go 2.5% The Speed Of Light Past A Black Hole

Since it was first discovered in 1974, astronomers have been dying to get a better look at the Supermassive Black Hole (SBH) at the center of our galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A*, scientists have only been able to gauge the position and mass of this SBH by measuring the effect it has on the stars that orbit it. But so far, more detailed observations have eluded them, thanks in part to all the gas and dust that obscures it.

Luckily, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) recently began work with the GRAVITY interferometer, the latest component in their Very Large Telescope (VLT). Using this instrument, which combines near-infrared imaging, adaptive-optics, and vastly improved resolution and accuracy, they have managed to capture images of the stars orbiting Sagittarius A*. And what they have observed was quite fascinating.

One of the primary purposes of GRAVITY is to study the gravitational field around Sagittarius A* in order to make precise measurements of the stars that orbit it. In so doing, the GRAVITY team – which consists of astronomers from the ESO, the Max Planck Institute, and multiple European research institutes – will be able to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity like never before.

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)
Spitzer image of the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

In what was the first observation conducted using the new instrument, the GRAVITY team used its powerful interferometric imaging capabilities to study S2, a faint star which orbits Sagittarius A* with a period of only 16 years. This test demonstrated the effectiveness of the GRAVITY instrument – which is 15 times more sensitive than the individual 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes the VLT currently relies on.

This was an historic accomplishment, as a clear view of the center of our galaxy is something that has eluded astronomers in the past. As GRAVITY’s lead scientist, Frank Eisenhauer – from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany – explained to Universe Today via email:

“First, the Galactic Center is hidden behind a huge amount of interstellar dust, and it is practically invisible at optical wavelengths. The stars are only observable in the infrared, so we first had to develop the necessary technology and instruments for that. Second, there are so many stars concentrated in the Galactic Center that a normal telescope is not sharp enough to resolve them. It was only in the late 1990′ and in the beginning of this century when we learned to sharpen the images with the help of speckle interferometry and adaptive optics to see the stars and observe their dance around the central black hole.”

But more than that, the observation of S2 was very well timed. In 2018, the star will be at the closest point in its orbit to the Sagittarius A*  – just 17 light-hours from it. As you can see from the video below, it is at this point that S2 will be moving much faster than at any other point in its orbit (the orbit of S2 is highlighted in red and the position of the central black hole is marked with a red cross).

When it makes its closest approach, S2 will accelerate to speeds of almost 30 million km per hour, which is 2.5% the speed of light. Another opportunity to view this star reach such high speeds will not come again for another 16 years – in 2034. And having shown just how sensitive the instrument is already, the GRAVITY team expects to be able make very precise measurements of the star’s position.

In fact, they anticipate that the level of accuracy will be comparable to that of measuring the positions of objects on the surface of the Moon, right down to the centimeter-scale. As such, they will be able to determine whether the motion of the star as it orbits the black hole are consistent with Einstein’s theories of general relativity.

“[I]t is not the speed itself to cause the general relativistic effects,” explained Eisenhauer, “but the strong gravitation around the black hole. But the very  high orbital speed is a direct consequence and measure of the gravitation, so we refer to it in the press release because the comparison with the speed of light and the ISS illustrates so nicely the extreme conditions.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com
Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space-time. Credit: space.com

As recent simulations of the expansion of galaxies in the Universe have shown, Einstein’s theories are still holding up after many decades. However, these tests will offer hard evidence, obtained through direct observation. A star traveling at a portion of the speed of light around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy will certainly prove to be a fitting test.

And Eisenhauer and his colleagues expect to see some very interesting things. “We hope to see a “kick” in the orbit.” he said. “The general relativistic effects increase very strongly when you approach the black hole, and when the star swings by, these effects will slightly change the direction of the
orbit.”

While those of us here at Earth will not be able to “star gaze” on this occasion and see R2 whipping past Sagittarius A*, we will still be privy to all the results. And then, we just might see if Einstein really was correct when he proposed what is still the predominant theory of gravitation in physics, over a century later.

Further Reading: eso.org

New ‘Einstein Ring’ Discovered By Dark Energy Camera

The "Canarias Einstein Ring." The green-blue ring is the source galaxy, the red one in the middle is the lens galaxy. The lens galaxy has such strong gravity, that it distorts the light from the source galaxy into a ring. Because the two galaxies are aligned, the source galaxy appears almost circular. Image: This composite image is made up from several images taken with the DECam camera on the Blanco 4m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile.

A rare object called an Einstein Ring has been discovered by a team in the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. An Einstein Ring is a specific type of gravitational lensing.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted the phenomena of gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing tells us that instead of travelling in a straight line, light from a source can be bent by a massive object, like a black hole or a galaxy, which itself bends space time.

Einstein’s General Relativity was published in 1915, but a few years before that, in 1912, Einstein predicted the bending of light. Russian physicist Orest Chwolson was the first to mention the ring effect in scientific literature in 1924, which is why the rings are also called Einstein-Chwolson rings.

Gravitational lensing is fairly well-known, and many gravitational lenses have been observed. Einstein rings are rarer, because the observer, source, and lens all have to be aligned. Einstein himself thought that one would never be observed at all. “Of course, there is no hope of observing this phenomenon directly,” Einstein wrote in 1936.

The team behind the recent discovery was led by PhD student Margherita Bettinelli at the University of La Laguna, and Antonio Aparicio and Sebastian Hidalgo of the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. Because of the rarity of these objects, and the strong scientific interest in them, this one was given a name: The Canarias Einstein Ring.

There are three components to an Einstein Ring. The first is the observer, which in this case means telescopes here on Earth. The second is the lens galaxy, a massive galaxy with enormous gravity. This gravity warps space-time so that not only are objects drawn to it, but light itself is forced to travel along a curved path. The lens lies between Earth and the third component, the source galaxy. The light from the source galaxy is bent into a ring form by the power of the lens galaxy.

When all three components are aligned precisely, which is very rare, the light from the source galaxy is formed into a circle with the lens galaxy right in the centre. The circle won’t be perfect; it will have irregularities that reflect irregularities in the gravitational force of the lens galaxy.

Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA
Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA

The objects are more than just pretty artifacts of nature. They can tell scientists things about the nature of the lens galaxy. Antonio Aparicio, one of the IAC astrophysicists involved in the research said, “Studying these phenomena gives us especially relevant information about the composition of the source galaxy, and also about the structure of the gravitational field and of the dark matter in the lens galaxy.”

Looking at these objects is like looking back in time, too. The source galaxy is 10 billion light years from Earth. Expansion of the Universe means that the light has taken 8.5 billion light years to reach us. That’s why the ring is blue; that long ago, the source galaxy was young, full of hot blue stars.

The lens itself is much closer to us, but still very distant. It’s 6 billion light years away. Star formation in that galaxy likely came to a halt, and its stellar population is now old.

The discovery of the Canarias Einstein Ring was a happy accident. Bettinelli was pouring over data from what’s known as the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) of the 4m Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory, in Chile. She was studying the stellar population of the Sculptor dwarf galaxy for her PhD when the Einstein Ring caught her attention. Other members of the Stellar Population Group then used OSIRIS spectrograph on the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) to observe and analyze it further.

Next Time You’re Late To Work, Blame Dark Energy!

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

Ever since Lemaitre and Hubble’s first proposed it in the 1920s, scientists and astronomers have been aware that the Universe is expanding. And from these observations, cosmological theories like the Big Bang Theory and the “Arrow of Time” emerged. Whereas the former addresses the origins and evolution of our Universe, the latter argues that the flow of time in one-direction and is linked to the expansion of space.

For many years, scientists have been trying to ascertain why this is. Why does time flow forwards, but not backwards? According to new study produced by a research team from the Yerevan Institute of Physics and Yerevan State University in Armenia, the influence of dark energy may be the reason for the forward-flow of time, which may make one-directional time a permanent feature of our universe.

Today, theories like the Arrow of Time and the expansion of the universe are considered fundamental facts about the Universe. Between measuring time with atomic clocks, observing the red shift of galaxies, and created detailed 3D maps that show the evolution of our Universe over the course of billions of years, one can see how time and the expansion of space are joined at the hip.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com
Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com

The question of why this is the case though is one that has continued to frustrate physicists. Certain fundamental forces, like gravity, are not governed by time. In fact, one could argue without difficulty that Newton’s Laws of Motion and quantum mechanics work the same forwards or backwards. But when it comes to things on the grand scale like the behavior of planets, stars, and entire galaxies, everything seems to come down to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

This law, which states that the total chaos (aka. entropy) of an isolated system always increases over time, the direction in which time moves is crucial and non-negotiable, has come to be accepted as the basis for the Arrow of Time. In the past, some have ventured that if the Universe began to contract, time itself would begin to flow backwards. However, since the 1990s and the observation that the Universe has been expanding at an accelerating rate, scientists have come to doubt that this.

If, in fact, the Universe is being driven to greater rates of expansion – the predominant explanation is that “Dark Energy” is what is driving it – then the flow of time will never cease being one way. Taking this logic a step further, two Armenian researchers – Armen E. Allahverdyan of the Center for Cosmology and Astrophysics at the Yerevan Institute of Physics and Vahagn G. Gurzadyan of Yerevan State University – argue that dark energy is the reason why time always moves forward.

In their paper, titled “Time Arrow is Influenced by the Dark Energy“, they argue that dark energy accelerating the expansion of the universe supports the asymmetrical nature of time. Often referred to as the “cosmological constant” – referring to Einstein’s original theory about a force which held back gravity to achieve a static universe – dark energy is now seen as a “positive” constant, pushing the Universe forward, rather than holding it back.

Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation
Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation

To test their theory, Allahverdyan and Gurzadyan used a large scale scenario involving gravity and mass – a planet with increasing mass orbiting a star. What they found was that if dark energy had a value of 0 (which is what physicists thought before the 1990s), or if gravity were responsible for pulling space together, the planet would simply orbit the star without any indication as to whether it was moving forwards or backwards in time.

But assuming that the value of dark energy is a positive (as all the evidence we’ve seen suggests) then the planet would eventually be thrown clear of the star. Running this scenario forward, the planet is expelled because of its increasing mass; whereas when it is run backwards, the planet closes in on the star and is captured by it’s gravity.

In other words, the presence of dark energy in this scenario was the difference between having an “arrow of time” and not having one. Without dark energy, there is no time, and hence no way to tell the difference between past, present and future, or whether things are running in a forward direction or backwards.

But of course, Allahverdyan and Gurzadyan were also sure to note in their study that this is a limited test and doesn’t answer all of the burning questions. “We also note that the mechanism cannot (and should not) explain all occurrences of the thermodynamic arrow,” they said. “However, note that even when the dark energy (cosmological constant) does not dominate the mean density (early universe or today’s laboratory scale), it still exists.”

Limited or not, this research is representative of some exciting new steps that astrophysicists have been taking of late. This involves not only questioning the origins of dark energy and the expansion force it creates, but also questioning its implication in basic physics. In so doing, researchers may finally be able to answer the age-old question about why time exists, and whether or not it can be manipulated (i.e. time travel!)

Further Reading: Physical Review E