What Are Cosmic Voids?

What Are Cosmic Voids?

Clearly I need to learn to be more specific when I write these articles. Everything time I open my mouth, I need to prepare for the collective imagination of the viewers.

We did a whole article about the biggest things in the Universe, and identified superclusters of galaxies as the best candidate. Well, the part of superclusters actually gravitationally bound enough to eventually merge together in the future. But you had other ideas, including dark energy, or the Universe itself as the biggest thing. Even love? Aww.

One intriguing suggestion, though, is the idea of the vast cosmic voids between galaxies. Hmm, is the absence of something a thing? Whoa, time to go to art school and talk about negative space.

Ah well, who cares? It’s a super interesting topic, so let’s go ahead and talk about voids.

When most people imagine the expansion of the Universe after the Big Bang, they probably envision an equally spaced smattering of galaxies zipping away from one another. And that’s pretty accurate at the smallest scales.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

But at the largest scales, like when you can see billions of light-years in a cube that fits on your computer screen, then a larger structure starts to take shape.

It looks less like an explosion, and more like a tasty tasty sponge cake, with huge filaments, walls, and the vast gaps in between. The gaps, the voids, the supervoids, are the point of today’s article, but to understand the gaps, we’ve got to understand why the Universe is clumped up the way it is.

Run the Universe clock backwards, all the way to the beginning, to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. When the entire cosmos was compressed down into a tiny region of superheated plasma.

Although it was mostly uniform in density, there were slight variations – quantum fluctuations in spacetime itself. And as the Universe expanded, those differences were magnified. What started out as tiny differences in the density of matter at the smallest scale, turned into regions of higher and lower density of matter in the Universe.

Here we are, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and we can see how the microscopic variations at the beginning of time were magnified to the largest scales. Instead of individual galaxies, we see huge walls containing thousands of galaxies; filaments of galaxies connect in nodes. These structures are huge; hundreds of millions of light-years across, containing thousands of galaxies. But the gaps, the voids, between these clusters can be even larger.

Astronomers first started thinking about these voids back in the 1970s, when the first large-scale surveys of the Universe were made. By measuring the redshift of galaxies, and determining how fast they were speeding away from us, astronomers started to realize that the distribution of galaxies wasn’t even.

Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO
Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO

Some galaxies were relatively close, but then there were huge gaps in distance, and then another cluster of galaxies collected together.

Over the last few decades, astronomers have built sophisticated 3-dimensional models that map out the Universe in the largest scales. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, updated in 2009, has provided the most accurate map so far. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, destined for first light in a few years will take this to the next level.

The largest void that we currently know of is known as the Giant Void (original, I know), and it’s located about 1.5 billion light-year away. It has a diameter of 1 billion to 1.3 billion light-years across.

To be fair, these regions aren’t really completely empty. They just have less density than the regions with galaxies. In general, they’ve got about a tenth the density of matter that’s average for the Universe.

Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Which means that there’s still gas and dust in these regions, as well as dark matter. There will still be stars and galaxies out in the middle of those voids. Even the Giant Void has 17 separate galaxy clusters inside it.

You might imagine continuing to scale outward. Maybe you’re wondering if the this spongy distribution of matter is actually just the next step to an even larger structure, and so on, and so on. But it isn’t. In fact, astronomers call this “the End of Greatness”, because it doesn’t seem like there’s any larger structure to the Universe.

As the expansion of the Universe continues, these voids are going to get even larger. The walls and filaments connecting clusters of galaxies will stretch and break. The voids will merge with each other, and only gravitationally bound galaxy clusters will remain as islands, adrift in the expanding emptiness.

The full scale of the observable Universe is truly mind boggling. We’re here in this tiny corner of the Local Group, which is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is perched on the precipice of vast cosmic voids. So much to explore, so let’s get to work.

What Does the Universe Do When We’re Not Looking?

If you follow some of my other shows, like Astronomy Cast and the Weekly Space Hangout. Of course you do, what a ridiculous thing to say… “if”. Anyway, since you follow those other shows, you know I’m currently obsessed with an upcoming observatory called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

Obsessions are best when they’re shared. So today, I invite you to become as obsessed as I am about the LSST.

In the past, astronomers focused on building bigger telescopes at more remote locations so they could peer more deeply into the past, to resolve the faintest objects, to see right to the edge of the observable Universe.

But there’s a whole other dimension to the Universe: time. And by taking advantage of time, astronomers have made some of the most momentous discoveries in the history of astronomy.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is all about time. Watching the sky over and over, night after night, watching for anything that changes.

 Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)
Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)

First, let’s talk about some of the kinds of discoveries that can be made when you’re watching the sky for changes.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Mira Variable. These are red giants at the very end of their stellar evolution, almost out of usable hydrogen to burn in their cores. As their stellar flame flickers out, the light pressure can no longer hold against the gravity pulling the star inward. The star compresses in on itself, raising the temperature and pressure, allowing more fusion. It flares up again, and brightens in our sky.

Astronomers discovered that there’s a very specific relationship to the brightness and rate that this brightening happens. In other words, if you know how often a Mira variable flares up, you know how intrinsically bright it is. And if you know how bright it is, you can calculate how far away it is. Even in other galaxies.

That’s what Edwin Hubble did when he surveyed Mira variables in other galaxies. He discovered that most galaxies are actually speeding away from us in all directions, leading to the theory of the Big Bang.

Thanks to time, we understand that we life in an expanding Universe that originated from a single point, 13.8 billion years ago.

Let me give you another example: the discovery of gamma ray bursts. In the 1960s, the US launched a group of satellites as part of the Vela Mission. They had no astronomical purpose, they were designed to watch for the specific gamma ray signature from an unauthorized nuclear weapons test. But instead of nuclear explosions, they detected massive blasts of gamma radiation coming from deep space. These blasts only last for a few seconds and then fade away, leaving a faint afterglow that also fades.

Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst. Credit: ESO/A. Roquette
Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst. Credit: ESO/A. Roquette

We now know that gamma ray bursts mark the deaths of the largest stars in the Universe, and the formations of new black holes. Other gamma ray bursts signal the collisions of exotic stellar remnants, like neutron stars and white dwarfs.

I can give you many more examples, where the dimension of time lead to a discovery in astronomy:

In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh compared pairs of photographic plates, switching back and forth over and over, looking for any object that moved position. This was how he discovered Pluto. In fact, this same technique is used by astronomers to find other dwarf planets, asteroids and comets to this day.

Astronomers return again and again to galaxies in the night sky, looking for any that have a new star in them. This is a tell tale sign of a supernova, the explosion of a star much more massive than our Sun. Some of these supernovae allowed astronomers to discover dark energy, that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating.

This is what time can help us discover.

Artist rendering of the LSST observatory (foreground) atop Cerro Pachón in Chile. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project Office.
Artist rendering of the LSST observatory (foreground) atop Cerro Pachón in Chile. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project Office.

Now, on to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The observatory is currently under construction in north-central Chile, where many of the world’s most powerful telescopes are located.

Its main mirror is 8.4 meters across. Just for comparison, ESO’s Very Large Telescopes are 8.2 metres across. The Gemini Observatories are 8.1 metres across. The Keck Observatory is 10 metres wide. What I’m saying here, is that the LSST is plenty big.

But that’s not its most important feature. LSST is fast. When I say fast, I’m saying this in the astronomical sense, which means that it can gather a lot of light over a wide area on the sky in a very short amount of time. While Keck, for example, can focus incredibly deeply at a tiny spot in the sky, LSST gulps light across a huge region of the sky.

It’ll be able to see 3.5-degrees of the sky, every time it takes a picture. The Sun and the Moon are about 0.5-degrees across in the sky, so imagine a grid 7 moons across and 7 moons high.

Suzanne Jacoby with the LSST focal plane array scale model. The image of the moon (30 arcminutes) is placed there for scale of the Field of View. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)
Suzanne Jacoby with the LSST focal plane array scale model. The image of the moon (30 arcminutes) is placed there for scale of the Field of View. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)

It’ll take a 15-second exposure every 20 seconds. In the amount of time you’ll spend watching this video, the LSST could have taken dozens of high resolution images of the sky.

In fact, it’ll completely image the available sky every few nights. And then petabytes of data will be released onto the internet, available for astronomers to pore over.

Want to find asteroids, just look through the LSST records. Want to know how fast the Universe is expanding, dig through the data. LSST is going to look everywhere and anywhere every couple of nights, and then provide this data to scientists to make discoveries.

Assuming the construction isn’t delayed, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope should see first light in 2019. Shortly after that, it’ll be disgorging mountains of astronomical data onto the internet.

And shortly after that, I suspect, we’ll start to hear everything the Universe was doing when we weren’t watching before. Because now, thanks to LSST, we’ll be watching all the time.

A Star Passed Through the Solar System Just 70,000 Years Ago

Astronomers have reported the discovery of a star that passed within the outer reaches of our Solar System just 70,000 years ago, when early humans were beginning to take a foothold here on Earth. The stellar flyby was likely close enough to have influenced the orbits of comets in the outer Oort Cloud, but Neandertals and Cro Magnons – our early ancestors – were not in danger. But now astronomers are ready to look for more stars like this one.

A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz's Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)
A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester, Illustration-T.Reyes)

Lead author Eric Mamajek from the University of Rochester and collaborators report in The Closest Known Flyby Of A Star To The Solar System (published in Astrophysical Journal on February 12, 2015) that “the flyby of this system likely caused negligible impact on the flux of long-period comets, the recent discovery of this binary highlights that dynamically important Oort Cloud perturbers may be lurking among nearby stars.”

The star, named Scholz’s star, was just 8/10ths of a light year at closest approach to the Sun. In comparison, the nearest known star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years.

While the internet has been rife with threads and accusations of a Nemesis star that is approaching the inner Solar System and is somehow being “hidden” by NASA, this small red dwarf star with a companion represents the real thing.

In 1984, the paleontologists David Raup and Jack Sepkoski postulated that a dim dwarf star, now widely known on the internet as the Nemesis Star, was in a very long period Solar orbit. The elliptical orbit brought the proposed star into the inner Solar System every 26 million years, causing a rain of comets and mass extinctions on that time period. By no coincidence, because of the sheer numbers of red dwarfs throughout the galaxy, Scholz’s star nearly fits such a scenario. Nemesis was proposed to be in a orbit extending 95,000 A.U. compared to Scholz’s nearest flyby distance of 50,000 A.U. Recent studies of impact rates on Earth, the Moon and Mars have discounted the existence of a Nemesis star (see New Impact Rate Count Lays Nemesis Theory to Rest, Universe Today, 8/1/2011)

But Scholz’s star — a real-life Oort Cloud perturber — was a small red dwarf star star with a M9 spectral classification. M-class stars are the most common star in our galaxy and likely the whole Universe, as 75% of all stars are of this type. Scholz’s is just 15% of the mass of our Sun. Furthermore, Scholz’s is a binary star system with the secondary being a brown dwarf of class T5. Brown Dwarfs are believed to be plentiful in the Universe but due to their very low intrinsic brightness, they are very difficult to discover … except, as in this case, as companions to brighter stars.

The astronomers reported that their survey of new astrometric data of nearby stars identified Scholz’s as an object of interest. The star’s transverse velocity was very low, that is, the stars sideways motion. Additionally, they recognized that its radial velocity – motion towards or away from us, was quite high. For Scholz’s, the star was speeding directly away from our Solar System. How close could Scholz’s star have been to our system in the past? They needed more accurate data.

The collaborators turned to two large telescopes in the southern hemisphere. Spectrographs were employed on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in South Africa and the Magellan telescope at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. With more accurate trangental and radial velocities, the researchers were able to calculate the trajectory, accounting for the Sun’s and Scholz’s motion around the Milky Way galaxy.

Scholz’s star is an active star and the researchers added that while it was nearby, it shined at a dimly of about 11th magnitude but eruptions and flares on its surface could have raised its brightness to visible levels and could have been seen as a “new” star by primitive humans of the time.

The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)
The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)

At present, Scholz’s star is 20 light years away, one of the 70 closest stars to our Solar System. However, the astronomers calculated, with a 98% certainty, that Scholz’s passed within 0.5 light years, approximately 50,000 Astronomical Units (A.U.) of the Sun.

An A.U. is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun and 50,000 is an important mile marker in our Solar System. It is the outer reaches of the Oort Cloud where billions of comets reside in cold storage, in orbits that take hundreds of thousands of years to circle the Sun.

With this first extraordinary close encounter discovered, the collaborators of this paper as well as other researchers are planning new searches for “Nemesis” type stars. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and other telescopes within the next decade will bring an incredible array of data sets that will uncover many more red dwarf, brown dwarf and possibly orphan planets roaming in nearby space. Some of these could likewise be traced to past or future near misses to the Sun and Earth system.

Largest Digital Camera Ever Constructed will be Pointed at the Skies in 2022

The world’s largest-ever digital camera has received the green light to move forward with development. The 3,200-megapixel camera for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will snap the widest, deepest and fastest views of the night sky ever observed, providing unprecedented details of the Universe. Astronomers say the LSST will help uncover some of the biggest mysteries in astronomy.

The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced this week they have received key “Critical Decision 2” approval from the Department of Energy.

“This important decision endorses the camera fabrication budget that we proposed,” said LSST Director Steven Kahn. “Together with the construction funding we received from the National Science Foundation in August, it is now clear that LSST will have the support it needs to be completed on schedule.”

A rendering of the LSST Camera with a cut away to show the inner workings. Credit: LSST.
A rendering of the LSST Camera with a cut away to show the inner workings. Credit: LSST.

Set to begin science operations in 2022, the LSST will create an unprecedented archive of astronomical data that will track billions of remote galaxies, helping researchers study galaxy formation. It will rapidly scan the sky, charting objects that change or move: from exploding supernovae to potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids and create high resolution time-lapse videos of these objects and a 3-D map of the Universe. It will also help us better understand mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which make up 95 percent of the Universe

The camera itself will be the size of a small car and weigh more than 3 tons. It will be able to take up to 800 panoramic images each night and can cover the sky twice each week. Researchers say it will have the ability to reach faint objects twenty times faster than currently possible over the entire visible sky. Scientists anticipate LSST will generate 6 million gigabytes of data per year.

The unique LSST M1/M3 mirror surfaces being carefully polished. Credit: E. Acosta / LSST Corporation.
The unique LSST M1/M3 mirror surfaces being carefully polished. Credit: E. Acosta / LSST Corporation.

The telescope will have an 8.4-meter-diameter primary mirror that has an integrated 5-meter-diameter tertiary mirror. This mirror has already been fabricated at the University of Arizona’s Mirror Lab. The outer ring serves as the first mirror, and is called M1. Another more steeply curved mirror, M3, is carved out of the center. It has a 3-degree field of view.

LSST will be taking digital images of the entire visible southern sky every few nights from atop the Cerro Pachón mountain in Chile.

Cerro Pachon is already home to the Gemini South 8-meter telescope and the SOAR 4.1-meter telescope. This graphic also shows LSST's future site.  Credit:  C. Claver, NOAO/LSST
Cerro Pachon is already home to the Gemini South 8-meter telescope and the SOAR 4.1-meter telescope. This graphic also shows LSST’s future site. Credit: C. Claver, NOAO/LSST

Amateur and armchair astronomers will be happy to know that data from the LSST will be shared publicly and become available quickly via the internet. Researchers involved are planning to involve the public, including students, by using portals like Google Sky or World Wide Telescope, as well as developing research projects that can be done by students in classroom settings, and the public at home and at settings like science museums. They also hope to utilize citizen science projects like Cosmoquest and Galaxy Zoo.

With the latest approval from the DOE, the LSST team can now move forward with the development of the camera. There will be a “Critical Decision 3” review process next summer, which will be the last requirement before actual fabrication of the camera can begin. Components of the camera will be built by an international collaboration of labs and universities.


Does Earth Have Many Tiny Moons?


Look up in a clear night sky. How many moons do you see? Chances are, you’re only going to count to one. Admittedly, if you count any higher and you’re not alone, you may get some funny looks cast in your direction. But even though you may not be able to actually see them, there may very well be more moons out there orbiting our planet.

For the time being, anyway.

Today, Earth has one major moon in orbit around it. (Technically the Earth-Moon system orbits around a common center of gravity, called the barycenter, but that’s splitting hairs for the purpose of this story.) At one time Earth may have had two large moons until the smaller eventually collided into the larger, creating the rugged lump we now call the farside highlands. But, that was 4 billion years ago and again not what’s being referred to here.

Right now, at his moment, Earth may very well have more than the one moon we see in the night sky. Surprise.

Of course, it would be a very small moon. Perhaps no more than a meter across. But a moon nonetheless. And there could even be others – many others – much smaller than that. Little bits of solar system leftovers, orbiting our planet even farther out than the Moon we all know and love, coming and going in short-lived flings with Earth without anyone even knowing.

This is what has been suggested by researcher Mikael Granvik of the University of Helsinki in Finland. He and his colleagues have created computer simulations of asteroids believed to be occupying the inner solar system, and what the chances are that any number of them could be captured into Earth orbit at any given time.

Orbit of 2006 RH120, a confirmed TCO identified in 2006.

The team’s results, posted Dec. 20 in the science journal Icarus, claim it’s very likely that small asteroids would be temporarily captured into orbit (becoming TCOs, or temporarily captured objects) on a regular basis, each spending about nine months in up to three revolutions around Earth before heading off again.

Some objects, though, might hang around even longer… in the team’s simulations one TCO remained in orbit for 900 years.

“There are lots of asteroids in the solar system, so chances for the Earth to capture one at any time is, in a sense, not surprising,” said co-author Jeremie Vauballion, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory.

In fact, the team suspects that there’s most likely a TCO out there right now, perhaps a meter or so wide, orbiting between 5 and 10 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. And there could be a thousand smaller ones as well, up to 10 centimeters wide.

So if these moons are indeed out there, why don’t we know about them?

Put simply, they are too small, too far, and too dark.

At that distance an object the size of a writing desk is virtually undetectable with the instruments we have now.. especially if we don’t even know exactly where to look. But in the future the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) may, once completed, be able to spot these tiny satellites with its 3200-megapixel camera.

Once spotted, TCOs could become targets of exploration. After all, they are asteroids that have come to us, which would make investigation all the easier – not to mention cheaper – much more so than traveling to and back from the main asteroid belt.

“The price of the mission would actually be pretty small,” Granvik said. And that, of course, makes the chances of such a mission getting approved all the better.

Read more on David Shiga’s article on New Scientist here.

The team’s published paper can be found here.