NASA is building up a map of the entire sky seen in X-rays, line by line with its NICER experiment

In June of 2017, NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) was installed aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The purpose of this instrument is to provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars and other super-dense objects that are on the verge of collapsing into black holes. NICER is also be the first instrument designed to test technology that will use pulsars as navigation beacons.

Recently, NASA used data obtained from NICER’s first 22 months of science operations to create an x-ray map of the entire sky. What resulted was a lovely image that looks like a long-exposure image of fire dancers, solar flare activity from hundreds of stars, or even a visualization of the world wide web. But in fact, each bright spot represents an x-ray source while the bright filaments are their paths across the night sky.

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Some of Earth’s Gold Came From Two Neutron Stars That Collided Billions of Years Ago

For about a century now, scientists have theorized that the metals in our Universe are the result of stellar nucleosynthesis. This theory states that after the first stars formed, heat and pressure in their interiors led to the creation of heavier elements like silicon and iron. These elements not only enriched future generations of stars (“metallicity”), but also provided the material from which the planets formed.

More recent work has suggested that some of the heaviest elements could actually be the result of binary stars merging. In fact, a recent study by two astrophysicists found that a collision which took place between two neutron stars billions of years ago produced a considerable amount of some of Earth’s heaviest elements. These include gold, platinum and uranium, which then became part of the material from which Earth formed.

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It Looks Like LIGO/Virgo Have Detected a Black Hole Eating a Neutron Star. For the First Time Ever

A new signal detected by LIGO/Virgo may be the so-called ‘holy grail’ of astrophysics: the merger of a neutron star and a black hole. They’ve discovered pairs of black holes merging, and pairs of neutron stars merging, but until now, not a neutron star-black hole pair.

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Barfing Neutron Stars Reveal Their Inner Guts

We don’t really understand neutron stars. Oh, we know that they are – they’re the leftover remnants of some of the most massive stars in the universe – but revealing their inner workings is a little bit tricky, because the physics keeping them alive is only poorly understood.

But every once in a while two neutron stars smash together, and when they do they tend to blow up, spewing their quantum guts all over space. Depending on the internal structure and composition of the neutron stars, the “ejecta” (the polite scientific term for astronomical projectile vomit) will look different to us Earth-bound observers, giving us a gross but potentially powerful way to understand these exotic creatures.

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Astronomers See the Exact Moment a Supernova Turned into a Black Hole (or Neutron Star)

A look at The Cow (approximately 80 days after explosion) from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Maunakea, Hawaii. The Cow is nestled in the CGCG 137-068 galaxy, 200 million light years from Earth. Image Credit:Raffaella Margutti/Northwestern University

On June 17th 2018, the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey’s twin telescopes spotted something extraordinarily bright in the sky. The source was 200 million light years away in the constellation Hercules. The object was given the name AT2018cow or “The Cow.” The Cow flared up quickly, and then just as quickly it was gone.

What was it?

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A Star Exploded as a Supernova and Then Collapsed Into a Neutron Star. But Only a Fraction of its Matter was Released

For almost a century, astronomers have been studying supernovae with great interest. These miraculous events are what take place when a star enters the final phase of its lifespan and collapses, or is stripped by a companion star of its outer layers to the point where it undergoes core collapse. In both cases, this event usually leads to a massive release of material a few times the mass of our Sun.

However, an international team of scientists recently witnessed a supernova that was a surprisingly faint and brief. Their observations indicate that the supernova was caused by an unseen companion, likely a neutron star that stripped its companion of material, causing it to collapse and go supernova. This is therefore the first time that scientists have witnessed the birth of a compact neutron star binary system.

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Inside the Crust of Neutron Stars, There’s Nuclear Pasta; the Hardest Known Substance in the Universe

Ever since they were first discovered in the 1930s, scientists have puzzled over the mystery that is neutron stars. These stars, which are the result of a supernova explosion, are the smallest and densest stars in the Universe. While they typically have a radius of about 10 km (6.2 mi) – about 1.437 x 10-5 times that of the Sun – they also average between 1.4 and 2.16 Solar masses.

At this density, which is the same as that of atomic nuclei, a single teaspoon of neutron star material would weigh about as much as 90 million metric tons (100 million US tons). And now, a  team of scientists has conducted a study that indicates that the strongest known material in the Universe – what they refer to as “nuclear pasta” – exists deep inside the crust of neutron stars.

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Last Year’s Gravitational Wave Detections Failed to Provide a Hint of Any Extra Spatial Dimensions

In August of 2017, astronomers made another major breakthrough when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the merger of two neutron stars. Since that time, scientists at multiple facilities around the world have conducted follow-up observations to determine the aftermath this merger, as even to test various cosmological theories.

For instance, in the past, some scientists have suggested that the inconsistencies between Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the nature of the Universe over large-scales could be explained by the presence of extra dimensions. However, according to a new study by a team of American astrophysicists, last year’s kilonova event effectively rules out this hypothesis.

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Okay, Last Year’s Kilonova Did Probably Create a Black Hole

In August of 2017, another major breakthrough occurred when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger. Shortly thereafter, scientists at LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were able to determine where in the sky this event (known as a kilonova) occurred.

This source, known as GW170817/GRB, has been the target of many follow-up surveys since it was believed that the merge could have led to the formation of a black hole. According to a new study by a team that analyzed data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory since the event, scientists can now say with greater confidence that the merger created a new black hole in our galaxy.

The study, titled “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by David Pooley, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy at Trinity University, San Antonio, and included members from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Berkeley, and Nazarbayev University’s Energetic Cosmos Laboratory in Kazakhstan.

Illustration of the kilonova merger (top), and the resulting object (left and right) over time. Credit: NASA/CXC/Trinity University/D. Pooley et al. Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

For the sake of their study, the team analyzed X-ray data from Chandra taken in the days, weeks, and months after the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO and gamma rays by NASA’s Fermi mission. While nearly every telescope in the world had observed the source, X-ray data was critical to understanding what happened after the two neutron stars collided.

While a Chandra observation two to three days after the event failed to detect an X-ray source, subsequent observations taken 9, 15, and 16 days after the event resulted in detections. The source disappeared for a time as GW170817 passed behind the Sun, but additional observations were made about 110 and 160 days after the event, both of which showed significant brightening.

While the LIGO data provided astronomers with a good estimate of the resulting object’s mass after the neutron stars merged (2.7 Solar Masses), this was not enough to determine what it had become. Essentially, this amount of mass meant that it was either the most massive neutron star ever found or the lowest-mass black hole ever found (the previous record holders being four or five Solar Masses). As Dave Pooley explained in a NASA/Chandra press release:

“While neutron stars and black holes are mysterious, we have studied many of them throughout the Universe using telescopes like Chandra. That means we have both data and theories on how we expect such objects to behave in X-rays.”

Illustration of the resulting black hole caused by GW170817. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

If the neutron stars merged to form a heavier neutron star, then astronomers would expect it to spin rapidly and generate and very strong magnetic field. This would have also created an expanded bubble of high-energy particles that would result in bright X-ray emissions. However, the Chandra data revealed X-ray emissions that were several hundred times lower than expected from a massive, rapidly-spinning neutron star.

By comparing the Chandra observations with those by the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), Pooley and his team were also able to deduce that the X-ray emission were due entirely to the shock wave caused by the merger smashing into surrounding gas. In short, there was no sign of X-rays resulting from a neutron star.

This strongly implies that the resulting object was in fact a black hole. If confirmed, these results would indicate that the formation process of a blackhole can sometimes be complicated. Essentially, GW170817 would have been the result of two stars undergoing a supernova explosion that left behind two neutron stars in a sufficiently tight orbit that they eventually came together. As Pawan Kumar explained:

“We may have answered one of the most basic questions about this dazzling event: what did it make? Astronomers have long suspected that neutron star mergers would form a black hole and produce bursts of radiation, but we lacked a strong case for it until now.”

Simulated view of a black hole. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke, Radboud University

Looking ahead, the claims put forward by Pooley and his colleagues could be tested by future X-ray and radio observations. Next-generation instruments – like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) currently under construction in South Africa and Australia, and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (Athena+) – would be especially helpful in this regard.

If the remnant turns out to be a massive neutron star with a strong magnetic field after all, then the source should get much brighter in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the coming years as the high-energy bubble catches up with the decelerating shock wave. As the shock wave weakens, astronomers expect that it will continue to become fainter than it was when recently observed.

Regardless, future observations of GW170817 are bound to provide a wealth of information, according to J. Craig Wheeler, a co-author on the study also from the University of Texas. “GW170817 is the astronomical event that keeps on giving,” he said. “We are learning so much about the astrophysics of the densest known objects from this one event.”

If these follow-up observations find that a heavy neutron star is what resulted from the merger, this discovery would challenge theories about the structure of neutron stars and how massive they can get. On the other hand, if they find that it formed a tiny black hole, then it will challenge astronomers notions about the lower mass limits of black holes. For astrophysicists, it’s basically a win-win scenario.

As co-author Bruce Grossan of the University of California at Berkeley added:

“At the beginning of my career, astronomers could only observe neutron stars and black holes in our own galaxy, and now we are observing these exotic stars across the cosmos. What an exciting time to be alive, to see instruments like LIGO and Chandra showing us so many thrilling things nature has to offer.”

Indeed, looking farther out into the cosmos and deeper back in time has revealed much about the Universe that was previously unknown. And with improved instruments being developed for the sole purpose of studying astronomical phenomena in greater detail and at even greater distances, there seems to be no limit to what we might learn. And be sure to check out this video of the GW170817 merger, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra, The Astrophysical Journal Letters