More than a hundred years have passed since Einstein formalized his theory of General Relativity (GR), the geometric theory of gravitation that revolutionized our understanding of the Universe. And yet, astronomers are still subjecting it to rigorous tests, hoping to find deviations from this established theory. The reason is simple: any indication of physics beyond GR would open new windows onto the Universe and help resolve some of the deepest mysteries about the cosmos.
One of the most rigorous tests ever was recently conducted by an international team of astronomers led by Michael Kramer of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany. Using seven radio telescopes from across the world, Kramer and his colleagues observed a unique pair of pulsars for 16 years. In the process, they observed effects predicted by GR for the first time, and with an accuracy of at least 99.99%!
A new mission has launched to study some the most intriguing secrets of the universe. No, not THAT spacecraft (JWST is scheduled for launch on December 22). Another new and exciting mission is called Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) and it will allow scientists to explore the hidden details of some of the most extreme and high-energy objects in the cosmos, such as black holes, neutron stars, pulsars and dozens of other objects.
Astronomers have been using gravitational waves to detect merging black holes for years now, but may have to rely on pulsars – rapidly spinning neutron stars – to observe the mergers of supermassive black holes.
It was the brightest supernova in nearly 400 years when it lit the skies of the southern hemisphere in February 1987. Supernova 1987A – the explosion of a blue supergiant star in the nearby mini-galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud – amazed the astronomical community. It offered them an unprecedented opportunity to observe an exploding star in real-time with modern instruments and telescopes. But something was missing. After the supernova faded, astronomers expected to find a neutron star (a hyper-dense, collapsed stellar core, made largely of neutrons) left-over at the heart of the explosion. They saw nothing.
Gravitational-wave astronomy is still in its infancy. LIGO and other observatories have opened a new window on the universe, but their gravitational view of the cosmos is limited. To widen our view, we have the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav).
We recently observed the strongest magnetic field ever recorded in the Universe. The record-breaking field was discovered at the surface of a neutron star called GRO J1008-57 with a magnetic field strength of approximately 1 BILLION Tesla. For comparison, the Earth’s magnetic field clocks in at about 1/20,000 of a Tesla – tens of trillions of times weaker than you’d experience on this neutron star…and that is a good thing for your general health and wellbeing.
Neutron stars are the “dead cores” of once massive stars which have ended their lives as supernova. These stars exhausted their supply of hydrogen fuel in their core and a power balance between the internal energy of the star surging outward, and the star’s own massive gravity crushing inward, is cataclysmically unbalanced – gravity wins. The star collapses in on itself. The outer layers fall onto the core crushing it into the densest object we know of in the Universe – a neutron star. Even atoms are crushed. Negatively charged electrons are forced into the atomic nuclei meeting their positive proton counterparts creating more neutrons. When the core can be crushed no further, the outer remaining material of the star rebounds back into space in a massive explosion – a supernova. The resulting neutron star, made of the crushed stellar core, is so dense that a single sugar-cube-sized sampling would weigh billions of tons – as much as a mountain (though if you’re “worthy” you MIGHT able to lift it since Thor’s Hammer is made of the stuff). Neutron stars are typically about 20km in diameter and can still be a million degrees Kelvin at the surface.
But if they’re “dead,” how can neutron stars be some of the most magnetic and powerful objects in the Universe?
When pulsars were first discovered in 1967, their rhythmic radio-wave pulsations were a mystery. Some thought their radio beams must be of extraterrestrial origin.
We’ve learned a lot since then. We know that pulsars are magnetized, rotating neutrons stars. We know that they rotate very rapidly, with their magnetic poles sending sweeping beams of radio waves out into space. And if they’re aimed the right way, we can “see” them as pulses of radio waves, even though the radio waves are steady. They’re kind of like lighthouses.
But the exact mechanism that creates all of that electromagnetic radiation has remained a mystery.
In 2016, China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope – the largest single-aperture radio telescope in the world – gathered its first light. Since then, the telescope has undergone extensive testing and commissioning and officially went online in Jan of 2020. In all that time, it has also been responsible for multiple discoveries, including close to one hundred new pulsars.
According to a recent study by an international team of scientists and led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) suggests that FAST might have another use as well: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)! Building on their collaboration with the non-profit science organization Breakthrough Initiatives, the authors of the study highlight the ways in which FAST could allow for some novel SETI observations.
In the 17th century, astronomers witnessed many stellar events that proved that the starry sky was not “fixed and eternal.” This included stars whose brightness varied over time – aka. “variable stars.” By the 20th century, many variable stars had been cataloged and astronomers have discerned subclasses of them as well – notably, stars that swell and shrink, known as pulsating variables.
In all cases, these variable stars were found to have rhythmic pulsations that were visible from all sides. But a recent discovery by an international team has confirmed that there are variable stars that can pulse from only one side. This pulsating star, part of a system known as HD 74423, is located about 1,500 light-years from Earth and is the first of its kind to be found.
There’s a lot of mysterious goings-on at the center of the Milky Way. The supermassive black hole that resides there is chief among them. But there’s another intriguing puzzle there: an unexpected spherical region of intense gamma ray emissions.
A new study suggests that dark matter could be behind those emissions.