According to the most widely-accepted model of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. As the Universe cooled, the fundamental laws of physics (the electroweak force, the strong nuclear force, and gravity) and the first hydrogen atoms formed. By 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe was permeated by neutral hydrogen and very few photons (the Cosmic Dark Ages). During the “Epoch of Reionization” that followed, the first stars and galaxies formed, reoinizing the neutral hydrogen and causing the Universe to become transparent.
For astronomers, the Epoch of Reionization still holds many mysteries, like when certain heavy elements formed. This includes the element carbon, a key ingredient in the formation of planets, an important element in organic processes, and the basis for life as we know it. According to a new study by the ARC Center of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), it appears that triply-ionized carbon (C iv) existed far sooner than previously thought. Their findings could have drastic implications for our understanding of cosmic evolution.
Black holes are the most massive objects that we know of in the Universe. Not stellar mass black holes, not supermassive black holes (SMBHs,) but ultra-massive black holes (UMBHs.) UMBHs sit in the center of galaxies like SMBHs, but they have more than five billion solar masses, an astonishingly large amount of mass. The largest black hole we know of is Phoenix A, a UMBH with up to 100 billion solar masses.
Since it launched on December 25th, 2021 (quite the Christmas present!), the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has taken the sharpest and most detailed images of the Universe, surpassing even its predecessor, the venerable Hubble Space Telescope! But what is especially exciting are the kinds of observations we can look forward to, where the JWST will use its advanced capabilities to address some of the most pressing cosmological mysteries. For instance, there’s the problem presented by high-redshift supermassive black holes (SMBHs) or brightly-shining quasars that existed during the first billion years of the Universe.
To date, astronomers have not been able to determine how SMBHs could have formed so soon after the Big Bang. Part of the problem has been that, until recently, stars in host galaxies with redshift values of Z>2 (within 10.324 billionlight-years) have been elusive. But thanks to the JWST, an international team of astronomers recently observed stars in quasars at Z>6 (within 12.716 billion light-years) for the first time. Their observations could finally allow astronomers to assess the processes in early quasars that governed the formation and evolution of the first SMBHs.
New technologies bring new astronomical insights, which is especially satisfying when they help answer debates that have been ongoing for decades. One of those debates is why exactly the plasma emitted from pulsars “collimates” or is brought together in a narrow beam. While it doesn’t provide a definitive answer to that question, a new paper from an international group of scientists points to a potential solution, but it will require even more advanced technologies.
It’s been a banner time for black hole research! In recent months, astrophysicists have announced the discovery of the most powerful gamma-ray burst ever recorded (due to the formation of a black hole), a monster black hole in our cosmic backyard, the frame-dragging effects of a binary black hole, and the remains of the 2017 Kilonova event (spoiler alert: it was a black hole). And with the help of citizen scientists, a team of astronomers recently discovered a unique black hole in a galaxy roughly one billion light-years away that’s hurling a relativistic jet at another galaxy.
The first black holes to appear in the universe may have formed from the direct collapse of gas. When they collapsed, they released a flood of radiation, including radio waves. A new study has found that the next generation of massive radio telescopes may be able to detect these bursts, giving precious insights into a critical epoch in the history of the universe.
At the heart of most massive galaxies in our Universe, there are supermassive black holes (SMBH) on the order of millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. As these behemoths consume gas and dust that’s slowly fed into their maws, they release tremendous amounts of energy. This leads to what is known as an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) – aka. a quasar – which can sometimes send hypervelocity jets of material for light-years.
Since they were first discovered, astrophysicists have suspected that SMBHs play an important role in the formation and evolution of galaxies. However, as a result, there has also been considerable research dedicated to how these massive objects form and evolve themselves. Recently, a team of astrophysicists conducted a high-powered simulation that showed exactly how SMBHs feed and determined that a galaxy’s arms play a vital role.
Black holes don’t emit light, which makes them difficult to study. Fortunately, many black holes are loud eaters. As they consume nearby matter, surrounding material is superheated. As a result, the material can glow intensely, or be thrown away from the black hole as relativistic jets. By studying the light from this material we can study black holes. And as a recent study shows, we can even determine their size.
What’s better than a quasar? That’s right, two quasars. Astronomers have spotted for the first time two rare double-quasars, and the results show us the dynamic, messy consequences of galaxy formation.
One of the biggest challenges to measuring the expansion of the universe is the fact that many of the methods we use are model-dependent. The most famous example is the use of distant supernovae, where we compare the standard brightness of a Type Ia supernova with their apparent brightness to find their distance. But knowing the standard brightness depends upon comparing them to the brightness of Cepheid variables which is in turn determined by measuring the distances of nearby stars via parallax. Every step of this cosmic distance ladder depends upon the step before it.