Researchers Create the Most Detailed Simulation of the Universe Ever Made

Since time immemorial, philosophers and scholars have sought to determine how existence began. With the birth of modern astronomy, this tradition has continued and given rise to the field known as cosmology. And with the help of supercomputing, scientists are able to conduct simulations that show how the first stars and galaxies formed in our Universe and evolved over the course of billions of years.

Until recently, the most extensive and complete study was the “Illustrus” simulation, which looked at the process of galaxy formation over the course of the past 13 billion years. Seeking to break their own record, the same team recently began conducting a simulation known as “Illustris, The Next Generation,” or “IllustrisTNG”. The first round of these findings were recently released, and several more are expected to follow.

These findings appeared in three articles recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The Illustris team consists of researchers from the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, the Max-Planck Institutes for Astrophysics and for Astronomy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York.

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Image: NASA

Using the Hazel Hen supercomputer at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) – one of the three world-class German supercomputing facilities that comprise the Gauss Centre for Supercomputing (GCS) – the team conducted a simulation that will help to verify and expand on existing experimental knowledge about the earliest stages of the Universe – i.e. what happened from 300,000 years after the Big Bang to the present day.

To create this simulation, the team combined equations (such as the Theory of General Relativity) and data from modern observations into a massive computational cube that represented a large cross-section of the Universe. For some processes, such as star formation and the growth of black holes, the researchers were forced to rely on assumptions based on observations. They then employed numerical models to set this simulated Universe in motion.

Compared to their previous simulation, IllustrisTNG consisted of 3 different universes at three different resolutions – the largest of which measured 1 billion light years (300 megaparsecs) across. In addition, the research team included more precise accounting for magnetic fields, thus improving accuracy. In total, the simulation used 24,000 cores on the Hazel Hen supercomputer for a total of 35 million core hours.

As Prof. Dr. Volker Springel, professor and researcher at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and principal investigator on the project, explained in a Gauss Center press release:

“Magnetic fields are interesting for a variety of reasons. The magnetic pressure exerted on cosmic gas can occasionally be equal to thermal (temperature) pressure, meaning that if you neglect this, you will miss these effects and ultimately compromise your results.”

Illustris simulation overview poster. Shows the large scale dark matter and gas density fields in projection (top/bottom). Credit: Illustris Project

Another major difference was the inclusion of updated black hole physics based on recent observation campaigns. This includes evidence that demonstrates a correlation between supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and galactic evolution. In essence, SMBHs are known to send out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets, which can have an arresting effect on star formation in a galaxy.

While the researchers were certainly aware of this process during the first simulation, they did not factor in how it can arrest star formation completely. By including updated data on both magnetic fields and black hole physics in the simulation, the team saw a greater correlation between the data and observations. They are therefore more confident with the results and believe it represents the most accurate simulation to date.

But as Dr. Dylan Nelson – a physicist with the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy and an llustricTNG member – explained, future simulations are likely to be even more accurate, assuming advances in supercomputers continue:

“Increased memory and processing resources in next-generation systems will allow us to simulate large volumes of the universe with higher resolution. Large volumes are important for cosmology, understanding the large-scale structure of the universe, and making firm predictions for the next generation of large observational projects. High resolution is important for improving our physical models of the processes going on inside of individual galaxies in our simulation.”

Gas density (left) and magnetic field strength (right) centered on the most massive galaxy cluster. Credit: Illustris Team

This latest simulation was also made possible thanks to extensive support provided by the GCS staff, who assisted the research team with matters related to their coding. It was also the result of a massive collaborative effort that brought together researchers from around the world and paired them with the resources they needed. Last, but not least, it shows how increased collaboration between applied research and theoretical research lead to better results.

Looking ahead, the team hopes that the results of this latest simulation proves to be even more useful than the last. The original Illustris data release gained over 2,000 registered users and resulted in the publication of 130 scientific studies. Given that this one is more accurate and up-to-date, the team expects that it will find more users and result in even more groundbreaking research.

Who knows? Perhaps someday, we may create a simulation that captures the formation and evolution of our Universe with complete accuracy. In the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the first Illustris Simulation, courtesy of team member and MIT physicist Mark Vogelsberger:

Further Reading: GCS, Illustrus

What is a Supermassive Black Hole?

In 1971, English astronomers Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees hypothesized that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) resides at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. This was based on their work with radio galaxies, which showed that the massive amounts of energy radiated by these objects was due to gas and matter being accreted onto a black hole at their center.

By 1974, the first evidence for this SMBH was found when astronomers detected a massive radio source coming from the center of our galaxy. This region, which they named Sagittarius A*, is over 10 million times as massive as our own Sun. Since its discovery, astronomers have found evidence that there are supermassive black holes at the centers of most spiral and elliptical galaxies in the observable Universe.

Description:

Supermassive black holes (SMBH) are distinct from lower-mass black holes in a number of ways. For starters, since SMBH have a much higher mass than smaller black holes, they also have a lower average density. This is due to the fact that with all spherical objects, volume is directly proportional to the cube of the radius, while the minimum density of a black hole is inversely proportional to the square of the mass.

In addition, the tidal forces in the vicinity of the event horizon are significantly weaker for massive black holes. As with density, the tidal force on a body at the event horizon is inversely proportional to the square of the mass. As such, an object would not experience significant tidal force until it was very deep into the black hole.

Formation:

How SMBHs are formed remains the subject of much scholarly debate. Astrophysicists largely believe that they are the result of black hole mergers and the accretion of matter. But where the “seeds” (i.e. progenitors) of these black holes came from is where disagreement occurs. Currently, the most obvious hypothesis is that they are the remnants of several massive stars that exploded, which were formed by the accretion of matter in the galactic center.

Another theory is that before the first stars formed in our galaxy, a large gas cloud collapsed into a “qausi-star” that became unstable to radial perturbations. It then turned into a black hole of about 20 Solar Masses without the need for a supernova explosion. Over time, it rapidly accreted mass in order to become an intermediate, and then supermassive, black hole.

In yet another model, a dense stellar cluster experienced core-collapse as the as a result of velocity dispersion in its core, which happened at relativistic speeds due to negative heat capacity. Last, there is the theory that primordial black holes may have been produced directly by external pressure immediately after the Big Bang. These and other theories remain theoretical for the time being.

Sagittarius A*:

Multiple lines of evidence point towards the existence of a SMBH at the center of our galaxy. While no direct observations have been made of Sagittarius A*, its presence has been inferred from the influence it has on surrounding objects. The most notable of these is S2, a star that flows an elliptical orbit around the Sagittarius A* radio source.

S2 has an orbital period of 15.2 years and reaches a minimal distance of 18 billion km (11.18 billion mi, 120 AU) from the center of the central object. Only a supermassive object could account for this, since no other cause can be discerned. And from the orbital parameters of S2, astronomers have been able to produce estimates on the size and mass of the object.

For instance, S2s motions have led astronomers to calculated that the object at the center of its orbit must have no less than 4.1 million Solar Masses (8.2 × 10³³ metric tons; 9.04 × 10³³ US tons). Furthermore, the radius of this object would have to be less than 120 AU, otherwise S2 would collide with it.

However, the best evidence to date was provided in 2008 by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UCLAs Galactic Center Group. Using data obtained over a 16 year period by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and Keck Telescope, they were able to not only accurately estimate the distance to the center of our galaxy (27,000 light years from Earth), but also track the orbits of the stars there with immense precision.

As Reinhard Genzel, the team leader from the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics said:

Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our long term study is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that supermassive black holes do really exist. The stellar orbits in the Galactic Centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Another indication of Sagittarius A*s presence came on January 5th, 2015, when NASA reported a record-breaking X-ray flare coming from the center of our galaxy. Based on readings from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, they reported emissions that were 400 times brighter than usual. These were thought to be the result of an asteroid falling into the black hole, or by the entanglement of magnetic field lines within the gas flowing into it.

Other Galaxies:

Astronomers have also found evidence of SMBHs at the center of other galaxies within the Local Group and beyond. These include the nearby Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and elliptical galaxy M32, and the distant spiral galaxy NGC 4395. This is based on the fact that stars and gas clouds near the center of these galaxies show an observable increase in velocity.

Another indication is Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), where massive bursts of radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray wavebands are periodically detected coming from the regions of cold matter (gas and dust) at the center of larger galaxies. While the radiation is not coming from the black holes themselves, the influence such a massive object would have on surrounding matter is believed to be the cause.

In short, gas and dust form accretion disks at the center of galaxies that orbit supermassive black holes, gradually feeding them matter. The incredible force of gravity in this region compresses the disk’s material until it reaches millions of degrees kelvin, generating bright radiation and electromagnetic energy. A corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc as well, and can scatter photons up to X-ray energies.

The interaction between the SMBH rotating magnetic field and the accretion disk also creates powerful magnetic jets that fire material above and below the black hole at relativistic speeds (i.e. at a significant fraction of the speed of light). These jets can extend for hundreds of thousands of light-years, and are a second potential source of observed radiation.

When the Andromeda Galaxy merges with our own in a few billion years, the supermassive black hole that is at its center will merge with our own, producing a much more massive and powerful one. This interaction is likely to kick several stars out of our combined galaxy (producing rogue stars), and is also likely to cause our galactic nucleus (which is currently inactive) to become active one again.

The study of black holes is still in its infancy. And what we have learned over the past few decades alone has been both exciting and awe-inspiring. Whether they are lower-mass or supermassive, black holes are an integral part of our Universe and play an active role in its evolution.

Who knows what we will find as we peer deeper into the Universe? Perhaps some day we the technology, and sheer audacity, will exist so that we might attempt to peak beneath the veil of an event horizon. Can you imagine that happening?

We have written many interesting articles about black holes here at Universe Today. Here’s Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt: A Supermassive Black Hole Lives in Centre of Our Galaxy, X-Ray Flare Echo Reveals Supermassive Black Hole Torus, How Do You Weigh a Supermassive Black Hole? Take its Temperature, and What Happens When Supermassive Black Holes Collide?

Astronomy Cast also some relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 18: Black Holes Big and Small, and Episode 98: Quasars.

More to explore: Astronomy Cast’s episodes Quasars, and Black Holes Big and Small.

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What are Active Galactic Nuclei?

In the 1970s, astronomers became aware of a compact radio source at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy – which they named Sagittarius A. After many decades of observation and mounting evidence, it was theorized that the source of these radio emissions was in fact a supermassive black hole (SMBH). Since that time, astronomers have come to theorize that SMBHs at the heart of every large galaxy in the Universe.

Most of the time, these black holes are quiet and invisible, thus being impossible to observe directly. But during the times when material is falling into their massive maws, they blaze with radiation, putting out more light than the rest of the galaxy combined. These bright centers are what is known as Active Galactic Nuclei, and are the strongest proof for the existence of SMBHs.

Description:

It should be noted that the enormous bursts in luminosity observed from Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) are not coming from the supermassive black holes themselves. For some time, scientists have understood that nothing, not even light, can escape the Event Horizon of a black hole.

Instead, the massive burst of radiations – which includes emissions in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray wavebands – are coming from cold matter (gas and dust) that surround the black holes. These form accretion disks that orbit the supermassive black holes, and gradually feeding them matter.

The incredible force of gravity in this region compresses the disk’s material until it reaches millions of degrees kelvin. This generates bright radiation, producing electromagnetic energy that peaks in the optical-UV waveband. A corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc as well, and can scatter photons up to X-ray energies.

A large fraction of the AGN’s radiation may be obscured by interstellar gas and dust close to the accretion disc, but this will likely be re-radiated at the infrared waveband. As such, most (if not all) of the electromagnetic spectrum is produced through the interaction of cold matter with SMBHs.

The interaction between the supermassive black hole’s rotating magnetic field and the accretion disk also creates powerful magnetic jets that fire material above and below the black hole at relativistic speeds (i.e. a significant fraction of the speed of light). These jets can extend for hundreds of thousands of light-years, and are a second potential source of observed radiation.

Types of AGN:

Typically, scientists divide AGN into two categories, which are referred to as “radio-quiet” and “radio-loud” nuclei. The radio-loud category corresponds to AGNs that have radio emissions produced by both the accretion disk and the jets. Radio-quiet AGNs are simpler, in that any jet or jet-related emission are negligible.

Carl Seyfert discovered the first class of AGN in 1943,  which is why they now bear his name. “Seyfert galaxies” are a type of radio-quiet AGN that are known for their emission lines, and are subdivided into two categories based on them. Type 1 Seyfert galaxies have both narrow and broadened optical emissions lines, which imply the existence of clouds of high density gas, as well as gas velocities of between 1000 – 5000 km/s near the nucleus.

Type 2 Seyferts, in contrast, have narrow emissions lines only. These narrow lines are caused by low density gas clouds that are at greater distances from the nucleus, and gas velocities of about 500 to 1000 km/s. As well as Seyferts, other sub classes of radio-quiet galaxies include radio-quiet quasars and LINERs.

Low Ionisation Nuclear Emission-line Region galaxies (LINERs) are very similar to Seyfert 2 galaxies, except for their low ionization lines (as the name suggests), which are quite strong. They are the lowest-luminosity AGN in existence, and it is often wondered if they are in fact powered by accretion on to a supermassive black hole.

Artist's representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Artist’s representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Radio-loud galaxies can also be subdivded into categories like radio galaxies, quasars, and blazars. As the name suggests, radio galaxies are elliptical galaxies that are strong emitters of radiowaves. Quasars are the most luminous type of AGN, which have spectra similar to Seyferts.

However, they are different in that their stellar absorption features are weak or absent (meaning they are likely less dense in terms of gas) and the narrow emission lines are weaker than the broad lines seen in Seyferts.  Blazars are a highly variable class of AGN that are radio sources, but do not display emission lines in their spectra.

Detection:

Historically speaking, a number of features have been observed within the centers of galaxies that have allowed for them to be identified as AGNs. For instance, whenever the accretion disk can be seen directly, nuclear-optical emissions can be seen. Whenever the accretion disk is obscured by gas and dust close to the nucleus, an AGN can be detected by its infra-red emissions.

Then there are the broad and narrow optical emission lines that are associated with different types of AGN. In the former case, they are produced whenever cold material is close to the black hole, and are the result of the emitting material revolving around the black hole with high speeds (causing a range of Doppler shifts of the emitted photons). In the former case, more distant cold material is the culprit, resulting in narrower emission lines.

Image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a 5000-light-year-long jet ejected from the active galaxy M87. The blue synchrotron radiation contrasts with the yellow starlight from the host galaxy. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a 5000-light-year-long jet ejected from the active galaxy M87. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Next up, there are radio continuum and x-ray continuum emissions. Whereas radio emissions are always the result of the jet, x-ray emissions can arise from either the jet or the hot corona, where electromagnetic radiation is scattered. Last, there are x-ray line emissions, which occur when x-ray emissions illuminate the cold heavy material that lies between it and the nucleus.

These signs, alone or in combination, have led astronomers to make numerous detections at the center of galaxies, as well as to discern the different types of active nuclei out there.

The Milky Way Galaxy:

In the case of the Milky Way, ongoing observation has revealed that the amount of material accreted onto Sagitarrius A is consistent with an inactive galactic nucleus. It has been theorized that it had an active nucleus in the past, but has since transitioned into a radio-quiet phase. However, it has also been theorized that it might become active again in a few million (or billion) years.

When the Andromeda Galaxy merges with our own in a few billion years, the supermassive black hole that is at its center will merge with our own, producing a much more massive and powerful one. At this point, the nucleus of the resulting galaxy – the Milkdromeda (Andrilky) Galaxy, perhaps? – will certainly have enough material for it to be active.

The discovery of active galactic nuclei has allowed astronomers to group together several different classes of galaxies. It’s also allowed astronomers to understand how a galaxy’s size can be discerned by the behavior at its core. And last, it has also helped astronomers to understand which galaxies have undergone mergers in the past, and what could be coming for our own someday.

We have written many articles about galaxies for Universe Today. Here’s What Fuels the Engine of a Supermassive Black Hole?, Could the Milky Way Become a Black Hole?, What is a Supermassive Black Hole?, Turning on a Supermassive Black Hole, What Happens when Supermassive Black Holes Collide?.

For more information, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

Astronomy Cast also has episodes about galactic nuclei and supermassive black holes. Here’s Episode 97: Galaxies and Episode 213: Supermassive Black Holes.

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What Happens When Galaxies Collide?

We don’t want to scare you, but our own Milky Way is on a collision course with Andromeda, the closest spiral galaxy to our own. At some point during the next few billion years, our galaxy and Andromeda – which also happen to be the two largest galaxies in the Local Group – are going to come together, and with catastrophic consequences.

Stars will be thrown out of the galaxy, others will be destroyed as they crash into the merging supermassive black holes. And the delicate spiral structure of both galaxies will be destroyed as they become a single, giant, elliptical galaxy. But as cataclysmic as this sounds, this sort of process is actually a natural part of galactic evolution.

Astronomers have know about this impending collision for some time. This is based on the direction and speed of our galaxy and Andromeda’s. But more importantly, when astronomers look out into the Universe, they see galaxy collisions happening on a regular basis.

The Antennae galaxies. Credit: Hubble / ESA
The Antennae galaxies, a pair of interacting galaxies located 45 – 65 million light years from Earth. Credit: Hubble / ESA

Gravitational Collisions:

Galaxies are held together by mutual gravity and orbit around a common center. Interactions between galaxies is quite common, especially between giant and satellite galaxies. This is often the result of a galaxies drifting too close to one another, to the point where the gravity of the satellite galaxy will attract one of the giant galaxy’s primary spiral arms.

In other cases, the path of the satellite galaxy may cause it to intersect with the giant galaxy. Collisions may lead to mergers, assuming that neither galaxy has enough momentum to keep going after the collision has taken place. If one of the colliding galaxies is much larger than the other, it will remain largely intact and retain its shape, while the smaller galaxy will be stripped apart and become part of the larger galaxy.

Such collisions are relatively common, and Andromeda is believed to have collided with at least one other galaxy in the past. Several dwarf galaxies (such as the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy) are currently colliding with the Milky Way and merging with it.

However, the word collision is a bit of a misnomer, since the extremely tenuous distribution of matter in galaxies means that actual collisions between stars or planets is extremely unlikely.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and many other telescopes on the ground and in space have been used to obtain the best view yet of a collision that took place between two galaxies when the Universe was only half its current age. The astronomers enlisted the help of a galaxy-sized magnifying glass to reveal otherwise invisible detail. These new studies of the galaxy H-ATLAS J142935.3-002836 have shown that this complex and distant object looks surprisingly like the well-known local galaxy collision, the Antennae Galaxies. In this picture you can see the foreground galaxy that is doing the lensing, which resembles how our home galaxy, the Milky Way, would appear if seen edge-on. But around this galaxy there is an almost complete ring — the smeared out image of a star-forming galaxy merger far beyond. This picture combines the views from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck-II telescope on Hawaii (using adaptive optics). Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/W. M. Keck Observatory
Image obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck-II telescope, showing a collision that took place billions of years ago. Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/W. M. Keck Observatory

Andromeda–Milky Way Collision:

In 1929, Edwin Hubble revealed observational evidence which showed that distant galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way. This led him to create Hubble’s Law, which states that a galaxy’s distance and velocity can be determined by measuring its redshift – i.e. a phenomena where an object’s light is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum when it is moving away.

However, spectrographic measurements performed on the light coming from Andromeda showed that its light was shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum (aka. blueshift). This indicated that unlike most galaxies that have been observed since the early 20th century, Andromeda is moving towards us.

In 2012, researchers determined that a collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy was sure to happen, based on Hubble data that tracked the motions of Andromeda from 2002 to 2010. Based on measurements of its blueshift, it is estimated that Andromeda is approaching our galaxy at a rate of about 110 km/second (68 mi/s).

At this rate, it will likely collide with the Milky Way in around 4 billion years. These studies also suggest that M33, the Triangulum Galaxy – the third largest and brightest galaxy of the Local Group – will participate in this event as well. In all likelihood, it will end up in orbit around the Milky Way and Andromeda, then collide with the merger remnant at a later date.

Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)
Images from Hubble’s ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies (at various stages in the process) far away from Earth. Credit: NASA/ESA/J. Lotz, STScI/M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley/A. Koekemoer, STScI.

Consequences:

In a galaxy collision, large galaxies absorb smaller galaxies entirely, tearing them apart and incorporating their stars. But when the galaxies are similar in size – like the Milky Way and Andromeda – the close encounter destroys the spiral structure entirely. The two groups of stars eventually become a giant elliptical galaxy with no discernible spiral structure.

Such interactions can also trigger a small amount of star formation. When the galaxies collide, it causes vast clouds of hydrogen to collect and become compressed, which can trigger a series of gravitational collapses. A galaxy collision also causes a galaxy to age prematurely, since much of its gas is converted into stars.

After this period of rampant star formation, galaxies run out of fuel. The youngest hottest stars detonate as supernovae, and all that’s left are the older, cooler red stars with much longer lives. This is why giant elliptical galaxies, the results of galaxy collisions, have so many old red stars and very little active star formation.

Despite the Andromeda Galaxy containing about 1 trillion stars and the Milky Way containing about 300 billion, the chance of even two stars colliding is negligible because of the huge distances between them. However, both galaxies contain central supermassive black holes, which will converge near the center of the newly-formed galaxy.

Two galaxies are squaring off in Corvus and here are the latest pictures.. Credit: B. Whitmore (STScI), F. Schweizer (DTM), NASA
Two galaxies colliding in the Corvus constellation. Credit: B. Whitmore (STScI), F. Schweizer (DTM),

This black hole merger will cause orbital energy to be transferred to stars, which will be moved to higher orbits over the course of millions of years. When the two black holes come within a light year of one another, they will emit gravitational waves that will radiate further orbital energy, until they merge completely.

Gas taken up by the combined black hole could create a luminous quasar or an active nucleus to form at the center of the galaxy. And last, the effects of a black hole merger could also kick stars out of the larger galaxy, resulting in hypervelocity rogue stars that could even carry their planets with them.

Today, it is understood that galactic collisions are a common feature in our Universe. Astronomy now frequently simulate them on computers, which realistically simulate the physics involved – including gravitational forces, gas dissipation phenomena, star formation, and feedback.

And be sure to check out this video of the impending galactic collision, courtesy of NASA:

We have written many articles about galaxies for Universe Today. Here’s What is Galactic Cannibalism?, Watch Out! Galactic Collisions Could Snuff Out Star Formation, New Hubble Release: Dramatic Galaxy Collision, A Virtual Galactic Smash-Up!, It’s Inevitable: Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy Heading for Collision, A Cosmic Collision: Our Best View Yet of Two Distant Galaxies Merging, and Determining the Galaxy Collision Rate.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies – Episode 97: Galaxies.

Sources:

Supermassive Black Holes In Distant Galaxies Are Mysteriously Aligned

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 1974, astronomers detected a massive source of radio wave emissions coming from the center of our galaxy. Within a few decades time, it was concluded that the radio wave source corresponded to a particularly large, spinning black hole. Known as Sagittarius A, this particular black hole is so large that only the designation “supermassive” would do. Since its discovery, astronomers have come to conclude that supermassive black holes (SMBHs) lie at the center of almost all of the known massive galaxies.

But thanks to a recent radio imaging by a team of researchers from the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape, in South Africa, it has been further determined that in a region of the distant universe, the SMBHs are all spinning out radio jets in the same direction. This finding, which shows an alignment of the jets of galaxies over a large volume of space, is the first of its kind, and could tell us much about the early Universe.

Continue reading “Supermassive Black Holes In Distant Galaxies Are Mysteriously Aligned”

Are Supermassive Black Holes Hiding Matter?

Mapping the Universe with satellites and ground-based observatories have not only provided scientists with a pretty good understanding of its structure, but also of its composition. And for some time now, they have been working with a model that states that the Universe consists of 4.9% “normal” matter (i.e. that which we can see), 26.8% “dark matter” (that which we can’t), and 68.3% “dark energy”.

From what they have observed, scientists have also concluded that the normal matter in the Universe is concentrated in web-like filaments, which make up about 20% of the Universe by volume. But a recent study performed by the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria has found that a surprising amount of normal matter may live in the voids, and that black holes may have deposited it there.

In a paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, Dr. Haider and his team described how they performed measurements of the mass and volume of the Universe’s filamentary structures to get a better idea of where the Universe’s mass is located. To do this, they used data from the Illustris project – a large computer simulation of the evolution and formation of galaxies.

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory: A history of the Universe starting from a singularity and expanding ever since. Credit: grandunificationtheory.com

As an ongoing research project run by an international collaboration of scientists (and using supercomputers from around the world), Illustris has created the most detailed simulations of our Universe to date. Beginning with conditions roughly 300,000 years after the Big Bang, these simulations track how gravity and the flow of matter changed the structure of the cosmos up to the present day, roughly 13.8 billion years later.

The process begins with the supercomputers simulating a cube of space in the universe, which measures some 350 million light years on each side. Both normal and dark matter are dealt with, particularly the gravitational effect that dark matter has on normal matter. Using this data, Haider and his team noticed something very interesting about the distribution of matter in the cosmos.

Essentially, they found that about 50% of the total mass of the Universe is compressed into a volume of 0.2%, consisting of the galaxies we see. A further 44% is located in the enveloping filaments, consisting of gas particles and dust. The remaining 6% is located in the empty spaces that fall between them (aka. the voids), which make up 80% of the Universe.

However, a surprising faction of this normal matter (20%) appears to have been transported there, apparently by the supermassive black holes located at the center of galaxies. The method for this delivery appears to be in how black holes convert some of the matter that regularly falls towards them into energy, which is then delivered to the sounding gas, leading to large outflows of matter.

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of a supermassive black holes at the hearts of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These outflows stretch for hundreds of thousands of lights years beyond the host galaxy, filling the void with invisible mass. As Dr. Haider explains, these conclusions supported by this data are rather startling. “This simulation,” he said, “one of the most sophisticated ever run, suggests that the black holes at the center of every galaxy are helping to send matter into the loneliest places in the universe. What we want to do now is refine our model, and confirm these initial findings.”

The findings are also significant because they just may offer an explanation to the so-called “missing baryon problem”. In short, this problem describes how there is an apparent discrepancy between our current cosmological models and the amount of normal matter we can see in the Universe. Even when dark matter and dark energy are factored in, half of the remaining 4.9% of the Universe’s normal matter still remains unaccounted for.

For decades, scientists have been working to find this “missing matter”, and several suggestions have been made as to where it might be hiding. For instance, in 2011, a team of students at the Monash School of Physics in Australia confirming that some of it was in the form of low-density, high energy matter that could only be observed in the x-ray wavelength.

In 2012, using data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA research team reported that our galaxy, and the nearby Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, were surrounded by an enormous halo of hot gas that was invisible at normal wavelengths. These findings indicated that all galaxies may be surrounded by mass that, while not visible to the naked eye, is nevertheless detectable using current methods.

And just days ago, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) described how they had used fast radio bursts (FRBs) to measure the density of cosmic baryons in the intergalactic medium – which yielded results that seem to indicate that our current cosmological models are correct.

Factor in all the mass that is apparently being delivered to the void by supermassive black holes, and it could be that we finally have a complete inventory of all the normal matter of the Universe. This is certainly an exciting prospect, as it means that one of the greatest cosmological mysteries of our time could finally be solved.

Now if we could just account for the “abnormal” matter in the Universe, and all that dark energy, we’d be in business!

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

Will Minds Appear in the Cosmos?

One of the interesting consequences of quantum theory is that particles can randomly appear in the cosmos, and if you wait long enough, conscious minds and maybe even whole new Universes. Welcome to the baffling concept of Boltzmann brains.

We blow minds here on Guide to Space.

All we want is for you to start watching, especially on a topic that you knew something about. And then you say “whoa…” when you realize the cosmic scope of an idea, like black holes, gamma ray bursts, or the Fermi Paradox.

Today, I think some kind of warning is in order. We’re going to blow your mind so thoroughly, that you’re going to be a hollowed out shell for the next few days. You’ll going to stumble around, glassy-eyed, in an almost catatonic state as you contemplate the humbling awesomeness of the Universe.

Let’s start with a familiar landscape, the implications of infinite time and space. The Universe might be infinite in space. Once you’re talking about infinity, a lot of strange ideas join the party over at Prismo’s.

Even if the Universe isn’t infinite in space it’ll most likely be infinite in time, expanding at an accelerating pace thanks to the leftover momentum from the Big Bang and dark energy. One way or another, there’s infinity in play. Thanks to quantum mechanics, the Universe is all about probabilities.

The air inside your living room is most likely going to remain evenly spaced, so you can breathe it and stay conscious. But there’s a teeny, tiny chance. A chance so small, that it’s not worth considering, that all the atoms of air in the room will spontaneously shift their position into one tiny corner, or maybe to the Andromeda Galaxy. The chances are small, it’ll practically never happen.

Once you’re dealing with forever, however, almost never, means sometimes always. You can imagine a situation, in an incomprehensible amount of time where quantum fluctuations spontaneously generate a hydrogen atom, floating in space, or perhaps a sperm whale or potted petunias.

We’re talking a seriously long amount of time. Long after all the stars have used up their hydrogen and died. Long after even the most supermassive black holes have evaporated away. If you could wait long enough, these quantum fluctuations would just pop things into existence.

One of the most compelling ideas is the concept of a Boltzmann Brain, named after the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. It’s possible that entire, fully conscious minds could appear randomly in the cosmos. Keep rolling the dice for an infinite amount of time, and eventually, you’re going to get that Paladin with 18 charisma, 18 strength and a dreamy voice like Patrick Stewart.

The chances of this are 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 50. That’s a huge huge number. Trust me, you’re going to need more pencils to even write it out. Actually, you could turn every atom of the Universe into a pencil and it wouldn’t be enough.

Just imagine what it would be like to be that self-aware conscious entity that suddenly appeared floating in a completely empty cosmos, contemplating the mystery and wonder of all that vast nothingness. Perhaps it’s just a bunch of telepathic screaming because one thing this particular brain was missing was the ability to survive in a vacuum.

A binary star system Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester
A binary star system Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester

Now, then imagine an entire planet, orbiting a sun-like star, filled with human beings and other life. Again, that number is even more incomprehensibly small, but it’s not zero. And so, in a Universe of infinite space, those things are popping up an infinite number of times, and in infinite time, it’ll happen an infinite number of times.

And now, I shall deliver the final mind bending blow. Imagine you took all the particles and energy in the entire Universe. All the protons, photons, neutrons and hadrons. There’s a tiny, tiny chance that all those particles could suddenly appear in an infinitely dense region of space, and undergo a rapid expansion.

In other words, it’s possible that another Big Bang could spontaneously appear in an infinite amount of time. How long? Physicist Sean Carroll has done the math. You’d just need to wait 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 56 years for it to happen.

It’s a long time, but it’s not forever. So, in an infinite amount of time, you’ll get an infinite number of Big Bangs, spontaneously appearing in a finite Universe. Or an infinite number of Big Bangs happening all the time in an infinite Universe.

I’d drop my mic now, but it’s sort of clipped onto my shirt here. So imagine that’s what I just did.

Can’t wrap your mind around these ideas? Don’t worry, just wait a nearly infinite amount of time, and a better version of me will spontaneously appear to explain them a little better. Thanks infinity.

We love to bend minds here at the Guide to Space. What ideas should we talk about next? Post your suggestions in the comments!

What Are The Biggest Mysteries in Astronomy?

Black Holes? Dark Energy? Dark Matter? Alien Life? What are the biggest mysteries that still exist out there for us to figure out?

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” These are the words of Albert Einstein. I assume he was talking about Minecraft, but I guess it applies to the Universe too.

There are many examples: astronomers try to discover the rate of the expansion of the Universe, and learn a dark energy is accelerating its expansion. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft finally images Saturn’s moon Iapetus, and finds a strange equatorial ridge – how the heck did that get there? Did the Celestials forget to trim it when it came out of the packaging?

There have always been, and, let’s go as far as to say that there always will be, mysteries in astronomy. Although the nature of the mysteries may change, the total number is always going up.

Hundreds of years ago, people wanted to know how the planets moved through sky (conservation of angular momentum), how old the Earth was (4.54 billion years), or what kept the Moon from flying off into space (gravity). Just a century ago, astronomers weren’t sure what galaxies were (islands of stars), or how the Sun generated energy (nuclear fusion). And just a few decades ago, we didn’t know what caused quasars (feeding supermassive black holes), or how old the Universe was (13.8 billion years). Each of these mysteries has been solved, or at least, we’ve a got a pretty good understanding of what’s going on.

Science continues to explore and seek answers to the mysteries we have, and as it does it opens up new brand doors. Fortunately for anyone who’s thinking of going into astronomy as a career, there are a handful of really compelling mysteries to explore right now:

Is the Universe finite or infinite? We can see light that left shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years in all directions. And the expansion of the Universe has carried these regions more than 45 billion light-years away from us. But the Universe is probably much larger than that, and may be even infinite.

Images from the Hubble Space Telescope showing a gravitational lensing effect. Credit: NASA/ESA.
Images from the Hubble Space Telescope showing a gravitational lensing effect. Credit: NASA/ESA.

What is dark matter? Thanks to gravitational lensing, astronomers can perceive vast halos of invisible material around all galaxies. But what is this stuff, and why doesn’t it interact with any other matter?

What is dark energy? When trying to discover the expansion rate of the Universe, astronomers discovered that the expansion is actually accelerating? Why is this happening? Is something causing this force, or do we just not understand gravity at the largest scales?

There are supermassive black holes at the heart of pretty much every galaxy. Did these supermassive black holes form first, and then the galaxies around them? Or was it the other way around?

The Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago, and the expansion of the Universe has continued ever since. But what came before the Big Bang? In fact, what even caused the Big Bang? Has it been Big Bangs over and over again?

The Universe 590 million years after the Big Bang. Credit: Alvaro Orsi, Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham University.
The Universe 590 million years after the Big Bang. Credit: Alvaro Orsi, Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham University.

Are we alone in the Universe? Is there life on any other world or star system? And is anyone out there we could talk to?

Shortly after the Big Bang, incomprehensible amounts of matter and antimatter annihilated each other. But for some reason, there was a slightly higher ratio of matter – and so we have a matter dominated Universe. Why?

Is this the only Universe? Is there a multiverse of universes out there? How do I get to the Whedonverse?

In the distant future, after all the stars are dead and gone, maybe protons themselves will decay and there will be nothing left but energy. Physicists haven’t been able to catch a proton decaying yet. Will the ever?

And these are just some of the big ones. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of unanswered questions. The more we learn, the more we discover how little we actually understand.

Whenever we do a video about concepts in astronomy where we have a basic understanding, like gravity, evolution, or the Big Bang, trolls show up and say that scientists are so arrogant. That they think they know everything. But scientists don’t know everything, and they’re willing to admit when something is a mystery. When the answer to the question is: I don’t know.

What’s your favorite unanswered question in space and astronomy? Give us your best mystery in the comments below.

Could the Milky Way Become a Quasar?

There’s a supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Could this black hole become a Quasar?

Previously, we answered the question, “What is a Quasar”. If you haven’t watched that one yet, you might want to pause this video and click here. … or you could bravely plow on ahead because you already know or because clicking is hard.

Should you fall in the latter category. I’m here to reward your laziness. A quasar is what you get when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material at the core of a galaxy. The region around the black hole gets really hot and blasts out radiation that we can see billions of light-years away.

Our Milky Way is a galaxy, it has a supermassive black hole at the core. Could this black hole feed on material and become a quasar? Quasars are actually very rare events in the life of a galaxy, and they seem to happen early on in a galaxy’s evolution, when it’s young and filled with gas.

Normally material in the galactic disk orbits well away from the the supermassive black hole, and it’s starved for material. The occasional gas cloud or stray star gets too close, is torn apart, and we see a brief flash as it’s consumed. But you don’t get a quasar when a black hole is snacking on stars. You need a tremendous amount of material to pile up, so it’s chokes on all the gas, dust, planets and stars. An accretion disk grows; a swirling maelstrom of material bigger than our Solar System that’s as hot as a star. This disk creates the bright quasar, not the black hole itself.

Quasars might only happen once in the lifetime of a galaxy. And if it does occur, it only lasts for a few million years, while the black hole works through all the backed up material, like water swirling around a drain. Once the black hole has finished its “stuff buffet”, the accretion disk disappears, and the light from the quasar shuts off.

Sounds scary. According to New York University research scientist Gabe Perez-Giz, even though a quasar might be emitting more than 100 trillion times as much energy as the Sun, we’re far enough away from the core of the Milky Way that we would receive very little of it – like, one hundredth of a percent of the intensity we get from the Sun.

This annotated artist's conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA
This annotated artist’s conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA

Since the Milky Way is already a middle aged galaxy, its quasaring days are probably long over. However, there’s an upcoming event that might cause it to flare up again. In about 4 billion years, Andromeda is going to cuddle with the Milky Way, disrupting the cores of both galaxies. During this colossal event, the supermassive black holes in our two galaxies will interact, messing with the orbits of stars, planets, gas and dust.

Some will be thrown out into space, while others will be torn apart and fed to the black holes. And if enough material piles up, maybe our Milky Way will become a quasar after all. Which as I just mentioned, will be totally harmless to us. The galactic collision? Well that’s another story.

It’s likely our Milky Way already was a quasar, billions of years ago. And it might become one again billions of years from now. And that’s interesting enough that I think we should stick around and watch it happen. How do you feel about the prospects for our Milky Way becoming a quasar? Are you a little nervous by an event that won’t happen for another 4 billion years?

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