Which came first: A galaxy or the supermassive black hole at its center? Thanks to a misfit quasar, astronomers have some new clues.
Quasars are particular kinds of black holes that release incredibly intense jets of energy, and scientists spied this one five billion light-years away. To their surprise, the astronomers found that unlike most quasars, this one was ”naked” and not situated at the centre of a galaxy. However, there was a companion galaxy close to it creating new stars at a frantic rate equivalent to about 350 suns per year [The Telegraph].
New results are in from the Fermi Space Telescope, which settled into orbit in the summer of 2008, and the findings seem to prove Albert Einstein right once again. Man, that guy was good.
The telescope detected and studied a gamma ray burst, one of the massively bright and powerful explosions that occurs when stars go supernova in distant galaxies. Astronomers were interested in the gamma rays of differing energies and wavelengths that were generated by the explosion, and that raced each other across the universe. After a journey of 7.3 billion light-years, they all arrived within nine-tenths of a second of one another in a detector on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, at 8:22 p.m., Eastern time, on May 9 [The New York Times].
The researchers were wondering if certain gamma rays with both high energies and short wavelengths would arrive last, at the back of the pack. That would suggest that they had violated one of the principles set out in Einstein‘s theory of relativity: that the speed of light is always constant. If researchers could detect a significant lag in some gamma rays, it would also give fresh hope to those ambitious researchers searching for a theory of everything.
Talk about a long trip. An exploding star‘s burst of light traveled 13 billion years, from the early days of the universe to the present day, before being detected by astronomers here on Earth. Researchers say this exploding star is the most distant blast ever seen.
The light from the distant explosion, called a gamma-ray burst, first reached Earth on April 23 and was detected by NASA’s Swift satellite. Gamma-ray bursts are thought to be associated with the formation of star-sized black holes as massive stars collapse. Within hours, telescopes around the world were turned on the burst — the most violent explosions in the universe — observing its fading afterglow to glean clues about its source and location [SPACE.com].
At the University of Cambridge it’s out with black holes, in with tiny vibrating strings of energy. The prestigious professorship that was most recently held by Stephen Hawking, the physicist whose great contributions to the field include new models of black holes, has been given to the string theory luminary Michael Green.
The Lucasian Professorship was established in 1663 and previous holders have included Isaac Newton [BBC News]; it’s considered one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world. Hawking held the job for 30 years, but stepped down in September following his 67th birthday, in accordance with a university rule.
The Mount Wilson Observatory has allowed astronomers to gaze at the heavens for more than a century from a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, just northeast of Los Angeles, but the devastating conflagration known as the Station Fire that ripped through the Angeles National Forest over the past week had stargazers wondering if the historic facility was about to go up in smoke. The flames got so close at one point that firefighters abandoned the facility, but now L.A. County Deputy Fire Chief Jim Powers has assured astronomers that he foresees “another hundred years for Mount Wilson Observatory.” This is the story of how firefighters saved the birthplace of modern astronomy as well as a virtual forest of communication towers that serve the region [AP].
On Monday night, the scene was grim. The observatory had been hastily evacuated that day, and only two-dozen firefighters stood overnight sentry, positioned along the gloomy perimeters of the observatory and towers. A greater number might have been deployed, but there were more pressing priorities in the urban elevations — the protection of hillside homes [Los Angeles Times]. By daybreak, fire chiefs made the call to retreat from the mountaintop, where firefighters could easily be trapped by the oncoming flames. “It’s not worth dying for,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Martin [Los Angeles Times].
Physicists in Washington State and Louisiana recently spent two years hunting for the mysterious gravitational waves first predicted by Einstein, but detected nothing: zilch, zero, nada, nary a ripple. But that “null result” is itself of great value, researchers say, because it tells them where to look for the waves next. The findings are a nice reminder that scientific progress isn’t always about the dramatic discovery; it’s often a long, careful process of testing hypotheses, analyzing results, and heading back to the drawing board.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity states that every time mass accelerates — even when you rise up out of your chair — the curvature of space-time changes, and ripples are produced. However, the gravitational waves produced by one person are so small as to be negligible. The waves produced by large masses, though, such as the collision of two black holes or a large supernova explosion, could be large enough to be detected [SPACE.com].
Beyond those large disturbances, the universe is thought to be filled with small disturbances left over from the rapid period of expansion that followed the Big Bang, in a phenomenon known as the stochastic (meaning randomly distributed) gravitational wave background. If the expansion of the newborn universe had produced strong gravity waves, the physicists working at the two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) centers would have detected them. Since they found nothing, researchers have determined that smaller waves were produced, which they’ll need more sensitive instruments to detect. Says study coauthor Vuk Mandic: “We now know a bit more about parameters that describe the evolution of the universe when it was less than one minute old” [Sky & Telescope].
Stephen Hawking, the world’s leading theoretical physicist, was among a group of 16 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award. The medal honors those who have significantly contributed to world peace, U.S. security or other endeavors.
Pres. Barack Obama presented the award, lauding Hawking’s immense contributions in spite of his physical disability due to a neurological disorder. “From his wheelchair, he has led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and showed us the power of the human spirit,” [Sky News], Obama said of Hawking as he placed the medal around his neck. Besides his contributions to the field of physics through his research on topics like black holes and cosmology, Hawking, 67, is also the author of the best-selling science book A Brief History of Time.
The dormant Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea has been selected as the site of the world’s largest telescope, the much-anticipated Thirty Meter Telescope. Its enormous mirror will have nine times the light-gathering capacity as the biggest telescopes operating today, and will be able to look back to the beginnings of the universe. “It will really provide the baby pictures of the universe” [Honolulu Advertiser], says Charles Blue, a spokesman for the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corporation.
The telescope’s mirror, stretching 30 meters (almost 100 feet) in diameter, will be so large that it should be able to gather light that will have spent 13 billion years traveling to earth. This means astronomers looking into the telescope will be able to see images of the first stars and galaxies forming — some 400 million years after the Big Bang [AP]. The telescope is expected to be completed by 2018, but it may not be the world’s largest for long–the European Extremely Large Telescope is scheduled for completion around the same time, and will boast a 138-foot mirror.
Astronomers have caught sight of two stars that went kaboom only 2.5 billion years after our universe was created in the Big Bang, and say that ancient explosions are the oldest and most distant supernovas ever discovered. Researchers plan to use the new technique used to identify these supernovas to find other stars that blew up in the universe’s early days, which may aid our understanding of how the universe was seeded with heavy elements.
Only a few lightweight elements – hydrogen, helium, and lithium – are thought to have been created in the big bang; all others were forged over time in the nuclear furnaces of stars and in supernovae. Since the spectrum of light from a supernova reveals the chemical composition of the exploding star, observing many such explosions would allow astronomers to trace out a chemical history of the universe [New Scientist]. Heavier metals eventually gathered in the clouds of dust that surrounded young stars, and sometimes formed parts of rocky planets like Earth.
The European Space Agency’s Planck observatory has reached its operating temperature of a mere tenth of a degree above the lowest temperature theoretically possible given the laws of physics, known as absolute zero. That means it’s ready for its mission: Observing the oldest light in the universe, known as the cosmic microwave background, or CMB, to create the clearest picture yet of what the young universe looked like.
Although scientists have achieved temperatures closer than this to absolute zero in the laboratory, the spacecraft is likely the coldest object in space. Such low temperatures are necessary for Planck’s detectors to study the Cosmic Microwave Background by measuring its temperature across the sky. Over the next few weeks, mission operators will fine-tune the spacecraft’s instruments. Planck will begin to survey the sky in mid-August [SPACE.com], and the first batch of data is expected to be released next year. Planck was launched May 14 and will observe the CMB from a spot more than 930,000 miles from Earth.