Unexpectedly Large Black Holes and Dark Matter

The M87 black hole blasts relativistic plumes of gas 5000 ly from the centre of the galaxy (NASA)

The M87 black hole blasts relativistic plumes of gas 5000 ly from the centre of the galaxy (NASA)

I just spent 5 minutes trying to think up a title to this post. I knew what I wanted to say, but the subject is so “out there” I’m not sure if any title would be adequate. As it turns out, the title doesn’t really matter, so I opted for something more descriptive…

So what’s this about? Astronomers think they will be able to “see” a supermassive black hole in a galaxy 55 million light years away? Surely that isn’t possible. Actually, it might be.

When Very Long Baseline Interferometry is King

Back in June, I reported that radio astronomers may be able to use a future network of radio antennae as part of a very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) campaign. With enough observatories, we may be able to resolve the event horizon of the supermassive black hole lurking at the centre of the Milky Way, some 26,000 light years away from the Solar System.

The most exciting thing is that existing sub-millimeter observations of Sgr. A* (the radio source at the centre of our galaxy where the 4 million solar mass black hole lives) suggest there is some kind of active structure surrounding the black hole’s event horizon. If this is the case, a modest 7-antennae VLBI could observe dynamic flares as matter falls into the event horizon.

It would be a phenomenal scientific achievement to see a flare-up after a star is eaten by Sgr. A*, or to see the rotation of a possibly spinning black hole event horizon.

All of this may be a possibility, and through a combination of Sgr. A*’s mass and relatively close proximity to Earth, our galaxy’s supermassive black hole is predicted to have the largest apparent event horizon in the sky.

Or does it?

M87 Might be a Long Way Away, But…

As it turns out, there could be another challenger to Sgr. A*’s “largest apparent event horizon” crown. Sitting in the centre of the active galaxy called M87, 55 million light years away (that’s over 2,000 times further away than Sgr. A*), is a black hole behemoth.

M87’s supermassive black hole consumes vast amounts of matter, spewing jets of gas 5,000 light years from the core of the giant elliptical galaxy. And until now, astronomers have underestimated the size of this monster.

Karl Gebhardt (Univ. of Texas at Austin) and Thomas Jens (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany) took another look at M87 and weighed the galaxy by sifting through observational data with a supercomputer model. This new model accounted for the theorized halo of invisible dark matter surrounding M87. This analysis yielded a shocking result; the central supermassive black hole should have a mass of 6.4 billion Suns, double the mass of previous estimates.

Therefore, the M87 black hole is around 1,600 times more massive than our galaxy’s supermassive black hole.

A Measure for Dark Matter?

Now that the M87 black hole is much bigger than previously thought, there’s the tantalizing possibility of using the proposed VLBI to image M87’s black hole as well as Sgr. A*, as they should both have comparable event horizon dimensions when viewed from Earth.

Another possibility also comes to mind. Once an international VLBI is tested and proven to be an “event horizon telescope,” if we are able to measure the size of the M87 black hole, and its mass is confirmed to be in agreement with the Gebhardt-Jens model, perhaps we’ll have one of the first indirect methods to measure the mass of dark matter surrounding a galaxy…

Oh yes, this should be good.

UPDATE! How amiss of me, I forgot to include the best black hole tune ever:

Publication: The Black Hole Mass, Stellar Mass-to-Light Ratio, and Dark Matter Halo in M87, Karl Gebhardt et al 2009 ApJ 700 1690-1701, doi: 10.1088/0004-637X/700/2/1690.
Via: New Scientist

Deconstructing Doomsday

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

The funny thing about being involved in a doomsday documentary is trying to find a suitable balance between entertainment and science. This is the conclusion I reached after the interview I did for KPI productions in New York for the upcoming 2012 documentary on the Discovery Channel last week (just in case you were wondering why Astroengine.com was being a little quiet these last few days).

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Naturally, the production team was angling for what it might be like to be hit by a “killer” solar flare, what kinds of terror and destruction a brown dwarf could do to Earth and what would happen if our planet’s magnetic poles decided to do a 180°. It’s always fun to speculate after all. However, I wasn’t there to promote half-baked theories of 2012 doom, I was there to bring some reality to the nonsensical doomsday claims. But with real science comes some unexpected concerns for the safety of our planet — not in 2012, but sometime in the future.

An added bonus to my NYC trip was meeting the awesome Alex Young, a solar physicist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Alex was asked to New York for the same reasons I was, but he has a current and comprehensive understanding of solar dynamics (whereas my solar physics research is so 2006). He actually works with SOHO data, a mission I have massive respect for.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

My interview was carried out on Wednesday morning, and Alex’s was in the afternoon. The KPI guys were great, a joy to be involved in such a professional project. The documentary producer, Jonathan, asked me the questions in a great location, a huge Brooklyn building that was undergoing renovation. Very dusty with a post-apocalyptic twist. If I was going to shoot a movie about the end of the world, this building would be it.

The KPI documentary will certainly be very different from the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode I was involved with, but it was just as much fun, if not more so (it was like a day-long science fest).

Of particular note was Alex’s sobering words about the woeful lack of funds in solar physics (i.e. Earth-damaging solar flares and CMEs). I hope his closing statement about NOAA space weather prediction funding makes the final cut; it was nothing less than chilling.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Although we both hammered home the point that the fabled Earth-killing solar flare wont happen in 2012 (let’s face it, our Sun is still going through an epic depression, why should solar maximum be anything spectacular?), it is probably the one theory that holds the most scientific merit. In fact, as both Alex and I agreed, for a civilization that depends on sensitive technology in space and on the ground, we really need to prepare for and understand solar storms far better than we do at present.

I won’t go into any more details, but the documentary will be on the Discovery Channel in November, so I’ll give plenty of warning to fire up those DVRs.

Thank you Sarah, Jonathan and the rest of the crew from KPI for making the New York visit so memorable…

The Naked Singularity Recipe: Spin a Black Hole, Add Mass

naked_singularity

The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return. If anything, even light, strays within the bounds of this gravitational trap, it will never escape. The event horizon is what makes a black hole black.

But say if there was a way to remove the event horizon, leaving just the black hole’s singularity to be “seen” by the rest of the universe? What if there is a special condition that would allow this infinitely small, yet massive point to become naked?

Generally physicists agree that this is a physical impossibility, but the mathematics says otherwise; a naked singularity could be possible.

Previously on Astroengine, one “special condition” was investigated when an extreme black hole collision was simulated by a Caltech researcher. In this case, the black hole pair was smashed together, head-on, at a velocity close to the speed of light. The gravitational waves travelling away from the collision were then modelled and characterized. It turns out that after this insanely energetic impact, 14% of the total mass was converted into gravitational wave energy and both black holes merged as one.

While this might not be very realistic, it proved to be a very useful diagnostic tool to understand the conditions after the collision of two black holes. As an interesting observation, the Caltech researchers found that although the collision was extreme, and there was a huge amount of mass-energy conversion going on (plus, I’d imagine, a rather big explosion), neither black hole lost their event horizons.

Case closed, wouldn’t you think?

Actually, another theory as to how a black hole could be stripped naked has been knocking around for some time; what if you added mass to a black hole spinning at its maximum possible rate? Could the black hole be disrupted enough to shed its event horizon?

It turns out there’s a natural braking system that prevents this from happening. As soon as mass is dropped into the black hole, it is flung out of the event horizon by the black hole’s huge centrifugal force, preventing it from coming close to the singularity.

However, Ted Jacobson and Thomas Sotiriou at the University of Maryland at College Park have now improved upon this idea, sending mass in the same direction as the spinning black hole. Only this time, the black hole isn’t spinning at its fastest possible rate, the simulation lets the orbiting matter fall into the event horizon, speeding up its spin. The result? It appears to disrupt the black hole enough to strip away the event horizon, exposing the singularity.

The most interesting thing to come of this research is that swirling matter is falling into black holes all over the universe, speeding up their spin. Jacobson and Sotiriou may have stumbled on a viable mechanism that actually allows naked singularities in the cosmos. Unless nature has found another way to prevent the cosmic censorship hypothesis from being violated that is…

Source: New Scientist

Would You Like a Slice of Moon with that Solar Observation?

The Hinode view of the eclipse (JPL/NASA).

The Hinode view of the eclipse (JPL/NASA).

On July 22nd, Asia witnessed the longest solar eclipse of the century. I saw the pictures, it looked like fun. I’ve only seen a partial solar eclipse in the past, so when I heard about last week’s eclipse lasting nearly 7 minutes, I was more than a little envious.

So another eclipse, another momentous event if you could witness it, but if you couldn’t, at least you had some nice pictures to look at. However, there seems to be one forgotten spectator who had the best seat in the house to watch the moon pass in front of our Sun: the Hinode solar observatory.

Hinode (meaning “Sunrise”) is a space-based observatory launched by the Japanese space agency JAXA in 2006, and since then it has changed our perception of the inner dynamics of the solar corona. It can image the fine-scale magnetic structure of coronal loops and track plasma features with astounding precision.

On Wednesday however, Hinode caught an entirely different feature in its lens.

Actually, I’m a little surprised there’s not much of a fuss about the eclipse from space. Admittedly, the lunar transit across the solar disk didn’t attain totality, but it sure looks amazing!

For more of the Hinode eclipse, have a look at the Flickr gallery

The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?

A modelled black hole shadow (left) and two simulated observations using a 7-telescope and 13-telescope array (Fish & Doeleman)

A modelled black hole shadow (left) and two simulated observations of Sgr A* using a 7-telescope and 13-telescope array (Fish & Doeleman)

All the evidence suggests there is a supermassive black hole lurking in the centre of our galaxy. We’ve known as much for quite some time, but it wasn’t until recently that we’ve been able to confirm it. As it turns out, most galactic nuclei are predicted to contain supermassive black holes in their cores.

The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole is called Sagittarius A*, a well-known compact radio source used by radio astronomers as an instrumental calibration target. The black hole driving this emission has been calculated to weigh in at a whopping 4×106 solar masses.

So, we’re certain Sgr A* is a supermassive black hole, how can we use it?

Using our Sun as an example, stellar physicists use the Sun as an up-close laboratory so they can better understand stars located many light years away. It is an up-close star that we can study in great detail, gleaning all kinds of information, helping us learn more about how stars work in general.

What if Sgr A* could be used in a similar way, not in the study of stellar physics, but in the pursuit to understand the dynamics of black holes throughout the Universe?

This is exactly the question Vincent Fish and Sheperd Doeleman from the MIT Haystack Observatory ponder in a recent publication. The researchers make an important point early in their paper:

Due to its proximity at ~ 8 kpc [26,000 ly], Sgr A* has the largest apparent event horizon of any known black hole candidate.

The centre of our galaxy as imaged by Spitzer (NASA)

The centre of our galaxy as imaged by Spitzer (NASA)

In other words, the supermassive black hole in the centre of the galaxy is the largest observable black hole in the sky. As Sgr A* is so massive, its event horizon is therefore bigger, providing a sizeable target for Earth-based observatories to resolve.

Although the black hole is quite a distance from us, the size of its event horizon more than makes up for its location, it even trumps closer, less massive stellar black holes. Sgr A* could therefore be our own personal black hole laboratory that we can study from Earth.

But there’s a catch: How do you directly observe a black hole that’s 26,000 light years away? Firstly, you need an array of telescopes, and the array of telescopes need to have very large baselines (i.e. the ‘scopes need to be spread apart as wide as possible). This means you would need an international array of collaborating observatories to make this happen.

The authors model some possible results using many observatories as part of a long baseline interferometry (VLBI) campaign. As Sgr A*’s emissions peak in the millimetre wavelengths, a VLBI system observing in millimetre wavelengths could spot a resolved black hole shadow in the heart of Sg. A*. They also say that existing millimetre observations of Sgr A* show emission emanating from a compact region offset from the centre of the black hole, indicating there is some kind of structure surrounding the black hole.

The results of their models are striking. As can be seen in the three images at the top of this post, a definite black hole shadow could be observed with just 7 observatories working together. With 13 observatories, the resolution improves vastly.

Could we be on the verge of tracking real-time flaring events occurring near the black hole? Perhaps we’ll soon be able to observe the rotation of the supermassive black hole as well as accretion disk dynamics. If this is the case, we may be able to also witness the extreme relativistic effects predicted to be acting on the volume of space surrounding Sgr A*.

The best news is that technological advancements are already in progress, possibly heralding the start of the construction of the world’s first “Event Horizon Telescope.”

Source: Observing a Black Hole Event Horizon: (Sub)Millimeter VLBI of Sgr A*, Vincent L. Fish, Sheperd S. Doeleman, 2009. arXiv:0906.4040v1 [astro-ph.GA]

Astroengine Live CANCELLED… Until Next Week

astroengine_live_header

Apologies for the break in Astroengine Live service. Due to some uber-technical problems, I’m going to have to re-launch the show this time next week. Stay tuned for updates.

For now, check out my Astroengine Live archives and enjoy!

***

Earlier post:

It’s been a while, but Astroengine Live is back on the air, TODAY! It’s been a fascinating few weeks, so I want to share some of the stuff I’ve come across. I especially want to go into the current Wide Angle over at Discovery Space, “Surfing Spacetime”.

So tune in to the Badlands Radio feed at 4pm PST/7pm EST and all the timezones in between and far away

I’ll also be tweeting throughout the broadcast, so feel free to interrupt me on @astroengine.

Are Wormholes Quantum Vacuum Cleaners?

The wormhole could form shortcuts in space-time (www.designboom.com)

General relativity and quantum dynamics don’t get along too well.

If you had to compare the two it would be like evaluating the differences between a Mac and a PC; both are well-honed examples of modern computing, but both are hopelessly incompatible. In computing, this isn’t too much of a problem, you either use a PC or a Mac, or you buy both for their individual strengths (and then complain about Microsoft regardless). But in physics, when you’re trying to find a unified theory, the fact that gravity has been outcast from the Standard Model club, tough questions need to be asked. Although there is some hope being generated by superstring theory, quantum gravity has a long way to go before it can be proven (although high energy particle accelerators such as the LHC will be able to help out in that department).

As pointed out by KFC at the Physics ArXiv Blog, “physicists have spent little time bothering to find out” how quantum mechanics operates in a curved space-time as predicted by Einstein’s general relativity. But now, a physicist has done the legwork and imagined what a quantum particle would do when faced with one of the most famous loopholes in space-time; the mouth of a wormhole. And what popped out of the equations? Another curious force called the “quantum anticentrifugal force.”

So, what’s that all about?

Rossen Dandolo from the Universite de Cergy-Pontoise, France, decided to focus on the wormhole as this is the most extreme example of curved space-time there is. Wormholes are used over and over in sci-fi storylines because they are theorized to link two locations in space-time (thereby forming a shortcut), or even two different universes. As this is space-time we’re talking about, there’s also some possibility of using wormholes as passages through time. Although wormholes sound like a whole lot of fun, in practical terms, they won’t be of much use without some exotic energy to hold the throat of the wormhole open.

Dandolo, however, isn’t too interested in traversing these holes in space-time, he is interested in finding out how a particle acts when in the locality of the mouth of a wormhole.

Beginning with some bedrock quantum theory, Dandolo uses the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal that stipulates that you cannot know a particle’s momentum and location at the same time. So far, so good. Now, looking at a prediction of general relativity, the wormhole will warp space-time to the extreme, stretching the space around the hole. This space-time stretching causes an increase in uncertainty in the location of the particle. As uncertainty in location increases, the uncertainty in momentum decreases. Therefore, the closer you get to the mouth of the wormhole, the momentum, and therefore particle energy, will decrease.

This interaction between the stretching of space-time and quantum properties of the particle has some amazing ramifications. If the particle’s energy deceases the closer it gets to falling into the wormhole, the wormhole is acting as a potential well; particles will move to a location with less energy. Therefore, a new force — combining both quantum dynamics and general relativity — is acting on particles that stray close to the wormhole: an anticentrifugal force.

This makes wormholes particle vacuum cleaners, exerting a space-time curvature effect on the quantum qualities of matter.

General relativity and quantum dynamics might have some stronger ties than we think…

Source: Wormholes Generate New Kind of Quantum Anticentrifugal Force, by KFC on the ArXiv Blog.