Psychedelic Simulation Showcases the Ferocious Power of a Solar Flare

Scientists are closing in on a better understanding about how these magnetic eruptions evolve

[Mark Cheung, Lockheed Martin, and Matthias Rempel, NCAR]

For the first time, scientists have created a computer model that can simulate the evolution of a solar flare, from thousands of miles below the photosphere to the eruption itself in the lower corona — the sun’s multimillion degree atmosphere. And the results are not only scientifically impressive, the visualization is gorgeous.

I’ve always had a fascination with the sun — from how our nearest star generates its energy via fusion reactions in its core, to how the tumultuous streams of energetic plasma slams into our planet’s magnetosphere, igniting spectacular aurorae. Much of my interest, however, has focused on the lower corona; a region where the intense magnetic field emerges from the solar interior and reaches into space. With these magnetic fields comes a huge release of hot plasma that is channeled by the magnetism to form beautiful coronal loops. Intense regions of magnetism can accumulate in violently-churning “active regions,” creating sunspots and explosive events — triggered by large-scale magnetic reconnection — such as flares and coronal mass ejections (or CMEs). This is truly a mysterious place and solar physicists have tried to understand its underlying dynamics for decades.

The eruption of an X-class solar flare in the sun’s multimillion degree corona [NASA/SDO]

Now, with increasingly-sophisticated solar observatories (such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory), we are getting an ever more detailed look at what’s going on inside the sun’s deep atmosphere and, with improvements of theoretical models and increases in computer processing power, simulations of the corona are looking more and more like the real thing. And this simulation, detailed in the journal Nature Astronomyis truly astonishing.

In the research, led by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, the evolution of a solar flare has been modeled. This simulation goes beyond previous efforts as it is more realistic and creates a more complete picture of the range of emissions that can be generated when a solar flare is unleashed.

One of the biggest questions hanging over solar (and indeed, stellar) physics is how the sun (and other stars) heat the corona. As we all know, the sun is very hot but its corona is too hot; the photosphere is a few thousand degrees, whereas, only just above it, the coronal plasma skyrockets to millions of degrees, generating powerful radiation beyond what the human eye can see, such as extreme-ultraviolet and X-rays. Basic thermodynamics says that this shouldn’t be possible — this situation is analogous to finding the air surrounding a light bulb is hotter than the bulb’s glass. But what our sun has that a light bulb does not is a powerful magnetic field that dictates the size, shape, temperature and dynamics of the plasma our sun is blasting into space. (If you want some light reading on the subject, you can read my PhD thesis on the topic.)

“This work allows us to provide an explanation for why flares look like the way they do, not just at a single wavelength, but in visible wavelengths, in ultraviolet and extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, and in X-rays. We are explaining the many colors of solar flares.”

Mark Cheung, staff physicist at Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory.

The basis of this new simulation, however, investigates another mystery: How and why do solar flares erupt and evolve? It looks like the research team might be on the right track.

When high-energy particles from the sun impact our atmosphere, vast light shows called auroras can be generated during the geomagnetic storm, as shown in this view from the International Space Station [NASA]

Inspired by a powerful flare that was observed in the corona in March 2014, the researchers provided their magnetohydrodynamic model with an approximation of the conditions that were observed at the time. The magnetic conditions surrounding the active region were primed to generate a powerful X-class flare (the most powerful type of solar flare) and several less powerful (but no less significant) M-class flares. So, rather than forcing their simulation to generate flares, they re-enacted the conditions of the sun that were observed and just let their simulation run to create its own flares.

“Our model was able to capture the entire process, from the buildup of energy to emergence at the surface to rising into the corona, energizing the corona, and then getting to the point when the energy is released in a solar flare,” said NCAR scientist Matthias Rempel in a statement. “This was a stand-alone simulation that was inspired by observed data.

“The next step is to directly input observed data into the model and let it drive what’s happening. It’s an important way to validate the model, and the model can also help us better understand what it is we’re observing on the sun.”

Solar flares, CMEs and even the solar wind can have huge impacts on our technological society. The X-rays blasting from the sun’s atmosphere millions of miles away can have dramatic impacts on the Earth’s ionosphere (impacting communications) and can irradiate unprotected astronauts in space, for example. CMEs can be launched from the corona and arrive at Earth orbit in a matter of hours or days, triggering geomagnetic storms that can impact entire power grids. We’re not just talking a few glitches on your cellphone here; satellites can be knocked out, power supplies neutralized and global communications networks interrupted. It’s simulations like these, which aim to get to the bottom of how these solar storms are initiated, that can help us better prepare for our sun’s next big temper tantrum.

For more on this research, watch this video:

This Weird Star System Is Flipping Awesome

The binary system observed by ALMA isn’t wonky, it’s the first example of a polar protoplanetary disk

Artwork of the system HD 98000. This is a binary star comprising two sun-like components, surrounded by a thick disk of material. What’s different about this system is that the plane of the stars’ orbits is inclined at almost 90 degrees to the plane of the disk. Here is a view from the surface of an imagined planet orbiting in the inner edge of the disk [University of Warwick/Mark Garlick].

Some star systems simply don’t like conforming to cosmic norms. Take HD 98000, for example: It’s a binary system consisting of two sun-like stars and it also sports a beautiful protoplanetary disk of gas and dust. So far, so good; sounds pretty “normal” to me. But that’s only part of the story.

When a star is born, it will form a disk of dust and gas — basically the leftovers of the molecular cloud the star itself formed in — creating an environment in which planets can accrete and evolve. Around a single star (like our solar system) the protoplanetary disk is fairly well behaved and will create a relatively flat disk around the star’s spin axis. For the solar system, this flat disk would have formed close to the plane of the ecliptic, an imaginary flat surface that projects out from the sun’s equator where all the planets, more or less, occupy. There are “wonky” exceptions to this rule (as, let’s face it, cosmic rules are there to be broken), but the textbook descriptions of a star system in its infancy will usually include a single star and a flat, boring disk of swirling material primed to build planets.

Cue HD 98000, a star system that has flipped this textbook description on its head, literally. As a binary, this is very different to what we’re used to with our single, lonely star. Binary stars are very common throughout the galaxy, but HD 98000 has a little something extra that made astronomers take special note. As observed by the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA), its protoplanetary disk doesn’t occupy the same plane as the binary orbit; it’s been flipped by 90 degrees over the orbital plane of the binary pair. Although such systems have been long believed to be theoretically possible, this is the first example that has been found.

“Discs rich in gas and dust are seen around nearly all young stars, and we know that at least a third of the ones orbiting single stars form planets,” said Grant M. Kennedy, of the University of Warwick and lead author of the study published today in the journal Nature Astronomy, in a statement. “Some of these planets end up being misaligned with the spin of the star, so we’ve been wondering whether a similar thing might be possible for circumbinary planets. A quirk of the dynamics means that a so-called polar misalignment should be possible, but until now we had no evidence of misaligned discs in which these planets might form.”

Artwork of the system HD 98000. This is a binary star comprising two sun-like components, surrounded by a thick disc of material [University of Warwick/Mark Garlick]

This star system makes for some rather interesting visuals, as shown in the artist’s impression at the top of the page. Should there be a planetary body orbiting the stars on the inner edge of the disk, an observer would be met with a dramatic pillar of gas and dust towering into space with the two stars either side of it in the distance. As they orbit one another, the planetary observer would see them switch positions to either side of the pillar. It goes without saying that any planet orbiting two stars would have very different seasons than Earth. It will even have two different shadows cast across the surface.

“We used to think other solar systems would form just like ours, with the planets all orbiting in the same direction around a single sun,” added co-author Daniel Price of Monash University. “But with the new images we see a swirling disc of gas and dust orbiting around two stars. It was quite surprising to also find that that disc orbits at right angles to the orbit of the two stars.”

Interestingly, the researchers note that there are another two stars orbiting beyond the disk, meaning that our hypothetical observer would have four suns of different brightnesses in the sky.

The most exciting thing to come out of this study, however, is that ALMA has detected signatures that hint at dust growth in the disk, meaning that material is in the process of clumping together. Planetary formation theories suggest that accreting dust will go on to form small asteroids and planetoids, creating a fertile enviornment in which planets can evolve.

“We take this to mean planet formation can at least get started in these polar circumbinary discs,” said Kennedy. “If the rest of the planet formation process can happen, there might be a whole population of misaligned circumbinary planets that we have yet to discover, and things like weird seasonal variations to consider.”

What was that I was saying about “cosmic norms”? When it comes to star system formation, there doesn’t appear to be any.

Reference: https://warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/pressreleases/double_star_system
Paper:
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-018-0667-x

How Is Stardust Created? #TRIUMFology

I worked on TRIUMF’s Five-Year Plan (2020-2025) last year, so Astroengine is featuring a few physicsy articles that were included in the document to tell the center’s story

When (neutron) stars collide… [NASA/CXC/M.WEISS]

Last year, I had the honor to help write TRIUMF’s Five-Year Plan for 2020-2025. TRIUMF is Canada’s particle accelerator center, located next to the University of British Columbia’s campus in Vancouver, and it tackles some of the biggest problems facing physics today.

Every five years, research facilities in Canada prepare comprehensive documents outlining their strategies for the next five. In this case, TRIUMF asked me to join their writer team and I was specifically tasked with collaborating with TRIUMF’s management to develop and write the Implementation Plan (PDF) — basically an expanded version of the Strategic Plan (PDF) — detailing the key initiatives the center will carry out between 2020 and 2025.

As the location of the world’s largest and oldest operational cyclotron, the center is a multi-faceted physics lab with hundreds of scientists and engineers working on everything from understanding the origins of matter to developing radiopharmaceuticals to treat late-stage cancers. I only had a vague understanding about the scope of TRIUMF’s work before last year, but, as the months progressed after visiting the center in April 2018, I was treated to an unparalleled learning experience that was as dizzying as it was rewarding.

As a science communicator, I wanted to understand what makes TRIUMF “tick,” so I decided to speak to as many TRIUMF scientists, engineers, collaborators, and managers as possible. During my interviews, I was excited and humbled to hear stories of science breakthroughs, personal achievements and mind-bending physics concepts, so I included a series of miniature articles to complement the Implementation Plan’s text. As the Five-Year Plan is a public document (you can download the whole Plan here, in English and French), I’ve been given permission by TRIUMF to re-publish these articles on Astroengine.

“Beyond Multimessenger Astronomy”

Background: To kick off the series, we’ll begin with nuclear science. Specifically, how astrophysical processes create heavy elements and how TRIUMF studies the formation of radioisotopes in the wake of neutron star collisions.

After the 2017 LIGO detection of gravitational waves caused by the collision of two neutron stars (get the details here), and the near-simultaneous detection of a gamma-ray burst from the same location, scientists heralded a new era for astronomy — nicknamed “multimessenger astronomy,” where gravitational wave and electromagnetic signals measured at the same time from the same event can create a new understanding of astrophysical processes. In this case, as it was confirmed to be a neutron star merger — an event that is theorized to generate r-process elements — spectroscopic analysis of the GRB’s afterglow confirmed that, yes, neutron star collisions do indeed create the neutron-rich breeding ground for heavy elements (like gold and platinum). Although multimessenger astronomy may be a new thing, TRIUMF has been testing these theories in the laboratory environment for years, using rare isotope beams colliding into targets that mimic the nuclear processes that produce the heavy elements in our universe. This process is known as nucleogenesis, and it’s how our cosmos forges the elements that underpin stardust, the stuff that makes the planets, stars, and the building blocks of life.

For this mini-article, I had a fascinating chat with Dr. Iris Dillmann, a nuclear physics research scientist at TRIUMF. I’ve lightly edited the text for context and clarity. The original article can be found on page 22 of the Implementation Plan (PDF).

The GRIFFIN experiment is part of the ISAC facility that uses rare-isotope beams to carry out physics experiments [TRIUMF]

The article: TRIUMF’s investigations into neutron-rich isotopes were well-established before the advent of multi-messenger astronomy. “It was a cherry on top of the cake to get this confirmation, but the experimental program was already going on,” said Dillmann.

“What we do is multi-messenger nuclear physics; we are not looking directly into stars. TRIUMF is doing experiments here on Earth.”

Whereas the combination of gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation from astrophysical events gives rise to a new era of multi-messenger astronomy, TRIUMF’s Isotope Separator and Accelerator (ISAC) facilitates the investigation of heavy isotopes through an array of nuclear physics experiments all under one roof that can illuminate the characteristics of isotopes that have been identified in neutron star mergers.

“For example, astronomers can identify one interesting isotope and realize that they need more experimental information on that one isotope,” she said. “We then have the capability to go through the different setups and, say, measure the mass of the isotope with the TRIUMF Ion Trap for Atomic and Nuclear Science (TITAN) experiment’s Penning trap.”

From there, Dillmann added, the Gamma-Ray Infrastructure For Fundamental Investigations of Nuclei (GRIFFIN) experiment can use decay spectroscopy to investigate the half-lives of rare isotope beams and their underlying nuclear structure. Other nuclear properties such as moments and charge radii can be measured using laser spectroscopy. TRIUMF scientists can also directly measure the reaction cross-sections of explosive hydrogen and helium burning in star explosions with the Detector of Recoils And Gammas Of Nuclear reactions experiment (DRAGON) and the TRIUMF UK Detector Array (TUDA).

With ISAC, all these measurements are carried out in one place, where teams from each experiment work side by side to solve problems quickly and collaborate effectively. “We have the setups in the hall to investigate an isotope from different perspectives to try to get a complete picture just from one department — the nuclear physics department,” said Dillmann.

*****

Why “TRIUMFology”?

…because I have a “PhD” in TRIUMFology! Not sure if I can include it in my resume, but I love the honor all the same. Thanks Team TRIUMF!

Wonky Star Systems May Be Born That Way

A nearby baby star has been discovered with a warped protoplanetary disk — a feature that may reveal the true nature of the solar system’s planetary misalignments

[RIKEN]

Textbook descriptions of our solar system often give the impression that all the planets orbit the sun in well-behaved near-circular orbits. Sure, there’s a few anomalies, but, in general, we’re led to believe that everything in our interplanetary neighborhood travels around the sun around a flat orbital plane. This, however, isn’t exactly accurate.

Pluto, for example, has an orbit around the sun that is tilted by over 17 degrees out of the plane of the ecliptic (an imaginary flat plane around which the Earth orbits the sun). Mercury has an inclination of seven degrees. Even Venus likes to misbehave and has an orbital inclination of over three degrees. If all the material that built the planets originated from the same protoplanetary disk that was — as all the artist’s impressions would have us believe — flat, what knocked all the planet’s out of alignment with the ecliptic?

Until now, it was assumed that, during the early epoch of our solar system’s planet-forming days, dynamic chaos ruled. Planets jostled for gravitational dominance, Jupiter bullied smaller worlds into other orbits (possibly chucking one or two unfortunates into deep space), and gravitational instabilities threw the rest into disorderly orbital paths. Other star systems also exhibit this orbital disorder, so perhaps it’s just an orbital consequence of a star system’s growing pains.

But there might be another contribution to the chaos: perhaps wonky star systems were just born that way.

Cue a recent observation campaign of the nearby baby star L1527. Located 450 light-years away in the direction of the Taurus Molecular Cloud, L1527 is a protostar embedded in a thick protoplanetry disk. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in Chile, astronomers of the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (CPR) and Chiba University in Japan discovered that the L1527 disk is actually two disks morphed into one — both of which are out of alignment with one another. Imagine a vinyl record that has been left on a heater and you wouldn’t be far off visualizing what this baby star system looks like.

The RIKEN study, published on Jan. 1 in Nature, suggests that this warping may have been caused by jets of material emanating from the star’s birth, kicking planet-forming material into this warped configuration and, should this configuration remain stable, could result in planets with orbital planes that are significantly out of alignment.

“This observation shows that it is conceivable that the misalignment of planetary orbits can be caused by a warp structure formed in the earliest stages of planetary formation,” said team leader Nami Sakai in a RIKEN press release. “We will have to investigate more systems to find out if this is a common phenomenon or not.”

It’s interesting to think that if this protoplanetary disk warping is due to the mechanics behind the formation of the star itself, we might be able to look at mature star systems to see the ancient fingerprint of a star’s earliest outbursts or, possibly, its initial magnetic environment.

It’s possible “that irregularities in the flow of gas and dust in the protostellar cloud are still preserved and manifest themselves as the warped disk,” added Sakai. “A second possibility is that the magnetic field of the protostar is in a different plane from the rotational plane of the disk, and that the inner disk is being pulled into a different plane from the rest of the disk by the magnetic field.”

Though orbital chaos undoubtedly contributed to how our solar system looks today, with help of this research, we may be also getting a glimpse of how warped our sun’s protoplanetry disk may have been before the planets even formed.

Voyager 2 Has Left the (Interplanetary) Building

The NASA probe was launched in 1977 and has now joined its twin, Voyager 1, to begin a new chapter of interstellar discovery

Both Voyager 1 and 2 are sampling particles from the interstellar medium, becoming humanity’s furthest-flung missions into deep space [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist and lead of the NASA Cassini mission imaging team, probably said it best:

Voyager 1 made us an interstellar species; 6 yrs later, Voyager 2 makes it look easy. While these are historic, soul-stirring achievements, I am most happy right now that Ed Stone, the best Project Scientist who ever lived, lived to see this moment. 

via Twitter

It can be easy to lump today’s announcement about Voyager 2 entering interstellar space as “simply” another magnificent science achievement for NASA — but that would be too narrow; the Voyager spacecraft have become so much more. They represent humanity at our best; our will to explore, our need to push boundaries, our excitement for expanding the human experience far beyond terrestrial shores. They also act as a means to understand the sheer scale of our solar system. And what better way to measure that scale than with a human life. 

Ed Stone started working on the Voyager Program in 1972 as a project scientist. Now, at 82 years old, he’s still working on the Voyagers nearly half a century later as they continue to send back data from the frontier beyond our solar system. When we start measuring space missions in half-centuries, or missions that have lasted entire careers, it becomes clear how far we’ve come. Not only does NASA build really tough space robots that surpass expectations routinely, returning new discoveries and revelations about the universe that surrounds us, the Voyagers have become a monument to the essence of being human, something with which Stone would probably agree.

Although most of the instruments aboard the Voyagers are no longer functional, both missions are still returning data from the shores of the interstellar ocean and, on Nov. 5, mission controllers noticed that one of Voyager 2’s instruments, the Plasma Science Experiment (PSE), had detected a rapid change in its surrounding environment. Used to being immersed the comparatively warm and tenuous solar wind flowing past it, its plasma measurements detected a change. The spacecraft had passed into a region of space where the plasma was now denser and cooler. Three other particle experiments also detected a dramatic change; solar wind particle counts were down, but cosmic ray counts precipitously increased. Voyager 1’s PSE failed in 1980, so couldn’t measure this boundary when it entered interstellar space in 2012, so Voyager 2 is adding more detail about what we can expect happens when a spacecraft travels from the heliosphere, through the heliopause and into interstellar space. 

[NASA/JPL-Caltech]

“There is still a lot to learn about the region of interstellar space immediately beyond the heliopause,” said Stone in a NASA statement.

The heliosphere can be imagined as a vast magnetized bubble that is generated by the Sun. This bubble is inflated by the solar wind, a persistent stream of solar particles that ebb and flow with the Sun’s 11-year cycle. When the Sun is at its most active, the bubble expands; at its least active, it contracts. This dynamic solar sphere of influence affects the flux of high-energy cosmic rays entering the inner solar system, but the physics at this enigmatic boundary is poorly understood. With the help of the Voyagers, however, we’re getting an in-situ feel for the plasma environment at the boundary of where the Sun’s magnetism hits the interstellar medium.

To achieve this, however, we had to rely on two spacecraft that were launched before I was born, in 1977. Voyager 2 is now 11 billion miles away (Voyager 1 is further away, at nearly 14 billion miles) and it took the probe 41 years just to reach our interstellar doorstep. Neither Voyagers have “left” the solar system, not by a long shot. The gravitational boundary of the solar system is thought to lie some 100,000 AU (astronomical units, where one AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun), the outermost limit to the Oort Cloud — a region surrounding the solar system that contains countless billions of icy objects, some of which become the long-period comets that intermittently careen through the inner solar system. Voyager 2 is barely 120 AU from Earth, so as you can see, it has a long way to go (probably another 30,000 years) before it really leaves the solar system — despite what the BBC tells us.

So, tonight, as we ponder our existence on this tiny pale blue dot, look up and think of the two space robot pioneers that are still returning valuable data despite being in deep space for over four decades. I hope their legacy lives on well beyond the life of their radioactive generators, and that the next interstellar spacecraft (no pressure, New Horizons) lives as long, if not longer, than the Voyagers.

Read more about today’s news in my article for HowStuffWorks.com.

  

Did a Solar Storm Detonate Dozens of Vietnam War Mines?

Some 25 underwater mines mysteriously exploded in the summer of 1972. A newly declassified report points its finger at a surprising culprit: the sun.

[NASA/SDO]

Something very strange happened on Aug. 4, 1972 in the waters near Vietnam. Dozens of undersea mines detonated for seemingly no reason. The matter was classified, as was a report trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Initial hypotheses focused on a malfunctioning self-destruct feature meant to prevent lost mines from posing an underwater hazard for decades after hostilities were over, but there was no corroborating evidence. Soviet subs might have accounted for one or two, but not systematic detonations across the whole minefield, not to mention their defensive countermeasures.

But one of the suggestions seemed to very neatly explain the observed phenomenon. The mines were magnetic, meaning that they reacted to the natural magnetism of metals in ships’ hulls and the changes in the strengths of their magnetic fields as those ships approached. It was an old, reliable technology and it would’ve taken a massive magnetic event to have set them off. And wouldn’t you know it, some of the most intense solar activity on record happened in that exact time frame, causing numerous power surges and telegraph outages across North America.

On the day Navy aircraft saw the mines go off, the sun erupted in what’s known as an X-class flare, a burst of energy more than 10,000 times more powerful than the high end of typical solar emissions. With the path to Earth cleared by supercharged solar winds, the resulting coronal mass ejection hit Earth in just 14.6 hours instead of the typical three days and caused massive magnetic and electrical disruptions in the atmosphere, quite possibly powerful enough to set off detectors on the underwater mines off the coast of Hon La Port as the plasma slammed into our planet.

So, case closed? Not exactly. We measure the intensity of the disruption in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by solar storms in negative nTs, or nano-Teslas. By itself, a nano-Tesla isn’t much. Your run of the mill fridge magnet is a million times stronger, although it’s only spread over tens of square centimeters, instead of millions of square kilometers like the fraction of a coronal mass ejection that hits Earth and lingers in the upper layers of the atmosphere. In 2003, a massive flare hit us with a magnetic disruption measuring almost -400 nT without melting anything down, although it did cause problems with air traffic.

By comparison, the ejection in 1972 measured a third of that at just -125 nT. Was it really strong enough to set off underwater mines? We’ll probably never know for sure, but it’s still entirely possible. Over the decades, we’ve learned much more about solar storms and what they can do, developed better shielding and early warning systems, more sophisticated equipment, and unwittingly created a shield of radio emissions to reroute charged particles from Earth. It’s quite plausible that older, less insulated technology was more sensitive to major solar storms and the trigger mechanisms for those mines were just one example.

[This article originally appeared on World of Weird Things]

Here’s a Glimpse of the Jaw-Dropping Physics Surrounding Our Supermassive Black Hole

Simulation of Material Orbiting close to a Black Hole
Simulation of material orbiting close to a black hole (ESO/Gravity Consortium/L. Calçada)

Full disclosure: I wrote the press release for the University of Waterloo, whose researcher, Avery Broderick, developed the theory behind the accretion disk hotspots that have now been observed immediately surrounding our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Read the full release on the UW website. Below is a long-form version of my article, including quotes from my interview with Broderick.

New observations of the center of our galaxy have, for the first time, revealed hotspots in the disk of chaotic gas orbiting our Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*).

Using the tremendous resolving power of the ESO’s Very Large Telescope array in Chile, astronomers used the new GRAVITY instrument to detect the “wobble” of bright patches embedded inside the accretion disk that spins with the black hole. These bright features are clocking speeds of 30 percent the speed of light.

This is the first time any feature so close to a black hole’s event horizon has been seen and, using thirteen-year-old predictions by astrophysicists, we have a good idea about what’s causing the fireworks.

“It’s mind-boggling to actually witness material orbiting a massive black hole at 30 percent of the speed of light,” said scientist Oliver Pfuhl, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and co-investigator of the study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “GRAVITY’s tremendous sensitivity has allowed us to observe the accretion processes in real time in unprecedented detail.”

It is thought that the accretion disk surrounding a black hole is threaded with a powerful magnetic field that frequently becomes unstable and “reconnects.” Similar to the physics that drives the explosive flares in the Sun’s lower corona, these reconnection events rapidly accelerate the plasma in the disk, discharging vast quantities of radiation. These flaring events inside Sgr A*’s accretion disk create hotspots that get pulled in the direction of the material’s spin as it slowly gets digested by the black hole. The GRAVITY instrument was able to deduce that the accretion disk material is orbiting the black hole in a clockwise direction from our perspective and the accretion disk is almost face-on.

Artist’s impression of a hot accretion disk surrounding a black hole [NASA]
The original theory behind these hotspots was derived by Avery Broderick (University of Waterloo) and Avi Loeb (Harvard University) when they were both working at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the mid-2000s. In 2005 and 2006, the pair published papers that described theoretical computer models that simulated reconnection events in a black hole’s accretion disk, which caused intense heating and bright flares. The resulting hotspot would then continue to orbit with the speeding accretion disk material, cooling down and spreading out, before another instability and reconnection event would be triggered.

Their work was inspired by the detection of enigmatic bright flares erupting in the vicinity of Sgr A*. These flares were powerful and regular, occurring almost daily. At the time, a few theories were being explored—from supernovas detonating near the supermassive black hole, to asteroids straying too close to the black hole’s gravitational maw—but Broderick and Loeb decided to focus on the extreme region immediately surrounding the black hole’s event horizon.

“Avi and I thought: ‘well, if the flare timescales are close to orbital timescales around the black hole, wouldn’t it be interesting if they are actually bright features embedded in the accretion flow orbiting close to it?’,” Broderick told me.

Black holes are gravitational masters of their domain; anything that drifts too close will be blended into a superheated disk of plasma surrounding them. The matter trapped in the accretion disk then flows toward the event horizon—the point at which nothing, not even light, can escape—and consumed by the black hole via mechanisms that aren’t yet fully understood. The researchers knew that if their model was an accurate depiction of what is going on in the core of our galaxy, these hotspots could be used as visual probes to trace out structures in the accretion disk and in space-time itself.

This plot shows a comparison of the data with the hotspot model including various effects of General and Special Relativity. The continuous blue curve denotes a hot spot on a circular orbit with 1.17 times the innermost stable circular orbit, i.e. just outside the event horizon, of a 4 million solar mass black hole. The axis give the offset from the center in micro-arcseconds [MPE/GRAVITY collaboration]
It’s Sgr A*’s gravity of 4 million Suns that gives the flares a super-boost, however. “In our orbiting hotspot model, a key component of the brightening is actually caused by gravitational lensing,” added Broderick, referring to a consequence of Einstein’s general relativity, when the gravity of black holes warp space-time so much as to form lenses that can magnify the light from distant astronomical sources. “It’s like a black hole analog of a lighthouse.”

Now that GRAVITY has confirmed the existence of these hotspots, Broderick is overjoyed.

“I’m still absorbing it; it’s extremely exciting,” he said. “I’m bouncing around a little bit! The fact you can track these flares is completely new, but we predicted that you could do this.”

The GRAVITY study is led by Roberto Abuter of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in Garching, Germany, and it describes the detection of three flares emanating from Sgr A* earlier this year. Although the hotspots cannot be fully resolved by the VLT, with the help of Broderick and Loeb’s predictions, Abuter’s team recognized the “wobble” of emissions from the flares as their associated hotspots orbited the supermassive black hole.

This discovery opens a brand-new understanding of the environment immediately surrounding Sgr A* and will complement observations made by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an international collaboration of radio telescopes that are currently taking data to acquire the first image of a black hole, which is expected early next year.

Broderick hopes that these advances will help us to understand how black holes grow and consume matter, and if the predictions of general relativity break down at one of the most gravitationally extreme environments in the universe. But he’s most excited about how the first EHT image of a black hole will impact society as a whole: “It’s going to be a wonderful event, I think it will be an iconic image and it will make black holes real to a lot of people, including a lot of scientists,” he said.

Aside: In 2016, I had the incredible good fortune to visit the VLT at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory as part of the #MeetESO event. I interviewed several VLT and ALMA scientists, including Oliver Pfuhl, and helped produce the mini-documentary below:

Hitching a Ride on an ‘Evolving Asteroid’ to Travel to the Stars

evolvingaste
The interstellar asteroid spaceship concept that would contain all the resources required to maintain a generations of star travelers (Nils Faber & Angelo Vermeulen)

When ʻOumuamua visited our solar system last year, the world’s collective interest (and imagination) was firing on all cylinders. Despite astronomers’ insistence that asteroids from other star systems likely zip through the solar system all the time (and the reason why we spotted this one is because our survey telescopes are getting better), there was that nagging sci-fi possibility that ʻOumuamua wasn’t a natural event; perhaps it was an interstellar spaceship piloted by (or at least once piloted by) some kind of extraterrestrial — “Rendezvous With Rama“-esque — intelligence. Alas, any evidence for this possibility has not been forthcoming despite the multifaceted observation campaigns that followed the interstellar vagabond’s dazzling discovery.

Still, I ponder that interstellar visitor. It’s not that I think it’s piloted by aliens, though that would be awesome, I’m more interested in the possibilities such objects could provide humanity in the future. But let’s put ʻOumuamua to one side for now and discuss a pretty nifty project that’s currently in the works and how I think it could make use of asteroids from other stars.

Asteroid Starships Ahoy!

As recently announced by the European Space Agency, researchers at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, are designing a starship. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill solar sail or “warpship.” The TU Delft Starship Team, or DSTART, aims to bring together many science disciplines to begin the ground-work for constructing an interstellar vehicle hollowed out of an asteroid.

Obviously, this is a long-term goal; humanity is currently having a hard enough time becoming a multiplanetary species, let alone a multistellar species. But from projects like these, new technologies may be developed to solve big problems and those technologies may have novel applications for society today. Central to ESA’s role in the project is an exciting regenerative life-support technology that is inspired by nature, a technology that could reap huge benefits not only for our future hypothetical interstellar space fliers.

Called the MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) program, scientists are developing a system that mimics aquatic ecosystems on Earth. A MELiSSA pilot plant in Barcelona is capable of keeping rat “crews” alive for months at a time inside an airtight habitat. Inside the habitat is a multi-compartment loop with a “bioreactor” at its core, which consists of algae that produces oxygen (useful for keeping the rats breathing) while scrubbing the air of carbon dioxide (which the rats exhale). The bioreactor was recently tested aboard the International Space Station, demonstrating that the system could be applied to a microgravity environment.

Disclaimer: Space Is Really Big

Assuming that humanity isn’t going to discover faster-than-light (FTL) travel any time soon, we’re pretty much stuck with very pedestrian sub-light-speed travel times to the nearest stars. Even if we assume some sensible iterative developments in propulsion technologies, the most optimistic projections in travel time to the stars is many decades to several centuries. While this is a drag for our biological selves, other research groups have shown that robotic (un-crewed) missions could be done now — after all, Voyager 1 is currently chalking up some mileage in interstellar space and that spacecraft was launched in the 1970’s! But here’s the kicker: Voyager 1 is slow (even if it’s the fastest and only interstellar vehicle humanity has built to date). If Voyager 1 was aimed at our closest star Proxima Centauri (which it’s not), it would take tens of thousands of years to get there.

But say if we could send a faster probe into interstellar space? Projects like Icarus Interstellar and Breakthrough Starshot are approaching this challenge with different solutions, using technology we have today (or technologies that will likely be available pretty soon) to get that travel time down to less than one hundred years.

One… hundred… years.

Sending robots to other stars is hard and it would take generations of scientists to see an interstellar mission through from launch to arrival — which is an interesting situation to ponder. But add human travelers to the mix? The problems just multiplied.

The idea of “worldships” (or generation ships) have been around for many years; basically vast self-sustaining spaceships that allow their passengers to live out their lives and pass on their knowledge (and mission) to the next generation. These ships would have to be massive and contain everything that each generation needs. It’s hard to comprehend what that starship would look like, though DSTART’s concept of hollowing out an asteroid to convert it into an interstellar vehicle doesn’t sound so outlandish. To hollow out an asteroid and bootstrap a self-sustaining society inside, however, is a headache. Granted, DSTART isn’t saying that they are actually going to build this thing (their project website even states: “DSTART is not developing hardware, nor is it building an actual spacecraft”), but they do assume some magic is going to have to happen before it’s even a remote possibility — such as transformative developments in nanotechnology, for example. The life-support system, however, would need to be inspired by nature, so ESA and DSTART scientists are going to continue to help develop this technology for self-sustaining, long-duration missions, though not necessarily for a massive interstellar spaceship.

Hyperbolic Space Rocks, Batman!

Though interesting, my reservation about the whole thing is simple: even if we did build an asteroid spaceship, how the heck would we accelerate the thing? This asteroid would have to be big and probably picked out of the asteroid belt. The energy required to move it would be extreme; to propel it clear of the sun’s gravity (potentially via a series of gravitational assists of other planets) could rip it apart.

So, back to ʻOumuamua.

The reason why astronomers knew ʻOumuamua wasn’t from ’round these parts was that it was moving really, really fast and on a hyperbolic trajectory. It basically barreled into our inner star system, swung off our sun’s gravitational field and slingshotted itself back toward the interstellar abyss. So, could these interstellar asteroids, which astronomers estimate are not uncommon occurrences, be used in the future as vehicles to escape our sun’s gravitational domain?

Assuming a little more science fiction magic, we could have extremely advanced survey telescopes tasked with finding and characterizing hyperbolic asteroids that could spot them coming with years of notice. Then, we could send our wannabe interstellar explorers via rendezvous spacecraft capable of accelerating to great speeds to these asteroids with all the technology they’d need to land on and convert the asteroid into an interstellar spaceship. The momentum that these asteroids would have, because they’re not gravitationally bound to the sun, could be used as the oomph to achieve escape velocity and, once setting up home on the rock, propulsion equipment would be constructed to further accelerate and, perhaps, steer it to a distant target.

If anything, it’s a fun idea for a sci-fi story.

I get really excited about projects like DSTART; they push the limits of human ingenuity and force us to find answers to seemingly insurmountable challenges. Inevitably, these answers can fuel new ideas and inspire younger generations to be bolder and braver. And when these projects start partnering with space agencies to develop existing tech, who knows where they will lead.

Black Hole’s Personality Not as Magnetic as Expected

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This 2015 NASA Swift observation of V404 Cygni shows the X-ray echoes bouncing off rings of dust surrounding the binary system after the X-ray nova (Andrew Beardmore/Univ. of Leicester/NASA/Swift)

In 2015, a stellar-mass black hole in a binary star system underwent an accretion event causing it to erupt brightly across the electromagnetic spectrum. Slurping down the plasma from its stellar partner — an unfortunate sun-like star — the eruption became a valuable observation for astronomers and, in a recent study, researchers have used the event to better understand the magnetic environment surrounding the black hole.

The binary system in question is V404 Cygni, located 7,795 light-years from Earth, and that 2015 outburst was an X-ray nova, an eruption that previously occurred in 1989. Detected by NASA’s Swift space observatory and the Japanese Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) on board the International Space Station, the event quickly dimmed, a sign that the black hole had consumed its stellar meal.

Combining these X-ray data with observations by radio, infrared and optical telescopes, an international team of astronomers were able to measure emissions from the plasma close to the black hole’s event horizon as it cooled.

The black hole was formed after a massive star ran out of fuel and exploded as a supernova. Much of the magnetism of the progenitor star would have been retained post-supernova, so by measuring the emissions from the highly charged plasma, astronomers have a tool to probe deep inside the black hole’s “corona.” Like the sun’s corona — which is a magnetically-dominated region where solar plasma interacts with our star’s magnetic field (producing the solar wind and solar flares, for example) — it’s predicted that there should be a powerful interplay between the accreting plasma and the black hole’s coronal magnetism.

As charged particles interact magnetic fields, they experience acceleration radially (i.e. they spin around the magnetic field lines that guide their direction of propagation) and, should the magnetism be extreme (in a solar or, indeed, black hole’s corona), this plasma can be accelerated to relativistic speeds. In this case, synchrotron radiation may be generated. By measuring the radiation across all wavelengths, astronomers can thereby probe the magnetic environment close to a black hole as this radiation is directly related to how powerful a magnetic field is generating it.

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A black hole with a magnetic field threading through an accretion disk (ESO)

According to the study, published in the journal Science on Dec. 8, V404 Cygni’s hungry black hole has a much weaker magnetic field than theory would suggest. And that’s a bit of a problem.

The researchers write: “Using simultaneous infrared, optical, x-ray, and radio observations of the Galactic black hole system V404 Cygni, showing a rapid synchrotron cooling event in its 2015 outburst, we present a precise 461 ± 12 gauss magnetic field measurement in the corona. This measurement is substantially lower than previous estimates for such systems, providing constraints on physical models of accretion physics in black hole and neutron star binary systems.”

Black holes are poorly understood, but with the advent of gravitational wave (and “multimessenger”) astronomy and the excitement surrounding the Event Horizon Telescope, in the next few years we’re going to get a lot more intimate with these gravitational enigmas. Why this particular black hole’s magnetic environment is weaker than what would be expected, however, suggests that our theories surrounding black hole evolution are incomplete, so there will likely be some surprises in store.

“We need to understand black holes in general,” said collaborator Chris Packham, associate professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), in a statement. “If we go back to the very earliest point in our universe, just after the Big Bang, there seems to have always been a strong correlation between black holes and galaxies. It seems that the birth and evolution of black holes and galaxies, our cosmic island, are intimately linked. Our results are surprising and one that we’re still trying to puzzle out.”

When Physics and Art Collide: The Story Behind My First Science Tattoo

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From left to right: The LHC’s CMS detector, a simulation of a Higgs event in the ATLAS detector and the intricate design work by Daniel Meyer on my right arm inspired by the science of the LHC (CERN/LHC/CMS/ATLAS/LEITBILD)

On July 4, 2012, I was watching a live video feed from Europe, excited for an announcement that was about to make physics history.

Until that day, I had written dozens of blogs and articles about the Higgs boson and the drama coming from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) construction and start-up. It was one of those rare and exciting times when world was excited for a — let’s face it — crazy complex physics theory, stirring a public frenzy for any news related to the “God Particle” and how it would transform our understanding of the universe.

Physicists were, naturally, more reserved, but the fact that the LHC was revving up and generating tiny “Big Bangs” with every particle collision inside its complex, building-sized detectors, even the most conservative physics researchers couldn’t help but express their anticipation for a new age of particle physics. The LHC was (and still is) the most complex machine built by humankind, after all.

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Theorist Prof. Peter Higgs celebrates with his colleagues at CERN on July 4, 2012, after high-energy physicists announced their discovery of the Higgs boson (CERN)

All the while, we science writers were trying to keep up, finding analogies for what the LHC was really doing, explaining in plain terms what the hell physicists were looking for and why Professor Brian Cox was arguing with politicians on prime-time TV. Good times.

Personally, I was enthralled (and still am). I can’t believe that only five short years after the Higgs discovery announcement that particle physicists are carrying out cutting-edge science at the LHC and even referring to future high-energy accelerators as “Higgs boson factories.” The Higgs discovery was just the beginning, but in 2012 it felt like the end of a decades-long odyssey seeking out an elusive theoretical particle that mediates mass in our universe and the “last piece” of the Standard Model puzzle — indeed, its discovery resulted in the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics for François Englert and Peter W. Higgs who, in the 1960’s, developed the theoretical framework for the Higgs mechanism.

The Higgs boson discovery was huge and, along with the first detection of gravitational waves, it’s the biggest story I’ve covered.

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The beautifully complex CMS detector in the LHC (CERN/LHC/CMS)

But, I found myself asking after turning off the live feed from CERN in the summer of 2012, how would I commemorate the story of the Higgs boson? Would I just resign it to memory and move on with the next big thing in science? Or would I do something else?

Soon after, I started to bounce an idea off my wife, friends, family members, colleagues and associates. That period of my professional life with Discovery News was too big for me to forget. I wanted to make a permanent memorial to the physics, engineering, ingenuity and scientists behind that historic discovery.

I had to get a tattoo.

In the years since 2012, I became aware of many science communicators with awesome science-related tattoos, so I did a lot of research around what I wanted my tattoo to be, who would do it and when. By 2015 I promised myself it would happen (to a probability of “3-sigma,” at least) and I started investigating artists and, although I came across an ocean of stunning talent and fantastic concepts, it wasn’t until September of this year that I stumbled on work that truly resonated with me. By September I was at “5-sigma.”

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Simulated production of a Higgs event in the LHC’s ATLAS detector (CERN)

I came across Daniel Meyer’s (LEITBILD) work on Instagram and I was hooked, so I made an appointment and sent him some concept images. He was particularly inspired by the circular cross section of the LHC’s CMS detector and the particle jets in a simulation of a Higgs event (pictured above), so he got to work on the design and, after a three month wait, I got to see the final design and loved it. By the end of Friday, my first tattoo was on my right arm after a fantastic day of conversations about science, art and life.

Take a look at what it looked like in the studio before it was wrapped:

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Daniel Meyer/LEITBILD

It’s been a long journey since I first decided I wanted a tattoo and I’m overjoyed to have found Daniel’s work. Be sure to check out more of his art on his website and on Instagram. Once my arm has properly healed, I’ll post some more pics, the detail is incredible.