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:

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.”

Gravitational Waves Might Reveal Primordial Black Hole Mergers Just After the Big Bang

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RUSSELL KIGHTLEY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Imagine the early universe: The first massive stars sparked to life and rapidly consumed their supply of hydrogen. These “metal poor” stars lived hard and died fast, burning quickly and then exploding as powerful supernovas. This first population of stars seeded the universe with heavier elements (i.e. elements heavier than helium, elements known as “metals” by astronomers) and their deaths created the first stellar-mass black holes.

But say if there were black holes bumbling around the universe before the first supernovae? Where the heck did they come from?

Quantum Fluctuations

Some models of universal evolution suggests that immediately after the Big Bang, some 13.82 billion years ago, quantum fluctuations created pockets of dense matter as the universe started to expand. As inflation occurred and the universe cooled, these density fluctuations formed the vast large-scale structure of the universe that we observe today. These cosmological models suggest the early quantum density fluctuations may have been dramatic enough to create black holes — known as primordial black holes — and these ancient Big Bang remnants may still exist to this day.

The theoretical models surrounding the genesis of primordial black holes, however, are hard to test as observing the universe immediately after the Big Bang is, needless to say, very difficult. But now we know gravitational waves exist and physicists have detected the space-time ripples generated by the collision and merger of stellar-mass black holes and neutron stars, astronomers have an observational tool at their disposal.

Simple Idea, Not-So-Simple Implementation

In a new study published in Physical Review Letters, researchers have proposed that if we have the ability to detect gravitational waves produced before the first stars died, we may be able to carry out astronomical archaeological dig of sorts to possibly find evidence of these ancient black holes.

“The idea is very simple,” said physicist Savvas Koushiappas, of Brown University, in a statement. “With future gravitational wave experiments, we’ll be able to look back to a time before the formation of the first stars. So if we see black hole merger events before stars existed, then we’ll know that those black holes are not of stellar origin.”

Primordial black holes were first theorized by Stephen Hawking and others in the 1970’s, but it’s still unknown if they exist or whether we could even distinguish the primordial ones from the garden variety of stellar-mass black holes (it’s worth noting, however, that primordial black holes would have a range of masses and not restricted to stellar masses). Now we can detect gravitational waves, however, this could change as gravitational wave detector sensitivity increases, scientists will probe more distant (and therefore more ancient) black hole mergers. And, if we can detect gravitational waves originating from black hole mergers younger than 65 million years after the Big Bang, the researchers say, those black holes wouldn’t have a stellar origin as the first stars haven’t yet died — they could have only been born from the quantum mess immediately after the birth of our universe.

Read more about this fascinating line of investigation in the Brown University press release.

How Gravitational Waves Led Us to Neutron Star Gold

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Artist impression of a violent neutron star collision (Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.)

One hundred and thirty million years ago in a galaxy 130 million light-years away, two neutron stars met their fate, merging as one. Trapped in a gravitational embrace, these two stellar husks spiraled closer and closer until they violently ripped into one another, causing a detonation that reverberated throughout the cosmos.

On August 17, the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Italian Virgo gravitational wave detector felt the faint ripples in spacetime from that ancient neutron star collision washing through our planet. Until now, LIGO and Virgo have only confirmed the collisions and mergers of black holes, so the fact that a nearby (a relative term in this case) neutron star merger had been detected was already historic.

But the implications for this particular neutron star signal, which is comparatively weak in comparison with the black hole mergers that have come before it, are so profound that I’ve been finding it hard to put this grand discovery into words (though I have tried).

Why It Matters

With regards to gravitational waves, I feel I’ve described each gravitational wave discovery as “historic” and “a new era for astronomy” since their first detection on Sept. 15, 2015, but the detection of GW170817 may well trump all that have come before it, even though the signal was generated by neutron stars and not black hole heavyweights.

The thing with black holes is that when they collide and merge, they don’t necessarily produce electromagnetic radiation (i.e. visible light, X-rays or infrared radiation). They can go “bump” in the cosmic night and no intelligent being with a conventional telescope would see it happen. But in the the gravitational domain, black hole mergers echo throughout the universe; their gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, warping spacetime as they propagate. To detect these “invisible” waves, we must build instruments that can “see” the infinitesimal wobbles in the fabric of spacetime itself, and this is where laser interferometry comes in.

Very precise lasers are fired down miles-long tunnels in “L” shaped buildings in the two LIGO detectors (in Washington and Louisiana) and the Virgo detector near Pisa. When gravitational waves travel through us, these laser interferometers can measure the tiny spacetime warps. The more detectors measuring the same signal means a more precise observation and scientists can then work out where (and when) the black hole merger occurred.

There are many more details that can be gleaned from the gravitational wave signal from black hole mergers, of course — including the progenitor black holes’ masses, the merged mass, black hole spin etc. — but for the most part, black hole mergers are purely a gravitational affair.

Neutron stars, however, are a different beast and, on Aug. 17, it wasn’t only gravitational wave detectors that measured a signal from 130 million light-years away; space telescopes on the lookout for gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) also detected a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation in the galaxy of NGC 4993, thereby pinpointing the single event that generated the gravitational waves and the GRB.

And this is the “holy shit” moment.

As Caltech’s David H. Reitze puts it: “This detection opens the window of a long-awaited ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy.”

What Reitze is referring to is that, for the first time, both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves (across the EM spectrum) have been observed coming from the same astrophysical event. The gravitational waves arrived at Earth slightly before the GRB was detected by NASA’s Fermi and ESA’s INTEGRAL space telescopes. Both space observatories recorded a short gamma-ray burst, a type of high-energy burst that was theorized (before Aug. 17) to be produced by colliding neutron stars.

Mass_plot_black_no_gap
The growing family of merging black holes and neutron stars observed with gravitational waves (LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern University)

Now scientists have observational evidence that these types of GRBs are produced by colliding neutron stars as the gravitational wave fingerprint unquestionably demonstrates the in-spiraling and merger of two neutron stars. This is a perfect demonstration of multi-messenger astronomy; where an energetic event can be observed simultaneously in EM and gravitational waves to reveal untold mysteries of the universe’s most energetic events.

Another Nod to Einstein

The fact that the gravitational waves and gamma-rays arrived at approximately the same time is yet another nod to Einstein’s general relativity. The century-old theory predicts that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light and, via this brand spanking new way of doing multi-messenger astronomy, physicists and astronomers have again bolstered relativity with observational evidence.

But why did the gravitational waves arrive slightly before the GRB? Well, NASA’s Fermi team explains: “Fermi’s [Gamma-ray Burst Monitor instrument] saw the gamma-ray burst after the [gravitational wave] detection because the merger happened before the explosion,” they said in a tweet.

In other words, when the two neutron stars collided and merged, the event immediately dissipated energy as gravitational waves that were launched through spacetime at the speed of light — that’s the source of GW170817 — but the GRB was generated shortly after.

Enter the Kilonova

As the neutron stars smashed together, huge quantities of neutron star matter were inevitably blasted into space, creating a superheated, dense volume of free neutrons. Neutrons are subatomic particles that form the building blocks of atoms and if the conditions are right, the neutron star debris will undergo rapid neutron capture process (known as “r-process”) where neutrons combine with one another faster than the newly-formed radioactive particles can decay. This mechanism is responsible for synthesizing elements heavier than iron (elements lighter than iron are formed through stellar nucleosynthesis in the cores of stars).

kilonova
Artist impression of colliding neutron stars generating gravitational waves and a “kilonova” (NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

For decades astronomers have been searching for observational evidence of the r-process in action and now they have it. Soon after the merger, massive amounts of debris erupted in a frenzy of heavy element creation, triggering an energetic eruption known as a “kilonova” that was seen as a short GRB. The GRB was cataloged as “SSS17a.”

The Golden Ticket

Follow-up observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, Gemini Observatory and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope have all detected spectroscopic signatures in the afterglow consistent with the r-process taking place at the site of the kilonova, meaning heavy elements are being formed and, yes, it’s a goldmine. As in: there’s newly-synthesized gold there. And platinum. And all the other elements heavier than iron that aren’t quite so sexy.

And there’s lots of it. Researchers estimate that that single neutron star collision produced hundreds of Earth-masses of gold and platinum and they think that neutron star mergers could be the energetic process that seed the galaxies with heavy elements (with supernovas coming second).

So, yeah, it’s a big, big, BIG discovery that will reverberate for the decades to come.

The best thing is that we now know that our current generation of advanced gravitational wave detectors are sensitive enough to not only detect black holes merging billions of light-years away, but also detect the nearby neutron stars that are busy merging and producing gold. As more detectors are added and as the technology and techniques mature, we’ll be inundated with merging events big and small, each one teaching us something new about our universe.

Gravity and the Dark Side of the Cosmos: LIVE Perimeter Institute Lecture

Streaming LIVE here, today, at 4 p.m. PDT/7 p.m. EDT/11 p.m. GMT

The Perimeter Institute’s public lecture series is back! At 7 p.m. EDT (4 p.m. PDT) today, Erik Verlinde of the University of Amsterdam will ask: Are we standing on the brink of a new scientific revolution that will radically change our views on space, time, and gravity? Specifically, Verlinde will discuss the possibility that gravity may be an emergent phenomena and not a fundamental force of nature. Ohh, interesting.

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (in Ontario, Canada) always puts on a superb production and you can watch Dr Verlinde’s talk via the live feed above. You can also participate via social media using the hashtag #piLIVE and follow @perimeter and @erikverlinde on Twitter.

Watch the preview:

Primordial Black Holes Might be Cosmic Gold Diggers

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Neutron stars might have black hole parasites in their cores (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

When the universe’s first black holes appeared is one of the biggest mysteries in astrophysics. Were they born immediately after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago? Or did they pop into existence after the first population of massive stars exploded as supernovas millions of years later?

The origin of primordial black holes isn’t a trivial matter. In our modern universe, the majority of galaxies have supermassive black holes in their cores and we’re having a hard time explaining how they came to be the monsters they are today. For them to grow so big, there must have been a lot of primordial black holes formed early in the universe’s history clumping together to form progressively more massive black holes.

Now, in a new study published in Physical Review Letters, Alexander Kusenko and Eric Cotner, who both work at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have arrived at an elegant theory as to how the early universe birthed black holes.

Primordial beginnings

Immediately after the Big Bang, the researchers suggest that a uniform energy field pervaded our baby universe. In all the superheated chaos, long before stars started to form, this energy field condensed as “Q balls” and clumped together. These clumps of quasi-matter collapsed under gravity and the first black holes came to be.

These primordial black holes have been singled out as possible dark matter candidates (classed as massive astrophysical compact halo objects, or “MACHOs”) and they may have coalesced to quickly seed the supermassive black holes. In short: if these things exist, they could explain a few universal mysteries.

But in a second Physical Review Letters study, Kusenko teamed up with Volodymyr Takhistov (also from UCLA) and George Fuller, at UC San Diego, to investigate how these primordial black holes may have triggered the formation of heavy elements such as gold, platinum and uranium — through a process known as r-process (a.k.a. rapid neutron capture process) nucleosynthesis.

It is thought that energetic events in the universe are responsible for the creation for approximately half of elements heavier than iron. Elements lighter than iron (except for hydrogen, helium and lithium) were formed by nuclear fusion inside the cores of stars. But the heavier elements formed via r-process nucleosynthesis are thought to have been sourced via supernova explosions and neutron star collisions. Basically, the neutron-rich debris left behind by these energetic events seeded regions where neutrons could readily fuse, creating heavy elements.

These mechanisms for heavy element production are far from being proven, however.

“Scientists know that these heavy elements exist, but they’re not sure where these elements are being formed,” Kusenko said in a statement. “This has been really embarrassing.”

A cosmic goldmine

So what have primordial black holes got to do with nucleosynthesis?

If we assume the universe is still populated with these ancient black holes, they may collide with spinning neutron stars. When this happens, the researchers suggest that the black holes will drop into the cores of the neutron stars.

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Alexander Kusenko/UCLA

Like a parasite eating its host from the inside, material from the neutron star will be consumed by the black hole in its core, causing the neutron star to shrink. As it loses mass, the neutron star will spin faster, causing neutron-rich debris to fling off into space, facilitating (you guessed it) r-process nucleosynthesis, creating the heavy elements we know and love — like gold. The whole process is expected to take about 10,000 years before the neutron star is no more.

So, where are they?

There’s little evidence that primordial black holes exist, so the researchers suggest further astronomical work to study the light of distant stars that may flicker by the passage of invisible foreground black holes. The black holes’ gravitational fields will warp spacetime, causing the starlight to dim and brighten.

It’s certainly a neat theory to think that ancient black holes are diving inside neutron stars to spin them up and create gold in the process, but now astronomers need to prove that primordial black holes are out there, possibly contributing to the dark matter budget of our universe.

Beyond Spacetime: Gravitational Waves Might Reveal Extra-Dimensions

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NASA (edit by Ian O’Neill)

We are well and truly on our way to a new kind of astronomy that will use gravitational waves — and not electromagnetic waves (i.e. light) — to “see” a side of the universe that would otherwise be invisible.

From crashing black holes to wobbling neutron stars, these cosmic phenomena generate ripples in spacetime and not necessarily emissions in the electromagnetic spectrum. So when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) made its first gravitational wave detection in September 2015, the science world became very excited about the reality of “gravitational wave astronomy” and the prospect of detecting some of the most massive collisions that happen in the dark, billions of light-years away.

Like waves rippling over the surface of the ocean, gravitational waves travel through spacetime, a prediction that was made by Albert Einstein over a century ago. And like those ocean waves, gravitational waves might reveal something about the nature of spacetime.

We’re talking extra-dimensions and a new study suggests that gravitational waves may carry an awful lot more information with them beyond the characteristics of what generated them in the first place.

Our 4-D Playing Field

First things first, remember that we interact only with four-dimensional spacetime: three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. This is our playing field; we couldn’t care less whether there are more dimensions out there.

Unless you’re a physicist, that is.

And physicists are having a hard job describing gravity, to put it mildly. This might seem weird considering how essential gravity is for, well, everything. Without gravity, no stars would form, planets wouldn’t coalesce and the cosmos would be an exceedingly boring place. But gravity doesn’t seem to “fit” with the Standard Model of physics. The “recipe” for the universe is perfect, except it’s missing one vital ingredient: Gravity. (It’s as if a perfect cake recipe is missing one crucial ingredient, like flour.)

There’s another weird thing about gravity: Although it’s very important in our universe (yes, there might be more than one universe, but I’ll get to that later), it is actually the weakest of all forces.

But why so weak? This is where string theory comes in.

String theory (and, by extension, superstring theory) predicts that the universe is composed of strings that vibrate at different frequencies. These strings form something like a vast, superfine noodle soup and these strings thread through many dimensions (many more than our four-dimensions) creating all the particles and forces that we know and love.

Now, the possible reason why gravity is so weak when compared with the other fundamental forces could be that gravity is interacting with many more dimensions that are invisible to us 4-D beings. Although string theory is a wonderful mathematical tool to describe this possibility, there is little physical evidence to back up this superfine noodly mess, however.

But as already mentioned, if string theory holds true, it would mean that our universe contains many more dimensions than we regularly experience. (The unifying superstring theory, called “M-theory”, predicts a total of 11 dimensions and may provide the framework that unifies the fundamental forces and could be the diving board that launches us into the vast ocean that is the multiversebut I’ll stop there, I’ve said too much.)

Groovy. But what the heck has this got to do with gravitational waves? As gravitational waves travel through spacetime, they might be imprinted with information about these extra dimensions. Like our wave analogy, as the sea washes over a beach, the frequency of the waves increase as the water becomes shallower — the ocean waves are imprinted with information about how deep the water is. Could gravitational waves washing over (or, more accurately, through) spacetime also create some kind of signature that would reveal the presence of very, very tiny extra-dimensions as predicted by superstring theory?

Possibly, say researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) in Potsdam, Germany.

“Physicists have been looking for extra dimensions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN but up to now this search has yielded no results,” says Gustavo Lucena Gómez, second author of a new study published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. “But gravitational wave detectors might be able to provide experimental evidence.”

Beyond Spacetime?

The researchers suggest that these extra-dimensions might modify the signal of gravitational waves received by detectors like LIGO and leave a very high-frequency “fingerprint.” But as this frequency would be exceedingly high — of the order of 1000 Hz — it’s not conceivable that the current (and near-future) ground-based gravitational wave detectors will be sensitive enough to even hope to detect these frequencies.

However, extra-dimensions might modify the gravitational waves in a different way. As gravitational waves propagate, they stretch and shrink the spacetime they travel through, like this:

gw-waves-wave

The amount of spacetime warping might therefore be detected as more gravitational wave detectors are added to the global network. Currently, LIGO has two operating observing stations (one in Washington and one in Louisiana) and next year, the European Virgo detector will start taking data.

More detectors are planned elsewhere, so it’s possible that we may, one day, use gravitational waves to not only “see” black holes go bump in the night, we might also “see” the extra-dimensions that form the minuscule tapestry of the fabric beyond spacetime. And if we can do this, perhaps we’ll finally understand why gravity is so weak and how it really fits in with the Standard Model of physics.

Want to know more about gravitational waves? Well, here’s an Astroengine YouTube video on the topic:

When Black Holes Collide… Astroengine Is Now On YouTube!

So… it begins!

Astroengine has finally been launched on YouTube, kicking off with a summary of the recent gravitational wave discovery by LIGO. I’m aiming to produce at least one video a week and I’d really like to make it as viewer-driven as possible. So if you have any burning space science questions or any critique about the videos I’m posting, please reach out!

But for now, you know what to do: like, subscribe and enjoy!

We’re Really Confused Why Supermassive Black Holes Exist at the Dawn of the Cosmos

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ESO

Supermassive black holes can be millions to billions of times the mass of our sun. To grow this big, you’d think these gravitational behemoths would need a lot of time to grow. But you’d be wrong.

When looking back into the dawn of our universe, astronomers can see these monsters pumping out huge quantities of radiation as they consume stellar material. Known as quasars, these objects are the centers of primordial galaxies with supermassive black holes at their hearts.

Now, using the twin W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes on Hawaii, researchers have found three quasars all with billion solar mass supermassive black holes in their cores. This is a puzzle; all three quasars have apparently been active for short periods and exist in an epoch when the universe was less than a billion years old.

Currently, astrophysical models of black hole accretion (basically models of how fast black holes consume matter — likes gas, dust, stars and anything else that might stray too close) woefully overestimate how long it takes for black holes to grow to supermassive proportions. What’s more, by studying the region surrounding these quasars, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Germany have found that these quasars have been active for less than 100,000 years.

To put it mildly, this makes no sense.

“We don’t understand how these young quasars could have grown the supermassive black holes that power them in such a short time,” said lead author Christina Eilers, a post-doctorate student at MPIA.

Using Keck, the team could take some surprisingly precise measurements of the quasar light, thereby revealing the conditions of the environment surrounding these bright baby galaxies.

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MPIA

Models predict that after forming, quasars began funneling huge quantities of matter into the central black holes. In the early universe, there was a lot of matter in these baby galaxies, so the matter was rapidly consumed. This created superheated accretion disks that throbbed with powerful radiation. The radiation blew away a comparatively empty region surrounding the quasar called a “proximity zone.” The larger the proximity zone, the longer the quasar had been active and therefore the size of this zone can be used to gauge the age (and therefore mass) of the black hole.

But the proximity zones measured around these quasars revealed activity spanning less than 100,000 years. This is a heartbeat in cosmic time and nowhere near enough time for a black hole pack on the supermassive pounds.

“No current theoretical models can explain the existence of these objects,” said Joseph Hennawi, who led the MPIA team. “The discovery of these young objects challenges the existing theories of black hole formation and will require new models to better understand how black holes and galaxies formed.”

The researchers now hope to track down more of these ancient quasars and measure their proximity zones in case these three objects are a fluke. But this latest twist in the nature of supermassive black holes has only added to the mystery of how they grow to be so big and how they relate to their host galaxies.

Supermassive black hole with torn-apart star (artist’s impress
A supermassive black hole consumes a star in this artist’s impression (ESO)

These questions will undoubtedly reach fever-pitch later this year when the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) releases the first radio images of the 4 million solar mass black hole lurking at the center of our galaxy. Although it’s a relative light-weight among supermassives, direct observations of Sagittarius A* may uncover some surprises as well as confirm astrophysical models.

But as for how supermassive black holes can possibly exist at the dawn of our universe, we’re obviously missing something — a fact that is as exciting as it is confounding.

Plasma ‘Soup’ May Have Allowed Ancient Black Holes to Beef up to Supermassive Proportions

How ancient supermassive black holes grew so big so quickly is one of the biggest mysteries hanging over astronomy — but now researchers think they know how these behemoths packed on the pounds.

John Wise, Georgia Tech

Supermassive black holes are the most extreme objects in the universe. They can grow to billions of solar masses and live in the centers of the majority of galaxies. Their extreme gravities are legendary and have the overwhelming power to switch galactic star formation on and off.

But as our techniques have become more advanced, allowing us to look farther back in time and deeper into the distant universe, astronomers have found these black hole behemoths lurking, some of which are hundreds of millions to billions of solar masses. This doesn’t make much sense; if these objects slowly grow by swallowing cosmic dust, gas, stars and planets, how did they have time only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang to pack on all those pounds?

Well, when the universe was young, it was a very different place. Closely-packed baby galaxies generated huge quantities of radiation and this radiation had a powerful influence over star formation processes in neighboring galaxies. It is thought that massive starburst galaxies (i.e. a galaxy that is dominated by stellar birth) could produce so much radiation that they would, literally, snuff-out star formation in neighboring galaxies.

Stars form in vast clouds of cooling molecular hydrogen and, when star birth reigns supreme in a galaxy, black holes have a hard time accreting matter to bulk up — these newly-formed stars are able to escape the black hole’s gravitational grasp. But in the ancient universe, should a galaxy that is filled with molecular hydrogen be situated too close to a massive, highly radiating galaxy, these clouds of molecular hydrogen could be broken down, creating clouds of ionized hydrogen plasma — stuff that isn’t so great for star formation. And this material can be rapidly consumed by a black hole.

According to computer simulations of these primordial galaxies of hydrogen plasma, if any black hole is present in the center of that galaxy, it will feed off this plasma “soup” at an astonishingly fast rate. These simulations are described in a study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“The collapse of the galaxy and the formation of a million-solar-mass black hole takes 100,000 years — a blip in cosmic time,” said astronomer Zoltan Haiman, of Columbia University, New York. “A few hundred-million years later, it has grown into a billion-solar-mass supermassive black hole. This is much faster than we expected.”

But for these molecular hydrogen clouds to be broken down, the neighboring galaxy needs to be at just the right distance to “cook” its galactic neighbor, according to simulations that were run for several days on a supercomputer.

“The nearby galaxy can’t be too close, or too far away, and like the Goldilocks principle, too hot or too cold,” said astrophysicist John Wise, of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The researchers now hope to use NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch next year, to look back to this era of rapid black hole formation, with hopes of actually seeing these black hole feeding processes in action. Should observations agree with these simulations, we may finally have some understanding of how these black hole behemoths grew so big so quickly.

“Understanding how supermassive black holes form tells us how galaxies, including our own, form and evolve, and ultimately, tells us more about the universe in which we live,” added postdoctoral researcher John Regan, of Dublin City University, Ireland.