Supermassive Black Hole Flare Lights Up Mysterious Molecular Torus

Artists impression of a light echo from the surrounding torus of a supermassive black hole (Max Planck Institute)

Theoretically, supermassive black holes that occupy the centre of galaxies (including our own) are surrounded by a vast cloud of gas. Depending on the angle you are viewing this molecular torus will obscure the supermassive black hole’s bright accretion disk. Until now, this vast doughnut of matter has never been observed, but with the help of the supermassive black hole accretion disk and a dying star, there’s a possibility that the molecular torus will not only be observed, but also mapped…
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The Sinister Side of the Cosmos: Killer Galaxies, Cosmic Forensic Science and Deadly Radiation

The ghost of a dead dwarf galaxy hangs around the killer, spiral galaxy (R. Jay Gabany)

It’s been a busy day with a range of topics posted on the Universe Today, but all have a common thread: the universe is a deadly place for man and galaxy. For starters, research into the radiation mankind will face when settling on Mars and the Moon could prove to be one of our main challenges in space. The threat of a massive dose of radiation from a solar flare is bad enough, but the gradual damage to our cells and increased risk of cancer is a problem we need to solve, or at least manage. But that’s nothing compared with what dwarf galaxies have to put up with; their larger spiral cousins like to eat them for dinner, leaving behind galactic ghosts of the dwarfs that were…
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LHC Worries are Based on Fear of the Unknown, not Science

The construction of the LHC is nearing completion, exciting or worrying? (AP)

I’ve heard some crazy talk in my time, but the fear surrounding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has really surprised me. On writing a story last month that a guy in Hawaii (with a scant background in physics) was trying to pass a lawsuit to put a stop to the construction of the LHC, I realised the pressures physicists at the cutting edge of science are under. Physicists the world over have defended the science behind the LHC, and although some of the products from high energy particle collisions are as yet unknown, there is an infinitesimal chance that a black hole will swallow Earth… (I actually want a black hole to be created, the scientific implications will be revolutionary.)
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How Big is the Biggest Star in the Universe?

A comparison between the Sun and a hypermassive star. Credit: NASA

So how big is it? According to Fraser at the Universe Today, the largest known star is VY Canis Majoris. This is a massive star, otherwise known as a red hypergiant star and this one sits in the constellation Canis Major, about 5000 light years from Earth. Apparently it is more than 2100 times the size of our Sun, a monster! This star is so big that light takes more than eight hours to cross its circumference. In fact, this star, if placed in the centre of the Solar System, it would reach as far as the orbit of Saturn.

Although VY Canis Majoris is big, it isn’t as big as the biggest star could be. If it was cooler, a similar star could reach over 2600 times the size of our Sun…

Could a Wolf-Rayet Star Generate a Gamma Ray Burst?

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are the most energetic events to be seen in the observable universe. On March 19th, a record breaking GRB was observed in the constellation of Boötes by NASA’s Swift Observatory and ground based telescope arrays (i.e. the Polish “Pie of the Sky” GRB detector). This was an explosion unparalleled with anything we have ever seen. Not only was it the brightest GRB, it was the most distant GRB – this explosion occurred 7.5 billion years ago (it was therefore located 7.5 billion light years away). Taking measurements of the spectrum of light from these events not only helps us understand what causes such a massive detonation, but also reveals the nature of the Universe when it was half the age it is now.

In a new publication headed by the University of Utrecht, in The Netherlands, the highly dynamic and self-destructive Wolf-Rayet star has been singled out as a possible GRB progenitor after some complex tidal interactions with a binary partner, spinning-up the star until it collapses and unleashes vast amounts of energy into space…
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It’s been a while since I last posted as I’ve been flying from the US to the UK and have only just gotten my office up and running. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. On the Universe Today, I’ve posted quite a few articles ranging from quite an elaborate April Fools story (but not quite as elaborate as Virgin and Google’s Virgle prank), to a black hole hiding in the middle of Omega Centauri, to rocks rolling around on Mars… here’s a round up of the most interesting…
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What’s Going on with These Sunspots? Are they from Solar Cycle 23 or 24?

Magnetic view of the new sunspots appearing at the Suns equator (credit: SOHO)

On posting the story “The Sun Bursts to Life: Sunspots, Flares and CMEs” on the Universe Today, something was strange about my source material. Although the Sun had started Solar Cycle 24 back in January of this year, the new sunspots recently observed were the “leftovers” from the previous cycle and not new ones from this cycle. Something is strange. Surely one cycle ends and another begins? Think again…
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How do you Build a Laser with a Black Hole?

The principal behind the lasing effect between the black hole and white hole horizons.
The principal behind the lasing effect between the black hole and white hole horizons.

Lasers. Very cool and exciting toys. They have also revolutionized science and technology. Through a comparatively simple process, photons are bounced backward and forward within an optical cavity. Stimulated emission from the quantum states of the material within the cavity causes more and more photons to be generated. Eventually a threshold is reached and laser emission results, producing a collimated beam of a defined wavelength.

So where do black holes come into all this? Well, it is theorized that black hole event horizons produce radiation. Hawking radiation, although not yet proven, is probably responsible for the only emission from a black hole. It may even cause the black hole to evaporate. But what if this radiation could be used in the ultimate laser cavity? Some Scottish researchers think it might be possible… in theory…
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Daily Roundup: Astrium Spacecraft Mass Production, Saturn’s Rings and Quantum Communications

Astriums new concept for space tourism. Image credit: Astrium/Marc Newson. Source: BBC

It looks like things are really beginning to develop for the space tourism era. European rocket manufacturer Astrium has announced plans to develop the next generation of small space planes capable of sending 5 people into space. This design is different from the rest as it will take-off and land conventionally and will use jets for atmospheric flight but blast into space with a powerful oxygen-methane rocket. The promo video is also pretty exciting, documenting the two hour flight by means of a simulation…
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Artificial Cosmogenesis – Building a Virtual Universe

Could black holes be used to contain our virtual universe? Credit: unknown. Source:

The Universe as we know it could be in big trouble. I have reported before on situations where our universe may be changing beyond the realms of “normal” physics, but the “heat death problem” could be a physical situation where the Universe will eventually expand so far that all energy will dissipate and be lost. Thermodynamics will eventually catch up with all the stars in the cosmos, ensuring they extinguish, all energy ebbing away into frozen space. Even the last of the supermassive black holes will evaporate after 10150 years. What’s left then? Well… nothing. So the question is: if a sufficiently advanced incarnation of the human race can beat the increasing entropy of the cosmos, can the future “us” continue to live beyond the heat death? Some rather philosophical ideas have come to light, including the creation of a virtual universe
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