Catching a Star’s Helium Flash

Old stellar flashers will be caught in the act in the not-so-distant future, whether they like it or not.


While we have a pretty good idea about how stars like our Sun work, observing all the details that unfold over millions to billions of years of stellar evolution can be difficult, especially if the phenomena occur over short timescales. Take, for example, a particularly explosive and relatively short-lived period our Sun is expected to experience in roughly five billion years.

This event is predicted to happen after our nearest star has burned up all of its hydrogen fuel and starts to burn helium. This is the beginning of the end; the Sun will swell into a vast red giant, ejecting its upper layers of plasma into space via violent solar winds, brightening 1,000 times than it is today. Needless to say, this will be a terribly dramatic time for our solar system (and a definitive apocalypse for anything that remains of our planet’s biosphere), but it will be on the verge of something even more dramatic: a helium flash.

As the solar core starts using helium as fuel, the fusion process will generate carbon and as this begins, a powerful eruption of energy will detonate, as detailed by a UC Santa Barbara statement:

A star like the sun is powered by fusing hydrogen into helium at temperatures around 15 million K. Helium, however, requires a much higher temperature than hydrogen, around 100 million K, to begin fusing into carbon, so it simply accumulates in the core while a shell of hydrogen continues to burn around it. All the while, the star expands to a size comparable to the Earth’s orbit. Eventually, the star’s core reaches the perfect conditions, triggering a violent ignition of the helium: the helium core flash. The core undergoes several flashes over the next 2 million years, and then settles into a more static state where it proceeds to burn all of the helium in the core to carbon and oxygen over the course of around 100 million years.

While the helium flashes of old Sun-like stars have been predicted for 50 years, we have yet to actually observe any kicking off in our galaxy, which isn’t so surprising considering it’s only comparatively recently that we’ve developed the techniques that are capable of precisely measuring the brightness fluctuations of distant stars. This might be about to change, according to a new study published in Nature Astronomy Letters.

“The availability of very sensitive measurements from space has made it possible to observe subtle oscillations in the brightness of a very large number of stars,” said coauthor Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard, of the UC Santa Barbara’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP).

Christensen-Dalsgaard is referring to the growing number of space-based observatories, primed to survey the sky for transiting exoplanets—such as Kepler, CoRoT and TESS—that have extremely sensitive photonics that can detect the slightest changes in stellar brightness. And by virtue of these missions’ wide field of view, taking in the light from many stars at once, the helium flashes and resulting brightness oscillations across the stars’ surfaces could be detected in the near future.

It’s thought that the flash itself should last for no more than two million years, which may sound like a long time to we puny humans, but over cosmic timescales, that’s literally a flash—we need some serious luck to detect them. But with more observatories, longer observation periods, and wider fields of view, luck may be just around the corner.

Two Stellar Zombie Spinners Are Ripping Up Spacetime

The pair of white dwarf stars are orbiting one another every seven minutes—and future gravitational wave observatories will be able to detect them whirl.

White dwarf binaries are among some of the most fascinating star systems known, and a newly discovered compact binary, located some 8,000 light-years away in the constellation Boötes, has taken the exotic nature of these systems to new spacetime-warping extremes.

The extremely compact eclipsing binary, called ZTF J1530+5027, is one of the most extreme white dwarf systems known to exist [Caltech/IPAC]

Astronomers using Caltech’s Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), a precision sky survey at Palomar Observatory near San Diego in Southern California, made the discovery of ZTF J1530+5027 by detecting the dimming effect caused by one of the stars passing in front of the other. Known as an “eclipsing binary,” the cooler (and therefor dimmer) white dwarf blocks the starlight of the hotter (and brighter) star, causing the ZTF to register a periodic dimming event. This dimming occurs once every seven minutes, meaning they are zipping around each other at speeds of hundreds of miles per second! It is the second fastest white dwarf binary known and the most rapid eclipsing binary discovered in our galaxy. The fortunate alignment allows astronomers to not only precisely measure their orbital speed, they can also gauge the stars’ sizes and masses.

White dwarfs are the stellar corpses of sun-like stars that ran out of fuel long ago. Our sun will become a white dwarf in around five billion years, after it has exhausted its hydrogen fuel that maintains fusion in its core. A short period after, it will swell into a red giant (possibly expanding out as far as Earth, incinerating it) and then lose its plasma to space via powerful solar winds. All that will be left of our once glorious star will be a planetary nebula and a tiny and dense white dwarf, approximately the size of our planet, spinning in the middle. The two white dwarfs in ZTF J1530+5027 likely passed through their red giant phase at different times, but now they’re stuck, in a perpetual death spiral that spells doom for one of the objects.

To fully realize just how crazy-extreme this white dwarf binary is, they are only separated by one-fifth of the distance that the moon orbits Earth, meaning both stars would fully fit inside Saturn. They have a combined mass of our entire sun. As they orbit so snugly, it’s likely that the more massive star will start to tidally drag material from the other, cannibalizing it.

“Matter is getting ready to spill off of the bigger and lighter white dwarf onto the smaller and heavier one, which will eventually completely subsume its lighter companion,” said Kevin Burdge, Caltech graduate student and lead author of a study published in the journal Nature. “We’ve seen many examples of a type of system where one white dwarf has been mostly cannibalized by its companion, but we rarely catch these systems as they are still merging like this one.”

While impressive, the real fireworks are invisible—the stars are ripping up spacetime, generating gravitational waves that are sapping energy from the system, hastening the binary’s ultimate demise. What’s more, astronomers are anticipating that the future Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which is scheduled for launch by the European Space Agency in 2034, will be able to detect its gravitational pulse.

“These two white dwarfs are merging because they are emitting gravitational waves,” added collaborator Tom Prince, a senior research scientist at Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL, in Pasadena, Calif. “Within a week of LISA turning on, it should pick up the gravitational waves from this system. LISA will find tens of thousands of binary systems in our galaxy like this one, but so far we only know of a few. And this binary-star system is one of the best characterized yet due to its eclipsing nature.”

This system is expected to keep blinking from our perspective for another hundred thousand years, but how will the system ultimately go kaput? Well, the researchers aren’t entirely certain. On the one hand, the more massive white dwarf may suck the other dry like a vampiric parasite, consuming all of its matter until only one, well-fed star remains. Alternatively, the act of cannibalization may cause the reverse; as mass is transferred to one star, the other may be flung outward to a wider orbit, increasing their orbital period.

“Sometimes these binary white dwarfs merge into one star, and other times the orbit widens as the lighter white dwarf is gradually shredded by the heavier one,” said co-author Jim Fuller, an assistant professor at Caltech. “We’re not sure what will happen in this case, but finding more such systems will tell us how often these stars survive their close encounters.”

One early mystery about this extreme binary is the question of X-rays, or lack thereof. The more massive star is really hot, with a temperature nine times that of the sun (50,000 Kelvin). The researchers believe that this is because it has already begun pulling material from its partner, an act that accelerates and heats the plasma that is being stolen, starting to create an accretion disk. But the accreting gas should be so hot that the system would be humming in X-rays, but it isn’t. “It’s strange that we aren’t seeing X-rays in this system. One possibility is that the accretion spots on the white dwarf—the areas the material is falling on—are bigger than what is typical, and this could result in the emission of ultraviolet light and optical light instead of X-rays,” added Burdge.


It’s exciting to think what the next generation of gravitational wave observatories (particularly LISA that will be sensitive to extremely weak spacetime ripples from systems such as these) combined with traditional (re: electromagnetic) observatories will herald for the future of astronomy. Like the emerging “multi-messenger” era for astronomy that combines observations of the electromagnetic spectrum and gravitational wave signals to confirm short gamma-ray bursts are triggered by neutron star collisions, it’s going to blow our minds when we can access more subtle gravitational wave sources such as these and directly see the gravitational energy leaking from compact binaries.

Our Supermassive Black Hole Is Slurping Down a Cool Hydrogen Smoothie

The world’s most powerful radio telescope is getting intimate with Sagittarius A*, revealing a never-before-seen component of its accretion flow

Artist impression of ring of cool, interstellar gas surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way [NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello]

As we patiently wait for the first direct image of the event horizon surrounding the supermassive black hole living in the core of our galaxy some 25,000 light-years away, the Atacama Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has been busy checking out a previously unseen component of Sagittarius A*’s accretion flow.

Whereas the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) will soon deliver the first image of our supermassive black hole’s event horizon, ALMA’s attention has recently been on a cool flow of gas that is orbiting just outside the event horizon, before being consumed. (The EHT delivered its first historic image on April 10, not of the supermassive black hole in our galaxy, but of the gargantuan six-billion solar mass monster in the heart of the giant elliptical galaxy, Messier 87, 50 million light-years away.)

While this may not grab the headlines like the EHT’s first image (of which ALMA played a key role), it remains a huge mystery as to how supermassive black holes pile on so much mass and how they consume the matter surrounding them. So, by zooming in on the reservoir of material that accumulates near Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), astronomers can glean new insights as to how supermassive black holes get so, well, massive, and how their growth relates to galactic evolution.

While Sgr A* isn’t the most active of black holes, it is feeding off limited rations of interstellar matter. It gets its sustenance from a disk of plasma, called an accretion disk, starting immediately outside its event horizon—the point at which nothing, not even light, can escape a black hole’s gravitational grasp—and ending a few tenths of a light-year beyond. The tenuous, yet extremely hot plasma (with searing temperatures of up to 10 million degrees Kelvin) close to the black hole has been well studied by astronomers as these gases generate powerful X-ray radiation that can be studied by space-based X-ray observatories, like NASA’s Chandra. However, the flow of this plasma is roughly spherical and doesn’t appear to be rotating around the black hole as an accretion disk should.

Cue a cloud of “cool” hydrogen gas: at a temperature of around 10,000K, this cloud surrounds the black hole at a distance of a few light-years. Until now, it’s been unknown how this hydrogen reservoir interacts with the black hole’s hypothetical accretion disk and accretion flow, if at all.

ALMA is sensitive to the radio wave emissions that are generated by this cooler hydrogen gas, and has now been able to see how Sgr. A* is slurping matter from this vast hydrogen reservoir and pulling the cooler gas into its accretion disk—a feature that has, until now, been elusive to our telescopes. ALMA has basically used these faint radio emissions to act as a tracer as the cool gas mingles with the accretion disk, revealing its rotation and the location of the disk itself.

“We were the first to image this elusive disk and study its rotation,” said Elena Murchikova, a member in astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in a statement. “We are also probing accretion onto the black hole. This is important because this is our closest supermassive black hole. Even so, we still have no good understanding of how its accretion works. We hope these new ALMA observations will help the black hole give up some of its secrets.” Murchikova is the lead author of the study published in Nature on June 6.

ALMA image of the disk of cool hydrogen gas flowing around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. The colors represent the motion of the gas relative to Earth: the red portion is moving away, so the radio waves detected by ALMA are slightly stretched, or shifted, to the “redder” portion of the spectrum; the blue color represents gas moving toward Earth, so the radio waves are slightly scrunched, or shifted, to the “bluer” portion of the spectrum. Crosshairs indicate location of black hole [ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), E.M. Murchikova; NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello]

Located in the Chilean Atacama Desert, ALMA is comprised of 66 individual antennae that work as one interferometer to deliver observations of incredible precision. This is a bonus for these kinds of accretion studies, as ALMA has now probed right up to the edge of Sgr A*’s event horizon, only a hundredth of a light-year (or a few light-days) from the point of no return, providing incredible detail to the rotation of this cool disk of accreting matter. What’s more, the researchers estimate that ALMA is tracking only a minute quantity of cool gas, coming in at a total only a tenth of the mass of Jupiter.

A small quantity this may be (on galactic scales, at least), but it’s enough to allow the researchers to measure the Doppler shift of this dynamic flow, where some is blue-shifted (and therefore moving toward us) and some is red-shifted (as it moves away), allowing them to clock its orbital speed around the relentless maw of Sgr A*.

“We were able to shed new light on the accretion process around Sagittarius A*, which is a typical example of a class of black holes that have little to eat,” added Murchikova in a second statement. “The accretion behavior of these black holes is quite complex and, so far, not well understood.

“Our result is potentially important not only for our galaxy, but to any galaxy which has this type of underfed black hole in its heart. We hope that this cool disk will help us uncover more secrets of black holes and their behavior.”

Coolest White Dwarf Is a Glimpse of What Happens Long After Our Sun Dies

All good things come to a cold and dusty end.

[NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger]

“So, what do you think happens after you die?”

The question was more of an accusation. The lady asking was sitting across from me at a Christmas dinner a friend of mine was hosting and the previous query was one about my religion. She wasn’t impressed by my response.

Granted, it probably wasn’t the ideal setting to say that I was an atheist, but I wasn’t going to lie either.

“Um, well…” I remember feeling vulnerable when I responded, especially as I’d only just met half the dozen people in the room, including the lady opposite, but I remember thinking: stick with what you know, Ian. So, I continued: “When I’m dead, all the elements from my body will remain on Earth,” — I didn’t want to go into much detail about my real plan of having my remains blended up into a jar and then launched into space (more on that in a future post, possibly) — “and those elements will get cycled through the biosphere through various biological, chemical and physical processes for billions of years. Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end and the sun will run out of fuel, ballooning into a huge red giant star, leaving what is known as a white dwarf in its wake.” (By her glazed look, I could tell she regretted asking, but I continued.) “If, and it’s a big IF, the Earth survives this phase of stellar death, our planet might be hurled out of the solar system. Or, and this is my favorite scenario,” — I’d hit my stride and everyone else seemed to be entertained — “it might careen inward, toward the now tiny white dwarf sun, where Earth will be ripped to sheds under powerful tidal forces, sending all the rocks, dust, and the elements that used to be my body, raining down onto the white dwarf.”

This is an abridged version. I also went into some white dwarf science, why planetary nebulae are cool, and how our sun as a white dwarf would stand as a monument to the once great solar system that will be gone five billion years from now. The recycled elements from my long-gone body could eventually rain down onto the atmosphere of a newborn white dwarf star — pretty cool if you ask me. This might be more of a cautionary tail about inviting an atheist astrophysicist to religious celebrations, but I feel my tabletop TED talk was good value for money. And besides, by turning that inevitable “what religion are you?” question into a scientific one, I hadn’t gotten bogged down with justifying why I’m an atheist — a conversation that, in my experience, never works out well over dinner.

So, why am I remembering that fun evening many years ago? Well, today, there’s some cool white dwarf news. And I love white dwarf news, especially if it’s about dusty white dwarfs. Because dusty white dwarfs are a reminder that nothing lasts forever, not even our beautiful 5-billion-year-old solar system.

One Cool Dwarf

A citizen scientist working on the NASA-led “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9” project has discovered the coldest and oldest white dwarf ever found. The project’s aim is to seek out as-yet-to-be-discovered worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune (re: “Planet Nine” and beyond). Through the analysis of infrared data collected by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE (inspired by data from the European Gaia mission), Melina Thévenot was looking for local brown dwarfs — failed stars that lack the mass to sustain nuclear fusion in their cores, but pump out enough infrared radiation to be detected. In the observations, Thévenot spied what she thought was bad data, but with the help of WISE, she found not a nearby brown dwarf, but a white dwarf that was brighter and further away. After sharing her discovery with the Backyard Worlds team, astronomers at the W. M. Keck Observatory confirmed that not only was that white dwarf lowest temperature specimen yet found, it was also very dusty. In fact, it’s thought that the white dwarf, designated LSPM J0207+3331, has multiple dusty rings. Its discovery, however, is something of a conundrum and the researchers think it may challenge planetary models.

“This white dwarf is so old that whatever process is feeding material into its rings must operate on billion-year timescales,” said astronomer John Debes, at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, in a NASA statement. “Most of the models scientists have created to explain rings around white dwarfs only work well up to around 100 million years, so this star is really challenging our assumptions of how planetary systems evolve.”

Interesting side note: It was Debes who first got me excited about dusty white dwarfs when I met him at the 2009 American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Long Beach, Calif. You can read my enthusiastic Universe Today article I wrote on the topic here.

After deducing the tiny Earth-sized star’s cool temperature — 10,500 degrees Fahrenheit (5,800 degrees Celsius) — the researchers estimate that the white dwarf is approximately 3-billion years old. The infrared signal suggests a copious quantity of dust is present, which is a bit weird. As I alluded to in my tabletop TED talk, after a sun-like star runs out of fuel and puffs up into a red giant, it will leave a shiny white dwarf surrounded by a planetary nebula in its wake. Should any mangled planet, asteroid or comet that survived the red giant phase stray too close to that white dwarf, it’ll get shredded. So, it’s poignant when astronomers find dusty white dwarfs; it means those star systems used to have some kind of planetary system, but the white dwarf is in the process of destroying it. That is the inevitable demise of our solar system in 5 billion years time. But to find a 3-billion-year-old specimen with a ring system doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — the white dwarf had plenty of time to consume all that dusty debris by now, a process, according to Debes, that should only take 100 million years to complete.

Debes, who led the study published in The Astrophysical Journal on Feb. 19, and his team, including discoverer and co-author Thévenot, has some idea as to what might be going on, but more research is needed. One hypothesis is that J0207’s dusty ring is composed of multiple rings with two distinct components, one thin ring just at the edge of where the star is breaking up a belt of asteroids and a wider ring closer to the white dwarf. It’s hoped that follow-up observations by the next generation of space telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will be able to deduce what those rings are made of, thus helping astronomers understand the evolution of these ancient star systems.

Besides being the ultimate way to gain perspective on our tiny existence (and an excellent topic for an awkward dinner conversation), this research underpins a powerful way in which citizen scientists are shaping space science, particularly projects that require many human brains to process vast datasets.

“That is a really motivating aspect of the search,” said Thévenot, who is one of more than 150,000 volunteers who works on Backyard Worlds. “The researchers will move their telescopes to look at worlds you have discovered. What I especially enjoy, though, is the interaction with the awesome research team. Everyone is very kind, and they are always trying to make the best out of our discoveries.”

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:

Spinning Comet Slams its Brakes as It Makes Earth Flyby

Images of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak’s jets as observed by the Discovery Channel Telescope on March 19, 2017 (Schleicher/Lowell Observatory)

Although comets are static lumps of ancient ice for most of their lives, their personalities can rapidly change with a little heat from the sun. Now, astronomers have witnessed just how dynamic comets can be, seeing one dramatically slow its rate of rotation to the point where it may even reverse its spin.

Comets are the leftover detritus of planetary formation that were sprinkled around our sun 4.6 billion years ago. These primordial icy remains collected in the outermost reaches of the solar system and that’s where they stay until they get knocked off their gravitational perches to begin an interplanetary roller coaster ride. Some are unlucky and end up diving straight to a fiery, solar death. But others set up in stable orbits, making regular passes through the inner solar system, dazzling observers with their beautiful tails formed through heating by the sun.

One mile-wide short-period comet is called 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak and it’s a slippery celestial object. First discovered in 1858 by U.S. astronomer Horace Parnell Tuttle, it disappeared soon after. But in 1907, French astronomer Michael Giacobini “rediscovered” the comet, only for it to disappear once again. Then, in 1951, Slovak astronomer Ľubor Kresák made the final “discovery” and now astronomers know exactly where to find it and when it will turn up in our night skies.

Its name, Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, reflects the wonderful 100-year discovery and rediscovery history of astronomy’s quest to keep tabs on the comet’s whereabouts.

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak as observed on March 22, 2017 (Kees Scherer/Knight Observatory, Tomar)

Now, 41P is the focus of an interesting cometary discovery. Taking 5.4 years to complete an orbit around the sun, 41P came within 13-million miles to Earth earlier this year, the closest it has come to our planet since it was first discovered by Tuttle. So, astronomers at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff, Ariz., used the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope near Happy Jack, the 1.1-meter Hall telescope and the 0.9-meter Robotic telescope on Anderson Mesa, to zoom-in on the interplanetary vagabond to measure its rotational speed.

Comets can be unpredictable beasts. Composed of rock and icy volatiles, when they are slowly heated by the sun as they approach perihelion (the closest point in their orbit to the sun), these ices sublimate (i.e. turn from ice to vapor without melting into a liquid), blasting gas and dust into space.

Over time, these jets are known to have a gradual effect the comet’s trajectory and rotation, but, over an astonishing observation run, Lowell astronomers saw a dramatic change in this comet’s spin. Over a short six-week period, the comet’s rate of rotation slowed from one rotation every 24 hours to once every 48 hours — its rate of rotation had halved. This is the most dramatic change in comet rotation speed ever recorded — and erupting jets from the comet’s surface are what slammed on the brakes.

This was confirmed by observing cyanogen gas, a common molecule found on comets that is composed of one carbon atom and one nitrogen atom, being ejected into space as the comet was being heated by sunlight.

“While we expected to observe cyanogen jets and be able to determine the rotation period, we did not anticipate detecting a change in the rotation period in such a short time interval,” said Lowell astronomer David Schleicher, who led the project, in a statement. “It turned out to be the largest change in the rotational period ever measured, more than a factor of ten greater than found in any other comet.”

For this rapid slowdown to occur, the researchers think that 41P must have a very elongated shape and be of very low density. In this scenario, if the jets are located near the end of its length, enough torque could be applied to cause the slowdown. If this continues, the researchers predict that the direction of rotation may even reverse.

“If future observations can accurately measure the dimensions of the nucleus, then the observed rotation period change would set limits on the comet’s density and internal strength,” added collaborator Matthew Knight. “Such detailed knowledge of a comet is usually only obtained by a dedicated spacecraft mission like the recently completed Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.”

Primordial Black Holes Might be Cosmic Gold Diggers

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.

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

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:


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!

This Super-Hot, Super-Weird Space Doughnut Could Be a New “Planetary Object”

The structure of a planet, a planet with a disk and a synestia, all of the same mass (Simon Lock and Sarah Stewart)

Pluto is going to be pissed.

After studying computer simulations of planetary collisions, scientists have discovered a possible phase of planetary formation that has, so far, been overlooked by astronomy. And they think this phase is so significant that it deserves its own planetary definition.

After two planetary objects collide, researchers from the University of California Davis and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., realized that a bloated, spinning mass of molten rock can form. It looks a bit like a ring doughnut with the hole filled in. What’s more, it is thought that Earth (and other planets in the solar system) probably went through this violent period before becoming the solid spinning globes we know and love today.

They call this partly vaporized rock “synestia” — “syn-” for “together” and “Estia” after the Greek goddess of architecture and structures.

Over a range of masses and collision speeds, planetary scientist Sarah Stewart (Davis) and graduate student Simon Lock (Harvard) simulated planetary collisions and focused on how the angular momentum of colliding bodies might influence the system. Their study has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Basically, when two bodies — with their own angular momentum — collide and merge, the sum of their momenta must be conserved and this can have a dramatic effect on the size and structure of the merged mass.

“We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure,” said Stewart.

After colliding, the energetic event causes both planets to melt and partially vaporize, expanding with a connected ring-like structure. And this structure — a synestia — would eventually cool, contract and solidify. It could also form moons; post-collision molten debris in the synestia doughnut ring may emerge in a stable orbit around the planet.

The synestia phase would be a fleeting event in any planet’s life, however. For an Earth-sized mass, the post-collision synestia would likely last only 100 years or so. But the larger the mass, the longer the phase, the researchers theorize.

So, giving this theoretical “planetary object” a classification might be a little generous — a move that would raise recently “demoted” Pluto’s eyebrow — but as telescopes become more advanced, we might one day be lucky enough to spy a synestia in a young star system where dynamic instabilities are causing planets to careen into one another.