Spinning Comet Slams its Brakes as It Makes Earth Flyby

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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.

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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

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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:

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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”

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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.

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.

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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.

This Black Hole Keeps Its Own White Dwarf ‘Pet’

The most compact star-black hole binary has been discovered, but the star seems to be perfectly happy whirling around the massive singularity twice an hour.

Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/University of Alberta/A.Bahramian et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

A star in the globular cluster of 47 Tucanae is living on the edge of oblivion.

Located near a stellar-mass black hole at only 2.5 times the Earth-moon distance, the white dwarf appears to be in a stable orbit, but it’s still paying the price for being so intimate with its gravitational master. As observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and NuSTAR space telescope, plus the Australia Telescope Compact Array, gas is being pulled from the white dwarf, which then spirals into the black hole’s super-heated accretion disk.

47 Tucanae is located in our galaxy, around 14,800 light-years from Earth.

Eventually, the white dwarf will become so depleted of plasma that it will turn into some kind of exotic planetary-mass body or it will simply evaporate away. But one thing does appear certain, the white dwarf will remain in orbit and isn’t likely to get swallowed by the black hole whole any time soon.

“This white dwarf is so close to the black hole that material is being pulled away from the star and dumped onto a disk of matter around the black hole before falling in,” said Arash Bahramian, of the University of Alberta (Canada) and Michigan State University. “Luckily for this star, we don’t think it will follow this path into oblivion, but instead will stay in orbit.” Bahramian is the lead author of the study to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

It was long thought that globular clusters were bad locations to find black holes, but the 2015 discovery of the binary system — called “X9” — generating quantities of radio waves inside 47 Tucanae piqued astronomers’ interest. Follow-up studies revealed fluctuating X-ray emissions with a period of around 28 minutes — the approximate orbital period of the white dwarf around the black hole.

So, how did the white dwarf become the pet of this black hole?

The leading theory is that the black hole collided with an old red giant star. In this scenario, the black hole would have quickly ripped away the bloated star’s outer layers, leaving a tiny stellar remnant — a white dwarf — in its wake. The white dwarf then became the black hole’s gravitational captive, forever trapped in its gravitational grasp. Its orbit would have become more and more compact as the system generated gravitational waves (i.e. ripples in space-time), radiating orbital energy away, shrinking its orbital distance to the configuration that it is in today.

It is now hoped that more binary systems of this kind will be found, perhaps revealing that globular clusters are in fact very good places to find black holes enslaving other stars.