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


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.


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.

Cassini Finds ‘Nothing’ in Saturn’s Ring Gap


It’s official, there’s a whole lot of nothing in Saturn’s innermost ring gap.

This blunt — and slightly mysterious — conclusion was reached when scientists studied Cassini data after the spacecraft’s first dive through the gas giant’s ring plane. At first blush, this might not sound so surprising; the 1,200-mile-wide gap between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and the innermost edge of its rings does appear like an empty place. But as the NASA spacecraft barreled through the gap on April 26, mission scientists expected Cassini to hit a few stray particles on its way through.

Instead, it hit nothing. Or, at least, far fewer particles than they predicted.

“The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently,” said Earl Maize, Cassini’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”

Using Cassini’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS), the scientists expected to detect multiple “cracks and pops” as the spacecraft shot through the gap. Instead, it picked up mainly signals from energetic charged particles buzzing in the planet’s magnetic field. When converted into an audio file, these signals make a whistling noise and this background whistle was expected to be drowned out by the ruckus of dust particles bouncing off the spacecraft’s body. But, as the following audio recording proves, very few pops and cracks of colliding debris were detected — it sounds more like an off-signal radio tuner:

Compare that with the commotion Cassini heard as it passed through the ring plane outside of Saturn’s rings on Dec. 18, 2016:

Now that is what it sounds like to get smacked by a blizzard of tiny particles at high speed.

“It was a bit disorienting — we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” said William Kurth, RPWS team lead at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “I’ve listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”

From this first ring gap dive, NASA says Cassini likely only hit a handful of minute, 1 micron particles — particles no larger than those found in smoke. And that’s a bit weird.

As weird as it may be, the fact that the region of Cassini’s first ring dive is emptier than expected now allows mission scientists to carry out optimized science operations with the spacecraft’s instruments. On the first pass, Cassini’s dish-shaped high-gain antenna was used as a shield to protect the spacecraft as it made the dive. On its next ring dive, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:38 p.m. PT (3:38 p.m. ET), this precaution is evidently not needed and the spacecraft will be oriented to better view the rings as it flies through.

So there we have it, the first mysterious result of Cassini’s awesome Grand Finale! 21 ring dives to go…

A Powerful Galactic Explosion Has Been Detected — and Astronomers Aren’t Sure What Caused It

NASA/CXC/Pontifical Catholic Univ./F.Bauer et al.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has detected a mysterious explosion in deep space and, although astronomers have some suspected causes for the incredibly powerful event, there’s a possibility that it could be something we’ve never witnessed before.

The signal is the deepest X-ray source ever recorded and it appears to be related to a galaxy located approximately 10.7 billion light-years away (it therefore happened 10.7 billion years ago, when the universe was only three billion years old). Over the course of only a few minutes in October 2014, this event produced a thousand times more energy than all the stars in its galaxy. Before that time, there were no X-rays originating from this location and there’s been nothing since.

The explosion occurred in a region of sky called the Chandra Deep Field-South (CDF-S) — the event was therefore designated “CDF-S XT1” — and archived observations of that part of the sky by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Spitzer space telescope revealed that it originated from within a faint, small galaxy.

“Ever since discovering this source, we’ve been struggling to understand its origin,” said Franz Bauer of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, Chile, in a statement. “It’s like we have a jigsaw puzzle but we don’t have all of the pieces.”

One possibility is that we could be looking at the effects of a huge stellar explosion, known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB). GRBs are caused when a massive star implodes and blasts powerful gamma-rays as intense beams from its poles — think super-sized supernova on acid. They can also be caused by cataclysmic collisions between two neutron stars or a neutron star and black holes. Should one of those beams be directed at Earth, over 10.7 billion light-years of travel, the gamma-ray radiation would have dispersed and arrived here at a lower, X-ray energy, possibly explaining CDF-S XT1.

Alternatively, the signal may have been caused by the rapid destruction of a white dwarf star falling into a black hole. Alas, none of these explanations fully fit the observation and it could, actually, be a new phenomenon.

“We may have observed a completely new type of cataclysmic event,” said Kevin Schawinski, of ETH Zurich in Switzerland. “Whatever it is, a lot more observations are needed to work out what we’re seeing.”

So, in short, watch this space.

The research will be published in the June edition of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online.

Mystery Mars Cloud: An Auroral Umbrella?

The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.
The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.

Last week, amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke noticed something peculiar in his observations of Mars — there appeared to be a cloud-like structure hanging above the limb of the planet.

Many theories have been put forward as to what the phenomenon could be — high altitude cloud? Dust storm? An asteroid impact plume?! — but it’s all conjecture until we can get follow-up observations. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Odyssey satellite might be able to slew around and get a close-up view. However, it appears to be a transient event that is decreasing in size, so follow-up observations may not be possible.

For the moment, it’s looking very likely that it is some kind of short-lived atmospheric feature, and if I had to put money on it, I’d probably edge more toward the mundane — like a high-altitude cloud formation.

But there is one other possibility that immediately came to mind when I saw Jaeschke’s photograph: Could it be the effect of a magnetic umbrella?

Despite the lack of a global magnetic field like Earth’s magnetosphere, Mars does have small pockets of magnetism over its surface. When solar wind particles collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere, highly energetic particles are channeled to the poles and impact the high altitude atmosphere — aurorae are the result. On Mars, however, it’s different. Though the planet may not experience the intense “auroral oval” like its terrestrial counterpart, when the conditions are right, solar particles my hit these small pockets of magnetism. The result? Auroral umbrellas.

The physics is fairly straight forward — the discreet magnetic pockets act as bubbles, directing the charged solar particles around them in an umbrella fashion. There is limited observational evidence for these space weather features, but they should be possible.

As the sun is going through a period of unrest, amplifying the ferocity of solar storms, popping off coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, could the cloud-like feature seen in Jaeschke’s photograph be a bright auroral umbrella? I’m additionally curious as a magnetic feature like this would be rooted in the planet’s crust and would move with the rotation of the planet. It would also be a transient event — much like an atmospheric phenomenon.

The physics may sound plausible, but it would be interesting to see what amateur astronomers think. Could such a feature appear in Mars observations?

For more information, see Jaeschke’s ExoSky website.

Whatever Happened to Hyper-Velocity Star HD 271791?

One scenario: Exploding star flings binary parter away at high velocity (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)
One scenario: Exploding star flings binary parter away at high velocity (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)

HC 271791 is a star with a problem, it’s moving so fast through our galaxy that it will eventually escape from the Milky Way all together. However, there is a growing question mark hanging over the reasons as to why HD 271791 is travelling faster than the galactic escape velocity.

So-called hyper-velocity stars were first predicted to exist back in 1988 when astrophysicist Jack Hills at Los Alamos National Laboratories pondered what would happen if a binary star system should stray too close to the supermassive black hole lurking in the galactic nucleus. Hills calculated that should one of the stars get swallowed by the black hole, the binary partner would be instantly released from the gravitational bind, flinging it away from the black hole.

This would be analogous to a hammer thrower spinning around, accelerating the ball of the hammer rapidly in a circle around his body. When the thrower releases the hammer at just the right moment, the weight is launched into the air, travelling tens of meters across the stadium. The faster the hammer thrower spins the ball, the greater the rotational velocity; when he releases the hammer, rotational velocity is converted to translational velocity, launching the ball away from him. Gold medals all ’round.

So, considering Hills’ model, when one of the stars are lost through black hole death, the other star is launched, hammer-style, at high velocity away from the galactic core. The fast rotational velocity is converted into a hyper-velocity star blasting through interstellar (and eventually intergalactic) space.

Hills actually took his theory and instructed the astronomical community to keep an eye open for speeding stellar objects, and sure enough they were out there. HD 271791 is one of these stars, travelling at a whopping 2.2 million kilometres per hour, a speed far in excess of the galactic escape velocity.

However, the 11 solar mass star didn’t originate from the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole (inside the radio source Sgr. A*), it was propelled from the outermost edge of the galactic disk. There is absolutely no evidence of a supermassive black hole out there, so what could have accelerated HD 271791 to such a high velocity? After all, stars aren’t exactly easy objects to throw around.

If HD 271791 used to be part of a binary pair, its partner would have had to suddenly disappear, releasing its gravitational grip rapidly. One idea is that HD 271791’s sibling exploded as a supernova. This should have provided the sudden loss in a gravitational field — the rapidly expanding supernova plasma will have dispersed the gravitational influence of the star.

However, according to Vasilii Gvaramadze at Moscow State University, the supernova theory may not be sound either; by his calculations a binary pair simply cannot produce such a large velocity. Gvaramadze thinks that a far more complex interaction between two binary pairs (four stars total) or one binary pair and another single star some 300 solar masses. Somehow, this “strong dynamical encounter” caused HD 271791 to be catapulted out of the system, propelling it at a galactic escape velocity.

Although this complex slingshot theory sounds pretty interesting, the supernova theory still sounds like the most plausible answer. But how could a sufficient rotational velocity be attained? As Gvaramadze points out, even an extreme rapidly orbiting binary pair cannot produce a star speeding at 530-920km/s.

This is in contrast to research carried out by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. In a January 2009 press release, Maria Fernanda Nieva points out that this hyper-velocity star possesses the chemical fingerprint of having been in the locality of a supernova explosion. This leads Nieva to conclude that HD 271791 was ejected after its binary partner exploded. What’s more, a Wolf-Rayet may have been the culprit.

Up to now such a scenario has been dismissed for hyper-velocity stars, because the supernova precursor usually is a super-giant star and any companion has to be at large distance in order to orbit the star. Hence the orbital velocities are fairly modest. The most massive stars in the Galaxy, however, end their lives as quite compact so-called Wolf-Rayet stars rather than as super-giants. The compactness of the primary leaves room for a companion to move rapidly on a close orbit of about 1 day-period. When the Wolf-Rayet-star exploded its companion HD 271791 was released at very high speed. In addition, HD 271791 made use of the Milky Way rotation to finally achieve escape velocity. —Maria Fernanda Nieva

Even though Gvaramadze’s stellar pinball theory sounds pretty compelling, the fact that HD 271791 contains a hint of supernova remnant in its atmosphere, the supernova-triggered event sounds more likely. But there is the fact that just because this 11 solar mass star was near a supernova some time in its past, it certainly doesn’t indicate that a supernova was the cause of it’s high speed.

For now I suppose, the jury is still out…

Publication: On the origin of the hypervelocity runaway star HD271791, V.V.Gvaramadze, 2009. arXiv:0909.4928v1 [astro-ph.SR]

Original source: arXiv blog