Since 2001, the Parkes radio telescope in Australia has been picking up mysterious, unidentified bursts of energy that astronomers have since dubbed “fast radio bursts.” At first, because no other telescope in the world had ever seen these bursts, it was assumed that these FRBs were probably just glitches in the telescope’s electronics — but now, 13 years later, a telescope on the other side of the planet in Puerto Rico has detected an FRB. This second FRB detection means that it isn’t just a fluke — and more importantly, that astronomers have absolutely no idea what’s causing them. Some theories have suggested that FRBs originate from an evaporating black hole, or perhaps solar flares from nearby stars, or — and this is coming from one of the astronomers who first recorded the FRBs — they could even be “signatures from extraterrestrial civilizations.”
The first FRB was discovered by chance in 2007, when a team of astrophysicists led by Duncan Lorimer was poring through old archival data from the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia (pictured top). On the night of August 24, 2001, a five-millisecond burst of radio waves erupted from an otherwise calm patch of night sky near the Small Magellanic Cloud and hit the telescope. Lorimer and co analyzed the single burst for years, but without any additional data from further bursts it was impossible to say if it was actually a new astrophysical phenomenon — or just a man-made or local source of interference, such as an electronics glitch or lightning storm. Finally, in 2013, another team finally got the go-ahead to analyze a full year’s worth of data from the Parkes telescope — and sure enough, they found four more similar bursts.
The Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico. Yes, this is where the finale of GoldenEye was filmed.
Up until this point, though, all of these readings were from the same telescope — and, as any scientist will tell you, it’s unwise to draw any conclusions from just a single patient or case study. Now, however, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico — almost 10,000 miles away from Parkes — has detected a fast radio burst as well. Now, some 13 years after it was first detected, and seven years of random-anomaly purgatory, astronomers are taking the FRB very seriously indeed.
As for what causes FRBs, no one knows — and that’s why the astronomical community is so darn excited. The 2013 Parkes study, which found four bursts while looking at a tiny patch of sky for a year, suggests that FRBs are actually quite common, perhaps occurring as regularly as once every 10 seconds. FRBs are also intensely bright. Such regularity and intensity probably rules out a few likely origins, such as the evaporation of black holes or the merger of neutron star pairs. Gamma ray bursts have the right kind of intensity, but they only happen once a day or so. One possible explanation is that FRBs are created by magnetars — not fantastical monsters that you might face in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but rather special neutron stars that can flare up and release as much energy in a millisecond as our Sun releases in 300,000 years.
The Parkes radio telescope in Australia [Image credit: Ian Sutton]Or, of course, the other possibility is that FRBs are produced by some kind of intergalactic extraterrestrial civilization. Speaking to NPR, Duncan Lorimer says with a little bit of chagrin that “there’s even been discussions [about FRBs] in [research papers] about signatures from extraterrestrial civilizations.” Lorimer is referring to a single research paper that explores the possibility of the bursts being intentionally created by an alien civilization to broadcast their existence to the rest of the universe. This is just a theory, of course, but really, we know so little about FRBs that just about any theory is worth investigating at this point. [Read: We’ll find alien life in the next 20 years with our new, awesome telescopes says NASA.]
The next step is to perform real-time triangulation of FRBs to get a better idea of which galaxy they’re originating from. Data from radio telescopes across the world will be analyzed to look for more FRBs, and in the future some telescopes will be specifically tasked with discovering and classifying FRBs. Lorimer, speaking to Scientific American, says, “It’s not very often in astronomy that you get completely new classes of objects coming along, especially ones as strange as these. We are witnessing the birth of an entirely new area of research.”
If there is Alien life than I can guarantee we as humans and our militaries will consider said Aliens as a hostile threat rather than trying to communicate. We fear the unknown instinctively and those of us who might enjoy the fact of alien life would want to make First Contact with that lifeform. If an Alien ship of some kind paid us a visit it’s warm welcome is going to be more than likely a few nukes in it’s face. Hooray for humanity. We already have a space fleet.
Visiting interstellar comet is caught on camera
Image Credit: Gemini Observatory / NSF / AURA
A two-color composite image of the visiting comet.
Astronomers have revealed that comet 2I/Borisov is remarkably similar to comets from our own solar system.
First observed on August 30th, the comet, which is the second confirmed interstellar visitor to our solar system, was announced last month by the Minor Planet Center (MPC) at Harvard University.
The first, an object known as ‘Oumuamua, was discovered back in 2017.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about 2I/Borisov however is just how unremarkable it actually is.
“This is the first comet known to science that arrived from outside the solar system, and it is completely similar to those we see inside the solar system,” said astronomer Michal Drahus.
Its discovery suggests that there are several nearby solar systems very much like our own and that comets like those we find in our local neighborhood are not uncommon elsewhere in the universe.
Observations using the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma, Spain and the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii have shown that 2I/Borisov has a distinctive and familiar coma (a billowing cloud of gas and dust) as well as a short, fat tail.
Its nucleus is thought to be 2km wide .
“This appears to be a completely unremarkable comet on a very remarkable orbit,” said astronomer Colin Snodgrass from Edinburgh University.
“It’s very interesting that this interstellar comet looks like our own ones.”
“It implies that some of the formation processes we are trying to figure out with detailed observation of comets and asteroids, or space missions like Rosetta, are common between stars.”
Study Reveals Six Galaxies Undergoing Sudden, Dramatic Transitions
Galaxies come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and brightnesses, ranging from humdrum ordinary galaxies to luminous active galaxies. While an ordinary galaxy is visible mainly because of the light from its stars, an active galaxy shines brightest at its center, or nucleus, where a supermassive black hole emits a steady blast of bright light as it voraciously consumes nearby gas and dust.
Sitting somewhere on the spectrum between ordinary and active galaxies is another class, known as low-ionization nuclear emission-line region (LINER) galaxies. While LINERs are relatively common, accounting for roughly one-third of all nearby galaxies, astronomers have fiercely debated the main source of light emission from LINERs. Some argue that weakly active galactic nuclei are responsible, while others maintain that star-forming regions outside the galactic nucleus produce the most light.
A team of astronomers observed six mild-mannered LINER galaxies suddenly and surprisingly transforming into ravenous quasars–home to the brightest of all active galactic nuclei. The team reported their observations, which could help demystify the nature of both LINERs and quasars while answering some burning questions about galactic evolution, in the Astrophysical Journal on September 18, 2019. Based on their analysis, the researchers suggest they have discovered an entirely new type of black hole activity at the centers of these six LINER galaxies.
“For one of the six objects, we first thought we had observed a tidal disruption event, which happens when a star passes too close to a supermassive black hole and gets shredded,” said Sara Frederick, a graduate student in the University of Maryland Department of Astronomy and the lead author of the research paper. “But we later found it was a previously dormant black hole undergoing a transition that astronomers call a ‘changing look,’ resulting in a bright quasar. Observing six of these transitions, all in relatively quiet LINER galaxies, suggests that we’ve identified a totally new class of active galactic nucleus.”
All six of the surprising transitions were observed during the first nine months of the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), an automated sky survey project based at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, which began observations in March 2018. UMD is a partner in the ZTF effort, facilitated by the Joint Space-Science Institute (JSI), a partnership between UMD and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Changing look transitions have been documented in other galaxies–most commonly in a class of active galaxies known as Seyfert galaxies. By definition, Seyfert galaxies all have a bright, active galactic nucleus, but Type 1 and Type 2 Seyfert galaxies differ in the amount of light they emit at specific wavelengths. According to Frederick, many astronomers suspect that the difference results from the angle at which astronomers view the galaxies.
Type 1 Seyfert galaxies are thought to face Earth head-on, giving an unobstructed view of their nuclei, while Type 2 Seyfert galaxies are tilted at an oblique angle, such that their nuclei are partially obscured by a donut-shaped ring of dense, dusty gas clouds. Thus, changing look transitions between these two classes present a puzzle for astronomers, since a galaxy’s orientation towards Earth is not expected to change.
Frederick and her colleagues’ new observations may call these assumptions into question.
“We started out trying to understand changing look transformations in Seyfert galaxies. But instead, we found a whole new class of active galactic nucleus capable of transforming a wimpy galaxy to a luminous quasar,” said Suvi Gezari, an associate professor of astronomy at UMD, a co-director of JSI and a co-author of the research paper. “Theory suggests that a quasar should take thousands of years to turn on, but these observations suggest that it can happen very quickly. It tells us that the theory is all wrong. We thought that Seyfert transformation was the major puzzle. But now we have a bigger issue to solve.”
Frederick and her colleagues want to understand how a previously quiet galaxy with a calm nucleus can suddenly transition to a bright beacon of galactic radiation. To learn more, they performed follow-up observations on the objects with the Discovery Channel Telescope, which is operated by the Lowell Observatory in partnership with UMD, Boston University, the University of Toledo and Northern Arizona University. These observations helped to clarify aspects of the transitions, including how the rapidly transforming galactic nuclei interacted with their host galaxies.
“Our findings confirm that LINERs can, in fact, host active supermassive black holes at their centers,” Frederick said. “But these six transitions were so sudden and dramatic, it tells us that there is something altogether different going on in these galaxies. We want to know how such massive amounts of gas and dust can suddenly start falling into a black hole. Because we caught these transitions in the act, it opens up a lot of opportunities to compare what the nuclei looked like before and after the transformation.”
Unlike most quasars, which light up the surrounding clouds of gas and dust far beyond the galactic nucleus, the researchers found that only the gas and dust closest to the nucleus had been turned on. Frederick, Gezari and their collaborators suspect that this activity gradually spreads from the galactic nucleus–and may provide the opportunity to map the development of a newborn quasar.
“It’s surprising that any galaxy can change its look on human time scales. These changes are taking place much more quickly than we can explain with current quasar theory,” Frederick said. “It will take some work to understand what can disrupt a galaxy’s accretion structure and cause these changes on such short order. The forces at play must be very extreme and very dramatic.”
In addition to Frederick and Gezari, UMD-affiliated co-authors of the research paper include Adjunct Associate Professor of Astronomy Bradley Cenko, former Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellow Erin Kara and astronomy graduate student Charlotte Ward.
More information: Sara Frederick et al, A New Class of Changing-look LINERs, The Astrophysical Journal (2019). DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ab3a38
Headline Image: © (Left; infrared & visible light imagery): ESA/Hubble, NASA and S. Smartt (Queen’s University Belfast); (Right; artist’s concept): NASA/JPL-Caltech
Giant black hole at centre of Milky Way exploded ‘recently’ – and blast was felt 200,000 light-years away
THE SUPERMASSIVE black hole at the centre of the Milky Way exploded 3.5million years ago, according to astronomers.
This is considered to be ‘astonishingly recent’ in galactic terms and is changing what scientists thought they knew about our galaxy.
Professor Lisa Kewley, who worked on the study, said: “This is a dramatic event that happened a few million years ago in the Milky Way’s history.
“A massive blast of energy and radiation came right out of the galactic centre and into the surrounding material.
“This shows that the centre of the Milky Way is a much more dynamic place than we had previously thought. It is lucky we’re not residing there!”
The cataclysmic blast ripped through our galaxy and was likely felt 200,00 light years away in the Magellanic Stream.
It is considered to be a recent event because when it happened the dinosaurs had already been wiped out for 63million years and human ancestors were already walking on Earth.
This black hole blast phenomenon is known as a Seyfert flare.
The astronomers think it would have created two enormous ‘ionisation cones’ that would have sliced through the Milky Way.
They think it was caused by nuclear activity in the gigantic black hole, known as Sagittarius A.
It is estimated to have lasted for around 300,000 years, which is extremely short in galactic terms.
Co-author Magda Guglielmo from the University of Sydney said: “These results dramatically change our understanding of the Milky Way.
“We always thought about our Galaxy as an inactive galaxy, with a not so bright centre.
“These new results instead open the possibility of a complete reinterpretation of its evolution and nature.
“The flare event that occurred three million years ago was so powerful that it had consequences on the surrounding of our Galaxy.
“We are the witness to the awakening of the sleeping beauty.”
The research was led by by Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D).
During the study, data was gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope and used to calculate when and how the explosion took place.
It will soon be published in The Astrophysical Journal.
What is a black hole? The key facts
Here’s what you need to know…
What is a black hole?
- A black hole is a region of space where absolutely nothing can escape
- That’s because they have extremely strong gravitational effects, which means once something goes into a black hole, it can’t come back out
- They get their name because even light can’t escape once it’s been sucked in – which is why a black hole is completely dark
What is an event horizon?
- There has to be a point at which you’re so close to a black hole you can’t escape
- Otherwise literally everything in the universe would have been sucked into one
- The point at which you can no longer escape from a black hole’s gravitational pull is called the event horizon
- The event horizon varies between different black holes, depending on their mass and size
What is a singularity?
- The gravitational singularity is the very centre of a black hole
- It’s a one-dimensional point that contains an incredibly large mass in an infinitely small space
- At the singularity, space-time curves infinitely and the gravitational pull is infinitely strong
- Conventional laws of physics stop applying at this point
How are black holes created?
- Most black holes are made when a supergiant star dies
- This happens when stars run out of fuel – like hydrogen – to burn, causing the star to collapse
- When this happens, gravity pulls the centre of the star inwards quickly, and collapses into a tiny ball
- It expands and contracts until one final collapse, causing part of the star to collapse inward thanks to gravity, and the rest of the star to explode outwards
- The remaining central ball is extremely dense, and if it’s especially dense, you get a black hole
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