So bright that it pushes the energy limit of physics.
Billions of light years away, there is a giant ball of hot gas that is brighter than hundreds of billions of suns. It is hard to imagine something so bright. So what is it? Astronomers are not really sure, but they have a couple theories.
They think it may be a very rare type of supernova — called a magnetar — but one so powerful that it pushes the energy limits of physics, or in other words, the most powerful supernova ever seen as of today.
This object is so luminous that astronomers are having a really difficult time finding a way to describe it. “If it really is a magnetar, it’s as if nature took everything we know about magnetars and turned it up to 11,” said Krzysztof Stanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State University and the team’s co-principal investigator, comedically implying it is off the charts on a scale of 1 to 10.
The object was first spotted by the All Sky Automated Survey of Supernovae (ASAS-SN or “assassin”), which is a small network of telescopes used to detect bright objects in the universe. Although this object is ridiculously bright, it still can’t be seen by the naked eye because it is 3.8 billion light years away.
ASAS-SN, since it began in 2014, has discovered nearly 250 supernovae, however this discovery, ASASSN-15lh, stands out because of its sheer magnitude. It is 200 times more powerful than the average supernova, 570 billion times brighter than the sun, and 20 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy combined.
“We have to ask, how is that even possible?” said Stanek. “It takes a lot of energy to shine that bright, and that energy has to come from somewhere.”
Todd Thompson, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, has one possible explanation. The supernova could have generated an extremely rare type of star called a millisecond magnetar — a rapidly spinning and very dense star with a crazy strong magnetic field.
This is how crazy magnetars are: to shine as bright as it does, this magnetar would have to spin at least 1,000 times a second, and convert all of that rotational energy to light with pretty much 100 percent efficiency — making it the most extreme example of a magnetar that is physically possible.
“Given those constraints,” Thompson said, “will we ever see anything more luminous than this? If it truly is a magnetar, then the answer is basically no.”
Over the coming months, the Hubble Space Telescope will try to solve this mystery by giving astronomers time to see the host galaxy surrounding this object. The team may find that this bright object lies in the very center of a large galaxy — meaning the object is not a magnetar at all — and the gas around it is actually evidence of a supermassive black hole.
If that is the case, then the bright light could be explained by a new kind of event, said study co-author Christopher Kochanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State. It would be something that has never, ever been seen before at the center of a galaxy.
Whether it is a magnetar, a supermassive black hole, or something else entirely, the results are probably going to lead to new thinking about how objects form in the universe.
Russia and America’s Long Space Partnership Could Soon Fall Apart
It’s Not You
During the 1960s, the United States and Russia were engaged in a bitter space race. But starting in the 1970s, their rival space agencies started to collaborate. Nowadays, both countries help run the International Space Station.
But it’s starting to look, Ars Technica reports, as though international rivalries could tear that mutually beneficial relationship apart. If it does, it’ll be a blow not just to space research but to the prospects of a friendly, demilitarized international space community.
I Just Need Some Space
One key issue driving the split is that after NASA decommissioned its Space Shuttle program, it started relying on Russia to launch its astronauts and equipment into orbit. Increasingly, though, NASA has inked contracts with American companies like SpaceX, cutting Russia out of the loop.
“I think we are going through a long transition in the relationship,” space historian John Logsdon told Ars. “When Russia joined the station partnership, it demanded and got, on the basis of its human spaceflight experience, treatment as first among US partners. Now, 25 years later, it is no longer a space superpower, but one among several second-tier countries.”
What does China want to do on the Moon’s far side?
What will China’s Chang’e-4 mission learn about the far side of the Moon? Here are a few things the mission is designed to do.
Learn about the Moon’s history
No space mission has ever explored the far side from the surface. As such, it’s the first chance to explore a mysterious region of Earth’s natural satellite.
The “face” that’s never seen from Earth has some key differences to the more familiar “near side”. The far side has a thicker, older crust that is pocked with more craters. There are also very few of the “maria” (dark basaltic “seas” created by lava flows) that are evident on the near side.
Chang’e-4 has reportedly landed at a site known as Von Kármán crater, a 180km depression located in the far side’s southern hemisphere. But Von Kármán lies within a much bigger hole punched in the Moon – the South Pole-Aitken basin.
It’s the oldest, largest and deepest such basin on the Moon and formed when an asteroid – perhaps 500km across, or more – collided with it billions of years ago.
This event was so powerful that it is thought to have ploughed through the Moon’s outer crust layer and through into the zone known as the mantle.
One of the mission’s objectives is to study any exposed material from the mantle present at the landing site. This would provide insights into the internal structure and history of the Moon.
Indeed, data from orbiting spacecraft show that the composition of the basin is different from the surrounding lunar highlands. But exposed mantle material on the surface is just one possibility among several to explain this observation.
The rover will use its panoramic camera to identify interesting locations and its Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) to study minerals in the floor of the crater (as well as of ejecta – rocks thrown out by nearby space impacts).
Additionally, the Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR) instrument will be able to look into the shallow subsurface of the Moon, down to a depth of about 100m. It could probe the thickness of the lunar regolith – the broken up rocks and dust that make up the surface – and shed light on the structure of the upper lunar crust.
After the huge impact that created the South Pole-Aitken basin, a large amount of melted rock would have filled the depression. The science team wants to use Chang’e-4 to identify and study variations in its composition.
Filling an astronomy gap
The far side of the Moon has long been regarded as an ideal spot for conducting a particular kind of radio astronomy – in the low-frequency band – because it’s shielded from the radio noise of Earth.
There’s a frequency band (below about 10MHz) where radio astronomy observations can’t be conducted from Earth, because of manmade radio interference and other, natural factors.
Chang’e-4’s lander is carrying an instrument called the Low Frequency Spectrometer (LFS) which can make low frequency radio observations. It will be used in concert with a similar experiment on the Queqiao orbiting satellite.
The objectives include making a map of the radio sky at low frequencies and studying the behaviour of the Sun.
Speaking in 2016, Liu Tongjie, from the Chinese space agency (CNSA), said: “Since the far side of the Moon is shielded from electromagnetic interference from the Earth, it’s an ideal place to research the space environment and solar bursts, and the probe can ‘listen’ to the deeper reaches of the cosmos.”
Thus, the mission will fill a gap in astronomical observation, allowing scientists to study cosmic phenomena in a way that has never been possible from our planet.
Radiation on the Moon
Several space agencies want to land humans on the Moon in the not-too-distant future, and might send astronauts there for longer than we’ve ever stayed before. So understanding the potential risks from radiation are vital.
Earth’s thick atmosphere and strong magnetic field provide adequate shielding against galactic cosmic rays and energetic charged particles travelling from the Sun.
But astronauts on the Moon will be outside this protective bubble and exposed to particles travelling through open space at near the speed of light – with potentially damaging consequences for their health.
The Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry (LND) experiment, supplied by researchers in Germany, will aim to fill in some gaps in our understanding about the lunar radiation environment.
It will provide dosimetry (measure the ionising radiation dose that could be absorbed by the human body) with a view to future exploration, and contribute to understanding of particles originating from the Sun.
Mysterious signals are coming from deep space
Image Credit: CC BY 4.0 ESO / S. Brunier
Astronomers have picked up a very unusual repeating signal from a distant galaxy and nobody knows what it is.
Known as a fast radio burst – the signal is a powerful burst of radio waves that, despite lasting mere milliseconds, generates as much energy as the Sun does in an entire day.
While several of these bursts have been picked up over the last few years, this one – which is coming from a source 1.5 billion light years away – is particularly unusual because it appears to be repeating.
It is only the second time a repeating fast radio burst has ever been detected by scientists and as things stand, its exact nature and origins remain a complete mystery.
It has even been suggested that these repeating signals could be evidence of intelligent aliens.
“Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there,” said astrophysicist Ingrid Stairs from the University of British Columbia.
“And with more repeaters and more sources available for study, we may be able to understand these cosmic puzzles – where they’re from and what causes them.”
Source: BBC News |
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