Giant Black Hole Pair Photobombs Andromeda Galaxy

It seems like even black holes can’t resist the temptation to insert themselves unannounced into photographs. A cosmic photobomb found as a background object in images of the nearby Andromeda galaxy has revealed what could be the most tightly coupled pair of supermassive black holes ever seen.

Astronomers made this remarkable discovery using X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and optical data from ground-based telescopes, Gemini-North in Hawaii and the Caltech’s Palomar Transient Factory in California.

This unusual source, called LGGS J004527.30+413254.3 (J0045+41 for short), was seen in optical and X-ray images of Andromeda, also known as M31. Until recently, scientists thought J0045+41 was an object within M31, a large spiral galaxy located relatively nearby at a distance of about 2.5 million light years from Earth. The new data, however, revealed that J0045+41 was actually at a much greater distance, around 2.6 billion light years from Earth.

“We were looking for a special type of star in M31 and thought we had found one,” said Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein of the University of Washington in Seattle, WA, who led the paper describing this discovery. “We were surprised and excited to find something far stranger!”

Even more intriguing than the large distance of J0045+41 is that it likely contains a pair of giant black holes in close orbit around each other. The estimated total mass for these two supermassive black holes is about two hundred million times the mass of our Sun.

Previously, a different team of astronomers had seen periodic variations in the optical light from J0045+41, and, believing it to be a member of M31, classified it as a pair of stars that orbited around each other about once every 80 days.

The intensity of the X-ray source observed by Chandra revealed this original classification was incorrect. Rather, J0045+41 had to be either a binary system in M31 containing a neutron star or black hole that is pulling material from a companion—the sort of system Dorn-Wallenstein was originally searching for in M31—or a much more massive and distant system that contains at least one rapidly growing supermassive black hole.
However, a spectrum from the Gemini-North telescope taken by the University of Washington team showed that J0045+41 must host at least one supermassive black hole and allowed the researchers to estimate the distance. The spectrum also provided possible evidence that a second black hole was present in J0045+41 and moving at a different velocity from the first, as expected if the two black holes are orbiting each other.

The team then used optical data from the Palomar Transient Factory to search for periodic variations in the light from J0045+41. They found several periods in J0045+41, including ones at about 80 and 320 days. The ratio between these periods matches that predicted by theoretical work on the dynamics of two giant black holes orbiting each other.

“This is the first time such strong evidence has been found for a pair of orbiting giant black holes,” said co-author Emily Levesque of the University of Washington.

The researchers estimate that the two putative black holes orbit each other with a separation of only a few hundred times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This corresponds to less than one hundredth of a light year. By comparison, the nearest star to our Sun is about four light years away.

Such a system could be formed as a consequence of the merger, billions of years earlier, of two galaxies that each contained a supermassive black hole. At their current close separation, the two black holes are inevitably being drawn closer together as they emit gravitational waves.

“We’re unable to pinpoint exactly how much mass each of these black holes contains,” said co-author John Ruan, also of the University of Washington. “Depending on that, we think this pair will collide and merge into one black hole in as little as 350 years or as much as 360,000 years.”

If J0045+41 indeed contains two closely orbiting black holes it will be emitting gravitational waves, however the signal would not be detectable with LIGO and Virgo. These ground-based facilities have detected the mergers of stellar-mass black holes weighing no more than about 60 Suns and, very recently, one between two neutron stars.

“Supermassive black hole mergers occur in slow motion compared to stellar-mass black holes”, said Dorn-Wallenstein. “The much slower changes in the gravitational waves from a system like J0045+41 can be best detected by a different type of gravitational wave facility called a Pulsar Timing Array.”

New Early Gravity Signals To Quantify The Magnitude Of Strong Earthquakes

After an earthquake, there is a disturbance in the field of gravity almost instantaneously. This could be recorded before the seismic waves that seismologists usually analyze. In a study published in Science on December 1, 2017, a team formed of researchers from CNRS, IPGP, the Université Paris Diderot and Caltech has managed to observe these weak signals related to gravity and to understand where they come from. Because they are sensitive to the magnitude of earthquakes, these signals may play an important role in the early identification of the occurrence of a major earthquake.

This work came out of the interaction between seismologists who wanted to better understand earthquakes and physicists who were developing fine gravity measurements with a view to detecting gravitational waves. Earthquakes change the equilibrium of forces on Earth brutally and emit seismic waves whose consequences may be devastating. But these same waves also disturb Earth’s field of gravity, which emits a different signal. This is particularly interesting with a view to fast quantification of tremors because it moves at the speed of light, unlike tremor waves, which propagate at speeds between 3 and 10 km/s. So seismometers at a station located 1000 km from the epicenter may potentially detect this signal more than two minutes before the seismic waves arrive.

The work presented here, which follows on a 2016 study which demonstrated this signal for the first time, greatly increases its understanding. First, the scientists did indeed observe these signals on the data from about ten seismometers located between 500 and 3000 km from the epicenter of the 2011 Japanese earthquake (magnitude 9.1). From their observations, the researchers then demonstrated that these signals were due to two effects. The first is the gravity change that occurs at the location of the seismometer, which changes the equilibrium position of the instrument’s mass. The second effect, which is indirect, is due to the gravity change everywhere on Earth, which disturbs the equilibrium of the forces and produces new seismic waves that will reach the seismometer.

Taking account of these two effects, the researchers have shown that this gravity-related signal is very sensitive to the earthquake’s magnitude, which makes it a good candidate for rapidly quantifying the magnitude of strong earthquakes. The future challenge is to manage to exploit this signal for magnitudes below about 8 to 8.5, because below this threshold, the signal is too weak relative to the seismic noise emitted naturally by Earth, and dissociating it from this noise is complicated. So several technologies, including some inspired from instruments developed to detect gravitational waves, are being envisaged to take a new step forward in detection of these precious signals.

Volcano In Indonesia Shoots Ash Nearly 5 Miles Into The Atmosphere

An erupting volcano with a deadly history on Indonesia’s island of Bali has spread drifting ash nearly five miles into the atmosphere and forced the island’s international airport to close two days this week.

Authorities have told 100,000 people to leave an area extending six miles from Mount Agung as it belches gray and white ash plumes.

The volcano’s last major eruption in 1963 killed about 1,100 people. It’s unclear how bad the current eruption will get or how long it will last.

Nearly 40,000 people are staying in 225 shelters, according to the Disaster Mitigation Agency in Karangasem. But tens of thousands of villagers have remained in their homes because they feel safe or don’t want to abandon their farms.

Flows of volcanic mud have been spotted on Agung’s slopes, and more are possible because it’s the rainy season, said Richard Arculus, a volcano expert at Australian National University.

“They’re not making a lot of noise. It’s just suddenly coming like a flash flood,” he said. “. . . You do not want to be near them.”

PART II – Press Release of Smallest Ozone Hole in 30 Years is Misguided; Here’s Why

Many of you will remember the numerous press release announcing the ozone hole was the smallest it has been over the last 30 years going back to 1988. NASA, NOAA and a half dozen other space agencies have stated the cause of this reduction was due to global warming. Yes, global warming, due to the warmer jet stream vortex around the Antarctic. This is ‘political tug’ number 1.

Here comes “political tug” number 2. Just two or three paragraphs later, the covey reports make a 180° turn reminding us that it is humans created the ozone hole, clearly insinuating only humans can heal it. Of course they go on to say most humans alive today will never see this because the ozone hole will not be healed until 2070.

Now here is Mitch’s prediction. Within around eight months, the healing ozone hole will be as large – or larger than it was in 1985. Why eight months? Because recent research, as a result of incredible modern technology such as Fermi, Voyager, Cassini, Ace, Ulysses, Planck, and Herschel to name a few.

If my prediction is correct, you have to ask yourself: “What will global warming enthusiast will say when the ozone is “larger” in less than a year from now?” You have known my reports on a lessening magnetic field, and an increase in galactic cosmic rays – and then add the fact we are approximately two years away from Cycle 24’s solar minimum apex.

New research indicates a time lag of approximately eight months between solar-activity data and cosmic-ray flux measurements in space. In addition, factor in solar minimum (lowest period of solar activity), and Earth’s weakening magnetic field, the sum of which would indicate a period increased of cosmic ray showers.

There may be a Part III highlighting what is only recently been acknowledged, that high-energy cosmic rays penetrate the Earth’s lithosphere which I hypothesize contributes to the heating of the surface, including the world’s oceans.


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M– USE Probes Uncharted Depths Of Hubble Ultra Deep Field

The M– USE HUDF Survey team, led by Roland Bacon of the Centre de recherche astrophysique de Lyon (CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1/ENS de Lyon), France, used M– USE (Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer/ to observe the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (heic0406/, a much-studied patch of the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace). This resulted in the deepest spectroscopic observations ever made; precise spectroscopic information was measured for 1600 galaxies, ten times as many galaxies as has been painstakingly obtained in this field over the last decade by ground-based telescopes.

The original HUDF images were pioneering deep-field observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope published in 2004. They probed more deeply than ever before and revealed a menagerie of galaxies dating back to less than a billion years after the Big Bang. The area was subsequently observed many times by Hubble and other telescopes, resulting in the deepest view of the Universe to date. Now, despite the depth of the Hubble observations, M– USE has — among many other results — revealed 72 galaxies never seen before in this very tiny area of the sky.

Roland Bacon takes up the story: “M– USE can do something that Hubble can’t — it splits up the light from every point in the image into its component colours to create a spectrum. This allows us to measure the distance, colours and other properties of all the galaxies we can see — including some that are invisible to Hubble itself.”

The M– USE data provides a new view of dim, very distant galaxies, seen near the beginning of the Universe about 13 billion years ago. It has detected galaxies 100 times fainter than in previous surveys, adding to an already richly observed field and deepening our understanding of galaxies across the ages.

The survey unearthed 72 candidate galaxies known as Lyman-alpha emitters that shine only in Lyman-alpha light. Current understanding of star formation cannot fully explain these galaxies, which just seem to shine brightly in this one colour. Because M– USE disperses the light into its component colours these objects become apparent, but they remain invisible in deep direct images such as those from Hubble.

“M– USE has the unique ability to extract information about some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe — even in a part of the sky that is already very well studied,” explains Jarle Brinchmann, lead author of one of the papers describing results from this survey, from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences at CAUP in Porto, Portugal. “We learn things about these galaxies that is only possible with spectroscopy, such as chemical content and internal motions — not galaxy by galaxy but all at once for all the galaxies!”

Another major finding of this study was the systematic detection of luminous hydrogen halos around galaxies in the early Universe, giving astronomers a new and promising way to study how material flows in and out of early galaxies.

Many other potential applications of this dataset are explored in the series of papers, and they include studying the role of faint galaxies during cosmic reionisation (starting just 380,000 years after the Big Bang), galaxy merger rates when the Universe was young, galactic winds, star formation as well as mapping the motions of stars in the early Universe.

“Remarkably, these data were all taken without the use of M– USE’s recent Adaptive Optics Facility upgrade. The activation of the AOF after a decade of intensive work by ESO’s astronomers and engineers promises yet more revolutionary data in the future,” concludes Roland Bacon.

Traces Of Life On Nearest Exoplanets May Be Hidden In Equatorial Trap

New simulations show that the search for life on other planets may well be more difficult than previously assumed, in research published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study indicates that unusual air flow patterns could hide atmospheric components from telescopic observations, with direct consequences for formulating the optimal strategy for searching for (oxygen-producing) life such as bacteria or plants on exoplanets.

Current hopes of detecting life on planets outside of our own Solar System rest on examining the planet’s atmosphere to identify chemical compounds that may be produced by living beings. Ozone — a variety of oxygen — is one such molecule, and is seen as one of the possible tracers that may allow us to detect life on another planet from afar.

In Earth’s atmosphere, this compound forms the ozone layer that protects us from the Sun’s harmful UV radiation. On an alien planet, ozone could be one piece in the puzzle that indicates the presence of oxygen-producing bacteria or plants.

But now researchers, led by Ludmila Carone of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, have found that these tracers might be better hidden than we previously thought. Carone and her team considered some of the nearest exoplanets that have the potential to be Earth-like: Proxima b, which is orbiting the star nearest to the Sun (Proxima Centauri), and the most promising of the TRAPPIST-1 family of planets, TRAPPIST-1d.

These are examples of planets that orbit their host star in 25 days or fewer, and as a side effect have one side permanently facing their star, and the other side permanently facing away. Modelling the flow of air within the atmospheres of these planets, Carone and her colleagues found that this unusual day-night divide can have a marked effect on the distribution of ozone across the atmosphere: at least for these planets, the major air flow may lead from the poles to the equator, systematically trapping the ozone in the equatorial region.

Carone says: “Absence of traces of ozone in future observations does not have to mean there is no oxygen at all. It might be found in different places than on Earth, or it might be very well hidden.”

Such unexpected atmospheric structures may also have consequences for habitability, given that most of the planet would not be protected against ultraviolet (UV) radiation. “In principle, an exoplanet with an ozone layer that covers only the equatorial region may still be habitable,” Carone explains. “Proxima b and TRAPPIST-1d orbit red dwarfs, reddish stars that emit very little harmful UV light to begin with. On the other hand, these stars can be very temperamental, and prone to violent outbursts of harmful radiation including UV.”

The combination of advances in modelling and much better data from telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope is likely to lead to significant progress in this exciting field. “We all knew from the beginning that the hunt for alien life will be a challenge,” says Carone. “As it turns out, we are only just scratching the surface of how difficult it really will be.”

Time Between World-Changing Volcanic Super-Eruptions Less Than Previously Thought

After analysing a database of geological records dated within the last 100,000 years, a team of scientists from the University of Bristol has discovered the average time between so-called volcanic super-eruptions is actually much less than previously thought.

Volcanoes and bolides, such as asteroids, are geohazards powerful enough to be destructive on a global scale.

One recent assessment described them as capable of returning humanity to a pre-civilization state.

The largest explosive eruptions are termed ‘super-eruptions’, and produce in excess of 1,000 gigatons of erupted mass, enough to blanket an entire continent with volcanic ash, and change global weather patterns for decades.

The team from the University of Bristol’s Schools of Earth Sciences and Mathematics estimated how often the largest explosive eruptions happen. Their analysis indicates that the average time between super-eruptions is only slightly longer than the age of our civilization — dating from the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago.

Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science, said: “The previous estimate, made in 2004, was that super-eruptions occurred on average every 45 — 714 thousand years, comfortably longer than our civilization.

“But in our paper just published, we re-estimate this range as 5.2 — 48 thousand years, with a best guess value of 17 thousand years.”

According to geological records, the two most recent super-eruptions were between 20 and 30 thousand years ago.

Professor Rougier added: “On balance, we have been slightly lucky not to experience any super-eruptions since then.

“But it is important to appreciate that the absence of super-eruptions in the last 20 thousand years does not imply that one is overdue. Nature is not that regular.

“What we can say is that volcanoes are more threatening to our civilization than previously thought.”

Our civilization will change in unimaginable ways over the next thousand years, and there are many other ways in which it might suffer a catastrophic blow well before the next super-eruption.

On that basis, Professor Rougier says there is little need to plan now for a super-eruption, especially with many other pressing issues to address, which will affect the current and the next generation of humans. But large eruptions, which are much more frequent, can still be devastating for communities and even countries, and careful planning is a crucial part of disaster risk reduction.

Regarding the paper, Professor Rougier explained: “As well as improving our understanding of global volcanism, our paper develops relatively simple techniques to analyse incomplete and error-prone geological and historical records of rare events.

“These difficulties are ubiquitous in geohazards, and we expect our approach will be used for reappraising other types of hazard, such as earthquakes.”