Dark ‘Noodles’ May Lurk In The Milky Way

Invisible structures shaped like noodles, lasagne sheets or hazelnuts could be floating around in our Galaxy radically challenging our understanding of gas conditions in the Milky Way.

dark noodles

CSIRO astronomer and first author of a paper released in Science Dr Keith Bannister said the structures appear to be ‘lumps’ in the thin gas that lies between the stars in our Galaxy.

“They could radically change ideas about this interstellar gas, which is the Galaxy’s star recycling depot, housing material from old stars that will be refashioned into new ones,” Dr Bannister said.

Dr Bannister and his colleagues described breakthrough observations of one of these ‘lumps’ that have allowed them to make the first estimate of its shape.

The observations were made possible by an innovative new technique the scientists employed using CSIRO’s Compact Array telescope in eastern Australia.

Astronomers got the first hints of the mysterious objects 30 years ago when they saw radio waves from a bright, distant galaxy called a quasar varying wildly in strength.

They figured out this behaviour was the work of our Galaxy’s invisible ‘atmosphere’, a thin gas of electrically charged particles which fills the space between the stars.

“Lumps in this gas work like lenses, focusing and defocusing the radio waves, making them appear to strengthen and weaken over a period of days, weeks or months,” Dr Bannister said.

These episodes were so hard to find that researchers had given up looking for them.

But Dr Bannister and his colleagues realised they could do it with CSIRO’s Compact Array.

Pointing the telescope at a quasar called PKS 1939-315 in the constellation of Sagittarius, they saw a lensing event that went on for a year.

Astronomers think the lenses are about the size of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and lie approximately 3000 light-years away — 1000 times further than the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

Until now they knew nothing about their shape, however, the team has shown this lens could not be a solid lump or shaped like a bent sheet.

“We could be looking at a flat sheet, edge on,” CSIRO team member Dr Cormac Reynolds said.

“Or we might be looking down the barrel of a hollow cylinder like a noodle, or at a spherical shell like a hazelnut.”

Getting more observations will “definitely sort out the geometry,” he said.

While the lensing event went on, Dr Bannister’s team observed it with other radio and optical telescopes.

The optical light from the quasar didn’t vary while the radio lensing was taking place. This is important, Dr Bannister said, because it means earlier optical surveys that looked for dark lumps in space couldn’t have found the one his team has detected.

So what can these lenses be? One suggestion is cold clouds of gas that stay pulled together by the force of their own gravity. That model, worked through in detail, implies the clouds must make up a substantial fraction of the mass of our Galaxy.

Nobody knows how the invisible lenses could form. “But these structures are real, and our observations are a big step forward in determining their size and shape,” Dr Bannister said.

Evidence Of A Real Ninth Planet Discovered

Caltech researchers have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system. The object, which the researchers have nicknamed Planet Nine, has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than does Neptune (which orbits the Sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles). In fact, it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the Sun.

ninght planet

The researchers, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, discovered the planet’s existence through mathematical modeling and computer simulations but have not yet observed the object directly.

“This would be a real ninth planet,” says Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy. “There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.”

Brown notes that the putative ninth planet — at 5,000 times the mass of Pluto — is sufficiently large that there should be no debate about whether it is a true planet. Unlike the class of smaller objects now known as dwarf planets, Planet Nine gravitationally dominates its neighborhood of the solar system. In fact, it dominates a region larger than any of the other known planets — a fact that Brown says makes it “the most planet-y of the planets in the whole solar system.”

Batygin and Brown describe their work in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal and show how Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.

“Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there,” says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. “For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system’s planetary census is incomplete.”

The road to the theoretical discovery was not straightforward. In 2014, a former postdoc of Brown’s, Chad Trujillo, and his colleague Scott Shepherd published a paper noting that 13 of the most distant objects in the Kuiper Belt are similar with respect to an obscure orbital feature. To explain that similarity, they suggested the possible presence of a small planet. Brown thought the planet solution was unlikely, but his interest was piqued.

He took the problem down the hall to Batygin, and the two started what became a year-and-a-half-long collaboration to investigate the distant objects. As an observer and a theorist, respectively, the researchers approached the work from very different perspectives — Brown as someone who looks at the sky and tries to anchor everything in the context of what can be seen, and Batygin as someone who puts himself within the context of dynamics, considering how things might work from a physics standpoint. Those differences allowed the researchers to challenge each other’s ideas and to consider new possibilities. “I would bring in some of these observational aspects; he would come back with arguments from theory, and we would push each other. I don’t think the discovery would have happened without that back and forth,” says Brown. ” It was perhaps the most fun year of working on a problem in the solar system that I’ve ever had.”

Fairly quickly Batygin and Brown realized that the six most distant objects from Trujillo and Shepherd’s original collection all follow elliptical orbits that point in the same direction in physical space. That is particularly surprising because the outermost points of their orbits move around the solar system, and they travel at different rates.

“It’s almost like having six hands on a clock all moving at different rates, and when you happen to look up, they’re all in exactly the same place,” says Brown. The odds of having that happen are something like 1 in 100, he says. But on top of that, the orbits of the six objects are also all tilted in the same way — pointing about 30 degrees downward in the same direction relative to the plane of the eight known planets. The probability of that happening is about 0.007 percent. “Basically it shouldn’t happen randomly,” Brown says. “So we thought something else must be shaping these orbits.”

The first possibility they investigated was that perhaps there are enough distant Kuiper Belt objects — some of which have not yet been discovered — to exert the gravity needed to keep that subpopulation clustered together. The researchers quickly ruled this out when it turned out that such a scenario would require the Kuiper Belt to have about 100 times the mass it has today.

That left them with the idea of a planet. Their first instinct was to run simulations involving a planet in a distant orbit that encircled the orbits of the six Kuiper Belt objects, acting like a giant lasso to wrangle them into their alignment. Batygin says that almost works but does not provide the observed eccentricities precisely. “Close, but no cigar,” he says.

Then, effectively by accident, Batygin and Brown noticed that if they ran their simulations with a massive planet in an anti-aligned orbit — an orbit in which the planet’s closest approach to the sun, or perihelion, is 180 degrees across from the perihelion of all the other objects and known planets — the distant Kuiper Belt objects in the simulation assumed the alignment that is actually observed.

“Your natural response is ‘This orbital geometry can’t be right. This can’t be stable over the long term because, after all, this would cause the planet and these objects to meet and eventually collide,'” says Batygin. But through a mechanism known as mean-motion resonance, the anti-aligned orbit of the ninth planet actually prevents the Kuiper Belt objects from colliding with it and keeps them aligned. As orbiting objects approach each other they exchange energy. So, for example, for every four orbits Planet Nine makes, a distant Kuiper Belt object might complete nine orbits. They never collide. Instead, like a parent maintaining the arc of a child on a swing with periodic pushes, Planet Nine nudges the orbits of distant Kuiper Belt objects such that their configuration with relation to the planet is preserved.

“Still, I was very skeptical,” says Batygin. “I had never seen anything like this in celestial mechanics.”

But little by little, as the researchers investigated additional features and consequences of the model, they became persuaded. “A good theory should not only explain things that you set out to explain. It should hopefully explain things that you didn’t set out to explain and make predictions that are testable,” says Batygin.

And indeed Planet Nine’s existence helps explain more than just the alignment of the distant Kuiper Belt objects. It also provides an explanation for the mysterious orbits that two of them trace. The first of those objects, dubbed Sedna, was discovered by Brown in 2003. Unlike standard-variety Kuiper Belt objects, which get gravitationally “kicked out” by Neptune and then return back to it, Sedna never gets very close to Neptune. A second object like Sedna, known as 2012 VP113, was announced by Trujillo and Shepherd in 2014. Batygin and Brown found that the presence of Planet Nine in its proposed orbit naturally produces Sedna-like objects by taking a standard Kuiper Belt object and slowly pulling it away into an orbit less connected to Neptune.

But the real kicker for the researchers was the fact that their simulations also predicted that there would be objects in the Kuiper Belt on orbits inclined perpendicularly to the plane of the planets. Batygin kept finding evidence for these in his simulations and took them to Brown. “Suddenly I realized there are objects like that,” recalls Brown. In the last three years, observers have identified four objects tracing orbits roughly along one perpendicular line from Neptune and one object along another. “We plotted up the positions of those objects and their orbits, and they matched the simulations exactly,” says Brown. “When we found that, my jaw sort of hit the floor.”

“When the simulation aligned the distant Kuiper Belt objects and created objects like Sedna, we thought this is kind of awesome — you kill two birds with one stone,” says Batygin. “But with the existence of the planet also explaining these perpendicular orbits, not only do you kill two birds, you also take down a bird that you didn’t realize was sitting in a nearby tree.”

Where did Planet Nine come from and how did it end up in the outer solar system? Scientists have long believed that the early solar system began with four planetary cores that went on to grab all of the gas around them, forming the four gas planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Over time, collisions and ejections shaped them and moved them out to their present locations. “But there is no reason that there could not have been five cores, rather than four,” says Brown. Planet Nine could represent that fifth core, and if it got too close to Jupiter or Saturn, it could have been ejected into its distant, eccentric orbit.

Batygin and Brown continue to refine their simulations and learn more about the planet’s orbit and its influence on the distant solar system. Meanwhile, Brown and other colleagues have begun searching the skies for Planet Nine. Only the planet’s rough orbit is known, not the precise location of the planet on that elliptical path. If the planet happens to be close to its perihelion, Brown says, astronomers should be able to spot it in images captured by previous surveys. If it is in the most distant part of its orbit, the world’s largest telescopes — such as the twin 10-meter telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope, all on Mauna Kea in Hawaii — will be needed to see it. If, however, Planet Nine is now located anywhere in between, many telescopes have a shot at finding it.

“I would love to find it,” says Brown. “But I’d also be perfectly happy if someone else found it. That is why we’re publishing this paper. We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching.”

In terms of understanding more about the solar system’s context in the rest of the universe, Batygin says that in a couple of ways, this ninth planet that seems like such an oddball to us would actually make our solar system more similar to the other planetary systems that astronomers are finding around other stars. First, most of the planets around other sunlike stars have no single orbital range — that is, some orbit extremely close to their host stars while others follow exceptionally distant orbits. Second, the most common planets around other stars range between 1 and 10 Earth-masses.

“One of the most startling discoveries about other planetary systems has been that the most common type of planet out there has a mass between that of Earth and that of Neptune,” says Batygin. “Until now, we’ve thought that the solar system was lacking in this most common type of planet. Maybe we’re more normal after all.”

Brown, well known for the significant role he played in the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet adds, “All those people who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled to know that there is a real planet out there still to be found,” he says. “Now we can go and find this planet and make the solar system have nine planets once again.”

The paper is titled “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System.”

Memory Capacity Of Brain Is 10 Times More Than Previously Thought

Salk researchers and collaborators have achieved critical insight into the size of neural connections, putting the memory capacity of the brain far higher than common estimates. The new work also answers a longstanding question as to how the brain is so energy efficient and could help engineers build computers that are incredibly powerful but also conserve energy.

brain

“This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience,” says Terry Sejnowski, Salk professor and co-senior author of the paper, which was published in eLife. “We discovered the key to unlocking the design principle for how hippocampal neurons function with low energy but high computation power. Our new measurements of the brain’s memory capacity increase conservative estimates by a factor of 10 to at least a petabyte, in the same ballpark as the World Wide Web.”

Our memories and thoughts are the result of patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the brain. A key part of the activity happens when branches of neurons, much like electrical wire, interact at certain junctions, known as synapses. An output ‘wire’ (an axon) from one neuron connects to an input ‘wire’ (a dendrite) of a second neuron. Signals travel across the synapse as chemicals called neurotransmitters to tell the receiving neuron whether to convey an electrical signal to other neurons. Each neuron can have thousands of these synapses with thousands of other neurons.

“When we first reconstructed every dendrite, axon, glial process, and synapse from a volume of hippocampus the size of a single red blood cell, we were somewhat bewildered by the complexity and diversity amongst the synapses,” says Kristen Harris, co-senior author of the work and professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin. “While I had hoped to learn fundamental principles about how the brain is organized from these detailed reconstructions, I have been truly amazed at the precision obtained in the analyses of this report.”

Synapses are still a mystery, though their dysfunction can cause a range of neurological diseases. Larger synapses–with more surface area and vesicles of neurotransmitters–are stronger, making them more likely to activate their surrounding neurons than medium or small synapses.

The Salk team, while building a 3D reconstruction of rat hippocampus tissue (the memory center of the brain), noticed something unusual. In some cases, a single axon from one neuron formed two synapses reaching out to a single dendrite of a second neuron, signifying that the first neuron seemed to be sending a duplicate message to the receiving neuron.

At first, the researchers didn’t think much of this duplicity, which occurs about 10 percent of the time in the hippocampus. But Tom Bartol, a Salk staff scientist, had an idea: if they could measure the difference between two very similar synapses such as these, they might glean insight into synaptic sizes, which so far had only been classified in the field as small, medium and large.

To do this, researchers used advanced microscopy and computational algorithms they had developed to image rat brains and reconstruct the connectivity, shapes, volumes and surface area of the brain tissue down to a nanomolecular level.

The scientists expected the synapses would be roughly similar in size, but were surprised to discover the synapses were nearly identical.

“We were amazed to find that the difference in the sizes of the pairs of synapses were very small, on average, only about eight percent different in size. No one thought it would be such a small difference. This was a curveball from nature,” says Bartol.

Because the memory capacity of neurons is dependent upon synapse size, this eight percent difference turned out to be a key number the team could then plug into their algorithmic models of the brain to measure how much information could potentially be stored in synaptic connections.

It was known before that the range in sizes between the smallest and largest synapses was a factor of 60 and that most are small.

But armed with the knowledge that synapses of all sizes could vary in increments as little as eight percent between sizes within a factor of 60, the team determined there could be about 26 categories of sizes of synapses, rather than just a few.

“Our data suggests there are 10 times more discrete sizes of synapses than previously thought,” says Bartol. In computer terms, 26 sizes of synapses correspond to about 4.7 “bits” of information. Previously, it was thought that the brain was capable of just one to two bits for short and long memory storage in the hippocampus.

“This is roughly an order of magnitude of precision more than anyone has ever imagined,” says Sejnowski.

What makes this precision puzzling is that hippocampal synapses are notoriously unreliable. When a signal travels from one neuron to another, it typically activates that second neuron only 10 to 20 percent of the time.

“We had often wondered how the remarkable precision of the brain can come out of such unreliable synapses,” says Bartol. One answer, it seems, is in the constant adjustment of synapses, averaging out their success and failure rates over time. The team used their new data and a statistical model to find out how many signals it would take a pair of synapses to get to that eight percent difference.

The researchers calculated that for the smallest synapses, about 1,500 events cause a change in their size/ability (20 minutes) and for the largest synapses, only a couple hundred signaling events (1 to 2 minutes) cause a change.

“This means that every 2 or 20 minutes, your synapses are going up or down to the next size. The synapses are adjusting themselves according to the signals they receive,” says Bartol.

“Our prior work had hinted at the possibility that spines and axons that synapse together would be similar in size, but the reality of the precision is truly remarkable and lays the foundation for whole new ways to think about brains and computers,” says Harris. “The work resulting from this collaboration has opened a new chapter in the search for learning and memory mechanisms.” Harris adds that the findings suggest more questions to explore, for example, if similar rules apply for synapses in other regions of the brain and how those rules differ during development and as synapses change during the initial stages of learning.

“The implications of what we found are far-reaching,” adds Sejnowski. “Hidden under the apparent chaos and messiness of the brain is an underlying precision to the size and shapes of synapses that was hidden from us.”

The findings also offer a valuable explanation for the brain’s surprising efficiency. The waking adult brain generates only about 20 watts of continuous power–as much as a very dim light bulb. The Salk discovery could help computer scientists build ultraprecise, but energy-efficient, computers, particularly ones that employ “deep learning” and artificial neural nets–techniques capable of sophisticated learning and analysis, such as speech, object recognition and translation.

“This trick of the brain absolutely points to a way to design better computers,” says Sejnowski. “Using probabilistic transmission turns out to be as accurate and require much less energy for both computers and brains.”

Signs Of Second Largest Black Hole In The Milky Way

Astronomers using the Nobeyama 45-m Radio Telescope have detected signs of an invisible black hole with a mass of 100 thousand times the mass of the Sun around the center of the Milky Way. The team assumes that this possible “intermediate mass” black hole is a key to understanding the birth of the supermassive black holes located in the centers of galaxies.

black hole

A team of astronomers led by Tomoharu Oka, a professor at Keio University in Japan, has found an enigmatic gas cloud, called CO-0.40-0.22, only 200 light years away from the center of the Milky Way. What makes CO-0.40-0.22 unusual is its surprisingly wide velocity dispersion: the cloud contains gas with a very wide range of speeds. The team found this mysterious feature with two radio telescopes, the Nobeyama 45-m Telescope in Japan and the ASTE Telescope in Chile, both operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

To investigate the detailed structure, the team observed CO-0.40-0.22 with the Nobeyama 45-m Telescope again to obtain 21 emission lines from 18 molecules. The results show that the cloud has an elliptical shape and consists of two components: a compact but low density component with a very wide velocity dispersion of 100 km/s, and a dense component extending 10 light years with a narrow velocity dispersion.

What makes this velocity dispersion so wide? There are no holes inside of the cloud. Also, X-ray and infrared observations did not find any compact objects. These features indicate that the velocity dispersion is not caused by a local energy input, such as supernova explosions.

The team performed a simple simulation of gas clouds flung by a strong gravity source. In the simulation, the gas clouds are first attracted by the source and their speeds increase as they approach it, reaching maximum at the closest point to the object. After that the clouds continue past the object and their speeds decrease. The team found that a model using a gravity source with 100 thousand times the mass of the Sun inside an area with a radius of 0.3 light years provided the best fit to the observed data. “Considering the fact that no compact objects are seen in X-ray or infrared observations,” Oka, the lead author of the paper that appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, explains “as far as we know, the best candidate for the compact massive object is a black hole.”

If that is the case, this is the first detection of an intermediate mass black hole. Astronomers already know about two sizes of black holes: stellar-mass black holes, formed after the gigantic explosions of very massive stars; and supermassive black holes (SMBH) often found at the centers of galaxies. The mass of SMBH ranges from several million to billions of times the mass of the Sun. A number of SMBHs have been found, but no one knows how the SMBHs are formed. One idea is that they are formed from mergers of many intermediate mass black holes. But this raises a problem because so far no firm observational evidence for intermediate mass black holes has been found. If the cloud CO-0.40-0.22, located only 200 light years away from Sgr A* (the 400 million solar mass SMBH at the center of the Milky Way), contains an intermediate mass black hole, it might support the intermediate mass black hole merger scenario of SMBH evolution.

These results open a new way to search for black holes with radio telescopes. Recent observations have revealed that there are a number of wide-velocity-dispersion compact clouds similar to CO-0.40-0.22. The team proposes that some of those clouds might contain black holes. A study suggested that there are 100 million black holes in the Milky Way Galaxy, but X-ray observations have only found dozens so far. Most of the black holes may be “dark” and very difficult to see directly at any wavelength. “Investigations of gas motion with radio telescopes may provide a complementary way to search for dark black holes” said Oka. “The on-going wide area survey observations of the Milky Way with the Nobeyama 45-m Telescope and high-resolution observations of nearby galaxies using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have the potential to increase the number of black hole candidates dramatically.”

The observation results were published as Oka et al. “Signature of an Intermediate-Mass Black Hole in the Central Molecular Zone of Our Galaxy” in Astrophysical Journal Letters issued on January 1, 2016. The research team members are Tomoharu Oka, Reiko Mizuno, Kodai Miura, Shunya Takekawa, all at Keio University.

Extreme Turbulence Roiling ‘Most Luminous Galaxy’ In The Universe

The most luminous galaxy in the Universe — a so-called obscured quasar 12.4 billion light-years away — is so violently turbulent that it may eventually jettison its entire supply of star-forming gas, according to new observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

turbulance

A team of researchers used ALMA to trace, for the first time, the actual motion of the galaxy’s interstellar medium — the gas and dust between the stars. What they found, according to Tanio Díaz-Santos of the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, is a galaxy “so chaotic that it is ripping itself apart.”

Previous studies with NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft revealed that the galaxy, dubbed W2246-0526, is glowing in infrared light as intensely as approximately 350 trillion suns.

Evidence strongly suggests that this galaxy is an obscured quasar, a very distant galaxy with a voraciously feeding supermassive black hole at its center that is completely obscured behind a thick blanket of dust.

This galaxy’s startling brightness is powered by a tiny, yet incredibly energetic disk of gas that is being superheated as it spirals in on the supermassive black hole. The light from this blazingly bright accretion disk is then absorbed by the surrounding dust, which re-emits the energy as infrared light.

“These properties make this object a beast in the infrared,” said Roberto Assef, an astronomer with the Universidad Diego Portales and leader of the ALMA observing team. “The powerful infrared energy emitted by the dust then has a direct and violent impact on the entire galaxy, producing extreme turbulence throughout the interstellar medium.”

The astronomers compare this turbulent action to a pot of boiling water. If these conditions continue, they say, the galaxy’s intense infrared radiation will boil away all of its interstellar gas.

This galaxy belongs to a very unusual type of quasar known as Hot, Dust-Obscured Galaxies or Hot DOGs. These objects are very rare; only 1 out of every 3,000 quasars observed by WISE belongs to this class.

The astronomers used ALMA to precisely map the motion of ionized carbon atoms throughout the entire galaxy. These atoms, which are tracers for interstellar gas, naturally emit infrared light, which becomes shifted to millimeter wavelengths as it travels the vast cosmic distances to Earth due to the expansion of the Universe.

“Large amounts of ionized carbon were found in an extremely turbulent dynamic state throughout the galaxy,” Díaz-Santos describes. The data reveal that this interstellar material is careening anywhere from 500 to 600 kilometers per second throughout the entire galaxy.

The astronomers believe that this turbulence is primarily due to the fact that the region around the black hole is at least 100 times more luminous than the rest of the galaxy combined; in other quasars, the proportion is much more modest. This intense yet localized radiation exerts tremendous pressure on the entire galaxy, to potentially devastating effect.

“We suspected that this galaxy was in a transformative stage of its life because of the enormous amount of infrared energy discovered with WISE,” said Peter Eisenhardt with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Now ALMA has shown us that the raging furnace in this galaxy is making the pot boil over.”

Current models of galactic dynamics combined with the ALMA data indicate that this galaxy is unstable and its interstellar gas is being blown away in all directions. This suggests that the galaxy’s Hot DOG days are numbered as it matures into a more traditional unobscured quasar.

“If this pattern continues, it is possible that in the future W2246 ends up shedding a large part of the gas and dust it contains,” concludes Manuel Aravena also from the Universidad Diego Portales. “Only ALMA, with its unparalleled resolution, can allow us to see this object in high definition and fathom such an important episode in the life of this galaxy.”

Astronomers Studying What May Be The Most Powerful Supernova Ever Seen

Right now, astronomers are viewing a ball of hot gas billions of light years away that is radiating the energy of hundreds of billions of suns. At its heart is an object a little larger than 10 miles across.

magnetar

And astronomers are not entirely sure what it is.

If, as they suspect, the gas ball is the result of a supernova, then it’s the most powerful supernova ever seen.

In this week’s issue of the journal Science, they report that the object at the center could be a very rare type of star called a magnetar–but one so powerful that it pushes the energy limits allowed by physics.

An international team of professional and amateur astronomers spotted the possible supernova, now called ASASSN-15lh, when it first flared to life in June 2015.

Even in a discipline that regularly uses gigantic numbers to express size or distance, the case of this small but powerful mystery object in the center of the gas ball is so extreme that the team’s co-principal investigator, Krzysztof Stanek of The Ohio State University, turned to the movie This is Spinal Tap to find 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,” Stanek said. (For those not familiar with the comedy, the statement basically translates to “11 on a scale of 1 to 10.”)

The gas ball surrounding the object can’t be seen with the naked eye, because it’s 3.8 billion light years away. But it was spotted by the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN, pronounced “assassin”) collaboration. Led by Ohio State, the project uses a cadre of small telescopes around the world to detect bright objects in our local universe.

Though ASAS-SN has discovered some 250 supernovae since the collaboration began in 2014, the explosion that powered ASASSN-15lh stands out for its sheer magnitude. It is 200 times more powerful than the average supernova, 570 billion times brighter than our sun, and 20 times brighter than all the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy combined.

“We have to ask, how is that even possible?” said Stanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State. “It takes a lot of energy to shine that bright, and that energy has to come from somewhere.”

“The honest answer is at this point that we do not know what could be the power source for ASASSN-15lh,” said Subo Dong, lead author of the Science paper and a Youth Qianren Research Professor of astronomy at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University.

He added that the discovery “may lead to new thinking and new observations of the whole class of superluminous supernova.”

Todd Thompson, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, offered one possible explanation. The supernova could have spawned an extremely rare type of star called a millisecond magnetar, a rapidly spinning and very dense star with a very strong magnetic field.

To shine so bright, this particular magnetar would also have to spin at least 1,000 times a second, and convert all that rotational energy to light with nearly 100 percent efficiency, Thompson explained. It would be the most extreme example of a magnetar that scientists believe to be physically possible.

“Given those constraints,” he said, “will we ever see anything more luminous than this? If it truly is a magnetar, then the answer is basically no.”

The Hubble Space Telescope will help settle the question later this year, in part because it will allow astronomers to see the host galaxy surrounding the object. If the team finds that the object lies in the very center of a large galaxy, then perhaps it’s not a magnetar at all, and the gas around it is not evidence of a supernova, but instead some unusual nuclear activity around a supermassive black hole.

If so, then its bright light could herald a completely new kind of event, said study co-author Christopher Kochanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State and the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology. It would be something never before seen in the center of a galaxy.

Ohio State co-authors on the study include John Beacom, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the university’s Center for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics (CCAPP); graduate students Thomas Holoien, Jonathan Brown, A. Bianca Danilet and Gregory Simonian; and Ohio State alumni Ben Shappee, now at the Carnegie Observatories, and Jose Prieto, now at the Universidad Diego Portales and Millennium Institute of Astrophysics.

Other co-authors, including both professional and amateur astronomers, hail from Rutgers University, Las Campanas Observatory, Liverpool John Moores University, Coral Towers Observatory, Osservatorio Astrofisico di Catania, Observatoire de Strasbourg, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Morehead State University, Variable Star Observers League in Japan, The Virtual Telescope Project, Mt. Vernon Observatory, Universidad Andres Bello, Warsaw University and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This work is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation and CCAPP. Additional support came from the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation and private donations from retired Homewood Corp. CEO George Skestos and the Robert Martin Ayers Sciences Fund. ASAS-SN telescopes are hosted by the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network.

New theory of secondary inflation expands options for avoiding an excess of dark matter

Standard cosmology — that is, the Big Bang Theory with its early period of exponential growth known as inflation — is the prevailing scientific model for our universe, in which the entirety of space and time ballooned out from a very hot, very dense point into a homogeneous and ever-expanding vastness. This theory accounts for many of the physical phenomena we observe. But what if that’s not all there was to it?

dark matter

A new theory from physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Stony Brook University, which will publish online on January 18 in Physical Review Letters, suggests a shorter secondary inflationary period that could account for the amount of dark matter estimated to exist throughout the cosmos.

“In general, a fundamental theory of nature can explain certain phenomena, but it may not always end up giving you the right amount of dark matter,” said Hooman Davoudiasl, group leader in the High-Energy Theory Group at Brookhaven National Laboratory and an author on the paper. “If you come up with too little dark matter, you can suggest another source, but having too much is a problem.”

Measuring the amount of dark matter in the universe is no easy task. It is dark after all, so it doesn’t interact in any significant way with ordinary matter. Nonetheless, gravitational effects of dark matter give scientists a good idea of how much of it is out there. The best estimates indicate that it makes up about a quarter of the mass-energy budget of the universe, while ordinary matter — which makes up the stars, our planet, and us — comprises just 5 percent. Dark matter is the dominant form of substance in the universe, which leads physicists to devise theories and experiments to explore its properties and understand how it originated.

Some theories that elegantly explain perplexing oddities in physics — for example, the inordinate weakness of gravity compared to other fundamental interactions such as the electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear forces — cannot be fully accepted because they predict more dark matter than empirical observations can support.

This new theory solves that problem. Davoudiasl and his colleagues add a step to the commonly accepted events at the inception of space and time.

In standard cosmology, the exponential expansion of the universe called cosmic inflation began perhaps as early as 10-35 seconds after the beginning of time — that’s a decimal point followed by 34 zeros before a 1. This explosive expansion of the entirety of space lasted mere fractions of a fraction of a second, eventually leading to a hot universe, followed by a cooling period that has continued until the present day. Then, when the universe was just seconds to minutes old — that is, cool enough — the formation of the lighter elements began. Between those milestones, there may have been other inflationary interludes, said Davoudiasl.

“They wouldn’t have been as grand or as violent as the initial one, but they could account for a dilution of dark matter,” he said.

In the beginning, when temperatures soared past billions of degrees in a relatively small volume of space, dark matter particles could run into each other and annihilate upon contact, transferring their energy into standard constituents of matter-particles like electrons and quarks. But as the universe continued to expand and cool, dark matter particles encountered one another far less often, and the annihilation rate couldn’t keep up with the expansion rate.

“At this point, the abundance of dark matter is now baked in the cake,” said Davoudiasl. “Remember, dark matter interacts very weakly. So, a significant annihilation rate cannot persist at lower temperatures. Self-annihilation of dark matter becomes inefficient quite early, and the amount of dark matter particles is frozen.”

However, the weaker the dark matter interactions, that is, the less efficient the annihilation, the higher the final abundance of dark matter particles would be. As experiments place ever more stringent constraints on the strength of dark matter interactions, there are some current theories that end up overestimating the quantity of dark matter in the universe. To bring theory into alignment with observations, Davoudiasl and his colleagues suggest that another inflationary period took place, powered by interactions in a “hidden sector” of physics. This second, milder, period of inflation, characterized by a rapid increase in volume, would dilute primordial particle abundances, potentially leaving the universe with the density of dark matter we observe today.

“It’s definitely not the standard cosmology, but you have to accept that the universe may not be governed by things in the standard way that we thought,” he said. “But we didn’t need to construct something complicated. We show how a simple model can achieve this short amount of inflation in the early universe and account for the amount of dark matter we believe is out there.”

Proving the theory is another thing entirely. Davoudiasl said there may be a way to look for at least the very feeblest of interactions between the hidden sector and ordinary matter.

“If this secondary inflationary period happened, it could be characterized by energies within the reach of experiments at accelerators such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) and the Large Hadron Collider,” he said. Only time will tell if signs of a hidden sector show up in collisions within these colliders, or in other experimental facilities.