Using The Universe As A ‘Cosmological Collider’

Physicists are capitalizing on a direct connection between the largest cosmic structures and the smallest known objects to use the universe as a “cosmological collider” and investigate new physics.

The three-dimensional map of galaxies throughout the cosmos and the leftover radiation from the Big Bang – called the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – are the largest structures in the universe that astrophysicists observe using telescopes. Subatomic elementary particles, on the other hand, are the smallest known objects in the universe that particle physicists study using particle colliders.

A team including Xingang Chen of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Yi Wang from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Zhong-Zhi Xianyu from the Center for Mathematical Sciences and Applications at Harvard University has used these extremes of size to probe fundamental physics in an innovative way. They have shown how the properties of the elementary particles in the Standard Model of particle physics may be inferred by studying the largest cosmic structures. This connection is made through a process called cosmic inflation.

Cosmic inflation is the most widely accepted theoretical scenario to explain what preceded the Big Bang. This theory predicts that the size of the universe expanded at an extraordinary and accelerating rate in the first fleeting fraction of a second after the universe was created. It was a highly energetic event, during which all particles in the universe were created and interacted with each other. This is similar to the environment physicists try to create in ground-based colliders, with the exception that its energy can be 10 billion times larger than any colliders that humans can build.

Inflation was followed by the Big Bang, where the cosmos continued to expand for more than 13 billion years, but the expansion rate slowed down with time. Microscopic structures created in these energetic events got stretched across the universe, resulting in regions that were slightly denser or less dense than surrounding areas in the otherwise very homogeneous early universe. As the universe evolved, the denser regions attracted more and more matter due to gravity. Eventually, the initial microscopic structures seeded the large-scale structure of our universe, and determined the locations of galaxies throughout the cosmos.

In ground-based colliders, physicists and engineers build instruments to read the results of the colliding events. The question is then how we should read the results of the cosmological collider.

“Several years ago, Yi Wang and I, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Juan Maldacena from the Institute of Advanced Study, and several other groups, discovered that the results of this cosmological collider are encoded in the statistics of the initial microscopic structures. As time passes, they become imprinted in the statistics of the spatial distribution of the universe’s contents, such as galaxies and the cosmic microwave background, that we observe today,” said Xingang Chen. “By studying the properties of these statistics we can learn more about the properties of elementary particles.”

As in ground-based colliders, before scientists explore new physics, it is crucial to understand the behavior of known fundamental particles in this cosmological collider, as described by the Standard Model of particle physics.

“The relative number of fundamental particles that have different masses – what we call the mass spectrum – in the Standard Model has a special pattern, which can be viewed as the fingerprint of the Standard Model,” explained Zhong-Zhi Xiangyu. “However, this fingerprint changes as the environment changes, and would have looked very different at the time of inflation from how it looks now.”

The team showed what the mass spectrum of the Standard Model would look like for different inflation models. They also showed how this mass spectrum is imprinted in the appearance of the large-scale structure of our universe. This study paves the way for the future discovery of new physics.

“The ongoing observations of the CMB and large-scale structure have achieved impressive precision from which valuable information about the initial microscopic structures can be extracted,” said Yi Wang. “In this cosmological collider, any observational signal that deviates from that expected for particles in the Standard Model would then be a sign of new physics.”

The current research is only a small step towards an exciting era when precision cosmology will show its full power.

“If we are lucky enough to observe these imprints, we would not only be able to study particle physics and fundamental principles in the early universe, but also better understand cosmic inflation itself. In this regard, there are still a whole universe of mysteries to be explored,” said Xianyu.

Flashes Of Light On Dark Matter

A web that passes through infinite intergalactic spaces, a dense cosmic forest illuminated by very distant lights and a huge enigma to solve. These are the picturesque ingredients of a scientific research — carried out by an international team composed of researchers from the International School for Adavnced Studies (SISSA) and the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, the Institute of Astronomy of Cambridge and the University of Washington — that adds an important element for understanding one of the fundamental components of our Universe: the dark matter.

In order to study its properties, scientists analyzed the interaction of the “cosmic web” — a network of filaments made up of gas and dark matter present in the whole Universe — with the light coming from very distant quasars and galaxies. Photons interacting with the hydrogen of the cosmic filaments create many absorption lines defined “Lyman-alpha forest.” This microscopic interaction succeeds in revealing several important properties of the dark matter at cosmological distances. The results further support the theory of Cold Dark Matter, which is composed of particles that move very slowly. Moreover, for the first time, they highlight the incompatibility with another model, i.e. the Fuzzy Dark Matter, for which dark matter particles have larger velocities. The research was carried out through simulations performed on international parallel supercomputers and has recently been published in Physical Review Letters.

Although constituting an important part of our cosmos, the dark matter is not directly observable, it does not emit electromagnetic radiation and it is visible only through gravitational effects. Besides, its nature remains a deep mystery. The theories that try to explore this aspect are various. In this research, scientists investigated two of them: the so-called Cold Dark Matter, considered a paradigm of modern cosmology, and an alternative model called Fuzzy Dark Matter (FDM), in which the dark matter is deemed composed of ultralight bosons provided with a non-negligible pressure at small scales. To carry out their investigations, scientists examined the cosmic web by analyzing the so-called Lyman-alpha forest. The Lyman-alpha forest consists of a series of absorption lines produced by the light coming from very distant and extremely luminous sources, that passes through the intergalactic space along its way toward the earth’s telescopes. The atomic interaction of photons with the hydrogen present in the cosmic filaments is used to study the properties of the cosmos and of the dark matter at enormous distances.

Through simulations carried out with supercomputers, researchers reproduced the interaction of the light with the cosmic web. Thus they were able to infer some of the characteristics of the particles that compose the dark matter. More in particular, evidence showed for the first time that the mass of the particles, which allegedly compose the dark matter according to the FDM model, is not consistent with the Lyman-alpha Forest observed by the Keck telescope (Hawaii, US) and the Very Large Telescope (European Southern Observatory, Chile). Basically, the study seems not to confirm the theory of the Fuzzy Dark Matter. The data, instead, support the scenario envisaged by the model of the Cold Dark Matter.

The results obtained — scientists say — are important as they allow to build new theoretical models for describing the dark matter and new hypotheses on the characteristics of the cosmos. Moreover, these results can provide useful indications for the realization of experiments in laboratories and can guide observational efforts aimed at making progress on this fascinating scientific theme.

Best Measure Of Star-Forming Material In Galaxy Clusters In Early Universe

The international Spitzer Adaptation of the Red-sequence Cluster Survey (SpARCS) collaboration based at the University of California, Riverside has combined observations from several of the world’s most powerful telescopes to carry out one of the largest studies yet of molecular gas — the raw material which fuels star formation throughout the universe — in three of the most distant clusters of galaxies ever found, detected as they appeared when the universe was only four billion years old.

Results were recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Allison Noble, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led this newest research from the SpARCS collaboration.

Clusters are rare regions of the universe consisting of tight groups of hundreds of galaxies containing trillions of stars, as well as hot gas and mysterious dark matter. First, the research team used spectroscopic observations from the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, and the Very Large Telescope in Chile that confirmed 11 galaxies were star-forming members of the three massive clusters. Next, the researchers took images through multiple filters from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which revealed a surprising diversity in the galaxies’ appearance, with some galaxies having already formed large disks with spiral arms.

One of the telescopes the SpARCS scientists used is the extremely sensitive Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope capable of directly detecting radio waves emitted from the molecular gas found in galaxies in the early universe. ALMA observations allowed the scientists to determine the amount of molecular gas in each galaxy, and provided the best measurement yet of how much fuel was available to form stars.

The researchers compared the properties of galaxies in these clusters with the properties of “field galaxies” (galaxies found in more typical environments with fewer close neighbors). To their surprise, they discovered that cluster galaxies had higher amounts of molecular gas relative to the amount of stars in the galaxy, compared to field galaxies. The finding puzzled the team because it has long been known that when a galaxy falls into a cluster, interactions with other cluster galaxies and hot gas accelerate the shut off of its star formation relative to that of a similar field galaxy (the process is known as environmental quenching).

“This is definitely an intriguing result,” said Gillian Wilson, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Riverside and the leader of the SpARCS collaboration. “If cluster galaxies have more fuel available to them, you might expect them to be forming more stars than field galaxies, and yet they are not.”

Noble, a SpARCS collaborator and the study’s leader, suggests several possible explanations: It is possible that something about being in the hot, harsh cluster environment surrounded by many neighboring galaxies perturbs the molecular gas in cluster galaxies such that a smaller fraction of that gas actively forms stars. Alternatively, it is possible that an environmental process, such as increased merging activity in cluster galaxies, results in the observed differences between the cluster and field galaxy populations.

“While the current study does not answer the question of which physical process is primarily responsible for causing the higher amounts of molecular gas, it provides the most accurate measurement yet of how much molecular gas exists in galaxies in clusters in the early universe,” Wilson said.

The SpARCS team has developed new techniques using infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to identify hundreds of previously undiscovered clusters of galaxies in the early universe. In the future, they plan to study a larger sample of clusters. The team has recently been awarded additional time on ALMA, the W. M. Keck Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope to continue investigating how the neighborhood in which a galaxy lives determines for how long it can form stars.

Stars Regularly Ripped Apart By Black Holes In Colliding Galaxies

Astronomers based at the University of Sheffield have found evidence that stars are ripped apart by supermassive black holes 100 times more often than previously thought.

Until now, such stellar cannibalism – known as Tidal Distruption Events, or TDEs – had only been found in surveys which observed many thousands of galaxies, leading astronomers to believe they were exceptionally rare: only one event every 10,000 to 100,000 years per galaxy.

However, the pioneering study conducted by leading scientists from the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, recorded a star being destroyed by a supermassive black hole in a survey of just 15 galaxies – an extremely small sample size by astronomy standards.

“Each of these 15 galaxies is undergoing a ‘cosmic collision’ with a neighbouring galaxy,” said Dr James Mullaney, Lecturer in Astronomy and co-author of the study.
“Our surprising findings show that the rate of TDEs dramatically increases when galaxies collide. This is likely due to the fact that the collisions lead to large numbers of stars being formed close to the central supermassive black holes in the two galaxies as they merge together.”

The supermassive black holes that lurk in the hearts of all large galaxies can be elusive. This is because they don’t shine in a conventional sense due to their gravity being so strong that nothing can escape, not even light itself. However, the release of energy as stars are ripped apart when they move close to the black holes leads to dramatic flares. The galaxies’ nuclei can then appear as bright as all the billions of stars in a typical galaxy combined. In this way, TDEs can be used to locate otherwise dim black holes and study their strong gravity and how they accrete matter.

“Our team first observed the 15 colliding galaxies in the sample in 2005, during a previous project,” said Rob Spence, University of Sheffield PhD student and co-author of the study.

“However, when we observed the sample again in 2015, we noticed that one galaxy – F01004-2237 – appeared strikingly different. This led us to look at data from the Catalina Sky Survey, which monitors the brightness of objects in the sky over time. We found that in 2010, the brightness of F01004-2237 flared dramatically.”

The particular combination of variability and post-flare spectrum observed in F01004-2237 – which is 1.7 billion light years from Earth – was unlike any known supernova or active galactic nucleus, but characteristic of TDEs.

Clive Tadhunter, Professor of Astrophysics and leader of the study, said: “Based on our results for F01004-2237, we expect that TDE events will become common in our own Milky Way galaxy when it eventually merges with the neighbouring Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years.

“Looking towards the centre of the Milky Way at the time of the merger we’d see a flare approximately every 10 to 100 years. The flares would be visible to the naked eye and appear much brighter than any other star or planet in the night sky.”

First Evidence Of Rocky Planet Formation In Tatooine System

Evidence of planetary debris surrounding a double sun, ‘Tatooine-like’ system has been found for the first time by a UCL-led team of researchers.

Published today in Nature Astronomy and funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the European Research Council, the study finds the remains of shattered asteroids orbiting a double sun consisting of a white dwarf and a brown dwarf roughly 1000 light-years away in a system called SDSS 1557.

The discovery is remarkable because the debris appears to be rocky and suggests that terrestrial planets like Tatooine – Luke Skywalker’s home world in Star Wars – might exist in the system. To date, all exoplanets discovered in orbit around double stars are gas giants, similar to Jupiter, and are thought to form in the icy regions of their systems.

In contrast to the carbon-rich icy material found in other double star systems, the planetary material identified in the SDSS 1557 system has a high metal content, including silicon and magnesium. These elements were identified as the debris flowed from its orbit onto the surface of the star, polluting it temporarily with at least 1017 g (or 1.1 trillion US tons) of matter, equating it to an asteroid at least 4 km in size.

Lead author, Dr Jay Farihi (UCL Physics & Astronomy), said: “Building rocky planets around two suns is a challenge because the gravity of both stars can push and pull tremendously, preventing bits of rock and dust from sticking together and growing into full-fledged planets. With the discovery of asteroid debris in the SDSS 1557 system, we see clear signatures of rocky planet assembly via large asteroids that formed, helping us understand how rocky exoplanets are made in double star systems.”

In the Solar System, the asteroid belt contains the leftover building blocks for the terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, so planetary scientists study the asteroids to gain a better understanding of how rocky, and potentially habitable planets are formed. The same approach was used by the team to study the SDSS 1557 system as any planets within it cannot yet be detected directly but the debris is spread in a large belt around the double stars, which is a much larger target for analysis.

The discovery came as a complete surprise, as the team assumed the dusty white dwarf was a single star but co-author Dr Steven Parsons (University of Valparaíso and University of Sheffield), an expert in double star (or binary) systems noticed the tell-tale signs. “We know of thousands of binaries similar to SDSS 1557 but this is the first time we’ve seen asteroid debris and pollution. The brown dwarf was effectively hidden by the dust until we looked with the right instrument”, added Parsons, “but when we observed SDSS 1557 in detail we recognised the brown dwarf’s subtle gravitational pull on the white dwarf.”

The team studied the binary system and the chemical composition of the debris by measuring the absorption of different wavelengths of light or ‘spectra’, using the Gemini Observatory South telescope and the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope, both located in Chile.

Co-author Professor Boris Gänsicke (University of Warwick) analysed these data and found they all told a consistent and compelling story. “Any metals we see in the white dwarf will disappear within a few weeks, and sink down into the interior, unless the debris is continuously flowing onto the star. We’ll be looking at SDSS 1557 next with Hubble, to conclusively show the dust is made of rock rather than ice.”

NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch Of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water — key to life as we know it — under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated — scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. “It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star — classified as an ultra-cool dwarf — is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person were standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing — transits — of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimized Spitzer’s ability to observe transiting planets during Spitzer’s “warm mission,” which began after the spacecraft’s coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.

In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft’s observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures — key factors in assessing their habitability.

Prediction: More Gas-Giants Will Be Found Orbiting Sun-Like Stars

New planetary formation models from Carnegie’s Alan Boss indicate that there may be an undiscovered population of gas giant planets orbiting around Sun-like stars at distances similar to those of Jupiter and Saturn. His work is published by The Astrophysical Journal.

The population of exoplanets discovered by ongoing planet-hunting projects continues to increase. These discoveries can improve models that predict where to look for more of them.

The planets predicted by Boss in this study could hold the key to solving a longstanding debate about the formation of our Solar System’s giant planets out of the disk of gas and dust that surrounded the Sun in its youth.

One theory holds that gas giants form just like terrestrial planets do — by the slow accretion of rocky material from the rotating disk — until the object contains enough material to gravitationally attract a very large envelope of gas around a solid core. The other theory states that gas giant planets form rapidly when the disk gas forms spiral arms, which increase in mass and density until distinct clumps form that coalesce into baby gas giant planets.

One problem with the first option, called core accretion, is that it can’t explain how gas giant planets form beyond a certain orbital distance from their host stars — a phenomenon that is increasingly found by intrepid planet hunters. However, models of the second theory, called disk instability, have indicated the formation of planets with orbits between about 20 and 50 times the distance between Earth and the Sun.

“Given the existence of gas giant planets on such wide orbits, disk instability or something similar must be involved in the creation of at least some exoplanets,” Boss said. “However, whether or not this method could create closer-orbiting gas giant planets remains unanswered.”

Boss set out to use his modeling tools to learn if gas giant planets can form closer to their host stars by taking a new look at the disk-cooling process. His simulations indicate that there may be a largely unseen population of gas giant planets orbiting Sun-like stars at distances between 6 and 16 times that separating Earth and the Sun. (For context Jupiter is just over five times as distant from the Sun as Earth is, and Saturn is over nine times as distant.)

“NASA’s upcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope may be ideally suited to test my predictions here,” Boss added.