Could Gravitational Waves Reveal How Fast Our Universe Is Expanding?

Since it first exploded into existence 13.8 billion years ago, the universe has been expanding, dragging along with it hundreds of billions of galaxies and stars, much like raisins in a rapidly rising dough.

Astronomers have pointed telescopes to certain stars and other cosmic sources to measure their distance from Earth and how fast they are moving away from us — two parameters that are essential to estimating the Hubble constant, a unit of measurement that describes the rate at which the universe is expanding.

But to date, the most precise efforts have landed on very different values of the Hubble constant, offering no definitive resolution to exactly how fast the universe is growing. This information, scientists believe, could shed light on the universe’s origins, as well as its fate, and whether the cosmos will expand indefinitely or ultimately collapse.

Now scientists from MIT and Harvard University have proposed a more accurate and independent way to measure the Hubble constant, using gravitational waves emitted by a relatively rare system: a black hole-neutron star binary, a hugely energetic pairing of a spiraling black hole and a neutron star. As these objects circle in toward each other, they should produce space-shaking gravitational waves and a flash of light when they ultimately collide.

In a paper to be published July 12th in Physical Review Letters, the researchers report that the flash of light would give scientists an estimate of the system’s velocity, or how fast it is moving away from the Earth. The emitted gravitational waves, if detected on Earth, should provide an independent and precise measurement of the system’s distance. Even though black hole-neutron star binaries are incredibly rare, the researchers calculate that detecting even a few should yield the most accurate value yet for the Hubble constant and the rate of the expanding universe.

“Black hole-neutron star binaries are very complicated systems, which we know very little about,” says Salvatore Vitale, assistant professor of physics at MIT and lead author of the paper. “If we detect one, the prize is that they can potentially give a dramatic contribution to our understanding of the universe.”

Vitale’s co-author is Hsin-Yu Chen of Harvard.

Competing constants

Two independent measurements of the Hubble constant were made recently, one using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and another using the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite. The Hubble Space Telescope’s measurement is based on observations of a type of star known as a Cepheid variable, as well as on observations of supernovae. Both of these objects are considered “standard candles,” for their predictable pattern of brightness, which scientists can use to estimate the star’s distance and velocity.

The other type of estimate is based on observations of the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background — the electromagnetic radiation that was left over in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, when the universe was still in its infancy. While the observations by both probes are extremely precise, their estimates of the Hubble constant disagree significantly.

“That’s where LIGO comes into the game,” Vitale says.

LIGO, or the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory, detects gravitational waves — ripples in the Jell-O of space-time, produced by cataclysmic astrophysical phenomena.

“Gravitational waves provide a very direct and easy way of measuring the distances of their sources,” Vitale says. “What we detect with LIGO is a direct imprint of the distance to the source, without any extra analysis.”

In 2017, scientists got their first chance at estimating the Hubble constant from a gravitational-wave source, when LIGO and its Italian counterpart Virgo detected a pair of colliding neutron stars for the first time. The collision released a huge amount of gravitational waves, which researchers measured to determine the distance of the system from Earth. The merger also released a flash of light, which astronomers focused on with ground and space telescopes to determine the system’s velocity.

With both measurements, scientists calculated a new value for the Hubble constant. However, the estimate came with a relatively large uncertainty of 14 percent, much more uncertain than the values calculated using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Planck satellite.

Vitale says much of the uncertainty stems from the fact that it can be challenging to interpret a neutron star binary’s distance from Earth using the gravitational waves that this particular system gives off.

“We measure distance by looking at how ‘loud’ the gravitational wave is, meaning how clear it is in our data,” Vitale says. “If it’s very clear, you can see how loud it is, and that gives the distance. But that’s only partially true for neutron star binaries.”

That’s because these systems, which create a whirling disc of energy as two neutron stars spiral in toward each other, emit gravitational waves in an uneven fashion. The majority of gravitational waves shoot straight out from the center of the disc, while a much smaller fraction escapes out the edges. If scientists detect a “loud” gravitational wave signal, it could indicate one of two scenarios: the detected waves stemmed from the edge of a system that is very close to Earth, or the waves emanated from the center of a much further system.

“With neutron star binaries, it’s very hard to distinguish between these two situations,” Vitale says.

A new wave

In 2014, before LIGO made the first detection of gravitational waves, Vitale and his colleagues observed that a binary system composed of a black hole and a neutron star could give a more accurate distance measurement, compared with neutron star binaries. The team was investigating how accurately one could measure a black hole’s spin, given that the objects are known to spin on their axes, similarly to Earth but much more quickly.

The researchers simulated a variety of systems with black holes, including black hole-neutron star binaries and neutron star binaries. As a byproduct of this effort, the team noticed that they were able to more accurately determine the distance of black hole-neutron star binaries, compared to neutron star binaries. Vitale says this is due to the spin of the black hole around the neutron star, which can help scientists better pinpoint from where in the system the gravitational waves are emanating.

“Because of this better distance measurement, I thought that black hole-neutron star binaries could be a competitive probe for measuring the Hubble constant,” Vitale says. “Since then, a lot has happened with LIGO and the discovery of gravitational waves, and all this was put on the back burner.”

Vitale recently circled back to his original observation, and in this new paper, he set out to answer a theoretical question:

“Is the fact that every black hole-neutron star binary will give me a better distance going to compensate for the fact that potentially, there are far fewer of them in the universe than neutron star binaries?” Vitale says.

To answer this question, the team ran simulations to predict the occurrence of both types of binary systems in the universe, as well as the accuracy of their distance measurements. From their calculations, they concluded that, even if neutron binary systems outnumbered black hole-neutron star systems by 50-1, the latter would yield a Hubble constant similar in accuracy to the former.

More optimistically, if black hole-neutron star binaries were slightly more common, but still rarer than neutron star binaries, the former would produce a Hubble constant that is four times as accurate.

“So far, people have focused on binary neutron stars as a way of measuring the Hubble constant with gravitational waves,” Vitale says. “We’ve shown there is another type of gravitational wave source which so far has not been exploited as much: black holes and neutron stars spiraling together,” Vitale says. “LIGO will start taking data again in January 2019, and it will be much more sensitive, meaning we’ll be able to see objects farther away. So LIGO should see at least one black hole-neutron star binary, and as many as 25, which will help resolve the existing tension in the measurement of the Hubble constant, hopefully in the next few years.”

This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation and the LIGO Laboratory.

Explosive Volcanoes Spawned Mysterious Martian Rock Formation

Explosive volcanic eruptions that shot jets of hot ash, rock and gas skyward are the likely source of a mysterious Martian rock formation, a new study finds. The new finding could add to scientists’ understanding of Mars’s interior and its past potential for habitability, according to the study’s authors.

The Medusae Fossae Formation is a massive, unusual deposit of soft rock near Mars’s equator, with undulating hills and abrupt mesas. Scientists first observed the Medusae Fossae with NASA’s Mariner spacecraft in the 1960s but were perplexed as to how it formed.

Now, new research suggests the formation was deposited during explosive volcanic eruptions on the Red Planet more than 3 billion years ago. The formation is about one-fifth as large as the continental United States and 100 times more massive than the largest explosive volcanic deposit on Earth, making it the largest known explosive volcanic deposit in the solar system, according to the study’s authors.

“This is a massive deposit, not only on a Martian scale, but also in terms of the solar system, because we do not know of any other deposit that is like this,” said Lujendra Ojha, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and lead author of the new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Formation of the Medusae Fossae would have marked a pivotal point in Mars’s history, according to the study’s authors. The eruptions that created the deposit could have spewed massive amounts of climate-altering gases into Mars’s atmosphere and ejected enough water to cover Mars in a global ocean more than 9 centimeters (4 inches) thick, Ojha said.

Greenhouse gases exhaled during the eruptions that spawned the Medusae Fossae could have warmed Mars’s surface enough for water to remain liquid at its surface, but toxic volcanic gases like hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide would have altered the chemistry of Mars’s surface and atmosphere. Both processes would have affected Mars’s potential for habitability, Ojha said.

Determining the source of the rock

The Medusae Fossae Formation consists of hills and mounds of sedimentary rock straddling Mars’s equator. Sedimentary rock forms when rock dust and debris accumulate on a planet’s surface and cement over time.

Scientists have known about the Medusae Fossae for decades, but were unsure whether wind, water, ice or volcanic eruptions deposited rock debris in that location.

Previous radar measurements of Mars’s surface suggested the Medusae Fossae had an unusual composition, but scientists were unable to determine whether it was made of highly porous rock or a mixture of rock and ice. In the new study, Ojha and a colleague used gravity data from various Mars orbiter spacecraft to measure the Medusae Fossae’s density for the first time. They found the rock is unusually porous: it’s about two-thirds as dense as the rest of the Martian crust. They also used radar and gravity data in combination to show the Medusae Fossae’s density cannot be explained by the presence of ice, which is much less dense than rock.

Because the rock is so porous, it had to have been deposited by explosive volcanic eruptions, according to the researchers. Volcanoes erupt in part because gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor dissolved in magma force the molten rock to rise to the surface. Magma containing lots of gas explodes skyward, shooting jets of ash and rock into the atmosphere.

Ash from these explosions plummets to the ground and streams downhill. After enough time has passed, the ash cements into rock, and Ojha suspects this is what formed the Medusae Fossae. As much as half of the soft rock originally deposited during the eruptions has eroded away, leaving behind the hills and valleys seen in the Medusae Fossae today.

Understanding Mars’s interior

The new findings suggest the Martian interior is more complex than scientists originally thought, according to Ojha. Scientists know Mars has some water and carbon dioxide in its crust that allow explosive volcanic eruptions to happen on its surface, but the planet’s interior would have needed massive amounts of volatile gases — substances that become gas at low temperatures — to create a deposit of this size, he said.

“If you were to distribute the Medusae Fossae globally, it would make a 9.7-meter (32-foot) thick layer.” Ojha said. “Given the sheer magnitude of this deposit, it really is incredible because it implies that the magma was not only rich in volatiles and also that it had to be volatile-rich for long periods of time.”

The new study shows the promise of gravity surveys in interpreting Mars’s rock record, according to Kevin Lewis, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the new study. “Future gravity surveys could help distinguish between ice, sediments and igneous rocks in the upper crust of the planet,” Lewis said.

Magnetic Fields Could Hold The Key To Star Formation

Astronomers have discovered new magnetic fields in space, which could shed light on how stars are formed and uncover the mysteries behind one of the most famous celestial images.

For the first time, extremely subtle magnetic fields in the Pillars of Creation – a structure made famous thanks to an iconic image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope – have been discovered and mapped.

The structure consists of cosmic dust and cold, dense gas that have nurseries of stars forming at their tips. This innovative research has shown that the magnetic fields that run along the lengths of the Pillars are at a different angle to the regions surrounding the Pillars, revealing the reason behind their unusual structure.

This ground-breaking discovery suggests that the Pillars have evolved due to the strength of the magnetic field and that the Pillars are held up thanks to magnetic support, suggesting that stars could be formed by the collapse of clumps of gas being slowed down by magnetic fields, and resulting in a pillar-like formation.

The discovery was made by a global team of researchers known as BISTRO and led by astronomers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) who made measurements at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. Using an instrument on the telescope known as a polarimeter, the researchers showed that the light emitted from the Pillars is polarised, indicating the direction of the magnetic field.

Professor Derek Ward-Thompson, Head of the School of Physical Sciences and Computing at UCLan, said: “The technology employed to view the minutiae of the magnetic fields is truly remarkable, and the fact that we have been able to observe the incredibly weak magnetic field with this sensitive instrument will help us to solve the mystery of the formation of stars.”

System With Three Earth-Sized Planets Discovered

The information about these new exoplanets has been obtained from the data collected by the K2 mission of NASA’s Kepler satellite, which started in November 2013. The work, which will be published in the Monthly Notices of the magazine Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), reveals the existence of two new planetary systems detected from the eclipses they produce in the stellar light of their respective stars. In the research team led jointly by Javier de Cos at the University of Oviedo, and Rafael Rebolo at the IAC, participate, along with researchers from these two centres, others from the University of Geneva and the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC).

The first exoplanetary system is located in the star K2-239, characterized by these researchers as a red dwarf type M3V from observations made with the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (Garafía, La Palma). It is located in the constellation of the Sextant at 50 parsecs from the Sun (at about 160 light years). It has a compact system of at least three rocky planets of similar size to the Earth (1.1, 1.0 and 1.1 Earth radii) that orbit the star every 5.2, 7.8 and 10.1 days, respectively.

The other red dwarf star called K2-240 has two super-Earth-like planets about twice the size of our planet. Although the atmospheric temperature of red dwarf stars, around which these planets revolve, is 3,450 and 3,800 K respectively, almost half the temperature of our Sun. These researchers estimate that all planets discovered will have temperatures superficial tens of degrees higher than those of the planet Earth due to the strong radiation they receive in these close orbits to their stars.

Future observation campaigns with the new James Webb space telescope will characterize the composition of the atmospheres of the discovered planets. Spectroscopic observations with the ESPRESSO instrument, installed in the Very Large Telescope (VLT), of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), or with future spectrographs in the GTC or in new astronomical facilities, such as the ELT or the TMT, will be crucial to determine the masses, densities and physical properties of these planets.

The Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), installed at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (Garafía, La Palma) is part of the Singular Scientific and Technical Infrastructure network (ICTS) of Spain.

BREAKING NEWS: Scientists to Determine Recent Supernovae Responsible for Earth’s Previous Mass Extinction

Dr Brian Thomas, an astrophysicist at Washburn University in Kansas, USA, modeled the biological impacts at the Earth’s surface, based on geologic evidence of nearby supernovae 2.5 million and 8 million years ago. In his latest paper, Thomas investigated cosmic rays from the supernovae as they propagated through our atmosphere to the surface, to understand their effect on living organisms.

How would a nearby supernova affect life on Earth? Thomas laments that supernovae often are exemplified as “supernova goes off and everything dies”, but that is not quite the case. The answer lies in the atmosphere. Beyond sunscreen, the ozone layer protects all biology from harmful, genetically altering ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Thomas used global climate models, recent atmospheric chemistry models and radiative transfer (the propagation of radiation through the layers of the atmosphere) to better understand how the flux of cosmic rays from supernovae would alter Earth’s atmosphere, specifically the ozone layer.

One thing to note is that cosmic rays from supernovae would not blast everything in their paths all at once. The intergalactic medium acts as a kind of sieve, slowing down the arrival of cosmic rays and “radioactive iron rain” (60Fe) over hundreds of thousands of years, Thomas tells Astrobiology Magazine. Higher energetic particles will reach Earth first and interact with our atmosphere differently than lower energy particles arriving later. Thomas’s study modeled the depletion in ozone 100, 300, and 1,000 years after the initial particles from a supernova began penetrating our atmosphere. Interestingly, depletion peaked (at roughly 26 percent) for the 300-year case, beating out the 100-year case.

The high-energy cosmic rays in the 100-year case would zip right through the stratosphere and deposit their energy below the ozone layer, depleting it less, while the less energetic cosmic rays arriving during the 300-year interval would deposit more energy in the stratosphere, depleting ozone significantly.

A decrease in ozone could be a concern for life on the surface. “This work is an important step towards understanding the impact of nearby supernovae on our biosphere,” says Dr Dimitra Atri, a computational physicist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, USA.

Thomas examined several possible biologically-damaging effects (erythema, skin cancer, cataracts, marine phytoplankton photosynthesis inhibition and plant damage) at different latitudes as a result of increased UV radiation resulting from a depleted ozone layer. They showed heightened damage across the board, generally increasing with latitude, which makes sense given the changes we see in the fossil record. However, the effects aren’t equally detrimental to all organisms. Plankton, the primary producers of oxygen, seemed to be minimally affected. The results also suggested a small increase in the risk of sunburn and skin cancer among humans.

So, do nearby supernovae result in mass extinctions? It depends, says Thomas. “There is a subtler shift; instead of a ‘wipe-out everything’, some [organisms] are better off and some are worse off.” For example some plants showed increase yield, like soybean and wheat, while other plants showed reduced productivity.  “It fits,” Thomas states, referring to the change in species in the fossil record.

In the future, Thomas hopes to expand on this work and examine possible linkages between human evolution and supernovae.

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Ushering In The Next Phase Of Exoplanet Discovery

Ever since scientists discovered the first planet outside of our solar system, 51 Pegasi b, the astronomical field of exoplanets has exploded, thanks in large part to the Kepler Space Telescope. Now, with the successful launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), Professor Sara Seager sees a revolution not only in the amount of new planetary data to analyze, but also in the potential for new avenues of scientific discovery.

“TESS is going to essentially provide the catalog of all of the best planets for following up, for observing their atmospheres and learning more about them,” Seager says. “But it would be impossible to really describe all the different things that people are hoping to do with the data.”

For Seager, the goal is to sift through the plethora of incoming TESS data to identify exoplanet candidates. Ultimately, she says she wants to find the best planets to follow up with atmosphere studies for signs that the planet might be suitable for life.

“When I came to MIT 10 years ago, [MIT scientists] were starting to work on TESS, so that was the starting point,” said Seager, the Class of 1941 Professor Chair in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences with appointments in the departments of Physics and Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Seager is the deputy science director of TESS, an MIT-led NASA Explorer-class mission. Her credentials include pioneering exoplanet characterization, particularly of atmospheres, that form the foundation of the field. Seager is currently hunting for exoplanets with signs of life, and TESS is the next step on that path.

So far, scientists have confirmed 3,717 exoplanets in 2,773 systems. As an all-sky survey, TESS will build on this, observing 85 percent of the cosmos containing more than 200,000 nearby stars, and researchers expect to identify some 20,000 exoplanets.

“TESS is trying to take everything that people have already done and do it better and do it across the whole sky,” Seager says. While this mission relies on exoplanet hunting techniques developed years ago, the returns on this work should extend far into the future. “TESS is almost the culmination of a couple of decades of hard work, trying to iron out the wrinkles of how to find planets by the transiting method. So, TESS isn’t changing the way we look for planets, more like it’s riding on the wave of success of how we’ve done it already.”

The TESS science leadership team have committed to delivering at least 50 exoplanets with radii less than four times that of Earth’s along with measured masses. As part of the TESS mission, an international effort to further characterize the planet candidates and their host stars down to the list of 50 with measured masses will be ongoing, using the best ground-based telescopes available.

For the best exoplanets for follow up, Seager likens photons reaching the satellite’s cameras to money: the more photons you have, the better. Accordingly, the cameras are optimized for nearby, bright stars. Furthermore, the cameras are calibrated to favor small, red M dwarf stars, around which small planets with a rocky surface are more easily detected than around the larger, yellow sun-size stars. Additionally, researchers tuned the satellite to exoplanets with orbits of less than 13 days, so that two transits are used for discovery.

After 60 days of commissioning, TESS will begin science operations and will be transmitting images to Earth monthly, and the data mining begins. The raw data will be sent to the NASA Ames Research Center’s Science Processing Operations Center to be put through the data analysis pipeline, which was based on the Kepler data pipeline. Here, computer scientists will generate calibrated pixels, light curves, and other data products, which will be shared with MIT to evaluate whether a drop in brightness is due to a planet candidate or, as Seager says, a data artifact or binary star. The team will determine the size of these exoplanets and the period of their orbits, for distribution via the TESS object of interest (TOI) list. This information will be made public and archived at the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the Space Telescope Science Institute. In parallel, the MIT group will analyze their data and images as they come down in what they call the “quick-look pipeline” and start flagging objects to follow up.

The TESS Follow-up Observing Program Working Group will further investigate whether the TOIs are planets, by studying the host stars using imaging from ground and space telescopes, reconnaissance spectroscopy and precise Doppler spectroscopy. For some planets, the follow-up team will ultimately be able to measure the planet’s orbital parameters and mass that, together with radius, determines the planet’s density.

Beyond the TESS follow-up program, additional observations will provide data on orbital dynamics, including planet-planet interactions, mutual inclinations, moons, and tides; atmospheric composition and structure can be inferred through the study of transmission and emission spectra, albedo, phase function measurements.

“I think right now if all goes as planned, our only challenge will be—it’s a good thing—[that] we’ll have so much data.” But, she says she is confident that “MIT can do a great job, not only in delivery in the list of final candidates, but also in groundbreaking new science.”

Announcement: What are Sunspots and Where Did They Go

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Sunspots are relatively cool regions of hot gas on the Sun’s surface, prevented by intense magnetic fields from plunging back into the depths of the Sun for a reheat. These spots wax and wane in a cycle that averages 11 years.

During the peak of the cycle, the Sun is at its most active, generating solar flares, prominence, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and coronal hole outbursts. All of these can occur at any time during the solar cycle, but they are most frequent during its peak.

The Sun and stars are powered by fusion rather than fission. The core of the sun is dominated by hydrogen and at temperatures where hydrogen fusion is possible. Evidence for a potential long-term slowdown or even halt to sunspots for a period of time come through three sets of measurements.

Drawing on 13 years of sunspot data, National Solar Observatory researchers Matt Penn and William Livingston have documented a consistent decline in the strength of the magnetic fields associated with sunspots. If the strength of those fields drops below a certain level, the spots vanish.

If the decline in magnetic-field strength continues at its current pace, Dr. Penn says, cycle 25 may have no sunspots at all.”

Hill’s group at the National Solar Observatory used measurements of the Sun’s acoustic signals to gauge the movement of high-speed jet streams of solar material inside the Sun’s northern and southern hemisphere. These jet streams tend to form at high latitudes and migrate toward the equator over the course of a sunspot cycle. And they tend to be the spawning grounds for sunspots.

Typically, new jets, the foundations for a new sunspot maximum, form even before the existing jets reach the equator and vanish, Hill explains. The new jets should have started forming in 2008. They have yet to appear.