Category: black hole

Stars Don’t Always Go Supernova When They Die

Collapsing stars are a rare thing to witness. And when astronomers are able to catch a star in the final phase of its evolution, it is a veritable feast for the senses. Ordinarily, this process consists of a star undergoing gravitational collapse after it has exhausted all of its fuel, and shedding its outer layers in a massive explosion (aka. a supernova). However, sometimes, stars can form black holes without the preceding massive explosion.

This process, what might be described as “going out not with a bang, but with a whimper,” is what a team of astronomers witnessed when observing N6946-BH1 — a star located in the Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946). Originally, astronomers thought that this star would explode because of its significant mass. But instead, the star simply fizzled out, leaving behind a black hole.

The Fireworks Galaxy, a spiral galaxy located 22 million light-years from Earth, is so-named because supernova are known to be a frequent occurrence there. In fact, earlier this month, an amateur astronomer spotted what is now designated as SN 2017eaw. As such, three astronomers from Ohio Sate University (who are co-authors on the study) were expecting N6946-BH1 would go supernova when in 2009, it began to brighten.

Visible-light and near-infrared photos from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope showing the giant star N6946-BH1 before and after it vanished out of sight by imploding to form a black hole. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Kochanek (OSU)

However, by 2015, it appeared to have winked out. As such, the team went looking for the remnants of it with the help of colleagues from Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma. Using the combined power of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, they realized that the star had completely disappeared from sight.

The details of their research appeared in a study titled “The Search for Failed Supernovae with the Large Binocular Telescope: Confirmation of a Disappearing Star, which recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Among the many galaxies they were watching for supernovas, they had their sights set on the Fireworks Galaxy to see what had become of N6946-BH1.

After it experienced a weak optical outburst in 2009, they had anticipated that this red supergiant would go supernova – which seemed logical given that it was 25 times as massive as our Sun. After winking out in 2015, they had expected to find that the star had merely dimmed, or that it had cast off a dusty shell of material that was obscuring its light from view.

Their efforts included an LBT survey for failed supernovae, which they combined with infrared spectra obtained by the Spitzer Space Telescope and optical data from Hubble. However, all the surveys turned up negative, which led them to only one possible conclusion: that N6946-BH1 must have failed to go supernova and instead went straight to forming a black hole.

Simulated view of a black hole. Image Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke, Radboud University

As Scott Adams — a former Ohio State student who is now an astrophysicist at the Cahill Center for Astrophysics (and the lead author of the study) — explained in a NASA press release:

N6946-BH1 is the only likely failed supernova that we found in the first seven years of our survey. During this period, six normal supernovae have occurred within the galaxies we’ve been monitoring, suggesting that 10 to 30 percent of massive stars die as failed supernovae. This is just the fraction that would explain the very problem that motivated us to start the survey, that is, that there are fewer observed supernovae than should be occurring if all massive stars die that way.

A major implication of this study is the way it could shed new light on the formation of very massive black holes. For some time now, astronomers have believed that in order to form a black hole at the end of its life cycle, a star would have to be massive enough to cause a supernova. But as the team observed, it doesn’t make sense that a star would blow off its outer layers and still have enough mass left over to form a massive black hole.

As Christopher Kochanek — a professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University, the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology and a co-author of the team’s study — explained:

The typical view is that a star can form a black hole only after it goes supernova. If a star can fall short of a supernova and still make a black hole, that would help to explain why we don’t see supernovae from the most massive stars.

This information is also important as far as the study of gravitational waves goes. In February of 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first detection of this strange phenomena, which were apparently generated by a massive black hole. If in fact massive black holes form from failed supernova, it would help astronomers to track down the sources more easily.

Be sure to check out this video of the observations made of this failed SN and black hole:

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Our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole May Reveal the Universe’s Hidden Fifth Force

Redefining Physics

For the most part, we seem to have our universe figured out: there are four fundamental forces that govern the interactions of every conceivable object, from atoms to planets. These four — the weak and strong nuclear forces, electromagnetic force, and gravity — explain all there is. Except they don’t, really.

As much as we’ve understood these forces, there are still phenomena that the standard model of physics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity don’t quite make explain. For instance, there’s more gravity in space than what all visible matter can supposedly produce. That’s why some suggest undiscovered dark matter as the source of this, or as other physicists suggests, that a hidden “fifth force” is out there. One such physicist is Andrea Ghez, director at the University of California, Los Angeles, Galactic Center Group.

The center of the Milky Way galaxy, with the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), located in the middle. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI
The center of the Milky Way galaxy with Sagittarius A* in the middle. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

The key to detecting this fifth force, according to Ghez and her team, is studying the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way and the stars around it. “By watching the stars move over 20 years using very precise measurements taken from Keck Observatory data, you can see and put constraints on how gravity works,” she explained in a press release. “If gravitation is driven by something other than Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, you’ll see small variations in the orbital paths of the stars.” They published their method in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Filling the Holes

This research could go a long way to answering questions that have risen since Einstein published his theories, Ghez said.

9 Physics Questions Baffling Scientists [INFOGRAPHIC]
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“Einstein’s theory describes [gravity] beautifully well, but there’s lots of evidence showing the theory has holes,” Ghez said in her interview for the press release. “The mere existence of supermassive black holes tells us that our current theories of how the Universe works are inadequate to explain what a black hole is.”

In particular, the team is excited to observe a star called S0-2 as it passes closer than ever to the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole next year. If the orbital path of these stars show deviations from what general relativity predicts, then the researchers might discover clues about the supposed fifth force.

If a fifth force does exist and Ghez’s method discovers it, we’d probably need to reexamine the physics of our Universe. “This is really exciting. It’s taken us 20 years to get here, but now our work on studying stars at the center of our galaxy is opening up a new method of looking at how gravity works,” Ghez said in the interview.

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A Powerful Energy Beam in Space Seems to Exceed the Speed of Light

A Fascinating Cosmic Q-Tip

In the Galaxy M87 (which was created when two other galaxies merged), a jet of hot plasma — caused by gas being sucked into a central black hole, being heated, and then shot out by magnetic fields — has been helping us gain insight into the weird origins of our galaxy. It is shaped like a thin beam and is emitted from the center of a black hole.

Heber Curtis, an astronomer, first saw a ray of light connected to the galaxy in 1918. In order to see it with his instruments at the time, it had to be huge. And it turns out, it was; measuring at almost 6000 light years long.

The Hubble Space Telescope monitored its development between 1995 and 1999 and, after four years of photos, they saw the plasma ripple outwards faster than what was being emitted from the black hole, meaning it must be moving faster than the speed of light. In 2013, after 13 years of images, it appeared to move in corkscrew-like spirals, making this strange occurrence even more mystifying.

The Beam of Plasma Emitted from M87's Central Black Hole. Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team
The Jet of Plasma Emitted from M87’s Central Black Hole. Image Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team

Understanding Our Universe

M87 is, however, not unique in this way. Since the first observation, researchers have discovered similar phenomena in other galaxies. Although the causes behind it are still enigmatic, these observations could aid us in our search in understanding how black holes function in the creation or destruction of galaxies. Similarly, an enormous magnetic bridge spanning multiple galaxies has been recently discovered.

Eileen Meyer, Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said about the plasma,“We can see, over a human lifetime, things moving […] Which is crazy.” The speed of this process is particularly remarkable because of how powerful it is.

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A Strange Explosion in a Galaxy Billions of Light-Years Away Has Scientists Stumped

Mystery Explosion in Space

For a few minutes in October 2014, a mysterious explosion occurred in a galaxy about 10.7 billion light-years away from Earth. The magnitude of the explosion was so intense that it produced 1,000 times more energy than all of the stars in its entire galaxy for the space of a few minutes.

We learned about this event after scientists took the deepest X-ray image of our Universe to date from NASA’s Chandra Observatory. Researchers narrowed down the source of the blast with the help of data from the Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes. The small galaxy is relatively faint and unremarkable, located in a piece of the sky referred to as the Chandra Deep Field South.

The Space Telescopes of Tomorrow [Infographic]
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Over the past 17 years, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory has watched this far-flung galaxy for a cumulative total of 2.5 months, and it has never detected any evidence of similar events before this unique explosion. Since the event passed, the galaxy appears to have receded into oblivion once more. Capturing it at all may have been a lucky break.

Now, the researchers are poring through the Chandra archive for evidence of similar events and painstakingly searching data from NASA’s Swift satellite and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton telescope for the same kind of evidence. The brief duration of the event means that missing other cosmic cataclysms would have been easy to do. Of course, researchers will also follow up with more Chandra observations of the galaxy.

A New Cataclysmic Event

Scientists know of no astronomical phenomenon that can explain the behavior. “We may have observed a completely new type of cataclysmic event,” said researcher Kevin Schawinski of ETH Zurich in Switzerland. “Whatever it is, a lot more observations are needed to work out what we’re seeing.”


Although they don’t yet have all the answers, researchers do have a few possible hypotheses that could explain the strange explosion. Of the three primary ideas, two focus on gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), the brightest known electromagnetic events that occur in our Universe.

These super high-energy explosions are released when two neutron stars collide, when a neuron star and a black hole merge, or when a massive star collapses. When GRBs are pointing in our direction at the time they occur, they spew a jet of gamma-rays that later taper into weaker forms of radiation, like X-rays. That’s how we’re able to detect them.

One theory to explain this mystery explosion is that we’ve simply picked up a GRB that was pointed in a different direction, and we don’t recognize what we’re “seeing.” Another possibility is that we’ve detected a GRB that is actually past the galaxy we’re observing. A third idea is that we witnessed a black hole shredding a white dwarf star.

None of the theories seems like a perfect fit — yet. More data will help explain the strange explosion, and new technologies like the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the Hubble and collect seven times more light than its predecessor, should help us explain unique cosmic events like this one.

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We’ll Soon Be Able to Look Into the Heart of the Milky Way

Illuminating a Black Hole

Never before have we captured the immense scope of a Black Hole in a photograph. Photographs of space edited with added painted black circles to represent these collapsed stars have been our sole visual tool. But, thanks to recent advancements in modern technology, we will soon be able to successfully photograph a black hole — or rather, the shadow of one.

Simulated image of a black hole. Image Credit: Wikipedia
Credit: Wikipedia

The black hole we will be visualizing — called Sagittarius A — serves as the center of our milky way galaxy, 25,000 lightyears away from Earth. It is estimated to be 4 million times the mass of the Sun and is growing larger all the time by pulling in matter. Tom Muxlow, astronomer at Manchester University, described in an interview with the Guardian how we will take a picture of this gargantuan, interstellar beast.

“We are not going to take a direct photograph of the black hole at our galaxy’s heart,” Muxlow said. “We are actually going to take a picture of its shadow. It will be an image of its silhouette sliding against the background glow of radiation of the heart of the Milky Way. That photograph will reveal the contours of a black hole for the first time.”

And, believe it or not, these scientists suggest that the images of the black hole will likely closely resemble the artistic representation in the movie Interstellar. Christopher Nolan, director of the film, worked with astrophysicist Kip Thorne to ensure that it was a realistic depiction. For example, the film team included glowing strands that were being sucked into the black hole. In real-life physics, those strands make up what is called an accretion disc. And, while the movie portrayal wasn’t exact, it at least gave the public a general frame of reference.

Event Horizon Telescope

To accomplish this monumental task of capturing Saggitarius A on camera, scientists had to first create a telescope that was equipped for the challenge. Because a black hole’s gravitational pull is so intense that even light gets sucked in, photographing one isn’t such a simple task. To correct for this, the specially designed Event Horizon Telescope will use natural surroundings to silhouette the black hole.

These natural surroundings include the black hole’s accretion disc, which is known to become extremely hot and give off electromagnetic radiation. This radiation can be seen in telescopes and, according to Muxlow, “That radiation will provide the background against which we hope to see the shadow of the black hole at our galaxy’s heart.”

This indirect photograph will give scientists invaluable information that could help them more fully understand how our galaxy formed, and it could also teach us more about relativity. Whatever we learn from this new development, it’s sure to be an incredible sight.


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We May Finally Get a Picture of a Black Hole

The Mysterious Black Hole

Believe it or not, we’ve never actually been able to catch a glimpse of a black hole. All those images featuring a starry sky with a perfectly circular dark blob in the middle? Simply an artist’s rendition.

Although scientists believe that there are hundreds, even thousands, of black holes that might be hiding in our own galaxy, it’s extremely difficult to prove their existence. They cannot be observed from a telescope because light is completely consumed once it passes the event horizon. To make matters more confusing, we aren’t even sure how black holes form, but we could be getting some answers very soon.

Last year, scientists announced the creation of the Event Horizon Telescope. This powerful telescope would be able to photograph black holes, and now, scientists are saying they believe the device will be operable as soon as April. If it can successfully capture an image of this mysterious entity, we’d retrieve a tremendous deal of evidence that would bring us several steps closer to understanding these unanswered questions.

The Event Horizon Telescope will operate through a network of radio receivers erected across the planet. Between April 5 and 14, it will utilize a technique called very-long baseline interferometry (VLBI) in which the receivers collect radio signals emitted by a precise point in space. Once effective, sights are being set on our own galaxy’s black hole, Sagittarius A*, which is located 26,000 light-years from Earth with an event horizon stretching 20 million kilometers (12.4 million miles) in diameter.

The Search Continues

Even though scientists have never been able to directly observe a black hole, there is pretty substantial evidence that points towards their existence.


For one, the influence that the proposed Sagittarius A* has on surrounding stars proves to us that something strange is affecting their orbit. The same is observed for several other black holes we’ve theorized to exist in our Universe.

Scientists are also able to detect the presence of a black hole by the amount of radiation being emitted from an area. The extremely hot x-rays we’ve detected are thought to come from the incredibly fast-moving disk of particles surrounding the hole.

The Event Horizon Telescope hopes to uncover this long-awaited evidence of a black hole’s existence. The images will mark a new milestone in humanity’s understanding of the Universe. But given the amount of data and the time it’ll take to process it, images won’t likely be ready until late 2017 or the beginning of 2018.

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The 2017 Breakthrough Prizes


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An Alternate Universe: Our Cosmos May Have Been Spawned by a Hypermassive Black Hole

With Origins From a Singularity

The most accepted theory of the origin of the universe is still the Big Bang. The theory proposes the universe started from a small singularity (the gravitational kind), then began to expand over the succeeding 13.8 billion years. Although this expansion has its own issues, a bigger question remains: what preceded the Big Bang?

Ethan Siegel, physicist and contributor at Forbes, explains the possibility that the universe could have started from a black hole. Physicists Niayesh Afshordi, Razieh Pourhasan, and Robert Mann originally proposed the idea in 2013 — a scenario that’s survived the scrutiny of other physicists ever since.

The evidence that supports that theory is the singularity, an occurrence found in only two instances in the universe — the Big Bang and black holes. A gravitational singularity is a one-dimensional point where the laws of physics regarding spacetime breaks down.

 Credits: ESO / M. Kornmesser
Credits: ESO / M. Kornmesser

In black holes, the singularity exists in the event horizon. This event horizon defies everything that supposedly governs the physics of our universe, both quantum mechanics and general relativity. A black hole’s event horizon is supposedly more massive than what the particles in it can hold.

“The fact that black holes in our Universe are much more massive than this isn’t a problem,” Siegel explains. He adds, “the laws of physics that we know break down at the singularity we calculate at the center. If we ever want to describe it accurately, it’s going to take a unification of quantum theory with General Relativity.”

Black Hole Birthing

Because our understanding of the universe is still limited, we simply call this point the singularity. Basically, a black hole’s event horizon is a one-dimension iteration of our three-dimensional universe. This is what the Perimeter Institute study explores. Is it possible that our universe is a product of a larger, primeval black hole’s singularity? Is our universe the three-dimensional wrapper around another universe’s event horizon?

“In this scenario, our universe burst into being when a star in a four-dimensional universe collapsed into a black hole,” according to a Perimeter Institute press release.

Siegel explains how this is possible:

“As the black hole first formed, the event horizon first came to be, then rapidly expanded and continued to grow as more matter continued to fall in. If you were to put a coordinate grid down on this two-dimensional wrapping, you’d find that it originated where the gridlines were very close together, then expanded rapidly as the black hole formed, and then expanded more and more slowly as matter fell in at a much lower rate. This matches, at least conceptually, what we observe for the expansion rate of our three-dimensional universe.”

Would this mean that each time a black hole is formed, a two-dimensional universe spawns? Siegel comments: “As crazy as it sounds, the answer appears to be maybe.”

As fascinating as this may be, it’s still just theory. We’ll need a better understanding of the physics of our universe in order to confirm it.

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A New Discovery Is Challenging Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

Echoes From a Black Hole

Earlier this year, physicists celebrated the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s (LIGO) discovery of gravitational waves — ripples in spacetime curvature — at the site of a black hole merger as it confirmed part of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, that discovery might now be hinting that the very same theory breaks down at the edge of black holes.

Physicists studying LIGO’s data on the black hole merger claim it reveals “echoes” of gravitational waves that contradict predictions made by Einstein’s general theory, which has been proven by LIGO on more than one occasion now. Previously, physicists believed that Einstein’s theory broke down in extreme conditions, such as those found at a black hole’s core. However, these recently discovered echoes seem to indicate that relativity fails around a black hole’s edges, far from its center.

As part of the standard model based on Einstein’s theory, nothing should be found at the edge of a black hole (its event horizon). This contradicts other theories such as the one that corresponds to quantum physics, which suggests that an event horizon should have a firewall, a ring of high-energy particles, around it.

Cosmologist Niayesh Afshordi at the University of Waterloo in Canada created models of these black hole mergers that assumed they did have something at their event horizons. The timing of the echoes following the release of gravitational waves in the mergers recorded by LIGO matched up perfectly with those expected by Afshordi’s models. This supports the idea that the edges of black holes do have some structure and not a whole lot of nothingness as suggested by Einstein’s theory.

The Puzzle That Is the Universe

“The LIGO detections, and the prospect of many more, offer an exciting opportunity to investigate a new physical regime,” said black-hole researcher Steve Giddings from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

For now, more research is needed to see if these echoes were a fluke or something that will completely reshape our understanding of a black hole’s event horizon. If proven to be permanent fixtures of a merger, we would need a new theory to explain this and similar phenomenon — at least until the elusive theory of everything comes along.

In any case, observation of future black hole mergers can confirm whether these echoes were just flukes or random noise. “The good thing is that new LIGO data with improved sensitivity will be coming in, so we should be able to confirm this or rule it out within the next two years,” said Ashfordi.

It’s no surprise that the universe continues to confirm theories of physics one minute and break them the next. So much of the universe is still a big unknown as far as we’re concerned. Theories come and go, and although Einstein’s has been relatively successful, the emergency of new technologies will continue to allow us to challenge earlier assumptions.

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