Simulated Light: Merging Black Holes

The merger of black holes proven by LIGO yesterday looks amazing in this simulated view in today’s APOD.  What would normally take a third of a second has been stretched out to show the entanglement.  And remember, these things are far more massive than the Sun, so to be moving this quickly and merging is an extremely high-energy interaction.

And kablammo, matter converted to energy, gravitational waves aplenty, and an even bigger black hole.


Happy Long Weekend!

Black Hole Merger Confirmed!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away….

Two black holes, with masses 29 and 35 times the mass of the Sun, merged to form an even bigger black hole.  The merger resulted in three entire suns worth of matter converted to pure energy in the form of gravitational waves. The waves travelled a billion light years before a tiny meat-filled species on a pale blue dot in space figured how to see them.  Thanks to the smartest one that species had seen in a century, they knew that black holes might merge, and that they would produce these waves if they ever collided.  They put so much trust in his proven theory, that they searched for many years to find the waves he predicted.  Exactly 100 years after his famous theory was released, their hard work paid off, and they celebrated one of the most significant discoveries in meat-filled history.

The signal detected by the LIGO collaboration. The difference in the signal’s arrival time allows us to show that it originated in the Southern Hemisphere. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

The merger of the two black holes was detected by the LIGO facilities 7 milliseconds apart, allowing us to roughly determine the origin of the merger, which was somewhere in the southern sky.  To put in perspective how incredibly powerful this merger was, aside from instantly converting 3 suns worth of matter into pure energy, is that it’s total power output (energy per unit time) was 50 times as much as the power output of the entire visible universe. Every star, galaxy, everything combined, times 50.  Mind Blowing.  It lasted a fraction of a second but it was 100% real.  Talk about truth being stranger than fiction.

If you convert the signal into sound waves – you can actually hear the ‘chirp’ of two black holes merging.  I think it’s more of a pop, but either way it’s the sound of a universe-shaking event.

Whether there is a nobel prize for the LIGO collaboration in the future or not, the discovery highlights the fact that Physics, Astronomy, and exploration of space are in a renaissance right now.  We are in the thick of the greatest period of discovery humanity has seen since the birth of quantum mechanics.  Exoplanet explosion, a mission to Pluto, commercial spaceflight, the Higgs Boson, gravitational waves, and the merger of two black holes, all in the past 5 years.

What a time to be alive!


Gravitational Waves! A Red-Letter Day for Physics

Today, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is expected to announce a monumental discovery that is 100 years in the making.  Theorized by Einstein’s general relativity in 1915, gravitational waves are ripples in space-time, similar to sound waves, but much tinier.  The search has been ongoing for decades, with no results.  Until now.

Gravitational waves formed by the merger of two black holes.

LIGO has the most sensitive gravitational wave detector ever conceived – in two interferometer facilities in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington.  They use a laser split along two axes to give an in-phase beam.  If gravitational waves along one of the axes affect the beam, it will be out of phase with the other beam.  When they recombine this phase shift will create an interference pattern that can be used to measure the intensity of the gravitational wave.  See my earlier post for a deeper explanation of LIGO.

Gravitational waves are thought to originate from the most intense gravitational interactions in the universe, such as a supernova explosions, orbiting neutron stars, or black holes.  In the case of today’s announcement, I’ve heard rumours that the signal they measured was matched to the theoretical signature of a black hole merger.  If true, this would create an entirely new field that we would call gravitational wave astronomy.

It will allow us to probe some of the deepest secrets of the universe, including how supernovae explode, how quickly the universe is expanding, and what happened in the initial 300,000 years after the big bang.  It’s a new degree of freedom in studying distant interactions.  It’s similar to listening to distant phenomena, an ability that surpasses our electromagnetic ‘sight.’

A panel of experts will likely be on hand to discuss the deeper implications of this finding, so if you want to watch the announcement, go here.  I’ll be tweeting like a madman all day, and maybe even doing some media calls.

Enjoy the day! There’s a big buzz in the air in the Physics world, a true disturbance in the force.



Still More Hidden Galaxies

I’ve covered a few ‘hidden galaxy’ stories lately, from the ultra high resolution see-through of Andromeda, to dark dust in front of M81 and M82.  Now, hundreds of new hidden galaxies have been revealed by a team of astronomers who are looking straight through the Milky Way for the first time ever, shedding light on the structure of new galaxy clusters and the enigmatic pull of the ‘great attractor.’

The Sun’s location within the Galaxy – Looking through the central region is difficult because of obscuring gas and dust.

The Earth is not stationary in space.  It orbits the Sun, which in turn orbits the Milky Way galaxy, which then moves through the Universe as part of a galaxy cluster.  We have been able to determine how the galaxy is moving, and it’s heading toward the southern constellation Norma at a velocity of ~630 Km/s.  Some of the local galaxy clusters and superclusters are hidden by the bright central gas and dust of our galaxy, and so there are tons of galaxies out there that we can’t see.  Without knowing where they are, it’s very difficult to map the local universe, and especially the great attractor.

But a team of international astronomers, as part of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), found 883 galaxies with an innovative radio telescope, a third of which had never been seen before.

The new galaxies formed two new superclusters and three new galaxy concentrations, all of which help map out the great attractor and can contribute to an explanation of the movement of the Milky Way.

Astronomers have been trying to peer through the thick gas and dust of the inner Milky Way, to see the structure of the local Universe. “We’ve used a range of techniques but only radio observations have really succeeded in allowing us to see through the thickest foreground layer of dust and stars,” said University of Cape Town astronomer Professor Renée Kraan-Korteweg.

Long radio waves are able to pass through the galaxy to map the distant objects.  It’s very different than using a traditional optical telescope, which wouldn’t see anything at all.  Understanding the local Universe helps astronomers piece together the formation and evolution of the Universe as a whole, and this new data will fill in the gaps that were once hidden from view.

Supernova is a Good Name

If you listen to an astronomer talk about a supernova, you’ll probably hear something along the lines of ‘A massive explosion of a massive star that is bright enough to outshine an entire galaxy.’  You can imagine how bright it might be, but it doesn’t really give you enough context to get the wow factor from it.  Carl Sagan always said ‘When you make the finding yourself – even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light – you’ll never forget it.’  Now you, dear reader, have the chance to make the discovery yourself.  A series of images of galaxy NGC 2442 show the galaxy’s 100 Billion or so stars, but suddenly, one of them explodes as a supernova.  Normally lost among the galaxy of stars, Supernova SN2015F quickly brightens and rivals the core of its host galaxy in only a few short days.

Imagine being on a planet orbiting one of the nearby stars.  As soon as this thing explodes, everything within about 1000 light years is cooked by the radiation.  We are millions of light years away and we see this incredible brightness as if a new star formed within our own galaxy.

A supernova is a rare and amazing event that pushes the laws of Physics to their limits.  If one of the stars in our night sky exploded as a supernova, it would be bright enough to see in the daytime, presuming it’s not close enough to  fry us.