The Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), to be launched on 16 May 2008, is a four-tonne observatory packed with state-of-the-art particle detectors that will study the gamma-ray sky in unprecedented detail.
Gamma rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation with much higher frequency and energy than visible light, UV light or even X-rays. Having such high energy, gamma rays are hard to collect and focus in the way that a conventional telescope does with visible light. Gamma rays are therefore the most difficult form of electromagnetic radiation to track in space.
Whereas visible light reveals thousands of stars and individual planets moving slowly across the sky, studying the skies at gamma-ray frequencies reveals a much weirder picture of space.
Gamma rays are not produced by hot, glowing objects, but from collisions between charged, very rapidly moving, particles and matter or light. The high frequency photons that are emitted from these collisions provide a glimpse of the most extreme astrophysical processes known.
Black holes, for example, accelerate matter to produce extreme energies in active galaxies. The gamma rays emitted in these scenarios have the equivalent energy to that of all the stars in an entire galaxy over all wavelengths.
Until now, however, existing ground-based gamma-ray detectors have not been sophisticated enough to measure these emissions in any detail over long periods. The astrophysicists cite looking for signatures of as-yet-unknown fundamental physical processes as a key reason for embarking on this project.
Julie McEnery, Steve Ritz and Neil Gehrels of NASA's Goddard Space Centre, write, "We expect GLAST to have a large impact on many areas of astrophysics but what is most exciting are the surprises: with any luck, the greatest GLAST science has not even been thought of yet."
Adapted from materials provided by Institute of Physics.
Two merging black holes can generate gravitational waves so powerful that the merged hole shoots out of its host galaxy at a speed of up to 2,500 miles per second, according to a new simulation.
This research, led by Manuela Campanelli at the Rochester Institute of Technology, demonstrates for the first time that the violent recoil that follows a merger is capable of ejecting the supermassive black holes known to lie at the heart of most light-emitting galaxies. These black holes may be cruising through the universe, virtually undetectable unless they should crash into something and gain matter.
The study found the optimal conditions for producing recoil speeds high enough to free a supermassive black hole from its host galaxy. In this scenario, the two black holes orbit around one another. They have equal masses and spin at the highest possible rate. They must be tilted onto their sides, with their axes of rotation lying in the plane of their orbit, and they must spin in opposite directions. They spiral toward one another, and when they merge, they are kicked in a direction perpendicular to the orbital plane.
Some astrophysicists have argued that such conditions are rather unlikely. The probability that black hole ejection will occur remains an open question for future research. Even if supermassive black holes have been removed from galactic cores, the odds that one of them will streak through our solar system are small enough that we need not fear a sudden obliteration.
A second study, conducted by Abraham Loeb of Harvard University, examines the possibility of detecting a black hole that has been kicked by gravitational recoil. If the black hole is surrounded by a ring of gas, it will emit light and resemble a star-like object known as a quasar.
A quasar exists when the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy rapidly acquires gas. As a result, the gas near the black hole heats up and radiates several times as much energy as the Milky Way. A quasar that is displaced from galactic core may well be a kicked black hole. Unfortunately, it would require a real stroke of luck to catch one in action - the gas fueling the light would only last about ten million years, so an ejected black hole would be dark by the time it left its galaxy.
Contrary to established scientific thinking, you'd be roasted and not "spaghettified" if you stumbled into a supermassive black hole. New research being presented at the Institute of Physics conference Physics 2005 in Warwick will take a new look at the diet of the universe's most intriguing object, black holes.
Black holes stand at the very edge of scientific theory. Most scientists believe they exist, although many of their theories break down under the extreme conditions within. But Professor Andrew Hamilton of the University of Colorado says he knows what you would find inside, and challenges the traditional idea that gravity would cause you death by "spaghettification".
Most people have heard of the event horizon of a black hole, as the point of no return. But astronomically realistic black holes are more complex and should have two horizons, an outer and an inner. In the bizarre physics of black holes, time and space are exchanged when you cross an event horizon, but at a second horizon they would switch back again. Travelling into a black hole, you would therefore pass through a strange region where space is falling inward faster than light, before finally entering a zone of normal space at the core. It's this core of normal space which Professor Hamilton has been working on.
A so-called singularity sits at the centre of the core, swallowing up matter. But according to Professor Hamilton, the strange laws of general relativity temper its appetite. If the singularity ate too quickly, it would become gravitationally repulsive, so instead, matter piles up in a hot, dense plasma filling the core of the black hole and siphoning gradually into the singularity.
Depending on the size of the black hole, this plasma could be the cause of a space traveller's demise. Most books will tell you that under the extreme gravitational conditions of a black hole, your feet would experience gravity more strongly than your head, and your body would be stretched out like spaghetti. For a small black hole with the mass of several suns, this should still be true. But for a supermassive black hole weighing millions or billions of suns, explains Professor Hamilton, the tidal forces which cause spaghettification are relatively weak. You would instead be roasted by the heat of the plasma.
Professor Andrew Hamilton is Professor of Astrophysics at the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, University of Colorado.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected plump black holes where least expected -- skinny galaxies. Like people, galaxies come in different shapes and sizes. There are thin spirals both with and without central bulges of stars, and more rotund ellipticals that are themselves like giant bulges. Scientists have long held that all galaxies except the slender, bulgeless spirals harbor supermassive black holes at their cores. Furthermore, bulges were thought to be required for black holes to grow.
The new Spitzer observations throw this theory into question. The infrared telescope surveyed 32 flat and bulgeless galaxies and detected monstrous black holes lurking in the bellies of seven of them. The results imply that galaxy bulges are not necessary for black hole growth; instead, a mysterious invisible substance in galaxies called dark matter could play a role.
"This finding challenges the current paradigm. The fact that galaxies without bulges have black holes means that the bulges cannot be the determining factor, " said Shobita Satyapal of the George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. "It's possible that the dark matter that fills the halos around galaxies plays an important role in the early development of supermassive black holes."
Satyapal presented the findings today at the 211th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. A study from Satyapal and her team will be published in the April 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.
Our own Milky Way is an example of a spiral galaxy with a bulge; from the side, it would look like a plane seen head-on, with its wings out to the side. Its black hole, though dormant and not actively "feeding," is several million times the mass of our sun.
Previous observations had suggested that bulges and black holes flourished together like symbiotic species. For instance, supermassive black holes are almost always about 0.2 percent the mass of their galaxies' bulges. In other words, the more massive the bulge, the more massive the black hole. Said Satyapal, "Scientists reasoned that somehow the formation and growth of galaxy bulges and their central black holes are intimately connected."
But a wrinkle appeared in this theory in 2003, when astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pasadena, Calif., discovered a relatively "lightweight" supermassive black hole in a galaxy lacking a bulge. Then, earlier this year, Satyapal and her team uncovered a second supermassive black hole in a similarly svelte galaxy.
In the latest study, Satyapal and her colleagues report the discovery of six more hefty black holes in thin galaxies with minimal bulges, further weakening the "bulge-black hole" theory. Why hadn't anybody seen these black holes before? According to the scientists, bulgeless galaxies tend to be very dusty, letting little visible light escape. But infrared light can penetrate dust, so the team was able to use Spitzer's infrared spectrograph to reveal the "fingerprints" of active black holes lurking in galaxies millions of light years away.
"A feeding black hole spits out high-energy light that ionizes much of the gas in the core of the galaxy," said Satyapal. "In this case, Spitzer identified the unique fingerprint of highly ionized neon -- only a feeding black hole has the energy needed to excite neon to this state." The precise masses of the newfound black holes are unknown.
If bulges aren't necessary ingredients for baking up supermassive black holes, then perhaps dark matter is. Dark matter is the enigmatic substance that permeates galaxies and their surrounding halos, accounting for up to 90 percent of a galaxy's mass. So-called normal matter makes up stars, planets, living creatures and everything we see around us, whereas dark matter can't be seen. Only its gravitational effects can be felt. According to Satyapal, dark matter might somehow determine the mass of a black hole early on in the development of a galaxy.
"Maybe the bulge was just serving as a proxy for the dark matter mass -- the real determining factor behind the existence and mass of a black hole in a galaxy's center," said Satyapal.
Other authors of this study include: D. Vega of the George Mason University; R.P. Dudik of the George Mason University and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; N.P. Abel of the University of Cincinnati, Ohio; and Tim Heckman of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.
Adapted from materials provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Black holes are the most fuel efficient engines in the Universe, according to a new study using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. By making the first direct estimate of how efficient or "green" black holes are, this work gives insight into how black holes generate energy and affect their environment.
The new Chandra finding shows that most of the energy released by matter falling toward a supermassive black hole is in the form of high-energy jets traveling at near the speed of light away from the black hole. This is an important step in understanding how such jets can be launched from magnetized disks of gas near the event horizon of a black hole.
"Just as with cars, it's critical to know the fuel efficiency of black holes," said lead author Steve Allen of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. "Without this information, we cannot figure out what is going on under the hood, so to speak, or what the engine can do."
Allen and his team used Chandra to study nine supermassive black holes at the centers of elliptical galaxies. These black holes are relatively old and generate much less radiation than quasars, rapidly growing supermassive black holes seen in the early Universe. The surprise came when the Chandra results showed that these "quiet" black holes are all producing much more energy in jets of high-energy particles than in visible light or X-rays. These jets create huge bubbles, or cavities, in the hot gas in the galaxies.
The efficiency of the black hole energy-production was calculated in two steps: first Chandra images of the inner regions of the galaxies were used to estimate how much fuel is available for the black hole; then Chandra images were used to estimate the power required to produce the cavities.
"If a car was as fuel-efficient as these black holes, it could theoretically travel over a billion miles on a gallon of gas," said coauthor Christopher Reynolds of the University of Maryland, College Park.
New details are given about how black hole engines achieve this extreme efficiency. Some of the gas first attracted to the black holes may be blown away by the energetic activity before it gets too near the black hole, but a significant fraction must eventually approach the event horizon where it is used with high efficiency to power the jets. The study also implies that matter flows towards the black holes at a steady rate for several million years.
"These black holes are very efficient, but it also takes a very long time to refuel them," said Steve Allen who receives funding from the Office of Science of the Department of Energy.
This new study shows that black holes are green in another important way. The energy transferred to the hot gas by the jets should keep hot gas from cooling, thereby preventing billions of new stars from forming. This will place limits on the growth of the largest galaxies, and prevent galactic sprawl from taking over the neighborhood.
These results will appear in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls science and flight operations from the Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.
Adapted from materials provided by Chandra X-ray Center.