New Hubble Constant Measurement Adds To Mystery Of Universe’s Expansion Rate

Astronomers have made a new measurement of how fast the universe is expanding, using an entirely different kind of star than previous endeavors. The revised measurement, which comes from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, falls in the center of a hotly debated question in astrophysics that may lead to a new interpretation of the universe’s fundamental properties.

Scientists have known for almost a century that the universe is expanding, meaning the distance between galaxies across the universe is becoming ever more vast every second. But exactly how fast space is stretching, a value known as the Hubble constant, has remained stubbornly elusive.

Now, University of Chicago professor Wendy Freedman and colleagues have a new measurement for the rate of expansion in the modern universe, suggesting the space between galaxies is stretching faster than scientists would expect. Freedman’s is one of several recent studies that point to a nagging discrepancy between modern expansion measurements and predictions based on the universe as it was more than 13 billion years ago, as measured by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite.

As more research points to a discrepancy between predictions and observations, scientists are considering whether they may need to come up with a new model for the underlying physics of the universe in order to explain it.

“The Hubble constant is the cosmological parameter that sets the absolute scale, size and age of the universe; it is one of the most direct ways we have of quantifying how the universe evolves,” said Freedman. “The discrepancy that we saw before has not gone away, but this new evidence suggests that the jury is still out on whether there is an immediate and compelling reason to believe that there is something fundamentally flawed in our current model of the universe.”

In a new paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, Freedman and her team announced a new measurement of the Hubble constant using a kind of star known as a red giant. Their new observations, made using Hubble, indicate that the expansion rate for the nearby universe is just under 70 kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/sec/Mpc). One parsec is equivalent to 3.26 light-years distance.

This measurement is slightly smaller than the value of 74 km/sec/Mpc recently reported by the Hubble SH0ES (Supernovae H0 for the Equation of State) team using Cepheid variables, which are stars that pulse at regular intervals that correspond to their peak brightness. This team, led by Adam Riess of the Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, recently reported refining their observations to the highest precision to date for their Cepheid distance measurement technique.

How to Measure Expansion

A central challenge in measuring the universe’s expansion rate is that it is very difficult to accurately calculate distances to distant objects.

In 2001, Freedman led a team that used distant stars to make a landmark measurement of the Hubble constant. The Hubble Space Telescope Key Project team measured the value using Cepheid variables as distance markers. Their program concluded that the value of the Hubble constant for our universe was 72 km/sec/Mpc.

But more recently, scientists took a very different approach: building a model based on the rippling structure of light left over from the big bang, which is called the Cosmic Microwave Background. The Planck measurements allow scientists to predict how the early universe would likely have evolved into the expansion rate astronomers can measure today. Scientists calculated a value of 67.4 km/sec/Mpc, in significant disagreement with the rate of 74.0 km/sec/Mpc measured with Cepheid stars.

Astronomers have looked for anything that might be causing the mismatch. “Naturally, questions arise as to whether the discrepancy is coming from some aspect that astronomers don’t yet understand about the stars we’re measuring, or whether our cosmological model of the universe is still incomplete,” Freedman said. “Or maybe both need to be improved upon.”

Freedman’s team sought to check their results by establishing a new and entirely independent path to the Hubble constant using an entirely different kind of star.

Certain stars end their lives as a very luminous kind of star called a red giant, a stage of evolution that our own Sun will experience billions of years from now. At a certain point, the star undergoes a catastrophic event called a helium flash, in which the temperature rises to about 100 million degrees and the structure of the star is rearranged, which ultimately dramatically decreases its luminosity. Astronomers can measure the apparent brightness of the red giant stars at this stage in different galaxies, and they can use this as a way to tell their distance.

The Hubble constant is calculated by comparing distance values to the apparent recessional velocity of the target galaxies — that is, how fast galaxies seem to be moving away. The team’s calculations give a Hubble constant of 69.8 km/sec/Mpc — straddling the values derived by the Planck and Riess teams.

“Our initial thought was that if there’s a problem to be resolved between the Cepheids and the Cosmic Microwave Background, then the red giant method can be the tie-breaker,” said Freedman.

But the results do not appear to strongly favor one answer over the other say the researchers, although they align more closely with the Planck results.

NASA’s upcoming mission, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s, will enable astronomers to better explore the value of the Hubble constant across cosmic time. WFIRST, with its Hubble-like resolution and 100 times greater view of the sky, will provide a wealth of new Type Ia supernovae, Cepheid variables, and red giant stars to fundamentally improve distance measurements to galaxies near and far.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Supernova Observation First Of Its Kind Using NASA Satellite

When NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite launched into space in April 2018, it did so with a specific goal: to search the universe for new planets.

But in recently published research, a team of astronomers at The Ohio State University showed that the survey, nicknamed TESS, could also be used to monitor a particular type of supernova, giving scientists more clues about what causes white dwarf stars to explode — and about the elements those explosions leave behind.

“We have known for years that these stars explode, but we have terrible ideas of why they explode,” said Patrick Vallely, lead author of the study and an Ohio State astronomy graduate student. “The big thing here is that we are able to show that this supernova isn’t consistent with having a white dwarf (take mass) directly from a standard star companion and explode into it — the kind of standard idea that had led to people trying to find hydrogen signatures in the first place. That is, because the TESS light curve doesn’t show any evidence of the explosion slamming into the surface of a companion, and because the hydrogen signatures in the SALT spectra don’t evolve like the other elements, we can rule out that standard model.”

Their research, detailed in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, represents the first published findings about a supernova observed using TESS, and add new insights to long-held theories about the elements left behind after a white dwarf star explodes into a supernova.

Those elements have long troubled astronomers.

A white dwarf explodes into a specific type of supernova, a 1a, after gathering mass from a nearby companion star and growing too big to remain stable, astronomers believe. But if that is true, then the explosion should, astronomers have theorized, leave behind trace elements of hydrogen, a crucial building block of stars and the entire universe. (White dwarf stars, by their nature, have already burned through their own hydrogen and so would not be a source of hydrogen in a supernova.)

But until this TESS-based observation of a supernova, astronomers had never seen those hydrogen traces in the explosion’s aftermath: This supernova is the first of its type in which astronomers have measured hydrogen. That hydrogen, first reported by a team from the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, could change the nature of what astronomers know about white dwarf supernovae.

“The most interesting thing about this particular supernova is the hydrogen we saw in its spectra (the elements the explosion leaves behind),” Vallely said. “We’ve been looking for hydrogen and helium in the spectra of this type of supernova for years — those elements help us understand what caused the supernova in the first place.”

The hydrogen could mean that the white dwarf consumed a nearby star. In that scenario, the second star would be a normal star in the middle of its lifespan — not a second white dwarf. But when astronomers measured the light curve from this supernova, the curve indicated that the second star was in fact a second white dwarf. So where did the hydrogen come from?

Professor of Astronomy Kris Stanek, Vallely’s adviser at Ohio State and a co-author on this paper, said it is possible that the hydrogen came from a companion star — a standard, regular star — but he thinks it is more likely that the hydrogen came from a third star that happened to be near the exploding white dwarf and was consumed in the supernova by chance.

“We would think that because we see this hydrogen, it means that the white dwarf consumed a second star and exploded, but based on the light curve we saw from this supernova, that might not be true,” Stanek said.

“Based on the light curve, the most likely thing that happened, we think, is that the hydrogen might be coming from a third star in the system,” Stanek added. “So the prevailing scenario, at least at Ohio State right now, is that the way to make a Type Ia (pronounced 1-A) supernova is by having two white dwarf stars interacting — colliding even. But also having a third star that provides the hydrogen.”

For the Ohio State research, Vallely, Stanek and a team of astronomers from around the world combined data from TESS, a 10-centimeter-diameter telescope, with data from the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN for short.) ASAS-SN is led by Ohio State and is made up of small telescopes around the world watching the sky for supernovae in far-away galaxies.

TESS, by comparison, is designed to search the skies for planets in our nearby galaxy — and to provide data much more quickly than previous satellite telescopes. That means that the Ohio State team was able to use data from TESS to see what was happening around the supernova in the first moments after it exploded — an unprecedented opportunity.

The team combined data from TESS and ASAS-SN with data from the South African Large Telescope to evaluate the elements left behind in the supernova’s wake. They found both hydrogen and helium there, two indicators that the exploding star had somehow consumed a nearby companion star.

“What is really cool about these results is, when we combine the data, we can learn new things,” Stanek said. “And this supernova is the first exciting case of that synergy.”

The supernova this team observed was a Type Ia, a type of supernova that can occur when two stars orbit one another — what astronomers call a binary system. In some cases of a Type I supernova, one of those stars is a white dwarf.

A white dwarf has burned off all its nuclear fuel, leaving behind only a very hot core. (White dwarf temperatures exceed 100,000 degrees Kelvin — nearly 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit.) Unless the star grows bigger by stealing bits of energy and matter from a nearby star, the white dwarf spends the next billion years cooling down before turning into a lump of black carbon.

But if the white dwarf and another star are in a binary system, the white dwarf slowly takes mass from the other star until, eventually, the white dwarf explodes into a supernova.

Type I supernovae are important for space science — they help astronomers measure distance in space, and help them calculate how quickly the universe is expanding (a discovery so important that it won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011.)

“These are the most famous type of supernova — they led to dark energy being discovered in the 1990s,” Vallely said. “They are responsible for the existence of so many elements in the universe. But we don’t really understand the physics behind them that well. And that’s what I really like about combining TESS and ASAS-SN here, that we can build up this data and use it to figure out a little more about these supernovae.”

Scientists broadly agree that the companion star leads to a white dwarf supernova, but the mechanism of that explosion, and the makeup of the companion star, are less clear.

This finding, Stanek said, provides some evidence that the companion star in this type of supernova is likely another white dwarf.

“We are seeing something new in this data, and it helps our understanding of the Ia supernova phenomenon,” he said. “And we can explain this all in terms of the scenarios we already have — we just need to allow for the third star in this case to be the source of the hydrogen.”

ASAS-SN is supported by Las Cumbres Observatory and funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation, the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics at Ohio State, the Chinese Academy of Sciences South American Center for Astronomy and the Villum Fonden in Denmark.

Moon-Forming Disk Discovered Around Distant Planet

Using Earth’s most powerful array of radio telescopes, astronomers have made the first observations of a circumplanetary disk of gas and dust like the one that is believed to have birthed the moons of Jupiter.

The find, reported online today in Astrophysical Journal Letters, adds to the intriguing story of planet PDS 70 c, a still-forming gas giant about 370 light years from Earth that was first revealed last month in visible light images.

Using the massive 66-antenna Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, Rice University astronomer Andrea Isella and colleagues collected millimeter wave radio signals that revealed the presence of dust grains throughout the star system where PDS 70 c and its sister planet, PDS 70 b, are still forming.

“Planets form from disks of gas and dust around newly forming stars, and if a planet is large enough, it can form its own disk as it gathers material in its orbit around the star,” Isella said. “Jupiter and its moons are a little planetary system within our solar system, for example, and it’s believed Jupiter’s moons formed from a circumplanetary disk when Jupiter was very young.”

But most models of planet formation show that circumplanetary disks disappear within about 10 million years, which means circumplanetary disks haven’t existed in our solar system for more than 4 billion years. To look for them elsewhere and gather observational evidence to test theories of planet formation, Isella and colleagues search for very young star systems where they can directly observe disks and the planets still forming inside them. In the new study, Isella and colleagues analyzed observations made by ALMA in 2017.

“There are a handful of candidate planets that have been detected in disks, but this is a very new field, and they are all still debated,” Isella said. “(PDS 70 b and PDS 70 c) are among the most robust because there have been independent observations with different instruments and techniques.”

PDS 70 is a dwarf star about three-quarters the mass of the sun. Both of its planets are 5-10 times larger than Jupiter, and the innermost, PDS 70 b, orbits about 1.8 billion miles from the star, roughly the distance from the sun to Uranus. PDS 70 c is a billion miles further out, in an orbit about the size of Neptune’s.

PDS 70 b was first revealed in 2018 in infrared light images from a planet-hunting instrument called SPHERE at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). In June, astronomers used another VLT instrument called MUSE to observe a visible wavelength of light known as H-alpha, which is emitted when hydrogen falls onto a star or planet and becomes ionized.

“H-alpha gives us more confidence that these are planets because it suggests they are still drawing in gas and dust and growing,” Isella said.

The millimeter wavelength observations from ALMA provide even more evidence.

“It’s complementary to the optical data and provides completely independent confirmation that there is something there,” he said.

Isella said direct observation of planets with circumplanetary disks could allow astronomers to test theories of planet formation.

“There’s much that we don’t understand about how planets form, and we now finally have the instruments to make direct observations and begin answering questions about how our solar system formed and how other planets might form.”

Isella is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice and a co-investigator on the Rice-based, NASA-funded CLEVER Planets project.

Hubble Uncovers Black Hole That Shouldn’t Exist

As if black holes weren’t mysterious enough, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have found an unexpected thin disk of material furiously whirling around a supermassive black hole at the heart of the magnificent spiral galaxy NGC 3147, located 130 million light-years away.

The conundrum is that the disk shouldn’t be there, based on current astronomical theories. However, the unexpected presence of a disk so close to a black hole offers a unique opportunity to test Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. General relativity describes gravity as the curvature of space and special relativity describes the relationship between time and space.

“We’ve never seen the effects of both general and special relativity in visible light with this much clarity,” said Marco Chiaberge of the European Space Agency, and the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore, Maryland, a member of the team that conducted the Hubble study.

“This is an intriguing peek at a disk very close to a black hole, so close that the velocities and the intensity of the gravitational pull are affecting how the photons of light look,” added the study’s first author, Stefano Bianchi of Università degli Studi Roma Tre, in Rome, Italy. “We cannot understand the data unless we include the theories of relativity.”

Black holes in certain types of galaxies like NGC 3147 are malnourished because there is not enough gravitationally captured material to feed them regularly. So, the thin haze of infalling material puffs up like a donut rather than flattening out in a pancake-shaped disk. Therefore, it is very puzzling why there is a thin disk encircling a starving black hole in NGC 3147 that mimics much more powerful disks found in extremely active galaxies with engorged, monster black holes.

“We thought this was the best candidate to confirm that below certain luminosities, the accretion disk doesn’t exist anymore,” explained Ari Laor of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology located in Haifa, Israel. “What we saw was something completely unexpected. We found gas in motion producing features we can explain only as being produced by material rotating in a thin disk very close to the black hole.”

The astronomers initially selected this galaxy to validate accepted models about lower-luminosity active galaxies — those with black holes that are on a meager diet of material. Models predict that an accretion disk forms when ample amounts of gas are trapped by a black hole’s strong gravitational pull. This infalling matter emits lots of light, producing a brilliant beacon called a quasar, in the case of the most well-fed black holes. Once less material is pulled into the disk, it begins to break down, becomes fainter, and changes structure.

“The type of disk we see is a scaled-down quasar that we did not expect to exist,” Bianchi said. “It’s the same type of disk we see in objects that are 1,000 or even 100,000 times more luminous. The predictions of current models for gas dynamics in very faint active galaxies clearly failed.”

The disk is so deeply embedded in the black hole’s intense gravitational field that the light from the gas disk is modified, according to Einstein’s theories of relativity, giving astronomers a unique look at the dynamic processes close to a black hole.

Hubble clocked material whirling around the black hole as moving at more than 10% of the speed of light. At those extreme velocities, the gas appears to brighten as it travels toward Earth on one side, and dims as it speeds away from our planet on the other side (an effect called relativistic beaming). Hubble’s observations also show that the gas is so entrenched in the gravitational well the light is struggling to climb out, and therefore appears stretched to redder wavelengths. The black hole’s mass is around 250 million Suns.

The researchers used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to observe matter swirling deep inside the disk. A spectrograph is a diagnostic tool that divides light from an object into its many individual wavelengths to determine its speed, temperature, and other characteristics at a very high precision. The astronomers needed STIS’s sharp resolution to isolate the faint light from the black-hole region and block out contaminating starlight.

“Without Hubble, we wouldn’t have been able to see this because the black-hole region has a low luminosity,” Chiaberge said. “The luminosities of the stars in the galaxy outshine anything in the nucleus. So if you observe it from the ground, you’re dominated by the brightness of the stars, which drowns the feeble emission from the nucleus.”

The team hopes to use Hubble to hunt for other very compact disks around low-wattage black holes in similar active galaxies.

The team’s paper will appear online today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The international team of astronomers in this study consists of Stefano Bianchi (Università degli Studi Roma Tre, Rome, Italy); Robert Antonucci (University of California, Santa Barbara, California); Alessandro Capetti (INAF — Osservatorio Astrofisico di Torino, Pino Torinese, Italy); Marco Chiaberge (Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland); Ari Laor (Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel); Loredana Bassani (INAF/IASF Bologna, Italy); Francisco Carrera (CSIC-Universidad de Cantabria, Santander, Spain); Fabio La Franca, Andrea Marinucci, Giorgio Matt, and Riccardo Middei (Università degli Studi Roma Tre, Roma, Italy); and Francesca Panessa (INAF Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Rome, Italy).

‘Bathtub Rings’ Around Titan’s Lakes Might Be Made Of Alien Crystals

The frigid lakeshores of Saturn’s moon Titan might be encrusted with strange, unearthly minerals, according to new research being presented here.

Scientists re-creating Titan-esque conditions in their laboratory have discovered new compounds and minerals not found on Earth, including a co-crystal made of solid acetylene and butane.

Acetylene and butane exist on Earth as gases and are commonly used for welding and camp stove fuel. On Titan, with its extremely cold temperatures, acetylene and butane are solid and combine to form crystals, the new research found.

The new mineral might be responsible for the bathtub rings that are suspected to exist around Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes, according to Morgan Cable of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, who will present the new research Monday at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference.

Titan’s lakes are filled with liquid hydrocarbons. Previous research using images and data gathered during the Cassini mission has shown that lakes in the moon’s dry regions near the equator contain signs of evaporated material left behind, like rings on a bathtub.

To create Titan-like conditions in the laboratory, the researchers started with a custom-built cryostat, an apparatus to keep things cold. They filled the cryostat with liquid nitrogen to bring the temperature down. They then warmed the chamber slightly, so the nitrogen turned to gas, which is mostly what Titan’s atmosphere contains. Next, they threw in what abounds on Titan, methane and ethane, as well as other carbon-containing molecules, and looked for what formed.

The first things to drop out of their Titan hydrocarbon soup were benzene crystals. Benzene is perhaps best known as a component of gasoline and is a snowflake-shaped molecule made out of a hexagonal ring of carbon atoms. But Titan benzene held a surprise: The molecules rearranged themselves and allowed ethane molecules inside, creating a co-crystal.

The researchers then discovered the acetylene and butane co-crystal, which is probably a lot more common on Titan than benzene crystals, based on what’s known about the moon’s composition, Cable said.

In the moon’s cold climate, the acetylene-butane co-crystals might form rings around the moon’s lakes as the liquid hydrocarbons evaporate and the minerals drop out — in the same way that salts can form crusts on the shores of Earth’s lakes and seas, according to Cable.

To confirm whether Titan has bathtub rings of co-crystals and other, undiscovered, hydrocarbon crystals, scientists will have to wait until a spacecraft can visit the shorelines of this moon, Cable said.

“We don’t know yet if we have these bathtub rings,” Cable said. “It’s hard to see through Titan’s hazy atmosphere.”

Moving Closer to Understanding of Universe’s Most Powerful Explosions

Good fortune and cutting-edge scientific equipment have allowed scientists to observe a Gamma Ray Burst jet with a radio telescope and detect the polarization of radio waves within it for the first time – moving us closer to an understanding of what causes the universe’s most powerful explosions.

Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) are the most energetic explosions in the universe, beaming out mighty jets which travel through space at over 99.9% the speed of light, as a star much more massive than our Sun collapses at the end of its life to produce a black hole. The study was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Studying the light from Gamma Ray Burst jets as we detect it travelling across space is our best hope of understanding how these powerful jets are formed, but scientists need to be quick to get their telescopes into position and get the best data. The detection of polarized radio waves from a burst’s jet, made possible by a new generation of advanced radio telescopes, offers new clues to this mystery.

The light from this particular event, known as GRB 190114C, which exploded with the force of millions of Suns’ worth of TNT about 4.5 billion years ago, reached NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory on Jan 14, 2019.

A rapid alert from Swift allowed the research team to direct the Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile to observe the burst just two hours after Swift discovered it. Two hours later the team was able to observe the GRB from the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) telescope when it became visible in New Mexico, USA.

Combining the measurements from these observatories allowed the research team to determine the structure of magnetic fields within the jet itself, which affects how the radio light is polarized. Theories predict different arrangements of magnetic fields within the jet depending on the fields’ origin, so capturing radio data enabled the researchers to test these theories with observations from telescopes for the first time.

The research team, from the University of Bath, Northwestern University, the Open University of Israel, Harvard University, California State University in Sacramento, the Max Planck Institute in Garching, and Liverpool John Moores University discovered that only 0.8% of the jet light was polarized, meaning that jet’s magnetic field was only ordered over relatively small patches – each less than about 1% of the diameter of the jet. Larger patches would have produced more polarized light.

These measurements suggest that magnetic fields may play a less significant structural role in GRB jets than previously thought. This helps us narrow down the possible explanations for what causes and powers these extraordinary explosions.

First author Dr. Tanmoy Laskar, from the University of Bath’s Astrophysics group, said: “We want to understand why some stars produce these extraordinary jets when they die, and the mechanism by which these jets are fuelled – the fastest known outflows in the universe, moving at speeds close to that of light and shining with the incredible luminosity of over a billion Suns combined.

“I was in a cab on my way to O’Hare airport in Chicago, following a visit with collaborators when the burst went off. The extreme brightness of this event and the fact that it was visible in Chile right away made it a prime target for our study, and so I immediately contacted ALMA to say we were going to observe this one, in the hope of detecting the first radio polarization signal.

“It was fortuitous that the target was well placed in the sky for observations with both ALMA in Chile and the VLA in New Mexico. Both facilities responded quickly and the weather was excellent. We then spent two months in a painstaking process to make sure our measurement was genuine and free from instrumental effects. Everything checked out, and that was exciting.

Dr. Kate Alexander, who led the VLA observations, said: “The lower frequency data from the VLA helped confirm that we were seeing the light from the jet itself, rather than from the interaction of the jet with its environment.”

Dr. Laskar added: “This measurement opens a new window into GRB science and the studies of energetic astrophysical jets. We would like to understand whether the low level of polarization measured in this event is characteristic of all GRBs, and if so, what this could tell us about the magnetic structures in GRB jets and the role of magnetic fields in powering jets throughout the universe.”

Professor Carole Mundell, Head of Astrophysics at the University of Bath, added: “The exquisite sensitivity of ALMA and rapid response of the telescopes has, for the first time, allowed us to swiftly and accurately measure the degree of polarization of microwaves from a GRB afterglow just two hours after the blast and probe the magnetic fields that are thought to drive these powerful, ultra-fast outflows.”

The research team plans to hunt for more GRBs to continue to unravel the mysteries of the biggest explosions in the universe.

Scientists Use X-Rays from Faraway Galaxy Cluster to Reveal Secrets of Plasma

Most visible matter in the universe doesn’t look like our textbook picture of a nucleus surrounded by tethered electrons. Out beyond our borders, inside massive clusters, galaxies swim in a sea of plasma – a form of matter in which electrons and nuclei wander unmoored.

Though it makes up the majority of the visible matter in the universe, this plasma remains poorly understood; scientists do not have a theory that fully describes its behavior, especially at small scales.

However, a University of Chicago astrophysicist led a study that provides a brand-new glimpse of the small-scale physics of such plasma. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, scientists took a detailed look at the plasma in a distant galaxy cluster and discovered the flow of plasma is much less viscous than expected and, therefore, turbulence occurs on relatively small scales – an important finding for our numerical models of the largest objects in the universe.

“High-resolution X-ray observations allowed us to learn some surprising truths about the viscosity of these plasmas,” said Irina Zhuravleva, an assistant professor of astrophysics and first author of the study, published June 17 in Nature Astronomy. “One might expect that variations in density that arise in the plasma are quickly erased by viscosity; however, we saw the opposite – the plasma finds ways to maintain them.”

Scattered around the universe are massive clusters of galaxies, some of them millions of light-years across containing thousands of galaxies. They sit in a type of plasma that we cannot recreate on Earth. It is extremely sparse – on the order of a sextillion times less dense than air on Earth – and has very weak magnetic fields, tens of thousands of times weaker than we experience on the Earth’s surface. To study this plasma, therefore, scientists must rely on cosmic laboratories such as clusters of galaxies.

Zhuravleva and the team chose a relatively nearby galaxy cluster called the Coma Cluster, a gigantic, bright cluster made up of more than 1,000 galaxies. They chose a less dense region away from the cluster center, where they hoped to be able to capture the average distance that particles travel between interactions with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. In order to build a high-quality map of the plasma, they observed the Coma cluster for almost 12 days – much longer than a typical observing run.

One thing that jumped out was how viscous the plasma was – how easily it’s stirred. “One could expect to see the viscosity resisting chaotic motions of plasma as we zoom in to smaller and smaller scales,” Zhuravleva said. But that didn’t happen; the plasma was clearly turbulent even on such small scales.

“It turned out that plasma behavior is more similar to the swirling motions of milk stirred in a coffee mug than the smoother ones that honey makes,” she said.

Such low viscosity means that microscopic processes in plasma cause small irregularities in the magnetic field, causing particles to collide more frequently and making the plasma less viscous. Alternately, Zhuravleva said, viscosity could be different along and perpendicular to magnetic field lines.

Understanding the physics of such plasmas is essential for improving our models of how galaxies and galaxy clusters form and evolve with time.

“It is exciting that we were able to use observations of clusters of galaxies to understand fundamental properties of intergalactic plasmas,” said Zhuravleva. “Our observations confirm that clusters are great laboratories that can sharpen theoretical views on plasmas.”

Other scientists on the study were affiliated with Stanford University, the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, the Space Research Institute in Russia, the University of Oxford, Niels Bohr International Academy, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Masaryk University, Eötvös Loránd University and Hiroshima University.