Astronomical Discoveries: New Black Holes and How the Big Bang May Have Ignited

Astronomers determined the chemical composition of a pristine gas cloud using light from one of the most distant quasars, seen just 850 million after the Big Bang, or 1/14th of the universe’s current age. (Courtesy of Max Planck Institute for Astronomy)

(CN) – A trio of studies released Thursday offer clues about the earliest star nurseries and the fuel ignition mechanisms that may have sparked the supernova explosion that sparked the Big Bang, the origin point of our universe.

Astronomers working to create a census of all black holes in the universe have also learned of a new class of black holes smaller than the tiniest black holes ever encountered in the cosmos.

At the dawn of our universe 13.8 billion years ago, an explosion sent a vast array of chemical elements across space that eventually cooled and formed the galaxies and stars that now populate the heavens. Little was known about the chemistry behind star and galaxy formation immediately after the Big Bang, until now.

While observing a distant quasar, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy stumbled onto a gas cloud that holds clues on how celestial objects formed nearly 850 million years after the Big Bang.

Researcher Eduardo Bañados and colleagues said in a statement that stars in the newly visible cloud differ from stars formed much later after the Big Bang in that they contain mostly helium and hydrogen atoms, according to the study published in Astrophysical Journal.

Scientists used the quasar’s light – caused by the galaxy’s supermassive black hole, where scorching matter swirls in a luminescent display – to learn about the gas cloud’s density and chemical makeup.

The gas cloud – a precursor to modern-day dwarf galaxies – is so far away from Earth that its light has taken 13 billion years to reach our eyes.

Bañados said the history of how the earliest stars were formed will become clearer as research scan the heavens for more gas clouds.

“It is exciting that we can measure metallicity and chemical abundances so early in the history of the universe, but if we want to identify the signatures of the first stars we need to probe even earlier in cosmic history,” Bañados said.

University of Central Florida researcher Kareem Ahmed and colleagues set out to uncover the fuel apparatus behind the Big Bang by studying how flames react to strenuous conditions.

“We defined the critical criteria where we can drive a flame to self-generate its own turbulence, spontaneously accelerate, and transition into detonation,” said Ahmed, who teaches in the school’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Scientists simulated early-universe conditions by making flames respond to external forces at five-times the speed of sound, according to the study published Thursday in Science.

“We’re using the turbulence to enhance the mixing of the reactions to the point where it transitions into this violent reaction and essentially leads to supernovas, which is exploding stars in simple terms,” Ahmed said in the statement.

Turbulence was applied to an unconfined flame until it became a self-perpetuating blaze that could produce a “Mach 5 hypersonic supernova explosion,” according to the study.

The findings could advance zero-emission technologies in the energy and air travel industries.

Meanwhile, researchers building a census of all the black holes in the Milky Way galaxy have uncovered a new class of black holes.

The celestial wonders, 15 times the mass of our sun, form when stars collapse into themselves and explode and contain gravitational pulls so strong that no matter or radiation can escape their grasp.

Todd Thompson of The Ohio State University said in a statement that the findings, also published Thursday in Science, offer new methods for hunting black holes.

“People are trying to understand supernova explosions, how supermassive black stars explode, how the elements were formed in supermassive stars,” Thompson said. “So if we could reveal a new population of black holes, it would tell us more about which stars explode, which don’t, which form black holes, which form neutron stars. It opens up a new area of study.”

In 2017, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory observed two black holes merging in a galaxy 1.8 million light years from Earth, one with 31 times the mass of the sun and the other about 25 times the mass of the sun.

“Black holes that size are a big deal, we hadn’t seen them before,” Thompson said, adding that he set out to find the full range between the biggest neutron stars and the smallest black holes.

Using the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment and the Gaia satellite, Thompson observed changes in light from stars orbiting distant objects, including those that are not visible.

After a deep analysis of light spectra, researchers found a red star orbiting found a low-mass black hole, likely about 3.3 times the mass of the sun.

“What we’ve done here is come up with a new way to search for black holes, but we’ve also potentially identified one of the first of a new class of low-mass black holes that astronomers hadn’t previously known about.” Thompson said. “The masses of things tell us about their formation and evolution, and they tell us about their nature.”

 

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