After more than five years of data modeling, analysis, and even hauling hard drives around the world, astronomers have finally released the first-ever snapshot of the black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Astronomers have long suspected that an invisible diner some 27,000 light-years from Earth was gobbling up starlight, but the new image is the first tangible confirmation of this hunch. Named Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, this supermassive black hole appears donut-shaped in its portrait with several light spots along its back.
Lindy Blackburn is a radio astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and one of the scientists responsible for analyzing the data collected by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, which captured and assembled the latest image. Beyond the wonder of the image itself, Blackburn says that this finding will also play a significant role in advancing the scientific understanding of black holes.
“Now that we know it is possible to image the black hole at the center of our galaxy, we are working toward a next-generation EHT,” Blackburn says.
What scientists got right — Black holes in science fiction are often depicted as swirling voids or black chasms prepared to sweep spacecraft over their event horizon to a point of no return, not unlike explorers of ancient myths falling off the edge of a flat Earth.
However, recent groundbreaking work by the EHT has revealed that this depiction may be a bit of a stretch. Thanks to the first image of the M87 black hole released by the collaboration in 2019, astronomers believed that black holes appeared to be more donut-shaped in reality, with blackness at the center and outside. Because the black holes themselves are still invisible to us and our telescopes, the donut shape actually highlights the heat coming off the matter as it whizzes around the black hole.
Seeing that Sgr A* had the same donut shape as M87 confirmed for astronomers that supermassive black holes of very different sizes — M87 is over 1,000 times more massive — had the same general structure. Blackburn says that the appearance of Sgr A* also confirmed some long-standing scientific theories.
“One of the most striking features of the Sgr A* image is that the size of its lensed ring of emission perfectly matches that predicted by General Relativity,” he says.
Blackburn also says that the light patches on Sgr A* weren’t much of a surprise either and could reflect the dynamic plasma surrounding the black hole.
“We would expect such features to vary throughout the course of a night,” he says. “Future observations should reveal if this is indeed the case.”
A few surprises — Not all the findings from Sgr A* were exactly as scientists predicted, however. The first surprise was the ring’s “relatively even distribution of brightness” which suggests that it may be oriented face-on with its axis of rotation pointed toward Earth. The black hole is also “curiously” misaligned with the midplane of the galaxy, Blackburn says.
Another unexpected discovery uncovered through imaging Sgr A* was that the level of variability in some of its measurements were less than predicted by computer simulations.
This means “there is something we don’t quite understand about the plasma behavior in the accretion flow,” Blackburn says.
Accretion disks around black holes are the messy crumbs left behind when gobbling up their meals. Better understanding these disks could help scientists study the behavior of black holes as a whole, a subject that is still riddled with mysteries.
What’s next — With two black holes successfully resolved, Blackburn says that the EHT has some big plans for how to study these objects next.
“We are working toward a next-generation EHT that will actually be able to capture movies of a source at multiple frequencies, revealing the inflow and outflow dynamics near the boundary of a black hole as well as the nature of flares,” he says.
One thing is certain: Black hole science is only going to get more exciting in the years to come.
See A Jaw-Dropping Crescent Moon, 50 Meteors And Hour And Our Billion-Star Milky Way: What You Can See In The Night Sky This Week – Forbes
Each Monday I pick out the northern hemisphere’s celestial highlights (mid-northern latitudes) for the week ahead, but be sure to check my main feed for more in-depth articles on stargazing, astronomy, eclipses and more.
What To See In The Night Sky This Week: June 27-July 3, 2022
It’s not easy going stargazing in summer at this time of year in the northern hemisphere. The nights are just so short. The best reason to stay up late and go somewhere dark is the sight of the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy arcing across the night sky. Look to the southeast and south for that this month—and this week in particular, which will be largely moonless.
When our satellite does emerge from its New Moon conjunction with the Sun expect lush views of a slender crescent Moon. Who said summer was no good for stargazing?
Monday, June 27, 2022: Boötids meteor shower and a crescent Moon meets Mercury
The June Boötids meteor shower—occasionally called the June Draconids or Boötid-Draconids meteor shower—runs annually between June 22 and July 2, but peaks in the early hours of June 27, 2020.
If you are out stargazing late tonight keep an eye out for the 50 or so “shooting stars” per hour expected. The shower’s radiant point—the apparent source of the shooting stars—is the constellation of Boötes.
If you’re still up before dawn you might just catch the planet Mercury just 3.9º from an incredibly slender 2.6% crescent Moon, but be very careful if you use binoculars to help you because the rising Sun is NOT something you want in your field of view.
Tuesday, June 30, 2022: A super-slim crescent Moon and ‘Asteroid Day’
Today is Asteroid Day. With any luck there won’t be anything to see hurtling towards (or even smashing into) our planet, but it’s a good chance to consider the threat posed to Earth of incoming space rocks. What’s really going to change everything is the Vera Rubin Observatory, which from 2022 will deploy a wide-angle camera to map the night sky in real-time—and identify many thousands of hitherto unfound asteroids.
Friday, July 1, 2022: ‘Earthshine’ on a crescent Moon
You should get a much clearer view of a crescent Moon today. Now 8% illuminated, in a clear sky it will be a stunning sight, not least because you’ll be able to see sunlight being reflected onto the Moon by the Earth as “Earthshine” or “planet-shine.” It’s a subtle sight, but once seen cannot be unseen; look at the Moon’s darkened limb with your eyes, or better still, with a pair of binoculars, to appreciate this fine sight.
As a bonus it will be just 3.5° from the Beehive Cluster, though you’ll need a pair of binoculars to see its 30 or so easily visible stars.
Saturday, July 2, 2022: ‘Earthshine’ on a crescent Moon and Regulus
Tonight just after sunset look west for a 14% crescent Moon, once again displaying Earthshine. The stars around it will be those of the “sickle” in the constellation of Leo. The brightest, about 5º left of the Moon, will be Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. It’s one of the brightest stars in the night sky and about 78 light-years distant.
Object of the week: noctilucent clouds
This time of year the twilight seems to last forever at northerly latitudes so consider looking for a “ghostly” display of noctilucent or “night shining” clouds (NLCs). At their best in northern twilight skies during June and July (at latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the equator), NLCs are very delicate high altitude clouds of icy dust that form about 50 miles/80 kilometres up. Because the Sun is never too far below the horizon at these latitudes they get subtly lit up for a short time. They’re best seen with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
Astronomers Found a Crater From The Mystery Rocket That Smashed Into The Moon – ScienceAlert
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – NASA’s eye-in-the-sky in orbit around the Moon – has found the crash site of the mystery rocket booster that slammed into the far side of the Moon back on 4 March 2022.
The LRO images, taken May 25th, revealed not just a single crater, but a double crater formed by the rocket’s impact, posing a new mystery for astronomers to unravel.
Why a double crater? While somewhat unusual – none of the Apollo S-IVBs that hit the Moon created double craters – they’re not impossible to create, especially if an object hits at a low angle. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Astronomer Bill Gray, who first discovered the object and predicted its lunar demise back in January, explains that the booster “came in at about 15 degrees from vertical. So that’s not the explanation for this one.”
The impact site consists of an 18-meter-wide eastern crater superimposed on a 16-meter-wide western crater. Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator of the LRO Camera team, proposes that this double crater formation might result from an object with distinct, large masses at each end.
“Typically a spent rocket has mass concentrated at the motor end; the rest of the rocket stage mainly consists of an empty fuel tank. Since the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the double nature of the crater may help to indicate its identity,” he said.
So what is it?
It’s a long story. The unidentified rocket first came to astronomers’ attention earlier this year when it was identified as a SpaceX upper stage, which had launched NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange Point in 2015.
Gray, who designs software that tracks space debris, was alerted to the object when his software pinged an error. He told The Washington Post on January 26 that “my software complained because it couldn’t project the orbit past March 4, and it couldn’t do it because the rocket had hit the Moon.”
Gray spread the word, and the story made the rounds in late January – but a few weeks later, he received an email from Jon Giorgini at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).
Giorgini pointed out that DSCOVR’s trajectory shouldn’t have taken the booster anywhere near the Moon. In an effort to reconcile the conflicting trajectories, Gray began to dig back into his data, where he discovered that he had misidentified the DSCOVR booster way back in 2015.
SpaceX wasn’t the culprit after all. But there was definitely still an object hurtling towards the Moon. So what was it?
A bit of detective work led Gray to determine it was actually the upper stage of China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission, a 2014 technology demonstration mission that lay the groundwork for Chang’e 5, which successfully returned a lunar sample to Earth in 2020 (incidentally, China recently announced it would follow up this sample return mission with a more ambitious Mars sample return project later this decade).
Jonathan McDowell offered some corroborating evidence that seemed to bolster this new theory for the object’s identity.
The mystery was solved.
Except, days later, China’s Foreign Minister claimed it was not their booster: it had deorbited and crashed into the ocean shortly after launch.
As it stands now, Gray remains convinced it was the Change 5-T1 booster that hit the Moon, proposing that the Foreign Minister made an honest mistake, confusing Chang’e 5-T1 with the similarly named Chang’e 5 (whose booster did indeed sink into the ocean).
As for the new double crater on the Moon, the fact that the LRO team was able to find the impact site so quickly is an impressive feat in itself. It was discovered mere months after impact, with a little help from Gray and JPL, who each independently narrowed the search area down to a few dozen kilometers.
For comparison, The Apollo 16 S-IVB impact site took more than six years of careful searching to find.
New Zealand Says It's Set to 'Star' in NASA's Return to the Moon – BNN
(Bloomberg) — New Zealand is trumpeting its role in a plan to return humans to the Moon, saying it is set to star in NASA’s Capstone mission that will test the orbit for a lunar space station.
Rocket Lab has announced it will launch a satellite from Mahia, New Zealand, to test the lunar orbit for Gateway, a planned Moon-orbiting outpost that will provide astronauts with access to the lunar surface. Separately, New Zealand’s government said Monday it has signed an agreement with NASA to conduct new research to track spacecraft approaching and orbiting the Moon.
“The New Zealand space sector is set to star in NASA’s Capstone Moon mission,” said Andrew Johnson, manager of the New Zealand Space Agency. Launching into lunar orbit from New Zealand is “a significant milestone,” while the new research “will be increasingly important as more countries and private actors send spacecraft to the Moon,” he said.
NASA’s Artemis Program plans to return humans to the lunar surface as early as 2025, renewing human exploration of the Moon and progressing toward the exploration of Mars. It plans to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon and explore more of the lunar surface than ever before.
Rocket Lab said it could launch the CubeSat satellite as soon as Tuesday, with the launch window open through July 27.
New Zealand’s agreement with NASA will see a University of Canterbury-led research team, which includes contributors from the University of Auckland and the University of New South Wales in Australia, attempt to track spacecraft from observatories in Tekapo and Canberra.
The scientists intend to validate their observations and algorithms to predict spacecraft trajectories enroute to the Moon and within their lunar orbits against NASA’s Capstone mission data.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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