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Supermassive Black Holes en Route to Cataclysmic Collision: Doomed Pair Closer Than Ever Observed

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An artist’s impression of two black holes that are about to collide.

 

New observations and analysis reveal two Goliath black holes just 750 light-years apart and closing, as they circle each other in the aftermath of a galaxy merger.

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Astronomers from Flatiron Institute and their colleagues have spotted two ghostly Goliaths en route to a cataclysmic meeting. The newfound pair of supermassive black holes are the closest to colliding ever seen, the astronomers announced on January 9 at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle and in a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

 

While close together in cosmological terms at just 750 light-years apart, the supermassive black holes won’t merge for a few hundred million years. In the meantime, the astronomers’ discovery provides a better estimate of how many supermassive black holes are also nearing collision in the universe.

 

This artist’s conception shows a late-stage galaxy merger and its two newly-discovered central black holes. The binary black holes are the closest together ever observed in multiple wavelengths. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); M. Weiss (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

 

That improved head count will aid scientists in listening for the universe-wide chorus of intense ripples in space-time known as <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

gravitational waves
Gravitational waves are distortions or ripples in the fabric of space and time. They were first detected in 2015 by the Advanced LIGO detectors and are produced by catastrophic events such as colliding black holes, supernovae, or merging neutron stars.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>gravitational waves, the largest of which are products of supermassive black holes close to collision in the aftermath of galaxy mergers. Detecting that gravitational-wave background will improve estimates of how many galaxies have collided and merged in the universe’s history.

 

The short distance between the newly discovered black holes “is fairly close to the limit of what we can detect, which is why this is so exciting,” says study co-author Chiara Mingarelli, an associate research scientist at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York City.

Due to the small separation between the black holes, the astronomers could only differentiate between the two objects by combining many observations from seven telescopes, including <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

NASA
Established in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is &quot;To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.&quot; Its core values are &quot;safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion.&quot; NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>NASA’s <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope (often referred to as Hubble or HST) is one of NASA’s Great Observatories and was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990. It is one of the largest and most versatile space telescopes in use and features a 2.4-meter mirror and four main instruments that observe in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. It was named after astronomer Edwin Hubble.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Hubble Space Telescope. (Although supermassive black holes aren’t directly visible through an optical telescope, they are surrounded by bright bunches of luminous stars and warm gas drawn in by their gravitational pull.)

 

Telescope observations of two newly discovered supermassive black holes on a collision course. Their host galaxy, left, is a mash-up of two galaxies that have collided. The pink box shows the location of the supermassive black holes. Close observation of the pair, right, reveals two distinct black holes (white spots) only 750 light-years apart. Credit: M.J. Koss et al.

 

The astronomers found the pair quickly once they started looking, which means that close-together supermassive black holes “are probably more common than we think, given that we found these two and we didn’t have to look very far to find them,” Mingarelli says.

 

The newly identified supermassive black holes inhabit a mash-up of two galaxies that collided around 480 million light-years away from Earth. Gargantuan black holes live in the heart of most galaxies, growing bigger by gobbling up surrounding gas, dust, stars, and even other black holes. The two supermassive black holes identified in this study are true heavyweights: They clock in at 200 million and 125 million times the mass of our sun.

The black holes met as their host galaxies smashed into each other. Eventually they will begin circling each other, with the orbit tightening as gas and stars pass between the two black holes and steal orbital energy. Ultimately the black holes will start producing gravitational waves far stronger than any that have previously been detected, before crashing into each other to form one jumbo-size <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

black hole
A black hole is a place in space where the gravitational field is so strong that not even light can escape it. Astronomers classify black holes into three categories by size: miniature, stellar, and supermassive black holes. Miniature black holes could have a mass smaller than our Sun and supermassive black holes could have a mass equivalent to billions of our Sun.

 


This artist’s conception shows a late-stage galaxy merger and its two newly-discovered central black holes. The binary black holes are the closest together ever observed in multiple wavelengths. Credit: <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

ALMA
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is the largest ground-based facility for observations in the millimeter/submillimeter regime in the world. ALMA comprises 66 high-precision dish antennas of measuring either 12 meters across or 7 meters across and spread over distances of up to 16 kilometers. It is an international partnership between Europe, the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Chile.
Created in 1962, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), is a 16-nation intergovernmental research organization for ground-based astronomy. Its formal name is the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), M. Koss et al (Eureka Scientific), S. Dagnello (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Prior observations of the merging galaxies saw only a single supermassive black hole: Because the two objects are so close together, scientists couldn’t definitively tell them apart using a single telescope. The new survey, led by Michael J. Koss of Eureka Scientific in Oakland, California, combined 12 observations made on seven telescopes on Earth and in orbit. Although no single observation was enough to confirm their existence, the combined data conclusively revealed two distinct black holes.

 

“It’s important that with all these different images, you get the same story — that there are two black holes,” says Mingarelli, when comparing this new multi-observation research with previous efforts. “This is where other studies [of close-proximity supermassive black holes] have fallen down in the past. When people followed them up, it turned out that there was just one black hole. [This time we] have many observations, all in agreement.”

 

Schematic representation of the most important stages and critical physical mechanisms driving the merger of two supermassive black holes and their corresponding representative time and spatial scales. Credit: José Utreras/Ezequiel Treister, Center for Astrophysics and Associated Technologies (CATA); Michael Koss (Eureka Scientific), et al.

 

She and Flatiron Institute visiting scientist Andrew Casey-Clyde used the new observations to estimate the universe’s population of merging supermassive black holes, finding that it “may be surprisingly high,” Mingarelli says. They predict that an abundance of supermassive black-hole pairs exists, generating a major amount of ultra-strong gravitational waves. All that clamor should result in a loud gravitational-wave background far easier to detect than if the population were smaller. The first ever detection of the background babble of gravitational waves, therefore, may come “very soon,” Mingarelli says.

Reference: “UGC 4211: A Confirmed Dual Active Galactic Nucleus in the Local Universe at 230 pc Nuclear Separation” by Michael J. Koss, Ezequiel Treister, Darshan Kakkad, J. Andrew Casey-Clyde, Taiki Kawamuro, Jonathan Williams, Adi Foord, Benny Trakhtenbrot, Franz E. Bauer, George C. Privon, Claudio Ricci, Richard Mushotzky, Loreto Barcos-Munoz, Laura Blecha, Thomas Connor, Fiona Harrison, Tingting Liu, Macon Magno, Chiara M. F. Mingarelli, Francisco Muller-Sanchez, Kyuseok Oh, T. Taro Shimizu, Krista Lynne Smith, Daniel Stern, Miguel Parra Tello and C. Megan Urry, 9 January 2023, The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/aca8f0

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Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight

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In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.

Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.

The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.

“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”

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At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.

“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”

He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.

“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”

To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.

Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.


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Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes

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Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms

Dr. David Kamanda Ngugi, environmental microbiologist at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ

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Leibniz Institute DSMZ

 

An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.

Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.

Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.

Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adc9392

Press contact:
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300
Mail: press@dsmz.de

About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees. www.dsmz.de

PhDr. Sven David Mueller, M.Sc.
Leibniz-Institut DSMZ
+49 531 2616300
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Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists

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Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.

“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.

“What is the origin of the universe?”

And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.

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Ten thousand light-sensitive cameras send data to scientists watching for evidence of a neutrino bumping into another particle. (Tom Howell/CBC)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.

This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.

The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.

Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.

A digital image of a sphere that is blue and transparent with lines all over.
The neutrino detector is at the heart of the SNO+ experiment. An acrylic sphere containing ‘scintillator’ liquid is suspended inside a larger water-filled globe studded with 10,000 light-sensitive cameras. (Submitted by SNOLOAB)

Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.

Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.

Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.

It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.

A screengrab of two scientists wearing white hard hat helmets, clear googles and blue safety suits standing on either side of CBC producer holding a microphone. All three people are laughing.
IDEAS producer Tom Howell (centre) joins research scientist Erica Caden (left) and Benjamin Tam on a video call from their underground lab. (Screengrab: Nicola Luksic)

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.

Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.

Blaire Flynn is the senior education and outreach officer at SNOLAB.

Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.


*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.

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