WISE Data Pokes Holes in Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes

Survey of 170,000 supermassive black holes says “we need to re-examine present theory” 

WISE's large field of view and multi-wavelength infrared sight allowed it to form this complete view of the cluster, containing dozens of bright galaxies and hundreds of smaller ones. Old stars show up at the shorter infrared wavelengths, color coded blue. Dust heated by new generations of stars lights up at longer infrared wavelengths, colored red here. The center of the cluster is dominated by the galaxy known as NGC 1399, a large spheroidal galaxy whose light is almost exclusively from old stars and thus appears blue. The most spectacular member of Fornax is the galaxy known as NGC 1365, a giant barred spiral galaxy, located in the lower right of the mosaic. Against a backdrop of blue light from old stars, the dusty spiral arms in NGC 1365 stand out. The arms contain younger stars that are heating up their dust-enshrouded birth clouds, causing them to glow at longer infrared wavelengths. This galaxy is one of only a few in the Fornax cluster where prolific star formation can be seen. WISE will search the sky out to distances of 10 billion light-years looking for the most luminous cousins of NGC 1365. In this image, 3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red.
WISE’s large field of view and multi-wavelength infrared sight allowed it to form this complete view of the cluster, containing dozens of bright galaxies and hundreds of smaller ones. Old stars show up at the shorter infrared wavelengths, color coded blue. Dust heated by new generations of stars lights up at longer infrared wavelengths, colored red here.
The center of the cluster is dominated by the galaxy known as NGC 1399, a large spheroidal galaxy whose light is almost exclusively from old stars and thus appears blue. In this image, 3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red. Credits: WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO/AURA/NSF/ESO
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This infographic explains a popular theory of active supermassive black holes, referred to as the unified model — and how new data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, is at conflict with the model. Astronomers say the model could still be correct but needs adjusting to account for the unexpected observations by WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO/AURA/NSF/ESO

Space news (astrophysics: Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes; rethinking the present theory) – supermassive black holes scattered around the cosmos –

One common theme in astronomy and science is “the more we test a current theory, the more we need to re-examine our ideas and thoughts”. Theory one day is tomorrows’ old idea. Astronomers looking at archived WISE data found this out the other day. After examining data collected by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, they determined varying appearances of similar supermassive black holes could be a more complicated than present theory indicates. That it could be time to rethink the Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black holes, now that we have a little data to base our ideas and theories on. 

The Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes was first proposed in the late 1970s to explain the different appearance of active supermassive black holes with similar natures. Why some active monsters appear to be shrouded by dust and gas, while others are more exposed and easier to view. 

“The main purpose of unification was to put a zoo of different kinds of active nuclei under a single umbrella,” said Emilio Donoso of the Instituto de Ciencias Astronómicas, de la Tierra y del Espacio in Argentina. “Now, that has become increasingly complex to do as we dig deeper into the WISE data.” 

This theory answered this query by suggesting all supermassive black holes are encased in a dusty, doughnut-shaped structure called a torus. That the appearance of the supermassive black hole and torus is dependent on the orientation of the system in space in relation to Earth. For instance, if the torus is viewed edge-on in relation to Earth, the supermassive black hole is hidden from view. However, if the torus is viewed from above or below, the monster within is visible. 

“The unified theory was proposed to explain the complexity of what astronomers were seeing,” said Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “It seems that simple model may have been too simple. As Einstein said, models should be made ‘as simple as possible, but not simpler.” 

Daniel Stern NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA
Daniel Stern
NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA

Time to rethink the theory

WISE data collected before it was put on standby in 2011 indicates The Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes isn’t the whole story and needs to be re-examined. That something other than the shape of the structures surrounding supermassive black holes determines whether a monster is viewable from Earth. Astronomers working on theories concerning supermassive black holes are looking at the data and thinking of new ways for supermassive black holes surrounded by structures of dust and gas to become visible from Earth. They hope their work and findings inspire further study and investment in uncovering more clues to the mysteries surrounding supermassive black holes and understanding of these enigmatic, yet fascinating objects.  

“Our finding revealed a new feature about active black holes we never knew before, yet the details remain a mystery,” said Lin Yan of NASA’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “We hope our work will inspire future studies to better understand these fascinating objects.” 

Proving scientific theory prescribes usage of the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” when developing theories. 

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Infrared Echoes Dance Around Cassiopeia A

Stretching over 300 light-years from the supernova remnant 

Credits: NASA/Spitzer
Credits: NASA/Spitzer

Space news (astrophysics: supernovae; Cassiopeia A remnant) – 11,000 light-years from Earth toward the northern constellation Cassiopeia the Queen – 

On the day in 1667 when a brilliant new star appeared in the sky in Cassiopeia the Queen, no written account is left to tell of the stellar event. The supernova remnant left over is called Cassiopeia A. It consists of a neutron star, with the first carbon atmosphere ever detected, and an expanding shell of material that was ejected from the star as it contracted under its own mass. The progenitor star of this supernova remnant was a supermassive star estimated to be between 15 to 20 times as massive as Sol. 

The composite image of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant seen above was made using six processed images taken over a three year period by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. It shows the largest light echoes ever detected at over 300 light-years in length, which were created as light from the explosion passed through clumps of dust surrounding the supernova remnant. This light illuminated and heated surrounding dust clumps, making them briefly glow in infrared, like a series of colored lights lighting up one after the other. This resulted in an optical illusion in which the dust appears to be traveling away from the remnant at the speed of light. This apparent motion is represented in this image by different dust colors, with dust features unchanged over time appearing gray, and changes in surrounding dust over time represented by blue or orange colors.  

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Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. Credits? NASA/Hubble/Spitzer

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A is the brightest radio emission source in the night sky above the frequency of 1 Gigahertz. It’s expanding shell of material reaches speeds above 5,000 km/s and temperatures as high as 50 million degrees Fahrenheit. First detected by Martin Ryle and Francis Graham-Smith in 1948, since this time it has become one of the most studied supernova remnants during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

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For the first time, a multiwavelength three-dimensional reconstruction of a supernova remnant has been created in this stunning image of Cassiopeia A. Credits: NASA/Spitzer/Chandra/Kitt Peak

The startling false-color image above shows the many brilliant, stunning faces of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Composed of images collected by three of the greatest space observatories in history, in three different wavebands of light. This view highlights the beauty hidden within one of the most violent events ever detected close by in the Milky Way. 

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope infrared images used to create this stunning picture show warm dust in the outer shell of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A highlighted in red. Hubble Space Telescope images added reveal delicate filaments of hot gas around 10,000 degrees Kelvin (18,000 degrees Fahrenheit) in yellow, while x-ray data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown in green and blue. Look a little closer and deeper at the image and one sees hints of older infrared echoes from after the supernova hundreds of years ago.  

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Magnetic Lines of Force Emanating from Supermassive Black Hole

Move like a whip with one end held firmly by the hand of the gravitational monster within 

This cartoon shows how magnetic waves, called Alfvén S-waves, propagate outward from the base of black hole jets. The jet is a flow of charged particles, called a plasma, which is launched by a black hole. The jet has a helical magnetic field (yellow coil) permeating the plasma. The waves then travel along the jet, in the direction of the plasma flow, but at a velocity determined by both the jet's magnetic properties and the plasma flow speed. The BL Lac jet examined in a new study is several light-years long, and the wave speed is about 98 percent the speed of light. Fast-moving magnetic waves emanating from a distant supermassive black hole undulate like a whip whose handle is being shaken by a giant hand, according to a study using data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Long Baseline Array. Scientists used this instrument to explore the galaxy/black hole system known as BL Lacertae (BL Lac) in high resolution. Credits: NASA/JPL
This cartoon shows how magnetic waves, called Alfvén S-waves, propagate outward from the base of black hole jets. The jet is a flow of charged particles, called a plasma, which is launched by a black hole. The jet has a helical magnetic field (yellow coil) permeating the plasma. The waves then travel along the jet, in the direction of the plasma flow, but at a velocity determined by both the jet’s magnetic properties and the plasma flow speed. The BL Lac jet examined in a new study is several light-years long, and the wave speed is about 98 percent the speed of light.
Fast-moving magnetic waves emanating from a distant supermassive black hole undulate like a whip whose handle is being shaken by a giant hand, according to a study using data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Long Baseline Array. Scientists used this instrument to explore the galaxy/black hole system known as BL Lacertae (BL Lac) in high resolution. Credits: NASA/JPL

Space news (astrophysics: supermassive black hole particle jets; Alfven S-waves) – 900 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation Lacerta, near the event horizon of the galaxy/monster supermassive black hole system called BL Lacertae (BL Lac) – 

The end of a whip moves faster than the speed of sound, creating a characteristic sound known to many humans familiar with this ancient weapon and all its variations. A sound that’s known for putting fear in the heart and sweat on the brow. But a whip trillions of miles long, moving at around 98 percent the speed of light and held in the gravitational grip of a supermassive black hole with a mass estimated to be around 200 million times that of Sol. A supermassive monster with a jet of charged particles with helical magnetic lines of force propagating from its base acts much like a gigantic, undulating cosmic whip held in its giant hand. 

In the artist’s rendition of quasar-like object BL Lac, above, magnetic waves called Alfven S-waves travel outward from the base of a jet launched from the supermassive black hole residing in its core. These waves were generated when magnetic field lines coming from the disk surrounding the black hole interacted with ions and twisted, coiled into a helical shape. Ions in the form of a particle jet ejected from the black hole at around 98 percent the speed of light with a helical magnetic field permeating through it like a titanic, crackling light-whip. A cosmic whip a few light-years in length, appearing to travel five times the speed of light, due to an optical illusion. Traveling at nearly the speed of light, slightly off the line of sight to Earth, our perception of how fast these Alfven S-waves are moving is thrown off as time slows down. Creating the visual illusion of movement at five times the speed of light. 

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole's spin. The regions near black holes contain compact sources of high energy X-ray radiation thought, in some scenarios, to originate from the base of these jets. This high energy X-radiation lights up the disk, which reflects it, making the disk a source of X-rays. The reflected light enables astronomers to see how fast matter is swirling in the inner region of the disk, and ultimately to measure the black hole's spin rate. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity.
Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole’s spin. The regions near black holes contain compact sources of high energy X-ray radiation thought, in some scenarios, to originate from the base of these jets. This high energy X-radiation lights up the disk, which reflects it, making the disk a source of X-rays. The reflected light enables astronomers to see how fast matter is swirling in the inner region of the disk, and ultimately to measure the black hole’s spin rate.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The waves are excited by a shaking motion of the jet at its base,” said David Meier, a now-retired astrophysicist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, both in Pasadena. The team’s findings, detailed in the April 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, mark the first time so-called Alfvén (pronounced Alf-vain) waves have been identified in a black hole system. 

Retired astrophysicist David Meier. Credits: NASA/JPL
Retired astrophysicist David Meier. Credits: NASA/JPL

A cosmic whip!

The quasar-like object called BL Lac is believed to be powered by matter falling into a supermassive black hole at the core of this very bright galaxy. Astronomers detected the particle jets associated with the supermassive black hole at its core swinging back and forth and bending as Alfven waves propagated along the magnetic field lines emanating from its disk. 

“Imagine running a water hose through a slinky that has been stretched taut,” said first author Marshall Cohen, an astronomer at Caltech. “A sideways disturbance at one end of the slinky will create a wave that travels to the other end, and if the slinky sways to and fro, the hose running through its center has no choice but to move with it.” 

“A similar thing is happening in BL Lac,” Cohen said. “The Alfvén waves are analogous to the propagating sideways motions of the slinky, and as the waves propagate along the magnetic field lines, they can cause the field lines — and the particle jets encompassed by the field lines — to move as well.” 

“It’s common for black hole particle jets to bend — and some even swing back and forth. But those movements typically take place on timescales of thousands or millions of years. What we see is happening on a timescale of weeks,” Cohen said. “We’re taking pictures once a month, and the position of the waves is different each month.” 

“By analyzing these waves, we are able to determine the internal properties of the jet, and this will help us ultimately understand how jets are produced by black holes,” said Meier. 

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WISE Infrared All-Sky Survey Reveals Millions of Supermassive Black Hole Candidates

Plus nearly a thousand extremely bright, dusty objects nicknamed hot DOGS 

With its all-sky infrared survey, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has identified millions of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions times greater than our sun. The black holes "feed" off surrounding gas and dust, pulling the material onto them. As the material falls in on the black hole, it becomes extremely hot and extremely bright. This image zooms in on one small region of the WISE sky, covering an area about three times larger than the moon. The WISE quasar candidates are highlighted with yellow circles. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
With its all-sky infrared survey, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has identified millions of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions times greater than our sun. The black holes “feed” off surrounding gas and dust, pulling the material onto them. As the material falls in on the black hole, it becomes extremely hot and extremely bright. This image zooms in on one small region of the WISE sky, covering an area about three times larger than the moon. The WISE quasar candidates are highlighted with yellow circles.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Space news (All-sky surveys: infrared; candidate supermassive black holes and dust-obscured galaxies) – The visible universe – 

Astronomers working with data provided by an infrared survey of the visible sky conducted by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have identified millions of new candidates for the quasar section in the Galaxy Zoo. All-sky images taken by WISE revealed around 2.5 million candidate supermassive black holes actively feeding on material, some over 10 billion light-years away. They also pinpointed nearly a 1,000 very bright, extremely dusty objects nicknamed hot DOGS believed to be among the brightest galaxies discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

The entire sky as mapped by WISE at infrared wavelengths is shown here, with an artist's concept of the WISE satellite superimposed. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
The entire sky as mapped by WISE at infrared wavelengths is shown here, with an artist’s concept of the WISE satellite superimposed.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“These dusty, cataclysmically forming galaxies are so rare WISE had to scan the entire sky to find them,” said Peter Eisenhardt, lead author of the paper on the first of these bright, dusty galaxies, and project scientist for WISE at JPL. “We are also seeing evidence that these record setters may have formed their black holes before the bulk of their stars. The ‘eggs’ may have come before the ‘chickens.” 

Dr. Hashima Hasan is the James Webb Space Telescope Program Scientist and the Education and Public Outreach Lead for Astrophysics. Credits: NASA/JWST
Dr. Hashima Hasan is the James Webb Space Telescope Program Scientist and the Education and Public Outreach Lead for Astrophysics. Credits: NASA/JWST

“WISE has exposed a menagerie of hidden objects,” said Hashima Hasan, WISE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’ve found an asteroid dancing ahead of Earth in its orbit, the coldest star-like orbs known and now, supermassive black holes and galaxies hiding behind cloaks of dust.” 

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. While this figure shows the quasar's torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. While this figure shows the quasar’s torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view.
Image credit: NASA/ESA

Astronomers detected Trojan asteroid TK7 in October 2010 in images of the sky taken by NASA’s WISE, before verifying its existence on optical images taken by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Additional study and computer modeling indicate Earth’s small dance partner should stay in a safe orbit for the next 10,000 years at least.  

This zoomed-in view of a portion of the all-sky survey from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows a collection of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes feeding off gas and dust. The larger yellow circles show WISE quasar candidates; the smaller blue-green circles show quasars found in the previous visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey. WISE finds three times as many quasar candidates with a comparable brightness. Thanks to WISE's infrared vision, it picks up previously known bright quasars as well as large numbers of hidden, dusty quasars. The circular inset images, obtained with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, show how the new WISE quasars differ from the quasars identified in visible light. Quasars selected in visible light look like stars, as shown in the lower right inset; the cross is a diffraction pattern caused by the bright point source of light. Quasars found by WISE often have more complex appearances, as seen in the Hubble inset near the center. This is because the quasars found by WISE are often obscured or hidden by dust, which blocks their visible light and allows the fainter host galaxy surrounding the black hole to be seen. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/STScI
This zoomed-in view of a portion of the all-sky survey from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows a collection of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes feeding off gas and dust. The larger yellow circles show WISE quasar candidates; the smaller blue-green circles show quasars found in the previous visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey. WISE finds three times as many quasar candidates with a comparable brightness. Thanks to WISE’s infrared vision, it picks up previously known bright quasars as well as large numbers of hidden, dusty quasars.
The circular inset images, obtained with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, show how the new WISE quasars differ from the quasars identified in visible light. Quasars selected in visible light look like stars, as shown in the lower right inset; the cross is a diffraction pattern caused by the bright point source of light. Quasars found by WISE often have more complex appearances, as seen in the Hubble inset near the center. This is because the quasars found by WISE are often obscured or hidden by dust, which blocks their visible light and allows the fainter host galaxy surrounding the black hole to be seen.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/STScI

In March 2014 astronomers studying infrared images taken by WISE announced the discovery of around 3,500 new stars lying within 500 light-years of Earth. At the same time, they searched the data looking for evidence of Planet X, or Nemesis, the mythical planet some believe to exist somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto. Scientists analyzed millions of infrared images taken by WISE out to a distance well beyond the orbit of our former ninth planet. They didn’t detect any objects the size of a planet out to a distance of around 25,000 times the distance between the Earth and Sol. Many times beyond the orbit of Pluto. No Planet X was found. 

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has identified about 1,000 extremely obscured objects over the sky, as marked by the magenta symbols. These hot dust-obscured galaxies, or "hot DOGs," are turning out to be among the most luminous, or intrinsically bright objects known, in some cases putting out over 1,000 times more energy than our Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has identified about 1,000 extremely obscured objects over the sky, as marked by the magenta symbols. These hot dust-obscured galaxies, or “hot DOGs,” are turning out to be among the most luminous, or intrinsically bright objects known, in some cases putting out over 1,000 times more energy than our Milky Way galaxy.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The vast majority of the latest candidates for the Galaxy Zoo are objects previously undetected by astronomers due to dust blocking visible light. Fortunately, the infrared eyes of WISE detected glowing dust around the candidates, which allowed scientists to detect them. These latest findings are clues astronomers use to better understand the processes creating galaxies and the monster black holes residing in their centers

This image zooms in on the region around the first "hot DOG" (red object in magenta circle), discovered by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Hot DOGs are hot dust-obscured galaxies. Follow-up observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, show this source is over 10 billion light-years away. It puts out at least 37 trillion times as much energy as the sun. WISE has identified 1,000 similar candidate objects over the entire sky (magenta dots). These extremely dusty, brilliant objects are much more rare than the millions of active supermassive black holes also found by WISE (yellow circles). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This image zooms in on the region around the first “hot DOG” (red object in magenta circle), discovered by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Hot DOGs are hot dust-obscured galaxies. Follow-up observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, show this source is over 10 billion light-years away. It puts out at least 37 trillion times as much energy as the sun.
WISE has identified 1,000 similar candidate objects over the entire sky (magenta dots). These extremely dusty, brilliant objects are much more rare than the millions of active supermassive black holes also found by WISE (yellow circles).
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“We’ve got the black holes cornered,” said Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the WISE black hole study and project scientist for another NASA black-hole mission, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). “WISE is finding them across the full sky, while NuSTAR is giving us an entirely new look at their high-energy X-ray light and learning what makes them tick.” 

Daniel Stern NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA
Daniel Stern
NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA

Organizing the Monster Zoo

The Monster of the Milky Way, the estimated 4 million solar mass black hole astronomers believe resides at the center, periodically feeds upon material falling too deep into its gravity well, and heats up surrounding disks of dust and gas. Astronomers have even witnessed 1 billion solar mass monster black holes change their surrounding environments enough to shut down star formation processes in their host galaxy. Now, astronomers need to go through the millions of candidates and put them in the correct section of the zoo. We might even need to open a few new sections to accommodate unusual candidates found during a closer examination.  

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Binary Star System V404 Cygni Flares to Life

Forming rings of X-ray light that expand with time, creating a shooting target effect 

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Rings of X-ray light centered on V404 Cygni, a binary system containing an erupting black hole (dot at center), were imaged by the X-ray Telescope aboard NASA’s Swift satellite from June 30 to July 4. A narrow gap splits the middle ring in two. Color indicates the energy of the X-rays, with red representing the lowest (800 to 1,500 electron volts, eV), green for medium (1,500 to 2,500 eV), and the most energetic (2,500 to 5,000 eV) shown in blue. For comparison, visible light has energies ranging from about 2 to 3 eV. The dark lines running diagonally through the image are artifacts of the imaging system. Credits: Andrew Beardmore (Univ. of Leicester) and NASA/Swift

Space news (astrophysics: binary star systems; black hole/sun-like star systems) – 8,000 light-years away toward the constellation Cygnus, next to flaring 10 solar mass black hole – 

It all started just before 2:32 p.m. on June 15, 2015, when NASA’s Swift X-ray Burst Alert Satellite detected a rising wave of high-speed, extremely-energetic X-rays emanating from the direction of the constellation Cygnus. Additional detections of the same flare ten minutes later by a Japanese experiment on the International Space Station called the Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) and other detectors. Allowed astronomers to determine the outburst detected originated 8,000 light-years away in low-mass X-ray binary V404 Cygni, where previous data indicated a stellar-mass black hole and sun-like star orbited each other. A black hole and sun-like star binary system that up to this point had been sleeping since its last outburst in 1989. 

moon_v404cyg_comp
The Swift X-ray image of V404 Cygni covers a patch of the sky equal to about half the apparent diameter of the full moon. This image shows the rings as they appeared on June 30. Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio (left), Andrew Beardmore (Univ. of Leicester); NASA/Swift (right)

Fifteen days later on June 30, a team of scientists from around the world led by Andrew Beardmore of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom investigated V404 Cygni a little closer using NASA’s Swift X-ray Burst Alert Satellite. Images taken (above) revealed a series of concentric rings of X-ray light centered on a 10 solar mass black hole (dot at the center of image). 

On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box. Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist's illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. The black hole pulls material from a massive, blue companion star toward it. This material forms a disk (shown in red and orange) that rotates around the black hole before falling into it or being redirected away from the black hole in the form of powerful jets.
On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box. Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist’s illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. The black hole pulls material from a massive, blue companion star toward it. This material forms a disk (shown in red and orange) that rotates around the black hole before falling into it or being redirected away from the black hole in the form of powerful jets.

Astronomers believe the x-ray rings are the result of echoing x-ray light from a large flare on June 26, 2016, at 1:40 p.m. EDT. The flare emitted x-rays in all directions. Multiple dust layers at around 4,000 and 1,000 light-years from V404 Cygni reflected some of these x-rays towards Earth. This reflected light travels a greater distance and reaches us slightly later than light traveling a straighter path. The small time difference produced an x-ray echo, formed x-ray rings expanding in spacetime.  

“The flexible planning of Swift observations has given us the best dust-scattered X-ray ring images ever seen,” Beardmore said. “With these observations, we can make a detailed study of the normally invisible interstellar dust in the direction of this black hole.” 

What’s next?

The team is currently watching V404 Cygni, waiting for its next outburst, and preparing Swift to collect additional data to determine exactly what’s going on here. They hope to hit the bulls eye in human understanding of the collection on x-ray sources detected across the cosmos. Regular monitoring of this binary system using a suite of telescopes and instruments could give us clues to how a stellar-mass black hole and sun-like star end up orbiting each other. About the origin and formation of the unusual types of binary systems detected during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

Watch this YouTube video on the flaring of V404 Cygni.

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Discover V404 Cygni

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Travel across the Tarantula nebula on a runaway star.

Read about the Kepler Space Telescope’s recent observation of the shockwave from a nearby supernova for the first time in human history.

Take a look and learn more about NASA’s Europa spacecraft.

Advanced Satellite for Cosmology & Astrophysics (ASCA, formally Astro-D)

Study in space exploration collaboration between nations heading into the unknown 

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ASCA (ASTRO-D) scientific results included the first imaging of X-ray objects by the scintillation proportional counter on March 17, 1993, and observation of X-rays from the supernova SN1993J recently discovered in the M81 galaxy. Credits: Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Space news (astrophysics & cosmology: x-ray astronomy; spectral resolution of supernovae, accreting binaries, active galactic nuclei, and galaxy clusters) – between 525 – 615 kilometers above the Earth, orbiting every 96 minutes while observing the x-ray universe –  

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This diagram shows the configuration and overall shape of ASCA. Credits: JAXA

Japan’s 4th cosmic x-ray space mission and the second collaboration between NASA and ISAS to launch into orbit around the Earth, the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology & Astrophysics (ASCA) opened a new window on the x-ray universe. Designed and engineered to conduct x-ray spectroscopy ASCA (formally Astro-D) paved a path for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, XMM-Newton and Japan’s Suzaku (Astro-EII) to study x-ray emissions across the night sky. This smaller eye on the x-ray universe was the perfect complement to ROSAT’s all-sky survey of around 150,000 x-ray sources and RXTE’s study of the different types observed. Making this little satellite an essential, pivotal mile marker during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Combined, these space missions have an advanced human understanding of the high-energy universe and revealed mysteries keeping astronomers up at night and peering into the unknown x-ray universe at the cosmos beyond human imagination. 

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After the success of HAKUCHO, Japan launched an X-ray astronomy satellite every four or five years: HINOTORI (solar X-ray) in 1981, TENMA in 1983, GINGA in 1987, and ASCA in 1993. Credits: JAXA.

ASCA (Astro-D) launched from Japan’s Kagoshima Space Center at the southern tip of Japan on Kyushu island on February 20, 1993, aboard ISAS’s fourth generation Mu launch system M-3sII. Orbiting at a distance from Earth at perigee of 525 and 615 at apogee, it took only 96 minutes on average for Astro-D to complete one revolution of its nearly circular path around the planet. During a lifespan lasting nearly 8 years, Japan’s little x-ray satellite provided the first images of x-ray emitting objects and detected x-rays from supernova SN 1993J in galaxy M81. The data it supplied allowed astronomers to reveal clues to the origin and formation of accreting binaries, the accretion disks of active galactic nuclei, galaxy clusters, and supernovae. 

Using combined data from a trio of orbiting X-ray telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Japan-led Suzaku satellite, astronomers have obtained a rare glimpse of the powerful phenomena that accompany a still-forming star. A new study based on these observations indicates that intense magnetic fields drive torrents of gas into the stellar surface, where they heat large areas to millions of degrees. X-rays emitted by these hot spots betray the newborn star’s rapid rotation. Credits: JAXA/NASA.
Using combined data from a trio of orbiting X-ray telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Japan-led Suzaku satellite (ASCA), astronomers have obtained a rare glimpse of the powerful phenomena that accompany a still-forming star. A new study based on these observations indicates that intense magnetic fields drive torrents of gas into the stellar surface, where they heat large areas to millions of degrees. X-rays emitted by these hot spots betray the newborn star’s rapid rotation. Credits: JAXA/NASA.

A tough little satellite says goodbye

This tough little satellite operated until July of 2000 when fluctuations in solar activity caused Earth’s atmosphere to expand. ASCA experienced friction caused by the thinner atmosphere and fell into an uncontrolled spin. Minimal satellite operations continued until around 14:20 on March 2, 2001, when Astro-D fell deeper into the planet’s gravity well and disappeared. Bringing to a close a chapter in space history on a little satellite that opened a window to the x-ray universe and revealed clues to a weird, weird, weird cosmos beyond human imagination. 

Follow the space journey of NASA

Learn more about the space discoveries of ISAS here

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Discover what Astro-D discovered about accreting binaries

Read about what x-ray emissions ASCA detected from supernova SN 1006 told astronomers about its origins and formation

Learn how 3-D printer technology is changing the way humans live and work in space.

Read and learn about the star navigation skills of incredible Polynesian islanders.

Read about a supermassive black hole astronomers found in an out of the way part of the cosmos.

How do Astronomers Study the Formation of Stars?

By using supercomputers to simulate the birth and evolution of individual stars and star clusters in the Milky Way  

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Simulation of star formation region using specially created computer code and a state-of-the-art supercomputer. Credits: NASA Ames/David Ellsworth/Tim Sandstrom

Space news (astrophysics: studying star formation; 3-D computer simulations) – NASA Advanced Supercomputing laboratory located at NASA’s Ames Research Center – 

How do astronomers study the formation of stars? Astronomers use complex computer code, run on one of the fastest, most powerful supercomputers on Earth to simulate the processes involved in the formation of individual stars and star clusters in the Milky Way. Using simulations capturing a mix of gas, dust, magnetic fields, gravity and other physical phenomena, astrophysicists study the birth and evolution of young, nearby stars and star clusters.  

The image above was created using state-of-the-art Orion2 computer code written by geniuses at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and simulated on the powerful, ultra-fast Pleiades supercomputer located at NASA Advanced Supercomputing complex. Considered the seventh most powerful supercomputer in the US, it was necessary to achieve results closely matching data obtained through observations made with the Hubble Space Telescope. 

“Our simulations, run on Pleiades and brought to life by the visualization team at the NAS facility at Ames, were critical to obtaining important new results that match with Hubble’s high-resolution images and other observations made by a variety of space and Earth-based telescopes,” said Richard Klein, adjunct professor at UC Berkeley and astrophysicist at LLNL. “A key result, supported by observation, is that some star clusters form like pearls in a chain along elongated, dense filaments inside molecular clouds—so-called “stellar nurseries.” 

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Richard Klein. Credits: The University of California, Berkeley Department of Astronomy.

The video simulation here shows the evolution of a massive cloud of gas and dust over a period of 700,000 years. Astrophysicists used the computing power of the Pleiades supercomputer, operating using the Orion2 code to create this amazing cosmic tapestry. The gravitational collapse of the cloud results in the birth of a stellar object called an infrared dark cloud (IRDC) filament. Protostars begin to form within the cloud, highlighted by bright orange regions strewn across the body of the central and bordering filaments. 

“Without NASA’s vast computational resources, it would not have been possible for us to produce these immense and complex simulations that include all the output variables we need to get these new results and compare them with observations,” Klein explained. “The ORION2 simulations incorporate a complex mix of gravity, supersonic turbulence, hydrodynamics (motion of molecular gas), radiation, magnetic fields, and highly energetic gas outflows. The science team conducted many independent tests of each piece of physics in ORION against known data to demonstrate the code’s accuracy.” 

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The Pleiades supercomputer. Credits: Ames Research Facility/NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility.

The team’s back at work trying to devise even better simulations of star formation by improving the resolution and zooming into the action. “Higher resolution in the simulations will enable us to study the details of the formation of stellar disks formed around protostars. These disks allow mass to transfer onto the protostars as they evolve, and are thought to be the structures within which planets eventually form,” said Klein.  

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Dr. Richard Klein talking about a simulation of star formation. Credits: NASA/Ames Research Facility/NASA Advanced Supercomputing

More work to do

They’ll need additional time on Pleiades and lots of extra storage during the next few years to tweak their simulations. The team seems to be on the trail of a real breakthrough in understanding and knowledge concerning the processes leading to star formation in the Milky Way. They appear to have their collective eye on the bigger picture. “Understanding star formation is a grand challenge problem. Ultimately, our results support NASA’s science goal of determining the origin of stars and planets, as part of its larger challenge of figuring out the origin of the entire universe.” 

You can learn more about the formation of stars here

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Read and learn about the star navigation skills of the amazing Polynesian islanders.

Read about the Kepler Space Telescope observing a shockwave from a supernova.

Read about a proto-planetary nebula with a unique shape.

NASA Selects Eight Teams of Young, Ambitious University Students

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NASA architects, engineers and scientists are already busy creating sustainable, space-based living quarters, work spaces and laboratories for next-generation human space exploration, including our journey to Mars. This 2011 version of the deep space habitat at the Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) analog field test site in Arizona features a Habitat Demonstration Unit, with the student-built X-Hab loft on top, a hygiene compartment on one side and airlock on the other.
Credits: NASA

To be the cutting edge of innovation in engineering and design of new deep space habitats 

Space news (New space technology: deep space habitats; 2016 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge) – NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division headquarters – 

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In one scenario of the Desert Research and Technology Studies in the Arizona desert, a test subject returns to a mock way station. Credit: NASA

NASA engineers, scientists, and systems designers are hard at work creating the next-generation habitats needed to travel and live in space and one day inhabit Mars. Deep within NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) test site in Arizona, they have assembled the 2011 version of the deep space habitat. A futuristic space habitat featuring a Habitat Demonstration Unit with X-Hab loft, a second story habitation designed and built by a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of the 2011 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. 

 

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The 2016 X-Hab Student Academic Challenge has selected eight university teams to design, engineer and build a next-generation space habitation. Credit: NASA/NSPF

The X-Hab Academic Challenge program’s designed and implemented to help get graduate and undergraduate level university students directly involved in the development of deep space technology capable of allowing humans to live and travel in space and eventually colonize Mars. Students are encouraged to develop and implement skills and knowledge in all areas and disciplines, team up with industry and experts and actively engage the world in a conversation concerning their work. All in an effort to improve and develop science knowledge, technical ability, leadership qualities and project skills of students selected and encourage further studies in space industry disciplines. 

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Cutaway of inflatable airlock highlighting doors, support structures and suitports.
Credits: University of Maryland
The 2016 X-Hab Academic Challenge is the sixth event and this year NASA scientists and engineers are working with graduate and undergraduate students from eight American universities on new technology projects to enable astronauts to travel into deep space and the Red Planet. Earlier in the year, student teams submitted proposals, which were selected after extensive analysis by NASA. During the 2015-2016 academic year, each team will design, engineer, build and test all project systems and concepts hand in hand with scientists and engineers from NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. NASA staff will work with student teams selected on next-generation life support systems, space habitats and deep space food production systems needed for the success of future manned missions to Mars. 

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Organics and Agricultural Sustainment Inflatable System (OASIS) Habitat Interior
Credits: Oklahoma State University

“These strategic collaborations lower the barrier for university students to assist NASA in bridging gaps and increasing our knowledge in architectural design trades, capabilities, and technology risk reduction related to exploration activities that will eventually take humans farther into space than ever before,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division. 

 

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Official portrait of Jason Crusan at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Credit: NASA

The teams and projects selected as part of NASA’s X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge are listed below. 

AES’s In-space Manufacturing division sponsorships are: 

The University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez is working on the development of new low-power technology required for the manufacture of metals in zero-gravity environments 

AES’s Beyond Earth Habitation division sponsorships are: 

The University of Maryland, College Park is working on next-generation airlocks that are inflatable 

Students from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York are working on habitat designs to keep astronauts safe and warm during their trip to the Red Planet

Oklahoma State University, Stillwater students are doing studies on deep space habitats suitable for a trip to the Red Planet 

AES’s Life Support Systems division sponsorships are: 

Students from the University of South Alabama, Mobile are working on a new concentration swing frequency response device 

AES’s Space Life and Physical Sciences division sponsorships are:  

Students from Utan State University, Logan are designing new experimental plant systems for microgravity environments 

The team from Ohio State University, Columbus is working on improving water delivery in modular vegetable production systems needed to provide astronauts with food during their journey and life on Mars 

The team from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder is working on improving the performance of the Mars OASIS Space Plant Growth System 

The X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge is led by NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation in an effort to enable the human journey to the beginning of space and time. The program supports space science research efforts to develop sustainable and cost-effective robotic and human space technology to make our journey possible. It also helps train and develop highly skilled scientists, engineers, and technicians needed to design and implement technology developed to travel and live in space. 

Partners in space exploration

NASA lends its scientists, engineers and space exploration technology, and experience to the X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. The National Space Grant Foundation administers the grants provided by NASA, which range from $10,000 to $30,000, to fund the building, development and final evaluation of each project selected and completed during the 2015-2016 academic year. 

Find more information on previous X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenges here

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Read about a runaway star NASA astronomers have been following across the Tarantula Nebula.

Learn more about the colonization of the Pacific Ocean by Polynesian islanders and their star navigation skills tens of thousands of years ago.

Read about the Kepler Space Telescope recently capturing a supernova shockwave in visible light for the first time.

 

 

3-D Printer on International Space Station Hint of Space Technology on Horizon

The Mulitpurpose Precision Maintenance Tool, created by University of Alabama in Huntsville student Robert Hillan as part of the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge, was printed on the International Space Station. It is designed to provide astronauts with a single tool that can help with a variety of tasks, including tightening nuts or bolts of different sizes and stripping wires. Credits: NASA
The Multipurpose Precision Tool seen here was printed on the International Space Station using emerging 3D printer technology by University of Alabama in Huntsville student Robert Hillan as part of the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. A single tool designed to help astronauts complete a variety of tasks, including tightening bolts and bolts.
Credits: NASA

Gadgets, ratchets, and things that go bump in the dark on demand 

Space news (space technology: Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge; The Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool) – The International Space Station, June 15, 2014 – 

Deanne Bell, founder and director of the Future Engineers challenges
Deanne Bell, founder and director of Future Engineers challenges young innovators of America to build a future in space. Credit: Fedscoop.com.

Travelers adventuring in distant, unknown lands can’t carry a tool and replacement for every job along the way. They need a multipurpose tool designed to do a number of important tasks, ready to go to work at a moments notice. For astronauts traveling, living and working in space, University of Alabama in Huntsville sophomore engineering student Robert Hillan has designed The Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool as part of the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. A single tool capable of helping astronauts complete a number of jobs, including tightening and loosening bolts and nuts of various sizes, and stripping wires. The best part’s the Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool recently debuted on the International Space Station. 

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NASA, the American Society for Mechanical Engineers Foundation and Star Trek invite young innovators of America to design hardware astronauts in space could use to grow, harvest, prepare, eat or dispose of food products as part of the latest Future Engineers 3d-Printing Challenge. Credit: Future Engineers/NASA/Star Trek

“Our challenges invite students to invent objects for astronauts, which can be both inspiring and incredibly tough,” said Deanne Bell, founder and director of the Future Engineers challenges. “Students must have the creativity to innovate for the unique environment of space, but also the practical, hands-on knowledge to make something functional and useful. It’s a delicate balance, but this combination of creativity, analytical skills, and fluency in current technology is at the heart of engineering education.” 

Robert Hillan, a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, watches a 3-D printer on the International Space Station complete his winning design for the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. Part of his prize for winning the competition was going behind the scenes to watch the printing process from NASA's Payload Operations Integration Center -- mission control for space station science located at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Credits: NASA
Young innovators dream of standing in NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Center, mission control for the International Space Station. Robert Hillan, a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, smiles as the 3-D printer on the International Space Station completes his winning design for the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. Just part of his winning prize for being one of the best young innovators in America.
Credits: NASA

As part of his prize after winning the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge in January of 2015, Robert Hillan watched from the Payload Operations Integration Center of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama as his tool came off the 3-D printer on the International Space Station. Robert smiled as NASA astronaut Jeff Williams showed the completed tool coming off the Additive Manufacturing Facility on board. 

The International Space Station’s 3-D printer has manufactured the first 3-D printed object in space, paving the way to future long-term space expeditions. The object, a printhead faceplate, is engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc., the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the 3-D printer. This image of the printer, with the Microgravity Science Glovebox Engineering Unit in the background, was taken in April 2014 during flight certification and acceptance testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, prior to its launch to the station aboard a SpaceX commercial resupply mission. The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to the identical ground control samples made on the flight printer prior to launch. The goal of this analysis is to verify that the 3-D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth. The printer works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects. Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working "machine shop" in space. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, which will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts. Long-term missions would benefit greatly from onboard manufacturing capabilities. Data and experience gathered in this demonstration will improve future 3-D manufacturing technology and equipment for the space program, allowing a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility for astronauts. Image Credit: NASA/Emmett Given
The International Space Station’s 3-D printer has manufactured 3-D printed object in space, paving the road to a promising, long-term future in space for mankind. The object seen here is a printhead faceplate engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc., the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the 3-D printer.
Image Credit: NASA/Emmett Given

Watch this video showing the Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool aboard the International Space Station here.

“I am extremely grateful that I was given the opportunity to design something for fabrication on the space station,” Hillan said. “I have always had a passion for space exploration, and space travel in general. I designed the tool to adapt to different situations, and as a result, I hope to see variants of the tool being used in the future, hopefully when it can be created using stronger materials.”  

Watch a time lapse video of the printing of the Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool here.

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Attired in the training versions of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra trains in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credits: NASA

Robert also got to spend a few minutes chatting with astronauts living and working on the International Space Station. NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, stationed aboard at the time commented on Hillan’s tool, “When you have a problem, it will drive specific requirements and solutions. 3-D printing allows you to do a quick design to meet those requirements. That’s the beauty of this tool and this technology. You can produce something you hadn’t anticipated and do it on short notice.” 

Watch a video of his conversation with astronauts on the International Space Station here.

“You have a great future ahead of you.” 

What does our young, intrepid inventor plan in the future?  

What’s next for our young inventor?

“When I won the competition, I started seeing problems I face as new opportunities to create and learn,” Hillan said. “Since then I have tried to seize every opportunity that presents itself. I love finding solutions to problems, and I want to apply that mentality as I pursue my engineering degree and someday launch my own company.” 

We see red horizons ahead for this young man. A steady light that goes bravely forward into the future. We expect to hear about him doing big things in the future. No matter the path he chooses. 

You can learn more about Future Engineers and all their past and future challenges here

Join the space journey of NASA

Learn more about the International Space Station here

Read more about NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Discover 3-D printer technology and the future it promises here

Read about a supermassive star astronomers have nicknamed Nasty 1.

Read about a runaway star traveling across the cosmos.

Witness and learn more about the spectacular Bubble Nebula.

A Cosmic Explosion Brighter than the Core of the Milky Way

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/

Hypernova SN 2006gy was over a hundred times brighter than a typical supernova  

Space news (astrophysics: hypernovae; one of the brightest ever, SN 2006gy) – 240 million light-years toward the constellation Perseus in galaxy NGC 1260 –  

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Watch this animation of SN 2006gy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

It all started in September of 2006 when a fourth-year University of Texas graduate student astronomer working for the Palomar Transient Factory’s (PTF) luminous supernova program Robert Quimby discovered the brightest celestial event up to this date. An exploding star over 100 times brighter than a normal supernova and shining brighter than the core of its host galaxy NGC 1260. 

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/Keck.

“This was a truly monstrous explosion, a hundred times more energetic than a typical supernova,” said Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley, who led a team of astronomers from California and the University of Texas at Austin. “That means the star that exploded might have been as massive as a star can get, about 150 times that of our sun. We’ve never seen that before.”  

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Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley. Credit: University of California at Berkeley/NASA

Teams of astronomers working with the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in California and M.W. Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii immediately began observing the event designated supernova SN 2006gy. Analysis of data showed it occurred over 240 million light-years away in galaxy NGC 1260 and took 70 days to reach maximum brightness. Staying brighter than any previously recorded event for over three months, SN 2006gy was still as bright as a normal supernova eight months later. 

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/Keck.

“Of all exploding stars ever observed, this was the king,” said Alex Filippenko, leader of the ground-based observations at the Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton, Calif., and the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. “We were astonished to see how bright it got, and how long it lasted.”  

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Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy for University of California, Berkeley. Credits: University of California, Berkeley.

Astronomers were reasonably sure at this point the progenitor of supernova SN 2006gy was one of the largest, most massive types of stars ever to exist. But they needed to rule out the most likely alternative explanation for the event. The possibility a white dwarf star with a mass slightly higher than Sol went supernova in a dense, hydrogen-rich environment.  

Another team of astronomers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory went to work at this point to rule this possibility out of their equations. If this was the case, they knew X-ray emission from the event should be at least 1,000 times more luminous than the readings they were getting.     

“This provides strong evidence that SN 2006gy was, in fact, the death of an extremely massive star,” said Dave Pooley of the University of California at Berkeley, who led the Chandra observations. 

The progenitor star for SN 2006gy is thought to have ejected a large volume of mass before the hypernova event occurred. This is similar to events observed by astronomers in the case of Eta Carinae, a nearby supermassive star they’re watching closely for signs of an impending supernova. Only 7,500 light-years toward the constellation Carina, compared to 240 million for galaxy NGC 1260, this star going supernova would be the celestial event of the century on Earth. It would be bright enough to see in the daylight sky.

livio
Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular lecturer. Credits: MarioLivio.com

“We don’t know for sure if Eta Carinae will explode soon, but we had better keep a close eye on it just in case,” said Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who was not involved in the research. “Eta Carinae’s explosion could be the best star-show in the history of modern civilization.” 

The massive star Eta Carinae (almost hidden in the center) underwent a giant explosion some 150 years ago. The outburst spread the material that is visible today in this very sharp Hubble image. Even though Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away, structures only 15 thousand million kilometre across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks al appear with unprecedented clarity. A huge, billowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae. Credit: Jon Morse (University of Colorado), and NASA/ESA
The massive star Eta Carinae (almost hidden in the center) underwent a giant explosion some 150 years ago. The outburst spread the material that is visible today in this very sharp Hubble image. Even though Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away, structures only 15 thousand million kilometre across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks al appear with unprecedented clarity.
A huge, billowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae.
Credit:
Jon Morse (University of Colorado), and NASA/ESA

So many questions

Astronomers think in the case of hypernova SN 2006gy things might have taken a slightly different pathway than previously recorded supernovae. Some scientists think the massive star that exploded could be much more like the supermassive stars that existed during the early moments of the cosmos. Supermassive stars that exploded in supernovae and spread the elements of creation across the cosmos, rather than collapsing to a black hole as theorized.  

“In terms of the effect on the early universe, there’s a huge difference between these two possibilities,” said Smith. “One [sprinkles] the galaxy with large quantities of newly made elements and the other locks them up forever in a black hole.” 

Why would these supermassive stars be different than other huge stars observed in the Milky Way? The human search for answers to these and other mysterious questions before us continues as we journey backward to the beginning of space and time. 

We’ll update you with any additional data astronomers come across as the journey continues. Until next time, keep dreaming of the possibilities. 

Warren Wong 

Editor and Chief 

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