More stories

  • in

    A stunning simulation re-creates how M87’s black hole launches plasma jets

    From the maw of the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87, two enormous jets stream thousands of light-years into space. Scientists still don’t fully understand the physics behind the jets, which are made of a mix of electrically charged particles, or plasma (SN: 3/24/21). But they are “really, really amazing,” says astrophysicist Alejandro Cruz-Osorio of Goethe University Frankfurt. So he and colleagues created a computer simulation of M87’s black hole and the swirling gas that surrounds it in an accretion disk. The aim: Figure out how this black hole — already famous for posing for a picture in 2019 (SN: 4/10/19) — became such a jet-setter.

    Under the right conditions, that simulation produces jets that match observations of M87, the researchers report November 4 in Nature Astronomy. The black hole twists up spiraling magnetic fields that surround two high-energy beams of electrons and other charged particles. The results suggest that the black hole must be spinning rapidly, at more than half its maximum speed allowed by the laws of physics and possibly as much as 94 percent of its maximum possible speed.

    Getting the energies of the jets’ electrons right turned out to be crucial. When magnetic fields in the jets rearrange in a process known as magnetic reconnection (SN: 8/3/21), electrons get accelerated, resulting in more of them having very high energies. This effect was not included in earlier simulations, but it was key to getting the simulated jets to act like real-world counterparts. More

  • in

    A rush to watch a supernova exposed its last gasp before exploding

    A mad scramble to observe the moments after a star’s death is helping scientists understand how the star lived out its last year.

    Astronomers reported the exploding star just 18 hours after it flared up on March 31, 2020, in a galaxy about 60 million light-years away from Earth in the Virgo cluster. The supernova occurred in part of the sky already watched by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which images large portions of the sky every 30 minutes (SN: 1/8/19). And a team of scientists quickly realized that data would track precisely how the eruption brightened over time, making it ideal for further study. 

    To learn even more, the team leapt into action, viewing the supernova with a variety of telescopes in the hours and days that followed, even orchestrating a last-minute change of plans for the Hubble Space Telescope. That provided the supernova’s spectrum, an accounting of its light broken up by wavelength, at various moments after the blast.

    All that data revealed that in the last year of its life, the star had spewed some of its outer layers into space, researchers report October 26 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The amount of material ejected was about 0.23 times the mass of the sun, the team estimates. When the supernova went off, it launched a shock wave that plowed through that material shortly after the explosion, generating light picked up by the telescopes.

    As large stars get closer to death, they may start behaving erratically. Aging stars fuse heavier and heavier elements in their cores. For this star, the switch to fusing oxygen could have triggered that shedding in its last year, astrophysicist Samaporn Tinyanont of the University of California, Santa Cruz and colleagues suggest. “These stars have a roller coaster last few years of their life,” Tinyanont says.

    Scientists hope that understanding that roller coaster ride could help them recognize when other stars are about to blow. More

  • in

    5 cool things to know about NASA’s Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids

    For the first time, a spacecraft is headed to Jupiter’s odd Trojan asteroids. What Lucy finds there could provide a fresh peek into the history of the solar system.

    “Lucy will profoundly change our understanding of planetary evolution in our solar system,” Adriana Ocampo, a planetary scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said at a news briefing October 14.

    The mission is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., as early as October 16. Live coverage will air on NASA TV beginning at 5 a.m. EDT, in anticipation of a 5:34 a.m. blast off.

    The Trojan asteroids are two groups of space rocks that are gravitationally trapped in the same orbit as Jupiter around the sun. One group of Trojans orbits ahead of Jupiter; the other follows the gas giant around the sun. Planetary scientists think the Trojans could have formed at different distances from the sun before getting mixed together in their current homes. The asteroids could also be some of the oldest and most pristine objects in the solar system.

    The mission will mark several other firsts, from the types of objects it will visit to the way it powers its instruments. Here are five cool things to know about our first visit to the Trojans.

    1. The Trojan asteroids are a solar system time capsule.

    The Trojans occupy spots known as Lagrangian points, where the gravity from the sun and from Jupiter effectively cancel each other out. That means their orbits are stable for billions of years.

    “They were probably placed in their orbits by the final gasp of the planet formation process,” the mission’s principal investigator Hal Levison, a planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.,  said September 28 in a news briefing.

    But that doesn’t mean the asteroids are all alike. Scientists can tell from Earth that some Trojans are gray and some are red, indicating that they might have formed in different places before settling in their current orbits. Maybe the gray ones formed closer to the sun, and the red ones formed farther from the sun, Levison speculated.

    Studying the Trojans’ similarities and differences can help planetary scientists tease out whether and when the giant planets moved around before settling into their present positions (SN: 4/20/12). “This is telling us something really fundamental about the formation of the solar system,” Levison said.

    2. The spacecraft will visit more individual objects than any other single spacecraft. 

    Lucy will visit eight asteroids, including their moons. Over its 12-year mission, it will visit one asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and seven Trojans, two of which are binary systems where a pair of asteroids orbit each other.

    “We are going to be visiting the most asteroids ever with one mission,” planetary scientist Cathy Olkin, Lucy’s deputy principal investigator, said in the Oct. 14 briefing.

    The spacecraft will observe the asteroids’ composition, shape, gravity and geology for clues to where they formed and how they got to the Lagrangian points.

    The spacecraft’s first destination, in April 2025, will be an asteroid in the main belt. Next, it will visit five asteroids in the group of Trojans that orbit the sun ahead of Jupiter: Eurybates and its satellite Queta in August 2027; Polymele in September 2027; Leucus in April 2028; and Orus in November 2028. Finally, the spacecraft will shift to Jupiter’s other side and visit the twin asteroids Patroclus and Menoetius in the trailing group of space rocks in March 2033.

    The spacecraft won’t land on any of its targets, but it will swoop within 965 kilometers of their surfaces at speeds of 3 to 5 meters per second relative to the asteroids’ speed through space.

    There’s no need to worry about collisions while zipping through these asteroid clusters, Levison said. Although there are about 7,000 known Trojans, they’re very far apart. “If you were standing on any one of our targets, you wouldn’t be able to tell you were part of the swarm,” he said.

    The Trojan asteroids trail and follow Jupiter in its orbit around the sun, but they’re actually quite far from the giant planet. In fact, Earth is closer to Jupiter than either swarm of Trojans is.NASA, adapted by T. TibbittsThe Trojan asteroids trail and follow Jupiter in its orbit around the sun, but they’re actually quite far from the giant planet. In fact, Earth is closer to Jupiter than either swarm of Trojans is.NASA, adapted by T. Tibbitts

    3. Lucy will have a weird flight path.

    In order to make so many stops, Lucy will need to take a complex path. First, the spacecraft will swoop past Earth twice to get a gravitational boost from our planet that will help propel it onward to its first asteroid.

    The closest Earth flyby, in October 2022, will take it within 300 kilometers of the planet’s surface, closer than the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope and many satellites, Olkin said. Observers on Earth might even be able to see it. “I’m hoping to go near where it flies past and look up and see Lucy flying by a year from now,” she said.

    Then in December 2030, after more than a year exploring the “leading” swarm of Trojans, Lucy will come back to the vicinity of Earth for one more boost. That final gravitational slingshot will send the spacecraft to the other side of the sun to visit the “trailing” swarm. This will make Lucy the first spacecraft ever to venture to the outer solar system and come back near Earth again.

    4. Lucy will travel farther from the sun than any other solar-powered craft.

    Another record Lucy will break has to do with its power source: the sun. Lucy will run on solar power out to 850 million kilometers away from the sun, making it the farthest-flung solar powered spacecraft ever.

    To accomplish that, Lucy has a pair of enormous solar arrays. Each 10-sided array is more than 7.3 meters across and includes about 4,000 solar cells per panel, Lucy project manager Donya Douglas-Bradshaw said in a news briefing on October 13. Standing on one end, Lucy and its solar panels would be as tall as a five-story building.

    “It’s a very intricate, sophisticated design,” she said. The advantage of using solar power is that the team can adjust how much power the spacecraft needs based on how far from the sun it is.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    5. The inspiration for Lucy’s name is decidedly earthbound.

    NASA missions are often named for famous scientists, or with acronyms that describe what the mission will do. Lucy, on the other hand, is named after a fossil.

    The idea that the Trojans hold secrets to the history of the solar system is part of how the mission got its unusual name. To understand, go back to 1974, when paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and a graduate student discovered a fossil of a human ancestor who had lived 3.2 million years ago. After listening to the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” at camp that night, Johanson’s team named the fossil hominid “Lucy.” (In a poetic echo, the first asteroid the Lucy spacecraft will visit is named Donaldjohanson.)

    Planetary scientists hope the study of the Trojans will revolutionize our understanding of the solar system’s history in the same way that studying Lucy’s fossil revolutionized our understanding of human history.

    “We think these asteroids are fossils of solar system formation,” Levison said. So his team named the spacecraft after the fossil. 

    The spacecraft even carries a diamond in one of its instruments, to help split beams of light. Said planetary scientist Phil Christensen of Arizona State University in Tempe at the Oct. 14 briefing: “We truly are sending a diamond into the sky with Lucy.” More

  • in

    Vera Rubin’s work on dark matter led to a paradigm shift in cosmology

    Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and BeyondAshley Jean YeagerMIT Press, $24.95

    Vera Rubin’s research forced cosmologists to radically reimagine the cosmos.

    In the 1960s and ’70s, Rubin’s observations of stars whirling around within galaxies revealed the gravitational tug of invisible “dark matter.” Although astronomers had detected hints of this enigmatic substance for decades, Rubin’s data helped finally convince a skeptical scientific community that dark matter exists (SN: 1/10/20).

    “Her work was pivotal to redefining the composition of our cosmos,” Ashley Yeager, Science News’ associate news editor, writes in her new book. Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond follows Rubin’s journey from stargazing child to preeminent astronomer and fierce advocate for women in science.

    That journey, Yeager shows, was rife with obstacles. When Rubin was a young astronomer in the 1950s and ’60s, many observatories were closed to women, and more established scientists often brushed her off. Much of her early work was met with intense skepticism, but that only made Rubin, who died in 2016 at age 88, a more dogged data collector.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!
    There was a problem signing you up.

    On graphs plotting the speeds of stars swirling around galaxies, Rubin showed that stars farther from galactic centers orbited just as fast as inner stars. That is, the galaxies’ rotation curves were flat. Such speedy outer stars must be pulled along by the gravitational grip of dark matter.

    Science News staff writer Maria Temming spoke with Yeager about Rubin’s legacy and what, beyond her pioneering research, made Rubin remarkable. The following discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Temming: What inspired you to tell Rubin’s story?

    Yeager: It all started when I was working at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2007. I was walking around the “Explore the Universe” exhibit and noticed there weren’t many women featured. But then there was this picture of a woman with big glasses and cropped hair, and I thought, “Who is this?” It was Vera Rubin.

    My supervisor was a curator of oral histories. He was working on Rubin’s, so I asked him about her. He said, “I have one more oral history interview to do with her. Would you like to come?” So I got to interview her. She was charismatic, kind and curious — not a person who was all about herself, but wanted to know about you. That stuck with me.

    Temming: You spend much of the book describing evidence for dark matter besides Rubin’s research. Why?

    Yeager: I wanted to make sure I didn’t portray Rubin as this lone person who discovered dark matter, because there were a lot of different moving pieces in astronomy and physics that came together in the ’70s and early ’80s for the scientific community to say, “OK, we really have to take dark matter seriously.”

    Temming: What made Rubin’s work a linchpin for confirming dark matter?

    Yeager: She really went after nailing down that flat rotation curve in all types of galaxies. Mainly because she did get a lot of pushback, continually, that said, “Oh, that’s just a special case in that galaxy, or that’s just for those types of galaxies.” She studied hundreds of galaxies to double-check that, yes, in fact, the rotation curves are flat. People saying, “We don’t believe you,” didn’t ever really knock her down. She just came back swinging harder.

    It helped that she did the work in visible wavelengths of light. There had been a lot of radio astronomy data to suggest flat rotation curves, but because radio astronomy was very new, it was really only once you saw it with the eye that the astronomy community was convinced.

    Temming: Do you have a favorite anecdote about Rubin?

    Yeager: The one that comes to mind is how much she loved flowers. She told me about how on drives from Lowell Observatory to Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, she and her colleague Kent Ford would always stop and buy wildflowers. The fact that picking these wildflowers stuck with her, I thought, was just representative of who she was. Her favorite moments weren’t necessarily these big discoveries she’d made, but stopping to pick some flowers and enjoy their beauty.

    Author Ashley Yeager (left) interviewed Vera Rubin (right) in 2007 as part of an oral history project with Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 9A16674)

    Temming: Did you learn anything in your research that surprised you?

    Yeager: I didn’t initially grasp how many different types of projects she had. She did a lot with looking for larger-scale structure [in the universe] and looking at the Hubble constant [which describes how fast the universe is expanding] (SN: 4/21/21). She had a very diverse set of questions that she wanted to answer, well into her 70s.

    Temming: I was surprised by her decision to get out of the rat-race of hunting for quasars, when that area of research heated up in the 1960s.

    Yeager: She very much didn’t like to be in pressure situations where she could be wrong. She liked to go and collect so much data that no one could [dispute it]. With quasar research, it was just too fast, and she wanted to be methodical about it.

    Temming: Why is Rubin’s story important to tell now?

    Yeager: Unfortunately for women and minorities in science, it’s still very relevant, in that there are a lot of challenges to pursuing a career in STEM. Her story demonstrates that you have to surround yourself with people who are willing to help you and get away from the people who want to keep you down. Plus her story is also very encouraging: Your curiosity can keep you going and can fuel something way bigger than yourself.

    Temming: How did she advocate for women in astronomy?

    Yeager: She was very outspoken about it. At National Academy of Sciences meetings, the organizers always dreaded her standing up, because she would say, “What are we doing about women in science? We’re not doing enough.” She was constantly pushing for women to be recognized with awards. She kept tabs on the number of women who had earned Ph.D.s and who had gotten staff positions — and their salaries. She was very data-driven. She’d cull that information and use it to advocate for better representation and recognition of women in astronomy.

    Temming: How would you describe Rubin to someone who hasn’t met her?

    Yeager: She was one of the most persistent, gracious and nurturing people that I’ve ever met. You could strip away all that she did in astronomy and she would still be this incredible figure — the way she carried herself, the way she treated people. Just a beautiful human being.

    Buy Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond from Science News is a affiliate and will earn a commission on purchases made from links in this article. More

  • in

    Jupiter’s intense auroras superheat its upper atmosphere

    Jupiter’s upper atmosphere is hundreds of degrees warmer than expected. After a decades-long search, scientists may have pinned down a likely source of that anomalous heat. The culprit, a new study suggests, is the planet’s intense auroras, Jupiter’s version of Earth’s northern and southern lights (SN: 6/8/21).

    The temperature of the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, which orbits an average distance of 778 million kilometers from the sun, should be about –73° Celsius, says James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the JAXA Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Sagamihara, Japan. That’s largely due to the feeble illumination of the sun there, which amounts to less than 4 percent of the energy per square meter that hits Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, the region several hundred kilometers above the planet’s cloud tops has an average temperature of about 426° C.

    Scientists first noticed this mismatch more than 40 years ago. Since then, researchers have come up with several ideas about where the upper atmosphere’s thermal boost might originate, including pressure waves or gravity waves created by turbulence lower in the atmosphere. But observations by O’Donoghue and his colleagues now provide convincing evidence that the auroras pump heat throughout the planet’s upper atmosphere.

    The researchers used the 10-meter Keck II telescope atop Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano to observe Jupiter on one night each in 2016 and 2017. Specifically, the team looked for infrared emissions that betray the presence of positively charged hydrogen molecules (H3+). Those molecules are created when charged particles in the solar wind, among other sources, slam into the planet’s atmosphere at hundreds or thousands of kilometers per second, painting polar auroras.

    Measuring the intensities of these molecules’ infrared emissions let the team pin down how hot it gets high above the cloud tops. In those polar regions, temperatures in the upper atmosphere likely top out at about 725° C, the team reports in the Aug. 5 Nature. But at equatorial latitudes, the team’s heat map showed that the temperature falls to about 325° C. That pattern of a gradual drop-off in temperature toward lower latitudes bolsters the notion that Jupiter’s auroras are the source of anomalous heat in the upper atmosphere and that winds disperse that warmth from the polar regions.

    One of the nights the team observed Jupiter — January 25, 2017 — was particularly well-timed because Jupiter was experiencing a strong solar flare at the time. Besides an intense aurora, data revealed a broad swath of warmer-than-normal gases at mid-latitudes, which the researchers interpret as a wave of warmth rolling southward. “It was pure luck that we captured this potential heat-shedding event,” says O’Donoghue.

    The team’s observations “are close to a ‘smoking gun’ for the redistribution of auroral energy,” says Tommi Koskinen, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The next challenge, he notes, is to understand the underlying mechanisms of heat production and heat transfer and to then incorporate them into researchers’ simulations of Jupiter’s atmospheric circulation. More

  • in

    How do scientists calculate the age of a star?

    We know quite a lot about stars. After centuries of pointing telescopes at the night sky, astronomers and amateurs alike can figure out key attributes of any star, like its mass or its composition.

    To calculate a star’s mass, just look it its orbital period and do a bit of algebra. To determine what it’s made of, look to the spectrum of light the star emits. But the one variable scientists haven’t quite cracked yet is time.

    “The sun is the only star we know the age of,” says astronomer David Soderblom of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “Everything else is bootstrapped up from there.”

    Even well-studied stars surprise scientists every now and then. In 2019 when the red supergiant star Betelgeuse dimmed, astronomers weren’t sure if it was just going through a phase or if a supernova explosion was imminent. (Turns out it was just a phase.) The sun also shook things up when scientists noticed that it wasn’t behaving like other middle-aged stars. It’s not as magnetically active compared with other stars of the same age and mass. That suggests that astronomers might not fully understand the timeline of middle age.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!
    There was a problem signing you up.

    Calculations based on physics and indirect measurements of a star’s age can give astronomers ballpark estimates. And some methods work better for different types of stars. Here are three ways astronomers calculate the age of a star.

    Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams

    Scientists do have a pretty good handle on how stars are born, how they live and how they die. For instance, stars burn through their hydrogen fuel, puff up and eventually expel their gases into space, whether with a bang or a whimper. But when exactly each stage of a star’s life cycle happens is where things get complicated. Depending on their mass, certain stars hit those points after a different number of years. More massive stars die young, while less massive stars can burn for billions of years.

    At the turn of the 20th century, two astronomers — Ejnar Hertzsprung and Henry Norris Russell — independently came up with the idea to plot stars’ temperature against their brightness. The patterns on these Hertzsprung-Russell, or H-R, diagrams corresponded to where different stars were in that life cycle. Today, scientists use these patterns to determine the age of star clusters, whose stars are thought to have all formed at the same time.

    The caveat is that, unless you do a lot of math and modeling, this method can be used only for stars in clusters, or by comparing a single star’s color and brightness with theoretical H-R diagrams. “It’s not very precise,” says astronomer Travis Metcalfe of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “Nevertheless, it’s the best thing we’ve got.”

    [embedded content]
    Measuring a star’s age isn’t as easy as you’d think. Here’s how scientists get their ballpark estimates.

    Rotation rate

    By the 1970s, astrophysicists had noticed a trend: Stars in younger clusters spin faster than stars in older clusters. In 1972, astronomer Andrew Skumanich used a star’s rotation rate and surface activity to propose a simple equation to estimate a star’s age: Rotation rate = (Age) -½.

    This was the go-to method for individual stars for decades, but new data have poked holes in its utility. It turns out that some stars don’t slow down when they hit a certain age. Instead they keep the same rotation speed for the rest of their lives.

    “Rotation is the best thing to use for stars younger than the sun,” Metcalfe says. For stars older than the sun, other methods are better.

    Stellar seismology

    The new data that confirmed rotation rate wasn’t the best way to estimate an individual star’s age came from an unlikely source: the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope. Not just a boon for exoplanet research, Kepler pushed stellar seismology to the forefront by simply staring at the same stars for a really long time.

    Watching a star flicker can give clues to its age. Scientists look at changes in a star’s brightness as an indicator of what’s happening beneath the surface and, through modeling, roughly calculate the star’s age. To do this, one needs a really big dataset on the star’s brightness — which the Kepler telescope could provide.

    “Everybody thinks it was all about finding planets, which was true,” Soderblom says. “But I like to say that the Kepler mission was a stealth stellar physics mission.”

    This approach helped reveal the sun’s magnetic midlife crisis and recently provided some clues about the evolution of the Milky Way. Around 10 billion years ago, our galaxy collided with a dwarf galaxy. Scientists have found that stars left behind by that dwarf galaxy are younger or about the same age as stars original to the Milky Way. Thus, the Milky Way may have evolved more quickly than previously thought.

    As space telescopes like NASA’s TESS and the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS survey new patches of sky, astrophysicists will be able to learn more about the stellar life cycle and come up with new estimates for more stars.

    Aside from curiosity about the stars in our own backyard, star ages have implications beyond our solar system, from planet formation to galaxy evolution — and even the search for extraterrestrial life.

    “One of these days — it’ll probably be a while — somebody’s going to claim they see signs of life on a planet around another star. The first question people will ask is, ‘How old is that star?’” Soderblom says. “That’s going to be a tough question to answer.” More

  • in

    Souped-up supernovas may produce much of the universe’s heavy elements

    Violent explosions of massive, magnetized stars may forge most of the universe’s heavy elements, such as silver and uranium.

    These r-process elements, which include half of all elements heavier than iron, are also produced when neutron stars merge (SN: 10/16/17). But collisions of those dead stars alone can’t form all of the r-process elements seen in the universe. Now, scientists have pinpointed a type of energetic supernova called a magnetorotational hypernova as another potential birthplace of these elements.

    The results, described July 7 in Nature, stem from the discovery of an elderly red giant star — possibly 13 billion years old — in the outer regions of the Milky Way. By analyzing the star’s elemental makeup, which is like a star’s genetic instruction book, astronomers peered back into the star’s family history. Forty-four different elements seen in the star suggest that it was formed from material left over “by a special explosion of one massive star soon after the Big Bang,” says astronomer David Yong of the Australian National University in Canberra.

    The ancient star’s elements aren’t from the remnants of a neutron star merger, Yong and his colleagues say. Its abundances of certain heavy elements such as thorium and uranium were higher than would be expected from a neutron star merger. Additionally, the star also contains lighter elements such as zinc and nitrogen, which can’t be produced by those mergers. And since the star is extremely deficient in iron — an element that builds up over many stellar births and deaths — the scientists think that the red giant is a second-generation star whose heavy elements all came from one predecessor supernova-type event.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Simulations suggest that the event was a magnetorotational hypernova, created in the death of a rapidly spinning, highly magnetized star at least 25 times the mass of the sun. When these stars explode at the end of their lives as a souped-up type of supernova, they may have the energetic, neutron-rich environments needed to forge heavy elements.

    Magnetorotational hypernovas might be similar to collapsars — massive, spinning stars that collapse into black holes instead of exploding. Collapsars have previously been proposed as birthplaces of r-process elements, too (SN: 5/8/19).

    The researchers think that magnetorotational hypernovas are rare, composing only 1 in 1,000 supernovas. Even so, such explosions would be 10 times as common as neutron star mergers today, and would produce similar amounts of heavy elements per event. Along with their less energetic counterparts, called magnetorotational supernovas, these hypernovas could be responsible for creating 90 percent of all r-process elements, the researchers calculate. In the early universe, when massive, rapidly rotating stars were more common, such explosions could have been even more influential.

    The observations are impressive, says Stan Woosley, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the new study. But “there is no proof that the [elemental] abundances in this metal-deficient star were made in a single event. It could have been one. It could have been 10.” One of those events might even have been a neutron star merger, he says.

    The scientists hope to find more stars like the elderly red giant, which could reveal how frequent magnetorotational hypernovas are. For now, the newly analyzed star remains “incredibly rare and demonstrates the need for … large surveys to find such objects,” Yong says. More

  • in

    Cosmic filaments may be the biggest spinning objects in space

    Moons do it, stars do it, even whole galaxies do it. Now, two teams of scientists say cosmic filaments do it, too. These tendrils stretching hundreds of millions of light-years spin, twirling like giant corkscrews.

    Cosmic filaments are the universe’s largest known structures and contain most of the universe’s mass (SN: 1/20/14). These dense, slender strands of dark matter and galaxies connect the cosmic web, channeling matter toward galaxy clusters at each strand’s end (SN: 7/5/12).

    At the instant of the Big Bang, matter didn’t rotate; then, as stars and galaxies formed, they began to spin. Until now, galaxy clusters were the largest structures known to rotate. “Conventional thinking on the subject said that’s where spin ends. You can’t really generate torques on larger scales,” says Noam Libeskind, cosmologist at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam in Germany.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    So the discovery that filaments spin — at a scale that makes galaxies look like specks of dust — presents a puzzle. “We don’t have a full theory of how every galaxy comes to rotate, or every filament comes to rotate,” says Mark Neyrinck, cosmologist at University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain.

    To test for rotation, Neyrinck and colleagues used a 3-D cosmological simulation to measure the velocities of dark matter clumps as the clumps moved around a filament. He and his colleagues describe their results in a paper posted in 2020 at and now in press with the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Meanwhile, Libeskind and colleagues searched for rotation in the real universe, they report June 14 in Nature Astronomy. Using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the team mapped galaxies’ motions and measured their velocities perpendicular to filaments’ axes.

    [embedded content]
    A computer simulation shows how a cosmic filament twists galaxies and dark matter into a strand of the cosmic web. Filaments pull matter into rotation and toward clusters at their ends, visualized here with “test particles” shaped like comets.  

    The two teams detected similar rotational velocities for filaments despite differing approaches, Neyrinck says, an “encouraging [indication] that we’re looking at the same thing.”

    Next, researchers want to tackle what makes these giant space structures spin, and how they get started. “What is that process?” Libeskind says. “Can we figure it out?” More