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Our view of black holes may change … again

Brian Greene
Columbia physicist Brian Greene delves into Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity in “Light Falls,” a theater piece that made its debut at the World Science Festival. (Greg Kessler Photo / World Science Festival)

After decades’ worth of mystery, it feels as if physicists are finally closing in on the nature of black holes, thanks to Nobel-winning breakthroughs like the first detections of black hole mergers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory.

But Columbia University physicist Brian Greene warns that those matter-gobbling monsters may have a few surprises in them yet.

“To watch the history of this subject unfold from a purely theoretical idea to one that now is driving observational tests is enormously exciting,” Greene told GeekWire.

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NASA’s Rossi X-ray probe makes a quiet exit

Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer
An artist’s conception shows the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer. (NASA Illustration)

A month after the breakup of China’s Tiangong-1 space lab, another spacecraft went to its fiery doom today with far less fanfare. Orbital assessments from the U.S. military’s Joint Space Operations Center indicate that NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer made its atmospheric re-entry at roughly 7:45 a.m. PT (14:45 GMT), more than 22 years after its launch and six years after it was decommissioned.

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Gravitational waves play role in black hole show

Black hole
A disk of superheated debris blazes around a black hole. The bright circular pattern is caused by the gravitational lensing of light from the part of the disk that’s behind the black hole. (NOVA via YouTube)

Black holes are the collapsed stars of the show on “Black Hole Apocalypse,” a two-hour “NOVA” presentation that’s premiering Jan. 10 on PBS. But the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, also known as LIGO, gets its share of the spotlight as well.

“LIGO both opens and closes the show,” said Barnard College astrophysicist Janna Levin, who wrote a book about the gravitational-wave quest and hosts the “NOVA” program. “It’s the most important thing going on right now for black hole astrophysics.”

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Black holes photobomb Andromeda Galaxy

Black hole pair in Andromeda Galaxy
A combination of X-ray and optical imagery shows the black hole pair known as J0045+41 glowing amid the much closer stars of the Andromeda Galaxy. (X-ray: NASA / CXC / UW / Dorn-Wallenstein et al. Optical: NASA / ESA / J. Dalcanton et al. and R. Gendler)

It turns out that even galaxies can be photobombed.

Imagery from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based telescopes reveal what researchers say could be the closest-orbiting pair of supermassive black holes ever seen.

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Scientists spot a smallish black hole smashup

Black hole merger
An artist’s conception shows two black holes in the process of merging. (LIGO / Caltech / MIT Illustration)

It took months to figure it out, but the scientists in charge of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, have confirmed their observations of the most lightweight black hole merger yet.

The latest detection provides further confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — and will help physicists hone their routine for combining observations from different types of scientific instruments, an approach known as “multi-messenger astronomy.”

Scientists say the spike in gravitational waves known as GW170608, detected on June 8, was set off by the smashup of two black holes weighing seven and 12 times as much as our sun.

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Third black hole crash expands LIGO frontier

An artist’s conception shows two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO. (LIGO / Caltech / MIT / Sonoma State Illustration / Aurore Simonnet)

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory has detected its third confirmed black hole merger, and this one’s a doozy: LIGO’s latest discovery is about 3 billion light-years away, which is more than twice as far away as the first two finds.

The gravitational wave signature of the newly reported smash-up, known as GW170104, also confirms that there’s a heavyweight class for stellar-mass black holes.

“It clearly establishes a new population of black holes that were not known before LIGO,” said Bangalore Sathyaprakash, a physicist at Penn State and Cardiff University.

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X-ray probe to study black hole fingerprints

Black hole
An artist’s conception shows the accretion disk around an active black hole. (NASA Illustration)

NASA is committing $188 million to build and launch a space telescope to observe patterns in the X-ray radiation emanating from black holes, neutron stars and pulsars.

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, was chosen from a field of three finalists in NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program, the space agency said today.

IXPE’s triple-telescope detector system is designed to check the polarization of cosmic X-rays. Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director for NASA Headquarters’ Science Mission Directorate, said the mission should “open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through.”

“We cannot directly image what’s going on near objects like black holes and neutron stars, but studying the polarization of X-rays emitted from their surrounding environments reveals the physics of these enigmatic objects,” Hertz said in a news release.

IXPE is due for launch in 2020.

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LIGO witnesses another black hole crash

Image: Gravitational waves
An artist’s conception shows gravitational waves emanating like ripples in space time as two black holes approach each other in their orbits. (Credit: T. Pyle / LIGO)

t looks as if gravitational-wave watchers are in for a bumpy, beautiful ride. Scientists using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, have confirmed the detection of another merger involving two faraway black holes.

The observations, which were made last Christmas and reported today in a paper published by Physical Review Letters, support the idea that LIGO could open up a whole new branch of astronomy focusing on gravitational disturbances and black holes.

“It is a promising start to mapping the populations of black holes in our universe,” Gabriela Gonzalez, a Louisiana State University astrophysicist who serves as the spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, said in a news release.

She and her colleagues say this smash-up was smaller than the first black-hole merger, which was observed in September and reported by the LIGO team in February. That clash involved black holes that were 29 and 36 times as massive as the sun. This one brought together black holes that were eight and 14 times the sun’s mass.

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Maybe black holes aren’t as bad as we think

Image: Black hole
Here’s one concept for the look of a black hole. Image: Ute Kraus, [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons
Black holes may have gotten a bad rap. And wormholes just might be a realistic way to travel Star Trek-style after all.

Years ago, the traditional wisdom about those exotic cosmic phenomena was pretty forbidding: Once something fell into a black hole, it was gone for good. Not a trace of the information describing that thing could ever be recovered. This view gave rise to a famous saying from physicist John Wheeler: “Black holes have no hair.”

And wormholes? Sure, maybe you could theoretically create an extradimensional shortcut between two points in spacetime. But it would take loads of never-seen negative energy, and anything you sent through the wormhole would be blasted to bits by extreme tidal forces. Hence, movies ranging from “Contact” to “Star Trek” and “Interstellar” are far more fanciful than factual.

Two recently published studies run counter to those bits of traditional wisdom. They may shed new light on black holes – but don’t expect to rev up the wormhole time-travel machine anytime soon.

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Scientists detect gravitational waves at last

Image: Black hole merger
A computer simulation shows two black holes shortly before they merge into one. (Credit: SXS)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After more than a decade of looking, scientists say they’ve detected the gravitational waves given off when two black holes merged into one bigger black hole.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves. We did it!” Caltech physicist David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, declared at the National Press Club on Feb. 11.

Reitze compared the LIGO project to a “scientific moonshot,” and then added, “We landed on the moon.”

The news was greeted with applause at the Washington briefing – and at a gathering of scientists and journalists in Hanford, Wash., the home of one of LIGO’s miles-long, L-shaped detectors.

The detection represents what’s likely to be a Nobel Prize-worthy discovery. It provides the best confirmation yet for a claim made a century ago in Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that gravitational interactions should give off energy in the form of ripples in the fabric of spacetime.

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