Here at The Groningen Observer, we will take you on a journey through the last month in Space, examining a few discoveries, events or announcements which took place over the last thirty days in the field.
M87 Black Hole Image Made Clearer
A team of researchers released an updated image of a Black Hole on April 14th, made sharper and more detailed through a machine learning technique known as PRIMO.
In 2019, the first image of a Black Hole was released to the public, coming from data collected for over a decade. The initial image was created by combining data from seven radio telescopes (known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope) across the planet, all pointed deep into the enormous Messier 87 Galaxy. The updated 2023 image utilises the full resolution capability of the EHT system, better refining the details of the mysterious object using Principal-component Interferometric Modeling (PRIMO).
“A Black Hole is an object so compact that nothing, including light, can escape once it has crossed its event horizon” Dr. Marta Volenteri, researcher of Black Hole formation and evolution at Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, told the Groningen Observer. “Producing the image of light very close to Black Holes has been an incredible technical feat, requiring complex observations, data analysis and a large number of simulations to compare to the data. Along with observations at many other wavelengths this is helping us understand the behaviour of gas, magnetic fields and jets near Black Holes.”
The image itself appears fairly incidental; it is blurry, largely made up of an orange border circling a void. But to know that it captures a titan six billion times heavier than the Sun, darker than we can imagine and dominating the centre of almost all known Galaxies, it takes on a mystical, terrifying, fabulous context.
Thanks to the PRIMO technology filling in the gaps left in the 2019 data set, more can be seen of the accretion disk of the Black Hole, which is made up of gas travelling near the speed of light, heating up and glowing orange as it is affected by the object’s massive gravitational force. The difference in the photo’s quality may appear small, but it fundamentally changes how we understand the limits of such objects.
“Since we cannot study Black Holes up close, the detail of an image plays a critical role in our ability to understand its behaviour,” Said the research project’s lead author Lia Medeiros in a statement. “”If a picture is worth a thousand words, the data underlying that image have many more stories to tell. PRIMO will continue to be a critical tool in extracting such insights.”
Starship Test Flight Explodes Successfully
SpaceX’s Starship, the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, exploded a few minutes after launch on April 20th, performing its first fully-stacked test flight on its way to carrying us once more to the Moon.
The behemoth performed a flight above the Texas Starbase facility, intended to calibrate and test the rocket which is meant to next ferry humans to the moon in the upcoming Artemis III mission.
The Starship received thunderous applause from onlookers as it lit up the skies, crawling slowly to the heavens in its lethargic, massive form. The integrated flight test was unmanned, a culmination of years of development and a proof of concept that such a design could reach orbit.
There were multiple risks associated with the flight, as SpaceX designed the immense craft with a fully reusable, fully integrated spacecraft containing both crew transportation and cargo modules. These design features necessitated the years of testing Starship underwent, as even the slightest miscalculation could lead to disaster in a crewed mission. During the flight test, the leviathan successfully launched and rose to 39 kilometres over the Gulf of Mexico, firing its 33 engines for more than six minutes, before they began to fail and the rocket started to spiral out of control.
The first stage booster was intended to separate from the second stage system at a certain altitude and land safely back on Earth for further use, while the second stage, also reusable, would one day be free to carry up to a hundred people to Mars and beyond. During the flight, this first stage was unable to separate, possibly causing its ultimate loss of stability, and both stages were in a state of non-responsive failure.
“The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble,” SpaceX said in a statement. After a few rotations, the flight termination system was triggered; a failsafe intended to prevent a spacecraft from going too far off course, and forced the rocket to explode.
Despite the dramatic end, the launch completed multiple objectives, chief among them being such a massive vehicle clearing the launchpad in the first place. It also survived Max-Q; the point of highest stress to its stainless steel frame as it tumbled down to Earth. It provided a huge amount of data for the future of super-heavy rocket flight and our colonisation of the Moon and Mars, and was praised throughout the industry; from NASA administrator Bill Nelson to space research firm Quilty Analytics, stating to CNN, “It’s important to fail during tests so that you have a greater chance of succeeding.”
James Webb Continues to Dazzle
Since its launch on Christmas Day 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope has provided an immensity of new insight into the cosmos. Nearly two years on, it continues to reveal and innovate. Here are a couple of its discoveries from the last month.
1. Incredible detail of Uranus
Yes, it’s a funny title. But the JWST contains sophisticated imaging technology of multiple wavelengths, hugely updated instruments from 1990’s Hubble Space Telescope, and it is situated perfectly at the L2 Lagrange Point; a point nearly a million miles into space, which allows the craft to remain in an orbit around the sun due to a wonderful accident of gravity. This gives the telescope an unprecedented, clear view of the universe, un-filtered by the atmosphere or the Earth’s shadow.
On April 6th, NASA released phenomenal images of Uranus and its Moons, showing its dusty rings in never-before-seen detail. The infrared image combined data from two filters, creating a representative-colour photograph which looks somewhat as it would to our human eyes.
The images show the ice giant’s polar cap, as well as 11 of its 13 rings, and the 6 brightest moons orbiting the planet (out of 27 total). The image took only twelve minutes of exposure, a dramatic decrease in time compared to Hubble’s capabilities, still revealing more than the old telescope could with its more dated technology.
2. JWST Captures Dying Star
A Supernova is a massive galactic event, one of the last evolutionary stages of a Star’s life cycle, and it is the biggest explosion humans have ever seen, even outshining the galaxies they happen within. Kepler’s Supernova was the most recent observed with the naked eye, occurring in 1604 and originating nearly 20,000 light years from Earth. RCW 86, a Supernova recorded all the way back in A.D. 185, hung in the sky for eight months, the explosion looking like a new star which then disappeared forever.
A star is held together by a balance of gravity pushing in on the star and heat and pressure pushing out from its core. The more dramatic Type II supernova (pictured above) happens when a star runs out of fuel; the pressure drops and gravity overpowers it, leading to its collapse. This can occur in under 15 seconds; an object at least 8 times larger than our sun contracting so rapidly it bounces off the star’s core and creates shockwaves which expel the material of the star outward into space, as you can see from the material drifting away in the picture. The events are so bright they can be seen across the universe, and they typically leave behind a neutron star, an object the size of Amsterdam containing the mass of our sun. However, if the dying star is even bigger, they can leave behind Black Holes, those objects so vaguely understood from our first story of the month.
The JWST image shows Cassiopeia, a remnant of one of these supernovae events. It richly displays the material from the exploded star interacting with surrounding stellar gas and dust, turning orange in their collision. The April release revealed potential information about the origins of cosmic dust; “stardust” which travels from supernovae spreading elements like calcium and iron, planting new generations of stars and planets, and ultimately, helping to create life itself.
And there you have it, another month of great progress. Here were just a few of the discoveries and events of the field this month.