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Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

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Andromeda (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC)

While everyone else was making popcorn garlands and giving sentimental presents and eating marshmallow candies shaped like Santa, astronomers were busy too…busy scanning the Andromeda galaxy with a super powerful x-ray telescope array in space! (Yeah, that’s right, astronomers are no joke, boy!)  According to NASA’s mission overview, “The NuSTAR instrument consists of two co-aligned grazing incidence telescopes with specially coated optics and newly developed detectors that extend sensitivity to higher energies as compared to previous missions such as Chandra and XMM. After launching into orbit on a small rocket, the NuSTAR telescope extends to achieve a 10-meter focal length. The observatory will provide a combination of sensitivity, spatial, and spectral resolution factors of 10 to 100 improved over previous missions that have operated at these X-ray energies.”

The astronomers operating this device (devices?) chose to look at Andromeda (AKA M31) the Milky Way’s big sister galaxy which is located relatively close by in galactic terms…a mere 2.5 million light years away.  They wished to observe X-ray binary systems–disturbing star systems where a supermassive star collapsed either into a black hole or a neutron star.  The huge mass left over from such a collapse plays havoc with the remaining living star.  Frequently great plumes of matter are stripped away from the living star into the gravity well of the white dwarf or the black hole.  As star stuff falls into the massive stellar fragment it produces large amounts of exotic radiation like x-rays.

Astronomers hope that by determining which of these systems harbor black holes versus neutron stars, they can find out more about such systems, which are theorized to have played a critical role in heating the interstellar gas nebulae which gave birth to the galaxies.

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NuSTAR X-Ray Observatory (NASA)

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