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In a first, astronomers watch a black hole’s corona disappear, then reappear
A colliding star may have triggered the drastic transformation.
It seems the universe has an odd sense of humor. While a crown-encrusted virus has run roughshod over the world, another entirely different corona about 100 million light years from Earth has mysteriously disappeared.
For the first time, astronomers at MIT and elsewhere have watched as a supermassive black hole's own corona, the ultrabright, billion-degree ring of high-energy particles that encircles a black hole's event horizon, was abruptly destroyed.
The cause of this dramatic transformation is unclear, though the researchers guess that the source of the calamity may have been a star caught in the black hole's gravitational pull. Like a pebble tossed into a gearbox, the star may have ricocheted through the black hole's disk of swirling material, causing everything in the vicinity, including the corona's high-energy particles, to suddenly plummet into the black hole.
The result, as the astronomers observed, was a precipitous and surprising drop in the black hole's brightness, by a factor of 10,000, in under just one year.
"We expect that luminosity changes this big should vary on timescales of many thousands to millions of years," says Erin Kara, assistant professor of physics at MIT. "But in this object, we saw it change by 10,000 over a year, and it even changed by a factor of 100 in eight hours, which is just totally unheard of and really mind-boggling."
Following the corona's disappearance, astronomers continued to watch as the black hole began to slowly pull together material from its outer edges to reform its swirling accretion disk, which in turn began to spin up high-energy X-rays close to the black hole's event horizon. In this way, in just a few months, the black hole was able to generate a new corona, almost back to its original luminosity.
"This seems to be the first time we've ever seen a corona first of all disappear, but then also rebuild itself, and we're watching this in real-time," Kara says. "This will be really important to understanding how a black hole's corona is heated and powered in the first place."
Kara and her co-authors, including lead author Claudio Ricci of Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, have published their findings today in Astrophysical Journal Letters. Co-authors from MIT include Ron Remillard, and Dheeraj Pasham.
A nimble washing machine
In March 2018, an unexpected burst lit up the view of ASSASN, the All-Sky Automated Survey for Super-Novae, that surveys the entire night sky for supernova activity. The survey recorded a flash from 1ES 1927+654, an active galactic nucleus, or AGN, that is a type of supermassive black hole with higher-than-normal brightness at the center of a galaxy. ASSASN observed that the object's brightness jumped to about 40 times its normal luminosity.
"This was an AGN that we sort of knew about, but it wasn't very special," Kara says. "Then they noticed that this run-of-the-mill AGN became suddenly bright, which got our attention, and we started pointing lots of other telescopes in lots of other wavelengths to look at it."
The team used multiple telescopes to observe the black hole in the X-ray, optical, and ultraviolet wave bands. Most of these telescopes were pointed at the the black hole periodically, for example recording observations for an entire day, every six months. The team also watched the black hole daily with NASA's NICER, a much smaller X-ray telescope, that is installed aboard the International Space Station, with detectors developed and built by researchers at MIT.
"NICER is great because it's so nimble," Kara says. "It's this little washing machine bouncing around the ISS, and it can collect a ton of X-ray photons. Every day, NICER could take a quick little look at this AGN, then go off and do something else."
With frequent observations, the researchers were able to catch the black hole as it precipitously dropped in brightness, in virtually all the wave bands they measured, and especially in the high-energy X-ray band — an observation that signaled that the black hole's corona had completely and suddenly vaporized.
"After ASSASN saw it go through this huge crazy outburst, we watched as the corona disappeared," Kara recalls. "It became undetectable, which we have never seen before."
A jolting flash
Physicists are unsure exactly what causes a corona to form, but they believe it has something to do with the configuration of magnetic field lines that run through a black hole's accretion disk. At the outer regions of a black hole's swirling disk of material, magnetic field lines are more or less in a straightforward configuration. Closer in, and especially near the event horizon, material circles with more energy, in a way that may cause magnetic field lines to twist and break, then reconnect. This tangle of magnetic energy could spin up particles swirling close to the black hole, to the level of high-energy X-rays, forming the crown-like corona that encircles the black hole.
Kara and her colleagues believe that if a wayward star was indeed the culprit in the corona's disappearance, it would have first been shredded apart by the black hole's gravitational pull, scattering stellar debris across the accretion disk. This may have caused the temporary flash in brightness that ASSASN captured. This "tidal disruption," as astronomers call such a jolting event, would have triggered much of the material in the disk to suddenly fall into the black hole. It also might have thrown the disk's magnetic field lines out of whack in a way that it could no longer generate and support a high-energy corona.
This last point is a potentially important one for understanding how coronas first form. Depending on the mass of a black hole, there is a certain radius within which a star will most certainly be pulled in by a black hole's gravity.
"What that tells us is that, if all the action is happening within that tidal disruption radius, that means the magnetic field configuration that's supporting the corona must be within that radius," Kara says. "Which means that, for any normal corona, the magnetic fields within that radius are what's responsible for creating a corona."
The researchers calculated that if a star indeed was the cause of the black hole's missing corona, and if a corona were to form in a supermassive black hole of similar size, it would do so within a radius of about 4 light minutes — a distance that roughly translates to about 75 million kilometers from the black hole's center.
"With the caveat that this event happened from a stellar tidal disruption, this would be some of the strictest constraints we have on where the corona must exist," Kara says.
The corona has since reformed, lighting up in high-energy X-rays which the team was also able to observe. It's not as bright as it once was, but the researchers are continuing to monitor it, though less frequently, to see what more this system has in store.
"We want to keep an eye on it," Kara says. "It's still in this unusual high-flux state, and maybe it'll do something crazy again, so we don't want to miss that."
This research was funded, in part, by NASA.
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Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Seriously sustainable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDIzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjM4NTMzMX0.BCEfYnn6C3z1zUHIS38xOWjXktgamNBi5iyqklSMYK8/img.png?width=980" id="ea524" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="50533380eeb18eb5833b6b6aa3abec38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from air using <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90356326/we-have-the-tech-to-suck-co2-from-the-air-but-can-it-suck-enough-to-make-a-difference" target="_blank">carbon-capture technology</a>, and then combines it with water, nutrients and vitamins, using 100 percent renewable solar energy from partner <a href="https://www.fortum.com" target="_blank">Fortum</a> to promote a natural fermentation process similar to the one that produces yeast and lactic acid bacteria.</p><p>When the company claims its single-celled protein is "free from agricultural limitations," they're not kidding. Being produced indoors means Solar Foods is not dependent on arable land, water (i.e., rain), or favorable weather.</p><p>The company is already working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption. (The idea for Solein actually began at NASA.) They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible.</p><p>And let's not forget all those <a href="https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper" target="_blank">beef-free burgers</a> based on pea and soy proteins currently gaining popularity. The environmental challenge of scaling up the supply of those plants to meet their high demand may provide an opening for the completely renewable Solein — the company could provide companies that produce animal-free "meats," such as <a href="https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/" target="_blank">Beyond Meat</a> and <a href="https://impossiblefoods.com" target="_blank">Impossible Foods</a>, a way to further reduce their environmental impact.</p>
The larger promise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDI0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjU4MTg2OX0.7dZZYT5WEV_EupBuLVFwHynarTiz8RYR9aJtC6Ts2C4/img.jpg?width=980" id="3415d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e6eebe06d795f844752f9e9d30040d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>The impact of the beef — and for that matter, poultry, pork, and fish — industries on our planet is widely recognized as one of the main drivers behind climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and antibiotic-resistant illness. From the cutting down of rainforests for cattle-grazing land, to runoff from factory farming of livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, it's been disastrous.</p><p>The advent of a promising source of protein derived from two of the most renewable things we have, CO₂ and sunlight, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/environmental-impact/" target="_blank">gets us out of the planet-destruction business</a> at the same time as it offers the promise of a stable, long-term solution to one of the world's most fundamental nutritional needs.</p>
Solar Foods' timetable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MTEzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTU1OTMwMn0.wnXh56iO_77x2XKV2uIPf78BKw4AJLUpmiyq_JBVGvo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=172%2C146%2C62%2C135&height=700" id="0297c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="125c9a98ec818f5c241fa28ef1423e67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Lubsan / Shutterstock / Big Think<p>While company plans are always moderated by unforeseen events — including the availability of sufficient funding — Solar Foods plans a global commercial rollout for Solein in 2021 and to be producing two million meals annually, with a revenue of $800 million to $1.2 billion by 2023. By 2050, they hope to be providing sustenance to 9 billion people as part of a $500 billion protein market.</p><p>The project began in 2018, and this year, they anticipate achieving three things: Launching Solein (check), beginning the approval process certifying its safety as a Novel Food in the EU, and publishing plans for a 1,000-metric ton-per-year factory capable of producing 500 million meals annually.</p>
The protein powder Solein. Image source: SOLAR FOODS
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."
Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide with techno-acceleration.