Presbyopic Astronomy

Her phone call done, Cathleen returns to the Spitzer Memorial Symposium microphone with her face all happiness. “Good news! Jim, the grant came through. Your computer time and telescope access are funded. Woo-hoo!!”

<applause across the audience and Jim grins and blushes>

Cathleen still owns the mic. “So I need to finish up this overview of Spitzer highlights. Where was I?”

Maybe-an-Art-major tries to help. “The middle ground of our Universe.”

“Ah yes, thanks. So we’ve looked at close-by stars but Spitzer showed us a few more surprises lurking in the Milky Way. This, for instance — most of the image is colorized from the infra‑red, but if you look close you can see Chandra‘s X‑ray view, colorized purple to highlight young stars.”

The Cepheus-B molecular cloud
X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/K. Getman et al.; IRL NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J. Wang et al

<hushed general “oooo” from the audience>

“Giant molecular clouds like this are scattered throughout the Milky Way, mostly in the galaxy’s spiral arms. As you see, this cloud’s not uniform, it has clumps and voids. By Earth standards the cloud is still a pretty good vacuum. The clumps are about 10-15 of our atmosphere’s density, but that’s still a million times more dense than our Solar System’s interplanetary space. The clumps appear to be where new stars are born. The photons and other particles from a newly-lit star drive the surrounding dust away. My arrow points to one star with a particularly nice example of that — see the C-shape around the star?”

The maybe-an-Art-major pipes up. “How about that one just a little below center?”

“Uh-huh. There’s so much activity in that dense region that the separate shockwaves collide to create hot spots that’ll generate even more stars in the future. The clouds are mostly held together by their own gravity. They last for tens of millions of years, so we think of them as huge roiling stellar nurseries.”

“Like my kid’s day care center but bigger.”

“Mm-mm, but let’s turn to the Milky Way’s center, home of that famous black hole with the mass of four million Suns and this remarkable structure, a double-helix of warm dust.”

False-color infra-red image of the Double-Helix Nebula
The double helix nebula.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Morris (UCLA)

Vinnie blurts out, “That’s a jet from a black hole! One of Newt’s babies.”

Newt can’t resist breaking into Cathleen’s pitch. “Maybe it’s a jet, Vinnie. Yes, it’s above the central galactic plane and perpendicular to it, but the helix doesn’t quite point to the central black hole.”

“So take another picture that follows it down.”

“We’d love to, but we can’t. Yet. That image came from a long-wavelength instrument that only operated during Spitzer‘s initial 5-year cold period. Believe me, there are bunches of astronomers who can’t wait for the James Webb Space Telescope‘s far-IR instruments to get into position and start doing science. Meanwhile, we’ve got just the one image and a few earlier ones from an even less-capable spacecraft. This thing may be a lit-up part of a longer structure that twists down to the black hole or at least its accretion disk. We just don’t know.”

Cathleen takes control again. “The next image comes from outside our galaxy — far outside.”

Spitzer visualization of Galaxy MACS 1149-JD1
Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/W. Zheng (JHU), and the CLASH team

The maybe-an-Art-major snorts, “Pointillism derivative!”

“No, it’s pixels from a starfield image with a very low signal-to-noise ratio. That red blotch in the center is one of the most distant objects ever observed, gracefully named MACS 1149-JD1. It’s a galaxy 13.2 billion lightyears away. That’s so far away that the expansion of the Universe has stretched the galaxy’s emitted photons by a factor of 10.2. Spectrum-wise, 1149-JD1’s ultra-violet light skipped right past the visible range and down into the near infra-red. Intensity-wise, that galaxy’s about 5200 times further away than the Andromeda galaxy. Assuming the two are about the same overall brightness, 1149-JD1 would be about 27 million times fainter than Andromeda.”

“How can we even see anything that dim?”

“We couldn’t, except for a fortunate coincidence. Right in line between us and 1149-JD1 there’s a massive galaxy cluster whose gravity acts like a lens to focus 1149-JD1’s light.”

The seminar’s final words, from maybe-an-Art-major — “A distant light, indeed.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Beyond The Shadow of A…?

“Alright, Vinnie, what’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what, Sy?”

“You wouldn’t have hauled that kid’s toy into Al’s shop here just to play spitballs with it. You’re building up to something and what is it?”

“My black hole hobby, Sy. The things’re just a few miles wide but pack more mass than the Sun. A couple of my magazines say they give off jets top and bottom because of how they spin. That just don’t fit. The stuff ought to come straight out to the sides like the paper wads did.”

“Well, umm… Ah. You know the planet Saturn.”


“Are its rings part of the planet?”

“No, of course not, they go around it. I even seen an article about how the rings probably came from a couple of collided moons and how water from the Enceladus moon may be part of the outside ring. Only thing Saturn does for the rings is supply gravity to keep ’em there.”

“But our eyes see planet and rings together as a single dot of light in the sky. As far as the rest of the Solar System cares, Saturn consists of that big cloudy ball of hydrogen and the rings and all 82 of its moons, so far. Once you get a few light-seconds away, the whole collection acts as a simple point-source of gravitational attraction.”

“I see where you’re going. You’re gonna say a black hole’s more than just its event horizon and whatever it’s hiding inside there.”

“Yup. That ‘few miles wide’ — I could make a case that you’re off by trillions. A black hole’s a complicated beast when we look at it close up.”

“How can you look at a thing like that close up?”

“Math, mostly, but the observations are getting better. Have you seen the Event Horizon Telescope’s orange ring picture?”

“You mean the one that Al messed with and posted for Hallowe’en? It’s over there behind his cash register. What’s it about, anyway?”

“It’s an image of M87*, the super-massive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy. Not the event horizon itself, of course, that’s black. The orange portion actually represents millimeter-radio waves that escape from the accretion disk circling the event horizon. The innermost part of the disk is rotating around the hole at near-lightspeed. The arc at the bottom is brighter because that’s the part coming toward us. The photons get a little extra boost from Special Relativity.”

Frames again?”

“With black holes it’s always frames. You’ll love this. From the shell’s perspective, it spits out the same number of photons per second in every direction. From our perspective, time is stretched on the side rotating away from us so there’s fewer photons per one of our seconds and it’s dimmer. In the same amount of our time the side coming toward us emits more photons so it’s brighter. Neat demonstration, eh?”

“Cute. So the inner black part’s the hole ’cause it can’t give off light, right?”

“Not quite. That’s a shadow. Not a shadow of the event horizon itself, mind you, but of the photon sphere. That’s a shell about 1½ times the width of the event horizon. Any photon that passes exactly tangent to the sphere is doomed to orbit there forever. If the photon’s path is the slightest bit inward from that, the poor particle heads inward towards whatever’s in the center. The remaining photons travel paths that look bent to a distant observer, but the point is that they keep going and eventually someone like us could see them.”

“The shadow and the accretion disk, that’s what the EHT saw?”

“Not exactly.”

“There’s more?”

“Yeah. M87* is a spinning black hole, which is more complicated than one that’s sitting still. Wrapped around the photon sphere there’s an ergosphere, as much as three times wider than the event horizon except it’s pumpkin-shaped. The ergosphere’s widest at the rotational equator, but it closes in to meet the event horizon at the two poles. Anything bigger than a photon that crosses its boundary is condemned to join the spin parade, forever rotating in sync with the object’s spin.”

“When are you gonna get to the jets, Sy?”

~~ Rich Olcott