Shredded Star Leads to Important Black Hole Discovery

Illustration of ASASSN14-li
Illustration of ASASSN-14li
Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

This artist's illustration shows the region around a supermassive black hole after a star wandered too close and was ripped apart by extreme gravitational forces. Some of the remains of the star are pulled into an X-ray-bright disk where they circle the black hole before passing over the "event horizon," the boundary beyond which nothing, including light, can escape. The elongated spot depicts a bright region in the disk, which causes a regular variation in the X-ray brightness of the source, allowing the spin rate of the black hole to be estimated. The curved region in the upper left shows where light from the other side of the disk has been curved over the top of the black hole.

This event was first detected by a network of optical telescopes called the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASASSN) in November 2014. Astronomers dubbed the new source ASASSN14-li and traced the bright flash of light to a galaxy about 290 million light years from Earth. They also identified it as a "tidal disruption" event, where one cosmic object is shredded by another through gravity.

Cygnus A: Ricocheting Black Hole Jet Discovered by Chandra

Image of Cygnus A
Cygnus A
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Columbia Univ./A. Johnson et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

A ricocheting jet blasting from a giant black hole has been captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, as reported in our latest press release. In this composite image of Cygnus A, X-rays from Chandra (red, green, and blue that represent low, medium and high energy X-rays) are combined with an optical view from the Hubble Space Telescope of the galaxies and stars in the same field of view. Chandra's data reveal the presence of powerful jets of particles and electromagnetic energy that have shot out from the black hole. The jet on the left has slammed into a wall of hot gas, then ricocheted to punch a hole in a cloud of energetic particles, before it collides with another part of the gas wall.

Studying Comet 46P/Wirtanen During its Close-by Visit Near Earth

Dennis Bodewits
Dennis Bodewits in Japan during the
‘Comets, Meteors, and Asteroids’ conference.

We welcome Dennis Bodewits as a guest blogger. Dennis studies the chemical and physical behavior of comets. He is an associate professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, and leads a large observing campaign combining multiple NASA spacecraft to study comet 46P/Wirtanen during its close-by visit near Earth. He loves the outdoors, mountain biking in Auburn's Chewacla State Park, and has piloted a human-powered helicopter.

I got into comet research while conducting experiments at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. My work supported fusion — where two lighter nuclei join to create heavier ones — research. To measure the temperature in fusion plasmas, you can't just stick a thermometer in your reactor. Instead, the idea was to let in a little bit of trace gas which would make the ions, that is, atoms that have a positive charge, glow.

It turned out that the main reaction responsible for this light, charge exchange, had been discovered in comets. Charge exchange is the process where a charged ion collides with a neutral atom or molecule and captures one of its electrons. Light is then emitted as the captured electron moves to a lower energy state. This process is especially important in comets where ions from the solar wind collide with neutral atoms in cometary atmospheres. For my doctorate I worked on trying to find out what I could learn about comets and the solar wind from charge exchange emission, combining lab work with Chandra observations.

Chandra Serves up Cosmic Holiday Assortment

This is the season of celebrating, and the Chandra X-ray Center has prepared a platter of cosmic treats from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to enjoy. This selection represents different types of objects — ranging from relatively nearby exploded stars to extremely distant and massive clusters of galaxies — that emit X-rays detected by Chandra. Each image in this collection blends Chandra data with other telescopes, creating a colorful medley of light from our Universe.

A Hero of the Heroic Age of Astronomy

Riccardo Giacconi (1931-2018)

Riccardo Giacconi
Riccardo Giacconi speaking at a Chandra Symposium in 2003. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Riccardo Giacconi, the "Father of X-ray Astronomy," Nobel prize-winner, and one of the most influential figures of modern astrophysics, has died at the age of 87.

Giacconi was born in Genoa Italy on October 6, 1931. He spent most of his life until 1956 in Milan, where he obtained a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Milan, working under the direction of noted cosmic ray physicist Giuseppe Ochialini. Giacconi subsequently worked as an assistant professor at the University of Milan before emigrating to the United States to work for R.W. Thompson as a Fulbright Fellow at Indiana University.

From Indiana he moved to Princeton where he met and worked with Herbert Gursky, also a post-doctoral fellow. According to Giacconi, "We built equipment, worked like fiends, analyzed data, and declared failure." When his Fulbright fellowship expired, Giacconi moved to American Science and Engineering (AS&E) in Cambridge, MA, a startup formed by Martin Annis, an ex-student of Bruno Rossi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At that time AS&E was primarily involved in military space research.

Remembering Riccardo Giacconi, X-Ray Astronomy Pioneer

Courtesy of

Riccardo Giacconi
Riccardo Giacconi (Credit: R.K. Morris)

NASA is saddened to note the passing of Riccardo Giacconi, who had a long and illustrious career with the agency.

“Riccardo set the standard for the way that NASA astrophysics is done, by involving the entire astronomy community in space missions via robust Guest Observer programs. We continue to benefit from his foresight,” said Paul Hertz, Director of Astrophysics at NASA.

Giacconi’s early sounding rocket work opened the field of X-ray astronomy, in which NASA continues to be a world leader. He led the sounding rocket experiment that discovered the first two non-solar cosmic X-ray sources: the X-ray background and the neutron star Scorpius X-1. This breakthrough led Giacconi to propose to NASA the Small Astronomy Satellite-A or SAS-A, renamed “Uhuru” at launch. The satellite produced the first catalog of cosmic X-ray sources.

He went on to develop the first focusing X-ray telescope, the Einstein Observatory, and then to write the proposal for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra continues to operate today, and is the most sensitive X-ray observatory ever developed.

NASA was delighted when Giacconi won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources.”

Giacconi was also the first permanent director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. Under his leadership from 1981 to 1993, STScI developed the expertise and capabilities to direct the science mission of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Cosmic Fountain Powered by Giant Black Hole

Image of Abell 2597
Abell 2597
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/G. Tremblay et al; Radio:ALMA: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/G.Tremblay et al, NRAO/AUI/NSF/B.Saxton; Optical: ESO/VLT

Before electrical power became available, water fountains worked by relying on gravity to channel water from a higher elevation to a lower one. This water could then be redirected to shoot out of the fountain and create a centerpiece for people to admire.

In space, awesome gaseous fountains have been discovered in the centers of galaxy clusters. One such fountain is in the cluster Abell 2597. There, vast amounts of gas fall toward a supermassive black hole, where a combination of gravitational and electromagnetic forces sprays most of the gas away from the black hole in an ongoing cycle lasting tens of millions of years.

Scientists used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to find the first clear evidence for the simultaneous inward and outward flow of gas being driven by a supermassive black hole.

To Boldly Go into Colliding Galaxy Clusters

Abell 1033
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Leiden Univ./F. de Gasperin et al;
Enterprise NCC 1701
USS Enterprise NCC 1701
Credit: Smithsonian National
Air & Space Museum

Hidden in a distant galaxy cluster collision are wisps of gas resembling the starship Enterprise — an iconic spaceship from the "Star Trek" franchise.

Galaxy clusters — cosmic structures containing hundreds or even thousands of galaxies — are the largest objects in the Universe held together by gravity. Multi-million-degree gas fills the space in between the individual galaxies. The mass of the hot gas is about six times greater than that of all the galaxies combined. This superheated gas is invisible to optical telescopes, but shines brightly in X-rays, so an X-ray telescope like NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is required to study it.

Happy 40th Birthday, Einstein Observatory

HEAO 2/Einstein Observatory
Einstein Observatory/HEAO 2

On November 13, 1978, the High Energy Astrophysical Observatory 2 (HEAO-2) blasted into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Renamed the Einstein Observatory after it was successfully placed into orbit, this was the first fully imaging telescope dedicated to looking at X-rays beyond the Sun.

The Einstein Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., are forever linked. The telescope was conceived, proposed to NASA, run by, and its data processed by SAO. The original conception for Einstein came from a group at the American Science & Engineering company, led by Nobel Prize-winner Riccardo Giacconi, which moved to SAO in 1973. SAO’s Leon van Speybroeck, who would later become the Telescope Scientist for Chandra, designed the telescope for Einstein.

In addition to being the first X-ray telescope capable of making images, Einstein was an extremely important mission for other reasons. For example, the Einstein Observatory set aside about a quarter of its observing time for a “Guest Observer” program. SAO’s Fred Seward headed the Guest Observer program and ensured an open, competitive process that enabled scientists who were not part of the original consortium to propose observations and to analyze Einstein data.


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