Black holes are getting stranger — even to astronomers. They’ve now detected the signal from a long-ago violent collision of two black holes that created a new one of a size that had never been seen before.

“It’s the biggest bang since the Big Bang observed by humanity,” said Caltech physicist Alan Weinstein, who was part of the discovery team.

Black holes are compact regions of space so densely packed that not even light can escape. Until now, astronomers only had observed them in two general sizes. There are “small” ones called stellar black holes that are formed when a star collapses and are about the size of small cities. And there are supermassive black holes that are millions, maybe billions, of times more massive than our sun and around which entire galaxies revolve.

According to astronomers’ calculations, anything in between didn’t quite make sense because stars that grew too big before collapse would essentially consume themselves, leaving no black holes.

Star collapses couldn’t create stellar black holes much bigger than 70 times the mass of our sun, scientists thought, according to physicist Nelson Christensen, research director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Then in May 2019 two detectors picked up a signal that turned out to be the energy from two stellar black holes — each large for a stellar black hole — crashing into each other. One was 66 times the mass of our sun and the other a husky 85 times the mass of the sun.

The end result: The first ever discovered intermediate black hole, at 142 times the mass of the sun.

This illustration provided by LIGO/Caltech depicts two black holes of about 66 and 85 solar masses spiraling into each other to form the GW190521 black hole. Gravitational waves from the merger were detected by the LIGO and Virgo observatories in May 2019.

Lost in the collision was an enormous amount of energy in the form of a gravitational wave, a ripple in space that travels at the speed of light. It was that wave that physicists in the United States and Europe, using detectors called LIGO and Virgo, captured last year. After deciphering the signal and checking their work, scientists published the results Wednesday in Physical Review Letters and Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Because the detectors allow scientists to pick up the gravitational waves as audio signals, scientists actually heard the collision. For all the violence and drama, the signal lasted only one-tenth of a second.

“It just sounds like a thud,” Weinstein said. “It really doesn’t sound like much on a speaker.”

This crash happened about 7 billion years ago, when the universe was about half its current age, but is only being detected now because it is incredibly far away.

Black hole collisions have been observed before, but the black holes involved were smaller to begin with and even after the merger didn’t grow beyond the size of typical stellar black holes.

Scientists still don’t know how supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies formed, Christensen said, but this new discovery may offer a clue.

Perhaps, like playing with Legos, smaller blocks combine to make bigger ones, and those combine to make even bigger ones, said Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who wasn’t part of the study but said the results chart new astronomical territory.

And indeed the bigger of the two black holes involved in this crash could have been the result of an earlier merger, both Weinstein and Christensen said, further bolstering that theory.

“It’s conceivable that this pair of black holes formed entirely differently, possibly in a dense system with lots of dead stars whizzing about, which allows one black hole to capture another during a flyby,” said Barnard College astronomer Janna Levin, who wasn’t part of the research and is author of the book “Black Hole Survival Guide.”

On the other hand, scientists can’t quite explain how merged black holes, flying around the universe, would meet so many others to merge again and grow ever bigger. It could instead be that supermassive black holes were formed in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.

On July 30, 2020, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched its latest vehicle into space. The Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars, where it will land in February 2021 to search for signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for future study. 

The Perseverance rover is NASA’s most recent excursion into the cosmos. Since Oct. 1, 1958, this American institution has contributed much to the dense knowledge of astronomy and space science. Whether it’s through direct space exploration with drones or manned spaceflights, astute observations through a telescope, or satellite images of our world and solar system, NASA pushes the boundaries of aeronautics, aerospace research, and continues to make new inroads with civilian space exploration.

Topics of space and space exploration have always fascinated people. Constellations allowed early sailors to chart their way across oceans and explorers to find their way across giant, unexplored landmasses. The mysteries of space, the heavens, and the expansiveness of our world have inspired religions, literature, and pushed the boundaries of where people believe they fit in the universe. With the advent of rockets and other technologies in the 20th century, public interest in what might be out there beyond our own planet and solar system has only grown.

To celebrate the launch of the Perseverance rover, Stacker compiled a list of real “Jeopardy!” clues about space. The show often acts as a gauge for public interest and curiosity, and its clues have been meticulously cataloged at the J! Archive, where every show is listed up through early 2020. For this gallery, we’ve expressed each clue along with the “Jeopardy!” category in which it was found, the monetary value of the clue, and the date in which it aired on television. The following slide will then reveal the answer in the form of a question (of course), along with some additional information and trivia about the subject in question.

– Clue: A probe designed to study Halley’s Comet was one of the many casualties of this 1986 space program disaster.

Due to failure from O-ring seals, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart approximately 73 seconds after liftoff. Five NASA astronauts, a payload specialist, and Christa McAuliffe, a civilian who would have been the first teacher in space, were killed as a result of the disaster. The incident has since been used as a cautionary tale for engineering safety.

– Clue: The Space Center in Houston is named for this president, who was an early advocate of manned space flight.

President Lyndon B. Johnson continued the expansion of the United States space program begat by his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. The Senate named the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston (originally named the Manned Spacecraft Center) after the former president, a Texas native. The Johnson Space Center is utilized for training NASA astronauts.

– Clue: Alan Shepard’s many accolades included a Medal of Honor for space and a Langley medal from this institution.

Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution comprises several museums, research centers, and libraries. The institution—named after Samuel P. Langley, the Smithsonian’s third secretary—awards the Langley Medal for achievements in aeronautics and astronautics. Most of the Smithsonian’s facilities are in Washington D.C., with the institution having close ties to museums in at least 39 states.

– Clue: Her main qualifications for her June 1963 flight were being a parachutist and a good Communist.

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first and youngest woman to have flown in space. Before taking to the stars, Tereshkova was an amateur parachutist, and later part of the Soviet Air Force. In 1963, Tereshkova flew a solo mission on the Vostok 6, orbiting Earth 48 times and still remaining the only woman to have flown a solo mission in space.

– Clue: A 1990 photo of Earth taken by this space probe prompted Carl Sagan to call planet Earth a “pale blue dot.”

Launched in 1977, the space probe called Voyager 1 is currently the most distant manmade object from Earth. In 1990, the probe took a “family portrait” of the solar system, with the Earth appearing as a small, blue speck in the image. The Voyager 1, along with the Voyager 2, carry an audio-video recording called the “Golden Record” meant to serve as a time capsule of sorts about life on Earth for any intelligent life forms who may find it.

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Following a period of national anxiety after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, flying the Freedom 7 space capsule. Before his NASA career, Shepard had a distinguished career in the Navy. Shepard walked on the Moon in 1971 while participating in the Apollo 14 mission.

– Clue: In 2008, this astronomer for whom a space telescope is named was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.

Edwin Hubble was one of the most renowned astronomers in history, discovering that the universe goes beyond the Milky Way galaxy. Other than the Hubble Telescope, an observation known as Hubble’s law is a basis in the Big Bang model and the idea of the expanding universe. Hubble advocated for the Nobel Prize Committee’s Prize in Physics to acknowledge astronomy, which came into effect after his death.

Hyped up by the media as the “comet of the century,” Comet Kohoutek was due to appear in late 1973. While the comet was still visible to the naked eye, Kohoutek was not as bright as initially predicted, leading the event to be labeled a disappointment.

– Clue: While Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin explored the moon, he orbited about 70 miles above.

Astronaut Michael Collins has the distinction of flying in the Apollo 11 mission, his second spaceflight. Before becoming an astronaut, Collins graduated from the United States Military Academy and served in the United States Air Force. His first spaceflight was on Gemini 10 in 1966.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history in 1961 when he became the first human being to journey into outer space. Gagarin flew on the Vostok 1 space capsule, which orbited around the Earth one time. Prior to his spaceflight, Gagarin was a Soviet Air Forces pilot; after his first and only spaceflight, Gagarin was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union.

– Clue: An approaching one of these named Elenin caused fear in 2011; in the end, a NASA scientist said his car had more pull on Earth.

Comets are icy, small solar system bodies that warm and release gas upon passing by the sun, producing a visible tail. Russian amateur astronomer Leonid Elenin spotted such a comet in December 2010, and it became more visible during 2011. During that time, it began to disintegrate and was no longer visible by October of that year.

The seventh planet from the Sun, Uranus joins Neptune as the “ice giants” of the solar system. It has several moons and a ring system, but it is significant and unique in the solar system for having a sideways axis of rotation. While many of the solar system planets are named from Roman mythology, Uranus is named from Greek mythology.

– Clue: Try and come up with this name of the Apollo 15 command module or the shuttle first launched in 1992.

The British ship HMS Endeavor still had influence long after its time, being the name inspiration for two different spacecraft in the 20th century. Apollo 15 had the command and service module CSM-112, which was given the callsign Endeavor. Also sharing the name was the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which first launched in 1992 and had its final mission in 2011 before its decommissioning.

The second-largest planet in the solar system is Saturn, best known for its distinctive ring system. Its rings are mostly made up of ice, dust, and debris. The Cassini spacecraft has since informed astronomers and scientists of the many visual and physical properties of the planet, along with many natural phenomena occurring on it. The Cassini completed its mission shortly after this “Jeopardy!” episode aired, disintegrating as it plunged into Saturn’s crushing atmosphere.

– Clue: Six-letter word for a large piece of rock from space that passes into Earth’s atmosphere.

Meteoroids are generally small rocky or metallic bodies in space, some being formed from debris and most coming from asteroids and comets. Upon entering Earth’s atmosphere, meteors leave a visible trail that leads meteors to be nicknamed “shooting stars.” Meteors originating from the same point and appearing close in time to each other make up meteor showers.

– Clue: Our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of them, but only about 3,000 are visible to the naked eye.

A star is a sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity, with the closest star to Earth being the sun. Thousands of stars are visible from the surface, appearing as fixed luminous points. These stars are then grouped into patterns and shapes known as constellations.

– Clue: In 2010 Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft brought back dust samples from Itokawa, one of these objects.

Asteroids are actually classified as minor planets in the solar system, orbiting around the sun while being neither a planet nor a comet. These are bodies that are mostly composed of mineral and rock, as opposed to comets, which are made of ice and dust. The Itokawa asteroid has been heavily studied ever since the Hayabusa spacecraft returned to Earth with materials from the asteroid.

– Clue: In 1992, aboard the Endeavour, she became the 1st African American woman in space.

Former astronaut Mae Jemison served on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, orbiting the Earth for eight days in 1992. Before applying to NASA, Jemison studied chemical engineering and African-American studies. After leaving NASA in 1993, Jemison founded a research company and also taught as a professor.

– Clue: The light and radio energy emitted by quasars may come from gases being sucked into these.

Made famous by pop-cultural depictions (despite some inaccuracies), black holes have intensely high gravitational acceleration. The gravitational force is strong enough that not even radiation or light particles can escape from it. April 2019 marked the first time a black hole was ever captured with an image, thanks to the Event Horizon Telescope.

The first artificial satellite came from the then-Soviet Union, which sent the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957. This launch was the first move of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, creating a scientific front of the Cold War. The satellite orbited around Earth 1,440 times.

– Clue: Discovered on Jan. 1 1801, 580-mile-diameter Ceres is the largest known of these celestial bodies.

Asteroids are actually classified as minor planets in the solar system, orbiting around the sun while being neither a planet nor a comet. These are bodies that are mostly composed of mineral and rock, as opposed to comets, which are made of ice and dust. The dwarf planet named Ceres is the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt.

– Clue: Despite being 10 times the size of the Earth, this sixth planet from the sun would actually float in water.

Named after the Roman god of wealth and agriculture, Saturn can be easily identified from its distinctive ring system. Its rings are mostly made up of ice, dust, and debris. As the planet itself is mostly made up of gas, it is less dense and lighter than water, and therefore could float in water—should there be a large enough container to fit it in.

Named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, Halley’s Comet was the first to be realized and recognized as a periodical comet. It is visible to Earth roughly every 75 or 76 years, roughly once or twice in a lifetime. Author Mark Twain wrote about how his birth was near a passing of Halley’s Comet and accurately predicted that the comet would pass yet again near his death.

– Clue: NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab puts astronauts in a simulation of this condition that’s experienced during space flight.

Weightlessness, or zero gravity or “zero-G,” is the phenomenon where the sensation of weight is absent. When a gravitational field is zero or near zero, as it is in most of known space, those off-Earth will essentially float. The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near the Johnson Space Center features a large pool of water meant to simulate the effects of zero gravity.

– Clue: [There’s a theme here] A Ranger spacecraft shot 300 close-up photos per minute to help select moon landing sites for this NASA program.

The third United States spaceflight program was named Apollo and succeeded in putting the first human beings ever onto the moon’s surface. The program comprised multiple manned spaceflights, the first crewed flight taking place in 1968 and the final happening in 1972.

COVID-19 may have messed up school and shut down a lot of entertainment venues. But you can still brighten things up by doing a little stargazing at night, an astronomer says.

It’s that time of year when the air gets a little cooler, pumpkin decor pops up across stores, and the Corn Moon fills the sky.

This illustration provided by LIGO/Caltech depicts two black holes of about 66 and 85 solar masses spiraling into each other to form the GW190521 black hole. Gravitational waves from the merger were detected by the LIGO and Virgo observatories in May 2019.


World news – US – Astronomers say collision created black hole mega-merger

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