From detecting water in a distant galaxy to demonstrating an effect that can make matter invisible, November 2021 has treated us with some of the most exciting discoveries of the year. Here is a list of the top six discoveries of the previous month that you shouldn’t miss!
Water in distant galaxies
In one of the most significant breakthroughs of this month, Astronomers detected water in a pair of one of the most massive galaxies of the early Universe. These galaxies are collectively named SPT0311-58 and lie roughly 12.8 billion light-years from Earth.
The observation was made by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is a powerful radio telescope located in northern Chile in the Atacama Desert. ALMA made the high-resolution observations of molecular gas in the pair of galaxies and also detected carbon monoxide in the larger of the two galaxies.
It has been the most distant discoveries of water made in the Universe so far. Such molecules are fundamental to the existence of life on Earth. So, their observation can provide insights into the fundamental processes in the early Universe.
A tsunami of gravitational waves
Scientists working at the LIGO in the U.S. and the Virgo interferometer in Italy witnessed a tsunami of gravitational waves coming in from deep space. Thirty-five new detections of gravitational waves were made between November 2019 and March 2020. It is believed that the new detections include 32 black hole pairs mergers and likely three collisions between neutron stars and black holes.
It is the largest number of gravitational waves ever recorded since the cosmic events were first discovered in 2015. Along with representing a tenfold increase in the number of gravitational waves detected by LIGO and Virgo since they started observing, this detection has also revealed a surprising diversity in black hole sizes throughout the Universe. For instance, one black-hole pair was 145 times the Sun’s mass, while another was only 18 solar masses.
Such observations give us some surprising glimpses into the nature and evolution of gravitational waves and allow researchers to devise new tests for the laws of gravity.
Blackhole in NGC 1850
Adding to the list of discoveries about black holes, a team of astronomers has reported the detection of a black hole in the globular cluster, NGC 1850. Designated as NGC 1850 BH1, the newly found black hole is about 11 times more massive than the Sun and part of a binary system in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).
The newly found binary system consists of a black hole equivalent to approximately 11.1 solar masses and a main-sequence turn-off star (MSTO) about 4.9 times more massive than the Sun. It is expected that the system will likely experience a Roche-Lobe overflow, thereby leading to a mass transfer between the two companies. This mass transfer will continue until the system transforms into a black hole–white dwarf system.
This discovery is part of a bigger project involving a systematic search for stellar-mass black holes in young massive stellar clusters in the LMC by exploiting multi-epoch MUSE (Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer) observations at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).
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Quantum effect that makes matter invisible
For the first time, scientists at MIT have demonstrated a weird quantum effect that turns matter invisible. Using lasers, they squeezed and cooled lithium gas to such low densities and temperatures that made them scatter less light. If they can cool the cloud even closer to absolute zero, it is believed that it will make the gas completely invisible.
This effect is one of the simplest forms of Pauli blocking, a quantum phenomenon that prevents an atom from naturally scattering light. This occurs when fermionic atoms in a quantum gas cannot make transitions to nearby quantum states. Pauli blocking was derived from Pauli’s exclusion principle about three decades ago. According to this principle, no two fermions having all sets of the same quantum numbers, including electrons, protons, and neutrons, exist in the same quantum state.
At the quantum level, there are a finite number of states available where electrons of an atom, being fermions, can stack themselves up. Even in the case of a gas, there are many unoccupied energy levels available where electrons can jump to after interacting with any photon. However, when the gas is cooled down, things take a turn. Now, all the atoms lose energy and occupy the lowest available states. As a result, the particles are closely packed, unable to shift to a higher or lower energy level. They are so tightly packed that they can no longer interact with incoming photons, and thereby, the incoming light simply passes through without being absorbed and scattered by the atoms.
It is the first time this phenomenon has been physically demonstrated in a lab in a series of different experiments. Although the enhanced applications of this effect are only theoretical at present, it is expected that the new technique can be used to develop light-suppressing materials to prevent information loss in quantum computers soon.
The Gangotri Wave
In a rare observation, scientists have detected a long and thin filament of dense gas connecting spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy. Named Gangotri Wave over the glacier that gives rise to the Ganga river in India, it is one of the largest and most intriguing structures identified in the Milky Way.
The detection was made by a team of astronomers at the University of Cologne. They were studying concentrations of carbon monoxide gas in data from the APEX telescope in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and noticed concentrations that had not been seen before. It was concluded that those unknown concentrations were a part of a large gas formation extending from near the galaxy’s center.
It is estimated that the mass of this structure is approximately equivalent to nine million suns. Moreover, the wave is not straight. Instead, it is made up of zig-zags in a pattern similar to a sine wave.
InSight peeps into Mars’ interior
In November 2018, InSight landed on a wide and flat Martian plain known as Elysium Planitia, to peep deeper into the Red planet’s surface. So far, the seismic studies of the shallow subsurface around the InSight landing site have been limited to the uppermost 10-20m. But this time, InSight has provided its first in-depth look into the Martian surface by going down to a depth of around 200 meters.
The study was made by the seismometer onboard InSight – called SEIS, that pointed to a shallow sedimentary layer sandwiched between hardened rocks resulting from lava flows. Research suggests that the uppermost layer of hardened lava is around 1.7 billion years old, while the deeper layer looks to be some 3.6 billion years old.
Although there are theories concerning the formation of the uppermost and deeper layer, the presence of the middle layer, which is about some 30-40 meters thick, has been surprising, and it’s not yet clear what exactly it’s made up of or how it was formed. However, with advancements in technology, such studies can reveal how Mars originally formed and evolved.
Learn Astrophysics at Home:
Did you always want to learn how the universe works? Then, read our 30-article Basics of Astrophysics series absolutely free of cost. From the popular topics such as stars, galaxies, and black holes to the detailed concepts of the subject like the concept of magnitude, the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, redshift, etc., there is something for everyone in this series. All the articles are given here. Happy reading!
Editor at ‘The Secrets Of The Universe’, I have completed my Master’s in Physics from Punjab, India and I am currently pursuing my doctoral studies on Radio Emissions of Exoplanets in Barcelona, Spain. I love to write about a plethora of topics concerned with planetary sciences, observational astrophysics, quantum mechanics and atomic physics, along with the advancements taking place in the space industry.