A stunning simulation re-creates how M87’s black hole launches plasma jets

From the maw of the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87, two enormous jets stream thousands of light-years into space. Scientists still don’t fully understand the physics behind the jets, which are made of a mix of electrically charged particles, or plasma (SN: 3/24/21). But they are “really, really amazing,” says astrophysicist Alejandro Cruz-Osorio of Goethe University Frankfurt. So he and colleagues created a computer simulation of M87’s black hole and the swirling gas that surrounds it in an accretion disk. The aim: Figure out how this black hole — already famous for posing for a picture in 2019 (SN: 4/10/19) — became such a jet-setter.

Under the right conditions, that simulation produces jets that match observations of M87, the researchers report November 4 in Nature Astronomy. The black hole twists up spiraling magnetic fields that surround two high-energy beams of electrons and other charged particles. The results suggest that the black hole must be spinning rapidly, at more than half its maximum speed allowed by the laws of physics and possibly as much as 94 percent of its maximum possible speed.

Getting the energies of the jets’ electrons right turned out to be crucial. When magnetic fields in the jets rearrange in a process known as magnetic reconnection (SN: 8/3/21), electrons get accelerated, resulting in more of them having very high energies. This effect was not included in earlier simulations, but it was key to getting the simulated jets to act like real-world counterparts.

Distant rocky planets may have exotic chemical makeups that don’t resemble Earth’s

If a real Captain Kirk ever blasts off for other stars in search of rocky planets like ours, he may find lots of strange new worlds whose innards actually bear no resemblance to Earth’s.

A smattering of heavy elements sprinkled on 23 white dwarf stars suggests that most of the rocky planets that once orbited the stars had unusual chemical makeups, researchers report online November 2 in Nature Communications. The elements, presumably debris from busted-up worlds, provide a possible peek at the planets’ mantles, the region between their crust and core.

“These planets could be just utterly alien to what we’re used to thinking of,” says geologist Keith Putirka of California State University, Fresno.

But deducing what a long-gone planet was made of from what it left behind is fraught with difficulties, cautions Caltech planetary scientist David Stevenson. Rocky worlds outside of the solar system may have exotic chemical compositions, he says. “It’s just that I don’t think this paper can be used to prove that.”

After a star like the sun expands into a red giant star, it ultimately blows off its atmosphere, leaving behind its small, dense core, which becomes a white dwarf. That star’s great gravity drags heavy chemical elements into its interior, so most white dwarfs have pristine surfaces of hydrogen and helium.

But more than a quarter of these stars sport surfaces with heavier elements such as silicon and iron, presumably from planets that once circled the star and met their ends when it expanded into a red giant (SN: 8/15/11). The heavy elements on these white dwarfs haven’t yet had time to sink beneath the stellar surface.

For that reason, Siyi Xu, an astronomer at the Gemini Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii, has long studied white dwarfs. Then she met Putirka. Because he’s a geologist, “he was like, ‘Oh! We can look at this problem from a new perspective,’” Xu says.

Xu had been measuring the abundances of chemical elements littered on white dwarfs by studying the wavelengths of light, or spectra, given off by the stars. Putirka realized that those measurements could indicate what rocks and minerals had made up the destroyed planets’ mantles, which constitute the bulk of a small planet’s rock, because different rocks and minerals contain different chemical elements.

By examining white dwarfs within 650 light-years of the sun, Putirka and Xu reached a startling conclusion about the ripped-apart rocky planets. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most of their planetary mantles didn’t resemble those of the sun’s rocky planets — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, the researchers say.

For example, some of the white dwarfs have lots of silicon. That suggests that their planets’ mantles had quartz — a mineral that in its pure form consists solely of silicon and oxygen. But there’s little, if any, quartz in Earth’s mantle. A planet with a quartz-rich mantle would probably differ greatly from Earth, Putirka says.

Such exotic mineral compositions might affect, for example, volcanic eruptions, continental drift and the fraction of a planet’s surface that consists of oceans versus continents. And all those phenomena might affect the development of life.

Stevenson, however, is skeptical of the new finding. When you measure the elemental composition of a “polluted white dwarf,” he says, “you do not know how to connect those numbers to what you started with.”

That’s partly because the destruction of rocky worlds around sunlike stars is complicated, Stevenson says. The planets first get blasted by the red giant’s bright light. Then they may get engulfed by the star’s expanding atmosphere and may even crash into another planet.

Each of these traumatic events could alter a planet’s elemental makeup, as well as possibly send some elements toward the white dwarf ahead of others. As a result, the planetary remains that end up on the star’s surface at one snapshot in time may not reflect the world’s starting composition.

Xu agrees that astronomers don’t know precisely how the breakup plays out or which elements wind up falling onto the white dwarf. Future theoretical studies could provide insight into the matter, she says.

She also notes that astronomers have caught asteroids disintegrating around white dwarfs, which offer a small window into the actual breakup process. And future observations of these white dwarfs, she says, could help

How massive stars in binary systems turn into carbon factories

The next time you thank your lucky stars, you might want to bless the binaries. New calculations indicate that a massive star whose outer layer gets torn off by a companion star ends up shedding a lot more carbon than if the star had been born a loner.

“That star is making about twice as much carbon as a single star would make,” says Rob Farmer, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

All life on Earth is based on carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the cosmos, after hydrogen, helium and oxygen. Like nearly every chemical element heavier than helium, carbon is formed in stars (SN: 2/12/21). For many elements, astronomers have been able to pin down the main source. For example, oxygen comes almost entirely from massive stars, most of which explode, while nitrogen is made mostly in lower-mass stars, which don’t explode. In contrast, carbon arises both in massive and lower-mass stars. Astronomers would like to know exactly which types of stars forged the lion’s share of this vital element.

Farmer and his colleagues looked specifically at massive stars, which are at least eight times heavier than the sun, and calculated how they behave with and without partners. Nuclear reactions at the core of a massive star first turn hydrogen into helium. When the core runs out of hydrogen, the star expands, and soon the core starts converting helium into carbon.

But massive stars usually have companion stars, adding a twist to the storyline: When the star expands, the companion’s gravity can tear off the larger star’s outer envelope, exposing the helium core. That allows freshly minted carbon to stream into space via a flow of particles.

“In these very massive stars, these winds are quite strong,” Farmer says. For instance, his team’s calculations indicate that the wind of a star born 40 times as massive as the sun with a close companion ejects 1.1 solar masses of carbon before dying. In comparison, a single star born with the same mass ejects just 0.2 solar masses worth of carbon, the researchers report in a paper submitted to arXiv.org October 8 and in press at the Astrophysical Journal.

If the massive star then explodes, it also can outperform a supernova from a solo massive star. That’s because, when the companion star removes the massive star’s envelope, the helium core shrinks. This contraction leaves some carbon behind, outside the core. As a result, nuclear reactions can’t convert that carbon into heavier elements such as oxygen, leaving more carbon to be cast into space by the explosion. Had the star been single, the core would have destroyed much of that carbon.

By analyzing the output from massive stars of different masses, Farmer’s team concludes that the average massive star in a binary ejects 1.4 to 2.6 times as much carbon through winds and supernova explosions as the average massive star that’s single.

Given how many massive stars are in binaries, astronomer Stan Woosley says emphasizing binary-star evolution, as the researchers have done, is helpful in pinning down the origin of a crucial element. But “I think they are making too strong a claim based on models that may be sensitive to uncertain physics,” says Woosley, of the University of California, Santa Cruz. In particular, he says, mass-loss rates for massive stars are not known well enough to assert a specific difference in carbon production between single and binary stars.

Farmer acknowledges the uncertainty, but “the overall picture is sound,” he says. “The binaries are making more [carbon].”

Astronomers have found the Milky Way’s first known ‘feather’

The Milky Way has a “feather” in its cap.

A long, thin filament of cold, dense gas extends jauntily from the galactic center, connecting two of the galaxy’s spiral arms, astronomers report November 11 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. This is the first time that such a structure, which looks like the barb of a feather fanning off the central quill, has been spotted in the Milky Way.

The team that discovered our galaxy’s feather named it the Gangotri wave, after the glacier that is the source of India’s longest river, the Ganges. In Hindi and other Indian languages, the Milky Way is called Akasha Ganga, “the river Ganga in the sky,” says astrophysicist Veena V.S. of the University of Cologne in Germany.

She and colleagues found the Gangotri wave by looking for clouds of cold carbon monoxide gas, which is dense and easy to trace, in data from the APEX telescope in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The structure stretches 6,000 to 13,000 light-years from the Norma arm of the Milky Way to a minor arm near the galactic center called the 3-kiloparsec arm. So far, all other known gas tendrils in the Milky Way align with the spiral arms (SN: 12/30/15).

The Gangotri wave has another unusual feature: waviness. The filament appears to wobble up and down like a sine wave over the course of thousands of light-years. Astronomers aren’t sure what could cause that, Veena says.

Other galaxies have gaseous plumage, but when it comes to the Milky Way, “it’s very, very difficult” to map the galaxy’s structure from the inside out, she says. She hopes to find more galactic feathers and other bits of our galaxy’s structure. “One by one, we’ll be able to map the Milky Way.”