WTF Fun Fact 13537 – Black Hole Eating A Star

There’s a black hole eating a star out there at an astonishing rate.

University of Leicester astronomers discovered a star, similar to our Sun, that a relatively small black hole is devouring. Every close orbit results in the star losing a mass equivalent to three Earths!

Watching a Black Hole Eating a Star

The research, chronicled in Nature Astronomy, could be the “missing link” in understanding how black holes disrupt the stars that orbit them. Funded by the UK Space Agency and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, this discovery is instrumental in propelling our grasp of celestial phenomena.

An intense X-ray flash originating from the center of galaxy 2MASX J02301709+2836050 is what initially captured the team’s attention. That galaxy is approximately 500 million light-years from the Milky Way.

The anomaly has been designated as Swift J0230. And it was detected in real-time thanks to a pioneering tool designed for the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Further investigations revealed a curious pattern: Swift J0230 would radiate intensely for about a week, then go dark, resuming its cycle roughly every 25 days.

How a Black Holes “Eats” Star

This behavior parallels certain phenomena involving stars having materials torn by black holes due to close orbits. However, the Swift J0230’s emission pattern positioned it as a bridge between two known categories of these eruptions.

Drawing from existing models, researchers concluded that Swift J0230 demonstrates a Sun-sized star, trapped in an elliptical orbit around a black hole with low mass, situated at the core of its galaxy.

As this star nears the black hole, a gravitational tug wrests away material equivalent to three Earth masses. This process superheats the material to about 2 million degrees Celsius, triggering the massive X-ray emissions detected by the Swift satellite.

Unprecedented Research

Dr. Phil Evans, the lead author, remarked on the unprecedented nature of this find: a Sun-like star being intermittently torn apart by a relatively small black hole. Labeling the phenomenon as “repeated, partial tidal disruption,” Dr. Evans highlighted that such events had been rare finds until now, falling into one of two categories based on their frequency. This new discovery bridges the gap, providing a more comprehensive understanding.

Dr. Rob Eyles-Ferris, who contributed to the Swift satellite study, emphasized the singularity of Swift J0230. Unlike most observed systems where stars are entirely destroyed, this system offers insights into a middle ground. The finding unifies the two previously identified categories of partially disrupted stars.

Further, Dr. Kim Page, part of the study’s data analysis team, is confident that many more similar objects await discovery.

In terms of mass, the team estimates that the black hole is between 10,000 to 100,000 times that of our Sun. That’s a mere fraction when compared to supermassive black holes typically anchoring galaxies. For perspective, our galaxy’s central black hole weighs in at 4 million solar masses.

The Tool That Helped Detect the Black Hole Eating a Star

The University of Leicester team conceptualized and designed a novel transient detector for the Swift satellite, facilitating this breakthrough. This tool instantly detects astronomical X-ray transients—rare and extreme X-ray bursts in previously silent sky regions.

Dr. Caroline Harper, the Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, praised the globally-acclaimed Swift mission, shedding light on a minuscule black hole periodically “snacking” on a Sun-like star. The mission’s continued partnership with NASA promises further invaluable cosmic insights.

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Source: “Ravenous black hole consumes three Earths’-worth of star every time it passes” — Science Daily

WTF Fun Fact 13439 – The Dog Days of Summer Explained

Does the phrase “Dog Days of Summer” conjure images of lethargic canines lazing in the heat? Well, the origins of this term reach far beyond our four-legged friends and into space.

What are the dog days of summer?

Ok, technically, it does have to do with a dog – Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major, and it’s the brightest star in the Earth’s night sky.

The term “Dog Days” stems from the ancients, both Greeks and Romans, who noticed the coincidence of the hottest time of the year with the period when Sirius rose and set with the Sun. They hypothesized that the added radiance of Sirius was the cause of the intensified summer heat. Thus the phrase “Dog Days” in reference to Sirius’s constellation.

But the “Dog Days” are more than just a celestial phenomenon and a synonym for summer swelter. They have cultural and historical significance dating back thousands of years. The Greeks, for instance, saw the period as a time of potential disaster, heralding fever, catastrophe, and even the downfall of empires.

Wobbling dog days

Fast forward to the present, and the “Dog Days” still persist in our lexicon. However, due to a phenomenon called precession (the slow wobble of Earth’s rotational axis), the dates during which Sirius rises and sets with the Sun have slowly shifted over centuries. Yet, the phrase “Dog Days” remains tethered to the heart of the summer. It’s recognized in the Northern Hemisphere primarily from July 3 to August 11.

The warmest days of summer, those long afternoons that stretch languidly towards the evening, are connected to a distant cosmic spectacle occurring about 8.6 light-years away. That is the beauty of astronomy and the power of human observation, linking us to the stars and the seasons in unexpected ways.

So, next time you’re feeling the heat of summer bearing down, spare a thought for Sirius and its ancient connection to these sultry days. The “Dog Days” are a cosmic link, a reminder that even on the hottest days of summer, we are all under the same sky.

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Source: “Stars and canines collide in ‘dog days’” — Christian Science Monitor

WTF Fun Fact 13423 – Egyptian New Year

Ancient Egyptian New Year took place right after the summer solstice. But it’s all because of the stars.

How did the ancient Egyptian New Year work?

In ancient Egypt, a star took center stage in the night sky right after the summer solstice. Not just any star, but Sirius, the brightest in our galaxy. Its annual appearance sparked a series of critical events. The Nile River would flood, replenishing the arid land with fresh, fertile soil. An agricultural resurgence followed, as did the beginning of a new year in the Egyptian calendar. That’s why Sirius was also referred to as the “Nile Star.”

New beginnings

So, what was the connection between the summer solstice, Sirius, and the Nile’s annual flooding? Each event seemed to occur in a synchronized manner. The solstice, marking the longest day of the year, was like the opening act. It was the signal, the green light, that Sirius was about to make its grand appearance.

Soon after the solstice, just as the Earth began its tilt away from the sun, Sirius would rise above the eastern horizon. The Egyptians saw this as no coincidence. In their view, Sirius had a profound influence on the Earth. It controlled the ebbs and flows of the mighty Nile.

In essence, the Egyptians saw the world around them as a mirror of the cosmos. Everything was interconnected. The rise of Sirius, the flooding of the Nile, the abundance of crops – these were not isolated events but part of a grand, divine plan. They believed Sirius triggered the Nile flood. The life-bringing waters were a celestial gift, ushering in a season of fertility and growth.

Following the cosmos

With the rise of Sirius linked to such an essential natural event, it’s no surprise the Egyptians incorporated it into their calendar. The Egyptian New Year was not only a temporal marker but a time of celebration, renewal, and anticipation for the bountiful harvest that lay ahead.

The fascinating link between Sirius, the summer solstice, and the flooding of the Nile demonstrates the Egyptians’ profound understanding of astronomy and its influence on their environment. They recognized patterns, made predictions, and used this knowledge to their advantage.

And this is yet another reminder that calendars do not arbitrarily mark time but are instead rooted in the significant events of their world.

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WTF Fun Fact 12965 – The New Moon

Have you ever heard that there was a new Moon only to look up at the sky and see no moon at all? Well, that’s because the Moon cycle is starting all over again.

Types of Moons

We obviously only have one Moon, but it goes through lots of phases. A “new” Moon is the opposite of a full Moon. During a full Moon, the sun is fully illuminating one side of the big ball. That’s what makes it glow so brightly in the night sky.

During the time when the Moon is “new,” we are seeing the side that is not illuminated by the sun. The Moon is still up there, but without the sun shining on it, we can’t see it in the night sky.

According to Farmer’s Almanac (cited below) “When the Moon is “new,” it’s located between the Earth and the Sun. In other words, the Moon is in line with the Sun, and the Sun and Earth are on opposite sides of the Moon. (Note that when the Moon is perfectly aligned in front of the Sun, it blocks out the Sun, giving us a solar eclipse.)”

Lunar cycles and the new Moon

The new Moon is the beginning of the lunar cycle. This lasts 29.5 days, and it’s the amount of time it takes for the moon to orbit the Earth.

The Moon cycle used to be used to measure months (each new moon signaled a new month).

Another fun fact: the new Moon always rises close to the time of sunrise.

And according to The Farmer’s Almanac:

“As the new Moon crosses the sky during the day, rising and setting around the same time as the Sun, it’s lost in the solar glare…The new Moon is also lit up from behind, showing us its dark side. It’s doubly invisible. New Moons generally can’t be seen with the naked eye.”

About a day (maybe two) after a new lunar cycle begins, you’ll be able to look up at the night sky and see a slim crescent off to the West after the sun sets. These crescent moons are often very bright.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Learn All About the New Moon” — Almanac

WTF Fun Fact 12698 – The Universe’s Oldest Water

We’re just going to go ahead and admit something to you. When we read about space, the numbers are just too enormous to make much of an impression on us. 140 trillion of anything is just…too big to really imagine, you know?

But when it comes to astronomy, those are the numbers we’re dealing with. Space is just so…vast.

Anyway, that’s all to say that if you look at this fun fact and think “uh, ok, sure,” then you’re not alone.

And the fun fact is that in a galaxy far, far away:

1. Astronomers recently detected a mass of water vapor 12 billion light-years away.
2. That means it took the light from it 12 billion years to reach the earth so we could sense it would our instruments.
3. The cloud of water vapor is located around a quasar, which is a supermassive black hole.
4. There’s not just a little bit of water there, there’s enough water to fill Earth’s oceans 140 trillion (with a T) times.
5. The math tells us that if the cloud is 12 billion years old, then water has been present in the universe much longer than we had imagined.
6. By our calculations, the water was present roughly 1.6 billion years after the Big Bang (aka the beginning of the universe).
7. According to study co-author Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland: “This discovery pushes the detection of water one billion years closer to the Big Bang than any previous find.”

Sometimes the universe requires a 7-part fun fact. What can we say?

And if you’re the kind of person who likes to know the details, the quasar the team was studying when they found the water vapor cloud is called APM 08279+5255 and it houses a black hole 20 billion times larger than the sun.

Quasars are the brightest and more powerful objects in the universe, so this one produces 1 quadrillion times the energy of our sun.

Confirmation of the discovery occurred using two different telescopes to ensure the calculations were correct – one was in Hawaii and the other in California.

And while this is a cool find, it doesn’t really change anything about our understanding of how the universe developed since scientists have long assumed that water vapor was probably present very early in the creation of the universe. It was the size of the vapor cloud that surprised astronomers.

So if you feel like your problems are big, just remember that in the grand scheme of things, everything we deal with is really quite small (not unimportant, just small). – WTF fun facts

Source: “Astronomers Find Largest, Oldest Mass of Water in Universe” —

WTF Fun Fact 12696 – Uranus’ Original Name

Uranus – everyone’s favorite planet. Or maybe when you hear the name, you instantly roll your eyes knowing that someone’s about to make a terrible joke.

Either way, many of us know that Uranus is the ancient Greek version of the god of the sky and heavens (and it’s technically pronounced ou-ra-nos, though some people even insist it’s urine-us rather than u-anus). But whatever. The point here is that the planet was originally named George.

And not just George, the Georgium Sidus (or Georgian moon/moon of George).

Until English astronomer William Herschel discovered the bright light was a planet in 1781, everyone assumed it was just another star, or perhaps a comet. The object had been seen before and was recorded in John Flamsteed’s catalog of stars (as “34 Tauri, the 34th star of Taurus the Bull”).

The Herschels were an incredible family of amateur astronomers. William’s sister, Caroline, may have been even more talented, and people knew it! In fact, Maskelyne wrote about the important role played by amateur astronomers right after Caroline discovered her first comet. (Caroline even got a job updating Flamsteed’s catalog of stars, the Historia Coelestis Britannica.)

Another fun fact? In the 1800s (and long before and shortly after), science could hardly be done without a rich person’s funding. Herschel wasn’t even considered to be a professional astronomer at the time – he also fell into the ranks of an “amateur.” In fact, the official Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyne, still had to confirm it was a planet before it could be declared one. Even then, it was until astronomer Johann Elert Bode double confirmed it that the object was accepted by a planet by the scientific community (which is how you make it really official, not just “royal official”).

According to NASA, its mistaken identity as a star is understandable. The planet is extremely far from the sun and moves incredibly slowly (so much that half of it is plunged into ice-covered darkness for 21 years at a time). So you’d have to watch the object for decades to notice it even acts like a planet – that’s the kind of dedication required! It’s pretty much invisible to us now because of the light pollution the Earth emits.

But back to the George – Uranus thing.

William Herschel really wanted royal patronage (aka money) to fund his endeavors. So in order to gain favor with King George III, he used his fame as the person who discovered the first new planet since antiquity to advocate for the name George.

But George didn’t exactly fit with the naming scheme astronomers had going on at the time, which was all mythology-based. So in the end, it was Bode who got his way, naming the planet Uranus.

Of course, Herschel got the credit and the benefits that followed. And now we all get to tell Uranus jokes until the end of time (but it’s Bode we have to thank for that). – WTF fun facts

Source: “Venus Meets a Planet Named George” — NASA