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We have discovered an enormous black hole that’s older and farther away than any we’ve ever seen, and a recent rocket launch did not go as planned.

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Sources:
http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature25180
https://www.haystack.mit.edu/ast/science/epoch/
https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/11/this-weeks-failed-russian-rocket-had-a-pretty-bad-programming-error/
https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/11/the-second-launch-from-russias-new-spaceport-has-failed/
https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/07/10/200775748/report-upside-down-sensors-toppled-russian-rocket
https://arstechnica.com/science/2013/07/parts-installed-upside-down-caused-last-weeks-russian-rocket-to-explode/
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Images:
https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/star-wanders-too-close-to-a-black-hole
http://press.nature.com/?post_type=press_release&p=99141&shunter=1506556910744
https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/multimedia/distant-quasar-RXJ1131.html
https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_805.html
https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/expedition-51-launch-to-the-international-space-station
The universe today is pretty well-organized.

Planets orbit stars, stars fill galaxies, and galaxies drift in huge clusters. But it wasn’t always like that: in the aftermath of the Big Bang, everything was pretty evenly distributed throughout… everywhere.

And with the discovery of an enormous black hole that’s older and farther away than any we’ve ever seen, we’ve taken another step toward figuring out how that early universe turned into what we know today. In a paper published this week in the journal Nature, an international team of astronomers described J1342+0928, a type of active black hole known as a quasar. It has 800 million times the mass of our Sun, is more than 29 billion light-years away, and we’re seeing what it looked like just 690 million years after the Big Bang.

Quasars are some of the brightest objects in the universe, which might seem pretty weird since at their centers are gigantic black holes. They form when gigantic black holes gorge themselves on a nearly-endless supply of gas, dust, and stars. As this material rushes into the abyss, it gets ripped apart and piled up into what’s known as an accretion disk — a disk of matter swirling around the black hole.

All that ripping apart and smashing together produces an unimaginable amount of heat, which glows white-hot and shoots out in a super bright beam perpendicular to the disk. This particular quasar shines about 400 trillion times brighter than our Sun. Even so, it wasn’t easy to find.

The team had to search three different telescope surveys to find an object with just the right characteristics and then double check their work with yet another observation. One of the mysteries of the early universe is how these enormous black holes could get so big, so quickly. And this one is a new piece to that puzzle.

Even gobbling up material as fast as astronomers think could be theoretically possible wouldn’t be enough to build something this large in 690 million years, which tells them that one of two things must’ve happened. Either the black hole was somehow able to bypass this theoretical limit, or when it started its life, for some reason it already had more than a thousand times the mass of our Sun. Either way, there was definitely something weird and different going on with black holes in the early universe.

And that’s not even all the clues this quasar has to offer. By measuring how certain colors of light are absorbed by gas surrounding the quasar, the researchers found that a lot of that gas is electrically neutral. Today, there’s very little neutral gas in the universe — it’s mostly plasma, which is made of electrically charged particles.

And it’s been that way since what’s known as the epoch of re-ionization, the period from about 400 million to a billion years after the Big Bang, when the neutral hydrogen atoms that filled the universe started to lose their electrons. Every ancient quasar like 0928 provides a data point to help scientists track that transition and figure out what the universe was like back then. All in all, it’s a really good find!

Unfortunately, that same level of success wasn’t in the cards for the Russian space agency Roscosmos last week. In what must be the absolute worst nightmare of any mission controller, they launched a rocket into space, only to watch it turn around and fly right back down. And as it burned through the atmosphere, it took the 19 satellites it was carrying down with it.

Making all this feel even worse is that this seems to have been the result of a simple programming error of a kind that should’ve been caught before liftoff. The flight’s first stage, powered by Russia’s reliable Soyuz rocket, went off without a hitch. Which is good because it’s also used to send people to space.

The problem came from what was on top of the rocket. After separating from the Soyuz, the Fregat upper stage was supposed to fire its engine twice to put the satellites into their exact orbits. And it did try.

Except, it was facing down, toward the Earth. Which is really not what you want when you’re trying to get to space. So what happened?

For decades, the Soyuz has launched from a spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, but this mission marked the second launch from Vostochny, a new location in Russia’s far east. Although the Soyuz had been reconfigured for this new launchpad, the Fregat upper stage was still programmed to assume the flight came from Kazakhstan, which left the control computer totally confused about how it was oriented. What’s worse, this is the fourth failure for the Fregat in the last eight years.

And back in 2013, a different Russian rocket flipped completely upside down shortly after liftoff. An accident investigation later revealed that critical sensors in that rocket had been installed upside down, despite “this end up” arrows painted on each part. So, here’s hoping they can get their quality control problems sorted out.

Okay, so exciting announcement in a happy way: We here at SciShow put together and a site of very special finds that we think you’ll love. It’s called, SciShow Finds. These are cool, weird things that will help you learn, experiment on yourself, or display your enthusiasm for the universe.

You're bound to have friends or family who would love these Mars Socks or this space shuttle lapel pin. And we’ll keep adding new finds as we “find” them throughout the year, but these are only available for a limited time, so check ‘em out now! Thanks for supporting SciShow and for being excited about science with us!