Tag: astronomy

Martian meteorite reveals the planet’s climate billions of years ago

Martian meteorite reveals the planet’s climate billions of years ago

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/martian-meteorite-reveals-the-planets-climate-billions-of-years-ago/

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Meteorite hunters plucked a Martian rock from an Antarctic ice field 30 years ago. A new research on that rock, this month reveals a record of the planet’s climate billions of years ago, back when water likely washed across its surface and any life that ever formed there might have emerged.

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution report detailed measurements of minerals within the meteorite in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

“Minerals within the meteorite hold a snapshot of the planet’s ancient chemistry, of interactions between water and atmosphere,” said Robina Shaheen, the lead author of the report.

The unlovely stone, which fell to Earth 13 thousand years ago, looked a lot like a potato and has quite a history. Designated ALH84001, it is the oldest meteorite we have from Mars, a chunk of solidified magma from a volcano that erupted four billion years ago. Since then something liquid, probably water, seeped through pores in the rock and deposited globules of carbonates and other minerals.

The carbonates vary subtly depending on the sources of their carbon and oxygen atoms. Both carbon and oxygen occur in heavier and lighter versions, or isotopes. The relative abundances of isotopes forms a chemical signature that careful analysis and sensitive measurements can uncover.

Mars’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide but contains some ozone. The balance of oxygen isotopes within ozone are strikingly weird with enrichment of heavy isotopes through a physical chemical phenomenon first described by co-author Mark Thiemens, a professor of chemistry at UC San Diego, and colleagues 25 years ago.

“When ozone reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it transfers its isotopic weirdness to the new molecule,” said Shaheen, who investigated this process of oxygen isotope exchange as a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. When carbon dioxide reacts with water to make carbonates, the isotopic signature continues to be preserved.

The degree of isotopic weirdness in the carbonates reflects how much water and ozone was present when they formed. It’s a record of climate 3.9 billion years ago, locked in a stable mineral. The more water, the smaller the weird ozone signal.

This team measured a pronounced ozone signal in the carbonates within the meteorite, suggesting that although Mars had water back then, vast oceans were unlikely. Instead, the early Martian landscape probably held smaller seas.

“What’s also new is our simultaneous measurements of carbon isotopes on the same samples. The mix of carbon isotopes suggest that the different minerals within the meteorite had separate origins,” Shaheen said. “They tell us the story of the chemical and isotopic compositions of the atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

ALH84001 held tiny tubes of carbonate that some scientists saw as potential evidence of microbial life, though a biological origin for the structures has been discarded. On December 16, NASA announced another potential whiff of Martian life in the form of methane sniffed by the rover Curiosity.

Carbonates can be deposited by living things that scavenge the minerals to build their skeletons, but that is not the case for the minerals measured by this team. “The carbonate we see is not from living things,” Shaheen said. “It has anomalous oxygen isotopes that tell us this carbonate is abiotic.”

By measuring the isotopes in multiple ways, the chemists found carbonates depleted in carbon-13 and enriched in oxygen-18. That is, Mars’s atmosphere in this era, a period of great bombardment, had much less carbon-13 than it does today.

The change in relative abundances of carbon and oxygen isotopes may have occurred through extensive loss of Martian atmosphere. A thicker atmosphere would likely have been required for liquid water to flow on the planet’s chilly surface.

“We now have a much deeper and specific insight into the earliest oxygen-water system in the solar system,” Thiemens said. “The question that remains is when did planets, Earth and Mars, get water, and in the case of Mars, where did it go? We’ve made great progress, but still deep mysteries remain.”

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NASA’s SMAP is ready to get launched

NASA’s SMAP is ready to get launched

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/nasas-smap-is-ready-to-get-launched/

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Scheduled for launch on Jan. 29, 2015, NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) instrument will measure the moisture lodged in Earth’s soils with an unprecedented accuracy and resolution. The instrument’s three main parts are a radar, a radiometer and the largest rotating mesh antenna ever deployed in space.

Remote sensing instruments are called “active” when they emit their own signals and “passive” when they record signals that already exist. The mission’s science instrument ropes together a sensor of each type to corral the highest-resolution, most accurate measurements ever made of soil moisture — a tiny fraction of Earth’s water that has a disproportionately large effect on weather and agriculture.

To enable the mission to meet its accuracy needs while covering the globe every three days or less, SMAP engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, designed and built the largest rotating antenna that could be stowed into a space of only one foot by four feet (30 by 120 centimeters) for launch. The dish is 19.7 feet (6 meters) in diameter.

“We call it the spinning lasso,” said Wendy Edelstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, the SMAP instrument manager. Like the cowboy’s lariat, the antenna is attached on one side to an arm with a crook in its elbow. It spins around the arm at about 14 revolutions per minute (one complete rotation every four seconds). The antenna dish was provided by Northrop Grumman Astro Aerospace in Carpinteria, California. The motor that spins the antenna was provided by the Boeing Company in El Segundo, California.

“The antenna caused us a lot of angst, no doubt about it,” Edelstein noted. Although the antenna must fit during launch into a space not much bigger than a tall kitchen trash can, it must unfold so precisely that the surface shape of the mesh is accurate within about an eighth of an inch (a few millimeters).

The mesh dish is edged with a ring of lightweight graphite supports that stretch apart like a baby gate when a single cable is pulled, drawing the mesh outward. “Making sure we don’t have snags, that the mesh doesn’t hang up on the supports and tear when it’s deploying — all of that requires very careful engineering,” Edelstein said. “We test, and we test, and we test some more. We have a very stable and robust system now.”

SMAP’s radar, developed and built at JPL, uses the antenna to transmit microwaves toward Earth and receive the signals that bounce back, called backscatter. The microwaves penetrate a few inches or more into the soil before they rebound. Changes in the electrical properties of the returning microwaves indicate changes in soil moisture, and also tell whether or not the soil is frozen. Using a complex technique called synthetic aperture radar processing, the radar can produce ultra-sharp images with a resolution of about half a mile to a mile and a half (one to three kilometers).

SMAP’s radiometer detects differences in Earth’s natural emissions of microwaves that are caused by water in soil. To address a problem that has seriously hampered earlier missions using this kind of instrument to study soil moisture, the radiometer designers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, developed and built one of the most sophisticated signal-processing systems ever created for such a scientific instrument.

The problem is radio frequency interference. The microwave wavelengths that SMAP uses are officially reserved for scientific use, but signals at nearby wavelengths that are used for air traffic control, cell phones and other purposes spill over into SMAP’s wavelengths unpredictably. Conventional signal processing averages data over a long time period, which means that even a short burst of interference skews the record for that whole period. The Goddard engineers devised a new way to delete only the small segments of actual interference, leaving much more of the observations untouched.

Combining the radar and radiometer signals allows scientists to take advantage of the strengths of both technologies while working around their weaknesses. “The radiometer provides more accurate soil moisture but a coarse resolution of about 40 kilometers [25 miles] across,” said JPL’s Eni Njoku, a research scientist with SMAP. “With the radar, you can create very high resolution, but it’s less accurate. To get both an accurate and a high-resolution measurement, we process the two signals together.”

SMAP will be the fifth NASA Earth science mission launched within the last 12 months.

Source : http://www.nasa.gov/smap/

Quantum physics may have just gotten simpler

Quantum physics may have just gotten simpler

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/quantum-physics-may-have-just-gotten-simpler/

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Here’s a nice surprise: quantum physics is less complicated than we thought, according to new research. The work links two strange features of the quantum world—or nature at the smallest scales, such as that of subatomic particles—calling them different manifestations of the same thing.

These features go by the names “wave-particle duality” and the “uncertainty principle.” In work published Dec. 19 in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers, who did the work at the National University of Singapore, say the first is just the second in disguise.

The connection “comes out very naturally when you consider them as questions about what information you can gain about a system,” said one of the scientists, Stephanie Wehner, who is now at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Wave-particle duality is the idea that a quantum object can behave like a wave, but that the wave behavior stops if you try to locate the object.

The duality is seen in experiments in which subatomic particles, such as electrons, are fired one by one at a screen with two thin slits. The particles pile up behind the slits not in two heaps, but in a striped pattern as you’d expect for waves that “interfere” with each other. An everyday example of wave interference occurs when you toss two pebbles in a pond at once a small distance away from each other: when the two sets of ripples meet, they form characteristic patterns as their effects add up.

However, in the quantum case, the pattern vanishes if you sneak a look at which slit a particle goes through—at which point the particles start to act like particles and not waves.

The quantum uncertainty principle is the idea that it’s impossible to know certain pairs of things about a quantum particle at once. For example, the more precisely you know the position of an atom, the less precisely you can know its speed. It’s a limit on the fundamental knowability of nature, not a statement on measurement skill. The new work finds that there is an identical sort of limit on how much you can learn about a system’s wave versus the particle behavior.

Wave-particle duality and uncertainty have been fundamental concepts in quantum physics since the early 1900s. “We were guided by a gut feeling, and only a gut feeling, that there should be a connection,” said co-researcher Patrick Coles, who is now at the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Canada.

One can write equations that capture how much can be learned about pairs of properties subject to the uncertainty principle. Coles, Wehner and co-author Jedrzej Kaniewski work with a form of such equations known as “entropic uncertainty relations,” and they found that all the maths previously used to describe wave-particle duality could be reformulated in terms of these relations.

“It was like we had discovered the ‘Rosetta Stone’ that connected two different languages,” said Coles. “The literature on wave-particle duality was like hieroglyph that we could now translate into our native tongue.”

Because the entropic uncertainty relations used in their translation have also been used in demonstrating the security of quantum cryptography—schemes for secure communication using quantum particles—the researchers suggest the work could help inspire new cryptography methods.

In earlier papers, Wehner and collaborators found connections between the uncertainty principle and other aspects of physics, namely quantum “non-locality” and the second law of thermodynamics. The first deals with particles’ ability to act as though they can communicate instantaneously over long distances; the second states that disorder in the universe can always increase but not decrease. The researchers say their next goal is to think about how all this fits into a bigger picture of how nature works.

Source : http://world-science.net/

Dinosaur-killer asteroid also nearly wiped out mammals

Dinosaur-killer asteroid also nearly wiped out mammals

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/dinosaur-killer-asteroid-also-nearly-wiped-out-mammals/

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The dinosaurs’ extinction 66 million years ago is thought to have opened the way for mammals to dominate the land. But a new study claims many of them died off too.

“If a few lucky species didn’t make it through, then mammals may have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we wouldn’t be here,” said Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., one of the authors of a report on the findings.

Among mammals, the study argues, the brunt of the disaster seems to have hit a group known as metatherians—extinct relatives of living marsupials (“mammals with pouches,” such as opossums and kangaroos.) These thrived in the shadow of the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period, just before the extinction.

The study, published in the research journal Zookeys, finds these once-abundant mammals nearly followed the dinosaurs into oblivion.

When a 10-km (6-mile)-wide asteroid struck what is now Mexico, unleashing a global cataclysm, some two-thirds of all metatherians living in North America perished, according to the researchers. These casualties, they said, included more than 90 percent of species living in the northern Great Plains, the best area in the world for preserving latest Cretaceous mammal fossils.

Metatherians, the scientists added, would never recover their previous diversity, which is why marsupials are rare today and largely restricted to areas in Australia and South America. Taking advantage of the metatherian demise were the placental mammals: species that give live birth to well-developed young. They are almost everywhere today and include everything from mice to men.

“It wasn’t only that dinosaurs died out, providing an opportunity for mammals to reign, but that many types of mammals, such as most metatherians, died out too—this allowed advanced placental mammals to rise to dominance,” said Thomas Williamson of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, lead author of the paper.

The study reviews the Cretaceous evolutionary history of metatherians and provides a family tree for these mammals based on the latest fossil records, which researchers said allowed them to study extinction patterns in unprecedented detail.

Source :  www.world-science.net

Curiosity readings point to mysterious, pulsing source of methane on Mars

Curiosity readings point to mysterious, pulsing source of methane on Mars

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/curiosity-readings-point-to-mysterious-pulsing-source-of-methane-on-mars/

mars-life[1]

Levels of the organic gas methane are periodically spiking at the Gale Crater on Mars—suggesting something, possibly something alive, is creating the substance, scientists say.

Most of Earth’s methane production has a biological origin, but there are other ways methane, the simplest organic molecule, can arise naturally. Organic molecules are carbon-based and are essential ingredients for life.

The new findings, from the NASA Mars rover Curiosity, are published this week in the research journal Science.

Investigators said the findings suggest that the methane level in Mars’ atmosphere at the 154-km (96 mile) wide crater is generally lower than models predict, but that it spikes often. This implies the gas arises periodically from some nearby source, they added.

The scientists, from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. and other institutions, used 20 months of data collected by instruments on Curiosity to gauge levels of the gas at crater, near where the rover landed.

Their study found that the stable, background level of atmospheric methane is less than half of what was expected from known processes, such as the light-induced breakdown of dust and organic materials delivered to Mars by meteorites.

However, the researchers also found that this background level of methane spiked about tenfold, sometimes over the course of just 60 Martian days, which was surprising because the gas is expected to have a lifetime of about 300 years. The results suggest that methane is occasionally produced or vented near the crater, which is near the Martian equator, they added.

NASA originally chose Gale Crater, which has a mountain in the middle of it, as a landing site for the rover because there were signs of water in the area. The crater is believed to have formed with a meteor hit Mars in its early history, about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

The announcement comes just weeks after another report concluding that a Martian meteorite called Tissint contains organic molecules of possible biological origin.

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source: http://www.world-science.net/

Data from Rosetta spacecraft yields secrets about comet’s water

Data from Rosetta spacecraft yields secrets about comet’s water

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/data-from-rosetta-spacecraft-yields-secrets-about-comets-water/

Comet 67p

A comet studied close-up by the European Space Agency is yielding surprising secrets about its water, scientists say.

The new data from the agency’s Rosetta spacecraft suggest most of Earth’s water came from asteroids, not comets, and that comets closer to our part of the Solar System have more diverse origins than previously suspected.

Rosetta found the water vapor from Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to be very unlike Earth’s, in measurements made in the month following the spacecraft’s arrival at the comet on Aug. 6.

One of the leading hypotheses on Earth’s formation is that it was so hot when it formed 4.6 billion years ago that any original water content should have boiled off. But, today, two thirds of the surface is water, so where did that come from?

Scientists think the water came later from impacting asteroids and comets—two different types of objects that orbit the Sun. (They have different makeups and asteroids lack tails, for instance.)

But how much water came from each type of object is debated.

Scientists believe a key to determining where a particular body of water originated is the levels, within it, of a type of hydrogen known as deuterium, as compared to normal hydrogen. Simulations show that during the first few million years of the Solar System, deuterium levels should change with distance from the Sun and with time. Therefore deuterium levels in a particular body of water can reveal something about where and when it originated.

Comets in particular are considered unique tools to study these origins, since they harbor material directly left over from the dust cloud that gave rise to the planets.

But this isn’t straightforward because many comet orbits have gotten mixed up since long ago. “Long-period” comets, a type that is more distant from the sun, are thought to have originally formed closer in, in the area of the planets Uranus and Neptune. And “short-period” comets, which now inhabit inner regions—like Rosetta’s—were thought to have formed further out, in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.

Previous measurements of other comets’ deuterium levels have varied widely, researchers say. Of the 11 comets for which there are measurements, only the short-period Comet 103P/Hartley 2 was found to match Earth water in makeup, in observations made by the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission in 2011. The levels now measured by Rosetta are more than three times greater.

This suggests two things, mission scientists said.

“This surprising finding could indicate a diverse origin for the Jupiter-family comets – perhaps they formed over a wider range of distances in the young Solar System than we previously thought,” said Kathrin Altwegg, lead author of the paper reporting the results in the journal Science this week.

Second, she said, “our finding… adds weight to models that place more emphasis on asteroids [than comets] as the main delivery mechanism for Earth’s oceans.” Altwegg is principal investigator for an instrument called Rosina (Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis) on the spacecraft, which made the measurements.

“As Rosetta continues to follow the comet on its orbit around the Sun throughout next year, we’ll be keeping a close watch on how it evolves and behaves,” added Matt Taylor, the space agency’s Rosetta project scientist.

Astronomers observe two stars about to merge into a supermassive star

Astronomers observe two stars about to merge into a supermassive star

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/astronomers-observe-two-stars-about-to-merge-into-a-supermassive-star/

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Scientists are reporting the discovery of a pair of huge stars that are circling each other and are starting to merge.

Theoretical models predict that the biggest stars form by merging with other smaller stars, according to the researchers. These stars initially make up “binary” or “multiple” systems, in which two or more stars move around each other about a common central point.

The new study examines what scientists call the largest known system of binary stars that are expected to merge and that are still “main sequence” stars, meaning they’re in their active, fuel-burning phase.

The binary, known as MY Camelopardalis is also “eclipsing,” meaning that the stars sometimes block each other along the line of sight from Earth, say the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The scientists, who received help from amateur sky-watchers, also say the two stars are already touching, weigh the equivalent of 38 and 32 Suns, respectively, and take just 1.2 Earth days to circle each other. The stars are also believed to be slightly egg-shaped, as each distorts the other through its gravitational pull.

The stars—classified as “type O,” meaning the brightest, hottest, heaviest and bluest type—are also quite young and were already almost touching when they first formed, according to the group. And they’re expected to merge before they themselves change much further.

Stars which, like the Sun, move alone in their galaxy are a minority, said the researchers, from the University of Alicante in Spain and other institutions. Most stars spend their lives tied by gravity to one or more companion stars. MY Camelopardalis, in the constellation of the Giraffe, is the brightest star in a cluster known as Alicante 1. Researchers at the university have identified the group as a small stellar nursery, or star-forming region.

MY Camelopardalis was known for over half a century as just a single, huge star, but only a decade ago recognized as an eclipsing binary. The eclipsing property, in which one star blocks our view of the other, allows astronomers to study the system in detail as the light coming from the system changes in a regular way.

The astrophysicists studied this light using an instrument known as a spectrograph at the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain. Amateur astronomers helped by measuring the changes in the amount of light coming from the system.

Among other things, the researchers concluded that the points on the surfaces of the stars are moving at over a 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) a second; that the material in their outer layers is mixing; and that the stars are less than two million years old, so they haven’t had time to evolve since their birth.

While they’re expected to merge, it’s unclear exactly how this will play out. Some theoretical models suggest that the merger process is extremely fast, releasing a huge amount of energy in a kind of explosion. Other studies favor a less violent but still spectacular process.

Mars rock shows traces of biological activity

Mars rock shows traces of biological activity

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/mars-rock-shows-traces-of-biological-activity/

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Did Mars ever have life? Might it still? A meteorite identified as coming from Mars has reignited the old debate. A study published this month argues that the rock contains traces of carbon with a likely biological origin, like coal, which comes from remains of long-ago plants.

“So far, there is no other theory that we find more compelling,” said study co-author Philippe Gillet, stressing that he’s open to being proven wrong.

Gillet and colleagues from China, Japan and Germany argue that the carbon could have gotten into the rock through contact with fluid rich in organic material. The study appears in the journal Meteoritic and Planetary Sciences

Thrown off Mars after an asteroid hit its surface, the meteorite, named Tissint, fell on the Moroccan desert on July 18, 2011, in view of several witnesses, the scientists said. Studies found the rock had small fissures filled with organic, carbon-containing matter.

The researchers carried out several analyses to conclude that the rock didn’t originate on Earth and that the carbon got into it before it left Mars. They took issue with a previous proposal that the carbon traces originated through the high-temperature crystallization of magma, or molten rock. Gillet and colleagues argue that more probably, liquids containing organic compounds of biological origin infiltrated Tissint’s “mother” rock at low temperatures, near the Martian surface.

These conclusions are supported by several properties of the meteorite’s carbon, such as its levels of so-called carbon-13 compared to carbon-12, they explained. This was found to be significantly lower than the ratio of carbon-13 in the carbon dioxide of Mars’s atmosphere, previously measured by the Phoenix and Curiosity rovers. Moreover, this difference corresponds perfectly with what is seen on Earth between a piece of coal and the carbon in the atmosphere, the scientists argue.

The researchers say the organic matter could also have reached Mars when very primitive meteorites, called carbonated chondrites, fell there, but probably not, because such meteorites contain very low levels of organic matter.

“Insisting on certainty is unwise, particularly on such a sensitive topic,” said Gillet, who directs the Earth and Planetary Sciences Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a Swiss institute of technology. “I’m completely open to the possibility that other studies might contradict our findings. However, our conclusions are such that they will rekindle the debate as to the possible existence of biological activity on Mars – at least in the past.”

Largest known landslide occurred 21 million years ago

Largest known landslide occurred 21 million years ago

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/largest-known-landslide-occurred-21-million-years-ago/

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An enormous landslide more than 21 million years ago in what is now Utah could be the largest known in all of Earth’s land areas, geologists are reporting.

The so-called Markagunt gravity slide covered an area greater than the state of Rhode Island within minutes—moving fast enough to melt rock into glass due to the immense friction, the researchers said. Any animals in the way would have been quickly mowed down.

Geologists previously knew about parts of the landslide, but in new work, geologist David Hacker of Kent State University in Ohio hiked through wilderness to find features indicating the slide was much bigger than previously realized. The findings are published in the November issue of the journal Geology.

The landslide took place in an area between what is now Bryce Canyon National Park and the town of Beaver, Utah, Hacker and colleagues said, and covered about 1,300 square miles (3,400 square km). That would make it one of the two largest known continental landslides (larger slides exist on the ocean floors).

Its rival in size, the “Heart Mountain slide,” which took place around 50 million years ago in northwest Wyoming, was discovered in the 1940s. The Markagunt slide could prove to be much larger, once it is better mapped, Hacker and colleagues said.

They suggest it occurred when not just one mountainside gave way, but a whole portion of a volcanic mountain range whose base had been pushed up higher and higher by molten rock, or magma, gathering beneath.

“Large-scale catastrophic collapses of volcanic fields such as these are rare but represent the largest known landslides on the surface of the Earth,” the authors wrote. The landslide was over 55 miles (90 km) long, Hacker added, though today, “looking at it, you wouldn’t even recognize it as a landslide.”

Understanding the mega-landslide could help geologists better understand these extreme events, he said. The Markagunt and the Heart Mountain slides document for the first time how large portions of ancient volcanic fields have collapsed, Hacker explained, representing “a new class of hazards in volcanic fields.”

Such events could theoretically happen in modern volcanic fields, or groups of volcanic mountains, such as the Cascade Mountains, which include Mt. St. Helens in Washington, he added. But many conditions must come together to produce a landslide. “We study events from the geologic past to better understand what could happen in the future,” said Hacker, who plans to continue mapping and analyzing the slide.

source: world-science.net

Spooky alignment of quasars across billions of light-years

Spooky alignment of quasars across billions of light-years

Machprinciple
http://machprinciple.com/spooky-alignment-of-quasars-across-billions-of-light-years/

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New observations suggest that galaxies align with each other across vast reaches of space—in a manner that astronomers had expected, but more so, a report said.

The work indicates that over distances of billions of light-years, certain types of super-bright galaxies tend to spin along the same axis. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year.

Astronomers attribute the alignments to characteristics of the large-scale “cosmic web,” in which galaxies overall tend to group themselves into a structure that resembles a kind of web stretching out in all directions.

A closer look at this web reveals countless galaxies arranged along structures that can be described as filaments, sheets and clumps.

The direction of the galaxy’s spin axis, according to the new findings, often follows a filament that the galaxy inhabits.

Previous studies had detected similar sorts of alignments for normal galaxies, but on smaller scales, and less straightforward sorts of alignments. Astronomers attribute the alignments to the ways that galaxies build themselves in the first place by accumulating smaller objects.

In the new study, researchers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile studied quasars, galaxies with extremely bright centers due to the presence of black holes voraciously gobbling up nearby objects.

A black hole is an object so compact that its gravity sucks in anything that strays too close, including light. Many galaxies are believed to contain a giant black hole at the center. A black hole itself is invisible, but its feeding activities create violent distortions of nearby material that cause it to heat up and give off light. Quasars can shine more brightly than all the stars in the rest of their host galaxies put together.

Quasars are surrounded with spinning discs of extremely hot material, some of which often spouts away in long jets along their axes of rotation.

A team led by Damien Hutsemékers from the University of Liège in Belgium used an instrument on the telescope called FORS to study 93 quasars that were known to form huge groupings spread over billions of light-years. The galaxies are so far away that they are seen as they existed when the Universe was about one third of its current age. That’s because light takes time to get here.

“The first odd thing we noticed was that some of the quasars’ rotation axes were aligned with each other—despite the fact that these quasars are separated by billions of light-years,” said Hutsemékers.

The findings also suggest that the quasar spins tend to follow the large-scale structures they inhabit. So, if the quasars are in a long filament then the spins of the central black holes will point along the filament. The researchers estimate that the probability that these alignments are simply the result of chance is less than 1 percent.

Computer simulations of the universe had revealed similar alignments, but on smaller scales, said study collaborator Dominique Sluse of the Argelander Institute for Astronomy in Bonn, Germany and University of Liège. The discrepancy “may be a hint that there is a missing ingredient in our current models of the cosmos,” he added.

The team couldn’t see the spin axes or the jets of the quasars directly. Instead they measured the “polarization” of each quasar’s light. Light is “polarized” when its waves oscillate in the same direction. For 19 quasars, the researchers found significant polarization. They used this along with other information to deduce the angle of the disc of material falling into the black hole, and in turn the spin axis of the quasar itself.

Why the alignments at all? Most objects in space, including galaxies, tend to spin because they form by accumulating, through gravity, smaller objects. These are usually moving with respect to each other. These motions affect the final, merged object by making it spin, and it won’t stop unless something specifically stops it.

Astronomers believe that the galactic alignments occur because of the ways filaments formed in the first place: they obtained their material presumably because it flowed toward them, not away from them or along them. Some consistency in the direction of this flow could be expected to lead to a corresponding consistency in the spins of the various galaxies.

The spin axis will tend to be at right angles to the direction that material is flowing toward a galaxy as it builds itself, according to writings by Elmo Tempel of the Tartu Observatory in Toravere, Estonia, and Noam Libeskind of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam, Germany, who have conducted earlier studies on galactic alignment.

The new study was published on Nov. 19 in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.