June 13, 2011

NASA Chat: Giant Black Holes In The Early Universe

Portrayed in movies and on television most often as gateways to another dimension or cosmic vacuum cleaners sucking up everything in sight, the misconceptions surrounding black holes are many and varied. In reality, black holes form when, at the end of their life cycle, heavy stars collapse into a supernova. After a black hole forms, it can continue to grow by absorbing its surroundings. By absorbing other stars and merging with other black holes, giant black holes -- called supermassive -- form.

On Wednesday, June 15, NASA will announce a new discovery about giant black holes in the early universe. This discovery was made using the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra gives astronomers a powerful tool to investigate the universe, especially those hot spots where black holes, exploding stars and colliding galaxies are most likely to live. Since the Earth's atmosphere absorbs the vast majority of X-rays, they are not detectable from Earth-based telescopes, requiring a space-based telescope to make these observations. Chandra launched in 1999 aboard the Columbia during the STS-93 mission.

Astrophysicists Ezequiel Treister and Kevin Schawinski will be online at 3:00 p.m. EDT on June 15 to answer your questions about the announcement and about black holes in general. Joining the chat is easy. Simply visit this page on Wednesday, June 15, from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT. The chat window will open at the bottom of this page starting about 30 minutes before the chat. You can log in and be ready to ask questions at 3 p.m.

About the Experts

Ezequiel Treister is an astrophysicist for the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has a doctorate in astronomy from the Universidad de Chile, two masters degrees in astronomy from Yale University and a bachelors in physics, also from Universidad de Chile. His interests include active galactic nuclei -- the compact regions at the centers of galaxies with higher than normal luminosity over the electromagnetic spectrum. He studies these nuclei in relation to the cosmic X-ray and Infrared backgrounds of the universe.

Kevin Schawinski is currently an astrophysicist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He has a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Oxford and a bachelors in physics and mathematics from Cornell University. His interests include how galaxies formed and how they co-evolved with the supermassive black holes that lurk at their centers.


Image Caption: Artist concept of matter swirling around a black hole. (NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital)