Science & Technology
Finding the missing links of black-hole astronomy
A deeper understanding of black holes could revolutionise our understanding of physics, but their mysterious nature makes them difficult to observe.
The weirdness exhibited by black holes boggles the mind. Formed when a star burns all its nuclear fuel and collapses under its own gravitation, black holes are such oddities that at one time, even Einstein didn’t think they were possible.
They are regions in space with such intense gravitation that not even light escapes their pull. Once magnificent shining stars burn out and shrink to a relatively tiny husk, all their mass is concentrated in a small space. Imagine our Sun with its diameter of roughly 1.4 million kilometres shrinking to a black hole the size of a small city just six kilometres across. This compactness gives black holes immense gravitational pull.
Not only do they trap light, black holes can shred any stars they encounter and even merge with each other. Events like this release bursts of energy that are detectable from billions of light years away.
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 was shared by scientists who discovered an invisible object at the heart of the Milky Way that pulls stars towards it. This is a supermassive black hole, or SMBH, and it has a mass that is millions of times that of our sun.
‘At the heart of every massive galaxy, we think there is a supermassive black hole,’ said astrophysicist Dr Kenneth Duncan at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, UK. ‘We also think they play a really important role in how galaxies form, including the Milky Way.’
Supermassive black holes are gravitating monsters of the Universe. ‘Black holes at the centre of galaxies can be between a million and a few billion times the mass of our Sun,’ said Professor Phillip Best, astrophysicist at the University of Edinburgh.
They pull in gas and dust from their surroundings, even objects as large as stars. Just before this material falls in towards the black hole’s event horizon or point of no return, it moves quickly and heats up, emitting energy as energetic flashes. Powerful jets of material that emit radio waves may also spew out from this ingestion process.
These can be detected on Earth using radio telescopes such as Europe’s LOFAR, which has detectors in the UK, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Poland and Latvia.
Duncan is tapping LOFAR observations to identify the massive black holes in a project called HIZRAD. ‘We can detect growing black holes further back in time,’ said Duncan, ‘with the goal being to find the very first and some of the most extreme black holes in the Universe.’
LOFAR can pinpoint even obscured black holes. Duncan has used artificial intelligence techniques to combine data from LOFAR and telescope surveys to identify objects of interest.
Better instruments will soon assist in this task. An upgrade to the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma, Spain, will allow it to observe thousands of galaxies at the same time. A spectroscope called WEAVE has the potential to detect supermassive black holes and to observe star and galaxy formation.
Radio signals indicate that supermassive black holes exist from as early as the first 5-10% of the Universe’s history. These are a billion solar masses, explained Best, who is the research supervisor.
The surprising part is that these giants existed at the early stages of the Universe. ‘You’ve got to get all this mass into a very small volume and do it extremely quickly, in terms of the Universe’s history,’ said Best.
We know that following the Big Bang, the Universe began as an expanding cloud of primordial matter. Studies of the cosmic background radiation indicate that eventually clumps of matter came together to form stars. However, ‘The process where you form a blackhole as large as a billion solar masses is not fully understood,’ said Best.
Intermediate black holes
While studies of SMBHs are ongoing, Dr Peter Jonker, astronomer at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, is intrigued by the formation of black holes of intermediate scale.
He is studying the possible existence of intermediate black holes (IMBH) with the imbh project. He notes that supermassive black holes have been observed from when the Universe was only 600 million years old. Scientists estimate the overall age of the universe to be around 13.8 billion years.
‘The Universe started out like a homogenous soup of material, so how do you get clumps that weigh a billion times the mass of the sun in a very short time?’ said Jonker.
While supermassive black holes might consume sun-like stars (called white dwarfs) in their entirety, IMBHs should be powerful enough to only shred them, emitting a revealing flash of energy.
‘When a compact star, a white dwarf, is ripped apart, it can be ripped only by intermediate mass black holes,’ said Jonker. ‘Supermassive black holes eat them whole.’ There are strong indications that intermediate black holes are out there, but there’s no proof yet.
He is searching for flashes of intense X-ray energy to indicate the presence of an intermediate black hole. The problem is when signals are detected, the intense flashes last just a few hours. This means the data arrives too late be able to turn optical telescopes towards the source for observations.
‘This happens once in 10,000 years per galaxy, so we haven’t seen one yet in our Milky Way,’ said Jonker.
Jonker also seeks to observe the expected outcome of two black holes spinning and merging, then emitting a gravitational wave that bumps nearby stars. However, to discern these stars being jolted necessitates powerful space-based telescopes.
The Gaia satellite, launched in 2013, is providing some assistance, but a planned mission called Euclid will take higher resolution images and may help Jonker prove IMBHs exist. This satellite was due to be launched on a Russian rocket; it will now be launched with a slight delay on a European Ariane 6 rocket
Nonetheless, a small satellite – the Chinese Einstein Probe – is scheduled for launch in 2023 and will look out for flashes of X-ray energy that could signify intermediate black holes. Duncan in Edinburgh says that the search for intermediate black holes ties in with his own quest. ‘It can potentially help us solve the question of where the supermassive ones came from,’ he said.
Right now, physicists rely on quantum theory and Einstein’s equations to describe how the Universe works. These cannot be the final say, however, because they do not fit well together.
‘The theory of gravity breaks down near a black hole, and if we observe them closely enough,’ said Jonker, ‘Our expectation is that we will find deviations from the theory and important advances in understanding how physics works.’
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Science & Technology
New discoveries and advances ranging from the BRICS countries to Israel, Japan and South Korea
In the previous article we discussed new discoveries and scientific advances ranging from the United States of America to Russia, Great Britain, Germany and Finland. In this article we will look at breakthroughs in further countries.
For the first time the Hayabusa 2 probe of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) has brought back gas from asteroid 162173 Ryugu (the orbit of which is close to that of the Earth) discovered in 1999. The mission was launched on 3 December. On 27 June 2018, the probe reached the asteroid orbiting it at a distance of about 20 kilometres. After about one year and a half of measurements and surveys, the probe began its manoeuvres to approach the Earth on 13 November 2019, carrying the samples collected on Ryugu‘s surface in a capsule. On 6 December 2020, the capsule containing the samples collected on the asteroid re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere to land in the Australian desert, while the Hayabusa 2 probe continued its mission by heading into deep space to reach the 1998 KY26 asteroid.
The analysis of these gases may reveal the history of the aforementioned celestial body and help scientists further clarify the history of the solar system as it evolved. Japanese scientists detected more than twenty amino acids in the samples collected by the Hayabusa 2 probe. This is the first evidence of the existence of amino acids outside of Earth and has important implications for understanding how these vital organic molecules arrived on Earth. The analysis of the samples also showed that water on Earth may have been brought by asteroids from the outer edge of the solar system. The latest research unravels the mystery of how the ocean formed on Earth billions of years ago.
Scientists at Hokkaido University discovered that essential pyrimidine nitrogen bases (found in nucleic acids) – which make up DNA and RNA – may have been brought to Earth by carbon-rich meteorites. The research team analysed three of these meteorites and, in addition to the compounds previously detected in them, the aforementioned pyrimidine bases, such as cytosine and thymine, were found for the first time in concentrations of parts per billion. The research results show that this type of compound can be produced by a photochemical reaction and reach the Earth via meteorites, which may play an important role in the genetic function of the first manifestations of life on our planet.
Let us turn to Brazil, which is the only country in the Southern hemisphere which masters aerospace technology, with satellites, rockets, vehicles and launch sites. The Brazilian government places space activities at the top of its priority development agenda. Space research carried out by the Agência Espacial Brasileira focuses mainly on Earth observation, communication and meteorology. At the same time, Brazil is also strengthening the construction of infrastructure and the training of human resources for such studies.
The People’s Republic of China is an important aerospace cooperation partner of Brazil. The aerospace departments of China and Brazil actively implement the Cooperation Plan 2013-2022 of the National Space Administration of China and of the Brazilian Space Agency, respectively, and continue to expand into satellite exploration, manned spaceflight, including deepening studies in the field. There are plans to build a new cooperation platform in the areas of space technology, space applications, space science and ground equipment, personnel training, measurement and control support, as well as launch services.
In Brazil the China-Brazil Space Weather Joint Laboratory and the Universidade Federal do Recôncavo da Bahia started a new cooperation at the beginning of April 2022. The two parties jointly established tools and equipment for scientific research and implemented data sharing. The collaboration succeeded in bringing the remote city of Santarém (Pará State) onto the map of an international sensor network for space meteorology research. It is also the latest tool in the South American magnetometer network shared between the Chinese Meridian Project and the Estudo e Monitoramento Brasileiro do Clima Espacial (EMBRACE).
In terms of international cooperation, on 25 May 2022 the BRICS countries (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) established the Joint Space Cooperation Committee, which officially opened the joint observation and data sharing of the “constellation” of remote-sensing satellites of these States. The “constellation” consists of six existing satellites from the BRICS countries. Carlos Moura, director of the Agência Espacial Brasileira, said that the creation of a virtual “constellation” of remote-sensing satellites between the space agencies of the BRICS countries and the establishment of a data-sharing mechanism will help address the challenges faced by human beings such as global climate change, major disasters and environmental protection.
In Israel, too, the promotion of lunar satellite exploration and of private aerospace innovation has achieved remarkable results. As early as 2022 Israel has increased its support for the private aerospace industry and has achieved a number of notable technological advances concerning space. On 6 January 2022, the Israel Innovation Authority announced a grant of six million dollars to eleven private aerospace companies for the development of new space technologies. The above-mentioned companies cover many technical fields such as the Internet of Things (IoT), i.e. the so-called “smart objects”. We are not just talking about computers, smartphones and tablets, but above all about the objects that surround us in our homes, at work, in cities, in our everyday lives. The IoT was born right from the idea of bringing the objects of our everyday life and experience into the digital world.
Israel, however, is also developing the space construction of small satellites, new materials, lunar oxygen production, advanced sensors and Hall thrusters. Over the next five years, IIA plans to fund USD 180 million to continue supporting the development of the private aerospace industry.
Last year the Israeli defence company Rafael launched a “constellation” of high-resolution, high-revision satellites. The image resolution is less than 30 cm. At the same time, the revision time of the ground-based target of less than 10 minutes can be achieved by drawing the orbit of the “constellation”. Pictures of the same ground-based target can be continuously taken at intervals of several minutes. Furthermore, the Israeli Ministry of Defence’s Ofek satellite programme won the Israel Defence Award 2022. In 2020 Israel had launched the Ofek-16 satellite, which is the programme’s third-generation satellite, weighs approximately 300-400 kilograms, and has an orbital altitude of 600 kilometres. All Ofek satellites are launched by the Shavit carrier rocket from the Palmachim air base in Israel, on the Mediterranean coast.
The Israeli non-profit aerospace organisation SpaceIL is preparing to launch the country’s second lunar probe in 2024 or 2025. The plan will carry multiple lunar experimental devices: the first experimental project was defined in late August 2022 and its content was to test the stability of drugs on the moon, under the responsibility of scholars from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In October 2022, the Ben-Gurion University of Negev and the Queensland Academy for Science, Mathematics and Technology (QASMT) created a research group that announced they would use a probe to conduct tests on plant growth on the Moon.
Meanwhile, France is investing in the construction of the Internet via satellite. Last year the French company Thales, together with the US company Qualcomm and the Swedish group Ericsson, planned to connect smartphones directly to satellite communications via small groups of satellites around the Earth over the next five years, in order to provide 5G coverage in areas not covered by terrestrial antennas, thus providing a service that lies between satellite telephone systems and satellite Internet providers such as Starlink. The project plans to invest eight billion euros. Thales will build the satellites; Qualcomm will supply the smartphones and Ericsson will install the terrestrial core network. This project has led to a shift from competition to cooperation between telecommunications and satellite companies in the field of networks.
In terms of space planning and investment, in September 2022 France held the International Astronautical Congress in Paris and announced that it would invest over nine billion euros in space from 2023 to 2025 for the development and expansion of the space industry.
At EU level, the European Space Agency (ESA) held a Summit last November and decided that the budget for the following three years would be EUR 16.9 billion, a 17 per cent increase, but less than the EUR 18.5 billion requested by its Director General. The funds are mainly provided by Germany, France and Italy. The new funding allows the continuation of the European programmes on Ariane 6 and Vega launchers, while enabling Europe to participate in the global competition for small launchers. The EU will also provide support for Moon and Mars probes in order to expand cooperation with the United States of America in Moon and Mars exploration.
In the Republic of Korea (South Korea) the second test launch of the domestically produced Nuri rocket successfully placed several satellites into orbit on Tuesday, marking an important step in the efforts to restart its space programme after the failure of an initial test in 2021.
At 4 pm on 21 June 2022, the Korean rocket was successfully launched from the Naro Space Center on the country’s Southern coast. A 162.5 kg satellite designed to test the rocket’s performance successfully made contact with a base station in Antarctica after entering orbit.
On 30 November 2021, the South Korean government had released the fourth basic plan for space development, proposing five main tasks relating to the development of the space industry, i.e. expanding the scope of space exploration; sending manned spacecraft; developing the South Korean space industry; overseeing and supervising space security issues; and conducting space-related research.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has clearly stated his State’s intentions to land on the Moon in 2032 and on Mars in 2045. Some South Korean academic circles, however, have called this into question, as the Republic of Korea’s talent pool, budget, and technical level in the aerospace sector cannot objectively support the expected effort.
Science & Technology
CPC: Promoting the digital Silk Road and the Long-Term Goals of 2035
At the Two Sessions in China 2023, China renewed its pledge to intensify efforts to attract and utilize foreign investments, vowing to expand market access and ensure national treatment for foreign-funded companies. We should point out that the Two Sessions are expected to be a valuable opportunity to promote the building of the “digital Silk Road”. There are many changes have been witnessed in China’s foreign investment in the past few years, so the Two Sessions meetings have planned to promote the construction of the digital Silk Road in China in the upcoming days.
The (Recommendations of the CPC Central Committee on the Formulation of the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan for National Economy and Social Development and the Long-Term Goals of 2035) adhering to the implementation of expanding opening up to the outside world on a larger scale, in a broader field, and at a deeper level based on China’s market supremacy to “promote international cooperation and achieve mutual benefit and win-win”.
The Issuance of the new version of the “Encouragement List of foreign investments” is an important measure that expands the scope of foreign investment and helps raise foreign investment confidence. Through the guidance of the “encouragement list of foreign investments” can flow into areas that meet China’s need for high-quality development, and promote the formation of a new development pattern in which domestic circulation is the main ingredient and domestic and foreign dual circulation reinforce each other. This indicated China’s progress towards attracting foreign investment to areas of high-quality development, and meeting the domestic demand for the establishment of the new order of an open economy at a higher level.
After the amendments to the Law on Encouragement and Attraction of Foreign Investment in China, the total number of “China Foreign Investment Encouragement List” has increased to 1,235. We find that these amendments embody the demands of improving industries, upgrading them, and harmonious development between regions, and encourage foreign funds to flow into the advanced manufacturing sector and the modern service industry, and encourage foreign funds to flow into western and central China. Among the newly added investment fields, there are advanced manufacturing fields such as (artificial intelligence and digital technology), in addition to areas related to people’s livelihood such as modern logistics and information services.
Preferential policies are what foreign investors are most interested in. According to the “China Foreign Investment Encouragement List”, the foreign-funded enterprises can invest in more areas, as well as enjoy a series of preferential policies.
The Issuance of the “China Investment Encouragement List” is conducive to stabilizing the expectations and confidence of foreign investors, and is conducive to the stabilization of foreign trade and foreign investment. At the same time, it will give continuity and stability to the “policy of reassurance” for foreign-invested enterprises operating inside China.
The meetings of the two sessions also emphasized the importance of the digital silk road in strengthening China’s strength. Since the announcement of the establishment of the Digital Silk Road in 2017, the leaders of the Communist Party of China have worked to enhance cooperation with countries along the Belt and Road Initiative in the field of technology, including sectors (digital economy, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things).
Now, Huawei Chinese Company, which controls about 30% of the global communications infrastructure market, was able to obtain 91 contracts from different cities around the world to develop 5G networks.
Alibaba Cloud, affiliated to the Chinese e-commerce giant company, is also one of the most active companies within the Digital Silk Road. The company works with many countries in digital technology investments and artificial intelligence and in several related fields, including providing solutions for smart cities.
Today, China wants to employ the rapidly growing digital economy and reap its benefits, especially as this economy has the ability to empower disadvantaged regions and their populations in a way that was impossible in the past. Chinese digital trading platforms or social networks such as “Taobao”, “JD.com” and “WeChat” have changed the way companies operate in these countries, bringing new opportunities and innovations, and this has had a noticeable positive impact on some of the poorest communities, which were Previously besieged due to its geographical isolation.
The meetings of the two sessions 2023 affirmed the importance of the “digital economy” and the companies operating within it have become a powerful driving force behind reducing rural poverty in China. At the 2015 G-20 Hangzhou Summit, after an impassioned speech by Chinese President “Xi Jinping”, members agreed that the digital economy can have great potential for development outcomes. The ambition is that there can be synergy between the countries of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially when we combine the digitization of the Silk Road with the Sustainable Development Goals. During the 2016 World Internet Summit, nine countries launched an initiative to develop cooperation in the field of digital economy among countries along the Silk Road, and the Chinese Road has acquired a digital dimension since then.
To this day, the economic cooperation based on information and communication technology and the application of other new technologies in the countries of the Belt and Road Initiative is called the “Digital Silk Road” to achieve development goals. In this context, the Secretary-General of the Organization, António Guterres, said at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation: “While the Belt and Road Initiative and the 2030 Agenda differ in nature and scope, sustainable development is the overarching goal. Both seek to create opportunities, global public goods, and win-win cooperation”. Both aim to deepen connectivity across countries and regions: connectivity in infrastructure, trade, finance, policy, and perhaps most of all, people-to-people”.
The meetings of the two sessions this year 2023 stressed the need for the Digital Silk Road to be compatible with the ambitious national goals of the Chinese authorities such as “Made in China 2025” and “China Standards 2035.” These initiatives aim to enhance domestic technological innovation and production and transaction capabilities in China, and at the same time. These goals are part of a comprehensive vision of the Chinese government to enhance its presence in the world of technology and achieve greater independence in the global digital system. The meetings of the two sessions 2023 stressed the need to reduce the dependence of the Chinese state on other technology leaders, especially the United States, Japan and selected European countries.
In Conclusion, China’s Digital Belt initiative helps many Chinese tech giants and smaller players in the sector boost their domestic sales and relationships and gain a foothold in overseas markets for digital technology, with the help and facilitation of the Chinese government.
Science & Technology
iCET: The Arc of Instability in South Asia
On 22 May 2022; the U.S. President Joe Biden and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of a new India-U.S. ‘Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET)’ to elevate and expand the strategic technology partnership and defense industrial cooperation between the two countries. On 31 Jan 2023; in the inaugural meeting of National Security Advisors of both countries, Jake Sullivan along with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval formally spearheaded the initiative on defense and emerging technologies — what NSA Sullivan called “a strategic bet” on the relationship between the two democratic partners.
According to a White House fact sheet, the two leaders believe that India and the U.S., being two democracies with common values and respect for human rights, should shape the way “technology is designed, developed, governed, and used” to enable “an open, accessible, and secure technology ecosystem, based on mutual trust and confidence, that will reinforce our democratic values and democratic institutions.” The two countries reaffirmed their dedication to removing regulatory obstacles and welcomed new bilateral initiatives and cooperation between their governments, businesses, and academia. They also highlighted the importance of business and talent mobility in both countries.
Some of the key technology sectors identified under the initiative include defense, semiconductor supply chains, space, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Moreover, the initiative also identified areas such as biotechnology, advanced materials, and rare earth processing technology. There is an emphasis on finding ways to engage in co-development and co-production while underlining the importance of “innovation bridges” in the key technology areas through expos, and workshops. Additionally, there are plans for long-term research and collaboration on maritime security and Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) operational use cases.
A joint Indo-U.S. quantum coordination mechanism involving stakeholders from industry, academia, and government to foster research and industry collaboration have also been established. There are also plans to coordinate and develop consensus and ensure multi-stakeholder standards that are in line with democratic values. Moreover, advancing cooperation on research and development in 5G and 6G, facilitating deployment and adoption of open radio access network (Open RAN) in India, and fostering global economies of scale within the sector were also among the major endeavors in the stated initiative.
In terms of their closer partnership, both countries intend to see India get rid of its reliance on Russian arms. Though this remains questionable that how much benefit or technology the U.S. is willing to share with India notably in fields such as high-tech and defense, as Washington is also worried that India will develop into another threat by virtue of rapid development after China.
Besides; iCET would help invigorate the decades old partnership between the two states, has set up a range of ambitious goals, which means a great deal for India and in advancing the economic growth, creating jobs and help address the emerging challenges of the 21st century, including health, energy, climate change, cyber, defense and security.
The recently announced partnership has the potential to interrupt and disrupt the volatile security architect of the South Asian region. Most significantly; Pakistan and China are the two states in the Asian region to be at the receiving end of this initiative. It is being observed that Indo-U.S. strategic relations in one way or other have always impacted the security calculus of the region. Whether its Indo-U.S. defense agreement/contracts, nuclear deal, technological cooperation, or space endeavors, both states have contributed in altering the strategic dynamics of South Asian region broadly. The iCET is going to further compound the situation.
China in response to the announced initiative has called it off by claiming it as ‘same bed, different dreams’. China believes India is willing to ramp up its ties with the U.S. to advance technology and attract more funding to replace its position in the global industrial and supply chains. On the other hand, to rope in India, in Washington’s perspective, it has to cater to what the country wants, also will help in promoting the very agenda that puts India as part of “friend-shoring,” only then India can become a supply-chain alternative to China. In short; U.S. expects India to work for maintaining a balance of power in this region as per U.S. choices and demands.
Pakistan has not officially responded to iCET but obviously the increasing interest and cooperation between U.S. and India is likely to impact Pakistan in terms of defense, economic, political and external relations, therefore disturbing the balance of power in the region. This will undermine efforts to encourage Pakistan to play a more constructive role in the region. With the U.S. as a powerful actor in the international system, India has started to readjust its foreign policy by aligning itself and to work closely vis a vis strategic interests of the United States. Mutual strategic alliance between the two can place Pakistan in an uncomfortable position, thus likely to be marginalized in security calculus of U.S. The strategic initiative might be fruitful for the two states but has the potential to increase the asymmetry in the balance of power among pugnacious South Asian rivals.
In response to the evolving threatening environment in response to iCET initiative, there is a need for a broader framework on regional security where there is a need for U.S. to be more constructive and justified in its dealing with the two important South Asian countries; Pakistan and India. In words of Winston Churchill, ‘the price of greatness is responsibility’. The U.S. being a great power must show responsibility by managing to minimize the long standing conflicts in South Asia through dialogues and table talks. Though such a dialogue process is a long shot with the emerging regional scenarios in the current times but discussions involving the stakeholders would definitely yield qualitatively different conversations on regional security.
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