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The Outer Space Mysteries Japan’s Space X-Ray Can Help Unravel
published during a waxing gibbous moon.
02/18/2016

Here are a few things that Japan’s new space X-ray vision will be able to tell us about the universe.

 

X-Ray

Credit: Akihito Ikeshita

The universe keeps its skeletons well hidden in its murky depths. But the satellite, which the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency created in collaboration with NASA, has a superpower that it’s waiting to unleash: X-ray vision. To get a better look at our beginnings, ASTRO-H is armed with sensitive telescopes that will peer at the shortest wavelengths that escaped galactic bedlam, like X-rays and gamma rays.

Here are three big mysteries that the mission will investigate:

Where do baby galaxies come from?

It’s a question every parent planet dreads, but sooner or later you’ll have to explain galaxy clusters to your little one. To fully understand a galaxy cluster, you have to unspool your brain a little to even take in their vastness. In simplest terms, it’s a legion of galaxies huddled together with mutual gravity. (Here’s a recently discovered one if you’re into feeling microscopic.)

That’s where ASTRO-H comes in. While we can see billions of light-years away, there’s much more to the picture than visible matter — like dark matter, for instance. And X-rays can detect space plasma, which makes up most of the universe.

Plasma is the fourth state of matter that isn’t gas, liquid, or solid. It’s like a gas, except it conducts electricity, and magnetic fields can influence it. It’s so hot, some or all of its atoms split up into electrons and ions, and they move however they please. ASTRO-H will help crunch all of those calculations so the scientists can learn more about how clusters are born and socialize.

What is the universe made of, really?

It’s definitely got sugar, spice, and everything nice. But the Big Bang only cooked up a few light elements, and from those spawned cosmic chaos. Collisions and explosions steadily catapulted about 100 heavy elements into the ether, like oxygen and gold, to name a few.

Supernovas, or when stars explode, don’t burn for long, but their debris can point to when and where elements traveled. Along with looking at plasma, examining supernova remnants and their elements can tell us the make-up of the universe that led to, well, sugar and spice (and let’s not forget puppies).

How do black holes become terrifying monsters?

That is, who releases those krakens? Black holes are the horrifying centerpiece of many galaxies, but we don’t know much about how they evolve. After all, they’re black because their gravity is so strong it eats light. To figure out black hole whereabouts, astronomers have to look to stars and gas for clues.

What we do know is that they can be as big from a few hundred to 100 million times the mass of the sun. And considering our sun makes up for most of the mass in our solar system, those are some big monsters. The supermassive ones, like our very own Milky Way’s Sagittarius A, has a mass equal to four million suns.

Only satellites can see the high-energy light that dances around black holes, and ASTRO-H will log changes like the gas that black holes have collected and spewed out. As JAXA puts it, the early stages of a supermassive black hole can be so influential that it affects galaxies around it, which is like something the size of an orange having a significant effect on Earth.