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In a First, Astronomers Capture Birth of Black Hole or Neutron Star

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A look at The Cow (approximately 80 days after explosion) from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Maunakea, Hawaii. The Cow is nestled in the CGCG 137-068 galaxy, 200 million light years from Earth. (Credit: Raffaella Margutti/Northwestern University)

A look at The Cow (approximately 80 days after explosion) from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Maunakea, Hawaii. The Cow is nestled in the CGCG 137-068 galaxy, some 200 million light-years from Earth. (Credit: Raffaella Margutti/Northwestern University)

Some 200 million years ago, not long after dinosaurs first appeared on Earth, a star collapsed in a nearby galaxy. The star’s collapse triggered an ultra-bright explosion that sent radiation racing across the cosmos. The light finally reached earthly skies this past summer, forming a strange, new beacon in the constellation Hercules.

The ATLAS survey’s twin telescopes in Hawaii, were the first to spot the exploding star on June 17, 2018. And astronomers from around the world – including an international team of 45 co-authors from 33 different institutions – soon turned their telescopes and attention to studying the mysterious compact object created in the aftermath. By combining radio waves, gamma-rays, and X-rays, the team suspects the object, officially named AT2018cow and informally called “The Cow,” is likely a black hole or neutron star surrounded by swirling stellar debris.

But the team still isn’t sure exactly what The Cow is. However, seeing as massive stars are known to form either neutron stars or black holes when collapse, the team thinks that the object could be one or the other.

Either way, this is the first time that the birth of such an object has been captured. “We’ve never been able to see them right away at the time of formation,” according to Northwestern’s Raffaella Margutti, who led the research.

Bright and Fast

The event initially caught researchers’ attention because it was so bright. The stellar collapse was about 10 to 100 times brighter than a typical supernova, and it reached that peak quite quickly. “The reason why everybody got excited by The Cow is because, in the optical, it went up to peak in a few days and it reached a very high luminosity,” Margutti said.

After the bright burst appeared, it quickly used up most of its power within just 16 days, though astronomers were able to monitor the object for 27 days after its discovery. As cosmic events can take millions of years to unfold, this luminous event went by remarkably quick.

According to Margutti, the team was able to capture the moment of formation because the explosion produced about 10 times less stellar debris ejected than is ejected in a typical massive stellar collapse. Typically, a large amount of stellar debris blocks astronomers’ view of the object. But, because there was so much less debris than usual around the event, it gave the team a unique opportunity to see The Cow’s radiation immediately. Located in the dwarf galaxy CGCG 137-068t at only 200 million light-years away, the burst was also relatively close to Earth, which aided in the team’s ability to spot and study it. “This is very close by for this type of event,” Margutti said. “It’s the closest ever found,”

While the team first identified the compact object by observing its X-ray emissions, Margutti and her team took an up-close look at The Cow’s chemical makeup using the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the MMT Observatory in Arizona, and the SoAR telescope in Chile. With these observations, the researchers found evidence of hydrogen and helium.

Until now, researchers studying compact objects created by exploding stars have only been able to study them hundreds of years after formation. With these new observations, scientists are able to look at a compact object at a time in its life that has never been captured before. This opens the door to research that has never before been possible.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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