Posted 08 Aug, 2018
HOW A SMALL SHACK EXPANDED OUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE UNIVERSE
Observatory Hill is a master-planned community nestled in one of the greenest parts of Richmond Hill. The world-renowned David Dunlap Observatory, for which the development is named, has been an important instrument of astrological discovery.
Many of us understand the fundamental concept of astronomy. It’s the study of the astronomical bodies and the space that surrounds them. When we think about astronomy, it is observatories, astronomers, and big optical telescopes that come to mind. But did you know there are several methods of studying the universe other than optical astronomy? One such method is known as Radio Astronomy, and the small shack next to the David Dunlap Observatory used this method to make a rather remarkable discovery in the early 1970’s.
The advantage of Radio Astronomy is that it doesn’t rely on what we can see to detect objects in our universe. Instead, it relies on detecting radio waves emitted by cosmic bodies. It was using this method that astronomers, working for U of T in 1971, studied and deciphered a curious phenomenon noticed by specialized sounding rockets that were released a year before. An object approximately 6,070 light-years away, was giving off an incredible amount of radiation.
Considering it looked to be a mere star, scientists were puzzled. It was physically impossible for a star to give off that much radiation. Since they now knew where to look, the astronomers, working out of a tiny wooden shack here on the DDO grounds, discovered that there was, quite likely, a black hole orbiting this star. A curious phenomenon to say the least.
The relationship between the star known as HDE 226868 and black hole Cygnus X-1 is very unique. Cygnus X-1 is just far enough away that the star isn’t losing any surface mass to it. Remarkably, what’s happening is that all of the star’s excess energy (known as stellar wind) is being caught and funnelled directly into this black hole, creating a funnel of ionized energy between the two celestial bodies. Every 400,000 years this star loses the equivalent of 100% of our sun’s mass to Cygnus X-1. Eventually, the star will lose all its mass, and be completely devoured by the black hole, which would in turn gain mass equivalent to that of the consumed star.
This discovery, made from a tiny hut with a peculiar zig-zag antenna on top, lent us new insight into how black holes affect other celestial bodies, and how stars behave under certain conditions. An important addition to science, by any measure.