What Astronomers Discovered in January 2021

NASA, ACS Science Team and ESA - via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: this entry was written in late January 2021 as the first of what I hoped would be a series on scientific advancement by the month. As my ideas changed, I later scrapped the idea, leaving this as the sole entry in the series.

In the 21st century, the field of science–and particularly astronomy–has seen more advancement than perhaps ever before. From the discovery of the Higgs Boson and the neutrino to new states of matter and gravitational waves, the 21st century has been a century of discovery. 

These incredible discoveries, however, often go overlooked; we are so caught up in life and crisis that we learn not of the frontiers of science. Consider the crises that hit us in 2020: a novel virus that worsened into a pandemic, abhorrent racial injustices amplified by all sides of the political spectrum, a bitter election, damage to global democracy, lockdowns, economic collapse, hate, bigotry, extremism, attempted coup d’etats. We are thus isolated from the brilliant and lasting scientific advancements that continue to occur around the world. 

To spread contemporary science to all of us, let us consider the most profound discoveries made in January of this year, 2021.

Bright gravitationally-lensed galaxy discovered by UChicago undergraduates

I thought I’d consider first a discovery by my dream school (to which I will be applying Early Decision), the University of Chicago: undergraduates observed a matured galaxy formed when the universe was only 1.2 billion years old, well under 10% of its current age. 

The galaxy appeared to be well ahead of its time, as it had already matured to almost the size of the current Milky Way. Galaxies in the early universe were generally much smaller, but this galaxy certainly was not. 

The undergraduates made the discovery by surveying public domain imaging data from the Magellan telescopes in Chile, and the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii, in order to find lensed galaxies–the effect when an extremely distant galaxy releases light that travels in the direction of a region with a large gravitational pull:

When the light reaches the gravitational bounds of the massive cluster, the light is bent into a different direction. Lensing reminds me of how humans send out their interplanetary rockets, using the same gravitational concept to propel themselves in different directions.

Light from the lensed object often forms a halo around the massive cluster, because the photons emanating from the lensed galaxy will circumnavigate the cluster in different directions. 

Discovery of exo-Jupiter that is significantly less massive than Jupiter

Astronomers in January discovered an exoplanet with a similar diameter to Jupiter, but only 10% the mass. The planet, cataloged as WASP-107b, orbits its star every 5.7 days, at a distance of under six million miles. 

Astronomers previously considered that to form a gas giant planet like Jupiter, the solid core of the planetesimal body must be at least ten times more massive than Earth. WASP-107b does not follow this rule, as 85% of its mass lies outside of the core, and the planet as a whole is only thirty times more massive than Earth. Its core is, therefore, around five times as massive as Earth. 

It is believed that this irregular planet formed further out in its solar system, where the accretion of gasses is more plausible and rapid, followed by migration to the inner solar system. 

Astronomers discover the fastest spinning magnetar to-date

A recently discovered, exotic magnetar–a type of neutron star characterized by an exceptionally strong magnetic field–spins incredibly fast (at a rate of once every 1.4 seconds) and is only 500 years old.

The discovery will allow astronomers to conduct research on magnetars and neutron stars early in their development. 

Neutron stars are the extremely dense and dead cores of collapsed super and hypergiants. The conditions within neutron stars are so extreme that the protons and electrons within the core of this dead supergiant collapse to neutrons. Their cores are so dense that a teaspoon of a neutron star would weigh more than a billion tons under Earth’s gravity.

Magnetars are even stranger than neutron stars; they, too, are the dead cores of stars gone supernova, but they are, as you know, significantly different from their neutron star siblings. The consensus is that the stars formed in a process, magnetohydrodynamic dynamo, also known as dynamo theory, a theory that explains the process by which stars and planets obtain magnetic fields.

More gravitational wave and graviton news

We considered gravitons, the ominous particles missing from the Standard Model, and how gravity is the least understood of the four known fundamental forces. In 2016, astronomers observed the collision of two black holes and recorded what they considered the first ever direct observation of gravitational waves. Since then, however, few observations have come of gravitational waves. Generally, astronomers can observe gravitational waves only in the most extreme circumstances, like when two massive objects collide with one another. Astronomers at LIGO, however, seek to observe the lighter, less noticeable and longer-lasting gravitational waves that emanate from similar massive events. 

Generally, detectable gravitational wave events last for, at most, only a few seconds; astronomers now plan to tap into the gravitational background, where they will be able to study gravitational waves for significantly longer periods of time–as the gravitational “noise” will be almost constant, unending. 

These same astronomers have also discovered evidence for a process that distorts the time light takes to reach Earth from a pulsar. This could be evidence for a gravitational wave background. The implications of a discovery like this are immense, and future discoveries could make the correspondence principle grounded in more than mere philosophical logic.

Astronomers find massive radio galaxies 62x larger than the Milky Way

Active galactic nuclei (AGNs) are galaxies characterized by abnormally luminous centers. A radio galaxy is a type of AGN that is especially luminous in the radio wavelengths. Several iconic galactic nuclei emit strong signals of radio waves, including Centaurus A* and Cygnus A*. 

Using the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa, astronomers discovered two massive radio galaxies, each around 62 times the diameter of the Milky Way, making both larger than 93% of the radio galaxies known, and among the largest single objects in the universe. 

These two massive radio galaxies support the hypothesis that there are many more giant radio galaxies (GRGs) than previously thought. 

Energy extraction from black holes: a new method

Ever since Einstein’s Theory of Relativity hypothesized that black holes harbor near-endless supplies of energy, astronomers and physicists alike have considered methods an advanced civilization could use to extract energy from them. Now, it appears that physicists have found a method:

In a paper funded by the National Science Foundation and published in Physical Review, astronomers at Columbia University and Universidad Adolfo Ibáñe discovered that an advanced civilization could harness the immense energy of a black hole by “breaking and rejoining magnetic field lines near the event horizons of black holes.” In the region surrounding black holes, a “hot soup of plasma particles” exists, a region that develops a black hole’s magnetic fields.

Their new hypothesis argues that when the lines of those magnetic fields are disconnected and reconnected in a certain way, those same plasma particles are accelerated to negative energies, at which point large amounts of energy are released and can be harnessed from the black hole. The reconnection of magnetic fields in these plasma soups results in two oppositely rotating plasma flows. Some of the plasma flows in the same direction as the black hole rotates, as everything within the black hole’s gravitational field does, whereas the rest of the plasma flows in the opposite direction of the rotation of the black hole; the reconnection causes the flow that travels in the opposite direction to be traveling near the speed of light, with significant amounts of harnessable energy. 

The lead scientist of the paper likened the process to “losing weight by eating candy with negative calories.” He explains that in the ergosphere, a region surrounding a black hole, everything unequivocally travels in the same direction the black hole spins; in this region, when a black hole swallows something with negative energy, it loses energy. 

When some of this plasma is forced into flying away from the black hole, it loses negative energy–it gains energy. The magnetic field reconnection in the ergosphere of a black hole is so extreme that the plasma will be energized to travel at speeds approaching the speed of light. 

Red dwarf sunlight is used to grow photosynthesizing bacteria

Recently, researchers at the Astronomical Observatory of Padova (Italy) recreated the spectrum of a typical red dwarf star and experimented with chlorogloeopsis thermalis, a photosynthesizing bacteria similar to extremophile cyanobacteria, and they found that the bacteria did, indeed, grow. 

There is no indication, however, whether it grew faster or slower than under the sun. The hypothesis that photosynthesis can still occur under red dwarfs is hereby confirmed.

Wrapping it up

It is imperative that we all see the exceptional innovation that occurs right under our noses. It seems to me that discoveries are often unappreciated until well after the discovery is made and the theory developed, so I thought I would showcase some discoveries that have not yet been developed into theories. As always, take care and stay curious, everyone.


Blog, T. P. (2021, January 21). Red dwarf starlight used to grow photosynthesizing bacteria. Retrieved from https://astronomy.com/news/2021/01/red-dwarf-starlight-used-to-grow-photosynthesizing-bacteria

Buongiorno, C. (2021, January 18). Astronomers find the youngest, fastest spinning 'magnetar' yet. Retrieved from https://astronomy.com/news/2021/01/astronomers-find-the-youngest-fastest-spinning-magnetar-yet

Carruthers, T. (2017, December 14). Gravitational lensing. Retrieved from https://www.science.org.au/curious/space-time/gravitational-lensing

Choi, C. Q. (2021, January 12). Scientists are getting closer in race to find gravitational wave background and dark matter. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/astronomers-chasing-cosmic-secrets-with-pulsars

Could we harness energy from black holes? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=301953#:~

Lewis, S. (2021, May 06). "Super puff" exoplanet is as big as Jupiter but 10 times lighter, confusing astronomers. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/astronomers-discover-super-puff-gas-giant-exoplanet-wasp-107b-jupiter/

Mashable News Staff  January 21, 2. (2021, January 21). Astronomers Discover Two New Giant Radio Galaxies That Are 62 Times Larger Than The Milky Way! Retrieved from https://in.mashable.com/science/19722/astronomers-discover-two-new-giant-radio-galaxies-that-are-62-times-larger-than-the-milky-way

Miller, K. (n.d.). UChicago undergrads discover bright lensed galaxy in the early universe. Retrieved from https://news.uchicago.edu/story/uchicago-undergrads-discover-bright-lensed-galaxy-early-universe