Cosmic Journeys - The Most Powerful Objects in the Universe

Cosmic Journeys – The Most Powerful Objects in the Universe

all across the immense reaches of time and space energy is being exchanged transferred released in a great cosmic pinball game we call our universe how does energy stitch the cosmos together and how do we fit within it we now climb the power scales of the universe from atoms nearly frozen to stillness to Earth's largest explosions from stars providing exploding to distant realms so strange and violent they challenged our imaginations where will we find the most powerful objects in the universe today energy is very much on our minds as we search for ways to power our civilization and serve the needs of our citizens but what is energy where does it come from and where do we stand within the great power streams that shape time and space energy comes from a Greek word for activity or working in physics it's simply the property or the state of anything in our universe that allows it to do work whether it's thermal kinetic electromagnetic chemical or gravitational the 19th century German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz found that all forms of energy are equivalent that one form can be transformed into any other the laws of physics say that in a closed system such as our universe energy is conserved it may be converted concentrated or dissipated but it's never lost James Prescott Joule built an apparatus that demonstrated this principle it had a weight that descended into water and caused a paddle to rotate he showed that the gravitational energy lost by the weight is equivalent to heat gained by the water from friction with the paddle that led to one of several basic energy yardsticks called a Joule it's the amount needed to lift an apple weighing 100 grams one meter against the pull of Earth's gravity in case you were wondering it takes about 100 joules to send the tweet so tweeted a tech from Twitter the metabolism of an average sized person going about their day generates about 100 joules a second or 100 watts the equivalent of a 100 watt light bulb in vigorous exercise the power output of the body goes up by a factor of 10 one order of magnitude to around a thousand joules per second or a thousand watts in a series of leaps by additional factors of 10 we can explore the full energy spectrum of the universe so far the coldest place observed in nature is the boomerang nebula here a dying star ejected its outer layers into space at 600,000 km/h as the expanding clouds of gas became more diffuse they cooled so dramatically that their molecules fell to just one degree above absolute zero the total absence of heat that's around a billion trillions of a Joule that makes the signal sent by the Galileo spacecraft as it flew around Jupiter seemed positively hot by the time it reached Earth its radio signal was down to ten billion billionth of a watt now jump all the way to 150 billionths of a one that's the amount of power entering the human eye from a pair of 50 watt car headlamps a kilometer away moving up before seven powers of ten moonlight striking a human face adds up to three hundred thousandths of a watt that's roughly equivalent to a crickets trip from there it's a mere of five powers of ten to the low wattage world of everyday human technologies but 10 100 watt bulbs together at 1000 joules per second 1000 watts that roughly equals the energy of sunlight striking a square meter of Earth's surface at noon on a clear day gathered 200 bulbs 20,000 watts is the energy output of an automobile a diesel locomotive five million Watts an advanced jet fighter 75 million watts an aircraft carrier almost 200 million watts the most powerful human technologies today function in the range of a billion to ten billion watts including large hydroelectric or nuclear power plants at the upper end of human technologies was the awesome first stage of a Saturn 5 rocket in five separate engines it consumed 15 tons of fuel per second to generate 190 billion watts of power how much power can humanity marshal and how much do we need long before the launch of the Space Age visionaries began to imagine what it would take to advance into the community of Galactic Civilizations in the 1960s the Soviet scientist Nikolai Kardashev speculated that a level one civilization would acquire the technology needed to harness all the power available on a planet like Earth according to one calculation we are 0.16 percent of the way there this is based on British Petroleum's estimate of total world oil consumption some 11 billion tons in 2007 humans today generate about two and a half trillion watts of electrical power how does that stack up to the power generated by planet Earth deep inside our planet the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium generates 44 trillion watts of power as this heat rises to the surface it drives the movement of Earth's crustal plates and powers volcanoes remarkably that's just a fraction of the energy released by a large hurricane in the form of rain at the storms peak it can rise to 600 trillion watts a hurricane draws upon solar heat collected in tropical oceans in the summer you have to jump another power of 10 to reach the estimated total heat flowing through Earth's atmosphere and oceans from the equator to the poles and another – to get the power received by the Earth from the Sun at 174 quadrillion watts believe it or not there's one human technology that has exceeded this level the a an 602 hydrogen bomb was detonated by the Soviet Union on October 30th 1961 it unleashed some 1,400 times the combined power of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs with a blast yield of up to 57 million tons of TNT it generated 5.3 trillion trillion watts if only for a tiny fraction of a second that's 5.3 yata watts a term that will come in handy as we now begin to ascend different power scales of the universe – Nikolai Kardashev a level 2 civilization would achieve a constant energy output 80 times higher than the Russian super bar that's equivalent to the total luminosity of our Sun a medium-sized star that emits 375 Yatta watts however in the grand scheme of things our Sun is but a cold spark in a hot universe look up into southern skies and you'll see the Large Magellanic Cloud a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way deep within is the brightest star yet discovered r136a1 is 10 million times brighter than the Sun now if that star happened to go supernova at its peak it would blast out photons with a luminosity of around 500 billion yata watts to advance to a level 3 civilization you have to marshal the power of an entire galaxy the Milky Way with about 200 billion stars has an estimated total luminosity of 3 trillion Yatta watts a 3 followed by 36 zeros the author Isaac Asimov imagined a galaxy scale civilization in his foundation series Galaxia he called it is a superorganism that surpasses time and space to draw upon all the matter and energy in a galaxy but who's to say that's the upper limit for civilizations to boldly go beyond level 3 a civilization would need to marshal the power of a quasar a quasar is about a thousand times brighter than our galaxy here is where cosmic power production enters a whole new realm based on the physics of extreme gravity it was Isaac Newton who first defined gravity as the force that pulls the Apple down and holds the earth in orbit around the Sun Albert Einstein redefined it in his famous general theory of relativity gravity isn't simply the attraction of objects like stars and planets he said but a distortion of space and time what he called space-time if space-time is like a fabric gravity is the warping of this fabric by a massive object like a star a planet orbits a star when it's caught in this warped space like a ball spinning around a roulette wheel some scientists began to wonder if matter became dense enough could it warp space to such an extreme that nothing could escape its gravity not even light with so much power being emitted from such a small area scientists suspected that quasars were actually being powered by black holes our totally dark object from duvets has been narrowed by decades of observations in theory if a black hole spins it can turn into a violent cosmic tornado gas and stars begin to flow in along a rapidly rotating disk the spinning motion of this so-called accretion disk generates magnetic fields that twist up and around these fields can channel some of the inflowing matter out into a pair of high-energy beams or jets gas and dust nearby catch the brunt of this energy growing hot and bright enough to be seen billions of light-years away amazingly the power of a black hole can rise to even greater extremes at the moment of its birth as a giant star ages heavy elements like iron gradually build up in its core as its gravity grows more intense the star begins to shrink until it reaches a critical threshold it's core literally collapses in on itself that causes the star to explode in a supernova and now in death the star can unleash gravity's true fury in the violence of the star's death gravity can cause its massive core to collapse to a point forming a black hole in some rare cases the newborn monster powers a jet that accelerates to within a tiny fraction of the speed of light for a few minutes these so-called gamma-ray bursts are known to be the brightest events since the Big Bang three orders of magnitude above a quasar at a billion billion yata watts attend with 42 zeros remarkably they are still not the most powerful events known Albert Einstein's equations contained an astonishing prediction that when massive bodies accelerate or whip around each other they can stir up the normally smooth fabric of space-time they produce a series of waves that move outward like ripples on a pond scientists are now hoping to detect these gravitational waves and verify Einstein's prediction using precision lasers and some of the most perfect large-scale vacuums ever created at the laser interferometry gravitational wave Observatory known as LIGO they are hoping to record the collision of ultra-dense remnants of dead stars known as neutron stars and of black holes according to computer simulations as to black holes spiral into a fateful embrace the energy carried by each gravity wave Rises five orders of magnitude above a gamma-ray burst to a hundred billion trillion times the power of our Sun does the collision of black holes define the known power limits of our universe perhaps not as turbulent as the environment of a black hole might be it's true power may well lie deep in its core a black hole's mass is enshrouded within a dark sphere called the event horizon since the 1920s scientists have described the mathematics of the event horizon as the equivalent of a waterfall it's the point of no return beyond which water falls freely into the gorge at the event horizon of a black hole space itself falls freely in at the speed of light if the black hole is spinning then the flow spirals down and around an inner horizon that envelops the singularity that's the central region where space-time becomes infinitely warped any matter if it rides this river of space whips around the inner horizon so fast that centrifugal force tends to fling it back out as that happens it collides with matter that's streaming in whipping up a ferocious cosmic storm the energy of the colliding stream feeds upon itself rising to what may well be a limit imposed by nature it dissipates only as it falls into the singularity and disappears fortunately for us gravity walls off such energy extremes behind the event horizon where they cannot affect the rest of the universe and so here we sit our world is nestled within a vast stream of cosmic energy somewhere between the spin of an electron and the maelstrom for black hole there's no telling whether a future earth civilization will be able to harness enough energy to advance into the cosmos for now as we tap into the tiny morsels of power at our disposal we venture a closer look at the universe blazing with activity we are its product and it's starstruck admirer

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