Atom & Cosmos

A world record for atom smashing, plus black hole threesomes, a volcanic Mars and more in this week’s news

Atom smasher sets a new record The world’s most powerful atom smasher has set a new record for beam intensity. On April 22 the Large Hadron Collider attained an intensity of 4.67 x 10 32 protons per square centimeter per second. That’s the highest of any particle accelerator that collides hadrons — particles that are composed of quarks held together by the strong force. The new intensity is about 16 percent higher than the previous record, held by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s Tevatron. Boosting beam intensity is crucial when searching for rare processes and particles such as the long-sought Higgs boson, which would explain why many elementary particles have mass. — Ron Cowen Black hole threesome revealed Andy Warhol reportedly said, “One’s company, two’s a crowd and three’s a party.” New data reveal one heck of a black hole party, a U.S. team of researchers reports online April 19 at Three supermassive black holes — humungous gravity sinks that may form the cores of galaxies — and the stars around them could be crunching together to form a single galaxy, the group says. The first two galaxies should join up in 8 million years, with the third coming in about 32 million years after that. While scientists suspect that many galaxies have formed from such pile-ons, only one other possible triplet has been discovered so far. — Daniel Strain Dawn of the black holes The seeds of the universe’s first black holes could have formed in gas halos much smaller than previously calculated, Canadian and American astronomers report online April 21 at Simulated seeds about 100 times the sun’s mass were more common in massive gas halos, as expected (more mass means more stuff to collapse into a black hole). But because smaller halos may birth fewer stars — and fewer stars mean more pristine gas is available to collapse — seed formation could continue in smaller halos longer than in larger ones. The results jibe with two competing theories of supermassive black holes and could explain why some small galaxies have big black holes. — Camille Carlisle Volcanic Mars Mars may still be warm enough inside to occasionally belch lava flows out onto its surface. Scientists have argued over whether the Red Planet, one-tenth as massive as Earth, has cooled too much since the solar system’s birth to support volcanoes. But the Tharsis region of Mars seems to contain lava flows just a few tens of millions of years old, based on how few impact craters are there, German and Czech researchers report in a new survey in press at Geophysical Research Letters . — Alexandra Witze

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