Black holes seem to have no upper limit; some weigh in at hundreds of millions of times the mass of the Sun. But how small can they be? Astronomers have discovered what they think is the least massive black hole ever seen, with a mere 3.8 times the mass of the Sun, and a diameter of only 25 km (15 miles) across.
The announcement was made by Nikolai Shaposhnikov of NASAâ€™s Goddard Space Flight Center and his colleagues at the American Astronomical Society High-Energy Astrophysics Division currently being held in Los Angeles, California.
The “tiny” black hole, known as XTE J1650-500, was discovered back in 2001 in a binary system with a normal star. Astronomers had known about the binary system for several years, but they were finally able to make accurate measurements using NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) to pin down the mass.
Although black holes themselves are invisible, they’re often surrounded by a disk of hot gas and dust – material chokes up, like water going down the drain. As the hot gas builds up, it releases torrents of X-rays at regular intervals.
Astronomers have long suspected that the frequency of these X-ray blasts depend on the mass of the stars. As the mass of the black hole increases, the size of the accretion disk expands outward too; there are less frequent X-ray emissions.
By cross referencing this method with other, established techniques for weighing black holes, the team is very confident that they’ve got the trick to measuring black hole mass.
When they applied their technique to XTE J1650-500, they turned up a mass of 3.8 Suns, give or take half a solar mass. This is dramatically smaller than the previous record holder at 6.3 Suns.
What’s the smallest possible black hole? Astronomers think it’s somewhere between 1.7 and 2.7 solar masses. Smaller than that and you get a neutron star. Finding black holes that approach this lower limit will help physicists better understand how matter behaves when its crushed down in this extreme environment.
Original Source: NASA News Release