Here’s another “rogue black hole” theory, which hopefully doesn’t set the doomsday crowd off on a new tangent. But new research suggests that hundreds of massive black holes, left over from the early galaxy-building days of the Universe, may wander the Milky Way. Astrophysicists Ryan O’Leary and Avi Loeb say that rogue black holes originally lurked at the centers of tiny, low-mass galaxies. Over billions of years, those dwarf galaxies smashed together to form full-sized galaxies like the Milky Way. But they also predict that Earth should be safe, as the closest rogue black hole should reside thousands of light-years away.
“These black holes are relics of the Milky Way’s past,” said Loeb, from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “You could say that we are archaeologists studying those relics to learn about our galaxy’s history and the formation history of black holes in the early universe.”
Astronomers say if these wandering black holes could be located, they could provides clues to the formation of the Milky Way.
The theory predicts that each time two proto-galaxies with central black holes collided, their black holes merged to form a single, “relic” black hole. During the merger, directional emission of gravitational radiation would cause the black hole to recoil. A typical kick would send the black hole speeding outward fast enough to escape its host dwarf galaxy, but not fast enough to leave the galactic neighborhood completely. As a result, such black holes would still be around today in the outer reaches of the Milky Way halo.
This sounds similar to another “rogue black hole” theory released in 2008 from Vanderbilt University, where a supercomputer simulation predicted colliding black holes created in globular clusters would be kicked out of their home and left to wander the galaxy. Astronomers have been looking for them for years, and even after all that searching, they’ve only come up with a couple of tentative candidates.
But Loeb and O’Leary say hundreds of rogue black holes should be traveling the Milky Way’s outskirts, each containing the mass of 1,000 to 100,000 suns. They would be difficult to spot on their own because a black hole is visible only when it is swallowing, or accreting, matter.
There could be on telltale sign, however. A surrounding cluster of stars could be yanked from the dwarf galaxy when the black hole escaped. Only the stars closest to the black hole would be tugged along, so the cluster would be very compact.
But still it would be hard to determine. Due to the cluster’s small size on the sky, appearing to be a single star, astronomers would have to look for more subtle clues to its existence and origin. For example, its spectrum would show that multiple stars were present, together producing broad spectral lines. The stars in the cluster would be moving rapidly, their paths influenced by the gravity of the black hole.
O’Leary and Loeb say now that they know what to look for, astronomers should begin scanning the skies for a population of highly compact star clusters in the Milky Way’s halo.
The number of rogue black holes in our galaxy will depend on how many of the proto-galactic building blocks contained black holes at their cores, and how those proto-galaxies merged to form the Milky Way. Finding and studying them will provide new clues about the history of our galaxy.
Loeb and O’Leary’s journal paper will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online at arXiv.