A Black Hole is Pushing the Stars Around in this Globular Cluster

Astronomers have been fascinated with globular clusters ever since they were first observed in 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stellar systems in the Universe, dating back to the early Universe when galaxies were just beginning to grow and evolve. Such clusters orbit the centers of most galaxies, with over 150 known to belong to the Milky Way alone.

One of these clusters is known as NGC 3201, a cluster located about 16,300 light years away in the southern constellation of Vela. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, a team of astronomers recently studied this cluster and noticed something very interesting. According to the study they released, this cluster appears to have a black hole embedded in it.

The study appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “A detached stellar-mass black hole candidate in the globular cluster NGC 3201“. The study was led by Benjamin Giesers of the Georg-August-University of Göttingen and included members from Liverpool John Moores University, Queen Mary University of London, the Leiden Observatory, the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences, ETH Zurich, and the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP).

For the sake of their study, the team relied on the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on the VLT to observe NGC 3201. This instrument is unique because of the way it allows astronomers to measure the motions of thousands of far away stars simultaneously. In the course of their observations, the team found that one of the cluster’s stars was being flung around at speeds of several hundred kilometers an hour and with a period of 167 days.

As Giesers explained in an ESO press release:

It was orbiting something that was completely invisible, which had a mass more than four times the Sun — this could only be a black hole! The first one found in a globular cluster by directly observing its gravitational pull.

This finding was rather unexpected, and constitutes the first time that astronomers have been able to detect an inactive black hole at the heart of a globular cluster – meaning that it is not currently accreting matter or surrounded by a glowing disc of gas. They were also able to estimate the black hole’s mass by measuring the movements of the star around it and thus extrapolating its enormous gravitational pull.

From its observed properties, the team determined that the rapidly-moving star is about 0.8 times the mass of our Sun and the mass of its black hole counterpart to be around 4.36 times the Sun’s mass. This put’s it in the “stellar-mass black hole” category, which are stars that exceeds the maximum mass allowance of a neutron star, but are smaller than supermassive black holes (SMBHs) – which exist at the centers of most galaxies.

This finding is highly significant, and not just because it was the first time that astronomers have observed a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. In addition, it confirms what scientists have been suspecting for a few years now, thanks to recent radio and x-ray studies of globular clusters and the detection of gravity wave signals. Basically, it indicates that black holes are more common in globular clusters than previously thought.

“Until recently, it was assumed that almost all black holes would disappear from globular clusters after a short time and that systems like this should not even exist!” said Giesers. “But clearly this is not the case – our discovery is the first direct detection of the gravitational effects of a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. This finding helps in understanding the formation of globular clusters and the evolution of black holes and binary systems – vital in the context of understanding gravitational wave sources.”

This find was also significant given that the relationship between black holes and globular clusters remains a mysterious, but highly important one. Due to their high masses, compact volumes, and great ages, astronomers believe that clusters have produced a large number of stellar-mass black holes over the course of the Universe’s history. This discovery could therefore tell us much about the formation of globular clusters, black holes, and the origins of gravitational wave events.

And be sure to enjoy this ESO podcast explaining the recent discovery:

Further Reading: ESO, MNRAS

Astronomers Figure Out How Black Holes Can Blast Out Relativistic Jets of Material Across Light Years of Space

Black holes have been an endless source of fascination ever since Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted their existence. In the past 100 years, the study of black holes has advanced considerably, but the awe and mystery of these objects remains. For instance, scientists have noted that in some cases, black holes have massive jets of charged particles emanating from them that extend for millions of light years.

These “relativistic jets” – so-named because they propel charged particles at a fraction of the speed of light – have puzzled astronomers for years. But thanks to a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers, new insight has been gained into these jets. Consistent with General Relativity, the researchers showed that these jets gradually precess (i.e. change direction) as a result of space-time being dragged into the rotation of the black hole.

Their study, titled “Formation of Precessing Jets by Tilted Black Hole Discs in 3D General Relativistic MHD Simulations“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team consisted of members from the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy at the University of Amsterdam and a professor from the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) at Northwestern University.

For the sake of their study, the team conducted simulations using the Blue Waters supercomputer at the University of Illinois. The simulations they conducted were the first ever to model the behavior of relativistic jets coming from Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs). With close to a billion computational cells, it was also the highest-resolution simulation of an accreting black hole ever achieved.

As Alexander Tchekhovskoy, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, explained in a recent Northwestern Now press release:

“Understanding how rotating black holes drag the space-time around them and how this process affects what we see through the telescopes remains a crucial, difficult-to-crack puzzle. Fortunately, the breakthroughs in code development and leaps in supercomputer architecture are bringing us ever closer to finding the answers.”

Much like all Supermassive Black Holes, rapidly spinning SMBHs regularly engulf (aka. accrete) matter. However, rapidly spinning black holes are also known for the way they emit energy in the form of relativistic jets. The matter that feeds these black holes forms a rotating disk around them – aka. an accretion disk – which is characterized by hot, energized gas and magnetic field lines.

It is the presence of these field lines that allows black holes to propel energy in the form of these jets. Because these jets are so large, they are easier to study than the black holes themselves. In so doing, astronomers are able to understand how quickly the direction of these jets change, which reveals things about the rotation of the black holes themselves – such as the orientation and size of their rotating disks.

Advanced computer simulations are necessary when it comes to the study of black holes, largely because they are not observable in visible light and are typically very far away. For instance, the closest SMBH to Earth is Sagittarius A*, which is located about 26,000 light-years away at the center of our galaxy. As such, simulations are the only way to determine how a highly complex system like a black hole operates.

In previous simulations, scientists operated under the assumption that black hole disks were aligned. However, most SMBHs have been found to have tilted disks – i.e. the disks rotate around a separate axis than the black hole itself. This study was therefore seminal in that it showed how disks can change direction relative to their black hole, leading to precessing jets that periodically change their direction.

This was previously unknown because of the incredibly amount of computing power that is needed to construct 3-D simulations of the region surrounding a rapidly spinning black hole. With the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the team was able to achieve this by using the Blue Waters, one of the largest supercomputers in the world.

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

With this supercomputer at their disposal, the team was able to construct the first black hole simulation code, which they accelerated using graphical processing units (GPUs). Thanks to this combination, the team was able to carry out simulations that had the highest level of resolution ever achieved – i.e. close to a billion computational cells. As Tchekhovskoy explained:

“The high resolution allowed us, for the first time, to ensure that small-scale turbulent disk motions are accurately captured in our models. To our surprise, these motions turned out to be so strong that they caused the disk to fatten up and the disk precession to stop. This suggests that precession can come about in bursts.”

The precession of relativistic jets could explain why light fluctuations have been observed coming from around black holes in the past – which are known as quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs). These beams, which were first discovered by Michiel van der Klis (one of the co-authors on the study), operate in much the same way as a quasar’s beams, which appear to have a strobing effect.

This study is one of many that is being conducting on rotating black holes around the world, the purpose of which is to gain a better understanding about recent discoveries like gravitational waves, which are caused by the merger of black holes. These studies are also being applied to observations from the Event Horizon Telescope, which captured the first images of Sagittarius A*’s shadow. What they will reveal is sure to excite and amaze, and potentially deepen the mystery of black holes.

In the past century, the study of black holes has advanced considerably – from the purely theoretical, to indirect studies of the effects they have on surrounding matter, to the study of gravitational waves themselves. Perhaps one day, we might actually be able to study them directly or (if it’s not too much to hope for) peer directly inside them!

Further Reading: Northwestern Now, MNRAS

Mysterious Filament is Stretching Down Towards the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The core of the Milky Way Galaxy has always been a source of mystery and fascination to astronomers. This is due in part to the fact that our Solar System is embedded within the disk of the Milky Way – the flattened region that extends outwards from the core. This has made seeing into the bulge at the center of our galaxy rather difficult. Nevertheless, what we’ve been able to learn over the years has proven to be immensely interesting.

For instance, in the 1970s, astronomers became aware of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of our galaxy, known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). In 2016, astronomers also noticed a curved filament that appeared to be extending from Sgr A*. Using a pioneering technique, a team of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) recently produced the highest-quality images of this structure to date.

The study which details their findings, titled “A Nonthermal Radio Filament Connected to the Galactic Black Hole?“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. In it, the team describes how they used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Very Large Array to investigate the non-thermal radio filament (NTF) near Sagittarius A* – now known as the Sgr A West Filament (SgrAWF).

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

As Mark Morris – a professor of astronomy at the UCLA and the lead authority the study – explained in a CfA press release:

“With our improved image, we can now follow this filament much closer to the Galaxy’s central black hole, and it is now close enough to indicate to us that it must originate there. However, we still have more work to do to find out what the true nature of this filament is.”

After examining the filament, the research team came up with three possible explanations for its existence. The first is that the filament is the result of inflowing gas, which would produce a rotating, vertical tower of magnetic field as it approaches and threads Sgr A*’s event horizon. Within this tower, particles would produce radio emissions as they are accelerated and spiral in around magnetic field lines extending from the black hole.

The second possibility is that the filament is a theoretical object known as a cosmic string. These are basically long, extremely thin cosmic structures that carry mass and electric currents that are hypothesized to migrate from the centers of galaxies. In this case, the string could have been captured by Sgr A* once it came too close and a portion crossed its event horizon.

The third and final possibility is that there is no real association between the filament and Sgr A* and the positioning and direction it has shown is merely coincidental. This would imply that there are many such filaments in the Universe and this one just happened to be found near the center of our galaxy. However, the team is confident that such a coincidence is highly unlikely.

Labelled image of the center of our galaxy, showing the mysterious radio filament & the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Credit: NSF/VLA/UCLA/M. Morris et al.

As Jun-Hui Zhao of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, said:

“Part of the thrill of science is stumbling across a mystery that is not easy to solve. While we don’t have the answer yet, the path to finding it is fascinating. This result is motivating astronomers to build next generation radio telescopes with cutting edge technology.”

All of these scenarios are currently being investigated, and each poses its own share of implications. If the first possibility is true – in which the filament is caused by particles being ejected by Sgr A* – then astronomers would be able to gleam vital information about how magnetic fields operate in such an environment. In short, it could show that near an SMBH, magnetic fields are orderly rather than chaotic.

This could be proven by examining particles farther away from Sgr A* to see if they are less energetic than those that are closer to it. The second possibility, the cosmic string theory, could be tested by conducting follow-up observations with the VLA to determine if the position of the filament is shifting and its particles are moving at a fraction of the speed of light.

If the latter should prove to be the case, it would constitute the first evidence that theoretical cosmic strings actually exists. It would also allow astronomers to conduct further tests of General Relativity, examining how gravity works under such conditions and how space-time is affected. The team also noted that, even if the filament is not physically connected to Sgr A*, the bend in the filament is still rather telling.

In short, the bend appears to be coincide with a shock wave, the kind that would be caused by an exploding star. This could mean that one of the massive stars which surrounds Sgr A* exploded in proximity to the filament in the past, producing the necessary shock wave that altered the course of the inflowing gas and its magnetic field. All of these mysteries will be the subject of follow-up surveys conducted with the VLA.

As co-author Miller Goss from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico (and a co-author on the study) said, “We will keep hunting until we have a solid explanation for this object. And we are aiming to next produce even better, more revealing images.”

Further Reading: CfA, AJL

Kilonova Neutron Star Collision Probably Left Behind a Black Hole

In February of 2016, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. A little over a century after they were first predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, we finally had proof that this phenomenon existed. In August of 2017, another major breakthrough occurred when LIGO detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger.

Shortly thereafter, scientists at LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were able to determine where in the sky the neutron star merger occurred. While many studies have focused on the by-products of this merger, a new study by researchers from Trinity University, the University of Texas at Austin and Eureka Scientific, has chosen to focus on the remnant, which they claim is likely a black hole.

For the sake of their study, which recently appeared online under the title “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, the team consulted data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to examine what resulted of the supernova merger. This data was obtained during Director’s Discretionary Time observations that were made on December 3rd and 6th, 2017, some 108 days after the merger.

This data showed a light-curve increase in the X-ray band which was compatible to the radio flux increase that was reported by a previous study conducted by the same team. These combined results suggest that radio and X-ray emissions were being produced at the same source, and that the rising light-curve that followed the merger was likely due to an increase in accelerated charged particles in the external shock – the region where an outflow of gas interacts with the interstellar medium.

As they indicate in their study, this could either be explained as the result of a more massive neutron star being formed from the merger, or a black hole:

“The merger of two neutron stars with mass 1.48 ± 0.12 M and 1.26 ± 0.1 M — where the merged object has a mass of 2.74 +0.04-0.01 M… could result in either a neutron star or a black hole. There might also be a debris disk that gets accreted onto the central object over a period of time, and which could be source of keV X-rays.”

The team also ruled out various possibilities of what could account for this rise in X-ray luminosity. Basically, they concluded that the X-ray photons were not coming from a debris disk, which would have been left over from the merger of the two neutron stars. They also deduced that they would not be produced by a relativistic jet spewing from the remnant, since the flux would be much lower after 102 days.

 

Collisions of neutron stars produce powerful gamma-ray bursts – and heavy elements like gold. Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

All of this indicated that the remnant was more likely to be a black hole than a hyper-massive neutron star. As they explained:

“We show next that if the merged object were a hyper-massive neutron star endowed with a strong magnetic field, then the X-ray luminosity associated with the dipole radiation would be larger than the observed luminosity 10 days after the event, but much smaller than the observed flux at t ~ 100 days. This argues against the formation of a hyper-massive neutron star in this merger.”

Last, but not least, they considered the X-ray and radio emissions that were present roughly 100 days after the merger. These, they claim, are best explained by continued emissions coming from the merger-induced shock (and the not remnant itself) since these emissions would continue to propagate in the interstellar medium around the remnant. Combined with early X-ray data, this all points towards GW170817 now being a black hole.

The first-ever detection of gravitational waves signaled the dawn of a new era in astronomical research. Since that time, observatories like LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and GEO 600 have also benefited from information-sharing and new studies that have indicated that mergers are more common than previously thought, and that gravity waves could be used to probe the interior of supernovae.

With this latest study, scientists have learned that they are not only able to detect the waves caused by black hole mergers, but even the creation thereof. At the same time, it shows how the study of the Universe is growing. Not only is astronomy advancing to the point where we are able to study more and more of the visible Universe, but the invisible Universe as well.

Further Reading: LIGO, arXiv

Scientist Find Treasure Trove of Giant Black Hole Pairs

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

For decades, astronomers have known that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of most massive galaxies. These black holes, which range from being hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, exert a powerful influence on surrounding matter and are believed to be the cause of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). For as long as astronomers have known about them, they have sought to understand how SMBHs form and evolve.

In two recently published studies, two international teams of researchers report on the discovery of five newly-discovered black hole pairs at the centers of distant galaxies. This discovery could help astronomers shed new light on how SMBHs form and grow over time, not to mention how black hole mergers produce the strongest gravitational waves in the Universe.

The first four dual black hole candidates were reported in a study titled “Buried AGNs in Advanced Mergers: Mid-Infrared Color Selection as a Dual AGN Finder“, which was led by Shobita Satyapal, a professor of astrophysics at George Mason University. This study was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and recently appeared online.

Optical and x-ray data on two of the new black hole pairs discovered. Credit: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Victoria/S.Ellison et al./George Mason Univ./S.Satyapal et al./SDSS

The second study, which reported the fifth dual black hole candidate, was led by Sarah Ellison – an astrophysics professor at the University of Victoria. It was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “Discovery of a Dual Active Galactic Nucleus with ~8 kpc Separation. The discovery of these five black hole pairs was very fortuitous, given that pairs are a very rare find.

As Shobita Satyapal explained in a Chandra press statement:

“Astronomers find single supermassive black holes all over the universe. But even though we’ve predicted they grow rapidly when they are interacting, growing dual supermassive black holes have been difficult to find.

The black hole pairs were discovered by combining data from a number of different ground-based and space-based instruments. This included optical data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona with near-infrared data from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and x-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

For the sake of their studies, Satyapal, Ellison, and their respective teams sought to detect dual AGNs, which are believed to be a consequence of galactic mergers. They began by consulting optical data from the SDSS to identify galaxies that appeared to be in the process of merging. Data from the all-sky WISE survey was then used to identify those galaxies that displayed the most powerful AGNs.

Illustration of a pair of black holes. Credit: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

They then consulted data from the Chandra’s Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) and the LBT to identify seven galaxies that appeared to be in an advanced stage of merger. The study led by Ellison also relied on optical data provided by the Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA) survey to pinpoint one of the new black hole pairs.

From the combined data, they found that five out of the seven merging galaxies hosted possible dual AGNs, which were separated by less than 10 kiloparsecs (over 30,000 light years). This was evidenced by the infrared data provided by WISE, which was consistent with what is predicated of rapidly growing supermassive black holes.

In addition, the Chandra data showed closely-separated pairs of x-ray sources, which is also consistent with black holes that have matter slowly being accreted onto them. This infrared and x-ray data also suggested that the supermassive black holes are buried in large amounts of dust and gas. As Ellison indicated, these findings were the result of painstaking work that consisted of sorting through multiple wavelengths of data:

“Our work shows that combining the infrared selection with X-ray follow-up is a very effective way to find these black hole pairs. X-rays and infrared radiation are able to penetrate the obscuring clouds of gas and dust surrounding these black hole pairs, and Chandra’s sharp vision is needed to separate them”.

Artist’s impression of binary black hole system in the process of merging. Credit: Bohn et al.

Before this study, less than ten pairs of growing black holes had been confirmed based on X-ray studies, and these were mostly by chance. This latest work, which detected five black hole pairs using combined data, was therefore both fortunate and significant. Aside from bolstering the hypothesis that supermassive black holes form from the merger of smaller black holes, these studies also have serious implications for gravitational wave research.

“It is important to understand how common supermassive black hole pairs are, to help in predicting the signals for gravitational wave observatories,” said Satyapa. “With experiments already in place and future ones coming online, this is an exciting time to be researching merging black holes. We are in the early stages of a new era in exploring the universe.”

Since 2016, a total of four instances of gravitational waves have been detected by instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the VIRGO Observatory. However, these detections were the result of black hole mergers where the black holes were all smaller and less massive  – between eight and 36 Solar masses.

Supermassive Black Holes, on the other hand, are much more massive and will likely produce a much larger gravitational wave signature as they continue to draw closer together. And in a few hundred million years, when these pairs eventually do merge, the resulting energy produced by mass being converted into gravitational waves will be incredible.

Artist’s conception of two merging black holes, similar to those detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017. Credit: LIGO/Caltech

At present, detectors like LIGO and Virgo are not able to detect the gravitational waves created by Supermassive Black Hole pairs. This work is being done by arrays like the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which relies on high-precision millisecond pulsars to measure the influence of gravitational waves on space-time.

The proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will be the first dedicated space-based gravitational wave detector, is also expected to help in the search. In the meantime, gravitational wave research has already benefited immensely from collaborative efforts like the one that exists between Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo.

In the future, scientists also anticipate that they will be able to study the interiors of supernovae through gravitational wave research. This is likely to reveal a great deal about the mechanisms behind black hole formation. Between all of these ongoing efforts and future developments, we can expect to “hear” a great deal more of the Universe and the most powerful forces at work within it.

Be sure to check out this animation that shows what the eventual merger of two of these black hole pairs will look like, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra HarvardarXiv, MNRAS

Supermassive Black Holes or Their Galaxies? Which Came First?

Which Came First, Supermassive Black Holes of their Galaxies?

There’s a supermassive black hole at the center of almost every galaxy in the Universe. How did they get there? What’s the relationship between these monster black holes and the galaxies that surround them?

Every time astronomers look farther out in the Universe, they discover new mysteries. These mysteries require all new tools and techniques to understand. These mysteries lead to more mysteries. What I’m saying is that it’s mystery turtles all the way down.

One of the most fascinating is the discovery of quasars, understanding what they are, and the unveiling of an even deeper mystery, where do they come from?

As always, I’m getting ahead of myself, so first, let’s go back and talk about the discovery of quasars.

Molecular clouds scattered by an intermediate black hole show very wide velocity dispersion in this artist’s impression. This scenario well explains the observational features of a peculiar molecular cloud CO-0.40-0.22. Credit: Keio University

Back in the 1950s, astronomers scanned the skies using radio telescopes, and found a class of bizarre objects in the distant Universe. They were very bright, and incredibly far away; hundreds of millions or even billion of light-years away. The first ones were discovered in the radio spectrum, but over time, astronomers found even more blazing in the visible spectrum.

The astronomer Hong-Yee Chiu coined the term “quasar”, which stood for quasi-stellar object. They were like stars, shining from a single point source, but they clearly weren’t stars, blazing with more radiation than an entire galaxy.

Over the decades, astronomers puzzled out the nature of quasars, learning that they were actually black holes, actively feeding and blasting out radiation, visible billions of light-years away.

But they weren’t the stellar mass black holes, which were known to be from the death of giant stars. These were supermassive black holes, with millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun.

As far back as the 1970s, astronomers considered the possibility that there might be these supermassive black holes at the heart of many other galaxies, even the Milky Way.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5194), a classic spiral galaxy located in the Canes Venatici constellation, and its companion NGC 5195. Credit: NASA/ESA

In 1974, astronomers discovered a radio source at the center of the Milky Way emitting radiation. It was titled Sagittarius A*, with an asterisk that stands for “exciting”, well, in the “excited atoms” perspective.

This would match the emissions of a supermassive black hole that wasn’t actively feeding on material. Our own galaxy could have been a quasar in the past, or in the future, but right now, the black hole was mostly silent, apart from this subtle radiation.

Astronomers needed to be certain, so they performed a detailed survey of the very center of the Milky Way in the infrared spectrum, which allowed them to see through the gas and dust that obscures the core in visible light.

They discovered a group of stars orbiting Sagittarius A-star, like comets orbiting the Sun. Only a black hole with millions of times the mass of the Sun could provide the kind of gravitational anchor to whip these stars around in such bizarre orbits.

Further surveys found a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Andromeda Galaxy, in fact, it appears as if these monsters are at the center of almost every galaxy in the Universe.

But how did they form? Where did they come from? Did the galaxy form first, and cause the black hole to form at the middle, or did the black hole form, and build up a galaxy around them?

Until recently, this was actually still one of the big unsolved mysteries in astronomy. That said, astronomers have done plenty of research, using more and more sensitive observatories, worked out their theories, and now they’re gathering evidence to help get to the bottom of this mystery.

Astronomers have developed two models for how the large scale structure of the Universe came together: top down and bottom up.

In the top down model, an entire galactic supercluster formed all at once out of a huge cloud of primordial hydrogen left over from the Big Bang. A supercluster’s worth of stars.

As the cloud came together it, it spun up, kicking out smaller spirals and dwarf galaxies. These could have combined later on to form the more complex structure we see today. The supermassive black holes would have formed as the dense cores of these galaxies as they came together.

Hubble image of Messier 54, a globular cluster located in the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

If you want to wrap your mind around this, think of the stellar nursery that formed our Sun and a bunch of other stars. Imagine a single cloud of gas and dust forming multiple stars systems within it. Over time, the stars matured and drifted away from each other.

That’s top down. One big event that leads to the structure we see today.

In the bottom up model, pockets of gas and dust collected together into larger and larger masses, eventually forming dwarf galaxies, and even the clusters and superclusters we see today. The supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies were grown from collisions and mergers between black holes over eons.

In fact, this is actually how astronomers think the planets in the Solar System formed. By pieces of dust attracting one another into larger and larger grains until the planet-sized objects formed over millions of years.

Bottom up, small parts coming together.

Shortly after the Big Bang, the entire Universe was incredibly dense. But it wasn’t the same density everywhere. Tiny quantum fluctuations in density at the beginning evolved over billions of years of expansion into the galactic superclusters we see today.

Colliding galaxies can force the supermassive black holes in their cores together (NCSA)

I want to stop and let this sink into your brain for a second. There were microscopic variations in density in the early Universe. And these variations became the structures hundreds of millions of light-years across we see today.

Imagine the two forces at play as the expansion of the Universe happened. On the one hand, you’ve got the mutual gravity of the particles pulling one another together. And on the other hand, you’ve got the expansion of the Universe separating the particles from one another. The size of the galaxies, clusters and superclusters were decided by the balance point of those opposing forces.

If small pieces came together, then you’d get that bottom up formation. If large pieces came together, you’d get that top down formation.

When astronomers look out into the Universe at the largest scales, they observe clusters and superclusters as far as they can see – which supports the top down model.

On the other hand, observations show that the first stars formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, which supports bottom up.

So the answer is both?

No, the most modern observations give the edge to the bottom up processes.

The key is that gravity moves at the speed of light, which means that the gravitational interactions between particles spreading away from each other needed to catch up, going the speed of light.

In other words, you wouldn’t get a supercluster’s worth of material coming together, only a star’s worth of material. But these first stars were made of pure hydrogen and helium, and could grow much more massive than the stars we have today. They would live fast and die in supernova explosions, creating much more massive black holes than we get today.

This illustration shows the final stages in the life of a supermassive star that fails to explode as a supernova, but instead implodes to form a black hole. Credit: NASA/ESA/P. Jeffries (STScI)

The first protogalaxies came together, collecting together these first monster black holes and the massive stars surrounding them. And then, over millions and billions of years, these black holes merged again and again, accumulating millions and even billions of times the mass of the Sun. This was how we got the modern galaxies we see today.

There was a recent observation that supports this conclusion. Earlier this year, astronomers announced the discovery of supermassive black holes at the center of relatively tiny galaxies. In our own Milky Way, the supermassive black hole is 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun, but accounts for only .01% of the galaxy’s total mass.

But astronomers from the University of Utah found two ultra compact galaxies with black holes of 4.4 million and 5.8 million times the mass of the Sun respectively. And yet, the black holes account for 13 and 18 percent of the mass of their host galaxies.

The thinking is that these galaxies were once normal, but collided with other galaxies earlier on in the history of the Universe, were stripped of their stars and then were spat out to roam the cosmos.

They’re the victims of those early merging events, evidence of the carnage that happened in the early Universe when the mergers were happening.

We always talk about the unsolved mysteries in the Universe, but this is one that astronomers are starting to puzzle out.

It seems most likely that the structure of the Universe we see today formed bottom up. The first stars came together into protogalaxies, dying as supernova to form the first black holes. The structure of the Universe we see today is the end result of billions of years of formation and destruction. With the supermassive black holes coming together over time.

Once telescopes like James Webb get to work, we should be able to see these pieces coming together, at the very edge of the observable Universe.

Another Monster Black Hole Found in the Milky Way

At the center of the Milky Way Galaxy resides the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*. This tremendous black hole measures an estimated 44 million km in diameter, and has the mass of over 4 million Suns. For decades, astronomers have understood that most larger galaxies have an SMBH at their core, and that these range from hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar Masses.

However, new research performed by a team of researchers from Keio University, Japan, has made a startling find. According to their study, the team found evidence of a mid-sized black hole in a gas cluster near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. This unexpected find could offer clues as to how SMBHs form, which is something that astronomers have been puzzling over for some time.

The study, titled “Millimetre-wave Emission from an Intermediate-mass Black Hole Candidate in the Milky Way“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. Led by Tomoharu Oka, a researcher from the Department of Physics and the School of Fundamental Science and Technology at Keio University, the team studied CO–0.40–0.22, a high-velocity compact gas cloud near the center of our galaxy.

This artist’s concept shows a galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its core. The black hole is shooting out jets of radio waves.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This compact dust cloud, which has been a source of fascination to astronomers for years, measures over 1000 AU in diameter and is located about 200 light-years from the center of our galaxy. The reason for this interest has to do with the fact that gases in this cloud – which include hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide – move at vastly different speeds, which is something unusual for a cloud of interstellar gases.

In the hopes of better understanding this strange behavior, the team originally observed CO–0.40–0.22 using the 45-meter radio telescope at the Nobeyama Radio Observatory in Japan. This began in January of 2016, when the team noticed that the cloud had an elliptical shape that consisted of two components. These included a compact but low density component with varying velocities, and a dense component (10 light years long) with little variation.

After conducting their initial observations, the team then followed up with observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. These confirmed the structure of the cloud and the variations in speed that seemed to accord with density. In addition, they observed the presence of radio waves (similar to those generated by Sagittarius A*) next to the dense region. As they state in their study:

“Recently, we discovered a peculiar molecular cloud, CO–0.40–0.22, with an extremely broad velocity width, near the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Based on the careful analysis of gas kinematics, we concluded that a compact object with a mass of about 105 [Solar Masses] is lurking in this cloud.”

Change image showing the area around Sgr A*, where low, medium, and high-energy X-rays are red, green, and blue, respectively. The inset box shows X-ray flares from the region close to Sgr A*. NASA: NASA/SAO/CXC

The team also ran a series of computer models to account for these strange behaviors, which indicated that the most likely cause was a black hole. Given its mass – 100,000 Solar Masses, or roughly 500 times smaller than that of Sagittarius A* – this meant that the black hole was intermediate in size. If confirmed, this discovery will constitute the second-largest black hole to be discovered within the Milky Way.

This represents something of a first for astronomers, since the vast majority of black holes discovered to date have been either small or massive. Studies that have sought to locate Intermediate Black Holes (IMBHs), on the other hand, have found very little evidence of them. Moreover, these findings could account for how SMBHs form at the center of larger galaxies.

In the past, astronomers have conjectured that SMBHs are formed by the merger of smaller black holes, which implied the existence of intermediate ones. As such, the discovery of an IMBH would constitute the first piece of evidence for this hypothesis. As Brooke Simmons, a professor at the University of California in San Diego, explained in an interview with The Guardian:

“We know that smaller black holes form when some stars die, which makes them fairly common. We think some of those black holes are the seeds from which the much larger supermassive black holes grow to at least a million times more massive. That growth should happen in part by mergers with other black holes and in part by accretion of material from the part of the galaxy that surrounds the black hole.

“Astrophysicists have been collecting observational evidence for both stellar mass black holes and supermassive black holes for decades, but even though we think the largest ones grow from the smallest ones, we’ve never really had clear evidence for a black hole with a mass in between those extremes.”

Artist’s impression of two merging black holes, which has been theorized to be a source of gravitational waves. Credit: Bohn, Throwe, Hébert, Henriksson, Bunandar, Taylor, Scheel/SXS

Further studies will be needed to confirm the presence of an IMBH at the center of CO–0.40–0.22. Assuming they succeed, we can expect that astrophyiscists will be monitoring it for some time to determine how it formed, and what it’s ultimate fate will be. For instance, it is possible that it is slowly drifting towards Sagittarius A* and will eventually merge with it, thus creating an even more massive SMBH at the center of our galaxy!

Assuming human beings are around to detect that merger, its fair to say that it won’t go unnoticed. The gravitational waves alone are sure to be impressive!

Further Reading: Nature Astronomy

Researchers Tackle Question of How the Universe Became Filled With Light

In accordance with the Big Bang model of cosmology, shortly after the Universe came into being there was a period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists have therefore been pondering how the Universe could go from being in this dark, cloudy state to one where it was filled with light. According to a new study by a team of researchers from the University of Iowa and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, it may be that black holes violently ejected matter from the early Universe, thus allowing light to escape.

Their study, titled “Resolving the X-ray emission from the Lyman continuum emitting galaxy Tol 1247-232“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Phillip Kaaret, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa – and supported by an award from the Chandra X-ray Observatory – the research team arrived at this conclusion by observing a nearby galaxy from which ultraviolet light is escaping.

Milestones in the history of the Universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. Credit: NAOJ/NOAO

This galaxy, known as Tol 1247-232, is a small (and possibly elliptical) galaxy located 652 million light-years away, in the direction of the southern Hydra constellation. This galaxy is one of just nine in the local Universe (and one of only three galaxies close to the Milky Way) that has been shown to emit Lyman continuum photons – a type of radiation in the ultraviolet band.

Back in May of 2016, the team spotted a single X-ray source coming from a star-forming region in this galaxy, using the Chandra X-ray observatory. Based on their observations, they determined that it was not caused by the formation of a new star. For one, new stars do not experience sudden changes in brightness, as this x-ray source did. In addition, the radiation emitted by new stars does not come in the form of a point-like source.

Instead, they determined that what they were seeing had to be the result of a very small object, which left only one likely explanation: a black hole. As Philip Kaaret, a professor in the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy and the lead author on the study, explained:

“The observations show the presence of very bright X-ray sources that are likely accreting black holes. It’s possible the black hole is creating winds that help the ionizing radiation from the stars escape. Thus, black holes may have helped make the universe transparent.”

Where is the Nearest Black Hole
Artist concept of matter swirling around a black hole. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

However, this also raised the question of how a black hole could be emitting matter. This is something that astrophysicists have puzzled over for quite some time. Whereas all black holes have tendency to consume all that is in their path, a small number of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) have been found to have high-speed jets of charged particles streaming from their cores.

These SMBHs are what power Active Galactic Nuclei, which are compact, bright regions that has been observed at the centers of particularly massive galaxies. At present, no one is certain how these SMBHs manage to fire off jets of hot matter. But it has been theorized that they could be caused by the accelerated rotational energy of the black holes themselves.

In keeping with this, the team considered the possibility that accreting X-ray sources could explain the escape of matter from a black hole. In other words, as a black hole’s intense gravity pulls matter inward, the black hole responds by spinning faster. As the hole’s gravitational pull increases, the speed creates energy, which inevitably causes charged particles to be pushed out. As Kaaret explained:

“As matter falls into a black hole, it starts to spin and the rapid rotation pushes some fraction of the matter out. They’re producing these strong winds that could be opening an escape route for ultraviolet light. That could be what happened with the early galaxies.”

Depiction of the tidal disruption event in F01004-2237. The release of gravitational energy as the debris of the star is accreted by the black hole leads to a flare in the optical light of the galaxy. Credit and copyright: Mark Garlick

Taking this a step further, the team hypothesized that this could be what was responsible for light escaping the “Dark Ages”. Much like the jets of hot material being emitted by SMBHs today, similarly massive black holes in the early Universe could have sped up due to the accretion of matter, spewing out light from the cloudiness and allowing for the Universe to become a clear, bright place.

In the future, the UI team plans to study Tol 1247-232 in more detail and locate other nearby galaxies that are also emitting ultraviolet light. This will corroborate their theory that black holes could be responsible for the observed point source of high-energy X-rays. Combined with studies of the earliest periods of the Universe, it could also validate the theory that the “Dark Ages” ended thanks to the presence of black holes.

Further Reading: Iowa Now, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Cosmic Census Says There Could be 100 Million Black Holes in our Galaxy Alone

In January of 2016, researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by Caltech and MIT, LIGO is dedicated to studying the waves predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and caused by black hole mergers.

According to a new study by a team of astronomers from the Center of Cosmology at the University of California Irvine, such mergers are far more common than we thought. After conducting a survey of the cosmos intended to calculate and categorize black holes, the UCI team determined that there could be as many as 100 million black holes in the galaxy, a finding which has significant implications for the study of gravitational waves.

The study which details their findings, titled “Counting Black Holes: The Cosmic Stellar Remnant Population and Implications for LIGO“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Oliver D. Elbert, a postdoc student with the department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine, the team conducted an analysis of gravitational wave signals that have been detected by LIGO.

LIGO’s two facilities, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu

Their study began roughly a year and a half ago, shortly after LIGO announced the first detection of gravitational waves. These waves were created by the merger of two distant black holes, each of which was equivalent in mass to about 30 Suns. As James Bullock, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine and a co-author on the paper, explained in a UCI press release:

“Fundamentally, the detection of gravitational waves was a huge deal, as it was a confirmation of a key prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But then we looked closer at the astrophysics of the actual result, a merger of two 30-solar-mass black holes. That was simply astounding and had us asking, ‘How common are black holes of this size, and how often do they merge?’”

Traditionally, astronomers have been of the opinion that black holes would typically be about the same mass as our Sun. As such, they sought to interpret the multiple gravitational wave detections made by LIGO in terms of what is known about galaxy formation. Beyond this, they also sought to create a framework for predicting future black hole mergers.

From this, they concluded that the Milky Way Galaxy would be home to up to 100 million black holes, 10 millions of which would have an estimated mass of about 30 Solar masses – i.e. similar to those that merged and created the first gravitational waves detected by LIGO in 2016. Meanwhile, dwarf galaxies – like the Draco Dwarf, which orbits at a distance of about 250,000 ly from the center of our galaxy – would host about 100 black holes.

They further determined that today, most low-mass black holes (~10 Solar masses) reside within galaxies of 1 trillion Solar masses (massive galaxies) while massive black holes (~50 Solar masses) reside within galaxies that have about 10 billion Solar masses (i.e. dwarf galaxies). After considering the relationship between galaxy mass and stellar metallicity, they interpreted a galaxy’s black hole count as a function of its stellar mass.

In addition, they also sought to determine how often black holes occur in pairs, how often they merge and how long this would take. Their analysis indicated that only a tiny fraction of black holes would need to be involved in mergers to accommodate what LIGO observed. It also offered predictions that showed how even larger black holes could be merging within the next decade.

As Manoj Kaplinghat, also a UCI professor of physics and astronomy and the second co-author on the study, explained:

“We show that only 0.1 to 1 percent of the black holes formed have to merge to explain what LIGO saw. Of course, the black holes have to get close enough to merge in a reasonable time, which is an open problem… If the current ideas about stellar evolution are right, then our calculations indicate that mergers of even 50-solar-mass black holes will be detected in a few years.”

In other words, our galaxy could be teeming with black holes, and mergers could be happening in a regular basis (relative to cosmological timescales). As such, we can expect that many more gravity wave detections will be possible in the coming years. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how LIGO has made two additional detections since the winter of 2016.

With many more expected to come, astronomers will have many opportunities to study black holes mergers, not to mention the physics that drive them!

Further Reading: UCI, MNRAS

Stars Orbiting Supermassive Black Hole Show Einstein was Right Again!

At the center of our galaxy, roughly 26,000 light years from Earth, lies the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*. Measuring 44 million km across, this object is roughly 4 million times as massive as our Sun and exerts a tremendous gravitational pull. Since astronomers cannot detect black holes directly, its existence has been determined largely from the effect it has on the small group of stars orbiting it.

In this respect, scientists have found that observing Sagittarius A* is an effective way of testing the physics of gravity. For instance, in the course of observing these stars, a team of German and Czech astronomers noted subtle effects caused by the black hole’s gravity. In so doing, they were able to yet again confirm some of the predictions made by Einstein’s famous Theory of General Relativity.

Their study, titled “Investigating the Relativistic Motion of the Stars Near the Supermassive Black Hole in the Galactic Center“, was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal. As is indicated in the course of it, the team applied new analysis techniques to existing observations that were made by European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) and other telescopes over the course of the past 20 years.

Artist’s impression of part of S2s orbit around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/M. Parsa/L. Calçada

From this, they measured the orbits of the stars that orbit Sagittarius A* to test predictions made by classical Newtonian physics (i.e. Universal Gravitation), as well as predictions based on general relativity. What they found was that one of the stars (S2) showed deviations in its orbit which were defied the former, but were consistent with the latter.

This star, which has 15 times the mass of our Sun, follows an elliptical orbit around the SMBH, completing a single orbit in about 15.6 years. At its closest, it gets to within 17 light hours of the black hole, which is the equivalent of 120 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth (120 AU). Essentially, the research team noted that S2 had the most elliptical orbit of any star orbiting the Supermassive Black Hole.

They also noted a slight change in its orbit – a few percent in the shape and about one-sixth of a degree in orientation. This could only be explained as being due to the relativistic effects caused by Sagittarius A* intense gravity, which cause a precession in its orbit.  What this means is, the elliptical loop of S2’s orbit rotates around the SMBH over time, with its perihelion point aimed in different directions.

Interestingly enough, this is similar to the effect that was observed in Mercury’s orbit – aka. the “perihelion precession of Mercury” – during the late 19th century. This observation challenged classical Newtonian mechanics and led scientists to conclude that Newton’s theory of gravity was incomplete. It is also what prompted Einstein to develop his theory of General Relativity, which offered a satisfactory explanation for the issue.

Should the results of their study be confirmed, this will be the first time that the effects of general relativity have been precisely calculated using the stars that orbit a Supermassive Black Hole. Marzieh Parsa – a PhD student at the University of Cologne, Germany and lead author of the paper – was understandably excited with these results. As she stated in an ESO press statement:

The Galactic Center really is the best laboratory to study the motion of stars in a relativistic environment. I was amazed how well we could apply the methods we developed with simulated stars to the high-precision data for the innermost high-velocity stars close to the supermassive black hole.

This study was made possible thanks to the high-accuracy of the VLT’s instruments; in particular, the adaptive optics on the NACO camera and the SINFONI near-infrared spectrometer. These instruments were vital in tracking the star’s close approach and retreat from the black hole, which allowed for the team to precisely determine the shape of its orbit and thusly determine the relativistic effects on the star.

In addition to the more precise information about S2’s orbit, the team’s analysis also provided new and more accurate estimates of Sagittarius A* mass, as well as its distance from Earth. This could open up new avenues of research for this and other Supermassive Black Holes, as well as additional experiments that could help scientists to learn more about the physics of gravity.

The central parts of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, as observed in the near-infrared with the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/MPE/S. Gillessen et al.

The results also provided a preview of the measurements and tests that will be taking place next year. In 2018, the star S2 will be making a very close approach to Sagittarius A*. Scientists from around the world will be using this opportunity to test the GRAVITY instrument, a second-generation instrument that was recently installed on the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI).

Developed by an international consortium led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, this instrument has been conducting observations of the Galactic Center since 2016. In 2018, it will be used to measure the orbit of S2 with even greater precision, which is expected to be most revealing.  At this time, astrophysicists will be seeking to make additional measurements of the SMBH’s general relativistic effects.

Beyond that, they also hope to detect additional deviations in the star’s orbit that could hint at the existence of new physics! With the right tools trained on the right place, and at the right time, scientists just might find that even Einstein’s theories of gravity were not entirely complete. But in the meantime, it looks like the late and great theoretical physicist was right again!

And be sure to check out this video of the recent study, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Astrophysical Journal