New Technique for Finding Intermediate Mass Black Holes


It’s one of the big mysteries in astronomy. There are stellar mass black holes and the supermassive variety, but nothing in between. Where are all the intermediate mass black holes? Astronomers theorize that they could be located in globular star clusters, but nothing definitive has turned up yet. A team of researchers think they’ve come up with a new way to detect intermediate black holes – a way to see them for billions of light-years.

First a little background. When white dwarf stars are in a close binary system with another star, they pull off material, piling it up on their surface. When the white dwarf reaches 1.4 times the mass of our Sun, it reignites in a reaction that happens so quickly the star detonates. This is a Type 1a supernova, and astronomers use them as standard candles to determine distance since they always explode with the same amount of energy.

But researchers from UC Santa Cruz think there’s another situation where you might get a supernova explosion from a white dwarf: when it’s orbiting an intermediate mass black hole.

If a black hole has just the right amount of mass – 500 to 1000 times the mass of the Sun – a white dwarf might get torn apart in a particularly spectacular way. As the dwarf passes the whole, it would get compressed and heated. Its formerly dead material would now have the pressure and temperature to reignite in a powerful explosion similar to a Type 1a supernova.

The explosion would eject more than half of the debris into space, but the rest would fall back into the black hole and form an accretion disk around it. This disk would then emit X-ray radiation detectable by space telescopes like the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

“This is a new mechanism for ignition of a white dwarf that results in a very different type of supernova than the standard type Ia, and it is followed by an x-ray source,” said Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

According to Ramirez-Ruiz, events like this would happen in about 1% of Type 1a supernova explosions. Future surveys, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, due for completion in 2013, is expected to discover hundreds of thousands of Type 1a supernovae each there. With those kinds of numbers, there should be many of these intermediate black hole interactions detected.

The mass of the white dwarf doesn’t really matter. They ran various sized stars through their simulation and found that you would still get the same outcome; the white dwarf would be tidally disrupted and then it would detonate.

Original Source: UC Santa Cruz News Release

Hyperfast Star Ejected from the Large Magellenic Cloud


Occasionally, stars minding their own business around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy get chucked out of the Milky Way, never to return. Fraser wrote about the discovery of two of these exiled stars, hurling away at the mind-blowing speed of over 1 million miles an hour. A recent study of another shows that not all of them originate in the center of our own galaxy.

New results from astronomers at the Carnegie Institute show that one star rocketing away from the Milky Way hearkens from the Large Magellanic Cloud, our neighboring galaxy. There have been ten such hypervelocity stars discovered, but where this one came from was quite a conunudrum.

Named HE 0437-5439, it’s nine times the mass of the Sun, and is traveling at 1.6 million miles an hour (2.6 million km an hour). The origin of the star has been a mystery until now because of its youth: it is 35 million years old, but it would have taken 100 million years to get to its current location if it were from the center of the Milky Way.

This meant that the star either came from somewhere else, or had to have formed out of the merger of two low-mass stars from the Milky Way, a so-called “blue straggler.”

Carnegie astronomers Alceste Bonanos and Mercedes López-Morales, and collaborators Ian Hunter and Robert Ryans from Queen’s University Belfast took measurements of the composition of the star – the first time this has been done on any hypervelocity star – and determined that its metal-poor makeup pointed towards the Large Magellanic Cloud as the former home of the castaway.

Bonanos said,“We’ve ruled out that the star came from the Milky Way. The concentration of [heavy] elements in Large Magellanic Cloud stars are about half those in our Sun. Like evidence from a crime scene, the fingerprints point to an origin in the Large Magellanic Cloud.�

Hypervelocity stars get their kick of energy from their interaction with a black hole. The stars were once part of a binary system, and as one star in the system gets captured by the black hole, the other is abruptly released, booting it clear out of the galaxy.

The mere fact that the Large Magellanic Cloud produced this hyperfast star hints at the presence of a black hole there, which has never previously been observed to exist.

Source: Carnegie Institute Press Release

Fat Black Holes Can Lurk in Thin Galaxies


Supermassive black holes are thought to lurk at the heart of most galaxies. Scientists have long believed that only the galaxies with thick central bulges could pull together enough mass for a supermassive black hole to form. But NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has turned up evidence that even skinny galaxies, with no central bulge, can still form these galactic monsters.

Astronomers used the Spitzer Space Telescope to survey 32 flat and bulgeless galaxies, and still turned up supermassive black holes in their central cores. This means that galaxy bulges aren’t necessary to build up these black holes; instead, the mysterious and invisible dark matter might be necessary to bring them together.

“This finding challenges the current paradigm. The fact that galaxies without bulges have black holes means that the bulges cannot be the determining factor, said Shobita Satyapal of George Mason University, presenting her research at the American Astronomical Society’s Winter meeting in Austin. “It’s possible that the dark matter that fills the halos around galaxies plays an important role in the early development of supermassive black holes.”

Seen from edge on, our own Milky Way’s bulge would be clearly visible, with the thin spiral arms trailing away to the sides. And researchers know we have a supermassive black hole. Researchers used to think there was a direct connection between the size of the bulge, and the mass of the black hole.

But in 2003, astronomers discovered a relatively lightweight black hole in a galaxy without a bulge. And then earlier this year, Satyapal and her team found another example of this bulgeless black hole.

Since bulges don’t seem to matter, Satyapal suggests that a galaxy’s dark matter halo is the deciding factor to determine how massive a black hole can get.

“Maybe the bulge was just serving as a proxy for the dark matter mass – the real determining factor behind the existence and mass of a black hole in a galaxy’s center,” said Satyapal.

Original Source: Spitzer News Release

Death Echos of Material Destroyed Near a Black Hole


Greedy black holes can only consume so much material. The leftover matter backs up into an accretion disk surrounding the black hole. The pull of the black hole is so strong that flashes of radiation emitted from this accretion disk might need to make several orbits around the black hole before it can actually escape the gravitational pull. And these echoes might serve as a probe, allowing astronomers to understand the nature of the black hole itself.

Keigo Fukumura and Demosthenes Kazanas from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center revealed their theoretical research at the Winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

“The light echoes come about because of the severe warping of spacetime predicted by Einstein,” said Fukumura. “If the black hole is spinning fast, it can literally drag the surrounding space, and this can produce some wild special effects.”

Black holes are surrounded by a disk of searing hot gas rotating at close to the speed of light. A black hole can only consume material so quickly, so any additional matter backs up into this accretion disk. The material in these disks can form hot spots which emit random bursts of X-rays.

When the researchers accounted for the predictions made by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, they realized that the severe warp of spacetime can actually change the path X-rays take as they escape the grasp of the black hole. The X-rays can actually be delayed, depending on the position of the black hole, the position of the flare, and Earth.

If the black hole is rotating at the most extreme speeds, photons can actually make several orbits around the black hole before escaping.

“For each X-ray burst from a hot spot, the observer will receive two or more flashes separated by a constant interval, so even a signal made up from a totally random collection of bursts from hot spots at different positions will contain an echo of itself,” says Kazanas.

Astronomers watching these flashes will have a powerful observational tool they can use to probe the nature of the black hole. The frequency of the flashes would provide astronomers with an accurate way to measure the mass of the black hole.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Black Holes Seen Spinning at the Limits Predicted by Einstein


The supermassive black holes that lurk at the hearts of the most massive galaxies might be spinning faster than astronomers ever thought. In fact, they might be spinning at the very limits predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Perhaps it’s this extreme rotational speed that generates the energetic jets that blast out of the most massive and active galaxies.

Astronomers used NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory to study 9 giant galaxies that seem to contain rapidly spinning supermassive black holes. These galaxies have large disturbances in their gaseous atmosphere, so the researchers calculated that these black holes must be spinning at near their maximum rates.

“We think these monster black holes are spinning close to the limit set by Einstein’s theory of relatively, which means that they can drag material around them at close to the speed of light,” said Rodrigo Nemmen, a visiting graduate student at Penn State University.

According to Einstein, when a black hole rotates at extreme speeds, it can actually catch up the surrounding space time and make that rotate as well. This effect, linked with the inflowing streams of gas can produce rotating, tightly wound towers of powerful magnetic fields. These fields channel the energy and inflowing gas into powerful jets which blast away from the black hole at nearly the speed of light.

It’s believed that black holes can acquire these extreme rotational speeds when galaxies merge. Fresh material falling onto the black hole just boosts its speed higher and higher until it reaches the hard limits allowed by relativity.

And it’s this extreme rate of spin that forms the power source for the jets. With the number of powerful jets seen pouring out of many galaxies, it might be that most supermassive black holes are spinning at extreme rates; we just haven’t detected them yet.

Supermassive black holes can be very disruptive to their local environments. The jets pump enormous amounts of energy into their surroundings, heating up gas. Since stars can only form when there are large clouds of cold gas, these process of heating can stall star formation in the host galaxy.

Astronomers want to work out the relationship between supermassive black holes and the rates of star formation in the most massive galaxies in the Universe.

Original Source: Chandra News Release

There May Be Hundreds of Rogue Black Holes in the Milky Way


Uh oh, this doesn’t sound good. It turns out there could be hundreds of rogue black holes, each weighing thousands of times the mass of the Sun, hurtling though the Milky Way. Oh, and they’d be almost impossible to spot.

Vanderbilt astronomer Kelly Holley-Bockelmann presented the results of a supercomputer simulation at the Winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The research focused on modeling the controversial “intermediate mass” black holes. These are the theorized black holes that should form within globular star clusters, containing a few thousand times the mass of the Sun; much heavier than the stellar mass black holes, but a fraction the mass of the supermassive variety. 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. So maybe these black holes are all around us, kicked out of their globular clusters, free to wander the galaxy.

Scientists have been hard at work modeling what might happen as two black holes merge. This is the realm where Einstein’s theory of relativity comes into play because of the tremendous forces and masses involved.

The simulations predict that as two black holes come together to form a new, even more massive black hole, it should receive a tremendous “kick” because of the conservation of momentum. The newly formed black hole should actually get kicked right out of the globular cluster in a random direction as fast as 4,000 kilometres a second.

Since the escape velocity of a globular cluster is only about 100 km/s, that black hole won’t ever come back to its home.

Now, if this research is true, the roughly 200 globular clusters in the Milky Way might have spawned intermediate-sized black holes, and then ejected them in random directions into the galaxy. There are probably several hundred black holes wandering invisibly through our galaxy.

Now don’t get too scared, “these rogue black holes are extremely unlikely to do any damage to us in the lifetime of the Universe,” soothed Holly-Bockelmann. “Their danger zone, the Schwarzschild radius, is really tiny, only a few hundred kilometers. There are far more dangerous things in our neighborhood.”

Original Source: Vanderbilt News Release

Hidden Quasars – Found!


Quasars are some of the brightest objects in the Universe. Just a single quasar can blaze more than a hundred times more brightly than our entire Milky Way galaxy. It turns out, though, that some of the brightest quasars in the Universe are hidden, cloaked behind a shroud of gas and dust. But now researchers have developed a technique to find the galaxies hiding these bright quasars. It turns out, they’re everywhere, we just couldn’t see them.

This blazing material surrounding a supermassive black hole is a quasar. The relatively tiny region around a black hole can blaze more than a hundred times as brightly as our own Milky Way galaxy. But there’s a paradox. The more powerful the quasar, the better a job it can do to hide itself within a shroud of gas and dust.

To see the hidden quasars, you can’t look in the visible spectrum. You need to use a wavelength that isn’t obscured by gas and dust, such as infrared and X-rays. However, previous surveys in these wavelengths have only revealed small portions of the sky.

Astronomers from Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study announced today that they have developed a technique to see the telltale signs that a galaxy contains a bright quasar – without having to perform an extensive survey in these other wavelengths. By sifting through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, looking for very special characteristics of the light coming from a galaxy, the team uncovered 887 hidden quasars; the largest number ever detected.

“We determined how common hidden quasars are, especially the most luminous ones. Perhaps more interestingly, we determined how common they are relative to normal quasars,” said team member Nadia Zakamska, a NASA Spitzer Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

“We found that hidden quasars make up at least half of the quasars in the relatively recent Universe, implying that most of the powerful black holes in our neighborhood had previously been unrecognized.”

This means that there are many hidden quasars out there. And it also means that quasars are much more efficient at converting matter into light than astronomers previously realized. In fact, most of the light released by quasars is probably absorbed by intervening gas and dust.

In other words, even though quasars are incredibly bright objects, blazing with hundreds of times the light of an entire galaxy, that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

They’re much much brighter.

Original Source: SDSS News Release

Black Holes Linked to Cosmic Rays


You know that big list of unsolved mysteries in astronomy? Well, you can remove, “what causes the highest energy cosmic rays?” Thanks to new research using the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory in South America, the answer appears to be: supermassive black holes.

High energy cosmic rays are actually particles – protons mostly – accelerated to tremendous velocities. When they crash into the Earth’s atmosphere, they explode in a spray of energy and sub-particles that can be detected here on the surface. Fortunately our atmosphere protects us from damage, but out in space, they’re a real threat.

Just a single particle can have the same energy as fast moving tennis ball.

Astronomers have been wondering for years how particles can get boosted to such high energy levels. A massive team of 370 researchers from 17 countries have been working on the answer using the newly developed Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory, nestled in the mountains of South America.

The observatory is actually an array of detectors spread out over a 3,000 km2 area. As the cosmic rays collide with the atmosphere, the resulting spray of particles are caught by the detectors, which house large tanks of water. The detectors are so sensitive, they can detect a different in timing, which allow astronomers to triangulate the direction the cosmic ray came from. The particles are flung with such energy that they point back to their galaxies, like bullets coming from a gun.

Before the Pierre Auger observatory, cosmic ray detections were rare. Astronomers just didn’t have enough data to know where they were coming from. But over the last 3 years, the observatory has recorded a million cosmic rays, including 80 of the highest energy.

Astronomers now know that cosmic rays don’t come from all regions of the sky, but they’re shot out from actively feeding supermassive black holes.

The exact process that creates the cosmic rays isn’t fully understood, but astronomers think that the environment around an active supermassive black hole is ferocious, to say the least. Powerful magnetic fields are generated, which can act like natural particle accelerators, pushing protons to energy levels much higher than anything physicists could recreate with our technology.

Original Source: University of Chicago News Release

Podcast: Rising Winds from Supermassive Black Holes


Astronomers now believe there’s a supermassive black hole lurking at the heart of every galaxy. When these monsters are actively feeding, an accretion disk of material builds up around them, like swirling water waiting to go down the drain. For the first time, astronomers have detected winds rising up from this disk of doomed material. And it turns out, these winds have a profound impact on the surrounding galaxy.

Dr. Andrew Robinson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Andrew was part of a team that detected these winds, announced this week in the journal Nature.

Click here to download the podcast.

Supermassive Black Holes Shape Their Galaxies


Astronomers are now understanding the connection between supermassive black holes and the galaxies they inhabit better and better. In fact, it now looks like the powerful winds that blow out of these monsters can have a significant effect on the galaxies they inhabit, helping determine their growth.

In a recent study, published in the journal Nature, a group of scientists from the Rochester Institute of Technology report on their study of the rotating winds the rise up above the accretion disks surrounding supermassive black holes in distant galaxies.

With millions of times the mass of the Sun, supermassive black holes pull strongly at the material in their host galaxy. Just like water going down a drain, this material backs up into a swirling accretion disk. The material heats up, and blazes with radiation visible clear across the Universe – this is a quasar.

Astronomers from RIT and the University of Hertfordshire in England studied one quasar, PG 1700+518, located about 3 billion light-years from Earth. They were able to detect winds of gas coming off the accretion disk for the first time, both moving vertically away from the disk, but also rotating at the same speed.

This helps solve the long-standing mystery of how the accretion disk rids itself of angular momentum. It turns out, this wind needs to happen. If gas wasn’t being removed this way, material would stop falling in, and the quasar would turn off as the supermassive black hole was starved for fuel.

This wind both helps manage the growth of the black hole, but it also regulates the evolution of the galaxy. As the wind moves out into more distant regions of the galaxy, it helps collapse pockets of cold hydrogen, leading to regions of star formation.

Original Source: RIT News Release