Evidence for Thousands of Black Holes Buzzing Around the Center of the Milky Way

Since the 1970s, astronomers have understood that a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) resides at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellations, this black hole has come to be known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr 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 that time, astronomers have discovered that most massive galaxies have SMBHs at their core, which is what separates those that have an Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) from those that don’t. But thanks to a recent survey conducted using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered evidence for hundreds or even thousands of black holes located near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The study which described their findings was recently published in the journal Nature under the title “A density cusp of quiescent X-ray binaries in the central parsec of the Galaxy“. The study was led by Chuck Hailey, the Pupin Professor of Physics and the Co-Director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory (CAL) at Columbia University, and including members from the Instituto de Astrofísica at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The center of the Milky Way Galaxy, with X-ray binaries circled in red, other X-ray sources circled in yellow, and Sagittarius A* circled in blue at the center. Credit: NASA/CXC/Columbia University/C. Hailey et al.

Using Chandra data, the team searched for X-ray binaries containing black holes that were in the vicinity of Sgr A*. To recap, black holes are not detectable in visible light. However, black holes (or neutron stars) that are locked in close orbits with a star will pull material from their companions, which will then be accreted onto the black holes’ disks and heated up to millions of degrees.

This will result in the release of X-rays which can then be detected, hence why these systems are called “X-ray binaries”. Using Chandra data, the team sought out X-ray of sources that were located within roughly 12 light years of Sgr A*. They then selected sources with X-ray spectra similar to those of known X-ray binaries, which emit relatively large amounts of low-energy X-rays.

Using this method, they detected fourteen X-ray binaries within about three light years of Sgr A*, all of which contained stellar-mass black holes (between 5 and 30 times the mass of our Sun). Two of these sources had been identified by previous studies and were eliminated from the analysis, while the remaining twelve (circled in red in the image above) were newly-discovered.

Other sources which relatively large amounts of high energy X-rays (labeled in yellow) were believed to be binaries containing white dwarfs. Hailey and his colleagues concluded that the majority of the dozen X-ray binaries were likely to contain black holes, based on their variability and the fact that their X-ray emissions over the course of several years was different from what is expected from binaries containing neutron stars.

Artist”s impression of a black hole binary, consisting of a black hole siphoning material from its companion. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Given that only the brightest X-ray binaries containing black holes are likely to be detectable around Sgr A* (given its distance from Earth), Hailey and his colleagues concluded that this detection implies the existence of a much larger population. By their estimates, there could be at least 300 and as many as one thousand stellar-mass black holes present around Sgr A*.

These findings confirmed what theoretical studies on the dynamics of stars in galaxies have indicated in the past. According to these studies, a large population of stellar mass black holes (as many as 20,000) could drift inward over the course of millions of years and collect around an SMBH. However, the recent analysis conducted by Hailey and his colleagues was the first observational evidence of black holes congregating near Sgr A*.

Naturally, the authors acknowledge that there are other explanations for the X-ray emissions they detected. This includes the possibility that half of the dozen sources they observed are millisecond pulsars – very rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields. However, based on their observations, Hailey and his team strongly favor the black hole explanation.

In addition, a follow-up study conducted by Aleksey Generozov (et al.) of Columbia University – titled “An Overabundance of Black Hole X-Ray Binaries in the Galactic Center from Tidal Captures” – indicated that there could be as many as 10,000 to 40,000 black holes binaries at the center of our galaxy. According to this study, these binaries would be the result of companions being captured by black holes.

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.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

In addition to revealing much about the dynamics of stars in our galaxy, this study has implications for the emerging field of gravitational wave (GW) research. Essentially, by knowing how many black holes reside at the center of galaxies (which will periodically merge with one another), astronomers will be able to better predict how many gravitational wave events are associated with them.

From this, astronomers could create predictive models about when and how GW events are likely to happen, and well as discerning what role they may play in galactic evolution. And with next-generation instruments – like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA) – astronomers will be able to determine exactly how many black holes reside near the center of our galaxy.

 

 

Further Reading: NASA

Astronomy Cast Ep. 489: Black Hole Update

Another update episode, this time we look at what’s new and changed in the research of black holes. And it’s here that we find a lot of substantial new discoveries in the field, so much has been discovered since we first covered black holes a decade ago.

We usually record Astronomy Cast every Friday at 3:00 pm EST / 12:00 pm PST / 20:00 PM UTC. You can watch us live on AstronomyCast.com, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

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How to Listen to the Background Hum of Gravitational Waves From all the Black Holes Colliding into Each Other

The first-ever detection of gravitational waves (which took place in September of 2015) triggered a revolution in astronomy. Not only did this event confirm a theory predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity a century before, it also ushered in a new era where the mergers of distant black holes, supernovae, and neutron stars could be studied by examining their resulting waves.

In addition, scientists have theorized that black hole mergers could actually be a lot more common than previously thought. According to a new study conducted by pair of researchers from Monash University, these mergers happen once every few minutes. By listening to the background noise of the Universe, they claim, we could find evidence of thousands of previously undetected events.

Their study, titled “Optimal Search for an Astrophysical Gravitational-Wave Background“, recently appeared in the journal Physical Review X. The study was conducted by Rory Smith and Eric Thrane, a senior lecturer and a research fellow at Monash University, respectively. Both researchers are also members of the ARC Center of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav).

Drs. Eric Thrane and Rory Smith. Credit: Monash University

As they state in their study, every 2 to 10 minutes, a pair of stellar-mass black holes merge somewhere in the Universe. A small fraction of these are large enough that the resulting gravitational wave event can be detected by advanced instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and Virgo observatory. The rest, however, contribute to a sort of stochastic background noise.

By measuring this noise, scientists may be able to study much more in the way of events and learn a great deal more about gravitational waves. As Dr Thrane explained in a Monash University press statement:

“Measuring the gravitational-wave background will allow us to study populations of black holes at vast distances. Someday, the technique may enable us to see gravitational waves from the Big Bang, hidden behind gravitational waves from black holes and neutron stars.”

Drs Smith and Thrane are no amateurs when it comes to the study of gravitational waves. Last year, they were both involved in a major breakthrough, where researchers from LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and the Virgo Collaboration measured gravitational waves from a pair of merging neutron stars. This was the first time that a neutron star merger (aka. a kilonova) was observed in both gravitational waves and visible light.

The pair were also part of the Advanced LIGO team that made the first detection of gravitational waves in September 2015. To date, six confirmed gravitational wave events have been confirmed by the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations. But according to Drs Thrane and Smith, there could be as many as 100,000 events happening every year that these detectors simply aren’t equipped to handle.

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.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

These waves are what come together to create a gravitational wave background; and while the individual events are too subtle to be detected, researchers have been attempting to develop a method for detecting the general noise for years. Relying on a combination of computer simulations of faint black hole signals and masses of data from known events, Drs. Thrane and Smith claim to have done just that.

From this, the pair were able to produce a signal within the simulated data that they believe is evidence of faint black hole mergers. Looking ahead, Drs Thrane and Smith hope to apply their new method to real data, and are optimistic it will yield results. The researchers will also have access to the new OzSTAR supercomputer, which was installed last month at the Swinburne University of Technology to help scientists to look for gravitational waves in LIGO data.

This computer is different from those used by the LIGO community, which includes the supercomputers at CalTech and MIT. Rather than relying on more traditional central processing units (CPUs), OzGrav uses graphical processor units – which can be hundreds of times faster for some applications. According to Professor Matthew Bailes, the Director of the OzGRav supercomputer:

“It is 125,000 times more powerful than the first supercomputer I built at the institution in 1998… By harnessing the power of GPUs, OzStar has the potential to make big discoveries in gravitational-wave astronomy.”

What has been especially impressive about the study of gravitational waves is how it has progressed so quickly. From the initial detection in 2015, scientists from Advanced LIGO and Virgo have now confirmed six different events and anticipate detecting many more. On top of that, astrophysicists are even coming up with ways to use gravitational waves to learn more about the astronomical phenomena that cause them.

All of this was made possible thanks to improvements in instrumentation and growing collaboration between observatories. And with more sophisticated methods designed to sift through archival data for additional signals and background noise, we stand to learn a great deal more about this mysterious cosmic force.

Further Reading: Monash, Physical Review X

Dense Star Clusters Could be the Places Where Black Hole Mergers are Common

In February of 2016, scientists working for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Not only did this discovery confirm a century-old prediction made by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it also confirmed the existence of stellar binary black holes – which merged to produce the signal in the first place.

And now, an international team led by MIT astrophysicist Carl Rodriguez has produced a study that suggests that  black holes may merge multiple times. According to their study, these “second-generation mergers” likely occur within globular clusters, the large and compact star clusters that typically orbit at the edges of galaxies – and which are densely-packed with hundreds of thousands to millions of stars.

The study, titled “Post-Newtonian Dynamics in Dense Star Clusters: Highly Eccentric, Highly Spinning, and Repeated Binary Black Hole Mergers“, recently appeared in the Physical Review Letters. The study was led by Carl Rodriguez, a Pappalardo fellow in MIT’s Department of Physics and the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, and included members from the Institute of Space Sciences and the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

As Carl Rodriguez explained in a recent MIT press release:

“We think these clusters formed with hundreds to thousands of black holes that rapidly sank down in the center. These kinds of clusters are essentially factories for black hole binaries, where you’ve got so many black holes hanging out in a small region of space that two black holes could merge and produce a more massive black hole. Then that new black hole can find another companion and merge again.”

Globular clusters have been a source of fascination ever since astronomers first observed them in the 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stars in the Universe, and can be found in most galaxies. Depending on the size and type of galaxy they orbit, the number of clusters varies, with elliptical galaxies hosting tens of thousands while galaxies like the Milky Way have over 150.

For years, Rodriguez has been investigating the behavior of black holes within globular clusters to see if they interact with their stars differently from black holes that occupy less densely-populated regions in space. To test this hypothesis, Rodriguez and his colleagues used the Quest supercomputer at Northwestern University to conduct simulations on 24 stellar clusters.

These clusters ranged in size from 200,000 to 2 million stars and covered a range of different densities and metallic compositions. The simulations modeled the evolution of individual stars within these clusters over the course of 12 billion years. This span of time was enough to follow these stars as they interacted with each other, and eventually formed black holes.

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.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

The simulations also modeled the evolution and trajectories of black holes once they formed. As Rodriguez explained:

“The neat thing is, because black holes are the most massive objects in these clusters, they sink to the center, where you get a high enough density of black holes to form binaries. Binary black holes are basically like giant targets hanging out in the cluster, and as you throw other black holes or stars at them, they undergo these crazy chaotic encounters.”

Whereas previous simulations were based on Newton’s physics, the team decided to add Einstein’s relativistic effects into their simulations of globular clusters. This was due to the fact that gravitational waves were not predicted by Newton’s theories, but by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. As Rodriguez indicated, this allowed for them to see how gravitational waves played a role:

“What people had done in the past was to treat this as a purely Newtonian problem. Newton’s theory of gravity works in 99.9 percent of all cases. The few cases in which it doesn’t work might be when you have two black holes whizzing by each other very closely, which normally doesn’t happen in most galaxies… In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, where I can emit gravitational waves, then when one black hole passes near another, it can actually emit a tiny pulse of gravitational waves. This can subtract enough energy from the system that the two black holes actually become bound, and then they will rapidly merge.”

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

What they observed was that inside the stellar clusters, black holes merge with each other to create new black holes. In previous simulations, Newtonian gravity predicted that most binary black holes would be kicked out of the cluster before they could merge. But by taking relativistic effects into account, Rodriguez and his team found that nearly half of the binary black holes merged to form more massive ones.

As Rodriguez explained, the difference between those that merged and those that were kicked out came down to spin:

“If the two black holes are spinning when they merge, the black hole they create will emit gravitational waves in a single preferred direction, like a rocket, creating a new black hole that can shoot out as fast as 5,000 kilometers per second — so, insanely fast. It only takes a kick of maybe a few tens to a hundred kilometers per second to escape one of these clusters.”

This raised another interesting fact about previous simulations, where astronomers believed that the product of any black hole merger would be kicked out of the cluster since most black holes are assumed to be rapidly spinning. However, the gravity wave measurements recently obtained from LIGO appear to contradict this, which has only detected the mergers of binary black holes with low spins.

Artist’s impression of two merging black holes. Credit: Bohn, Throwe, Hébert, Henriksson, Bunandar, Taylor, Scheel/SXS

This assumption, however, seems to contradict the measurements from LIGO, which has so far only detected binary black holes with low spins. To test the implications of this, Rodriguez and his colleagues reduced the spin rates of the black holes in their simulations. What they found was that nearly 20% of the binary black holes from clusters had at least one black hole that ranged from being 50 to 130 solar masses.

Essentially, this indicated that these were “second generation” black holes, since scientists believe that this mass cannot be achieved by a black hole that formed from a single star. Looking ahead, Rodriguez and his team anticipate that if LIGO detects an object with a mass within this range, it is likely the result of black holes merging within dense stellar cluster, rather than from a single star.

“If we wait long enough, then eventually LIGO will see something that could only have come from these star clusters, because it would be bigger than anything you could get from a single star,” Rodriguez says. “My co-authors and I have a bet against a couple people studying binary star formation that within the first 100 LIGO detections, LIGO will detect something within this upper mass gap. I get a nice bottle of wine if that happens to be true.”

The detection of gravitational waves was a historic accomplishment, and one that has enabled astronomers to conduct new and exciting research. Already, scientists are gaining new insight into black holes by studying the byproduct of their mergers. In the coming years, we can expect to learn a great deal more thanks to improve methods and increased cooperation between observatories.

Further Reading: MIT, Physical Review Letters

Astronomers Figure Out How to use Gravitational Lensing to Measure the Mass of White Dwarfs

For the sake of studying the most distant objects in the Universe, astronomers often rely on a technique known as Gravitational Lensing. Based on the principles of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, this technique involves relying on a large distribution of matter (such as a galaxy cluster or star) to magnify the light coming from a distant object, thereby making it appear brighter and larger.

However, in recent years, astronomers have found other uses for this technique as well. For instance, a team of scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) recently determined that Gravitational Lensing could also be used to determine the mass of white dwarf stars. This discovery could lead to a new era in astronomy where the mass of fainter objects can be determined.

The study which details their findings, titled “Predicting gravitational lensing by stellar remnants” appeared in the Monthly Noticed of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Alexander J. Harding of the CfA and included Rosanne Di Stefano, and Claire Baker (also from the CfA), as well as members from the University of Southampton, Georgia State University, the University of Nigeria, and Cornell University.

A Hubble image of the white dwarf star PM I12506+4110E (the bright object, seen in black in this negative print) and its field which includes two distant stars PM12-MLC1&2. Credit: Harding et al./NASA/HST

To put it simply, determining the mass of an astronomical object is one the greatest challenges for astronomers. Until now, the most successful method relied on binary systems because the orbital parameters of these systems depend on the masses of the two objects. Unfortunately, objects that are at the end states of stellar evolution – like black holes, neutron stars or white dwarfs – are often too faint or isolated to be detectable.

This is unfortunate, since these objects are responsible for a lot of dramatic astronomical events. These include the accretion of material, the emission of energetic radiation, gravitational waves, gamma-ray bursts, or supernovae. Many of these events are still a mystery to astronomers or the study of them is still in its infancy – i.e. gravitational waves. As they state in their study:

“Gravitational lensing provides an alternative approach to mass measurement. It has the advantage of only relying on the light from a background source, and can therefore be employed even for dark lenses. In fact, since light from the lens can interfere with the detection of lensing effects, compact objects are ideal lenses.”

As they go on to state, of the 18,000 lensing events that have been detected to date, roughly 10 to 15% are believed to have been caused by compact objects. However, scientists are unable to tell which of the detected events were due to compact lenses. For the sake of their study then, the team sought to circumvent this problem by identifying local compact objects and predicting when they might produce a lensing event so they could be studied.

Animation showing the white dwarf star Stein 2051B as it passes in front of a distant background star. Credit: NASA

“By focusing on pre-selected compact objects in the near vicinity of the Sun, we ensure that the lensing event will be caused by a white dwarf, neutron star, or black hole,” they state. “Furthermore, the distance and proper motion of the lens can be accurately measured prior to the event, or else afterwards. Armed with this information, the lensing light curve allows one to accurately measure the mass of the lens.”

In the end, the team determined that lensing events could be predicted from thousands of local objects. These include 250 neutron stars, 5 black holes, and roughly 35,000 white dwarfs. Neutron stars and black holes present a challenge since the known populations are too small and their proper motions and/or distances are not generally known.

But in the case of white dwarfs, the authors anticipate that they will provide for many lensing opportunities in the future. Based on the general motions of the white dwarfs across the sky, they obtained a statistical estimate that about 30-50 lensing events will take place per decade that could be spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope, the ESA’s Gaia mission, or NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As they state in their conclusions:

“We find that the detection of lensing events due to white dwarfs can certainly be observed during the next decade by both Gaia and HST. Photometric events will occur, but to detect them will require observations of the positions of hundreds to thousands of far-flung white dwarfs. As we learn the positions, distances to, and proper motions of larger numbers of white dwarfs through the completion of surveys such as Gaia and through ongoing and new wide-field surveys, the situation will continue to improve.”

The future of astronomy does indeed seem bright. Between improvements in technology, methodology, and the deployment of next-generation space and ground-based telescopes, there is no shortage of opportunities to see and learn more.

Further Reading: CfA, MNRAS

Physicists Have Created an Artificial Gamma Ray Burst in the Lab

On July 2nd, 1967, the U.S. Vela 3 and 4 satellites noticed something rather perplexing. Originally designed to monitor for nuclear weapons tests in space by looking for gamma radiation, these satellites picked up a series of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) coming from deep space. And while decades have passed since the “Vela Incident“, astronomers are still not 100% certain what causes them.

One of the problems has been that until now, scientists have been unable to study gamma ray bursts in any real capacity. But thanks to a new study by an international team of researchers, GRBs have been recreated in a laboratory for the first time. Because of this, scientists will have new opportunities to investigate GRBs and learn more about their properties, which should go a long away towards determining what causes them.

The study, titled “Experimental Observation of a Current-Driven Instability in a Neutral Electron-Positron Beam“, was recently published in the Physical Review Letters. The study was led by Jonathon Warwick from Queen’s University Belfast and included members from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, The John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and multiple universities.

Artist’s impression of a gamma ray burst in space. Credit: ESO/A. Roquette

Until now, the study of GRBs have been complicated by two major issues. On the one hand, GRBs are very short lived, lasting for only seconds at a time. Second, all detected events have occurred in distant galaxies, some of which were billions of light-years away. Nevertheless, there are a few theories as to what could account for them, ranging from the formation of black holes and collisions between neutron stars to extra-terrestrial communications.

For this reason, investigating GRBs is especially appealing to scientists since they could reveal some previously-unknown things about black holes. For the sake of their study, the research team approached the question of GRBs as if they were related to the emissions of jets of particles released by black holes. As Dr. Gianluca Sarri, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, explained in a recent op-ed piece with The Conversation:

“The beams released by the black holes would be mostly composed of electrons and their “antimatter” companions, the positrons… These beams must have strong, self-generated magnetic fields. The rotation of these particles around the fields give off powerful bursts of gamma ray radiation. Or, at least, this is what our theories predict. But we don’t actually know how the fields would be generated.”

With the assistance of their collaborators in the US, France, the UK and Sweden, the team from Queen’s University Belfast relied on the Gemini laser, located at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK. With this instrument, which is one of the most powerful lasers in the world, the international collaboration sought to create the first small scale replica of GRBs.

Artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole emitting powerful jets of charged particles. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

By shooting this laser onto a complex target, the team was able to create miniature versions of these ultra-fast astrophysical jets, which they recorded to see how they behaved. As Dr. Sarri indicated:

“In our experiment, we were able to observe, for the first time, some of the key phenomena that play a major role in the generation of gamma ray bursts, such as the self-generation of magnetic fields that lasted for a long time. These were able to confirm some major theoretical predictions of the strength and distribution of these fields. In short, our experiment independently confirms that the models currently used to understand gamma ray bursts are on the right track.”

This experiment was not only important for the study of GRBs, it could also advance our understanding about how different states of matter behave. Basically, almost all phenomena in nature come down to the dynamics of electrons, as they are much lighter than atomic nuclei and quicker to respond to external stimuli (such as light, magnetic fields, other particles, etc).

“But in an electron-positron beam, both particles have exactly the same mass, meaning that this disparity in reaction times is completely obliterated,” said Dr. Sarri. “This brings to a quantity of fascinating consequences. For example, sound would not exist in an electron-positron world.”

Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The narrow beams represent the gamma-ray burst while the rippling spacetime grid indicates the isotropic gravitational waves that characterize the merger. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

In addition, there is the aforementioned argument that GRBs could in fact be evidence of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI). In the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), scientists look for electromagnetic signals that do not appear to have natural explanations. By knowing more about different types of electromagnetic bursts, scientists could be better able to isolate those for which there are no known causes. As Dr. Sarri put it:

“Of course, if you put your detector to look for emissions from space, you do get an awful lot of different signals. If you really want to isolate intelligent transmissions, you first need to make sure all the natural emissions are perfectly known so that they can excluded. Our study helps towards understanding black hole and pulsar emissions, so that, whenever we detect anything similar, we know that it is not coming from an alien civilization.”

Much like research into gravitational waves, this study serves as an example of how phenomena that were once beyond our reach is now open to study. And much like gravitational waves, research into GRBs is likely to yield some impressive returns in the coming years!

Further Reading: The Conversation, Physical Review Letters

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.

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