Where Are the Missing Black Holes? The Hubble May Have Helped Find One

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the globular cluster Messier 4. It contains several hundre thousand stars, and its center might host an elusive intermediate-mass black hole. The black hole could have 800 solar masses. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Most black holes are stellar mass black holes. They’re created when a star several times more massive than our Sun reaches the end and collapses in on itself. There are also supermassive black holes (SMBH,) the behemoths at the center of galaxies that can boast billions of times more mass than the Sun.

But where are the intermediate-mass black holes?

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A Cluster of Black Holes Found Inside a Globular Cluster of Stars

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the central region of the rich globular star cluster NGC 3201 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sails). A star that has been found to be orbiting a black hole with four times the mass of the Sun is indicated with blue circle. Credit: ESA/NASA

Black holes come in at least two sizes: small and large. Small black holes are formed from stars. When a large star reaches the end of its life, it typically ends in a supernova. The remnant core then collapses under its own weight, forming a black hole or neutron star. Small stellar-mass black holes are typically tens of solar masses. Large black holes lurk in the centers of galaxies. These supermassive black holes can be millions or billions of solar masses. They formed during the early universe and triggered the formation and evolution of galaxies around them.

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Chandra’s Verdict on the Demise of a Star: “Death by Black Hole”

A composite x-ray and optical image of a dwarf galaxy showing the x-ray transcient in the inset. Credit-CFHT (Optical), NASA/CXC/University of Alabama/GSCF/UMD/W.P. Maksym, D.Donato et al.

This week, astronomers announced the detection of a rare event, a star being torn to shreds by a massive black hole in the heart of a distant dwarf galaxy. The evidence was presented Wednesday January 8th at the ongoing 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society being held this week in Washington D.C.

Although other instances of the death of stars at the hands of black holes have been witnessed before, Chandra may have been the first to document an intermediate black hole at the heart of a dwarf galaxy “in the act”.

The results span observations carried out by the space-based Chandra X-ray observatory over a period spanning 1999 to 2005. The search is part of an archival study of observations, and revealed no further outbursts after 2005.

“We can’t see the star being torn apart by the black hole, but we can track what happens to the star’s remains,” said University of Alabama’s Peter Maksym in a recent press release. A comparison of with similar events seen in larger galaxies backs up the ruling of “death by black hole.”  A competing team led by Davide Donato also looked at archival data from Chandra and the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE), along with supplementary observations from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope to determine the brightness of the host galaxy, and gained similar results.

The dwarf galaxy in the Abell 1795 cluster that was observed has the name WINGS J134849.88+263557.5, or WINGS J1348 for short. The Abell 1795 cluster is about 800 million light years distant.

WINGS denotes the galaxy’s membership in the WIde-field Nearby Galaxy-cluster Survey, and the phone number-like designation is the galaxy’s position in the sky in right ascension and declination.

Like most galaxies associated with galaxy clusters, WINGS J1348 a dwarf galaxy probably smaller than our own satellite galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud. The Abell 1795 cluster is located in the constellation Boötes, and WINGS J1348 has an extremely faint visual magnitude of +22.46.

An optical view of the Abell 1795 galaxy cluster. Credit- NASA/CFHT/D. Donato et al.

“Scientists have been searching for these intermediate mass black holes for decades,” NASA’s Davide Donato said in a recent press release “We have lots of evidence for small black holes and very big ones, but these medium-sized ones have been tough to pin down.”

Maksym notes in an interview with Universe Today that this isn’t the first detection of an intermediate-mass black hole, which are a class of black holes often dubbed the “mostly” missing link between stellar mass and super massive black holes.

The mass range for intermediate black holes is generally pegged at 100 to one million solar masses.

What makes the event witnessed by Chandra in WINGS J1348 special is that astronomers managed to capture a rare tidal flare, as opposed to a supermassive black hole in the core of an active galaxy.

A bright, long duration flare may be the first recorded event of a black hole destroying a star in a dwarf galaxy. The dwarf galaxy is located in the galaxy cluster Abell 1795, about 800 million light years from Earth. A composite image of the cluster shows Chandra data in blue and optical data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in red, green and blue. An inset centered on the dwarf galaxy shows Chandra data taken between before and after 2005. The X-ray flare provides evidence that a large black hole has pulled in debris from a star that was torn apart by tidal forces.
A closeup view of the bright, long duration flare witnessed by Chandra pre-2005. Credit- NASA/CXC/University of Alabama/W.P. Maksym et al.

“Most of the time, black holes eat very little, so they can hide very well,” Maksym said in the AAS meeting on Wednesday.

This discovery pushes the limits on what we know of intermediate black holes. By documenting an observed number of tidal flare events, it can be inferred that a number of inactive black holes must be lurking in galaxies as well. The predicted number of tidal events that occur also have implications for the eventual detection of gravity waves from said mergers.

And more examples of these types of X-ray flare events could be waiting to be uncovered in the Chandra data as well.

“Chandra has taken quite a few pictures over the past 13+ years, and collaborators and I have an ongoing program to look for more tidal flares,” Maksym told Universe Today. “We’ve found one other this way, from a larger galaxy, and hope to find more. Abell 1795 was a particularly good place to look because as a calibration source, there were tons of pictures.”

Use of Chandra data was also ideal for the study because its spatial resolution allowed researchers to pinpoint an individual galaxy in the cluster. Maksym also notes that while it’s hard to get follow-up observations of events based on archival data, future missions dedicated to X-ray astronomy with wider fields of view may be able to scour the skies looking for such tidal flaring events.

The NuSTAR satellite was the latest X-Ray observatory  to launch in 2012.  NASA’s Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer picked up a strong ultraviolet source in 1998 right around the time of the tidal flare event, and ESA’s XMM-Newton satellite may have detected the event in 2000 as well.

This was also one of the smallest galaxies ever observed to contain a black hole. Maksym noted in Wednesday’s press conference that an alternative explanation could be a super-massive black hole in a tiny galaxy that just “nibbled” on a passing star, but said that new data from the Gemini observatory does not support this.

“It would be like looking into a dog house and finding a large ogre crammed in there,” Maksym said at Wednesday’s press conference.

This discovery provides valuable insight into the nature of intermediate mass black holes and their formation and behavior. What other elusive cosmological beasties are lying in wait to be discovered in the archives?

Congrats to Maksym and teams on this exciting new discovery, and the witnessing of a rare celestial event!


Young Star Cluster In Disintegrated Galaxy Reveals First-Ever Intermediate Mass Black Hole

This spectacular edge-on galaxy, called ESO 243-49, is home to an intermediate-mass black hole that may have been stripped off of a cannibalized dwarf galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, and S. Farrell (Sydney Institute for Astronomy, University of Sydney)


Score another first for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope! Along with observations taken with the Swift X-ray telescope, a team of astronomers have identified a young stellar cluster of stars pointing the way towards the first verified intermediate mass black hole. This grouping of stars provides significant indication that black holes of this type may have been at the center of a now shredded dwarf galaxy – a finding which increases our knowledge of galaxy evolution.

“For the first time, we have evidence on the environment, and thus the origin, of this middle-weight black hole,” said Mathieu Servillat, a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics research team.

Designated as ESO 243-49 HLX-1, this incredible intermediate mass black hole was discovered in 2009 by Sean Farrell, of the Sydney Institute for Astronomy in Australia, using the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope. Hyper-Luminous X-ray Source 1 is a 20,000 solar mass beauty which resides at the edge of galaxy ESO 243-49 some 290 million light years away. However, the Newton’s findings weren’t the only contribution – HLX-1 was also verified with NASA’s Swift observatory in X-ray and Hubble in near-infrared, optical, and ultraviolet wavelengths. What stands out is the presence of a cluster of young stars encircling the black hole and stretching out across about 250 light years of space. While the stars themselves are too far away to be resolved, their magnitude and spectra match with other young clusters seen in similar galaxies.

Just what clued the team to the presence of a star cluster? In this case their instruments revealed the blue spectrum of hot gases being emitted from the accretion disk located at the periphery of the black hole… and there was more. They also noted the presence of red light spawned by cooler gases which may indicate the presences of stars. Time to match up the findings against computer modeling.

“What we can definitely say with our Hubble data is that we require both emission from an accretion disk and emission from a stellar population to explain the colors we see.” said Farrell.

Why is the presence of a young star cluster unusual? According to what we know so far, they just don’t occur outside a flattened disk such as HLX-1. This finding may indicate the intermediate mass black hole may have once been at the heart of a dwarf galaxy engaged in a merger event. The dwarf galaxy’s stars were stripped away, but not its capabilities to form new. During the interaction, the gas around the black hole was compressed and star formation began again… but how long ago?

“The age of the population cannot be uniquely constrained, with both very young and very old stellar populations allowed. However, the very old solution requires excessively high levels of disc reprocessing and an extremely small disc, leading us to favour the young solution with an age of ~13 Myr.” says the team. “In addition, the presence of dust lanes and the lack of any nuclear activity from X-ray observations of the host galaxy lead us to propose that a gas-rich minor merger may have taken place less than ~200 Myr ago. Such a merger event would explain the presence of the intermediate mass black hole and support a young stellar population.”

Discoveries such as HLX-1 will help astronomers further understand how supermassive black holes are formed. Current conjecture is that intermediate mass black holes may migrate together to form their larger counterparts. Studying the trajectory of this new find may provide valuable information… even if it is unknown at this point. HLX-1 may be drawn into a merger event and it may just end up orbiting ESO 243-49. Regardless of what happens, chances are it will fade away in X-ray as it exhausts its gas supply.

“This black hole is unique in that it’s the only intermediate-mass black hole we’ve found so far. Its rarity suggests that these black holes are only visible for a short time,” said Servillat.

Original Story Source: Harvard Center for Astrophysics News Release. For Further Reading: A Young Massive Stellar Population Around the Intermediate Mass Black Hole ESO 243-49 HLX-1.