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

The Care And Feeding Of Teenage Galaxies… And By The Way, They Need Gas


Got a teenager? Then you know the story. Go to look for your favorite bag of chips and they’re gone. You eat one portion of meat and they need three. If you like those cookies, then you better have a darn good place to stash them. And, while you’re at it, their car needs gas. Apparently there’s a reason for the word “universal”, because teenage galaxies aren’t much different. Thanks to some new studies done by ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have been able to take a much closer look at adolescent galaxies and their “feeding habits” during their evolution. Some 3 to 5 billion years after the Big Bang they were happiest when just provided with gas, but later on they developed a voracious appetite… for smaller galaxies!

Scientists have long been aware that early galaxy structures were much smaller than the grand spirals and hefty ellipticals which fill the present Universe. However, figuring out exactly how galaxies put on weight – and where the bulk supply comes from – has remained an enigma. Now an international group of astronomers have taken on more than a hundred hours of observations taken with the VLT to help determine how gas-rich galaxies developed.

“Two different ways of growing galaxies are competing: violent merging events when larger galaxies eat smaller ones, or a smoother and continuous flow of gas onto galaxies.” explains team leader, Thierry Contini (IRAP, Toulouse, France). “Both can lead to lots of new stars being created.”

The undertaking is is MASSIV – the Mass Assembly Survey with the VIsible imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph, a powerful camera and spectrograph on the VLT. It’s incredible equipment used to measure distance and properties of the surveyed galaxies Not only did the survey observe in the near infrared, but also employed a integral field spectrograph and adaptive optics to refine the images. This enables astronomers to map inner galaxy movements and content, as well as leaving room for some very surprising results.

“For me, the biggest surprise was the discovery of many galaxies with no rotation of their gas. Such galaxies are not observed in the nearby Universe. None of the current theories predict these objects,” says Benoît Epinat, another member of the team.

“We also didn’t expect that so many of the young galaxies in the survey would have heavier elements concentrated in their outer parts — this is the exact opposite of what we see in galaxies today,” adds Thierry Contini.

These results point towards a major change during the galactic “teenage years”. At some time during the young Universe state, smooth gas flow was a considerable building block – but mergers would later play a more important role.

“To understand how galaxies grew and evolved we need to look at them in the greatest possible detail. The SINFONI instrument on ESO’s VLT is one of the most powerful tools in the world to dissect young and distant galaxies. It plays the same role that a microscope does for a biologist,” adds Thierry Contini.

The team plans on continuing to study these galaxies with future instruments on the VLT as well as using ALMA to study the cold gas in these galaxies. However, their work with gas isn’t the only “station” on the block. In a separate study led by Kate Rubin (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), the Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, has been used to examine gas associated with a hundred galaxies at distances between 5 and 8 billion light-years – the older teens. They have found initial evidence of gas flowing back into distant galaxies that are actively forming new stars.

Images of the six galaxies with detected inflows taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope. Most of these galaxies have a disk-like, spiral structure, similar to that of the Milky Way. Star formation activity occurring in small knots is evident in several of the galaxies' spiral arms. Because the spirals appear tilted in the images, Rubin et al. concluded that we are viewing them from the side, rather than face-on. This orientation meshes well with a scenario of 'galactic recycling' in which gas is blown out of a galaxy perpendicular to its disk, and then falls back in at different locations along the edge of the disk. Credit: K. Rubin, MPIA

Apparently, like a teenager with the munchies, matter finds its way into those galactic tummies. One feeding theory is an inflow from huge low-density gas reservoirs filling the intergalactic voids… another is huge cosmic matter cycle. While there is very little evidence to support either hypothesis, gases have been observed to flow away from some galaxies and may be moshed around by several different sources – such as supernovae events or peer pressure from gigantic stars.

“As this gas drifts away, it is pulled back by the galaxy’s gravity, and could re-enter the same galaxy in time scales of one to several billion years. This process might solve the mystery: the gas we find inside galaxies may only be about half of the raw material that ends up as fuel for star formation.” says Dr. Rubin. “Large amounts of gas are caught in transit, but will re-enter the galaxy in due time. Add up the galaxy’s gas and the gas currently undergoing cosmic recycling, and there is a sufficient amount of raw matter to account for the observed rates of star formation.”

It might very well be a case of cosmic recycling… but I’d feel safer hiding my cookies.

Original Story Sources: ESO News Release and MPIA Science News Release. For Further Reading: Research Paper 1, Research Paper 2, Research Paper 3 and Research Paper 4.