On April 10th, 2019, the world was treated to the first image of a black hole, courtesy of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Specifically, the image was of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of the supergiant elliptical galaxy known as M87 (aka. Virgo A). These powerful forces of nature are found at the centers of most massive galaxies, which include the Milky Way (where the SMBH known as Sagittarius A* is located).
Using a technique known as Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), this image signaled the birth of a new era for astronomers, where they can finally conduct detailed studies of these powerful forces of nature. Thanks to research performed by the EHT Collaboration team during a six-hour observation period in 2017, astronomers are now being treated to images of the core region of Centaurus A and the radio jet emanating from it.
A monster lurks at the heart of many galaxies – even our own Milky Way. This monster possesses the mass of millions or billions of Suns. Immense gravity shrouds it within a dark cocoon of space and time – a supermassive black hole. But while hidden in darkness and difficult to observe, black holes can also shine brighter than an entire galaxy. When feeding, these sleeping monsters awaken transforming into a quasar – one of the Universe’s most luminous objects. The energy a quasar radiates into space is so powerful, it can interfere with star formation for thousands of light years across their host galaxies. But one galaxy appears to be winning a struggle against its awoken blazing monster and in a recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, astronomers are trying to determine how this galaxy survives.
Black holes are the one the most intriguing and awe-inspiring forces of nature. They are also one of the most mysterious because of the way the rules of conventional physics break down in their presence. Despite decades of research and observations there is still much we don’t know about them. In fact, until recently, astronomers had never seen an image of black hole and were unable to guage their mass.
“We have taken the first picture of a black hole.”
EHT project director Sheperd S. Doeleman of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
What was once un-seeable can now be seen. Black holes, those difficult-to-understand singularities that may reside at the center of every galaxy, are becoming seeable. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) has revealed the first-ever image of a black hole, and with this image, and all the science behind it, they may help crack open one of the biggest mysteries in the Universe.
We talk about stellar mass and supermassive black holes. What are the limits? How massive can these things get?
Without the light pressure from nuclear fusion to hold back the mass of the star, the outer layers compress inward in an instant. The star dies, exploding violently as a supernova.
All that’s left behind is a black hole. They start around three times the mass of the Sun, and go up from there. The more a black hole feeds, the bigger it gets.
Terrifyingly, there’s no limit to much material a black hole can consume, if it’s given enough time. The most massive are ones found at the hearts of galaxies. These are the supermassive black holes, such as the 4.1 million mass nugget at the center of the Milky Way. Astronomers figured its mass by watching the movements of stars zipping around the center of the Milky Way, like comets going around the Sun.
There seems to be supermassive black holes at the heart of every galaxy we can find, and our Milky Way’s black hole is actually puny in comparison. Interstellar depicted a black hole with 100 million times the mass of the Sun. And we’re just getting started.
The giant elliptical galaxy M87 has a black hole with 6.2 billion times the mass of the Sun. How can astronomers possibly know that? They’ve spotted a jet of material 4,300 light-years long, blasting out of the center of M87 at relativistic speeds, and only black holes that massive generate jets like that.
Most recently, astronomers announced in the Journal Nature that they have found a black hole with about 12 billion times the mass of the Sun. The accretion disk here generates 429 trillion times more light than the Sun, and it shines clear across the Universe. We see the light from this region from when the Universe was only 6% into its current age.
Somehow this black hole went from zero to 12 billion times the mass of the Sun in about 875 million years. Which poses a tiny concern. Such as how in the dickens is it possible that a black hole could build up so much mass so quickly? Also, we’re seeing it 13 billion years ago. How big is it now? Currently, astronomers have no idea. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine right?
We’ve talked about how massive black holes can get, but what about the opposite question? How teeny tiny can a black hole be?
Astronomers figure there could be primordial black holes, black holes with the mass of a planet, or maybe an asteroid, or maybe a car… or maybe even less. There’s no method that could form them today, but it’s possible that uneven levels of density in the early Universe might have compressed matter into black holes.
Those black holes might still be out there, zipping around the Universe, occasionally running into stars, planets, and spacecraft and interstellar picnics. I’m sure it’s the stellar equivalent of smashing your shin on the edge of the coffee table.
Astronomers have never seen any evidence that they actually exist, so we’ll shrug this off and choose to pretend we shouldn’t be worrying too much. And so it turns out, black holes can get really, really, really massive. 12 billion times the mass of the Sun massive.
What part about black holes still make you confused? Suggest some topics for future episodes of the Guide to Space in the comments below.
We’ve discovered dozens of so-called “hypervelocity stars” — single stars that break the stellar speed limit. But today astronomers multiplied the number of these ‘runaway’ stars by hundreds of thousands. The Virgo Cluster galaxy, M87, has ejected an entire star cluster, throwing it toward us at more than two million miles per hour.
“Astronomers have found runaway stars before, but this is the first time we’ve found a runaway star cluster,” said lead author Nelson Caldwell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a press release.
About one in a billion stars travel at a speed roughly three times greater than our Sun (which clocks in at 220 km/s with respect to the galactic center). At a speed that fast, these stars can easily escape the galaxy entirely, traveling rapidly throughout intergalactic space.
But this is the first time an entire star cluster has broken free.
What would cause an entire cluster — hundreds of thousands of stars packed together a million times more closely than in the neighborhood of our Sun — to reach such a tremendous speed?
Single hypervelocity stars have puzzled astronomers for years. But by observing their speed and direction, astronomers can trace these stars backward, finding that some began moving quickly in the Galactic Center. Here, an interaction with the supermassive black hole can kick a star away at an alarming speed. Another option is that a supernova explosion propelled a nearby star to a huge speed.
Caldwell and colleagues think M87 might have two supermassive black holes at its center. The star cluster wandered too close to the pair, which picked off many of the cluster’s outer stars while the inner core remained intact. The black holes then acted like a slingshot, flinging the cluster away at a tremendous speed.
The star cluster is moving so fast it should soon by sailing into intergalactic space. It may already be, but its distance remains unknown.
The team found the globular cluster — dubbed HVGC-1 — with a stroke of luck. They had been analyzing 2,500 globular cluster candidates for years. While a computer algorithm automatically calculated the speed of every cluster, any oddity was analyzed by hand.
Over 1,000 candidates have measured velocities between 500 and 3000 km/s. These speeds are typical for Virgo Cluster members. But HVGC-1 has a radial velocity of -1026 km/s. “This is the most negative, bulk velocity ever measured for an astronomical object not orbiting another object,” writes Caldwell.
“We didn’t expect to find anything moving that fast,” said coauthor Jay Strader of Michigan State University.
Future measurements pinpointing the exact distance to the globular cluster will help shed light on its exact origins.
The paper will be published in The Astrophysics Journal Letters and is available for download here.
I’m going to refrain from the initial response that comes to mind… actually, no I won’t — they’re really, really, really big!!!!
Ok, now that that’s out of the way check out this graphic by Arecibo astrophysicist Rhys Taylor, which neatly illustrates the relative sizes of 25 selected galaxies using images made from NASA and ESA observation missions… including a rendering of our own surprisingly mundane Milky Way at the center for comparison. (Warning: this chart may adversely affect any feelings of bigness you may have once held dear.) According to Taylor on his personal blog, Physicists of the Caribbean (because he works had worked at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico) “Type in ‘asteroid sizes’ into Google and you’ll quickly find a bunch of images comparing various asteroids, putting them all next to each at the same scale. The same goes for planets and stars. Yet the results for galaxies are useless. Not only do you not get any size comparisons, but scroll down even just a page and you get images of smartphones, for crying out loud.” So to remedy that marked dearth of galactic comparisons, Taylor made his own. Which, if you share my personal aesthetics, you’ll agree is quite nicely done.
“I tried to get a nice selection of well-known, interesting objects,” Taylor explains. “I was also a little limited in that I needed high-resolution images which completely mapped the full extent of each object… still, I think the final selection has a decent mix, and I reckon it was a productive use of a Saturday.” And even with the dramatic comparisons above, Taylor wasn’t able to accurately portray to scale one of the biggest — if not the biggest — galaxies in the observable universe: IC 1101.
For an idea of how we measure up to that behemoth, he made this graphic:
That big bright blur in the center? That’s IC 1101, the largest known galaxy — in this instance created by scaling up an image of M87, another supersized elliptical galaxy that just happens to be considerably closer to our own (and thus has had clearer images taken of it.) But the size is right — IC 1101 is gargantuan.
At an estimated 5.5 million light-years wide, over 50 Milky Ways could fit across it! And considering it takes our Solar System about 225 million years to complete a single revolution around the Milky Way… well… yeah. Galaxies are big. Really, really, really, really big!
Visible-light Hubble image of the jet emitted by the 3-billion-solar-mass black hole at the heart of galaxy M87 (Feb. 1998) Credit: NASA/ESA and John Biretta (STScI/JHU)
Even though black holes — by their definition and very nature — are the ultimate hoarders of the Universe, gathering and gobbling up matter and energy to the extent that not even light can escape their gravitational grip, they also often exhibit the odd behavior of flinging vast amounts of material away from them as well, in the form of jets that erupt hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of light-years out into space. These jets contain superheated plasma that didn’t make it past the black hole’s event horizon, but rather got “spun up” by its powerful gravity and intense rotation and ended up getting shot outwards as if from an enormous cosmic cannon.
The exact mechanisms of how this all works aren’t precisely known as black holes are notoriously tricky to observe, and one of the more perplexing aspects of the jetting behavior is why they always seem to be aligned with the rotational axis of the actively feeding black hole, as well as perpendicular to the accompanying accretion disk. Now, new research using advanced 3D computer models is supporting the idea that it’s the black holes’ ramped-up rotation rate combined with plasma’s magnetism that’s responsible for shaping the jets.
In a recent paper published in the journal Science, assistant professor at the University of Maryland Jonathan McKinney, Kavli Institute director Roger Blandford and Princeton University’s Alexander Tchekhovskoy report their findings made using computer simulations of the complex physics found in the vicinity of a feeding supermassive black hole. These GRMHD — which stands for General Relativistic Magnetohydrodynamic — computer sims follow the interactions of literally millions of particles under the influence of general relativity and the physics of relativistic magnetized plasmas… basically, the really super-hot stuff that’s found within a black hole’s accretion disk.
What McKinney et al. found in their simulations was that no matter how they initially oriented the black hole’s jets, they always eventually ended up aligned with the rotational axis of the black hole itself — exactly what’s been found in real-world observations. The team found that this is caused by the magnetic field lines generated by the plasma getting twisted by the intense rotation of the black hole, thus gathering the plasma into narrow, focused jets aiming away from its spin axes — often at both poles.
At farther distances the influence of the black hole’s spin weakens and thus the jets may then begin to break apart or deviate from their initial paths — again, what has been seen in many observations.
This “magneto-spin alignment” mechanism, as the team calls it, appears to be most prevalent with active supermassive black holes whose accretion disk is more thick than thin — the result of having either a very high or very low rate of in-falling matter. This is the case with the giant elliptical galaxy M87, seen above, which exhibits a brilliant jet created by a 3-billion-solar-mass black hole at its center, as well as the much less massive 4-million-solar-mass SMBH at the center of our own galaxy, Sgr A*.