At the center of our galaxy lies a region where roughly 10 million stars are packed into just 1 parsec (3.25 light-years) of space. At the center of this lies the supermassive black hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*, which has a mass of over 4 million Suns. For decades, astronomers have been trying to get a better look at this region in the hopes of understanding the incredible forces at work and how they have affected the evolution of our galaxy.
What they’ve found includes a series of stars that orbit very closely to Sagittarius A* (like S1 and S2), which have been used to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. And recently, a team from UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative detected a series of compact objects that also orbit the SMBH. These objects look like clouds of gas but behave like stars, depending on how close they are in their orbits to Sagittarius A*.
Thanks to the vastly improved capabilities of today’s telescopes, astronomers have been probing deeper into the cosmos and further back in time. In so doing, they have been able to address some long-standing mysteries about how the Universe evolved since the Big Bang. One of these mysteries is how supermassive black holes (SMBHs), which play a crucial role in the evolution of galaxies, formed during the early Universe.
Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, an international team of astronomers observed galaxies as they appeared about 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang (ca. 12.5 billion years ago). Surprisingly, they observed large reservoirs of cool hydrogen gas that could have provided a sufficient “food source” for SMBHs. These results could explain how SMBHs grew so fast during the period known as the Cosmic Dawn.
Perhaps the greatest discovery to come from the “Golden Age of General Relativity” (ca. 1960 to 1975) was the realization that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) exists at the center of our galaxy. In time, scientists came to realize that similarly massive black holes were responsible for the extreme amounts of energy emanating from the active galactic nuclei (AGNs) of distant quasars.
Given their sheer size, mass, and energetic nature, scientists have known for some time that some pretty awesome things take place beyond the event horizon of an SMBH. But according to a recent study by a team of Japanese researchers, it is possible that SMBHs can actually form a system of planets! In fact, the research team concluded that SMBHs can form planetary systems that would put our Solar System to shame!
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.
The Hubble Space Telescope is like an old dog that is constantly teaching the astronomical community new tricks. In the course of its almost thirty years in operation, it has revealed vital data about the expansion of the Universe, its age, the Milky Way, supermassive black holes (SMBHs), other star systems and exoplanets, and the planets of the Solar System.
Most recently, an international team of researchers using Hubble made a discovery that was not only fascinating but entirely unexpected. In the heart of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147, they spotted a swirling thin disk of gas that was precariously close to a back hole that is about 250 million Solar masses. The find was a complete surprise since the black hole was considered too small to have such a structure around it.
An almost unimaginably enormous black hole is situated at the heart of the Milky Way. It’s called a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH), and astronomers think that almost all massive galaxies have one at their center. But of course, nobody’s ever seen one (sort of, more on that later): It’s all based on evidence other than direct observation.
The Milky Way’s SMBH is called Sagittarius A* (Sgr. A*) and it’s about 4 million times more massive than the Sun. Scientists know it’s there because we can observe the effect it has on matter that gets too close to it. Now, we have one of our best views yet of Sgr. A*, thanks to a team of scientists using a technique called interferometry.
In 1915, Albert Einstein published his famous Theory of General Relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory gave rise to the modern theory of gravitation and revolutionized our understanding of physics. Even though a century has passed since then, scientists are still conducting experiments that confirm his theory’s predictions.
The new infrared observations collected by these instruments allowed the team to monitor one of the stars (S2) that orbits Sagittarius A* as it passed in front of the black hole – which took place in May of 2018. At the closest point in its orbit, the star was at a distance of less than 20 billion km (12.4 billion mi) from the black hole and was moving at a speed in excess of 25 million km/h (15 million mph) – almost three percent of the speed of light.
Whereas the SINFONI instrument was used to measure the velocity of S2 towards and away from Earth, the GRAVITY instrument in the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) made extraordinarily precise measurements of the changing position of S2 in order to define the shape of its orbit. The GRAVITY instrument then created the sharp images that revealed the motion of the star as it passed close to the black hole.
The team then compared the position and velocity measurements to previous observations of S2 using other instruments. They then compared these results with predictions made by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, General Relativity, and other theories of gravity. As expected, the new results were consistent with the predictions made by Einstein over a century ago.
As Reinhard Genzel, who in addition to being the leader of the GRAVITY collaboration was a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESO press release:
“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic center. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution. We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.”
When observed with the VLT’s new instruments, the team noted an effect called gravitational redshift, where the light coming from S2 changed color as it drew closer to the black hole. This was caused by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole, which stretched the wavelength of the star’s light, causing it to shift towards the red end of the spectrum.
The change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with what Einstein’s field equation’s predicted. As Frank Eisenhauer – a researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics, the Principal Investigator of GRAVITY and the SINFONI spectrograph, and a co-author on the study – indicated:
“Our first observations of S2 with GRAVITY, about two years ago, already showed that we would have the ideal black hole laboratory. During the close passage, we could even detect the faint glow around the black hole on most of the images, which allowed us to precisely follow the star on its orbit, ultimately leading to the detection of the gravitational redshift in the spectrum of S2.”
Whereas other tests have been performed that have confirmed Einstein’s predictions, this is the first time that the effects of General Relativity have been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole. In this respect, Einstein has been proven right once again, using one the most extreme laboratory to date! What’s more, it confirmed that tests involving relativistic effects can provide consistent results over time and space.
“Here in the Solar System we can only test the laws of physics now and under certain circumstances,” said Françoise Delplancke, head of the System Engineering Department at ESO. “So it’s very important in astronomy to also check that those laws are still valid where the gravitational fields are very much stronger.”
In the near future, another relativistic test will be possible as S2 moves away from the black hole. This is known as a Schwarzschild precession, where the star is expected to experience a small rotation in its orbit. The GRAVITY Collaboration will be monitoring S2 to observe this effect as well, once again relying on the VLT’s very precise and sensitive instruments.
As Xavier Barcons (the ESO’s Director General) indicated, this accomplishment was made possible thanks to the spirit of international cooperation represented by the GRAVITY collaboration and the instruments they helped the ESO develop:
“ESO has worked with Reinhard Genzel and his team and collaborators in the ESO Member States for over a quarter of a century. It was a huge challenge to develop the uniquely powerful instruments needed to make these very delicate measurements and to deploy them at the VLT in Paranal. The discovery announced today is the very exciting result of a remarkable partnership.”
And be sure to check out this video of the GRAVITY Collaboration’s successful test, courtesy of the ESO:
Shortly after Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity in 1915, physicists began to speculate about the existence of black holes. These regions of space-time from which nothing (not even light) can escape are what naturally occur at the end of most massive stars’ life cycle. While black holes are generally thought to be voracious eaters, some physicists have wondered if they could also support planetary systems of their own.
Looking to address this question, Dr. Sean Raymond – an American physicist currently at the University of Bourdeaux – created a hypothetical planetary system where a black hole lies at the center. Based on a series of gravitational calculations, he determined that a black hole would be capable of keeping nine individual Suns in a stable orbit around it, which would be able to support 550 planets within a habitable zone.
As Raymond indicates, one of the immediate advantages of having this black hole at the center of a system is that it can support a large number of Suns. For the sake of his system, Raymond chose 9, thought he indicates that many more could be sustained thanks to the sheer gravitational influence of the central black hole. As he wrote on his website:
“Given how massive the black hole is, one ring could hold up to 75 Suns! But that would move the habitable zone outward pretty far and I don’t want the system to get too spread out. So I’ll use 9 Suns in the ring, which moves everything out by a factor of 3. Let’s put the ring at 0.5 AU, well outside the innermost stable circular orbit (at about 0.02 AU) but well inside the habitable zone (from about 2.7 to 5.4 AU).”
Another major advantage of having a black hole at the center of a system is that it shrinks what is known as the “Hill radius” (aka. Hill sphere, or Roche sphere). This is essentially the region around a planet where its gravity is dominant over that of the star it orbits, and can therefore attract satellites. According to Raymond, a planet’s Hill radius would be 100 times smaller around a million-sun black hole than around the Sun.
This means that a given region of space could stably fit 100 times more planets if they orbited a black hole instead of the Sun. As he explained:
“Planets can be super close to each other because the black hole’s gravity is so strong! If planets are little toy Hot wheels cars, most planetary systems are laid out like normal highways (side note: I love Hot wheels). Each car stays in its own lane, but the cars are much much smaller than the distance between them. Around a black hole, planetary systems can be shrunk way down to Hot wheels-sized tracks. The Hot wheels cars — our planets — don’t change at all, but they can remain stable while being much closer together. They don’t touch (that would not be stable), they are just closer together.”
This is what allows for many planets to be placed with the system’s habitable zone. Based on the Earth’s Hill radius, Raymond estimates that about six Earth-mass planets could fit into stable orbits within the same zone around our Sun. This is based on the fact that Earth-mass planets could be spaced roughly 0.1 AU from each other and maintain a stable orbit.
Given that the Sun’s habitable zone corresponds roughly to the distances between Venus and Mars – which are 0.3 and 0.5 AU away, respectively – this means there is 0.8 AUs of room to work with. However, around a black hole with 1 million Solar Masses, the closest neighboring planet could be just 1/1000th (0.001) of an AU away and still have a stable orbit.
Doing the math, this means that roughly 550 Earths could fit in the same region orbiting the black hole and its nine Suns. There is one minor drawback to this whole scenario, which is that the black hole would have to remain at its current mass. If it were to become any larger, it would cause the Hill radii of its 550 planets to shrink down further and further.
Once the Hill radius got down to the point where it was the same size as any of the Earth-mass planets, the black hole would begin to tear them apart. But at 1 million Solar masses, the black hole is capable of supporting a massive system of planets comfortably. “With our million-Sun black hole the Earth’s Hill radius (on its current orbit) would already be down to the limit, just a bit more than twice Earth’s actual radius,” he says.
Lastly, Raymond considers the implications that living in such a system would have. For one, a year on any planet within the system’s habitable zone would be much shorter, owing to the fact their orbital periods would be much faster. Basically, a year would last roughly 1.6 days for planets at the inner edge of the habitable zone and 4.6 days for planets at the outer edge of the habitable zone.
In addition, on the surface of any planet in the system, the sky would be a lot more crowded! With so many planets in close orbit together, they would pass very close to one another. That essentially means that from the surface of any individual Earth, people would be able to see nearby Earths as clear as we see the Moon on some days. As Raymond illustrated:
“At closest approach (conjunction) the distance between planets is about twice the Earth-Moon distance. These planets are all Earth-sized, about 4 times larger than the Moon. This means that at conjunction each planet’s closest neighbor appears about twice the size of the full Moon in the sky. And there are two nearest neighbors, the inner and outer one. Plus, the next-nearest neighbors are twice as far away so they are still as big as the full Moon during conjunction. And four more planets that would be at least half the full Moon in size during conjunction.”
He also indicates that conjunctions would occur almost once per orbit, which would mean that every few days, there would be no shortage of giant objects passing across the sky. And of course, there would be the Sun’s themselves. Recall that scene in Star Wars where a young Luke Skywalker is watching two suns set in the desert? Well, it would a little like that, except way more cool!
According to Raymond’s calculations, the nine Suns would complete an orbit around the black hole every three hours. Every twenty minutes, one of these Suns would pass behind the black hole, taking just 49 seconds to do so. At this point, gravitational lensing would occur, where the black hole would focus the Sun’s light toward the planet and distort the apparent shape of the Sun.
To illustrate what this would look like, he provides an animation (shown above) created by @GregroxMun – a planet modeller who develops space graphics for Kerbal and other programs – using Space Engine.
While such a system may never occur in nature, it is interesting to know that such a system would be physically possible. And who knows? Perhaps a sufficiently advanced species, with the ability to tow stars and planets from one system and place them in orbit around a black hole, could fashion this Ultimate Solar System. Something for SETI researchers to be on the lookout for, perhaps?
This hypothetical exercise was the second installment in two-part series by Raymond, titled “Black holes and planets”. In the first installment, “The Black Hole Solar System“, Raymond considered what it would be like if our system orbited around a black hole-Sun binary. As he indicated, the consequences for Earth and the other Solar planets would be interesting, to say the least!
During the 1970s, astronomer became aware of a massive radio source at the center of our galaxy that they later realized was a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) – which has since been named Sagittarius A*. And in a recent survey conducted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers discovered evidence for hundreds or even thousands of black holes located in the same vicinity of the Milky Way.
But, as it turns out, the center of our galaxy has more mysteries that are just waiting to be discovered. For instance, a team of astronomers recently detected a number of “mystery objects” that appeared to be moving around the SMBH at Galactic Center. Using 12 years of data taken from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the astronomers found objects that looked like dust clouds but behaved like stars.
“These compact dusty stellar objects move extremely fast and close to our Galaxy’s supermassive black hole. It is fascinating to watch them move from year to year. How did they get there? And what will they become? They must have an interesting story to tell.”
The researchers made their discovery using 12 years of spectroscopic measurements obtained by the Keck Observatory’s OH-Suppressing Infrared Imaging Spectrograph (OSIRIS). These objects – which were designed as G3, G4, and G5 – were found while examining the gas dynamics of the center of our galaxy, and were distinguished from background emissions because of their movements.
“We started this project thinking that if we looked carefully at the complicated structure of gas and dust near the supermassive black hole, we might detect some subtle changes to the shape and velocity,” explained Randy Campbell. “It was quite surprising to detect several objects that have very distinct movement and characteristics that place them in the G-object class, or dusty stellar objects.”
Astronomers first discovered G-objects in proximity to Sagittarius A* more than a decade ago – G1 was discovered in 2004 and G2 in 2012. Initially, both were thought to be gas clouds until they made their closest approach to the supermassive black hole and survived. Ordinarily, the SMBHs gravitational pull would shred gas clouds apart, but this did not happen with G1 and G2.
Because these newly discovered infrared sources (G3, G4, and G5) shared the physical characteristics of G1 and G2, the team concluded that they could potentially be G-objects. What makes G-objects unusual is their “puffiness”, where they appear to be cloaked in a layer of dust and gas that makes them difficult to detect. Unlike other stars, astronomers only see a glowing envelope of dust when looking at G-objects.
To see these objects clearly through their obscuring envelope of dust and gas, Campbell developed a tool called the OSIRIS-Volume Display (OsrsVol). As Campbell described it:
“OsrsVol allowed us to isolate these G-objects from the background emission and analyze the spectral data in three dimensions: two spatial dimensions, and the wavelength dimension that provides velocity information. Once we were able to distinguish the objects in a 3-D data cube, we could then track their motion over time relative to the black hole.”
UCLA Astronomy Professor Mark Morris, a co-principal investigator and fellow member of UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative (GCOI), was also involved in the study. As he indicated:
“If they were gas clouds, G1 and G2 would not have been able to stay intact. Our view of the G-objects is that they are bloated stars – stars that have become so large that the tidal forces exerted by the central black hole can pull matter off of their stellar atmospheres when the stars get close enough, but have a stellar core with enough mass to remain intact. The question is then, why are they so large?
After examining the objects, the team noticed that there was a great deal of energy was emanating from them, more than what would be expected from typical stars. As a result, they theorized that these G-objects are the result of stellar mergers, which occur when two stars that orbit each other (aka. binaries) crash into each other. This would have been caused by the long-term gravitational influence of the SMBH.
The resulting single object would be distended (i.e. swell up) over the course of millions of years before it finally settled down and appeared like a normal-sized star. The combined objects that resulted from these violent mergers could explain where the excess energy came from and why they behave like stars do. As Andrea Ghez, the founder and director of GCOI, explained:
“This is what I find most exciting. If these objects are indeed binary star systems that have been driven to merge through their interaction with the central supermassive black hole, this may provide us with insight into a process which may be responsible for the recently discovered stellar mass black hole mergers that have been detected through gravitational waves.”
Looking ahead, the team plans to continue following the size and shape of the G-objects’ orbits in the hopes of determining how they formed. They will be paying especially close attention when these stellar objects make their closest approach to Sagittarius A*, since this will allow them to further observe their behavior and see if they remain intact (as G1 and G2 did).
This will take a few decades, with G3 making its closest pass in 20 years and G4 and G5 taking decades longer. In the meantime, the team hopes to learn more about these “puffy” star-like objects by following their dynamical evolution using Keck’s OSIRIS instrument. As Ciurlo stated:
“Understanding G-objects can teach us a lot about the Galactic Center’s fascinating and still mysterious environment. There are so many things going on that every localized process can help explain how this extreme, exotic environment works.”
And be sure to check out this video of the presentation, which takes place from 18:30 until 30:20:
At the center of our galaxy resides a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A. Based on ongoing observations, astronomers have determined that this SMBH measures 44 million km (27.34 million mi) in diameter and has an estimated mass of 4.31 million Solar Masses. On occasion, a star will wander too close to Sag A and be torn apart in a violent process known as a tidal disruption event (TDE).
These events cause the release of bright flares of radiation, which let astronomers know that a star has been consumed. Unfortunately, for decades, astronomers have been unable to distinguish these events from other galactic phenomena. But thanks to a new study from by an international team of astrophysicists, astronomers now have a unified model that explains recent observations of these extreme events.
As Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz – the professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, the Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Copenhagen, and a co-author on the paper – explained in a UCSC press release:
“Only in the last decade or so have we been able to distinguish TDEs from other galactic phenomena, and the new model will provide us with the basic framework for understanding these rare events.”
In most galaxies, SMBHs do not actively consume any material and therefore do not emit any light, which distinguishes them from galaxies that have Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs). Tidal disruption events are therefore rare, occurring only once about every 10,000 years in a typical galaxy. However, when a star does get torn apart, it results in the release of an intense amount of radiation. As Dr. Dai explained:
“It is interesting to see how materials get their way into the black hole under such extreme conditions. As the black hole is eating the stellar gas, a vast amount of radiation is emitted. The radiation is what we can observe, and using it we can understand the physics and calculate the black hole properties. This makes it extremely interesting to go hunting for tidal disruption events.”
In the past few years, a few dozen candidates for tidal disruption events (TDEs) have been detected using wide-field optical and UV transient surveys as well as X-ray telescopes. While the physics are expected to be the same for all TDEs, astronomers have noted that a few distinct classes of TDEs appear to exist. While some emit mostly x-rays, others emit mostly visible and ultraviolet light.
As a result, theorists have struggled to understand the diverse properties observed and create a coherent model that can explain them all. For the sake of their model, Dr. Dai and her colleagues combined elements from general relativity, magnetic fields, radiation, and gas hydrodynamics. The team also relied on state-of-the-art computational tools and some recently-acquired large computer clusters funded by the Villum Foundation for Jens Hjorth (head of DARK Cosmology Center), the U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA.
Using the model that resulted, the team concluded that it is the viewing angle of the observer that accounts for the differences in observation. Essentially, different galaxies are oriented randomly with respect to observers on Earth, who see different aspects of TDEs depending on their orientation. As Ramirez-Ruiz explained:
“It is like there is a veil that covers part of a beast. From some angles we see an exposed beast, but from other angles we see a covered beast. The beast is the same, but our perceptions are different.”
In the coming years, a number of planned survey projects are expected to provide much more data on TDEs, which will help expand the field of research into this phenomena. These include the Young Supernova Experiment (YSE) transient survey, which will be led by the DARK Cosmology Center at the Niels Bohr Institute and UC Santa Cruz, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescopes (LSST) being built in Chile.
According to Dr. Dai, this new model shows what astronomers can expect to see when viewing TDEs from different angles and will allow them to fit different events into a coherent framework. “We will observe hundreds to thousands of tidal disruption events in a few years,” she said. “This will give us a lot of ‘laboratories’ to test our model and use it to understand more about black holes.”
This improved understanding of how black holes occasionally consume stars will also provide additional tests for general relativity, gravitational wave research, and help astronomers to learn more about the evolution of galaxies.