There’s a New Record for the Most Massive Black Hole Ever Seen: 40 Billion Solar Masses

Astronomers have spotted a 40 billion solar mass black hole in the Abell 85 cluster of galaxies. They found the behemoth using spectral observations with the Very Large Telescope (VLT.) There are only a few direct mass measurements for black holes, and at about 700 million light years from Earth, this is the most distant one.

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There Could be Planets Orbiting Around Supermassive Black Holes

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!

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New Technique for Estimating the Mass of a Black Hole

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.

However, a team of physicist from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) recently announced that they had devised a way to indirectly measure the mass of a black hole while also confirming its existence. In a recent study, they showed how they tested this method on the recently-imaged supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 active galaxy.

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Milky Way’s Black Hole Just Flared, Growing 75 Times as Bright for a Few Hours

Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Even though the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is a monster, it’s still rather quiet. Called Sagittarius A*, it’s about 4.6 million times more massive than our Sun. Usually, it’s a brooding behemoth. But scientists observing Sgr. A* with the Keck Telescope just watched as its brightness bloomed to over 75 times normal for a few hours.

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Astronomers See Evidence of Supermassive Black Holes Forming Directly in the Early Universe

Super-Massive Black Holes (SMBH) are hard to explain. These gargantuan singularities are thought to be at the center of every large galaxy (our Milky Way has one) but their presence there sometimes defies easy explanation. As far as we know, black holes form when giant stars collapse. But that explanation doesn’t fit all the evidence.

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New Research Reveals How Galaxies Stay Hot and Bothered

It’s relatively easy for galaxies to make stars. Start out with a bunch of random blobs of gas and dust. Typically those blobs will be pretty warm. To turn them into stars, you have to cool them off. By dumping all their heat in the form of radiation, they can compress. Dump more heat, compress more. Repeat for a million years or so.

Eventually pieces of the gas cloud shrink and shrink, compressing themselves into a tight little knots. If the densities inside those knots get high enough, they trigger nuclear fusion and voila: stars are born.

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Researchers Create the Most Detailed Simulation of the Universe Ever Made

Since time immemorial, philosophers and scholars have sought to determine how existence began. With the birth of modern astronomy, this tradition has continued and given rise to the field known as cosmology. And with the help of supercomputing, scientists are able to conduct simulations that show how the first stars and galaxies formed in our Universe and evolved over the course of billions of years.

Until recently, the most extensive and complete study was the “Illustrus” simulation, which looked at the process of galaxy formation over the course of the past 13 billion years. Seeking to break their own record, the same team recently began conducting a simulation known as “Illustris, The Next Generation,” or “IllustrisTNG”. The first round of these findings were recently released, and several more are expected to follow.

These findings appeared in three articles recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The Illustris team consists of researchers from the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, the Max-Planck Institutes for Astrophysics and for Astronomy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York.

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Image: NASA

Using the Hazel Hen supercomputer at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) – one of the three world-class German supercomputing facilities that comprise the Gauss Centre for Supercomputing (GCS) – the team conducted a simulation that will help to verify and expand on existing experimental knowledge about the earliest stages of the Universe – i.e. what happened from 300,000 years after the Big Bang to the present day.

To create this simulation, the team combined equations (such as the Theory of General Relativity) and data from modern observations into a massive computational cube that represented a large cross-section of the Universe. For some processes, such as star formation and the growth of black holes, the researchers were forced to rely on assumptions based on observations. They then employed numerical models to set this simulated Universe in motion.

Compared to their previous simulation, IllustrisTNG consisted of 3 different universes at three different resolutions – the largest of which measured 1 billion light years (300 megaparsecs) across. In addition, the research team included more precise accounting for magnetic fields, thus improving accuracy. In total, the simulation used 24,000 cores on the Hazel Hen supercomputer for a total of 35 million core hours.

As Prof. Dr. Volker Springel, professor and researcher at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and principal investigator on the project, explained in a Gauss Center press release:

“Magnetic fields are interesting for a variety of reasons. The magnetic pressure exerted on cosmic gas can occasionally be equal to thermal (temperature) pressure, meaning that if you neglect this, you will miss these effects and ultimately compromise your results.”

Illustris simulation overview poster. Shows the large scale dark matter and gas density fields in projection (top/bottom). Credit: Illustris Project

Another major difference was the inclusion of updated black hole physics based on recent observation campaigns. This includes evidence that demonstrates a correlation between supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and galactic evolution. In essence, SMBHs are known to send out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets, which can have an arresting effect on star formation in a galaxy.

While the researchers were certainly aware of this process during the first simulation, they did not factor in how it can arrest star formation completely. By including updated data on both magnetic fields and black hole physics in the simulation, the team saw a greater correlation between the data and observations. They are therefore more confident with the results and believe it represents the most accurate simulation to date.

But as Dr. Dylan Nelson – a physicist with the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy and an llustricTNG member – explained, future simulations are likely to be even more accurate, assuming advances in supercomputers continue:

“Increased memory and processing resources in next-generation systems will allow us to simulate large volumes of the universe with higher resolution. Large volumes are important for cosmology, understanding the large-scale structure of the universe, and making firm predictions for the next generation of large observational projects. High resolution is important for improving our physical models of the processes going on inside of individual galaxies in our simulation.”

Gas density (left) and magnetic field strength (right) centered on the most massive galaxy cluster. Credit: Illustris Team

This latest simulation was also made possible thanks to extensive support provided by the GCS staff, who assisted the research team with matters related to their coding. It was also the result of a massive collaborative effort that brought together researchers from around the world and paired them with the resources they needed. Last, but not least, it shows how increased collaboration between applied research and theoretical research lead to better results.

Looking ahead, the team hopes that the results of this latest simulation proves to be even more useful than the last. The original Illustris data release gained over 2,000 registered users and resulted in the publication of 130 scientific studies. Given that this one is more accurate and up-to-date, the team expects that it will find more users and result in even more groundbreaking research.

Who knows? Perhaps someday, we may create a simulation that captures the formation and evolution of our Universe with complete accuracy. In the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the first Illustris Simulation, courtesy of team member and MIT physicist Mark Vogelsberger:

Further Reading: GCS, Illustrus

What is a Supermassive Black Hole?

In 1971, English astronomers Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees hypothesized that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) resides at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. This was based on their work with radio galaxies, which showed that the massive amounts of energy radiated by these objects was due to gas and matter being accreted onto a black hole at their center.

By 1974, the first evidence for this SMBH was found when astronomers detected a massive radio source coming from the center of our galaxy. This region, which they named Sagittarius A*, is over 10 million times as massive as our own Sun. Since its discovery, astronomers have found evidence that there are supermassive black holes at the centers of most spiral and elliptical galaxies in the observable Universe.

Description:

Supermassive black holes (SMBH) are distinct from lower-mass black holes in a number of ways. For starters, since SMBH have a much higher mass than smaller black holes, they also have a lower average density. This is due to the fact that with all spherical objects, volume is directly proportional to the cube of the radius, while the minimum density of a black hole is inversely proportional to the square of the mass.

In addition, the tidal forces in the vicinity of the event horizon are significantly weaker for massive black holes. As with density, the tidal force on a body at the event horizon is inversely proportional to the square of the mass. As such, an object would not experience significant tidal force until it was very deep into the black hole.

Formation:

How SMBHs are formed remains the subject of much scholarly debate. Astrophysicists largely believe that they are the result of black hole mergers and the accretion of matter. But where the “seeds” (i.e. progenitors) of these black holes came from is where disagreement occurs. Currently, the most obvious hypothesis is that they are the remnants of several massive stars that exploded, which were formed by the accretion of matter in the galactic center.

Another theory is that before the first stars formed in our galaxy, a large gas cloud collapsed into a “qausi-star” that became unstable to radial perturbations. It then turned into a black hole of about 20 Solar Masses without the need for a supernova explosion. Over time, it rapidly accreted mass in order to become an intermediate, and then supermassive, black hole.

In yet another model, a dense stellar cluster experienced core-collapse as the as a result of velocity dispersion in its core, which happened at relativistic speeds due to negative heat capacity. Last, there is the theory that primordial black holes may have been produced directly by external pressure immediately after the Big Bang. These and other theories remain theoretical for the time being.

Sagittarius A*:

Multiple lines of evidence point towards the existence of a SMBH at the center of our galaxy. While no direct observations have been made of Sagittarius A*, its presence has been inferred from the influence it has on surrounding objects. The most notable of these is S2, a star that flows an elliptical orbit around the Sagittarius A* radio source.

S2 has an orbital period of 15.2 years and reaches a minimal distance of 18 billion km (11.18 billion mi, 120 AU) from the center of the central object. Only a supermassive object could account for this, since no other cause can be discerned. And from the orbital parameters of S2, astronomers have been able to produce estimates on the size and mass of the object.

For instance, S2s motions have led astronomers to calculated that the object at the center of its orbit must have no less than 4.1 million Solar Masses (8.2 × 10³³ metric tons; 9.04 × 10³³ US tons). Furthermore, the radius of this object would have to be less than 120 AU, otherwise S2 would collide with it.

However, the best evidence to date was provided in 2008 by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UCLAs Galactic Center Group. Using data obtained over a 16 year period by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and Keck Telescope, they were able to not only accurately estimate the distance to the center of our galaxy (27,000 light years from Earth), but also track the orbits of the stars there with immense precision.

As Reinhard Genzel, the team leader from the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics said:

Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our long term study is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that supermassive black holes do really exist. The stellar orbits in the Galactic Centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Another indication of Sagittarius A*s presence came on January 5th, 2015, when NASA reported a record-breaking X-ray flare coming from the center of our galaxy. Based on readings from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, they reported emissions that were 400 times brighter than usual. These were thought to be the result of an asteroid falling into the black hole, or by the entanglement of magnetic field lines within the gas flowing into it.

Other Galaxies:

Astronomers have also found evidence of SMBHs at the center of other galaxies within the Local Group and beyond. These include the nearby Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and elliptical galaxy M32, and the distant spiral galaxy NGC 4395. This is based on the fact that stars and gas clouds near the center of these galaxies show an observable increase in velocity.

Another indication is Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), where massive bursts of radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray wavebands are periodically detected coming from the regions of cold matter (gas and dust) at the center of larger galaxies. While the radiation is not coming from the black holes themselves, the influence such a massive object would have on surrounding matter is believed to be the cause.

In short, gas and dust form accretion disks at the center of galaxies that orbit supermassive black holes, gradually feeding them matter. The incredible force of gravity in this region compresses the disk’s material until it reaches millions of degrees kelvin, generating bright radiation and electromagnetic energy. A corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc as well, and can scatter photons up to X-ray energies.

The interaction between the SMBH rotating magnetic field and the accretion disk also creates powerful magnetic jets that fire material above and below the black hole at relativistic speeds (i.e. at a significant fraction of the speed of light). These jets can extend for hundreds of thousands of light-years, and are a second potential source of observed radiation.

When the Andromeda Galaxy merges with our own in a few billion years, the supermassive black hole that is at its center will merge with our own, producing a much more massive and powerful one. This interaction is likely to kick several stars out of our combined galaxy (producing rogue stars), and is also likely to cause our galactic nucleus (which is currently inactive) to become active one again.

The study of black holes is still in its infancy. And what we have learned over the past few decades alone has been both exciting and awe-inspiring. Whether they are lower-mass or supermassive, black holes are an integral part of our Universe and play an active role in its evolution.

Who knows what we will find as we peer deeper into the Universe? Perhaps some day we the technology, and sheer audacity, will exist so that we might attempt to peak beneath the veil of an event horizon. Can you imagine that happening?

We have written many interesting articles about black holes here at Universe Today. Here’s Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt: A Supermassive Black Hole Lives in Centre of Our Galaxy, X-Ray Flare Echo Reveals Supermassive Black Hole Torus, How Do You Weigh a Supermassive Black Hole? Take its Temperature, and What Happens When Supermassive Black Holes Collide?

Astronomy Cast also some relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 18: Black Holes Big and Small, and Episode 98: Quasars.

More to explore: Astronomy Cast’s episodes Quasars, and Black Holes Big and Small.

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What are Active Galactic Nuclei?

An artist's impression of the accretion disc around the supermassive black hole that powers an active galaxy. Astronomers want to know if the energy radiated from a black hole is caused by jets of material shooting away from the hole, or by the accretion disk of swirling material near the hole. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital

In the 1970s, astronomers became aware of a compact radio source at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy – which they named Sagittarius A. After many decades of observation and mounting evidence, it was theorized that the source of these radio emissions was in fact a supermassive black hole (SMBH). Since that time, astronomers have come to theorize that SMBHs at the heart of every large galaxy in the Universe.

Most of the time, these black holes are quiet and invisible, thus being impossible to observe directly. But during the times when material is falling into their massive maws, they blaze with radiation, putting out more light than the rest of the galaxy combined. These bright centers are what is known as Active Galactic Nuclei, and are the strongest proof for the existence of SMBHs.

Description:

It should be noted that the enormous bursts in luminosity observed from Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) are not coming from the supermassive black holes themselves. For some time, scientists have understood that nothing, not even light, can escape the Event Horizon of a black hole.

Instead, the massive burst of radiations – which includes emissions in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray wavebands – are coming from cold matter (gas and dust) that surround the black holes. These form accretion disks that orbit the supermassive black holes, and gradually feeding them matter.

The incredible force of gravity in this region compresses the disk’s material until it reaches millions of degrees kelvin. This generates bright radiation, producing electromagnetic energy that peaks in the optical-UV waveband. A corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc as well, and can scatter photons up to X-ray energies.

A large fraction of the AGN’s radiation may be obscured by interstellar gas and dust close to the accretion disc, but this will likely be re-radiated at the infrared waveband. As such, most (if not all) of the electromagnetic spectrum is produced through the interaction of cold matter with SMBHs.

The interaction between the supermassive black hole’s rotating magnetic field and the accretion disk also creates powerful magnetic jets that fire material above and below the black hole at relativistic speeds (i.e. a significant fraction of the speed of light). These jets can extend for hundreds of thousands of light-years, and are a second potential source of observed radiation.

Types of AGN:

Typically, scientists divide AGN into two categories, which are referred to as “radio-quiet” and “radio-loud” nuclei. The radio-loud category corresponds to AGNs that have radio emissions produced by both the accretion disk and the jets. Radio-quiet AGNs are simpler, in that any jet or jet-related emission are negligible.

Carl Seyfert discovered the first class of AGN in 1943,  which is why they now bear his name. “Seyfert galaxies” are a type of radio-quiet AGN that are known for their emission lines, and are subdivided into two categories based on them. Type 1 Seyfert galaxies have both narrow and broadened optical emissions lines, which imply the existence of clouds of high density gas, as well as gas velocities of between 1000 – 5000 km/s near the nucleus.

Type 2 Seyferts, in contrast, have narrow emissions lines only. These narrow lines are caused by low density gas clouds that are at greater distances from the nucleus, and gas velocities of about 500 to 1000 km/s. As well as Seyferts, other sub classes of radio-quiet galaxies include radio-quiet quasars and LINERs.

Low Ionisation Nuclear Emission-line Region galaxies (LINERs) are very similar to Seyfert 2 galaxies, except for their low ionization lines (as the name suggests), which are quite strong. They are the lowest-luminosity AGN in existence, and it is often wondered if they are in fact powered by accretion on to a supermassive black hole.

Artist's representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Artist’s representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Radio-loud galaxies can also be subdivded into categories like radio galaxies, quasars, and blazars. As the name suggests, radio galaxies are elliptical galaxies that are strong emitters of radiowaves. Quasars are the most luminous type of AGN, which have spectra similar to Seyferts.

However, they are different in that their stellar absorption features are weak or absent (meaning they are likely less dense in terms of gas) and the narrow emission lines are weaker than the broad lines seen in Seyferts.  Blazars are a highly variable class of AGN that are radio sources, but do not display emission lines in their spectra.

Detection:

Historically speaking, a number of features have been observed within the centers of galaxies that have allowed for them to be identified as AGNs. For instance, whenever the accretion disk can be seen directly, nuclear-optical emissions can be seen. Whenever the accretion disk is obscured by gas and dust close to the nucleus, an AGN can be detected by its infra-red emissions.

Then there are the broad and narrow optical emission lines that are associated with different types of AGN. In the former case, they are produced whenever cold material is close to the black hole, and are the result of the emitting material revolving around the black hole with high speeds (causing a range of Doppler shifts of the emitted photons). In the former case, more distant cold material is the culprit, resulting in narrower emission lines.

Image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a 5000-light-year-long jet ejected from the active galaxy M87. The blue synchrotron radiation contrasts with the yellow starlight from the host galaxy. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a 5000-light-year-long jet ejected from the active galaxy M87. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Next up, there are radio continuum and x-ray continuum emissions. Whereas radio emissions are always the result of the jet, x-ray emissions can arise from either the jet or the hot corona, where electromagnetic radiation is scattered. Last, there are x-ray line emissions, which occur when x-ray emissions illuminate the cold heavy material that lies between it and the nucleus.

These signs, alone or in combination, have led astronomers to make numerous detections at the center of galaxies, as well as to discern the different types of active nuclei out there.

The Milky Way Galaxy:

In the case of the Milky Way, ongoing observation has revealed that the amount of material accreted onto Sagitarrius A is consistent with an inactive galactic nucleus. It has been theorized that it had an active nucleus in the past, but has since transitioned into a radio-quiet phase. However, it has also been theorized that it might become active again in a few million (or billion) years.

When the Andromeda Galaxy merges with our own in a few billion years, the supermassive black hole that is at its center will merge with our own, producing a much more massive and powerful one. At this point, the nucleus of the resulting galaxy – the Milkdromeda (Andrilky) Galaxy, perhaps? – will certainly have enough material for it to be active.

The discovery of active galactic nuclei has allowed astronomers to group together several different classes of galaxies. It’s also allowed astronomers to understand how a galaxy’s size can be discerned by the behavior at its core. And last, it has also helped astronomers to understand which galaxies have undergone mergers in the past, and what could be coming for our own someday.

We have written many articles about galaxies for Universe Today. Here’s What Fuels the Engine of a Supermassive Black Hole?, Could the Milky Way Become a Black Hole?, What is a Supermassive Black Hole?, Turning on a Supermassive Black Hole, What Happens when Supermassive Black Holes Collide?.

For more information, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

Astronomy Cast also has episodes about galactic nuclei and supermassive black holes. Here’s Episode 97: Galaxies and Episode 213: Supermassive Black Holes.

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