Watch Stars Orbit The Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), is arrowed in the image made of the innermost galactic center in X-ray light by NASA’s Chandra Observatory. To the left or east of Sgr A* is Sgr A East, a large cloud that may be the remnant of a supernova. Centered on Sgr A* is a spiral shaped group of gas streamers that might be falling onto the hole. Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/Frederick K. Baganoff et al.

When your ordinary citizen learns there’s a supermassive black hole with a mass of 4 million suns sucking on its teeth in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, they might kindly ask exactly how astronomers know this. A perfectly legitimate question. You can tell them that the laws of physics guarantee their existence or that people have been thinking about black holes since 1783. That year, English clergyman John Michell proposed the idea of “dark stars” so massive and gravitationally powerful they could imprison their own light.

This time-lapse movie in infrared light shows how stars in the central light-year of the Milky Way have moved over a period of 14 years. The yellow mark at the image center represents the location of Sgr A*, site of an unseen supermassive black hole.
Credit: A. Eckart (U. Koeln) & R. Genzel (MPE-Garching), SHARP I, NTT, La Silla Obs., ESO

Michell wasn’t making wild assumptions but taking the idea of gravity to a logical conclusion. Of course, he had no way to prove his assertion. But we do. Astronomers  now routinely find bot stellar mass black holes — remnants of the collapse of gas-guzzling supergiant stars — and the supermassive variety in the cores of galaxies that result from multiple black hole mergers over grand intervals of time.

Some of the galactic variety contain hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses, all of it so to speak “flushed down the toilet” and unavailable to fashion new planets and stars. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking has shown that black holes evaporate over time, returning their energy to the knowable universe from whence they came, though no evidence of the process has yet been found.

On September 14, 2013, astronomers caught the largest X-ray flare ever detected from Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.  This event was 400 times brighter than the usual X-ray output from the source and was possibly caused when Sgr A*’s strong gravity tore apart an asteroid in its neighborhood, heating the debris to X-ray-emitting temperatures before slurping down the remains.The inset shows the giant flare. Credit: NASA

So how do we really know a massive, dark object broods at the center of our sparkling Milky Way? Astronomers use radio, X-ray and infrared telescopes to peer into its starry heart and see gas clouds and stars whirling about the center at high rates of speed. Based on those speeds they can calculate the mass of what’s doing the pulling.

The Hubble Space Telescope took this photo of the  5000-light-year-long jet of radiation ejected from the active galaxy M87’s supermassive black hole, which is aboutt 1,000 times more massive than the Milky Way’s black hole. Although black holes are dark, matter whirling into their maws at high speed is heated to high temperature, creating a bright disk of material and jets of radiation. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

In the case of the galaxy M87 located 53.5 million light years away in the Virgo Cluster, those speeds tell us that something with a mass of 3.6 billion suns is concentrated in a space smaller than our Solar System. Oh, and it emits no light! Nothing fits the evidence better than a black hole because nothing that massive can exist in so small a space without collapsing in upon itself to form a black hole. It’s just physics, something that Mr. Scott on Star Trek regularly reminded a panicky Captain Kirk.

So it is with the Milky Way, only our black hole amounts to a piddling 4 million-solar-mass light thief confined within a spherical volume of space some 27 million miles in diameter or just shy of Mercury’s perihelion distance from the Sun. This monster hole resides at the location of Sagittarius A* (pronounced A- star), a bright, compact radio source at galactic center about 26,000 light years away.


Video showing a 14-year-long time lapse of stars orbiting Sgr A*

The time-lapse movie, compiled over 14 years, shows the orbits of several dozen stars within the light year of space centered on Sgr A*. We can clearly see the star moving under the influence of a massive unseen body — the putative supermassive black hole. No observations of Sgr A* in visible light are possible because of multiple veils of interstellar dust that lie across our line of sight. They quench its light to the tune of 25 magnitudes.


Merging black holes (the process look oddly biological!). Credit: SXS

How do these things grow so big in the first place? There are a couple of ideas, but astronomers don’t honestly know for sure. Massive gas clouds around early in the galaxy’s history could have collapsed to form multiple supergiants that evolved into black holes which later then coalesced into one big hole. Or collisions among stars in massive, compact star clusters could have built up stellar giants that evolved into black holes. Later, the clusters sank to the center of the galaxy and merged into a single supermassive black hole.

Whichever you chose, merging of smaller holes may explain its origin.

On a clear spring morning before dawn, you can step out to face the constellation Sagittarius low in the southern sky. When you do, you’re also facing in the direction of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Although you cannot see it, does it not still exert a certain tug on your imagination?

Early Supermassive Black Holes First Formed as Twins

It’s one of the puzzles of cosmology and stellar evolution: how did supermassive black holes get so… well, supermassive… in the early Universe, when seemingly not enough time had yet passed for them to accumulate their mass through steady accretion processes alone? It takes a while to eat up a billion solar masses’ worth of matter, even with a healthy appetite and lots within gravitational reach. But yet there they are: monster black holes are common within some of the most distant galaxies, flaunting their precocious growth even as the Universe was just celebrating its one billionth birthday.

Now, recent findings by researchers at Caltech suggest that these ancient SMBs were formed by the death of certain types of primordial giant stars, exotic stellar dinosaurs that grew large and died young. During their violent collapse not just one but two black holes are formed, each gathering its own mass before eventually combining together into a single supermassive monster.

Watch a simulation and find out more about how this happens below:

From a Caltech news article by Jessica Stoller-Conrad:

To investigate the origins of young supermassive black holes, Christian Reisswig, NASA Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow in Astrophysics at Caltech and Christian Ott, assistant professor of theoretical astrophysics, turned to a model involving supermassive stars. These giant, rather exotic stars are hypothesized to have existed for just a brief time in the early Universe.

Read more: How Do Black Holes Get Super Massive?

Unlike ordinary stars, supermassive stars are stabilized against gravity mostly by their own photon radiation. In a very massive star, photon radiation—the outward flux of photons that is generated due to the star’s very high interior temperatures—pushes gas from the star outward in opposition to the gravitational force that pulls the gas back in.

During its life, a supermassive star slowly cools due to energy loss through the emission of photon radiation. As the star cools, it becomes more compact, and its central density slowly increases. This process lasts for a couple of million years until the star has reached sufficient compactness for gravitational instability to set in and for the star to start collapsing gravitationally.

Previous studies predicted that when supermassive stars collapse, they maintain a spherical shape that possibly becomes flattened due to rapid rotation. This shape is called an axisymmetric configuration. Incorporating the fact that very rapidly spinning stars are prone to tiny perturbations, Reisswig and his colleagues predicted that these perturbations could cause the stars to deviate into non-axisymmetric shapes during the collapse. Such initially tiny perturbations would grow rapidly, ultimately causing the gas inside the collapsing star to clump and to form high-density fragments.

“The growth of black holes to supermassive scales in the young universe seems only possible if the ‘seed’ mass of the collapsing object was already sufficiently large.”

– Christian Reisswig, NASA Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech

Composite image from Chandra and Hubble showing supermassive black holes in the early Universe.
Composite image from Chandra and Hubble showing supermassive black holes in the early Universe.

These fragments would orbit the center of the star and become increasingly dense as they picked up matter during the collapse; they would also increase in temperature. And then, Reisswig says, “an interesting effect kicks in.” At sufficiently high temperatures, there would be enough energy available to match up electrons and their antiparticles, or positrons, into what are known as electron-positron pairs. The creation of electron-positron pairs would cause a loss of pressure, further accelerating the collapse; as a result, the two orbiting fragments would ultimately become so dense that a black hole could form at each clump. The pair of black holes might then spiral around one another before merging to become one large black hole.

“This is a new finding,” Reisswig says. “Nobody has ever predicted that a single collapsing star could produce a pair of black holes that then merge.”

These findings were published in Physical Review Letters the week of October 11. Source: Caltech news article by Jessica Stoller-Conrad.