Elusive black holes finally revealed at the centre of our galaxy

07 April, 2018, 00:07 | Author: Pamela Mathis
  • Elusive black holes finally revealed at the centre of our galaxy

The researchers discovered almost 4,000 early galaxies in their study, many of them are believed to have evolved into galaxies like our own Milky Way.

Regardless of how scientists follow up this discovery, one way or another the result will be "pinning down the number of black holes in the center of a normal galaxy like the Milky Way", Hailey says.

The researchers now believe there are around 300 to 500 black hole low-mass binaries surrounding Sagittarius A* on top of about 10,000 isolated black holes.

The Columbia University team searched for X-rays from black holes that have captured a passing star in their gravitational grip, known as a "black hole binary".

Sagittarius A* is surrounded by a halo of gas and dust that provides the flawless breeding ground for massive stars, which can then give rise to black holes after they die, said study lead author Chuck Hailey, co-director of the astrophysics lab at Columbia University in NY.

"Isolated black holes just don't do much of anything", says lead author Hailey. As many as 20,000 black holes are predicted to settle in the central area of our galaxy (and all spiral galaxies) but so far, these black holes haven't been observed, and neither has their gravitational effect, despite astronomers' best efforts - that is, until now.

Scientists already knew our galaxy's core holds a supermassive black hole weighing millions of times more than our sun, and that this great beast is enveloped by a diverse entourage of lesser companions. This makes the system emit X-rays, which we can detect.

So to determine the number around the Galactic Center, the researchers had to delve into their knowledge of black hole physics. Our home galaxy consists of several hundred billion stars, with huge amounts of gas and dust, all intermingled and interacting through the force of gravity.




"But every now and then you'll find one of these black holes catch a star, and matter will come out of this star in a disk around the black hole ... so we can detect the tip of the iceberg". Scientists think that only 5 per cent of black holes have stellar companions, which means 10,000 black holes of this size could exist in the central bulge. Gravitational waves are ripples caused by the black holes colliding with each other. Finding these emissions was hard due to the amount of gas and dust found there.

The new study has used Chandra data to investigate X-ray sources close to Sagittarius A*.

"But this is the tip of the iceberg", he told AFP. This information gave the team the confidence they needed to concur that the galaxies were slowly expanding - even when these outskirts weren't picking up any sort of new planets or smaller galaxies around the edges. Most of the black holes remain isolated, but a small minority become attached to the orbits of low mass stars in the region, forming a binary system.

If you think about it, galaxies are pretty unusual.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fiona Harrison is an astrophysicist at Caltech. But if you took the equivalent space around Earth there would be zero black holes, not thousands, Hailey said.

Older, lower-mass stars are abundant near the galaxy's center and in the halo that looms around the Milky Way's disk, while younger stars form within the disk itself (the spiral arms). So this is a real high concentration.

The newly discovered black holes are within about 30.9 trillion kilometres of the supermassive black hole at the centre.

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