Astronomers spot mysteriously elusive black hole

Published July 11, 2024
This handout image released by the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 10 and captured by the Hubble Telescope shows the likely location of an intermediate mass black hole at the heart of Omega Centauri star cluster. — AFP
This handout image released by the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 10 and captured by the Hubble Telescope shows the likely location of an intermediate mass black hole at the heart of Omega Centauri star cluster. — AFP

PARIS: Astronomers said on Wednesday they have found the strongest evidence yet of a medium-sized black hole, the strange absence of which has been one of the enduring mysteries of the cosmos.

The universe is riddled with black holes, from supermassive ones at the heart of galaxies to smaller ones around 100 times the mass of the Sun. But scientists have struggled to find black holes between these two extremes, considered the “missing link” in their evolution.

To find out more, an international team of researchers analysed Omega Centauri, the biggest cluster of stars in the Milky Way around 18,000 light years from Earth. They spotted “something peculiar,” Maximilian Haeberle, a PhD student at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, said.

At the centre of this dense cluster of 10 million stars, seven were moving much too fast. At such speeds, the seven stars should have shot straight out of the cluster — but the gravitational pull of some invisible lurking monster seemed to be sucking them in.

After running simulations of how the stars moved, the researchers calculated there is a black hole at the heart of Omega Centauri that has a mass of around 8,200 Suns. This would put it right in the middle range of black holes that have proved so elusive.

Supermassive black holes, which squat at the centre of galaxies like spiders in a web, are classified as having more than 100,000 solar masses.

For example, the Milky Way’s Sagittarius A* is four million times the Sun’s mass — and there are far bigger ones out there. Smaller stellar-mass black holes — which are born when giant stars die in supernova explosions — have masses of between five to 150 Suns.

But there is a “very large gap” in between which are called intermediate-mass black holes (IMBH), said Haeberle, the lead author of a new study in Nature.

Scientists believe these middle child black holes exist, but have found very few potential candidates. Black holes are notoriously hard to observe — not even light can escape their grasp.

One way to detect their presence is by looking for the massive energy emitted when they gobble up gas and dust. But IMBHs consume less gas, making them even trickier to find, Haeberle said.

Spotting one “is like finding the first evidence for Bigfoot — people are going to freak out,” study co-author Matthew Whittaker of the University of Utah said in a statement.

For his part, Haeberle hoped the discovery would bring an end to nearly two decades of arguing between astronomers about whether Omega Centauri could host an IMBH.

The researchers trawled through 20 years’ worth of publicly available data from the Hubble space telescope to track the movement of 1.4 million stars in Omega Centauri. They were able to rule out other factors that could have been speeding up the seven stars, such as multiple stellar-mass black holes or binary star systems, Haeberle said.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2024

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