Unexpectedly Large Black Holes and Dark Matter

The M87 black hole blasts relativistic plumes of gas 5000 ly from the centre of the galaxy (NASA)
The M87 black hole blasts relativistic plumes of gas 5000 ly from the centre of the galaxy (NASA)

I just spent 5 minutes trying to think up a title to this post. I knew what I wanted to say, but the subject is so “out there” I’m not sure if any title would be adequate. As it turns out, the title doesn’t really matter, so I opted for something more descriptive…

So what’s this about? Astronomers think they will be able to “see” a supermassive black hole in a galaxy 55 million light years away? Surely that isn’t possible. Actually, it might be.

When Very Long Baseline Interferometry is King

Back in June, I reported that radio astronomers may be able to use a future network of radio antennae as part of a very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) campaign. With enough observatories, we may be able to resolve the event horizon of the supermassive black hole lurking at the centre of the Milky Way, some 26,000 light years away from the Solar System.

The most exciting thing is that existing sub-millimeter observations of Sgr. A* (the radio source at the centre of our galaxy where the 4 million solar mass black hole lives) suggest there is some kind of active structure surrounding the black hole’s event horizon. If this is the case, a modest 7-antennae VLBI could observe dynamic flares as matter falls into the event horizon.

It would be a phenomenal scientific achievement to see a flare-up after a star is eaten by Sgr. A*, or to see the rotation of a possibly spinning black hole event horizon.

All of this may be a possibility, and through a combination of Sgr. A*’s mass and relatively close proximity to Earth, our galaxy’s supermassive black hole is predicted to have the largest apparent event horizon in the sky.

Or does it?

M87 Might be a Long Way Away, But…

As it turns out, there could be another challenger to Sgr. A*’s “largest apparent event horizon” crown. Sitting in the centre of the active galaxy called M87, 55 million light years away (that’s over 2,000 times further away than Sgr. A*), is a black hole behemoth.

M87’s supermassive black hole consumes vast amounts of matter, spewing jets of gas 5,000 light years from the core of the giant elliptical galaxy. And until now, astronomers have underestimated the size of this monster.

Karl Gebhardt (Univ. of Texas at Austin) and Thomas Jens (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany) took another look at M87 and weighed the galaxy by sifting through observational data with a supercomputer model. This new model accounted for the theorized halo of invisible dark matter surrounding M87. This analysis yielded a shocking result; the central supermassive black hole should have a mass of 6.4 billion Suns, double the mass of previous estimates.

Therefore, the M87 black hole is around 1,600 times more massive than our galaxy’s supermassive black hole.

A Measure for Dark Matter?

Now that the M87 black hole is much bigger than previously thought, there’s the tantalizing possibility of using the proposed VLBI to image M87’s black hole as well as Sgr. A*, as they should both have comparable event horizon dimensions when viewed from Earth.

Another possibility also comes to mind. Once an international VLBI is tested and proven to be an “event horizon telescope,” if we are able to measure the size of the M87 black hole, and its mass is confirmed to be in agreement with the Gebhardt-Jens model, perhaps we’ll have one of the first indirect methods to measure the mass of dark matter surrounding a galaxy…

Oh yes, this should be good.

UPDATE! How amiss of me, I forgot to include the best black hole tune ever:

Publication: The Black Hole Mass, Stellar Mass-to-Light Ratio, and Dark Matter Halo in M87, Karl Gebhardt et al 2009 ApJ 700 1690-1701, doi: 10.1088/0004-637X/700/2/1690.
Via: New Scientist


The Naked Singularity Recipe: Spin a Black Hole, Add Mass


The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return. If anything, even light, strays within the bounds of this gravitational trap, it will never escape. The event horizon is what makes a black hole black.

But say if there was a way to remove the event horizon, leaving just the black hole’s singularity to be “seen” by the rest of the universe? What if there is a special condition that would allow this infinitely small, yet massive point to become naked?

Generally physicists agree that this is a physical impossibility, but the mathematics says otherwise; a naked singularity could be possible.

Previously on Astroengine, one “special condition” was investigated when an extreme black hole collision was simulated by a Caltech researcher. In this case, the black hole pair was smashed together, head-on, at a velocity close to the speed of light. The gravitational waves travelling away from the collision were then modelled and characterized. It turns out that after this insanely energetic impact, 14% of the total mass was converted into gravitational wave energy and both black holes merged as one.

While this might not be very realistic, it proved to be a very useful diagnostic tool to understand the conditions after the collision of two black holes. As an interesting observation, the Caltech researchers found that although the collision was extreme, and there was a huge amount of mass-energy conversion going on (plus, I’d imagine, a rather big explosion), neither black hole lost their event horizons.

Case closed, wouldn’t you think?

Actually, another theory as to how a black hole could be stripped naked has been knocking around for some time; what if you added mass to a black hole spinning at its maximum possible rate? Could the black hole be disrupted enough to shed its event horizon?

It turns out there’s a natural braking system that prevents this from happening. As soon as mass is dropped into the black hole, it is flung out of the event horizon by the black hole’s huge centrifugal force, preventing it from coming close to the singularity.

However, Ted Jacobson and Thomas Sotiriou at the University of Maryland at College Park have now improved upon this idea, sending mass in the same direction as the spinning black hole. Only this time, the black hole isn’t spinning at its fastest possible rate, the simulation lets the orbiting matter fall into the event horizon, speeding up its spin. The result? It appears to disrupt the black hole enough to strip away the event horizon, exposing the singularity.

The most interesting thing to come of this research is that swirling matter is falling into black holes all over the universe, speeding up their spin. Jacobson and Sotiriou may have stumbled on a viable mechanism that actually allows naked singularities in the cosmos. Unless nature has found another way to prevent the cosmic censorship hypothesis from being violated that is…

Source: New Scientist

The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?

A modelled black hole shadow (left) and two simulated observations using a 7-telescope and 13-telescope array (Fish & Doeleman)
A modelled black hole shadow (left) and two simulated observations of Sgr A* using a 7-telescope and 13-telescope array (Fish & Doeleman)

All the evidence suggests there is a supermassive black hole lurking in the centre of our galaxy. We’ve known as much for quite some time, but it wasn’t until recently that we’ve been able to confirm it. As it turns out, most galactic nuclei are predicted to contain supermassive black holes in their cores.

The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole is called Sagittarius A*, a well-known compact radio source used by radio astronomers as an instrumental calibration target. The black hole driving this emission has been calculated to weigh in at a whopping 4×106 solar masses.

So, we’re certain Sgr A* is a supermassive black hole, how can we use it?

Using our Sun as an example, stellar physicists use the Sun as an up-close laboratory so they can better understand stars located many light years away. It is an up-close star that we can study in great detail, gleaning all kinds of information, helping us learn more about how stars work in general.

What if Sgr A* could be used in a similar way, not in the study of stellar physics, but in the pursuit to understand the dynamics of black holes throughout the Universe?

This is exactly the question Vincent Fish and Sheperd Doeleman from the MIT Haystack Observatory ponder in a recent publication. The researchers make an important point early in their paper:

Due to its proximity at ~ 8 kpc [26,000 ly], Sgr A* has the largest apparent event horizon of any known black hole candidate.

The centre of our galaxy as imaged by Spitzer (NASA)
The centre of our galaxy as imaged by Spitzer (NASA)

In other words, the supermassive black hole in the centre of the galaxy is the largest observable black hole in the sky. As Sgr A* is so massive, its event horizon is therefore bigger, providing a sizeable target for Earth-based observatories to resolve.

Although the black hole is quite a distance from us, the size of its event horizon more than makes up for its location, it even trumps closer, less massive stellar black holes. Sgr A* could therefore be our own personal black hole laboratory that we can study from Earth.

But there’s a catch: How do you directly observe a black hole that’s 26,000 light years away? Firstly, you need an array of telescopes, and the array of telescopes need to have very large baselines (i.e. the ‘scopes need to be spread apart as wide as possible). This means you would need an international array of collaborating observatories to make this happen.

The authors model some possible results using many observatories as part of a long baseline interferometry (VLBI) campaign. As Sgr A*’s emissions peak in the millimetre wavelengths, a VLBI system observing in millimetre wavelengths could spot a resolved black hole shadow in the heart of Sg. A*. They also say that existing millimetre observations of Sgr A* show emission emanating from a compact region offset from the centre of the black hole, indicating there is some kind of structure surrounding the black hole.

The results of their models are striking. As can be seen in the three images at the top of this post, a definite black hole shadow could be observed with just 7 observatories working together. With 13 observatories, the resolution improves vastly.

Could we be on the verge of tracking real-time flaring events occurring near the black hole? Perhaps we’ll soon be able to observe the rotation of the supermassive black hole as well as accretion disk dynamics. If this is the case, we may be able to also witness the extreme relativistic effects predicted to be acting on the volume of space surrounding Sgr A*.

The best news is that technological advancements are already in progress, possibly heralding the start of the construction of the world’s first “Event Horizon Telescope.”

Source: Observing a Black Hole Event Horizon: (Sub)Millimeter VLBI of Sgr A*, Vincent L. Fish, Sheperd S. Doeleman, 2009. arXiv:0906.4040v1 [astro-ph.GA]

Forget Black Holes, Let’s Look For Black Rings

A bubble ring. Could a black hole take on this shape at higher dimensions? (©letsdiveguam.com)

Black holes are as extreme as anything can get. When a massive structure can no longer sustain its own gravity, it will collapse to a point known as a singularity. For example, a massive star after it has gone supernova may leave one of these singularities behind, a remnant of massive star death, sucking any local matter into a one-way trip to the guts of space-time.

At a certain point, when light itself succumbs to the black hole’s gravity, an event horizon forms, beyond which universal physics breaks down; we have very little idea about what lies inside the event horizon. All we do know is that you don’t want to fall into one, you’d be stretched and spaghettified. Spaghettification is due to extreme (and when I say extreme, I mean as-extreme-as-it-can-get) tidal forces between your head to your toes.

So, the message is: Don’t play with black holes, it can only end in tears.

Now the Black Hole Health & Safety lecture is over, it’s time to talk about “black rings”. Under certain conditions, black holes may not be the mathematical singularities we once knew and (thought we) understood.

In a recent publication by Masashi Kimura at Osaka City University in Japan, the black ring idea is explored in 5-dimensional space. In the space-time we know and love, there are three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension. We are four-dimensional creatures. When string theory came along in the 1980’s we really began to appreciate that there could be more than the four dimensions we live in.

Previously, cosmologists have entertained the thought that black rings may exist in our 4D space-time. However, the big problem comes when trying to understand how these structures maintain their shapes; surely they should simply collapse and form your regular black holes? Actually, it depends on how big they are and how the competing forces balance out.

As the Universe is expanding, it is thought black rings could exist if they are of scales similar to the cosmological constant (this constant was derived by Einstein to explain a “flat” Universe, but later it was found the constant was required to characterize the universal expansion as observed by Edwin Hubble in 1929). If a black ring exists in 4D space-time, its gravitational collapse would be countered by the expansion of space-time (as characterized by the cosmological constant).

A bubble ring, as made by a dolphin, for fun (©deepocean.net)
A bubble ring, as made by a dolphin, for fun (©deepocean.net)

The only analogy I can relate this to in the terrestrial world is bubble rings (or, indeed, smoke rings). When under water, a bubble will rise to the surface. However, under the constriction of surface tension, the bubble will form the smallest possible shape. When a bubble ring is produced, there needs to be a balance between surface tension and a vortex. The surface tension pulls in, while the vortex maintains the bubble ring shape, pushing out.

In the case of the black ring, gravity is pulling inward, while the expansion of space-time is countering it, pushing out. In this situation, in an expanding Universe, there could be enduring examples of black rings out there.

In Kimura’s research, not only are black rings a possibility, there could be a number of different complex shapes that could form when considering these extra dimensions. When the Universe was young, multiple interacting black rings may have been possible, eventually coalescing to form black holes.

Although this research is very interesting, it is hard to imagine how we could observe these higher-dimensional black rings. Would we see them as a singularity (i.e. a black hole) in our 4D space-time? Or would they even be unobservable for lower-dimensional beings such as ourselves?

Publication: Dynamical Black Rings with a Positive Cosmological Constant, Masashi Kimura, 2009. arXiv:0904.4311v2 [gr-qc]

Via: arXiv blog

I Wish Office Work Was This Interesting

Having just stumbled around the space blogs, I was enthusiastic that I would find some inspiration toward my next Astroengine.com article. Along the way, I found this rather entertaining short film on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy website. As Phil points out, “black holes don’t work this way.” Although, that is a shame.

There’s a strong moral to this story: don’t photocopy alone, as you never know when your Xerox machine will print out a singularity. Well, not really, perhaps the guy should have stopped at stealing a snickers bar, a lesson we could all learn from. Actually, I might have walked off with just one wad of cash… actually, maybe two… you get the picture.

Needless to say, this isn’t actually how a black hole works… it’s not even how a wormhole would work. But take the short film at face value and get some entertainment from it, I thought it was quite good fun.

Probing Variable Black Holes

Artist impression of a black hole feeding off its companion star... and a rogue Higgs particle (ESO/L. Calçada)
Artist impression of a black hole feeding off its companion star... and a rogue Higgs particle (ESO/L. Calçada/Particle Zoo)

Black holes are voracious eaters. They devour pretty much anything that strays too close. They’re not fussy; dust, gas, plasma, Higgs bosons, planets, stars, even photons are on the menu. However, for astronomers, interesting things can be observed if a star starts to be cannibalized by a neighbouring black hole. Should a star be unlucky enough to have a black hole as its binary partner, the black hole will begin to strip the stars upper layers, slowly consuming it on each agonizing orbit. Much like water spiralling down a plug hole, the tortured plasma from the star is gravitationally dragged on a spiral path toward the black hole’s event horizon. As stellar matter falls down the event horizon plug hole, it reaches relativistic velocities, blasting a huge amount of radiation into space. And now, astronomers have taken different observations from two observatories to see how the visible emissions correlate with the X-ray emissions from two known black hole sources. What they discovered came as a surprise
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No Naked Singularity After Black Hole Collision

Black holes cannot be naked... the event horizon will always be there to cover them up...
Black holes cannot be naked... the event horizon will always be there to cover them up...

You can manipulate a black hole as much as you like but you’ll never get rid of its event horizon, a new study suggests. This may sound a little odd, the event horizon is what makes the black hole, well… black. However, in the centre of a black hole, hidden deep inside the event horizon, is a singularity. A singularity is a mathematical consequence, it is also a point in space where the laws of physics do not apply. Mathematics also predicts that singularities can exist without an associated event horizon, but this means that we’d be able to physically see a black hole’s singularity. This theoretical entity is known as a “naked singularity” and physicists are at a loss to explain what one would look like.

Like any good physics experiment, an international team from the US, Germany, Portugal and Mexico have decided to simulate the most extreme situation possible in the aim of stripping a pair of black holes of their event horizons. They did this by constructing an energetic collision between two black holes travelling close to the speed of light, crashing head-on. Here’s what they discovered…
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Meet Sagittarius A*, Our Very Own Supermassive Black Hole

Yearly location of stars within 0.2 parsecs from Sagittarius A* orbiting the common, compact radio source (A. Ghez)
Yearly location of stars within 0.2 parsecs from Sagittarius A* orbiting the common, compact radio source (A. Ghez)

We are told there is a supermassive black hole living in the centre of our galaxy. Apparently, supermassive black holes can be found in the centre of most galactic nuclei, and all the stars within the surrounding galactic disk will orbit around it. But how do we know there is a huge black hole in the centre of the Milky Way? What evidence is there? It turns out there is quite a lot, actually.

In a recent review of the subject, the radio emissions observed since the 1950’s are examined. However, probably the most striking piece of evidence is the figure to the left. Of course, we know black holes exert a massive gravitational pull on local space, and by observing the centre of our galaxy, we find there is a huge gravitational influence over a compact cluster of stars, all orbiting a common point, reaching orbital velocities of 5000 km/s…
Continue reading “Meet Sagittarius A*, Our Very Own Supermassive Black Hole”

New Exotic Particle May Explain Milky Way Gamma-Ray Phenomenon

Chandra observation of Cassiopeia A, a young supernova remnant in our galaxy - a prominent source of high-energy particles (NASA/CXC/MIT/UMass Amherst/M. D. Stage et al.)
Chandra observation of Cassiopeia A, a young supernova remnant in our galaxy - a prominant source of high-energy particles (NASA/CXC/MIT/UMass Amherst/M. D. Stage et al.)

There is something strange happening in the core of the Milky Way. A space observatory measuring the energy and distribution of gamma-rays in the cosmos has made an unexpected (and perplexing) discovery. It would seem there is a very high proportion of gamma-ray photons emanating from our galactic core with a very distinctive signature; they have a precise energy of 511 keV (8×10-14 Joules), and there’s a lot of them. So what could possibly be producing these 511 keV gamma-rays? It turns out, 511 keV is a magic number; it is the exact rest mass energy of a positron (the antimatter particle of the electron). So this is fairly conclusive evidence that positrons are dying (i.e. annihilating) in vast numbers in our galactic nuclei. Still, this is of little help to astrophysicists as there is no known mechanism for producing such high numbers of annihilating positrons. Ideas have been put forward, but there’s a new possibility, involving some new particle physics and some lateral thinking…
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Recoiling Supermassive Black Holes and Stellar Flares

Simulation of black holes colliding. In a word, awesome (Max Planck Group)

Astrophysicists love to simulate huge collisions, and they don’t get much bigger than this. From the discoverers of the first ever observed black hole collision back in April, new observational characteristics have been researched and Max Planck astrophysicists believe that after two supermassive black holes (SMBHs) have collided, they recoil and drag flaring stars with them. By looking out for anomalous X-ray flares in intergalactic space, or off-galactic nuclei locations, repelled black holes may be spotted powering their way into deep space at velocities of up to 4000 kms-1
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