M87’s Obese Black Hole: A Step Closer to the Event Horizon Telescope

The black hole lurking inside galaxy M87 has a mass of 6.6 billion suns, according to today's announcement (NASA)

Fresh from the Department Of I Really Shouldn’t Have Eaten That Last Binary, astronomers attending the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Wash., have announced a supermassive black hole residing inside the nearby galaxy M87 has a weight problem.

In fact, this galactic behemoth is obese.

With a mass of 6.6 billion suns, it is the biggest black hole in our cosmic neighborhood. “It’s almost on top of us, relatively speaking. Fifty million light-years — that’s our backyard effectively. To have one so large, that’s kind of extreme,” astronomer Karl Gebhardt, with the University of Texas at Austin, told Discovery News. The black hole’s mass was arrived at after Gebhardt’s team tracked the motions of the stars near the black hole using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. By analyzing the stars’ orbits, the mass of the black hole could be calculated.

Although it’s been known for some time that M87’s black hole might be slightly on the heavy side, 6.6 billion solar masses exceeds previous estimates.

Previously on Astroengine, I’ve discussed the exciting possibility of imaging a black hole’s event horizon. Radio astronomers have even modeled what they might see should a collection of telescopes participate in event horizon astronomy. Naturally, to see the shadow of an event horizon, the black hole a) needs to be massive, and b) relatively close. The first nearby supermassive black hole that comes to mind is our very own Sagittarius A* (Sag. A*) that camps out in the middle of the Milky Way. That would be a good place to point our first event horizon telescope, right?

Think again. Even before astronomers were able to pinpoint M87’s black hole mass, in 2009, researchers from the Max Planck Institute and University of Texas had estimated M87’s mass to be 6.4 billion suns. Although M87 is a whopping 2,000 times further away from Earth than Sag. A*, due to its mass, the M87 supermassive black hole event horizon shadow should appear bigger in the sky than Sag. A*’s. Today’s announcement is bound to stimulate efforts in the quest to directly image a black hole’s event horizon for the first time.

“Right now we have no evidence that an object is a black hole. Within a few years, we might be able to image the shadow of the event horizon,” Gebhardt added.

For more on today’s news, read Irene Klotz’s report on Discovery News: “Obese Black Hole Lurks in Our Cosmic Backyard

How are Black Holes Used in the Movies?

Source: Graph Jam

I mean, is the spaghettification of John Cusack using awesome 2012 doomsday graphics too much to ask? Instead of an improbable alien spacecraft appearing over the White House, why not use a black hole, producing so much tidal shear that it rips the building apart brick-by brick? Oh, and then have all the matter being sucked into the black hole accelerate to relativistic velocities, creating an X-ray belching accretion disk, lighting up the solar system with our planet’s regurgitated mass-energy? Movie audiences will have a total doomgasm over that!

Or we could just use it as a nifty time travel device.

*I just saw this on Graph Jam, had a giggle. More sci-fi black holes please!

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]

Warp Drives and… Black Holes?

Could warp drives be a bad thing for Earth?

Why do all roads seem to lead to black holes? Man made black holes are supposedly going to be produced by the Large Hadron Collider, swallowing Earth (or, at least, a large fraction of Europe), so it seems only logical that something like a warp drive — a technology of the uber-future requiring uber-energies — would also generate a black hole, right?

Yes, we are talking about a vastly theoretical technology, but according to Italian researchers, the spaceship propulsion device popularized by Star Trek could have grave consequences for Planet Earth.

Over the past week, I’ve been deep inside the science behind faster-than-light-speed propulsion and time travel as a part of the Discovery Space Wide Angle: Surfing Spacetime, and I feel well versed in the astounding physics that could make warp speed a possibility in the future. All this started when interviewing one of the leading authorities on warp drive propulsion, Dr Richard Obousy, who is not only upbeat about the possibilities of the futuristic warpship, he’s done the math to prove that a sufficiently advanced civilization could “surf” on a spacetime wave.

However, there’s a catch. Well, two.

Firstly, we need to develop an understanding for dark energy. And second, we need a gargantuan energy source.

Dark energy is a cosmological theory that explains the continued expansion of the universe. This energy pervades all of the cosmos, explaining everything from the grouping of galactic clusters to the faster-than-light-speed inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang. There’s a lot of indirect observation of dark energy and its effects on spacetime. It’s out there, but it’s a tough proposition to think we might be able to harness it someday. But then again, we said that about electricity once, who knows what technological revolutions await us in the decades and centuries ahead.

Assuming we find a way of harnessing dark energy, how can we use it? This is where visionary physicists like Dr Obousy come in. Skipping over the superstring small-print of extra-dimensional theory, we basically need a huge amount of energy to manipulate the universal dark energy, thereby shrinking and expanding vanishingly small dimensions beyond our three dimensional universe.

So how much energy is needed warp spacetime, allowing a futuristic spaceship to zip through space? “Some back of the envelope calculations I performed last year indicated approximately the mass energy contained within the planet Jupiter,” Richard told me.

This sounds like a lot of energy! However, there’s a trend, the rest mass energy of Jupiter is actually an improvement on previous warp drive calculations. “The very early warp drive calculations indicated that one would need more mass energy than was available within the entire universe… that’s TRILLIONS of Jupiters!

This improvement is down to recent developments in superstring theory and quantum dynamics. It would appear that the energy requirements for a warp drive improves with developments in physics. If this trend continues, we may find other energy saving ways to make a warpship a reality.

However, there are some practical issues putting the breaks on travelling at warp speed. Only recently, I reported on a study focusing on quantum fluctuations as the warp “bubble” (containing our warpship) blasts through the light speed barrier: the occupants could get roasted by Hawking Radiation.

Today, another problem has surfaced from the extreme warp equations: black holes (who would have guessed?). Italian physicist Stefano Finazzi of Italy’s International School for Advanced Studies has crunched the numbers and wondered about what would happen when the energy runs out. It’s all very well generating a Jupiter’s rest mass-worth of energy, but how will it be sustained by the warp drive? What will happen when all the energy is depleted?

Eventually the energy would run out. The [warp] bubble would rupture, with catastrophic effects. Inside the bubble the temperature would rise to about 1032 degrees Kelvin, destroying almost anything on the bubble.Eric Bland, Discovery News

It gets better, Finazzi also predicts a fair amount of doom outside the warp bubble, too. “We know that the warp drive will be destabilized,” he added. “But we do not know if it will in the end explode or collapse to a black hole.”

Don’t go running out of gas any where near Earth is all I say

Although these implications of doom and gloom should have given Jean Luc Picard a panic attack whenever he said “engage!” or “make it so Number One…”, we have to remind ourselves warp drive propulsion isn’t even close to being a reality. Dr Obousy and warp scientists before him are only just beginning to assemble a theoretical framework around the sci-fi notion of warping spacetime, so to already be predicting warp speed fail seems a little premature in my opinion.

In response to the Hawking Radiation problem, Dr Obousy pointed out that if we get to the point of generating vast quantities of energy, harnessing the spacetime warping power of dark energy, we should be able to at least have a stab at finding solutions to these potential warp drive problems.

Objections are good, but usually we find smart ways of circumventing problems. Humans are good at that,” he said.

I agree.

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