Supermassive black hole is thrown out of galaxy

May 11, 2010
A Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy studied by Marianne Heida. The white circle marks the centre of the galaxy and the red circle marks the position of the suspected offset black hole. Image: STScI / NASA

(PhysOrg.com) -- Undergraduate student Marianne Heida of the University of Utrecht has found what appears to be a supermassive black hole leaving its home galaxy at high speed. As part of an international team of astronomers, this extraordinary discovery appears in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

For her final year project, Marianne worked at the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, used the Chandra Source Catalog (made using the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory) to compare hundreds of thousands of sources of X-rays with the positions of millions of galaxies. Normally each galaxy contains a supermassive black hole at its centre. The material that falls into heats up dramatically on its final journey and often means that black holes are strong X-ray sources.

X-rays are also able to penetrate the dust and gas that obscures the centre of a galaxy, giving astronomers a clear view of the region around the black hole, with the bright source appearing as a starlike point. Looking at one galaxy in the Catalog, Marianne noticed that the point of light was offset from the centre and yet was so bright that it could well be associated with a .

The black hole appears to be in the process of being expelled from its galaxy at high speed. Given that these objects can have masses equivalent to 1 billion Suns, it takes a special set of conditions to cause this to happen.

Marianne’s newly-discovered object is probably the result of the merger of two smaller black holes. Supercomputer models suggest that the larger black hole that results is shot out away at high speed, depending on the direction and speed in which the two black holes rotate before their collision. In any case, it provides a fascinating insight into the way in which supermassive black holes develop in the centre of galaxies.

Marianne’s research - which was carried out under the supervision of SRON researcher Peter Jonker - suggests this discovery may be only the tip of the iceberg, with others subject to future confirmation using the Chandra Observatory. She comments: "We have found many more objects in this strange class of X-ray sources. With Chandra we should be able to make the accurate measurements we need to pinpoint them more precisely and identify their nature."

Finding more recoiling black holes will provide a better understanding of the characteristics of black holes before they merge. In future, it might even be possible to observe this process with the planned LISA satellite, an instrument capable of measuring the gravity waves that the two merging black holes emit. Ultimately this information will let scientists know if supermassive black holes in the cores of really are the result of many lighter black holes merging together.

Explore further: Astronomers measure weight of galaxies, expansion of universe

More information: The research results have been accepted for publication in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, under the title "A bright off-nuclear X-ray source: a type IIn supernova, a bright ULX or a recoiling super-massive black hole in CXO J122518.6+144545". The authors are: Peter G. Jonker (SRON), Manuel A.P. Torres (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Andy C. Fabian (Cambridge), Marianne Heida (Utrecht), Giovanni Miniutti (Centro de Astrobiologia), Dave Pooley (Wisconsin). A preprint of this paper can be seen at arxiv.org/abs/1004.5379

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User comments : 15

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Wingman13
4 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
Wow, another extremely improbable Armageddon scenario... the solar system swallowed by a rogue supermassive blackhole :D
PinkElephant
3.3 / 5 (3) May 11, 2010
Yeah, but I'm not sure launching Bruce Willis strapped to a thermonuclear bomb at it, would solve the problem in such a case... Still, worth a try! =D
gwrede
2 / 5 (8) May 11, 2010
Gawd, the wit and the eloquence!

So, a black hole has eloped. Wouldn't it be more constructive to try to figure out a few likely scenaros?
jeffhans
1.8 / 5 (5) May 11, 2010
I would like to know why the possibility of the source being artificial isn't mentioned.
Shootist
3.7 / 5 (7) May 11, 2010
I would like to know why the possibility of the source being artificial isn't mentioned.


because that would not be the simplest, or most elegant, solution to what is seen?
Skeptic_Heretic
4.6 / 5 (9) May 11, 2010
I would like to know why the possibility of the source being artificial isn't mentioned.

Because it is a science article, not a pseudoscience article.
brant
3 / 5 (4) May 11, 2010
Halton Arp.

His theory is that objects get ejected from the center of galaxies and start new galaxies.
Eric_B
1.8 / 5 (10) May 11, 2010
I for one like big women with a good dark tan... She can stay in my galaxy then!
Nik_2213
4.2 / 5 (6) May 12, 2010
If this is a super-massive black hole, presumably it will stop 'feeding' voraciously when it gets beyond the host galaxy's disk and gas clouds. Such a 'quiet' object would represent a lot of 'missing mass'...
Sonhouse
1 / 5 (2) May 12, 2010
If this is a super-massive black hole, presumably it will stop 'feeding' voraciously when it gets beyond the host galaxy's disk and gas clouds. Such a 'quiet' object would represent a lot of 'missing mass'...


The mass is not missing since it can be measured, it is all squished up in one place. The missing mass problem is one in which it is very difficult to actually see the stuff but its effects can be sussed out by gravitational interactions.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.3 / 5 (4) May 12, 2010
If this is a super-massive black hole, presumably it will stop 'feeding' voraciously when it gets beyond the host galaxy's disk and gas clouds. Such a 'quiet' object would represent a lot of 'missing mass'...

Great point.

The mass is not missing since it can be measured, it is all squished up in one place.

Yes but you're ignoring the point that if this process is more commonplace than we suspect we may have identified why the Universe appears so empty and why we have so much missing matter within our calculations.
PinkElephant
3 / 5 (2) May 12, 2010
if this process is more commonplace than we suspect we may have identified why the Universe appears so empty and why we have so much missing matter within our calculations.
That doesn't agree with empirical data.

The object in question is estimated at ~1 billion solar masses. A galaxy like the Milky Way comprises ~500 billion solar masses worth of baryonic material alone. So a typical supermassive black hole accounts for less than 1% of its host galaxy's observable matter, and that's without even considering Dark Matter.

Also, with respect to "missing matter", if you're referring to Dark Matter, it appears (according to observations) to be uniformly distributed throughout any given galaxy's volume (including the halo). You'd need a LOT of black holes scattered about to create such an effect, which would imply a great many X-ray and gamma ray point sources, not to mention gravitational lensing anomalies, just within our galaxy alone.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (3) May 12, 2010
I wasn't clear.

When I say missing matter I'm not referring to anything beyond the 1.6% of Baryonic matter that is considered "Cold" Baryonic matter that we can't precisely quantify as it is relatively quiet emissions wise. I'm not suggesting that Dark Matter or dark energy can be accounted for through this process.
PS3
not rated yet May 13, 2010
The photo does nothing for me.Looks like BH's all over with the same grey smudge.
MikeLisanke
not rated yet May 14, 2010
Just how fast can a super massive black hole leave its galaxy? Even if a particle of light tries to leave the galaxy it still takes a very long time, yes?