Black hole disks may be hiding in the centers of galaxies

September 6, 2018, Eötvös University
Black hole disks may be hiding in the centers of galaxies
Credit: Eötvös University

Galactic nuclei are teeming with black holes. Earlier this year, 12 X-ray binaries were discovered at the Milky Way's center which suggested that thousands of black holes may be hiding in that region. A recent study shows that these stellar black holes are expected to orbit in a disk around the central supermassive black hole.

Observations show that the centers of most galaxies harbor a . The immense gravity of these objects acts to collect a dense population of millions of stars and several thousands of stellar mass black holes within a few light years. Astrophysicists simulated the interactions of stellar orbits in these regions and found that the black holes settle in previously unexpected structures. The results show that the more massive objects of the stellar population form a thick disk structure around the supermassive black hole in galactic nuclei.

"Previously it was thought that the orbits of both light and massive stellar objects are distributed isotropically around the supermassive black hole. We now understand that massive stars and black holes typically segregate into a disk," said Ákos Szölgyén of Eötvös University, Hungary, who led the study that has been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Szölgyén and his Ph.D. advisor Bence Kocsis at Eötvös University, Hungary, incorporated an important additional effect in their simulation, namely vector resonant relaxation. This effect represents a small component of the gravitational torque among the orbiting objects which accumulates over millions of years and becomes dominant over long timescales. As a consequence the orbital planes of objects around the supermassive black hole turn slowly.

"Unlike a swarm of bees around a beehive, stars fly around in the galactic center in a more ordered way: along precessing elliptical trajectories, each confined to a plane, respectively. The interactions among such planar orbits slowly reshuffles their orientations over millions of years," explained Bence Kocsis.

Researchers simulated the interactions of stellar orbits in nuclear star clusters throughout cosmic history since their formation.

"According to our current knowledge, nuclear star clusters may form in two different ways. The first suggests that gas flew into the center of the Galaxy and formed stars in situ around the supermassive black hole. The other model assumes that ancient globular clusters spiraled into the Galactic center where the tidal forces of the supermassive black hole tore them apart and populated the central region with their stellar content. It is likely that both processes were equally important in the formation of the nuclear star cluster," said Ákos Szölgyén.

In both models, the initial stellar orbits formed disks around the central supermassive black hole. The orientation of these disks is set by the direction from which the gas or the infalling globular clusters approached the center. With time these disks of stars gravitationally interact and the earlier assumption was that they ultimately dissolve. However the more massive stars, which ultimately turn into black holes, sink to lower inclination orbits in the disk similar to how the more massive particles sink to the bottom of a container. The physicists discovered this phenomenon in the simulations and found that the disks of massive objects may be long-lived.

"While the stellar system evolves to fill up the available region of space as a gas in a container, some of its constituents, i.e. the massive objects, cannot reach the most disordered spherical distribution. The gravitational interaction among them causes these objects to settle in a state of lower entropy," explained Bence Kocsis. "This is very similar to the process of spontaneous symmetry breaking known in particle physics and in condensed matter physics."

They also investigated what happens with the light and intermediate mass stellar objects in this region. While the orbits of intermediate mass objects, like B-type stars, showed a small amount of anisotropy, the calculations showed that the light objects, such as old main sequence stars like the Sun, neutron stars, and white dwarfs behave fundamentally differently. The light stellar objects reached a spherical distribution in the galactic nucleus in the simulation. These results are consistent with the observations of the Milky Way's center in the vicinity of the central supermassive black hole with a spherical population of old low mass stars, an anisotropic distribution of B-stars, and a warped disk of young massive stars.

Although there is only a dozen known black hole candidates in the Galactic Center, the researchers conclude that the black holes, which are typically more massive than stars are hiding within the disk of massive stars.

The discovery can have important implications on the understanding of stellar dynamics of galactic nuclei, galaxy evolution, and the origin of gravitational waves.

"If thousands of reside in a around the central supermassive black hole, they may collectively warp and puncture the ambient gas clouds in active from which highly energetic outflows are observed. These outflows can fundamentally affect the large scale structure of the host galaxy even thousands of light years away," said Bence Kocsis. "But the most exciting question is whether the predicted distribution of black hole disks may explain the high rate of mergers seen in gravitational waves by LIGO and Virgo."

Explore further: Another way for stellar-mass black holes to grow larger

More information: Ákos Szölgyén et al. Black Hole Disks in Galactic Nuclei, Physical Review Letters (2018). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.101101

Related Stories

Another way for stellar-mass black holes to grow larger

August 17, 2018

A trio of researchers with The University of Hong Kong, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and Northwestern University in the U.S., has come up with an alternative theory to explain how some ...

Supermassive black holes can feast on one star per year

February 1, 2018

CU Boulder researchers have discovered a mechanism that explains the persistence of asymmetrical stellar clusters surrounding supermassive black holes in some galaxies and suggests that during post-galactic merger periods, ...

Recommended for you

New world record magnetic field

September 17, 2018

A group of scientists at the University of Tokyo has recorded the largest magnetic field ever generated indoors—a whopping 1,200 tesla, as measured in the standard units of magnetic field strength.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 06, 2018
Open access copy of the paper here;

I also found a recent white paper on the current state and future of research into gravitational phenomena;

3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 06, 2018
P.S. For those not familiar with white papers; they are written for non-specialists. So, they are great if you are an interested layman.
5 / 5 (2) Sep 06, 2018
P.S. For those not familiar with white papers; they are written for non-specialists. So, they are great if you are an interested layman.

Well, that's me, thanks very much for the info. Downloaded and will read over evening tea...269 pages though,Ha!
5 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2018
Thanks, @RNP!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.