The Search for the Missing Link in Black Hole Evolution

Space scientists think they have found a black hole family member they thought should exist; an intermediate-mass black hole

A newly discovered cosmic object may help provide answers to some long-standing questions about how black holes evolve and influence their surroundings, according to a new study using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
A newly discovered cosmic object may help provide answers to some long-standing questions about how black holes evolve and influence their surroundings, according to a new study using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Space news (June 09, 2015) – 100 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Camelopardalis – 

Mysterious celestial objects space scientists study to better understand the universe, black holes could hold the keys to unlocking the nature of reality. In fact, a celestial object just discovered may turn out to be the key to a long sought after question about how black holes evolve and alter the surrounding environment. 

Space scientists conducting a study of ultraluminous x-ray sources (ULXs) looking for intermediate-mass black holes using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory believe they have found a candidate. An interesting object, called NGC 2276-3c, located in an arm of spiral galaxy NGC 2276, appears to have the right characteristics.  

“Astronomers have been looking very hard for these medium-sized black holes,” said co-author Tim Roberts of the University of Durham in the UK. “There have been hints that they exist, but the IMBHs have been acting like a long-lost relative that isn’t interested in being found.” 

Space scientists studying black holes have observed objects residing at the center of galaxies with masses millions and even billions of times that of the sun. They have also observed objects with characteristics of smaller black holes, with masses about five to thirty times that of the sun. 

NGC 2276-3c is a middle-class black hole, with a mass about 50,000 times that of the sun, which could grow over the next few billions of years. In fact, space scientists think its home galaxy could at the moment be interacting with elliptical galaxy NGC 2300, which could account for its asymmetrical shape. 

How did space scientists locate and study NGC 2276-3c? Researchers observed the object almost at the same time using both the Chandra X-ray Observatory and European Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI). Using the X-ray and radio data obtained, along with known facts concerning the relationship between radio and X-ray luminosities for sources powered by black holes, they estimated the mass of the object to be around 50,000 solar masses. This puts the black hole in the range of mass expected for an IMBH. 

“We found that NGC2276-3c has traits similar to both stellar-mass black holes and supermassive black holes,” said co-author Andrei Lobanov of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. “In other words, this object helps tie the whole black hole family together.” 

During the study, space scientists also determined NGC 2276-3c has a characteristic seen in many supermassive black holes, a powerful radio jet extending up to 2,000 light years from the black hole. A region of the radio jet extending for about 1,000 light years, also seems to be missing young stars, which they think could mean the radio jet cleared out a cavity in the surrounding gas and prevented the formation of new stars. Powerful evidence to suggest IMBHs could alter their surrounding environments in amazing ways. 

NGC 2276-3c’s location in the spiral arm of its home galaxy is also making space scientists ask questions. Was it formed in the galaxy, or did it come from the center of a dwarf galaxy that collided and merged with NGC 2276 in the past? 

A recent study by a team of researchers led by Anna Wolter of the National Institute of Astrophysics in Milan, Italy seems to support the merger theory. It concluded that new stars are forming at the rate of about five to fifteen solar masses each year in NGC 2276. A high rate of new star formation they believe was possibly triggered by a possible collision with another galaxy in the past, which points to the formation of this IMBH during a merger between galaxies.   

What’s next?

Now astronomers will do more research on NGC 2275-3c and the radio jet extending from it, in order to look for clues to the effects supermassive black hole seeds existing during the first days of the universe could have had on their surroundings.  

You can learn more about NASA’s flagship X-ray telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory here

Learn more about NASA’s space mission to the stars here

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Learn about the ancient astronomy knowledge of ancient Peruvians.