Black Holes

The Intermittent Growth of the First Supermassive Black Holes

May
31
Edwige Pezzulli
Dr. Edwige Pezzulli

It is a pleasure to welcome Edwige Pezzulli as a guest blogger. Edwige led the black hole study that is the subject of our latest press release [link to PR]. She is a Ph.D. student at the University la Sapienza in Rome (Italy), under the supervision of Raffaella Schneider. During her Ph.D., she spent several months at the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris (IAP) in France. She has mainly worked on the study of the origin and properties of the first black holes in the Universe.

“As an adult, I’d like to be sent into a black hole!” This is my first memory from childhood on the topic of space.

Since then, I have studied and discovered a lot more about black holes, and yet they still fascinate me in the same way. Considered, for many, the most exotic objects ever discovered, supermassive black holes are the tip of the iceberg of the “dark” side of the Universe. Supermassive black holes are behemoths located in the centers of galaxies and can be among the most luminous sources ever known, from the radiation of surrounding material.

In particular, observations of the Universe’s earliest supermassive black holes, with masses about a billion times that of the Sun, open the door to many questions, especially this one: how did these monsters form in such a short time?

Astronomers find black holes with similar masses in the present-day universe, but these black holes have grown to their enormous size over a much longer period of time – about 13.8 billion years – compared to those that formed about a billion years after the Big Bang. In order to tackle the question of how supermassive black holes formed in the very early Universe, it is imperative to make numerous observations of the light they generate while pulling in, ie accreting, matter as they grow.

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Astronomers Pursue Renegade Supermassive Black Hole

May
09
illustration
CXO J101527.2+625911

Supermassive holes are generally stationary objects, sitting at the centers of most galaxies. However, using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, astronomers recently hunted down what could be a supermassive black hole that may be on the move.

This possible renegade black hole, which contains about 160 million times the mass of our Sun, is located in an elliptical galaxy about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. Astronomers are interested in these moving supermassive black holes because they may reveal more about the properties of these enigmatic objects.

This black hole may have "recoiled," in the terminology used by scientists, when two smaller supermassive black holes collided and merged to form an even larger one. At the same time, this collision would have generated gravitational waves that emitted more strongly in one direction than others. This newly formed black hole could have received a kick in the opposite direction of those stronger gravitational waves. This kick would have pushed the black hole out of the galaxy's center, as depicted in the artist's illustration.

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The Arrhythmic Beating of a Black Hole Heart

Apr
18
Screening
NGC 4696

At the center of the Centaurus galaxy cluster, there is a large elliptical galaxy called NGC 4696. Deeper still, there is a supermassive black hole buried within the core of this galaxy.

New data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes has revealed details about this giant black hole, located some 145 million light years from Earth. Although the black hole itself is undetected, astronomers are learning about the impact it has on the galaxy it inhabits and the larger cluster around it.

In some ways, this black hole resembles a beating heart that pumps blood outward into the body via the arteries. Likewise, a black hole can inject material and energy into its host galaxy and beyond.

By examining the details of the X-ray data from Chandra, scientists have found evidence for repeated bursts of energetic particles in jets generated by the supermassive black hole at the center of NGC 4696. These bursts create vast cavities in the hot gas that fills the space between the galaxies in the cluster. The bursts also create shock waves, akin to sonic booms produced by high-speed airplanes, which travel tens of thousands of light years across the cluster.

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X-rays From the Young Monsters: Studying Supermassive Black Holes in the Early Universe

Jan
04
Fabio Vito
Fabio Vito

We are pleased to welcome Fabio Vito as our guest blogger. Fabio and his colleagues led some of the latest work involving the Chandra Deep Field-South that were presented at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2017. He obtained a Ph.D. degree in Astrophysics and Cosmology from the University of Bologna (Italy) in 2014. During his studies he collaborated with researchers from the Astronomical Observatory of Bologna and also spent a 6-months period at the University of Cambridge (UK). After one year in a postdoctoral position in Bologna, he moved to his current position as a postdoctoral researcher at the Pennsylvania State University. Fabio's work is mainly focused on the growth and evolution of supermassive black holes in the early Universe, exploiting some of the deepest X-ray data available.

Black holes are among the most fascinating objects in the Universe. Probably most people have at least heard about them, maybe reading about some pseudo-scientific speculations like wormholes, time travelling, etc. Or perhaps they have watched movies such as the famous 2014 movie "Interstellar", or even by listening to music, such as the "Supermassive Black Hole" song by the British band Muse.

However, despite their popularity, our knowledge of these monsters of the Universe is limited. We know that "normal" black holes (although nothing is normal about black holes), which have masses of a few to tens of times the Sun's mass, are formed when big stars die and explode as supernovas. However, there is more than just one type of black hole. At the centers of most galaxies, there is a "monster among the monsters." This is what astronomers call a supermassive black hole (SMBH), and they can weigh from millions to billions of solar masses. Despite the fact that almost all of the normal-sized galaxies in the Universe host a SMBH in their centers (even our Milky Way!), astronomers do not know when and how they formed.

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X-ray Telescopes Find Evidence for Wandering Black Hole

Oct
04

XJ1417+52
Astronomers have used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray observatory to discover an extremely luminous, variable X-ray source located outside the center of its parent galaxy. This peculiar object could be a wandering black hole that came from a small galaxy falling into a larger one.

Astronomers think that supermassive black holes, with some 100,000 to 10 billion times the Sun's mass, are in the centers of most galaxies. There is also evidence for the existence of so-called intermediate mass black holes, which have lower masses ranging between about 100 and 100,000 times that of the Sun.

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2016: The Year of the Black Hole (1)

Oct
03

The 2016 Nobel Prize in physics will be announced in only 4 days, on Tuesday October 4th. Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss, three founders of the detection of gravitational waves (2). They have already won multiple awards for this discovery including the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Shaw Prize in Astronomy. (Kudos to those behind the Gruber Cosmology Prize and the Special Breakthrough Prize for explicitly naming the LIGO team in their awards, something the Nobel Prize award likely won’t do.)

2016 Laureate Astro Group
Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss (left to right). Credit: The Kavli Foundation.
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Poetry and Black Holes

Aug
19

We welcome back Jonathan Taylor as a guest blogger. Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, UK, along with an author and critic. He has written several poems for us in the past: “Black Hole in B-flat”, “History Lesson” and “!!**&@??”. He has also organized poetry competitions among his students, in blog posts here, here, here, here and here.

I was fascinated by Chandra’s press release of 27 June 2016, ‘Clandestine Black Hole May Represent New Population.’ The very title of the press release sounds ‘poetic,’ in the idea of ‘Clandestine’ – a concealed or secretive – Black Hole; and the findings described in the press release are even more so: having concluded that “a peculiar source of radio waves thought to be a distant galaxy is actually a nearby binary star system containing a low-mass star and a black hole,” astronomers have suggested that “there may be a vast number of black holes in our Galaxy that have gone unnoticed until now .... Because this study only covered a very small patch of sky, the implication is that there should be many of these quiet black holes around the Milky Way. The estimates are that tens of thousands to millions of these black holes could exist within our Galaxy, about three to thousands of times as many as previous studies have suggested.”

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Chandra Finds Evidence for Violent Stellar Merger

Jul
13

GRB 140903A
Gamma-ray bursts, or GRBs, are some of the most violent and energetic events in the Universe. Although these events are the most luminous explosions in the universe, a new study using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA's Swift satellite and other telescopes suggests that scientists may be missing a majority of these powerful cosmic detonations.

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Tracking Down a Stealthy Black Hole

Jun
27

We are pleased to welcome Bailey Tetarenko as our guest blogger. She is the lead author on a paper featured in our latest press release about a possible new population of black holes in the Galaxy. Bailey received her undergraduate degree in Astrophysics at the University of Calgary and then a master’s in Physics at the University of Alberta in 2014. She is now two years into her Ph.D. in Physics at the University of Alberta, where she is studying the black hole population of the Milky Way.

Bailey Tetarenko
From right to left Bailey Tetarenko, Dr. Arash Bahramian and Dr. Craig Heinke and Dr. Greg Sivakoff. Credit: John Ulan


For fans of black holes, we live in exciting times. Nearly all of our empirical knowledge about stellar mass black holes – that is, black holes weighing about 5 to 35 times the mass of the sun – comes from black hole X-ray binary systems. In these systems a black hole pulls in material from a nearby companion star, causing the system to become very bright in X-rays. But, recently gravitational waves have been detected from pairs of distant black holes that emit no electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. all forms of light). And now, my team's work suggests that there are many black hole X-ray binaries in our own Milky Way that emit relatively little X-rays.

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Cosmic Genealogy: the Ancestors of Supermassive Black Holes

May
24
Fabio Pacucci
Fabio Pacucci

It is a pleasure to welcome Fabio Pacucci as a guest blogger. Fabio led the study that is the subject of our latest press release. He is going to defend his Ph.D. Thesis at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa (Italy), under the supervision of Andrea Ferrara. During his Ph.D. he spent several months at the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris (IAP) in France, Yale University and Harvard University in the USA. In September he is starting his first postdoctoral position at Yale University. Fabio has mainly been working on understanding the properties of the first black hole seeds, formed when the Universe was less than one billion years old.

It was a sunny and hot afternoon in Pisa when Andrea Ferrara, my Ph.D. supervisor, suggested that I study the first black holes formed in the Universe. This topic is among the most interesting in cosmology. We know that almost every galaxy hosts a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at its center. In the Milky Way there is a black hole about 4 million times more massive than the Sun, but objects up to 10 billion times the mass of the Sun have also been observed.

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