Astronomers have found the best evidence for the perpetrator of a cosmic homicide: a black hole of an elusive class known as “intermediate-mass,” which betrayed its existence by tearing apart a wayward star that passed too close.
Intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs) are a long-sought “missing link” in black hole evolution. Though there have been a few other IMBH candidates, researchers consider these new observations the strongest evidence yet for mid-sized black holes in the universe.
IMBHs have been particularly difficult to find because they are smaller and less active than supermassive black holes; they do not have readily available sources of fuel, nor as strong a gravitational pull to draw stars and other cosmic material which would produce telltale X-ray glows. Astronomers essentially have to catch an IMBH red-handed in the act of gobbling up a star.
It took the combined power of two X-ray observatories and the keen vision of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to nail down the cosmic beast.
Dacheng Lin of the University of New Hampshire, principal investigator of the study, and his team used Hubble to follow up on leads from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton). In 2006 these high-energy satellites detected a powerful flare of X-rays, but were not sure if they originated from inside or outside of our galaxy. Researchers attributed it to a star being torn apart after coming too close to a gravitationally powerful compact object, like a black hole.
Hubble was pointed at the X-ray source to resolve its precise location. Deep, high-resolution imaging provides strong evidence that the X-rays emanated not from an isolated source in our galaxy, but instead in a distant, dense star cluster on the outskirts of another galaxy — just the type of place astronomers expected to find an IMBH. Previous Hubble research has shown that the mass of a black hole in the center of a galaxy is proportional to that host galaxy’s central bulge. In other words, the more massive the galaxy, the more massive its black hole. Therefore, the star cluster that is home to 3XMM J215022.4−055108 may be the stripped down core of a lower-mass dwarf galaxy that has been gravitationally and tidally disrupted by its close interactions with its current larger galaxy host.
The X-ray glow from the shredded star allowed astronomers to estimate the black hole’s mass of 50,000 solar masses. The mass of the IMBH was estimated based on both X-ray luminosity and the spectral shape. “This is much more reliable than using X-ray luminosity alone as typically done before for previous IMBH candidates,” said Lin. “The reason why we can use the spectral fits to estimate the IMBH mass for our object is that its spectral evolution showed that it has been in the thermal spectral state, a state commonly seen and well understood in accreting stellar-mass black holes.”
Finding this IMBH opens the door to the possibility of many more lurking undetected in the dark, waiting to be given away by a star passing too close. Lin plans to continue his meticulous detective work, using the methods his team has proved successful.
Source: “Hubble finds best evidence for elusive mid-sized black hole” Hubblesite, 31 March 2020.<https://hubblesite.org/contents/news-releases/2020/news-2020-19>