Rarely seen middleweight black hole gobbles star

The black hole candidate and the host galaxy

(Optical: NASA/ESA/Hubble/STScI; X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNH/D. Lin et al.)

An elusive type of black hole is spotted as the shreds and consumes a nearby star. Archiving of data from the European space agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory showed signs of feasting black hole throwing off powerful radiation of flares.

Black holes come in many sizes. The smallest stellar mass black holes have about as much mass as the sun and are scattered through galaxies, while supermassive black holes can be billions of times larger. These black holes floating in the hearts of most galaxies. The new object is an intermediate-mass black hole, a class, ranging from hundreds to thousands of times more mass than the Earth from the sun. Thought to eventually grow into supermassive black holes, the medium-sized objects are incredibly difficult to identify, the scientists said.

“This is incredibly exciting: This kind of black hole not yet spotted so clearly before,” a scientist Dacheng Lin, of the University of New Hampshire, said in a statement. “A few candidates have been found, but on the whole, they are very rare and highly sought after.” [The Strangest Black Holes in the Universe]

Lin and his colleagues pored over archival images collected by XMM-Newton to find the candidate, an X-ray source with the unwieldy name of 3XMM J215022.4-055108. The object is located in a large galaxy located about 740 million light-years away from the Earth. The researchers confirmed their observations with complementary data taken by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift X-Ray Telescope.

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“This is the best intermediate-mass black hole candidate observed so far,” says Lin.

A dying star illuminates the way

When massive stars are too close together in a dense star clusters, they may merge into an intermediate-mass black hole. But by the time the black hole has formed, most of the surrounding gas is converted into stars, leaving the hungry object with nothing to feast on. Thus, while stellar clusters are some of the best places to hunt for the medium-sized black holes, these environments can also the black holes are difficult to detect.

“One of the few methods that we can use to try to find an intermediate-mass black hole is waiting for a star to pass close to it, and be disturbed,” says Lin. “This is essentially ‘activates’ the black hole of the appetite and asks it to shine in a glow that we can see.”

The passing star ripped to pieces by the gravity of the black hole. If the black hole consumes the star, it makes brilliant flares in the X-ray wavelengths. Previously these events had been spotted only in the centers of galaxies, but the new observation occurs along the galactic edge, the researchers said in the statement.

In addition to the observation of the radiation in the X-ray wavelengths, the researchers used a lot of other instruments to see if they could spot the eruption in visual wavelengths. Two images revealed a change in the source in 2005, it grew bluer and brighter.

“By comparing the data we found that the unlucky star was probably disrupted in October 2003 in our time [as the light came on the Earth], and produced a burst of energy that phased out over the next 10 years or so,” co-author Jay Strader, an astronomer at Michigan State University, said in the same statement.

Lin and his colleagues estimated that the black hole has a mass about 50,000 times larger than the sun. Their results were published June 18 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Because stellar triggered bursts are thought to be rare, intermediate-mass black holes, the observation of this suggests the presence of other sleeping, medium-sized black holes in the edges of galaxies in the local universe, the scientists said.

“More information about these objects, and the associated phenomena is the key to our understanding of black holes,” Norbert Schartel, ESA project scientist for XMM-Newton, said in the statement.

“Our models are currently compared with a scenario where an alien civilization notes on Earth and stains grandparents from their grandchildren at preschool:” They [the aliens] might suppose that something intermediate, and fit their model of a human life, but without regard to that link, there is no way to know for sure,” Schartel said. “This finding is incredibly important, and indicates that the discovery method is good to use.”

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