Thursday, January 04, 2007

Inside Star Clusters

Globular clusters are dense bundles of thousands to millions of old stars, and many scientists have doubted that black holes could survive in such an exclusive environment.

Computer simulations show that a newly formed black hole would first sink towards the centre of the cluster but quickly get gravitationally slingshot out entirely when interacting with the cluster's myriad stars.

The new finding provides the first convincing evidence that some black hole might not only survive but grow and flourish in globular clusters. What has astonished astronomers is how quickly the black hole was found.

[+/-] Click here to expand

Black holes are, by definition, invisible. But the region around them can flare up periodically when the black hole feeds. As gas falls into a black hole, it will heat to high temperatures and radiate brightly, particularly in X-rays.

The discovery is reported in the current issue of Nature. Tom Maccarone of the University of Southampton in England leads an international team on the finding, made primarily with the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton satellite.

Astronomers using XMM-Newton data found that the elliptical galaxy (named NGC 4472 or M49) shown in this image hosts a stellar-mass black hole in the act of feeding. This black hole is the first ever found in a globular star cluster.
The galaxy is situated about fifty million light-years away in the constellation Virgo, one of the many members of the Virgo galaxy cluster.

Details in the X-ray light detected by XMM-Newton leave little doubt that this is a black hole - the object is too bright, and varies by too much to be anything else. In fact, the source is 'extra bright', - an Ultraluminous X-ray object, or ULX. ULXs are brighter than the 'Eddington limit' for stellar mass black holes, the brightness level at which the outward force from X-rays is expected balance the powerful gravitational forces from the black hole. Thus it is often suggested that the ULXs might be intermediate mass black holes – black holes of thousands of solar masses, heavier than the 10-solar-mass stellar black holes, and lighter than the million to thousand million solar mass black holes in quasars. These black holes might then be the missing links between the black holes formed in the death throes of massive stars and the ones in the centres of galaxies.

It is perhaps possible for a stellar-mass black hole to gain enough mass through merging with other stellar-mass black holes or accreting star gas to stay locked in a cluster. About 100 solar masses would do. Once entrenched, the black hole has the opportunity to merge with other black holes or accrete gas from a local neighbourhood rife with star-stuff. In this way, they could grow into IMBHs (Intermediate Blackhole).

On the other hand," continued Kundu, "there are a variety of ways to make ULXs without requiring intermediate mass black holes. In particular, if the light goes out in a different direction than the one from which the gas comes in, it doesn't put any force on the gas. Also, if the light can be 'focused' towards us by reflecting off the gas in the same way that light from a flashlight bulb bounces off the little mirror in the flashlight, making the object appear brighter than it really is."

Ongoing work will help to determine whether this object is a stellar-mass black hole showing an unusual manner of sucking in gas, allowing it to be extra bright, or an IMBH.

Blackhole in a Globular Cluster from ESA News
The findings appear on line in the 4 January issue of the journal Nature,
in the article titled: "A black hole in a globular cluster"

by Thomas J. Maccarone (Southampton University),
Arunav Kundu & Stephen E. Zepf (Michigan State University),
and Katherine L. Rhode (Wesleyan University).

Really Old Stars by Clifford @ Asymptotia
A Magellanic Star Factory from Centauri Dreams
Central Cygnus by Astronomy Picture of the Day

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