Astronomers Just Discovered a Cluster of Black Holes Near the Center of the Milky Way

Wednesday, 09 May 2018 - 8:46PM
Space
Black Holes
Wednesday, 09 May 2018 - 8:46PM
Astronomers Just Discovered a Cluster of Black Holes Near the Center of the Milky Way
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NASA/CXC/Columbia Univ./C. Hailey et al.
At the center of our galaxy is a supermassive black hole (just like in many other galaxies) named Sagittarius A*. And it may have some smaller friends not too far away.

Recently, astrophysicists have began to suspect that lots of smaller black holes surround the supermassive giant in Milky Way's core, and now we have some much more promising evidence. A team of researchers led by Chuck Hailey of Columbia University used data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to pinpoint twelve sources that match up with black holes, and several other possible black holes as well.

Impressively, all of these suspected black holes are within only three lightyears of Sagittarius A*, which is an extremely small distance on an interstellar scale. 



According to their research, which was just published in Nature, the team used Chandra to search for "X-ray binaries," a small system of a black hole (or sometimes a neutron star, which is also extremely dense) and another star which is constantly having its gas and materials sucked out. This binary system produces X-rays, which are crucial to finding black holes which are otherwise invisible since they absorb visible light.

Initially, they found fourteen X-ray binaries within 3 lightyears of the Sagittarius A*, and many others which are farther out. Two of those fourteen had outbursts associated with neutron stars, but the others are fair game and extremely likely to be black holes themselves. 

And since Chandra could only pick up some of the brightest X-ray binaries, there are very likely even more in that area which nobody has detected yet. Extrapolating from this data, there could be anywhere from 300 to 1,000 more X-ray binaries with black holes in the close vicinity of the supermassive black hole.




There's still a lot that needs to be confirmed, and there is a possibility that beyond being neutron stars, some pulsars could be present here too. But this is solid evidence that the center of our galaxy is busier than we previously knew it to be.

After all, one black hole would be bad enough. An entire swarm of them is an even better reason to stay clear once we improve space travel in the distant future.
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