Not one, but 20000 black holes hiding in Milky Way's heart

Not one, but 20000 black holes hiding in Milky Way's heart

But when black holes pair up with companion stars and interact with them, this produces telltale X-ray signals.

At the outer edge of the main body of the galaxy, the galactic disc, new stars are still being created out of gas and dust. Surrounding red dots are white dwarf stars.

For decades, scientists have thought that black holes should sink to the center of galaxies and accumulate there, says Chuck Hailey, an astrophysicist at Columbia University.

The find provides the first evidence for a long-held theory that the massive black hole at the core of every large galaxy should be surrounded by thousands of smaller ones, they wrote in the science journal Nature.

The astronomers were also careful not to be fooled by the many other intriguing X-ray-emitting objects at the galactic centre.

The team also looked at the ratio of hard to soft X-rays (basically just the higher energy light compared to the lower energy rays) to show that the central X-ray sources closest to Sagittarius A* are likely either from binary systems (involving neutron stars or black holes), or from "millisecond pulsars", which are highly magnetised rotating neutron stars that emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation.

The discovery can also help refine our ideas of the freaky, rare binary systems that produce gravitational waves. By the time we see the light from these galaxies, they are vastly different than how they are in this ancient light we now observe.

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Now scientists have developed a technique to reveal the smoking gun for hidden black holes at the galaxy's centre.

The map is a literal look back in time to 16 different epochs between 11 and 13 billion years ago. On the surface, this increases the amount of black holes that were previously found throughout the galaxy.

Sagittarius A* is surrounded by a halo of dust and gas that offers the ideal breeding ground for the birth of massive stars, which live, die and could transition into black holes there, Hailey said. These black holes eventually are believed to congregate around the centre.

Professor Hailey said that if astronomers can pinpoint the number of black holes at the galaxy's centre, the finding will greatly benefit the advancement of gravitational wave research. "Some of them were formed comparatively recently". Most of the black holes remain isolated, but a small minority become attached to the orbits of low mass stars in the region, forming a binary system.

There are only about five dozen known black holes in the entire galaxy stretching across 100,000 light years wide.

HAILEY: Because they're so heavy, they naturally sink or gravitate towards the supermassive black hole in the center. "It is going to significantly advance gravitational wave research because knowing the number of black holes in the center of a typical galaxy can help in better predicting how many gravitational wave events may be associated with them". And, Hailey said, perhaps they will find one at the centre of a distant galaxy.

Morris calls the work "exciting" but notes that due to the very low total numbers of photons used in the analysis, of the dozen putative black holes some might actually merely be statistical flukes produced by coincidentally timed emissions from other sources. And he hopes that other astronomers will use publicly available data to further seek out these somewhat elusive mysteries of the universe. "And it shows that the universe is really full of galaxies".

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