Black holes have long been a source of scientific curiosity, but a recent discovery could lead to solutions for some of the greatest mysteries in astrophysics that surround these gravitational phenomena. In a so-called dwarf galaxy floating billions of miles away from Earth, one of these light-devouring celestial bodies has formed, laying the foundations for an astral map which astronomers can use to find more examples of black hole activity. Current pictures show the galaxy, which could have been much larger millennia ago, as a much smaller collection of stars than the Milky Way.
A team of a dozen astronomers from across the world, including assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah Anil Seth, pieced together the location of this gravity well. Seth and the others used data and light refractions from the Hubble and the Gemini telescope in Hawaii, finding that the smallest known galaxy, labeled only as M60-UCD1, was the black hole source. Seth pointed out how this observation connected the idea that the opening in space could be responsible for significantly reducing entire galaxies, which, also according to the assistant professor, hadn’t been considered in the field before now.
“We knew pretty much right away,” Seth says, “that we had an interesting discovery on our hands.” Those that have studied the cluster say that the black hole has 21 million times more mass than the Earth’s sun and inhabits what is known as a dwarf galaxy. The mass within the phenomena translates to a full 15 percent of that galaxy’s total. For a bit of perspective, the center of the Milky Way galaxy has a similar hole, but on a much smaller scale as only .01 percent of the total mass resides there.
Black holes are mysterious to those that study physics because the practice’s main tools, such as tested equations, become very limited in their use. These cosmic phenomena are extreme gravitational pulls that are stronger than any other known source of gravity and take any dark and regular matter caught within their accretion disk, but accumulate no size in the process. Light is swallowed as well, making them immune to telescopic identification by themselves. As such, they are often detectable only by the reaction of matter around them. Once inside, matter, light and time itself are stretched, leaving only the after-image at a so-called event horizon. Over an unknown period of time, this process of stretching continues until a singularity of infinite density and no size absorbs nearby matter.
Seth expresses the group’s collective belief that this dwarf galaxy could have held upwards of 10 billion stars at some point in the past. The working hypothesis is that most of these stars were torn away by another galaxy, M60. Currently, M60-UCD1 is very small compared to the Milky Way, comprising only 0.2 percent of the total mass present in Earth’s home galaxy.
This spacial distortion’s very existence helps the scientists more accurately approach their study. Seth explains that there is no current way to find the galaxy-centered super massive holes, but that this gives scientists a “new place to look” that none had even considered as a possibility before. He confirms that the galaxy is about 54 million light years, or 320 billion miles, from Earth. The closest black hole to Earth was V4641 at a distance of between 1,600 and 24,000 light years as of 2012.
By Myles Gann