Scientists at the University of New Hampshire’s Space Science Center have just published a new study today in which they provide perhaps the best solid evidence yet to back up the existence of intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs).
While researchers are well aware that super-massive and small black holes lurk out there in space, obtaining the evidence they need to prove the existence of intermediate-mass black holes has proven to be somewhat of a challenge for scientists, as Phys.org report.
This has all changed, however, as satellite imagery has now been captured which shows one of these IMBHs hungrily swallowing a star, a picture that UNH Space Science Center’s Dacheng Lin says was finally captured at just the right moment
“We feel very lucky to have spotted this object with a significant amount of high quality data, which helps pinpoint the mass of the black hole and understand the nature of this spectacular event. Earlier research, including our own work, saw similar events, but they were either caught too late or were too far away.”
Scientists were able to determine that what they were witnessing was indeed an intermediate-mass black hole after they observed a distant galaxy with a multi-wavelength radiation flare that was visible to them. After closely watching this flare, researchers noticed that its intensity and brightness began to diminish with time, which is precisely what happens when a black hole devours a star.
The intermediate-mass black hole began its devouring process of this star back in October 2003, with the aftermath of the star’s decaying radiation slowly diminishing over a period of 10 years. Scientists used several x-ray telescopes to observe this process, which included NASA’s Swift Satellite and Chandra X-ray Observatory, as well as ESA’s XMM-Newton.
After observing the tidal disruption event (TDE) of the star coming into contact with the IMBH and being ripped apart, scientists could see stellar debris from the star that hadn’t been sucked into the black hole and had been shot into the distance.
They also noticed the x-ray flares, something that is a direct byproduct of stellar debris that has gone into a black hole, and which has then heated up to such an extreme temperature that the flare appears.
As Lin explained, spotting this particular IMBH was a momentous and rare event as they are so difficult to detect, with this marking the first occasion that one has been captured.
“From the theory of galaxy formation, we expect a lot of wandering intermediate-mass black holes in star clusters. But there are very, very few that we know of, because they are normally unbelievably quiet and very hard to detect and energy bursts from encountering stars being shredded happen so rarely.”
The new study on the discovery of an intermediate-mass black hole was published today in Nature Astronomy.