New Study Suggests That Black Holes Are Growing Faster Than Previously Thought


Recent study suggests that black holes have been growing at a much faster rate than previously believed. Credit: Gabriel Perez Diaz

A study from astronomers at the Swinburne University of Technology suggests that black holes have been growing much faster than previously thought.

Astronomers from Swinburne University of Technology have discovered how supermassive black holes grow — and it’s not what was expected.

For years, scientists had believed that supermassive black holes, located at the centers of galaxies, increased their mass in step with the growth of their host galaxy. However, new observations have revealed a dramatically different behavior.

“Black holes have been growing much faster than we thought,” Professor Alister Graham from Swinburne’s Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing said.

Within galaxies, there is a competition of sorts for the available gas; for either the formation of new stars or feeding the central black hole.

For more than a decade the leading models and theories have assigned a fixed fraction of the gas to each process, effectively preserving the ratio of black hole mass to galaxy mass. New research to be published in The Astrophysical Journal reveals that this approach needs to be changed.

Dense clusters of millions of stars are often found at the centers of galaxies. Swinburne Astronomers present this animation to show the fate of some of these stars which venture too close to the cluster’s central supermassive black hole.

“We now know that each ten-fold increase of a galaxy’s stellar mass is associated with a much larger 100-fold increase in its black hole mass,” Professor Graham said. “This has widespread implications for our understanding of galaxy and black hole coevolution.”

The researchers have also found the opposite behavior to exist among the tightly packed clusters of stars that are observed at the centers of smaller galaxies and in disk galaxies like our Milky Way.

“The smaller the galaxy, the greater the fraction of stars in these dense, compact clusters,” Swinburne researcher Dr. Nicholas Scott said. “In the lower mass galaxies the star clusters, which can contain up to millions of stars, really dominate over the black holes.”

Previously it was thought that the star clusters contained a constant 0.2 percent of the galaxy mass.

The research also appears to have solved a long-standing mystery in astronomy. ‘Intermediate mass’ black holes with masses between that of a single star and one million stars have been remarkably elusive.

The new research predicts that numerous galaxies already known to harbor a black hole — albeit of a currently unknown mass — should contain these missing `intermediate mass’ black holes.

“These may be big enough to be seen by the new generation of extremely large telescopes,” Dr. Scott said.

Professor Graham said these black holes were still capable of readily devouring any stars and their potential planets if they ventured too close.

“Black holes are effectively gravitational prisons and compactors, and this may have been the fate of many past solar systems,” Professor Graham said. “Indeed, such a cosmic dance will contribute at some level to the transformation of nuclear star clusters into massive black holes.”

The researchers combined observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the European Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Keck Telescope in Hawaii to create the largest sample to date of galaxies with reliable star cluster and supermassive black hole mass measurements.

Reference: “The (black hole mass)-(host spheroid luminosity) relation at high and low masses, the quadratic growth of black holes, and intermediate-mass black hole candidates” by Alister W. Graham and Nicholas Scott, 1 February 2013, The Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/764/2/151

The research was funded by the Australian Research Council.

1 Comment on "New Study Suggests That Black Holes Are Growing Faster Than Previously Thought"

  1. Nelson Simonson | January 18, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply

    “…each ten-fold increase of a galaxy’s stellar mass is associated with a much larger 100-fold increase in its black hole mass”
    This statement implies that the black hole grows only if the galaxy grows, but won’t the gravitational pull of a black hole cause it to consume galactic mass regardless of the galaxy’s ability to attract new mass from its surroundings?

    The statement might refer to the comparative sizes of black holes at the center of two different galaxies of the same age. If galzxy A is ten times larger than galaxy B, black hole A is 100 times larger than black hold B.

    Clarification please!

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