Black holes are the most massive objects in the universe. Their gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape it — not even light. But according to a new NASA study, black holes may play a more complex role in galactic ‘ecosystems’. Specifically, a black hole was found to be contributing to the formation of a new star in its vicinity, offering tantalizing clues about how massive black holes develop in the first place.
A stellar nursery
Some ten years ago, Amy Reines, then a graduate student, discovered a black hole in a galaxy about 30 million light-years away from Earth, in the southern constellation Pyxis. She knew something was off right away, but it wasn’t until recently that new Hubble observations shed light on the situation.
“At only 30 million light-years away, Henize 2-10 is close enough that Hubble was able to capture both images and spectroscopic evidence of a black hole outflow very clearly. The additional surprise was that, rather than suppressing star formation, the outflow was triggering the birth of new stars,” said Zachary Schutte, Reines’ graduate student and lead author of the new study.
The galaxy, called Henize 2-10, is a so-called “starburst” galaxy — a galaxy where stars are being formed at a much higher rate than normal, around 1,000 times faster. The galaxy is also relatively small — a so-called dwarf galaxy — and has a black hole at its center, much like the Milky Way.
Researchers were already aware of an unusual cocoon of gas in the area, but Hubble managed to also image an outflow linked to the central black hole. Although the process is not fully understood, astronomers do believe that black holes (or at least some black holes) do have an outflow despite their massive gravity. In Henize 2-10, this outflow moves at about a million miles per hour, slamming into the gas cocoon — and as it turns out, newborn stars follow the path of the outflow.
In large galaxies, the opposite happens: material falling towards the black hole forms jets of plasma that don’t allow the formation of stars. But apparently, in the less-massive Henize 2-10, the outflow has just the right characteristics to precipitate new star formation. Previously, studies mostly focused on larger galaxies, where there is more observational evidence. Dwarf galaxies are still understudied, and it’s only thanks to Hubble that researchers were able to study this.
“Hubble’s amazing resolution clearly shows a corkscrew-like pattern in the velocities of the gas, which we can fit to the model of a precessing, or wobbling, outflow from a black hole. A supernova remnant would not have that pattern, and so it is effectively our smoking-gun proof that this is a black hole,” Reines said.
The role that black holes play in the universe is one of the biggest puzzles in astronomy, and the more data comes in, the more it’s starting to look like this is not a straightforward role, but rather a complex one. For instance, it was just recently demonstrated that researchers realized that most (if not all) galaxies have a black hole at their center. The more massive the galaxy, the more massive the central black hole — or possibly, the other way around, and the mass of the black hole is affecting the galaxy.
But we don’t really know how these central black holes (often called supermassive black holes) formed. Some researchers suspect they formed like “regular” black holes and somehow accumulated more and more mass; others believe they could only have formed in special conditions in the early stages of the universe; a further competing theory claims that the “seeds” of these black holes come from dense star clusters that collapse gravitationally. The black hole in Henize 2-10 could offer clues about these theories.
The black hole in the galaxy remained relatively small over cosmic time and did not accumulate a lot of material. This would suggest that it’s relatively unchanged since its formation, essentially offering a window into the early days of the universe.
“The era of the first black holes is not something that we have been able to see, so it really has become the big question: where did they come from? Dwarf galaxies may retain some memory of the black hole seeding scenario that has otherwise been lost to time and space,” Reines concludes.