Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Most Massive Object in the Universe—How Was It Created?

black hole merger
A computer simulation of the merger of two black holes
The galaxy known prosaically as M87 doesn’t look like much. Unlike beautiful spiral galaxies (including the Milky Way), M87 appears as an orangish blob of stars through telescopes. Its only noticeable feature is the long streamer of gas emanating from the galactic center.

The source of that jet is far from prosaic, however: It’s a black hole 6.6 billion times the mass of the Sun.

No other known object is as massive—this black hole by itself outweighs entire star clusters and small galaxies. Even compared to other huge black holes, such as the one at the heart of the Milky Way, the monster of M87 is immense.

But how did these black holes grow so massive? The simple answer: Just as big galaxies grew by colliding and merging (as described in Steve Nadis’ recent Nautilus piece, “The Stories That Galaxies Tell”), the largest black holes form when pairs of smaller black holes merge. Trying to grasp the story in greater detail pushes both our theoretical and observational limits: Colliding black holes demand complex computer simulations to understand and sophisticated machines to detect. Studying black hole coalescence may be the best way to understand the effects of absurdly strong gravity, potentially revealing entirely new phenomena.

Black holes seem to have a close connection with their host galaxies, hinting at their shared evolutionary history. The size of a black hole, for example, seems to mirror the size of the central region of its galaxy. 

Astronomers do not expect to see “super-massive” black holes—those with masses millions or billions of times greater than the Sun—in tiny galaxies or vice-versa (though at least one seems to violate the rule for unknown reasons).

Since the largest galaxies formed out of mergers between smaller galaxies, researchers suspect the same applies to their central black holes. Galaxies showing the signs of recent collisions, such as NGC 6240, sometimes also have two obvious super-massive black holes, lending support to the idea. But the process of turning two black holes into one takes many millennia, far longer than humans have been engaged in astronomy. So the only way we currently have to understand close encounters of black holes is with theory.

For the rest of the story: http://nautil.us/blog/the-most-massive-object-in-the-universehow-was-it-created

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