Published: Thu, September 07, 2017
Research | By Francis Brooks

Medium-sized black hole seen lurking in the Milky Way

Medium-sized black hole seen lurking in the Milky Way

Intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs) are called the "missing link" that could explain how supermassive black holes are created, Newsweek reports.

Brooke Simmons at the University of California, San Diego, who was also not involved in the study, described it as "careful detective work".

In a study published in Nature Astronomy, scientists led by Tomoharu Oka from Keio University, Japan, describe a "peculiar" molecular cloud sitting near the center of the Milky Way.

The mechanisms by which they grow so large is unknown, and speculation is complicated by the fact that they seem to have been in place very early in the history of the universe - fully forming only a few hundred million years after the big bang. The researchers suspected a massive object was hiding inside, providing the gravitational kick for the variable and speedy gas flows.

Using the ALMA telescope, the team observed the cloud more than 195 light years from the centre of the Milky Way. And it's a standard looking molecular cloud-a body of gas cool enough for its atoms to get together and form molecules-unless you happen to look more closely, as a team of Japanese researchers did back in 2015.

Specifically, they found that the molecules were being influenced by an "invisible compact object with a mass of about 105 solar masses", which would be indicative of an intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) - a hypothetical class of black hole in the 100 to 1 million solar mass range which would fall in between stellar black holes and their supermassive siblings.

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It's believed they could be the seeds of their more massive counterparts - merging together to form a enormous one. intermediate black holes might simply turn out to be their progenitors. Some models suggest that intermediate-mass black holes can form in dense star clusters. "If there's one, maybe there are others?"

A big black hole lurking near the centre of the Milky Way could constitute an important clue to how even bigger ones form. This explosion, which can outshine an entire galaxy of stars for a short period of time, leaves behind the small, heavy core of a star.

"We know that smaller black holes form when some stars die, which makes them fairly common", she said.

Artist's impression of two merging black holes, which has been theorized to be a source of gravitational waves. And, since it's in the vicinity of the galactic core, there's a chance that, one day, it too will merge with the supermassive black hole at the center. Finding out where it originated is much more hard, but the team believes it could have been the core of a dwarf galaxy that the Milky Way swallowed at some point in its history. If the discovery is confirmed, it could indicate that our galaxy has grown by cannibalizing its smaller neighbors. The Milky Way is thought to be now absorbing several smaller dwarf galaxies, such as the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, and possibly the Magellanic Clouds. But if this is the case, where are all the black holes halfway between pint-size and leviathan? "Maybe we'll even be lucky enough to see it feed on some surrounding gas!"

They will also "increase targets to search for evidential proof of general relativity", the scientists note.

'This would make a considerable contribution to the progress of modern physics'.

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