Black Stuff

Size Comparison.

Every massive galaxy has a black hole at its centre, and the heftier the galaxy, the bigger its black hole. But why are the two related? After all, the black hole is millions of times smaller and less massive than its home galaxy.

A new study of football-shaped collections of stars called elliptical galaxies provides new insights into the connection between a galaxy and its black hole. It finds that the invisible hand of dark matter somehow influences black hole growth.

“There seems to be a mysterious link between the amount of dark matter a galaxy holds and the size of its central black hole, even though the two operate on vastly different scales,” says lead author Akos Bogdan of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

This new research was designed to address a controversy in the field. Previous observations had found a relationship between the mass of the central black hole and the total mass of stars in elliptical galaxies. However, more recent studies have suggested a tight correlation between the masses of the black hole and the galaxy’s dark matter halo. It wasn’t clear which relationship dominated.

In our universe, dark matter outweighs normal matter, the everyday stuff we see all around us, by a factor of 6 to 1. We know dark matter exists only from its gravitational effects. It holds together galaxies and galaxy clusters. Every galaxy is surrounded by a halo of dark matter that weighs as much as a trillion suns and extends for hundreds of thousands of light-years.

To investigate the link between dark matter halos and supermassive black holes, Bogdan and his colleague Andy Goulding (Princeton University) studied more than 3,000 elliptical galaxies. They used star motions as a tracer to weigh the galaxies’ central black holes. X-ray measurements of hot gas surrounding the galaxies helped weigh the dark matter halo, because the more dark matter a galaxy has, the more hot gas it can hold onto.

They found a distinct relationship between the mass of the dark matter halo and the black hole mass, a relationship stronger than that between a black hole and the galaxy’s stars alone.

This connection is likely to be related to how elliptical galaxies grow. An elliptical galaxy is formed when smaller galaxies merge, their stars and dark matter mingling and mixing together. Because the dark matter outweighs everything else, it moulds the newly formed elliptical galaxy and guides the growth of the central black hole.

“In effect, the act of merging creates a gravitational blueprint that the galaxy, the stars and the black hole will follow in order to build themselves,” explains Bogdan.

Escape From The Abyss.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has revealed an extremely powerful magnetic field, beyond anything previously detected in the core of a galaxy, very close to the event horizon of a supermassive black hole.

This new observation helps astronomers to understand the structure and formation of these massive inhabitants of the centres of galaxies, and the twin high-speed jets of plasma they frequently eject from their poles. The results appear in the 17 April 2015 issue of the journal Science.

Supermassive black holes, often with masses billions of times that of the Sun, are located at the heart of almost all galaxies in the Universe. These black holes can accrete huge amounts of matter in the form of a surrounding disc. While most of this matter is fed into the black hole, some can escape moments before capture and be flung out into space at close to the speed of light as part of a jet of plasma. How this happens is not well understood, although it is thought that strong magnetic fields, acting very close to the event horizon, play a crucial part in this process, helping the matter to escape from the gaping jaws of darkness.

Up to now, only weak magnetic fields far from black holes, several light-years away, had been probed. In this study, however, astronomers from Chalmers University of Technology and Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden used ALMA to detect signals directly related to a strong magnetic field very close to the event horizon of the supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy named PKS 1830-211. This magnetic field is located precisely at the place where matter is suddenly boosted away from the black hole in the form of a jet.

The team measured the strength of the magnetic field by studying the way in which light was polarized as it moved away from the black hole.

“Polarization is an important property of light and is much used in daily life, for example in sun glasses or 3D glasses at the cinema,” says Ivan Marti-Vidal, lead author of this work. “When produced naturally, polarization can be used to measure magnetic fields, since light changes its polarization when it travels through a magnetized medium. In this case, the light that we detected with ALMA had been traveling through material very close to the black hole, a place full of highly magnetized plasma.”

The astronomers applied a new analysis technique that they had developed to the ALMA data and found that the direction of polarization of the radiation coming from the center of PKS 1830-211 had rotated. These are the shortest wavelengths ever used in this kind of study, which allow the regions very close to the central black hole to be probed.

“We have found clear signals of polarization rotation that are hundreds of times higher than the highest ever found in the Universe,” says Sebastien Muller, co-author of the paper. “Our discovery is a giant leap in terms of observing frequency, thanks to the use of ALMA, and in terms of distance to the black hole where the magnetic field has been probed, of the order of only a few light-days from the event horizon. These results, and future studies, will help us understand what is really going on in the immediate vicinity of supermassive black holes.”

Locating The Unseen.

For the first time dark matter may have been observed interacting with other dark matter in a way other than through the force of gravity. Observations of colliding galaxies made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have picked up the first intriguing hints about the nature of this mysterious component of the Universe.

Using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile, along with images from Hubble in orbit, a team of astronomers studied the simultaneous collision of four galaxies in the galaxy cluster Abell 3827. The team could trace out where the mass lies within the system and compare the distribution of the dark matter with the positions of the luminous galaxies.

Although dark matter cannot be seen, the team could deduce its location using a technique called gravitational lensing. The collision happened to take place directly in front of a much more distant, unrelated source. The mass of dark matter around the colliding galaxies severely distorted spacetime, deviating the path of light rays coming from the distant background galaxy and distorting its image into characteristic arc shapes.

Our current understanding is that all galaxies exist inside clumps of dark matter. Without the constraining effect of dark matter’s gravity, galaxies like the Milky Way would fling themselves apart as they rotate. In order to prevent this, 85 percent of the Universe’s mass [1] must exist as dark matter, and yet its true nature remains a mystery.

In this study, the researchers observed the four colliding galaxies and found that one dark matter clump appeared to be lagging behind the galaxy it surrounds. The dark matter is currently 5000 light-years (50,000 million million kilometres) behind the galaxy; it would take NASA’s Voyager spacecraft 90 million years to travel that far.

A lag between dark matter and its associated galaxy is predicted during collisions if dark matter interacts with itself, even very slightly, through forces other than gravity [2]. Dark matter has never before been observed interacting in any way other than through the force of gravity.

Lead author Richard Massey at Durham University, explains: “We used to think that dark matter just sits around, minding its own business, except for its gravitational pull. But if dark matter were being slowed down during this collision, it could be the first evidence for rich physics in the dark sector, the hidden Universe all around us.”

The researchers note that more investigation will be needed into other effects that could also produce a lag. Similar observations of more galaxies, and computer simulations of galaxy collisions will need to be made.

Team member Liliya Williams of the University of Minnesota adds: “We know that dark matter exists because of the way that it interacts gravitationally, helping to shape the Universe, but we still know embarrassingly little about what dark matter actually is. Our observation suggests that dark matter might interact with forces other than gravity, meaning we could rule out some key theories about what dark matter might be.”

This result follows on from a recent result from the team which observed 72 collisions between galaxy clusters [3] and found that dark matter interacts very little with itself. The new work however concerns the motion of individual galaxies, rather than clusters of galaxies. Researchers say that the collision between these galaxies could have lasted longer than the collisions observed in the previous study, allowing the effects of even a tiny frictional force to build up over time and create a measurable lag [4].

Taken together, the two results bracket the behaviour of dark matter for the first time. Dark matter interacts more than this, but less than that. Massey added: “We are finally homing in on dark matter from above and below, squeezing our knowledge from two directions.”


[1] Astronomers have found that the total mass/energy content of the Universe is split in the proportions 68% dark energy, 27% dark matter and 5% “normal” matter. So the 85% figure relates to the fraction of “matter” that is dark.

[2] Computer simulations show that the extra friction from the collision would make the dark matter slow down. The nature of that interaction is unknown; it could be caused by well-known effects or some exotic unknown force. All that can be said at this point is that it is not gravity.

All four galaxies might have been separated from their dark matter. But we happen to have a very good measurement from only one galaxy, because it is by chance aligned so well with the background, gravitationally lensed object. With the other three galaxies, the lensed images are further away, so the constraints on the location of their dark matter too loose to draw statistically significant conclusions.

[3] Galaxy clusters contain up to a thousand individual galaxies.

[4] The main uncertainty in the result is the timespan for the collision: the friction that slowed the dark matter could have been a very weak force acting over about a billion years, or a relatively stronger force acting for “only” 100 million years.

All Is Not Lost.

Shred a document, and you can piece it back together. But send information into a black hole, and it’s lost forever. A new study finds that, contrary to what some physicists have argued for the years, information is not lost once it has entered a black hole. The research presents explicit calculations showing how information is, in fact, preserved.

That’s what some physicists have argued for years: That black holes are the ultimate vaults, entities that suck in information and then evaporate without leaving behind any clues as to what they once contained.

But new research shows that this perspective may not be correct.

“According to our work, information isn’t lost once it enters a black hole,” says Dejan Stojkovic, PhD, associate professor of physics at the University at Buffalo. “It doesn’t just disappear.”

Stojkovic’s new study, “Radiation from a Collapsing Object is Manifestly Unitary,” appeared on March 17 in Physical Review Letters, with UB PhD student Anshul Saini as co-author.

The paper outlines how interactions between particles emitted by a black hole can reveal information about what lies within, such as characteristics of the object that formed the black hole to begin with, and characteristics of the matter and energy drawn inside.

This is an important discovery, Stojkovic says, because even physicists who believed information was not lost in black holes have struggled to show, mathematically, how this happens. His new paper presents explicit calculations demonstrating how information is preserved, he says.

The research marks a significant step toward solving the “information loss paradox,” a problem that has plagued physics for almost 40 years, since Stephen Hawking first proposed that black holes could radiate energy and evaporate over time. This posed a huge problem for the field of physics because it meant that information inside a black hole could be permanently lost when the black hole disappeared, a violation of quantum mechanics, which states that information must be conserved.

In the 1970s, Hawking proposed that black holes were capable of radiating particles, and that the energy lost through this process would cause the black holes to shrink and eventually disappear. Hawking further concluded that the particles emitted by a black hole would provide no clues about what lay inside, meaning that any information held within a black hole would be completely lost once the entity evaporated.

Though Hawking later said he was wrong and that information could escape from black holes, the subject of whether and how it’s possible to recover information from a black hole has remained a topic of debate.

Stojkovic and Saini’s new paper helps to clarify the story.

Instead of looking only at the particles a black hole emits, the study also takes into account the subtle interactions between the particles. By doing so, the research finds that it is possible for an observer standing outside of a black hole to recover information about what lies within.

Interactions between particles can range from gravitational attraction to the exchange of mediators like photons between particles. Such “correlations” have long been known to exist, but many scientists discounted them as unimportant in the past.

“These correlations were often ignored in related calculations since they were thought to be small and not capable of making a significant difference,” Stojkovic says. “Our explicit calculations show that though the correlations start off very small, they grow in time and become large enough to change the outcome.”

The study was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.


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