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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Galactic Collision Creates a Larger Black Hole

The black hole was detected three years ago in the edge-on spiral galaxy ESO 243-49, about 290 million light-years from Earth, and raised a question that's been bugging astronomers ever since.

... [S]cientists are just beginning to figure out how galaxy formation can lead to the creation of supermassive black holes that are millions or billions of times heavier than the sun. This particular black hole, designated HLX-1, was even more of a puzzler: It's about 20,000 times as massive as our sun, a kind of midsize monster that's rarely seen in our celestial neighborhood.

... Now he and his colleagues are suggesting that the midsize black hole is a leftover from a dwarf galaxy's unfortunate encounter with the much bigger galaxy less than 200 million years earlier.

They came to that conclusion based on observations of light toward the reddish side of the spectrum — so much red light that it can't be explained just by the blaze of material falling into the black hole. Farrell and his colleagues think the light is coming from a cluster of hot stars surrounding the black hole.

"The fact that there’s a very young cluster of stars indicates that the intermediate-mass black hole may have originated as the central black hole in a very low-mass dwarf galaxy," Farrell said in a news release from the European Space Agency's Hubble team. "The dwarf galaxy was then swallowed by the more massive galaxy."

As the dwarf galaxy was ripped apart, the black hole and some of its surrounding material would have survived.

The researchers say it's not yet clear what will happen to the black hole. It might spiral into the center of ESO 243-49, merging with the supermassive black hole that's already there. Or it might settle into a stable orbit in the bigger galaxy's outer environs. Either way, the X-ray emissions that brought the black hole to light in the first place will eventually fade away.

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