Earlier this year, astronomers used microlensing and the Hubble Space Telescope to detect, for the first time, a rogue black hole that is about 5,000 lightyears away from Earth. Now, with more precise measurements, they have been able to determine an approximate mass of this hard-to-detect object. However, the surprisingly low mass means there’s a chance this object may not actually be a black hole.
The newly detected wandering object lies about 5,000 light-years away, in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of our galaxy. Two large international teams used Hubble data in their investigations to find out more about the object, OGLE-2011-BLG-0462/MOA-2011-BLG-191 or OB110462 for short). One team was led by Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who led the team in the original finding of the black hole. The second team was led Casey Lam of the University of California, Berkeley. And while the two teams’ results differ slightly, both suggest the presence of a relatively compact object.
The star-filled sky in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope photo lies in the direction of the Galactic centre. The light from stars is monitored to see if any change in their apparent brightness is caused by a foreground object drifting in front of them. The warping of space by the interloper would momentarily brighten the appearance of a background star, an effect called gravitational lensing. One such event is shown in the four close-up frames at the bottom. The arrow points to a star that momentarily brightened, as first captured by Hubble in August 2011. Credit:NASA, ESA, K. Sahu (STScI), J. DePasquale (STScI)
The amount of deflection by the object’s intense warping of space allowed Sahu’s team to estimate that it weighs seven solar masses. Lam’s team reports a slightly lower mass range, meaning that the object may be either a neutron star or a black hole. They estimate that the mass of the invisible compact object is between 1.6 and 4.4 times that of the Sun. At the high end of this range the object would be a black hole; at the low end, it would be a neutron star.
“As much as we would like to say it is definitively a black hole, we must report all allowed solutions,” said Jessica Lu of the Berkeley team. “This includes both lower mass black holes and possibly even a neutron star. Whatever it is, the object is the first dark stellar remnant discovered wandering through the galaxy, unaccompanied by another star.”
However, there are other clues and characteristics of this object that makes the data lean toward it being a black hole.
The story of this object begins 2011, when Hubble data indicated a a star brightening. It was determined this was caused by a foreground black hole drifting in front of the star, along our line of sight. The star brightened and then subsequently faded over several months back to its normal brightness as the black hole passed by. Because a black hole doesn’t emit or reflect light, it cannot be directly observed. But its unique thumbprint on the fabric of space can be measured through these microlensing events.
Dozens of astronomers on Sahu’s team have now worked for over six years studying this object. And while astronomers have used gravitational microlensing for approximately 30,000 events so far – studying objects such as stars and exoplanets — the signature of a black hole stands out as unique among other microlensing events.
The team said that the very intense gravity of the black hole will stretch out the duration of the lensing event for over 200 days. Also, if the intervening object was instead a foreground star, it would cause a transient color change in the starlight as measured because the light from the foreground and background stars would momentarily be blended together. But no color change was seen in observing this object. That’s why Sahu’s team published their paper earlier this year, claiming to have found a rogue black hole.
The existence of stellar-mass black holes has been known since the early 1970s. And until now, all black hole masses have been inferred statistically or through interactions in binary systems or in the cores of galaxies. Since stellar-mass black holes are usually found with
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