Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Rogue Black Hole Escaping its Galaxy

Astronomers have announced the possible discovery of a big black hole that has escaped the galaxy of stars that gave birth to it, a phenomenon that had been predicted in theory, but not observed.

Galaxies (great islands of stars) that share a neighborhood in space can sometimes collide. If each has a big black hole at the center -- as many galaxies do -- usually the two black holes collide and merge. But, under the right conditions, the black holes can engage in a "game of pool" (billiards for those with more refined tastes.)

One of the big black holes can "recoil" or "rebound," and wind up being shot out of the combined galaxies. This is a pretty unusual circumstance, and astronomers have been searching for an example. Now, it looks like they may have found one.

The project involved observations with several telescopes, including the Swift satellite and the giant Keck telescope in Hawaii. The galaxy that remains is called Markarian 177 (a name that comes from a catalog of disturbed galaxies made by an Armenian astronomer.) The object that may be the escaped black hole has a number from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey catalog -- SDSS1133.

The galaxy is about 90 million light years away in the bowl of the Big Dipper. As shown on the accompanying image, the rogue object is about 2600 light years from the center of the galaxy.

As black hole fans are now probably thinking as they read this, it's not the actual black hole we are seeing on this highly magnified Keck infra-red image. Black holes are black and hard to see against the black of space. The SDSS object is a black hole surrounded by gas and dust that the black hole is "eating." It is the ring of "food" that we see glowing on the picture.

There is a small possibility that the SDSS object is something else entirely, such as an exploding star, although there is evidence from earlier images against that interpretation. Astronomers plan to use the Hubble Space Telescope to get even more information about this mysterious pair of objects.

If the black hole interpretation holds up, this will be a new creature in the "astrophysical zoo" to add to the many weird things we have been discovering lately. Rogue black holes are already in use in science fiction (such as Allen Steele's novel "Spindrift") and may now join the real universe as well.