NuSTAR Finds Super-Massive Black Holes

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR ) satellite observatory has detected “high energy” x-rays from 5 galactic supermassive black holes. By aiming NuSTAR at nine potential “black hole” galaxies, scientists detected five massive black holes previously obstructed by gas/dust clouds.

A Hubble Space Telescope colour image of one of the nine galaxies targeted by NuSTAR. The high energy X-rays detected by NuSTAR revealed the presence of an extremely active supermassive black hole at the galaxy centre, deeply buried under a blanket of gas and dust. Image credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA, ESA.

A Hubble Space Telescope color image of one of the nine galaxies targeted by NuSTAR. The high energy X-rays detected by NuSTAR revealed the presence of an extremely active supermassive black hole at the galaxy center, deeply buried under a blanket of gas and dust. Image credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA, ESA.

Launched in 2012, NuSTAR is able to detect higher energy x-rays than previous satellites. Now researchers seem to have evidence backing the theory – countless black holes litter the universe, obstructed by clouds of cosmic interference.  On July 6, 2015 findings were presented to the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Wales. Head researcher George Lansbury said….

“For a long time we have known about supermassive black holes that are not obscured by dust and gas, but we suspected that many more were hidden from our view.

Thanks to NuSTAR for the first time we have been able to clearly see these hidden monsters that are predicted to be there, but have previously been elusive because of their ‘buried’ state.

Although we have only detected five of these hidden supermassive black holes, when we extrapolate our results across the whole Universe then the predicted numbers are huge and in agreement with what we would expect to see.”


Holey Space

Massive holes, deep holes, old holes – space holes. Holes in the vastness of space – vague, imperceptible apparitions free to behave anyway they please. Invisible cosmic riddles hidden from all but infrared light. Holes of unimaginable scope occupying the vast expanse  perceived as “empty”.  Holes without explanation or understanding – can they bend time, are they portals, do they obliterate everything foolish enough to wander up and say hello?

Images from the European Space Agency (ESA)  Herschel Space Observatory found a .2 light year wide hole in constellation Orion. Using infrared technology, Herschel verified a “blob” in nebula NGC 1999 (a star cluster within the confines of Orion) was indeed a hole in space as we know it. Science has a theory as to how the hole opened  (a void left when fledgling star cluster V380 Ori was born), beyond that – questions from depth to destiny are anyone’s guess.

A "hole in space" captured by Herschel.

A dark patch in a green blob of gas and dust (top) is a hole in the nebula NGC 1999.

Our Milky Way galaxy churns around a “super massive” black hole. Black holes are all about gravity – imagine our planet the size of a dime – small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but weighing the same and packing the exact gravitational forces as its former self. Next multiply that by hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions, and you have a black hole. A region of space so densely packed with matter, gravitational pull won’t let light escape. By definition – an object in space so dense that its escape velocity exceeds the speed of light.

Watch this video – black holes are beyond cool.

Super Massive Black Hole Encounter

Super massive black holes are the cement holding galaxies together. Massive is a word fitting extremely large objects – preface it with “super” and you have unimaginable size. Asking anyone to visualize something hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions or billions times larger than our sun is pointless. If a super massive pimple came up in conversation – few in the room would struggle over mental images.  Super massive black holes defy common understanding, they elude definable points of reference. Ridiculous vastness aside, black holes are considered fictional science fiction devices rather than concrete science fact.

Princeton physicist John Wheeler came up with “black hole” in 1967. Albert Einstein surmised their existence as part of his theory of relativity – simply put, when a star “dies” it collapses in on itself, resulting in a core of dense mass. Picture New York city instantly compressed onto a pin head and you have “baby steps” towards visualizing just how dense is dense. If the “remnant core” exceeds three times the star’s mass, gravity screams “oh hell no” – a black hole is born.

Galaxies cluster around the extreme gravitational pull of black holes. The Milky Way galaxy boasts a respectable super massive behemoth over four million times the mass of our sun. Indiscriminate cosmic glue, responsible for galactic rotation, orbits, and sealed fates for anything passing the “event horizon” – a  gravitational point of no return, the threshold of absorption by forces so powerful, not even light can escape.

Astronomers are buzzing over an opportunity to witness a black hole in action. In 2011 German astronomers noticed a gas cloud  oblivious to its ill fated path, speeding up as it neared the event horizon. Recent data indicates part of the cloud has begun “spagettification”, a certified sign of black hole might –  gravity elongates as it pulls towards oblivion. The main body of this cloud is expected to succumb by April.

To actually observe an object, to see how it behaves as it vanishes into mystery – how cool is that?  Ponder a moment capable of catapulting science fiction into fact.

Image via ESO/MPE/M. Schartmann/L. Calçada

Image via ESO/MPE/M.Schartmann/L.Calcada