'Ordinary' Black Hole Discovered 12 Million Light Years Away
Monday, March 26, 2012
News Feature

An international team of scientists has discovered an 'ordinary' black hole in the 12 million light year-distant galaxy Centaurus A. This is the first time that a normal-size black hole has been detected away from the immediate vicinity of our own Galaxy. University of Birmingham doctoral student Mark Burke will present the discovery at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, England.

Although exotic by everyday standards, black holes are everywhere. The lowest-mass black holes are formed when very massive stars reach the end of their lives, ejecting most of their material into space in a supernova explosion and leaving behind a compact core that collapses into a black hole. There are thought to be millions of these low-mass black holes distributed throughout every galaxy. Despite their ubiquity, they can be hard to detect as they do not emit light so are normally seen through their action on the objects around them, for example by dragging in material that then heats up in the process and emits X-rays. But despite this, the overwhelming majority of black holes have remained undetected.

In recent years, researchers have made some progress in finding ordinary black holes in binary systems, by looking for the X-ray emission produced when they suck in material from their companion stars. So far these objects have been relatively close by, either in our own Milky Way Galaxy or in nearby galaxies in the so-called Local Group (a cluster of galaxies relatively near the Milky Way that includes Andromeda).

Burke works under the supervision of Birmingham University astronomer Somak Raychaudhury and is part of an international team led by Ralph Kraft of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The team used the orbiting Chandra X-ray observatory to make six 100,000-second long exposures of Centaurus A, detecting an object with 50,000 times the X-ray brightness of our Sun. A month later, it had dimmed by more than a factor of 10 and then later by a factor of more than 100, so became undetectable.