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Black hole hunters set new distance record

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 10:19
Published on Monday, 22 March 2010 21:35

eso1004a

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have detected a stellar mass black hole much farther away than any other previously known. The newly discovered black hole is in the spiral galaxy NGC 300, about six million light years away from the Sun. With a mass of about twenty times that of the Sun, it is also the second most massive stellar mass black hole ever found and it is entwined with a star that will soon become a black hole itself. The team of scientists will publish their findings about this intriguing system in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. (The image above is an artist's impression of the system. Credit: ESO / L. Calçada)

BLACK HOLE HUNTERS SET NEW DISTANCE RECORD
Royal Astronomical Society Press Release
Ref: RAS PN 10/04 (FORWARDED)
Date: 26th January 2010

 

Black Hole Hunters Set New Distance Record

 

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have detected a stellar mass black hole much farther away than any other previously known. The newly discovered black hole is in the spiral galaxy NGC 300, about six million light years away from the Sun. With a mass of about twenty times that of the Sun, it is also the second most massive stellar mass black hole ever found and it is entwined with a star that will soon become a black hole itself. The team of scientists will publish their findings about this intriguing system in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

 

The stellar mass black holes [1] found in the Milky Way weigh up to ten times the mass of the Sun and are certainly not to be taken lightly, but outside our own Galaxy, they may just be minor league players. With the new discovery, astronomers have now found three black holes with masses more than fifteen times that of the Sun, all of which are in galaxies outside our own.

 

The newly announced black hole lies in a spiral galaxy called NGC 300, six million light-years from Earth. “This is the most distant stellar mass black hole ever weighed, and it’s the first one we’ve seen outside our own galactic neighbourhood, the Local Group,” says Paul Crowther, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the paper reporting the study. The black hole’s curious partner is a Wolf–Rayet star, which also has a mass of about twenty times as much as the Sun. Wolf–Rayet stars are near the end of their lives and expel most of their outer layers into their surroundings before exploding as supernovae, with their cores imploding to form black holes.

 

In 2007, an X-ray instrument aboard NASA’s Swift observatory scrutinised the surroundings of the brightest X-ray source in NGC 300 (discovered earlier with the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory). “We recorded periodic, extremely intense X-ray emission, a clue that a black hole might be lurking in the area,” explains team member Stefania Carpano from ESA.

 

Thanks to new observations performed with the FORS2 instrument mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have confirmed their earlier hunch. The new data show that the black hole and the Wolf–Rayet star dance around each other in a diabolic waltz, with a period of about 32 hours. The astronomers also found that the black hole is stripping matter away from the star as they orbit each other.

 

“This is indeed a very ‘intimate’ couple,” notes collaborator Robin Barnard. “How such a tightly bound system has been formed is still a mystery.”

 

Only one other system of this type has previously been seen, but other systems comprising a black hole and a companion star are not unknown to astronomers. Based on these systems, the astronomers see a connection between black hole mass and galactic chemistry. “We have noticed that the most massive black holes tend to be found in smaller galaxies where ‘heavy’ chemical elements are less abundant,” says Crowther [2]. “Bigger galaxies that are richer in heavy elements, such as the Milky Way, only succeed in producing black holes with smaller masses.” Astronomers believe that a higher concentration of heavy chemical elements influences how a massive star evolves, increasing how much matter it sheds, resulting in a smaller black hole when the remnant finally collapses.

 

In less than a million years, it will be the Wolf–Rayet star’s turn to go supernova and become a black hole. “If the system survives this second explosion, the two black holes will merge, emitting copious amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves as they combine [3],” concludes Crowther. However, it will take some few billion years until the actual merger, far longer than human timescales. “Our study does however show that such systems might exist, and those that have already evolved into a binary black hole might be detected by gravitational wave observatories like LIGO or Virgo [4].”

 

CONTACTS

 

Professor Paul Crowther
University of Sheffield, UK
Tel: +44 (0)114 222 4291
Mob: +44 (0)7946 638 474
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Stefania Carpano
ESTEC, ESA
The Netherlands
Tel: +31-71-5654827
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Dr. Henri Boffin
ESO
Karl-Schwarzschild-str. 2
85748 Garching
Germany
Phone: +49 89 3200 6222
Fax: +49 89 320 23 62
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

FURTHER INFORMATION

 

This research is presented in a letter to appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (NGC 300 X-1 is a Wolf–Rayet/Black Hole binary, P.A. Crowther et al.). A preprint of the paper will be available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1001.4616 from 0100 GMT on Wednesday 27th January.

 

The team is composed of Paul Crowther and Vik Dhillon (University of Sheffield, UK), Robin Barnard and Simon Clark (The Open University, UK), and Stefania Carpano and Andy Pollock (ESAC, Madrid, Spain).

 

NOTES FOR EDITORS

 

[1] Stellar mass black holes are the extremely dense, final remnants of the collapse of very massive stars. These black holes have masses up to around twenty times the mass of the Sun, as opposed to supermassive black holes, found in the centre of most galaxies, which can weigh millions or even billions of times as much as the Sun. So far, around 20 stellar mass black holes have been found.

 

[2] In astronomy, heavy chemical elements, or “metals”, are any chemical elements heavier than helium.

 

[3] Predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time. Significant gravitational waves are generated whenever there are extreme variations of strong gravitational fields with time, such as during the merger of two black holes. The detection of gravitational waves, never directly observed to date, is one of the major challenges for the next few decades.

 

[4] The LIGO (http://www.ligo.org) and Virgo (http://www.virgo.infn.it/) experiments have the goal of detecting gravitational waves using sensitive interferometers in Italy and the United States.

 

THE EUROPEAN SOUTHERN OBSERVATORY (ESO)

 

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research.

 

ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope (VLT), the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory, and VISTA, the largest survey telescope in the world. ESO is the European partner of the revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

 

THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY

 

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

 

IMAGES AND ANIMATIONS

 

Image and animations are available from http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1004/
A – The black hole inside NGC 300 X-1 (artist’s impression)

 

This artist’s impression depicts the newly discovered stellar mass black hole in the spiral galaxy NGC 300. The black hole has a mass of about twenty times the mass of the Sun and is associated with a Wolf–Rayet star; a star that will become a black hole itself. Thanks to the observations performed with the FORS2 instrument mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have confirmed an earlier hunch that the black hole and the Wolf–Rayet star dance around each other in a diabolic waltz, with a period of about 32 hours. The astronomers also found that the black hole is stripping matter away from the star as they orbit each other. How such a tightly bound system has survived the tumultuous phases that preceded the formation of the black hole is still a mystery.

 

Credit: ESO / L. Calçada

 

B — NGC 300 X-1 in the spiral galaxy NGC 300

 

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have detected a stellar mass black hole much further away than any other previously known. With a mass about twenty times that of the Sun, this is also the second most massive stellar mass black hole ever found. The newly announced black hole lies in a spiral galaxy called NGC 300, six million light-years from Earth.

 

This image composite shows the spectacular spiral galaxy NGC 300 as seen in an image from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 (DSS2), as well as the position of the stellar mass black hole in the galaxy in an image obtained with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT.

 

Credit: ESO / Digitized Sky Survey 2 / P. Crowther

 

C – NGC 300 X-1 in the spiral galaxy NGC 300

 

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have detected a stellar mass black hole much further away than any other previously known. With a mass about twenty times that of the Sun, this is also the second most massive stellar mass black hole ever found. The newly announced black hole lies in a spiral galaxy called NGC 300, six million light-years from Earth.

 

This image obtained with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT is centred on the position of the black hole. The image covers a field of view of about 2x2 arc minutes, or about 4000 light-years at the distance of NGC 300. The image is based on data obtained through a wide B filter and two narrow-band filters centred on 500 nm and H-alpha.

 

Credit: ESO / P. Crowther

 

D — The surroundings of NGC 300

 

This wide field image, from the Digitized Sky Survey 2, shows the area around the spiral galaxy, NGC 300, six million light-years from Earth.
The field of view is about 2.92x2.94 degrees.

 

Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

 

A — Artist’s impression (animation)

 

This artist’s impression depicts the newly discovered stellar mass black hole in the spiral galaxy NGC 300. The black hole has a mass about twenty times the mass of the Sun and is associated with a Wolf–Rayet star; a star that will become a black hole itself. Thanks to the observations performed with the FORS2 instrument mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have confirmed an earlier hunch that the black hole and the Wolf–Rayet star dance around each other in a diabolic waltz, with a period of about 32 hours. The astronomers also found that the black hole is stripping matter away from the star as they orbit each other. How such a tightly bound system has survived the tumultuous phases that preceded the formation of the black hole is still a mystery.

 

Credit: ESO / L. Calçada

 

B — Zoom in onto the stellar black hole NGC 300 X-1 (animation)

 

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have detected a stellar mass black hole much further away than any other previously known. With a mass twenty times that of the Sun, this is also the second most massive stellar mass black hole ever found. The newly announced black hole lies in a spiral galaxy called NGC 300, six million light-years from Earth.

 

This video zooms in onto the position of the system containing the stellar mass black hole, and finishes with an artist’s impression of the system.

 

Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/ P. Crowther/ L. Calçada