Announcing the discovery of three black holes in three normal galaxies, an international team of astronomers suggests nearly all galaxies may harbor supermassive black holes which once powered quasars (extremely luminous nuclei of galaxies), but are now quiescent.
This conclusion is based on a census of 27 nearby galaxies carried out by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes in Hawaii, which are being used to conduct a spectroscopic and photometric survey of galaxies to find black holes which have consumed the mass of millions of Sun-like stars.
The findings, being presented today at the 189th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Toronto, Canada, should provide insights into the origin and evolution of galaxies, as well as clarify the role of quasars in galaxy evolution.
The key results are:
* Supermassive black holes are so common, nearly every large galaxy has one.
* A black hole's mass is proportional to the mass of the host galaxy, so that, for example, a galaxy twice as massive as another would have a black hole that is also twice as massive. This discovery suggests that the growth of the black hole is linked to the formation of the galaxy in which it is located.
* The number and masses of the black holes found are consistent with what would have been required to power the quasars.
"We believe we are looking at "fossil quasars" and that most galaxies at one time burned brightly as a quasar," says team leader Doug Richstone of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. These conclusions are consistent with previous Hubble Space Telescope observations showing quasars dwelling in a variety of galaxies, from isolated normal-looking galaxies to colliding pairs.
Two of the black holes "weigh in" at 50 million and 100 million solar masses in the cores of galaxies NGC 3379 (also known as M105) and NGC 3377 respectively. These galaxies are in the "Leo Spur", a nearby group of galaxies about 32 million light-years away and roughly in the direction of the Virgo cluster.
Located 50 million light-years away in the Virgo cluster, NGC 4486B possesses a 500-million solar mass black hole. It is a small satellite of the galaxy M87, a very bright galaxy in the Virgo cluster. M87 has an active nucleus and is known to have a black hole of about 2 billion solar masses.
Though several groups have previously found massive black holes dwelling in galaxies the size of our Milky Way or larger, these new results suggest smaller galaxies have lower-mass black holes, below Hubble's detection limit. The survey shows the black hole's mass is proportional to the host galaxy's mass. Like shoe sizes on adults, the bigger the galaxy, the larger the black hole.
It remains a challenging puzzle as to why black holes are so abundant, or why they should be proportional to a galaxy's mass. One idea, supported by previous Hubble observations, is that galaxies formed out of smaller "building blocks" consisting of star clusters. A massive "seed" black hole may have been present in each of these protogalaxies. The larger number of building blocks needed to merge and form very luminous galaxies would naturally have provided more seed black holes to coalesce into a single, massive black hole residing in a galaxy's nucleus.
An alternative model is that galaxies start at some early epoch with a modest black hole (not necessarily approaching the masses discussed here), but that the black hole consumes some fixed fraction of the total gas shed by the stars in the galaxy during their normal evolution. If that fraction is around 1 percent, the black holes could easily weigh as much as they do now, and would naturally track the current luminosity of the galaxy.
Critical ground-based observations to identify candidates were obtained for all three of these objects by John Kormendy with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The NGC 4486B black hole detection was also based on CFHT spectra.
Hubble's high resolution then allowed the team to peer deep into the cores of the galaxies with extraordinary resolution unavailable from ground-based telescopes, and measure velocities of stars orbiting the black hole. A sharp rise in velocity means that a great deal of matter is locked away in the galaxy's core, creating a powerful gravitational field that accelerates nearby stars.
The team is confident their statistical search technique has allowed them to pinpoint all the black holes they expect to see, above a certain mass limit. "However, our result is complicated by the fact that the observational data for the galaxies are not of equal quality, and that the galaxies are at different distances," says Richstone.
One of the features of the February 1997 servicing mission to the Hubble will be the installation of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS). This spectrograph will greatly increase the efficiency of projects, such as this black hole census, that require spectra of several nearby positions in a single object. This group will be continuing this census with the refurbished telescope.
The team members are Douglas Richstone (team leader), Karl Gebhardt (University of Michigan), Scott Tremaine and John Magorrian (University of Toronto, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), John Kormendy (University of Hawaii), Tod Lauer (National Optical Astronomy Observatories), Alan Dressler (Carnegie Observatories), Sandra Faber (University of California), Ralf Bender (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich), Ed Ajhar (National Optical Astronomy Observatories), and Carl Grillmair (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
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