Nav: Home

Rogue black holes may roam the Milky Way

April 29, 2009

It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi movie: rogue black holes roaming our galaxy, threatening to swallow anything that gets too close. In fact, new calculations by Ryan O'Leary and Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) suggest that hundreds of massive black holes, left over from the galaxy-building days of the early universe, may wander the Milky Way.

Good news, however: Earth is safe. The closest rogue black hole should reside thousands of light-years away. Astronomers are eager to locate them, though, for the clues they will provide to the formation of the Milky Way.

"These black holes are relics of the Milky Way's past," said Loeb. "You could say that we are archaeologists studying those relics to learn about our galaxy's history and the formation history of black holes in the early universe."

According to theory, rogue black holes originally lurked at the centers of tiny, low-mass galaxies. Over billions of years, those dwarf galaxies smashed together to form full-sized galaxies like the Milky Way.

Each time two proto-galaxies with central black holes collided, their black holes merged to form a single, "relic" black hole. During the merger, directional emission of gravitational radiation would cause the black hole to recoil. A typical kick would send the black hole speeding outward fast enough to escape its host dwarf galaxy, but not fast enough to leave the galactic neighborhood completely. As a result, such black holes would still be around today in the outer reaches of the Milky Way halo.

Hundreds of rogue black holes should be traveling the Milky Way's outskirts, each containing the mass of 1,000 to 100,000 suns. They would be difficult to spot on their own because a black hole is visible only when it is swallowing, or accreting, matter.

One telltale sign could mark a rogue black hole: a surrounding cluster of stars yanked from the dwarf galaxy when the black hole escaped. Only the stars closest to the black hole would be tugged along, so the cluster would be very compact.

Due to the cluster's small size on the sky, appearing to be a single star, astronomers would have to look for more subtle clues to its existence and origin. For example, its spectrum would show that multiple stars were present, together producing broad spectral lines. The stars in the cluster would be moving rapidly, their paths influenced by the gravity of the black hole.

"The surrounding star cluster acts much like a lighthouse that pinpoints a dangerous reef," explained O'Leary. "Without the shining stars to guide our way, the black holes would be all but impossible to find."

The number of rogue black holes in our galaxy depends on how many of the proto-galactic building blocks contained black holes at their cores, and how those proto-galaxies merged to form the Milky Way. Finding and studying them will provide new clues about the history of our galaxy.

Locating the star cluster signposts may turn out to be relatively straightforward.

"Until now, astronomers were not searching for such a population of highly compact star clusters in the Milky Way's halo," said Loeb. "Now that we know what to expect, we can examine existing sky surveys for this new class of objects."
Loeb and O'Leary's journal paper will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online at

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Related Black Hole Articles:

Planets around a black hole?
Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun.
Black hole mergers: Cooking with gas
Gravitational wave detectors are finding black hole mergers in the universe at the rate of one per week.
Going against the flow around a supermassive black hole
At the center of a galaxy called NGC 1068, a supermassive black hole hides within a thick doughnut-shaped cloud of dust and gas.
Eyeballing a black hole's mass
There are no scales for weighing black holes. Yet astrophysicists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology have devised a new way for indirectly measuring the mass of a black hole, while also confirming its existence.
First 'overtones' heard in the ringing of a black hole
By listening for specific tones in the gravitational waves of black hole mergers, researchers are putting Albert Einstein's theories to new tests.
Black hole holograms
Japanese researchers show how a holographic tabletop experiment can be used to simulate the physics of a black hole.
Where in the universe can you find a black hole nursery?
Gravitational wave researchers at the University of Birmingham have developed a new model that could help astronomers track down the origin of heavy black hole systems in the universe.
Astronomers capture first image of a black hole
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) -- a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration -- was designed to capture images of a black hole.
Hiding black hole found
Astronomers have detected a stealthy black hole from its effects on an interstellar gas cloud.
Philosophy: What exactly is a black hole?
What is a black hole? In an article that has just appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich philosopher Erik Curiel shows that physicists use different definitions of the concept, depending on their own particular fields of interest.
More Black Hole News and Black Hole Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

There's so much we've yet to explore–from outer space to the deep ocean to our own brains. This hour, Manoush goes on a journey through those uncharted places, led by TED Science Curator David Biello.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#555 Coronavirus
It's everywhere, and it felt disingenuous for us here at Science for the People to avoid it, so here is our episode on Coronavirus. It's ok to give this one a skip if this isn't what you want to listen to right now. Check out the links below for other great podcasts mentioned in the intro. Host Rachelle Saunders gets us up to date on what the Coronavirus is, how it spreads, and what we know and don't know with Dr Jason Kindrachuk, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba. And...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 1: Numbers
In a recent Radiolab group huddle, with coronavirus unraveling around us, the team found themselves grappling with all the numbers connected to COVID-19. Our new found 6 foot bubbles of personal space. Three percent mortality rate (or 1, or 2, or 4). 7,000 cases (now, much much more). So in the wake of that meeting, we reflect on the onslaught of numbers - what they reveal, and what they hide.  Support Radiolab today at