September 24, 2014

20.03.10: Spying a Black Hole Welterweight.

An Artist's conception of NGC 5408 X-1. (Credit: NASA).

An Artist's conception of NGC 5408 X-1. (Credit: NASA).

  

   Astronomers now have observational evidence for a missing class of black hole. Stellar mass black holes, those up to about 10 solar masses, are well known as the remnants of supernovae. Likewise for supermassive black holes of 10,000 solar masses or greater known to reside in the hearts of galaxies like our own. The “missing link” in astrophysics has been intermediate mass black holes, or those between 100 and 10,000 solar masses. Now, scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland have used the XMM-Newton and Swift X-ray satellites to pinpoint a likely candidate; NGC 5408 X-1, a black hole with about 1,000 to 9,000 solar masses in a galaxy about 15.8 million light years away in the constellation Centaurus. This would include an event horizon about 3,800 to 34,000 miles across. An X-ray flux occurs once every 115.5 days, strongly suggesting that NGC 5408 X-1 has a stellar companion accreting donor material. This star would be 3-5 times the Sun’s mass.   “Astronomers have been studying NGC 5408 X-1… because it’s one of the best candidates for an intermediate mass black hole.” States Philip Kaaret of the University of Iowa. The contributing companion also gives astronomers the unique opportunity to probe the near-space environment as well as study this intermediate class of enigmatic objects.