With all of the bad news and tensions going on in the world, you’d think there would be one group looking beyond our globe and finding places that are safe and pleasant and wholesome – a group like astronomers. You would be wrong … at least about astronomers. A new paper published in The Astrophysical Journal reveals the discovery of a new class of supermassive black holes (isn’t that redundant?) that wander around dwarf galaxies (an oxymoron?) looking for planets, stars and space rocks instead of staying in their centers like other supermassive black holes. Can they wander out of their own galaxies and into others? Could this be the future of the Milky Way … and the demise of us?
“I was very surprised.”
That’s not what you want to hear from the astronomer who discovered these unusual pradatory wandering black holes, but that’s the comment given to Cosmos magazine by Amy Reines, an astrophysicist at Montana State University and lead author of the paper. In a press release, she describes how, like many other discoveries, this one came while she and fellow astronomers were using the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to look for normal stationary supermassive black holes in the centers of dwarf galaxies – ancient galaxies so small that these black holes have been nearly impossible to detect. Instead, they were surprised to find predators.
“The new VLA observations revealed that 13 of these galaxies have strong evidence for a massive black hole that is actively consuming surrounding material. We were very surprised to find that, in roughly half of those 13 galaxies, the black hole is not at the center of the galaxy, unlike the case in larger galaxies.”
This is not the first time that wandering supermassive black holes have been observed, but this new study is the first to show that a dwarf galaxy’s only central black hole can not only move but actually consume its own galaxy from the inside. As always, when there’s one – or in this case, 13 – there’s bound to be more, so Reines and her fellow astronomers are using their new-found techniques to scan other dwarf galaxies with the intent of finding more predatory wandering black holes that may help explain how the earliest black holes were formed after the Big Bang.
Should we residents of the Milky Way be worried about wandering predatory supermassive black holes? No … and possibly yes. While the Milky Way is not a dwarf galaxy and its central black hole seems to being staying put, it does have some wandering black holes eating their way around the galaxy. Even more worrisome – a least a little more – is the fact that there are dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way, including the Large Magellanic Cloud.
If any astronomers on the next wandering predatory supermassive black hole project are reading this, could you check the Large Magellanic Cloud first?