A black hole is a region of spacetime exhibiting such strong gravitational effects that nothing can escape from inside it. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass can deform spacetime to form a black hole. Quantum field theory in curved spacetime predicts that event horizons emit Hawking radiation, with the same spectrum as a black body of a temperature inversely proportional to its mass. That means that they are essentially the ambient temperature of space.
“Everything you’d ever want to learn about the way big black holes interact with little black holes, you can learn by studying this distribution,” said Columbia Astrophysicist Chuck Hailey, co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Lab and lead author on the study. “The Milky Way is really the only galaxy we have where we can study how supermassive black holes interact with little ones because we simply can’t see their interactions in other galaxies. In a sense, this is the only laboratory we have to study this phenomenon.”
Charles J. Hailey, Kaya Mori, Franz E. Bauer, Michael E. Berkowitz, Jaesub Hong, Benjamin J. Hord. A density cusp of quiescent X-ray binaries in the central parsec of the Galaxy. Nature, 2018; 556 (7699): 70 DOI: 10.1038/nature25029
“There are only about five dozen known black holes in the entire galaxy — 100,000 light years wide — and there are supposed to be 10,000 to 20,000 of these things in a region just six light years wide that no one has been able to find,” Hailey said, adding that extensive fruitless searches have been made for black holes around Sgr A*, the closest SMBH to Earth and therefore the easiest to study. “There hasn’t been much credible evidence.”
“It would be so easy if black hole binaries routinely gave off big bursts like neutron star binaries do, but they don’t, so we had to come up with another way to look for them,” Hailey said. “Isolated, unmated black holes are just black — they don’t do anything. So looking for isolated black holes is not a smart way to find them either. But when black holes mate with a low mass star, the marriage emits X-ray bursts that are weaker, but consistent and detectable. If we could find black holes that are coupled with low mass stars and we know what fraction of black holes will mate with low mass stars, we could scientifically infer the population of isolated black holes out there.”
“This finding confirms a major theory and the implications are many,” Hailey said. “It is going to significantly advance gravitational wave research because knowing the number of black holes in the center of a typical galaxy can help in better predicting how many gravitational wave events may be associated with them. All the information astrophysicists need is at the center of the galaxy.”