Some years back, I reminisced in these pages about reading Poul Anderson’s World Without Stars, an intriguing tale first published in 1966 about a starship in intergalactic space that was studying a civilization for whom the word ‘isolation’ must have taken on utterly new meaning. Imagine a star system tens of thousands of light years away from the Milky Way, a place where an entire galaxy is but a rather dim feature in the night sky. Poul Anderson discussed this with Analog editor John Campbell:
One point came up which may interest you. Though the galaxy would be a huge object in the sky, covering some 20? of arc, it would not be bright. In fact, I make its luminosity, as far as this planet is concerned, somewhere between 1% and 0.1% of the total sky-glow (stars, zodiacal light, and permanent aurora) on a clear moonless Earth night. Sure, there are a lot of stars there — but they’re an awfully long ways off!
For more on galactic brightness, see The Milky Way from a Distance. The Anderson tale was originally serialized as The Ancient Gods in the June and July, 1966 issues of Campbell’s magazine. Long-time readers will remember its cover, which I ran back in 2012, along with a discussion of how artist Chesley Bonestell approached the cover art, which shows the distant galaxy as far brighter than it would actually appear. Bonestell brightened it even knowing this to make the cover interesting while still suggesting just how far away the vast ‘city of stars’ actually was in the story.
Where Black Holes Roam
Intergalactic space is, I would assume, about as empty a place as could be. Yet new work out of the University of Sydney delves into just what we might find if we could see what’s out there. And it turns out that it is quite a lot. The university’s David Sweeney is lead author on a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The researchers discuss what they describe as the ‘galactic underworld,’ which is comprised of the compact remnants of massive stars. In other words, stars that have collapsed onto themselves and produced neutron stars and black holes.
Remember that black holes and neutron stars form from stars more than eight times the size of our Sun. If less than about 25 times the mass of the Sun, the star forms a neutron star, its tiny sphere jammed with neutrons prevented from collapsing further by neutron degeneracy pressure. Sweeney and team say that thirty percent of the black holes and neutron stars out there have been completely ejected from the galaxy. Given the age of the galaxy, over 13 billion years, a vast number of such objects must have formed, the 30 percent ejected by the ‘kick’ induced by their creation in a supernova.
Image: A colour rendition of the visible Milky Way galaxy (top) compared with the range of the galactic underworld (bottom). Credit: Sydney University.
As you can see in the image, the galaxy’s underworld turns out to stretch well beyond the visible limits of the disk. Peter Tuthill (Sydney Institute for Astronomy) notes the challenges involved in creating this first chart of an unseen population:
“One of the problems for finding these ancient objects is that, until now, we had no idea where to look. The oldest neutron stars and black holes were created when the galaxy was younger and shaped differently, and then subjected to complex changes spanning billions of years. It has been a major task to model all of this to find them. Newly-formed neutron stars and black holes conform to today’s galaxy, so astronomers know where to look. It was like trying to find the mythical elephant’s graveyard”
The researchers used a stellar population synthesis computer code called GALAXIA, modifying it to include stars that have exhausted their nuclear fusion life cycle, leaving behind a remnant black hole or neutron star, and excluding stars below 8 solar masses. Additional custom code was then produced to capture velocity changes to the star caused by supernovae explosions (the so-called ‘natal kick’). The effects of the kick were added to each remnant’s velocity and transformed to galactocentric coordinates, with subsequent custom code showing evolution of the stars’ paths over time.
The distribution map that emerged depicts a galaxy, and thus its remnants, changing over time, so that the Milky Way’s present shape does not predict the distribution of neutron stars and black holes surrounding it. In fact, the relatively thin and flattened disk structure gives way to triple the scale height of the Milky Way we see.
Image: Point-cloud chart of the visible Milky Way galaxy (top) versus the galactic underworld. Credit: Sydney University.
As the paper notes:
The spatial distribution of compact remnants is different from that of visible stars. The remnants are more dispersed in the vertical direction with the scale height being about 3 times larger than that of the visible stars. This is mainly due to the significant velocity kicks received by the remnants at the time of their birth.
Also interesting are these two points:
The spatial distribution of BHs is more centrally concentrated as compared to the NSs due to the smaller velocity kick they receive.
For some remnants the kick is so large that their total velocity becomes greater than their escape velocity (40% of NS and 2% of BHs). We are able to estimate a Galactic mass loss in ejected compact remnants as 2.1×108M? or ?0.4% of the stellar mass of the Galaxy.
If 30 percent of the stellar remnants over the course of the galaxy’s evolution have been ejected into intergalactic space, that leaves 70 percent that still moves through the visible disk, so that neutron stars and black holes from the earliest days of the galaxy still move unattached to any nearby star through stellar neighborhoods like our own.
Black Holes and Their Neighbors in Space
In addition to these ‘free floating’ black holes, there are those in gravitational dance with nearby stars, leaving traces that are detectable. Making that point is the recent discovery of a black hole about 12 times the mass of the Sun at roughly 1650 light years from the Solar System, one that appears to be orbited by a visible star. This is “closer to the Sun than any black hole X-ray binaries with known distances…or any of the black holes identified through other techniques.”
The work, led by Sukanya Chakrabarti (University of Alabama, Huntsville), likewise highlights the role these remnants can play in the disk we see today. Says Chakrabarti:
“In some cases, like for supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, [black holes] can drive galaxy formation and evolution. It is not yet clear how these non-interacting black holes affect galactic dynamics in the Milky Way. If they are numerous, they may well affect the formation of our galaxy and its internal dynamics.”
Note the term ‘non-interacting,’ which the author uses to distinguish this kind of black hole from those that show an accretion disk of dust accumulating from another object. As you might imagine, interacting black holes – or the features they produce – are easier to detect at visible wavelengths.
Finding the black hole in this work involved analyzing data on almost 200,000 binary stars, as accumulated from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission. The intent was to find objects that seemed to have a dark companion of large mass, looking for the gravitational effects of a black hole on a visible star. The most interesting sources were followed up by the Automated Planet Finder in California, Chile’s Giant Magellan Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Spectroscopic measurements confirmed that the binary system contains a visible star cataloged as Gaia DR3 4373465352415301632 orbiting a dark, massive object.
Image: The cross-hairs mark the location of the newly discovered black hole. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey / S. Chakrabarti et al.
As to how this system of star and black hole originally formed, this interesting speculation:
Given the combination of the large mass of the dark companion and a semi-major axis of Gaia DR3 4373465352415301632 that is neither very large nor very small, the formation channel for this system is not immediately clear. However, the most natural scenario may be that the visible G star was originally the outer tertiary component orbiting a close inner binary with two massive stars.
So here we have a search for black holes bound to visible stars, with the authors estimating that perhaps a million such stars have black hole companions. That’s an early estimate for one population of black holes, but this object, in a 185-day orbit from the star, does not represent the class of black holes and neutron stars that may move through the galaxy untethered to any visible object, as found in the investigations of the Sydney team. Just how many black holes may be peppered through the several hundred billion stars of the Milky Way, and how widely spaced are they likely to be?
Finding untethered black holes, whether within or outside the galactic disk, is not work for the faint-hearted. Surely microlensing studies are our best way to proceed?
The paper is Sweeney et al., “The Galactic underworld: the spatial distribution of compact remnants,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 516, Issue 4 (November 2022), pp. 4971–4979 (abstract / preprint). The black hole discovery paper is Chakrabarti et al., “A non-interacting Galactic black hole candidate in a binary system with a main-sequence star,” in process at the Astrophysical Journal (preprint).