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Milan Milošević

Is there any evidence that black holes exist?


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Yes. You can't see a black hole directly, of course, since light can't get past the horizon. That means that we have to rely on indirect evidence that black holes exist.

Suppose you have found a region of space where you think there might be a black hole. How can you check whether there is one or not? The first thing you'd like to do is measure how much mass there is in that region. If you've found a large mass concentrated in a small volume, and if the mass is dark, then it's a good guess that there's a black hole there. There are two kinds of systems in which astronomers have found such compact, massive, dark objects: the centers of galaxies (including perhaps our own Milky Way Galaxy), and X-ray-emitting binary systems in our own Galaxy.

According to a recent review by Kormendy and Richstone (to appear in the 1995 edition of "Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics"), eight galaxies have been observed to contain such massive dark objects in their centers. The masses of the cores of these galaxies range from one million to several billion times the mass of the Sun. The mass is measured by observing the speed with which stars and gas orbit around the center of the galaxy: the faster the orbital speeds, the stronger the gravitational force required to hold the stars and gas in their orbits. (This is the most common way to measure masses in astronomy. For example, we measure the mass of the Sun by observing how fast the planets orbit it, and we measure the amount of dark matter in galaxies by measuring how fast things orbit at the edge of the galaxy.)

These massive dark objects in galactic centers are thought to be black holes for at least two reasons. First, it is hard to think of anything else they could be: they are too dense and dark to be stars or clusters of stars. Second, the only promising theory to explain the enigmatic objects known as quasars and active galaxies postulates that such galaxies have supermassive black holes at their cores. If this theory is correct, then a large fraction of galaxies -- all the ones that are now or used to be active galaxies -- must have supermassive black holes at the center. Taken together, these arguments strongly suggest that the cores of these galaxies contain black holes, but they do not constitute absolute proof.

Two very recent discovery has been made that strongly support the hypothesis that these systems do indeed contain black holes. First, a nearby active galaxy was found to have a "water maser" system (a very powerful source of microwave radiation) near its nucleus. Using the technique of very-long-baseline interferometry, a group of researchers was able to map the velocity distribution of the gas with very fine resolution. In fact, they were able to measure the velocity within less than half a light-year of the center of the galaxy. From this measurement they can conclude that the massive object at the center of this galaxy is less than half a light-year in radius. It is hard to imagine anything other than a black hole that could have so much mass concentrated in such a small volume. (This result was reported by Miyoshi et al. in the 12 January 1995 issue of Nature, vol. 373, p. 127.)

A second discovery provides even more compelling evidence. X-ray astronomers have detected a spectral line from one galactic nucleus that indicates the presence of atoms near the nucleus that are moving extremely fast (about 1/3 the speed of light). Furthermore, the radiation from these atoms has been redshifted in just the manner one would expect for radiation coming from near the horizon of a black hole. These observations would be very difficult to explain in any other way besides a black hole, and if they are verified, then the hypothesis that some galaxies contain supermassive black holes at their centers would be fairly secure. (This result was reported in the 22 June 1995 issue of Nature, vol. 375, p. 659, by Tanaka et al.)

A completely different class of black-hole candidates may be found in our own Galaxy. These are much lighter, stellar-mass black holes, which are thought to form when a massive star ends its life in a supernova explosion. If such a stellar black hole were to be off somewhere by itself, we wouldn't have much hope of finding it. However, many stars come in binary systems -- pairs of stars in orbit around each other. If one of the stars in such a binary system becomes a black hole, we might be able to detect it. In particular, in some binary systems containing a compact object such as a black hole, matter is sucked off of the other object and forms an "accretion disk" of stuff swirling into the black hole. The matter in the accretion disk gets very hot as it falls closer and closer to the black hole, and it emits copious amounts of radiation, mostly in the X-ray part of the spectrum. Many such "X-ray binary systems" are known, and some of them are thought to be likely black-hole candidates.

Suppose you've found an X-ray binary system. How can you tell whether the unseen compact object is a black hole? Well, one thing you'd certainly like to do is to estimate its mass. By measuring the orbital speed of visible star (together with a few other things), you can figure out the mass of the invisible companion. (The technique is quite similar to the one we described above for supermassive black holes in galactic centers: the faster the star is moving, the stronger the gravitational force required to keep it in place, and so the more massive the invisible companion.) If the mass of the compact object is found to be very large very large, then there is no kind of object we know about that it could be other than a black hole. (An ordinary star of that mass would be visible. A stellar remnant such as a neutron star would be unable to support itself against gravity, and would collapse to a black hole.) The combination of such mass estimates and detailed studies of the radiation from the accretion disk can supply powerful circumstantial evidence that the object in question is indeed a black hole.

Many of these "X-ray binary" systems are known, and in some cases the evidence in support of the black-hole hypothesis is quite strong. In a review article in the 1992 issue of Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Anne Cowley summarized the situation by saying that there were three such systems known (two in our galaxy and one in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud) for which very strong evidence exists that the mass of the invisible object is too large to be anything but a black hole. There are many more such objects that are thought to be likely black holes on the basis of slightly less evidence. Furthermore, this field of research has been very active since 1992, and the number of strong candidates by now is larger than three.

Source: http://cosmology.berkeley.edu/Education/BHfaq.html#q7



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