Rogue Black Holes Roam the Milky Way — What if One Impacted the Sun?


The effect of a primordial black hole hitting the Sun ought to be easily observable, say physicists at New York University and Princeton University, noting what we think might be the obvious. But they go on to suggest that such an event wouldn’t be as catastrophic as it sounds. The likelihood is that a primordial black hole with mass of an asteroid or comet would pass straight through the Sun, generating a small puff of X-rays in the process. The burst would be less even than the background rate of X-rays, so it would be impossible for astronomers to see. Instead, the collision would generate supersonic turbulence that would set the Sun ringing like a bell — sort of a "solar hiccup," so we might have seen them already.

As we reported on June 1, the Milky Way be full of phantom, planet devouring black holes. A recent simulation of black holes merger revealed that there could be literally hundreds of rogue black holes scattered across the Milky Way galaxy. Each one would weigh several thousand times the mass of the sun, so if these bad guys exist — why haven’t we identified them already?

“Rogue black holes like this would be very difficult to spot,” says Vanderbilt astronomer Kelly Holley-Bockelmann. “Unless it's swallowing a lot of gas, about the only way to detect the approach of such a black hole would be to observe the way in which its super-strength gravitational field bends the light that passes nearby. This produces an effect called gravitational lensing that would make background stars appear to shift and brighten momentarily.”

The research modeled "intermediate mass" black holes. There just one problem: no one even knows if these type of light suckers even exist. Astronomers do, however, have ample evidence that small black holes less than 100 solar masses are produced when giant stars explode. They also have evidence that “super-massive” black holes weighing the equivalent of millions to billions of solar masses sit at the heart of many galaxies, including the Milky Way. Theoreticians have predicted that globular clusters –- ancient, gravitationally bound groups of 100,000 to a million stars –- should contain a third class of black holes, referred to as intermediate mass black holes. But so far there have only been a couple controversial observations of these objects. The existence of intermediate-mass black holes have been proposed as a possible power source for ultra-luminous X-ray sources.

In the past couple years, scientists have succeeded in numerically simulating black hole mergers that incorporate Einstein’s theory of relativity. One of the most intriguing predictions is that when two black holes that are rotating at different speeds or are different sizes combine, the newly merged black hole receives a big kick due to conservation of momentum, pushing it out in random directions at velocities as high as 4,000 kilometers per second.

“This is much higher than anyone predicted. Even the average kick velocity of 200 kilometers per second is extremely high when compared to the escape velocities of typical astronomical objects,” says Holley-Bockelmann. “We realized that basically any black hole merger would kick the new remnant out of a globular cluster, because the escape velocity is less than 100 kilometers per second.”

Using the facilities of Vanderbilt’s Advanced Center for Computation, Research and Education, Holley-Bockelmann’s team ran a number of simulations of the growth of intermediate mass black holes as they combine with a number of stellar-sized black holes, which are plentiful in globular clusters, paying close attention to the kick they received after each merger.

“We used different assumptions for the initial black hole mass, for the range of stellar black hole masses within a globular cluster, and assumed that the spins and spin orientations were distributed randomly. With our most conservative assumptions, we found that, even if every globular cluster started out with an intermediate-sized black hole, only about 30 percent retain them through the merger epoch. With our least conservative assumptions, less than two percent of the globular clusters should contain intermediate mass black holes today,” she says.

There are about 200 globular clusters in the Milky Way that may have already spawned intermediate-sized black holes, which means that hundreds of them would be wandering invisibly around the Milky Way. These could be engulfing the nebulae, stars and planets that are unfortunate enough to cross their paths, but apparently this poses no imminent danger to Earth— or at least not as far as anyone knows at this point in time.

“These rogue black holes are extremely unlikely to do any damage to us in the lifetime of the Universe,” Holley-Bockelmann stresses. “Their danger zone, the Schwarzschild radius, is really tiny, only a few hundred kilometers. There are far more dangerous things in our neighborhood!”

The Daily Galaxy via Transient solar oscillations driven by primordial black holes,, May 31, 2011 [arXiv:1106.0011v1]

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