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Galactic merger reveals an unusual star-deprived black hole

For Release: January 6, 2016

CU-Bolder

SDSS J1126+2944
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Colorado/J.Comerford et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

In a season of post-holiday gym memberships, an unusually star-deprived black hole at the site of two merged galaxies is showing that these massive gravitational voids can shed weight too.

The recently discovered black hole, which does not have the expected number of stars surrounding it, could provide new insight into black hole evolution and behavior, according to recently published research from the University of Colorado Boulder.

The findings were announced today during a news briefing at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) being held this week in Kissimmee, Florida.

Supermassive black holes exist at the centers of all massive galaxies, including the Milky Way, and contain a mass of between 1 million and 1 billion times that of the sun. The mass of a black hole tends to scale with the mass of its galaxy, and each black hole is typically embedded within a large sphere of stars.

The galaxy SDSS J1126+2944 is the result of a merger between two smaller galaxies, which brought together a pair of supermassive black holes. One of the black holes is surrounded by a typical amount of stars, but the other black hole is strangely “naked” and has a much lower number of associated stars than expected.

“One black hole is starved of stars, and has 500 times fewer stars associated with it than the other black hole,” said Julie Comerford, an assistant professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and the lead investigator of the new research. “The question is why there’s such a discrepancy.”

One possibility, said Comerford, is that extreme gravitational and tidal forces simply stripped away most of the stars from one of the black holes over the course of the galactic merger.

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