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Hubble finds evidence for rare black hole in Omega Centauri


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An international team of astronomers has used more than 500 images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope spanning two decades to detect seven fast-moving stars in the innermost region of Omega Centauri, the largest and brightest globular cluster in the sky. These stars provide compelling new evidence for the presence of an intermediate-mass black hole.

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      3 min read
      Hubble Measures the Distance to a Supernova
      This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image features the galaxy NGC 3810. ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Sand, R. J. Foley Measuring the distance to truly remote objects like galaxies, quasars, and galaxy clusters is a crucial task in astrophysics, particularly when it comes to studying the early universe, but it’s a difficult one to complete. We can only measure the distances to a few nearby objects like the Sun, planets, and some nearby stars directly. Beyond that, astronomers need to use various indirect methods; one of the most important examines Type Ia supernovae, and this is where the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope excels.
      NGC 3810, the galaxy featured in this image, was the host of a Type Ia supernova in 2022. In early 2023, Hubble focused on this and a number of other galaxies to closely examine recent Type Ia supernovae. Type Ia supernovae are the result of a white dwarf exploding, and their peak brightness is very consistent. This attribute allows astronomers to use Type Ia supernovae to measure distances: we know how bright a Type Ia supernova should be, so we can tell how far away it must be by how dim it appears. One snag with this method is intergalactic dust. Because intergalactic dust blocks some of the supernova’s light, astronomers need to determine how much light the dust reduces to accurately measure the supernova’s brightness and calculate its distance. Hubble’s unique capabilities offer them a clever way of doing this.
      Astronomers use Hubble to take images of the same Type Ia supernovae in ultraviolet light, which the dust almost completely blocks out, and in infrared light, which passes through dust nearly unaffected. By carefully noting how much light comes through at each wavelength, astronomers can determine how much dust lies between Hubble and the supernova, letting them confidently calibrate the relationship between a supernova’s brightness and its distance. Hubble’s unique capability to observe in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths of light in great detail with the same instrument makes it the perfect tool for these types of observations. Indeed, some of the data used to make this beautiful image of NGC 3810 focused on its 2022 supernova. You can see it as a point of light just below the galactic nucleus in the annotated image below.
      This annotated Hubble image of NGC 3810 denotes the location of the Type Ia supernovae SN 2022zut, It was the eighteen thousand, one hundred and forty-second supernova found in 2022! ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Sand, R. J. Foley There are many ways to measure cosmic distances, but Type Ia supernovae are one of the most useful and accurate tools because they are so bright. Astronomers must use other methods as well, either as an independent check against other distance measurements, or to measure at much closer or farther distances. One such method, that also works for galaxies, is comparing their rotation speed to their brightness; based on that method, NGC 3810 is about 50 million light-years from Earth.

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      Last Updated Jul 12, 2024 Editor Andrea Gianopoulos Location NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Related Terms
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    • By NASA
      5 Min Read NASA’s Hubble Traces Dark Matter in Dwarf Galaxy Using Stellar Motions
      This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals a section of the Draco dwarf galaxy. Credits:
      NASA, ESA, Eduardo Vitral, Roeland van der Marel, and Sangmo Tony Sohn (STScI); Image processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI) The qualities and behavior of dark matter, the invisible “glue” of the universe, continue to be shrouded in mystery. Though galaxies are mostly made of dark matter, understanding how it is distributed within a galaxy offers clues to what this substance is, and how it’s relevant to a galaxy’s evolution.
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      A team of astronomers has turned toward NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to try and clarify this debate by measuring the dynamic motions of stars within the Draco dwarf galaxy, a system located roughly 250,000 light-years from Earth. Using observations that spanned 18 years, they succeeded in building the most accurate three-dimensional understanding of stars’ movements within the diminutive galaxy. This required scouring nearly two decades of Hubble archival observations of the Draco galaxy.
      A team of astronomers analyzed observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope taken over a span of 18 years to measure the dynamic motions of stars within the Draco dwarf galaxy. The telescope’s extensive baseline and data archive enabled the team to build the most accurate three-dimensional map of the stars’ movements within the system. These improved measurements are helping to shed “light” on the mysterious qualities and behavior of dark matter, the universe’s invisible “glue.” The left image is from the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS). It presents a wider view of the region. The two right-side images are Hubble views. NASA, ESA, Eduardo Vitral, Roeland van der Marel, and Sangmo Tony Sohn (STScI), DSS; Image processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
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      “Our models tend to agree more with a cusp-like structure, which aligns with cosmological models,” said Eduardo Vitral of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore and lead author of the study. “While we cannot definitively say all galaxies contain a cusp-like dark matter distribution, it’s exciting to have such well measured data that surpasses anything we’ve had before.”
      Charting the Movements of Stars
      To learn about dark matter within a galaxy, scientists can look to its stars and their movements that are dominated by the pull of dark matter. A common approach to measure the speed of objects moving in space is by the Doppler Effect – an observed change of the wavelength of light if a star is approaching or receding from Earth. Although this line-of-sight velocity can provide valuable insight, only so much can be gleaned from this one-dimensional source of information.
      Besides moving closer or further away from us, stars also move across the sky, measured as their proper motion. By combining line-of-sight velocity with proper motions, the team created an unprecedented analysis of the stars’ 3D movements.
      “Improvements in data and improvements in modeling usually go hand in hand,” explained Roeland van der Marel of STScI, a co-author of the paper who initiated the study more than 10 years ago. “If you don’t have very sophisticated data or only one-dimensional data, then relatively straightforward models can often fit. The more dimensions and complexity of data you gather, the more complex your models need to be to truly capture all the subtleties of the data.”
      A Scientific Marathon (Not a Sprint)
      Since dwarf galaxies are known to have a higher proportion of dark matter content than other types of galaxies, the team honed in on the Draco dwarf galaxy, which is a relatively small and spheroidal nearby satellite of the Milky Way galaxy.
      “When measuring proper motions, you note the position of a star at one epoch and then many years later measure the position of that same star. You measure the displacement to determine how much it moved,” explained Sangmo Tony Sohn of STScI, another co-author of the paper and the principal investigator of the latest observational program. “For this kind of observation, the longer you wait, the better you can measure the stars shifting.”
      The team analyzed a series of epochs spanning from 2004 to 2022, an extensive baseline that only Hubble could offer, due to the combination of its sharp stable vision and record time in operation. The telescope’s rich data archive helped decrease the level of uncertainty in the measurement of the stars’ proper motions. The precision is equivalent to measuring an annual shift a little less than the width of a golf ball as seen on the Moon from Earth.
      With three dimensions of data, the team reduced the amount of assumptions applied in previous studies and considered characteristics specific to the galaxy – such as its rotation, and distribution of its stars and dark matter – in their own modeling efforts.
      An Exciting Future
      The methodologies and models developed for the Draco dwarf galaxy can be applied to other galaxies in the future. The team is already analyzing Hubble observations of the Sculptor dwarf galaxy and the Ursa Minor dwarf galaxy.
      Studying dark matter requires observing different galactic environments, and also entails collaboration across different space telescope missions. For example, NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will help reveal new details of dark matter’s properties among different galaxies thanks to its ability to survey large swaths of the sky.
      “This kind of study is a long-term investment and requires a lot of patience,” reflected Vitral. “We’re able to do this science because of all the planning that was done throughout the years to actually gather these data. The insights we’ve collected are the result of a larger group of researchers that has been working on these things for many years.”
      These results are accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.
      The Hubble Space Telescope has been operating for over three decades and continues to make ground-breaking discoveries that shape our fundamental understanding of the universe. Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope and mission operations. Lockheed Martin Space, based in Denver, Colorado, also supports mission operations at Goddard. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, conducts Hubble science operations for NASA.
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      Facebook logo @NASAHubble @NASAHubble Instagram logo @NASAHubble Media Contacts:
      Claire Andreoli
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
      claire.andreoli@nasa.gov
      Abigail Major and Ray Villard
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
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      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
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      Details
      Last Updated Jul 11, 2024 Editor Andrea Gianopoulos Location NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Related Terms
      Astrophysics Astrophysics Division Dark Matter Dark Matter & Dark Energy Goddard Space Flight Center Hubble Space Telescope Missions The Universe Keep Exploring Discover More Topics From NASA
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    • By NASA
      4 Min Read NASA’s Hubble Finds Strong Evidence for Intermediate-Mass Black Hole in Omega Centauri
      This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image features the globular star cluster, Omega Centauri. Credits:
      ESA/Hubble, NASA, Maximilian Häberle (MPIA) Most known black holes are either extremely massive, like the supermassive black holes that lie at the cores of large galaxies, or relatively lightweight, with a mass of under 100 times that of the Sun. Intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs) are scarce, however, and are considered rare “missing links” in black hole evolution.
      Now, an international team of astronomers has used more than 500 images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope — spanning two decades of observations — to search for evidence of an intermediate-mass black hole by following the motion of seven fast-moving stars in the innermost region of the globular star cluster Omega Centauri.
      Omega Centauri is about 10 times as massive as other big globular clusters – almost as massive as a small galaxy – and consists of roughly 10 million stars that are gravitationally bound. ESA/Hubble, NASA, Maximilian Häberle (MPIA)
      Download this image

      These stars provide new compelling evidence for the presence of the gravitational pull from an intermediate-mass black hole tugging on them. Only a few other IMBH candidates have been found to date.
      Omega Centauri consists of roughly 10 million stars that are gravitationally bound. The cluster is about 10 times as massive as other big globular clusters — almost as massive as a small galaxy.
      Among the many questions scientists want to answer: Are there any IMBHs, and if so, how common are they? Does a supermassive black hole grow from an IMBH? How do IMBHs themselves form? Are dense star clusters their favored home?
      The astronomers have now created an enormous catalog for the motions of these stars, measuring the velocities for 1.4 million stars gleaned from the Hubble images of the cluster. Most of these observations were intended to calibrate Hubble’s instruments rather than for scientific use, but they turned out to be an ideal database for the team’s research efforts.
      This image shows the central region of the Omega Centauri globular cluster, where NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope found strong evidence for an intermediate-mass black hole candidate. ESA/Hubble, NASA, Maximilian Häberle (MPIA)
      Download this image

      “We discovered seven stars that should not be there,” explained Maximilian Häberle of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, who led this investigation. “They are moving so fast that they would escape the cluster and never come back. The most likely explanation is that a very massive object is gravitationally pulling on these stars and keeping them close to the center. The only object that can be so massive is a black hole, with a mass at least 8,200 times that of our Sun.”
      Several studies have suggested the presence of an IMBH in Omega Centauri. However, other studies proposed the mass could be contributed by a central cluster of stellar-mass black holes, and had suggested the lack of fast-moving stars above the necessary escape velocity made an IMBH less likely in comparison.
      An international team of astronomers used more than 500 images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope – spanning two decades of observations – to detect seven fast-moving stars in the innermost region of Omega Centauri, the largest and brightest globular cluster in the sky. These stars provide compelling new evidence for the presence of an intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) tugging on them. Only a few other IMBH candidates have been found to date. This image shows the location of the IMBH in Omega Centauri. If confirmed, at its distance of 17,700 light-years the candidate black hole resides closer to Earth than the 4.3-million-solar-mass black hole in the center of the Milky Way, which is 26,000 light-years away. Besides the Galactic center, it would also be the only known case of a number of stars closely bound to a massive black hole. This image includes three panels. The first image at left shows the globular cluster Omega Centauri, a collection of myriad stars colored red, white, and blue on the black background of space. The second image shows the details of the central region of this cluster, with a closer view of the individual stars. The third image shows the location of the IMBH candidate in the cluster. ESA/Hubble, NASA, Maximilian Häberle (MPIA)
      Download this image

      “This discovery is the most direct evidence so far of an IMBH in Omega Centauri,” added team lead Nadine Neumayer of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, who initiated the study, together with Anil Seth from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. “This is exciting because there are only very few other black holes known with a similar mass. The black hole in Omega Centauri may be the best example of an IMBH in our cosmic neighborhood.”
      If confirmed, at a distance of 17,700 light-years the candidate black hole resides closer to Earth than the 4.3-million-solar-mass black hole in the center of the Milky Way, located 26,000 light-years away.
      Omega Centauri is visible from Earth with the naked eye and is one of the favorite celestial objects for stargazers living in the southern hemisphere. Located just above the plane of the Milky Way, the cluster appears almost as large as the full Moon when seen from a dark rural area. It was first listed in Ptolemy’s catalog nearly 2,000 years ago as a single star. Edmond Halley reported it as a nebula in 1677. In the 1830s the English astronomer John Herschel was the first to recognize it as a globular cluster.
      The discovery paper led by Häberle et al. is published online today in the journal Nature.
      Scientists think a massive object is gravitationally pulling on the stars within Omega Centauri, keeping them close to its center. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Lead Producer: Paul Morris
      Download this video

      The Hubble Space Telescope has been operating for over three decades and continues to make ground-breaking discoveries that shape our fundamental understanding of the universe. Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope and mission operations. Lockheed Martin Space, based in Denver, Colorado, also supports mission operations at Goddard. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, conducts Hubble science operations for NASA.
      Facebook logo @NASAHubble @NASAHubble Instagram logo @NASAHubble Media Contacts:
      Claire Andreoli
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
      claire.andreoli@nasa.gov
      Ray Villard
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
      Bethany Downer
      ESA/Hubble.org
      Science Contact:
      Maximilian Häberle
      Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany
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      Last Updated Jul 10, 2024 Editor Andrea Gianopoulos Location NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Related Terms
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    • By NASA
      2 min read
      Hubble Examines an Active Galaxy Near the Lion’s Heart
      This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope features the elliptical galaxy Messier 105. ESA/Hubble & NASA, C. Sarazin et al. It might appear featureless and unexciting at first glance, but NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observations of this elliptical galaxy — known as Messier 105 — show that the stars near the galaxy’s center are moving very rapidly. Astronomers have concluded that these stars are zooming around a supermassive black hole with an estimated mass of 200 million Suns! This black hole releases huge amounts of energy as it consumes matter falling into it, making the system an active galactic nucleus that causes the galaxy’s center to shine far brighter than its surroundings.
      Hubble also surprised astronomers by revealing a few young stars and clusters in Messier 105, a galaxy thought to be “dead” and incapable of star formation. Astronomers now think that Messier 105 forms roughly one Sun-like star every 10,000 years. Astronomers also spotted star-forming activity in a vast ring of hydrogen gas encircling both Messier 105 and its closest neighbor, the lenticular galaxy NGC 3384.
      Discovered in 1781, Messier 105 lies about 30 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion) and is the brightest elliptical galaxy within the Leo I galaxy group.
      Text Credit: European Space Agency (ESA)

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      Last Updated Jun 27, 2024 Editor Andrea Gianopoulos Location NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Related Terms
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    • By NASA
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      Alphabet Soup: NASA’s GOLD Finds Surprising C, X Shapes in Atmosphere
      Who knew Earth’s upper atmosphere was like alphabet soup?
      NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission has revealed unexpected C- and X-shaped formations in an electrified layer of gas high above our heads called the ionosphere.
      While these alphabetical shapes have been observed before, GOLD sees them more clearly than other instruments have and is now finding them where and when scientists didn’t expect. Their surprise appearances prove that we have more to learn about the ionosphere and its effects on communication and navigation signals that pass through it.
      Earth’s Dynamic Interface to Space
      Extending some 50 to 400 miles overhead, the ionosphere becomes electrically charged during the daytime when sunlight strikes our planet and its energy knocks electrons off atoms and molecules. This creates a soup of charged particles, known as plasma, that allows radio signals to travel over long distances.
      Near Earth’s magnetic equator, charged particles are funneled upward and outward along magnetic field lines, creating two dense bands of particles north and south of the equator that scientists call crests. As night falls and the Sun’s energy fades, low-density pockets in the plasma, called bubbles, can form in the ionosphere. Because of their varying density, the crests and bubbles can interfere with radio and GPS signals.
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      Under the combined influence of gravity and Earth’s electric and magnetic fields, charged particles in the ionosphere flow upward and outward away from Earth’s magnetic equator, forming two dense bands, or crests, to the north and south of the equator. Learn more here. NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio While previous observations provided brief glimpses of crests and bubbles in the ionosphere, GOLD monitors these features over extended periods of time. That’s thanks to its geostationary orbit, which circles our planet at the same rate Earth rotates, allowing GOLD to hover over the Western Hemisphere.
      Unexpected X-Shaped Crests from Quiet Conditions
      The ionosphere is sensitive to disturbances from both space and terrestrial weather. GOLD has previously revealed that after a solar storm or huge volcanic eruption, the crests in the ionosphere can merge to form an X shape. But now, GOLD has seen an X shape form on multiple occasions when there were no such disturbances — what scientists refer to as “quiet time.”
      “Earlier reports of merging were only during geomagnetically disturbed conditions — it is an unexpected feature during geomagnetic quiet conditions,” said Fazlul Laskar, of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), who is the lead author of a paper about this discovery published in April 2024 by the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.
      Observations from NASA’s GOLD mission shows charged particles in the ionosphere forming an X shape on Oct. 7, 2019. (The colors indicate the intensity of the ultraviolet light emitted, with yellow and white indicating the strongest emission, or highest ionospheric density.) F. Laskar et al. These unexpected appearances tell scientists that something else must be involved in forming these X shapes. Computer models suggest that the X could develop when changes in the lower atmosphere pull plasma downward.
      “The X is odd because it implies that there are far more localized driving factors,” said Jeffrey Klenzing, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who studies the ionosphere. “This is expected during the extreme events, but seeing it during ‘quiet time’ suggests that the lower atmosphere activity is significantly driving the ionospheric structure.”
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      This visualization shows a bright, horizontal X-shaped feature appearing in the ionosphere on Oct. 7, 2019, as observed by NASA’s GOLD mission. Each of GOLD’s observations cover about 45 degrees in longitude and proceed from east to west, alternating between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Rayleigh is a unit for measuring the amount of light (in this case, ultraviolet light). NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio C-Shaped Bubbles Point to Strong Turbulence
      GOLD has also found surprising C-shaped plasma bubbles that point to other puzzling dynamics influencing the ionosphere.
      Most plasma bubbles appear long and straight, forming along magnetic field lines. But some bubbles are curved into C shapes and reverse-C shapes, which scientists think are shaped by terrestrial winds. Computer models suggest a C-shape forms if winds increase with altitude at the magnetic equator and a reverse-C forms if the winds decrease with altitude.
      “It’s a little like a tree growing in a windy area,” explains Klenzing. “If the winds are typically to the east, the tree starts to tilt and grow in that direction.”
      In a paper published in November 2023 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, LASP scientist Deepak Karan and colleagues report that GOLD has observed C-shaped and reverse-C-shaped plasma bubbles appearing surprisingly close together — as close as about 400 miles apart (roughly the distance between Baltimore and Boston).
      Images from NASA’s GOLD mission show C-shaped and reverse-C-shaped plasma bubbles appearing close together in the ionosphere on Oct. 12, 2020, and Dec. 26, 2021. D. Karan et al. “Within that close proximity, these two opposite-shaped plasma bubbles had never been thought of, never been imaged,” said Karan. To have wind patterns change course in such a small area, Karan thinks some sort of strong turbulence — like a vortex, wind shear, or tornado-like activity — is likely at play in the atmosphere.
      “The fact that we have very different shapes of bubbles this close together tells us that the dynamics of the atmosphere is more complex than we expected,” Klenzing said.
      These close pairings appear to be rare, with only two instances recorded by GOLD so far. Yet because these features can disrupt critical communication and navigation technology, “It’s really important to find out why this is happening,” Karan said. “If a vortex or a very strong shear in the plasma has happened, this will completely distort the plasma over that region. Signals will be lost completely with a strong disturbance like this.”
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      This visualization shows C-shaped and reverse-C-shaped plasma bubbles appearing close together in the ionosphere on Oct. 12, 2020, and Dec. 26, 2021, as observed by NASA’s GOLD mission. The bubbles appear as dark blue vertical features extending between two bright (dense) crests. NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio Scientists hope GOLD’s continued observations, combined with those from other heliophysics missions, can help unlock these mysteries of the ionosphere and their effects on our lives.
      By Vanessa Thomas
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
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      Last Updated Jun 27, 2024 Related Terms
      Earth’s Atmosphere Goddard Space Flight Center GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk) Heliophysics Ionosphere The Sun Explore More
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