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A team of astronomers from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and Monash University in Australia have collaborated to put together a new theory that explains how black holes grow to be massive so quickly. With this theory, astronomers and astrophysicists are closer to understanding the nature of black holes.
These outer space oddities are born as the result of a star’s death: when a star collapses upon itself and continues to do so until it becomes a tiny point in space-time. A black hole’s mass is highly compressed, so its gravity is large enough to distort time.
Black holes eat anything and everything: stars, nebulas, planets, space debris, and even light, all of which spiral into the tiny point known as the event horizon. Black holes are hundreds to billions times more massive than the sun. Many galaxies contain supermassive black holes at their centers, including our very own Milky Way.
No one can observe black holes because they cannot be seen (they absorb all light and do not reflect any), but evidence for their presence can be located in distortions in space and light. Smaller black holes are usually found in binary systems, in which the black hole slowly eats away at its companion star.
Most black holes have been feeding since the early years of the Universe. While eating, a disk of gas and other materials (called the accretion disk) forms around them, slowing down their munching and growing time. Astronomers and astrophysicists have determined that certain black holes can grow considerably by eating or crashing into each another to create one massive black hole, and supermassive black holes are usually the result of galaxies colliding. These collisions, though, are quite rare.
Still, the nature of other large black holes cannot be explained. How do other black holes – those that do not collide with anything and that are not in any binary systems – grow to be so big in such a little amount of time? Usually, when black holes feed, a disk (called the accretion disk) of gas and other materials forms around them. This accretion disk is what slows down their munching and growing time.
The astronomers that are part of the research team have developed a theory to account for this mystery. They created computer simulations of a black hole that have two accretion disks orbiting it at different angles. As the simulations continue over time, the disks eventually spread, then collapse. This collapse allows the black hole to swallow heaps of produced gas and enables it to grow 1,000 times faster, according to the University of Leicester press release.
“If two guys ride motorbikes on a Wall of Death, and they collide, they lose the centrifugal force holding them to the walls and fall,” Andrew King clarified. King, one of the astronomers that is part of the team, is from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester.
The team will publish their research in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Their simulations can be found here.