Berkeley scientists find a way to "see" invisible black holes

Astronomers at UC Berkeleymay have discovered the first free-floating black hole in the Milky Way galaxy, thanks to a technique called gravitational microlensing.

Video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Alan Toth, with microlensing animations from Casey Lam and Sean Terry of UC Berkeley’s Moving Universe Lab. Microlensing image data courtesy the OGLE collaboration. Additional images courtesy the National Science Foundation and NASA.

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Berkeley — If, as astronomers believe, the death of large stars leave behind black holes, there should be hundreds of millions of them scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy. The problem is, isolated black holes are invisible.

Now, a team led by University of California, Berkeley, astronomers has for the first time discovered what may be a free-floating black hole by observing the brightening of a more distant star as its light was distorted by the object’s strong gravitational field — so-called gravitational microlensing.

The team, led by graduate student Casey Lam and Jessica Lu, a UC Berkeley associate professor of astronomy, estimates that the mass of the invisible compact object is between 1.6 and 4.4 times that of the sun. Because astronomers think that the leftover remnant of a dead star must be heavier than 2.2 solar masses in order to collapse to a black hole, the UC Berkeley researchers caution that the object could be a neutron star instead of a black hole. Neutron stars are also dense, highly compact objects, but their gravity is balanced by internal neutron pressure, which prevents further collapse to a black hole.

Whether a black hole or a neutron star, the object is the first dark stellar remnant — a stellar “ghost” — discovered wandering through the galaxy unpaired with another star.

“This is the first free-floating black hole or neutron star discovered with gravitational microlensing,” Lu said. “With microlensing, we’re able to probe these lonely, compact objects and weigh them. I think we have opened a new window onto these dark objects, which can’t be seen any other way.”


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