Black hole discovered by research team led by UAH professor

Sukanya Chakrabarti
A black hole was discovered by a team led by Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti from the UAH Department of Physics & Astronomy. (UAH)

The discovery of a massive black hole — about 12 times the mass of the sun — was recently detailed in a report authored by UAH professor Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti.

The report, which was published in Astrophysical Journal, shows the black hole is closer to the sun than any discovered previously. Keep reading to find out about this amazing discovery.

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How the black hole was discovered

monster blackhole square
The cross-hairs mark the location of the newly discovered monster black hole. (Sloan Digital Sky Survey)

Black holes are seen as exotic because, although their gravitational force is clearly felt by stars and other objects in their vicinity, no light can escape a black hole so they can’t be seen in the same way as visible stars. In some cases, like for supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, they can drive galaxy formation and evolution.

To find the black hole, Dr. Chakrabarti and a national team of scientists analyzed data of nearly 200,000 binary stars released over the summer from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite mission.

“We searched for objects that were reported to have large companion masses but whose brightness could be attributed to a single visible star. Thus, you have a good reason to think that the companion is dark.”

Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti, UAH

Interesting sources were followed up with spectrographic measurements from various telescopes, including the Automated Planet Finder in California, Chile’s Giant Magellan Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Chakrabarti said by analyzing the line-of-sight velocities of the visible star – and this visible star is akin to our own sun – researchers can infer how massive the black hole companion is, as well as the period of rotation, and how eccentric the orbit is.

These spectroscopic measurements independently confirmed the Gaia solution that also indicated that this binary system is composed of a visible star “that is orbiting a very massive object,” she said.

The black hole has to be inferred from analyzing the motions of the visible star because it is not interacting with the luminous star.

Non-interacting black holes don’t typically have a doughnut-shaped ring of accretion dust and material that accompanies black holes that are interacting with another object. Accretion makes the interacting type relatively easier to observe optically, which is why far more of that type have been found.

“This is a new population that we’re just starting to learn about and will tell us about the formation channel of black holes, so it’s been very exciting to work on this.”

Peter Craig, doctoral candidate at the Rochester Institute of Technology who is advised on his thesis by Dr. Chakrabarti.

About Dr. Chakrabarti

UAH106 3
Dr. Chakrabarti is the Pei-Ling Chan Endowed Chair in the Department of Physics at UAH. (Jacob Blankenship / Hville Blast)

Chakrabarti has worked broadly across many areas of astronomy, and much of her current work is focused on carrying out time-series precision measurements to understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

She earned her MS in Physics from Georgia Institute for Technology and PhD in Physics from UC Berkeley.

Chakrabarti was a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard and UC Berkeley as well as assistant professor and associate professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. 

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Michael Seale
Michael Seale
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