Black hole discovery: ‘Anomaly’ allows astronomers to find millions of hidden black holes

The gravitational tug of a black hole is so powerful not even light can escape its grasp, which makes black hole detection a tricky business. To date, astronomers have only been able to conclusively detect a handful of black holes in the Milky Way Galaxy.

But a team of astronomers in Poland could be on the verge of revolutionising black hole discoveries thanks to an anomaly known as Gaia16aye.

Gaia16aye is a binary star system where a star about half the mass of the Sun is joined by an even smaller star.

According to Dr Łukasz Wyrzykowski of the University of Warsaw’s Astronomical Observatory, the binary system is too faint to be seen from Earth.

But the astronomer and his colleagues have used so-called gravitational microlensing to observe the stars for the very first time.

The groundbreaking discovery could open the floodgates for astronomers to detect potentially hundreds of millions of previously unseen black holes in the galaxy.

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Dr Wyrzykowski told the Polish Press Agency (PAP): “Thanks to our research and observations we have been able to see something that is normally invisible – a system of stars that is not emitting a lot of light.”

In astronomy, gravitational lensing occurs when light bends or distorts as the result of the crushing gravity from other stars, galaxies and black holes.

If an object is heavy enough, it can distort the fabric of space itself – spacetime – causing light to travel along a shifted path.

The incredible effect was described by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1915.

According to the Planetary Society, gravitational microlensing is capable of finding “the furthest and the smallest planets of any currently available method”.

The discovery was made possible by the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Gaia space observatory.

Dr Wyrzykowski said: “The Gaia alert system that we coordinate allows us to detect anomalies in the sky.

“We have just detected one of these anomalies in 2016.

“The anomaly was then observed very precisely by a network of observatories spread all over Earth.”

I think we will have our first black holes this year

Dr Łukasz Wyrzykowski, University of Warsaw

The discovery was made possible by the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Gaia space observatory.

They astronomers spent two years collecting data and about 25,000 images taken by 50 different telescopes.

Dr Wyrzykowski said: “We turned it all up to find black holes.”

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According to PhD candidate Krzysztof Rybicki, astronomers have so far been able to detect black holes by observing their effect on their surroundings.

He said: “We know them because they interact with their surrounding, whether that is the material that surrounds them, the accretion disk, or a companion from which material is being accreted.”

In other words, astronomers can only observe the light and radiation surrounding a black hole to determine its whereabouts.

Dr Wyrzykowski said: “Our method allows us to see the invisible.”

The astronomer added: “I think we will have our first black holes this year. I am an optimist.”

The researchers presented their incredible discoveries in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

In their study, the astronomers wrote: “The case of Gaia16aye shows that microlensing can be a useful tool for studying also binary systems where the lensing is caused by dark objects.

“A detection of a microlensing binary system composed of black holes and neutron stars would provide information about this elusive population of remnants that is complementary to other studies.”

By some estimates, the US space agency NASA said there could be between 10 million and a billion black holes in the Milky Way.

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