'Mystery object' in space may be smallest black hole

Katie Ramirez
June 25, 2020

The wave was detected by sophisticated, fine-tuned lasers in the US and Italy. So they posited a mass gap between about 2.5 and five solar masses in which there should exist neither neutron stars nor black holes.

The discovery was made by an worldwide team using gravitational wave detectors in the United States and Italy.

According to the LIGO and Virgo scientists, the August 2019 event was not seen by light-based telescopes for a few possible reasons.

But their searches came up empty.

The gravitational wave that washed over earth past year left scientists all the world over puzzled about its source.

"I think of Pac-Man eating a little dot", said Vicky Kalogera, a researcher at the LIGO observatory network and a professor at Northwestern University. "We don't know what it is and this is why it is so exciting because it really does change our field". The observations were made by the National Science Foundation's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (or LIGO for short), and is considered to be quite accurate.

"For decades, astronomers have been puzzled by a gap that lies between neutron stars and black holes: the heaviest known neutron star is no more than 2.5 times the mass of our sun, or 2.5 solar masses, and the lightest known black hole is about 5 solar masses". The facilities are essentially listening in to the sounds of massive cosmic beasts colliding with each other - and then working backward to understand their physical characteristics.

A graph showing the masses of different objects detected through different means.

Writing in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the research team believes that of all the possibilities, the object is most likely to be a light black hole, but they are not ruling out any other possibilities. "Running the same analysis on your laptop would have taken around 50 to 100 years".

Yet it's not easy to form a black hole this light, explains Feryal Özel, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona.

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Still image from a numerical simulation of an unequal mass binary black hole merger. With more observations, we will soon know what that limit truly is.

"It's something that has not been seen before", said Hannah Middleton, an astrophysicist at the University of Melbourne.

"It's hard to explain how either a black hole or a neutron star could be around 2.6 solar masses", Smith said. Middleton says it is "a bit of a mystery" as to which. but it's also a slight problem. The disparity in masses between the two objects, with the black hole nine times more massive than its companion object, challenges existing theories about how binary systems of black holes and neutron stars are formed.

Currently, the heaviest known neutron star is 2.5 times the mass of our sun and the lightest black hole is five times the mass of our sun.

For decades, astronomers have wondered if there are any objects in this mass gap.

Now, nearly a year later, a full analysis of the gravitational wave detection has been released in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the first time a detailed study of a monumental cosmic collision has been conducted.

"GW190814 is probably not the product of a neutron star-black hole coalescence, despite its preliminary classification as such", the researchers wrote in their paper.

"We don't know how nuclear forces operate under the extreme conditions you need inside a neutron star".

If the starting star is below a certain mass, one option is for it to collapse into a dense ball composed entirely of particles called neutrons, which are found inside the heart of atoms.

STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories, including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Daresbury Laboratory, as well as supporting United Kingdom research at a number of global research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB, the ESO telescopes in Chile and many more.

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