All eyes are currently on NASA’s recently successfully deployed James Webb Space Telescope – and rightly so as it could yield scientific breakthroughs and increase our understanding of the universe, its birth and evolution. However, there is another space telescope (and it is not the Hubble) that doesn’t quite garner the same level of attention, but continues to yield insights of equally astronomical proportions. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999 and is 100 times more powerful than any previous X-ray telescope.
Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Dartmouth Coll./J. Parker & R. Hickox; Optical/IR: Pan-STARRS
In its latest discovery, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has uncovered the smallest Supermassive Black Hole yet discovered and it could have huge implications for the origins of its much larger counterparts (via NASA). It sounds oxymoronic to talk about small supermassive black holes, but this is exactly what the supermassive black hole at the center of the dwarf galaxy Markian 462 is. It has 200,000 solar masses, which is of course not trivial. However, this pales in comparison to the largest yet discovered, Ton 618, which is 66 billion times the mass of our Sun.
A small piece in a larger jigsaw puzzle
Although scientists understand much about how black holes form, they don’t fully understand the rate at which they can grow or the ways in which this commonly occurs. Scientists are hoping to piece together the puzzle that is how some supermassive black holes became so big, so early in the universe. Scientists now hope to target similar dwarf galaxies like Markian 462 to see if they can find similar mini supermassive black holes and determine just how common they are within dwarf galaxies.
Unlike our galaxy, the Milky Way, which is home to a few hundred billion stars, Markian 462 is only home to around several hundred million stars — hence its “dwarf galaxy” status.
According to NASA, if they are able to find that a large fraction of dwarf galaxies are home to other mini supermassive black holes, it would favor the view that these smaller black holes from the earliest generation of stars grew incredibly quickly into the billion solar mass black holes seen in the early universe. If scientists only find a smaller fraction of dwarf galaxies with mini supermassive black holes, it would suggest that black holes began their existence weighing just tens of thousands of solar masses.
“We can’t make strong conclusions from one example,” said researcher Jack Parker of Dartmouth College (who helped lead the study), “but this result should encourage much more extensive searches for buried black holes in dwarf galaxies.”