Black Hole’s Behavior Defies the Rules of Astrophysics

By Bill Andrews | November 27, 2013 12:31 pm
Spiral galaxy M101, home to M101 ULX-1, lies over 20 million light-years distant. Credit:  NASA, ESA, K. Kuntz (JHU), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (Jet Propulsion Lab), J. Mould (NOAO), Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana), STScI, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/ J.-C. Cuillandre/Coelum, G. Jacoby, B. Bohannan, M. Hanna/ NOAO/AURA/NSF

Spiral galaxy M101, home to M101 ULX-1, lies over 20 million light-years away. Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Kuntz (JHU), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (Jet Propulsion Lab), J. Mould (NOAO), Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana), STScI, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/ J.-C. Cuillandre/Coelum, G. Jacoby, B. Bohannan, M. Hanna/ NOAO/AURA/NSF

Imagine camping in the woods, when you hear what sounds like a chainsaw, but then see that the ruckus is coming from a tiny bird. The experience changes the way you think about little birds, right? And that’s exactly what’s happened to astronomers, who detected what sounded like a black hole behemoth and found, instead, a black hole baby.

Black Hole Basics

Astronomers believe black holes — those reality-warping, light-sucking singular forces of nature — come in three basic varieties. You’ve got your stellar mass black holes, about as massive as our sun; you’ve got intermediate mass black holes (IMBHs), some 100 to 1,000 times the sun’s mass; and you’ve got the immodestly named supermassive black holes, up to billions of times the sun’s mass. So basically, small, medium, and large.

Astronomers have a number of ways to tell the different kinds of black holes apart. Larger black holes, for instance, give off low-energy X-rays, and smaller black holes produce high-energy X-rays. (To be clear, it’s not the black hole itself that’s emitting this light, but the rapidly accelerating mass of swirling stuff around it about to get “devoured” by the black hole.)

Imagine astronomers’ surprise, then, when a Nature paper came out indicating that a particular star system — with all the hallmarks of an IMBH, including low-energy X-rays, and ultra-bright illumination — is actually a tiny stellar mass black hole.

An artist's concept of M101 ULX-1, a star system with an unexpectedly small black hole. Credit: Jingchuan Yu

An artist’s concept of M101 ULX-1, a star system with an unexpectedly small black hole. Image credit: Jingchuan Yu

Trick of Light

The researchers who published the astronomy-upending paper used the Gemini telescope to study the light coming from this system, named M101 ULX-1. It’s 20 million light-years away in the spiral galaxy M101 (often called the Pinwheel galaxy). Made up of the black hole and a companion star, the system turned out to be relatively free of hydrogen, suggesting the star was of a particular variety known as a Wolf-Rayet. Knowing what kind of star the companion was, the researchers could determine from its light that it was about 19 times as massive as the sun (typical for these rare stars).

By further studying the system, the researchers could see how often the star and black hole orbit around each other (once every 8.2 days), and from there it’s just a few routine Newtonian calculations to determine the black hole’s mass. But instead of something hundreds of times the sun’s mass, as astronomers would expect from such a system, they found that this black hole could be a small as 5 solar masses (although their best guess is that it falls somewhere between 20 and 30).

Back to the Drawing Board

Since it was previously thought impossible for such a small star to be as bright and energetic as M101 ULX-1, this finding is changing how astronomers understand these kinds of Ultra Luminous X-ray sources (ULXs). The researchers suggest that perhaps it’s the companion’s strong stellar winds (also typical for Wolf-Rayet stars) that are feeding the black hole enough to cause such extreme emissions, but it’s still unknown just how the process could really work.

Another big implication for this is that, oh by the way, IMBHs might not even exist. Yes, neat and tidy as it makes things in astronomy, there are no known conclusively identified middle-sized black holes out there. It had been kind of assumed that ULXs, like this one, were almost certainly proof of IMBHs, but this research shows that stellar-mass black holes could be responsible instead.

As if black holes weren’t crazy enough already.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • Ernie

    This is what I like about Astrophysics. I swear there has been no other discipline that has been upended by its own observations more times than this. First came Einstein’s proof that stars convert mass into energy through fusion, and then there was Hubble’s discovery that the universe was staggeringly more huge than everyone thought, while at the same time proving that it was all expanding away from everything else. Then came the observations that galaxies have more mass than we could detect (we call that dark matter now). We’ve also since discovered how to detect black holes, which Einstein theorized but honestly believed were too strange to exist in nature, and we’ve actually found that the expansion of the universe is strangely accelerating.

    And that’s just on the cosmological level. Recently we’ve discovered that everything we knew about planet formation was completely wrong, while also discovering actual planets so weird as to make fictional ones utterly boring in comparison.

    Astrophysics. The study of the mind-bogglingly huge, to discover the mind-bogglingly weird. It’s so mind-bogglingly mind-boggling that it boggles itself into a stupour. ;)

    • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

      I agree with you totally. The one thing that upsets me though is when theory is presented as incontrovertible fact.

      • Inane Rambler

        I don’t know. Gravity is a theory and so is evolution, and they are incontrovertible fact. I don’t want to imply that this case is fact, there probably isn’t enough data to be sure they got this one right (I’m thinking of the “neutrinos faster than light”).

        It’s just saying “it’s a theory not fact” is not a good precedent to take.

        • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

          Thanks for making my point. We don’t even understand how gravity really works, yet you call it “fact”. The “theory of gravity” is exactly that. It’s probably the least understood force. We don’t even know what dark matter is. If it is anything at all. No explanation for dark energy. Saying things are fact when they are not is far more dangerous wouldn’t you say? It was once believed that dragons inhabited the Atlantic Ocean.

          • moda

            truth is dynamic,till its revealed its a myth.

          • schmoepooh

            That’s a contradiction.

          • Jim Donivan

            I’ll go with this.

          • Jonathan

            There’s a huge difference between a theory and a belief. Your last sentence kind of wrecked your point as it is completely irrelevant.

          • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

            Are you arguing semantics? It was once considered a FACT that dragons lived in the ocean. It was once accepted as FACT that the Earth was the center of the universe. They even came up with “fixes” like epicycles to explain planetary motions that didn’t fit theory/fact.

          • EcceLuna

            I just want to chime in here. Jonathan’s point seems salient to me, and it doesn’t strike me as a mere “arguing semantics.” A belief is, in general, understood as a “taking to be true.” If I believe the sun will rise tomorrow, I take that to be true (and it will presumably figure in my practical ways of being in the world); if I believe 2 + 2 = 5, then we might just take that to mean that I see as the case that the sum of 2 and 2 is 5. But I’d be wrong, of course, because beliefs can be wrong.

            This is where the notion of fact can come into play. Facts can’t be wrong, but we can be wrong about what we take to be facts. I’m not entirely sure what your argument is Ferdinand. People in the past took things as facts that weren’t facts; they were wrong. This is certainly very true, as the examples you give demonstrate. And I agree, we ought to be cautious about what we accept as facts.

            But if you’re trying–and I’m not suggesting that you are, it’s just that this is what I’m confused about–to level a kind of wholesale skepticism against science and scientific fact on the grounds that people in the past were mistaken, then I think that’s not a strong position.

            People’s beliefs are often wrong; and history shows us the plethora of things that people took as facts weren’t facts at all (presumably, for something to be a fact, it has to be true). But that people were mistaken about the facts in the past doesn’t mean that we necessarily are today (though, no doubt, I’m sure that many things we take as facts aren’t facts, i.e., I’m sure we have many false beliefs about the world); nor does it imply that inquiry, whether it be scientific or otherwise, should be so risk averse as to throw out the notion of facts altogether. It just means we ought to be careful not to go around and slap the word “fact” on any old belief we have about the world.

            Anyway, as for the article: I agree, we ought to be careful about what we label as fact when it comes to some scientific theories, since there’s still a lot of data to be collected (e.g., we ought to be careful about making incontrovertible truth claims about dark energy). But that doesn’t mean that the notion of fact is completely useless, and I agree with the Inane Rambler that “theory isn’t fact” is not a good precedent to take–we’ve seen where this has landed certain areas of the US, and it also seems to be confused about what a theory is. Anyway, Ferdinand, I apologize if I’ve misunderstood your views, or if what I’ve said here is totally irrelevant.

          • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

            Wow. That’s a lot to digest. I wasn’t trying to imply that science is a fraud or anything like that. More that scientists are not immune to pride and other factors(beliefs?) as far as abandoning/adapting their theories.

          • Jim Donivan

            I’m with Ferdinand on this observation take, the view of the universe when Albert published his theory of relativity and angered the world community of physics with his effrontery.

          • Stephen Anderle

            It all depends on what you or your ancesters developed as the representative figure for the sum of 2+2. I usually use 4, but it could be $,% ,#, or a long equation. Or 5. !

          • EcceLuna

            But I’m not speaking about the mere representation of “4,” I’m talking about what “4″ represents. You’re absolutely right, there could easily have been a different process that brought it about such that Arabic numerals weren’t favored today, or that the number 4 is written or expressed with the figure or numeral “5.” Or that it is expressed with “IV” rather than “4.” But this is a question of how to express some object, in this case, the object being an abstract one (i.e., a number). But the mathematical truth is such that the number 2 added to itself sums to 4. We could express this in a lot of different ways–we don’t even have to use base 10. Using base 2, it’d be “10 + 10 = 100.” But “10 + 10 = 100″ (in base 2) is the same mathematical truth expressed in “2 + 2 = 4″ (in base 10).

            This is all just to say: There’s a difference between a “numeral” and a “number.” A numeral is a way to represent a number: “IV” as a Roman numeral represents or expresses the same thing as “4,” the Arabic numeral.

            So, assuming that we’re using base 10, and Arabic numerals, I’d be wrong to believe 2 + 2 = 5.

          • Gus Mueller

            Dark matter is a scam, like phlogiston or the aether.

          • alanborky

            Might I add Ferdinand even Evolution when you address such specific components as natural selection becomes more apparently a theory when you realise unknown selectors might invalidate any explanatory models of what seems to’ve been selected for.

            For instance until y’develop the technology t’see ultra violet markings the case for roses bein’ red t’draw bees seems very strong even though it nows seems proven red’s invisible t’bees.

            Similiarly the theory polar bears’re ‘white’ to render them invisible t’their prey against snow seems very strong until y’find out their prey can see them very clearly due to ultra violet vision.

            The point being Evolution’s a highly useful model until the moment y’forget it’s a constantly updated theory not an unquestionably established ideological ‘fact’.

          • schmoepooh

            You like others don’t know what scientists mean by theory. A theory is an explanation supported and not contradicted by the available evidence.

          • Jim Donivan

            All t he double talk to defend the religious hatred for science, in genera,l and evolution in particular, will change no facts, such as evolution being sound science.

          • luke

            are you implying that dragons do not inhibit the atlantic ocean sir? certainly if you have not swam through the entire ocean and looked with your own eyes you cannot definitively make that statement

          • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

            Considering you’re an obama backer, I imagine that if I told you that dragons regularly patrolled the depths of the Atlantic, you’d believe it.

          • JWrenn

            That is proper thinking there Luke. We currently have a theory that the Atlantic Ocean does not have dragons in it. It is a well supported theory due to the lack of sightings and heavy travel of the Atlantic. However, anything is possible.

          • Stephen Anderle

            But, what about all those Dragons that keep washing up on beaches? It take 20 to 30 people to hold ‘em!

          • Jim Donivan

            No !”anything is possible” is an invalid assumption since anything is certainly not possible. It is not possible that 5 + 2 = 6.

          • Jim Donivan

            Not so. We can extrapolate no Dragons I the Atlantic based solely on the evidence that dragons do not exist anywhere, including the vast Atlantic.

          • Jim Donivan

            Dragons in the Atlantic? Poppycock.
            Evabody noses thet them dragons be in tha Pacific.

      • George Burkhard

        I think everyone is ignoring the important difference between fact, scientific fact, and “fact”.

        “Facts” are things that people believe to be true but aren’t actually measured — like the comment that dragons live in the ocean. People thought it was true but no one ever saw a dragon in the ocean, so this was actually just a belief but people treated it as “fact”.

        Scientific facts are different because they are true within some bounds. Hence we DO know that newtonian gravity is true — within the bounds of the masses, speeds, and scales that we are used to here on earth. The fact that general relativity was discovered to make corrections at high masses/speeds/scale doesn’t mean that newtonian gravity is wrong — it’s just true on the scale that it was measured. They’re both scientific fact and the part that everyone leaves out is “Newtonian gravity is fact IN THE LIMITS THAT ITS BEEN TESTED UNDER”. Hence, the statement that the world is flat is also scientific fact — it’s just a statement that is true only on the small scale. On the scale of a city, the earth IS flat. However, go into space and we see the earth as (roughly) spherical. Hence, it’s not that the previous scientists facts were wrong — they were only true on the small scales that they applied and people wrongly assumed that they apply at all scales. Hence, we know that on the scales we’ve measured gravity works the way GR says it works, and that is a scientific fact. We’re not going to discover that that’s wrong in the future – if we discover quantum gravity then we’ll amend our gravitational theory to include that at quantum scales. If we discover dark matter then that won’t change the current gravity theory (since that’s how we’ve inferred dark matter’s existance), but it would amend the current Standard Model.

        Absolute facts are things that are absolutely true, and the only ones we really know are mathematical. 2+2=5 can NEVER be fact because these are abstract concepts. If you understand what 2-ness and 5-ness imply, then you know that this statement is false and has to be everywhere. Numbers and mathematical relations exist independent of anything physical and this do not require measurement to be proven true, so our confidence is 100%.

        So — to liken scientific facts to “facts” is wrong, and cheapens the value of science. It’s only when popular media take scientific papers and publish the headline type results without all of the details and provisos that people think that science is so able to be wrong. this is why it’s important to publish confidence intervals and the bounds of the implications.

        • Eric Brinkman


          I love it. The best justification for being wrong I ever heard in my life. So cities are flat? Really? Or are we just talking about needing to make smaller measurements?

          Don’t confuse generally work for true. Newtonian calculations can work in some cases but that doesn’t make Newtonian physics true (ie, a fact). And if you read the new geometric shape article you’ll see relativity is on the way out too (space-time). Or maybe you’ll keep arguing how its true after its been proven to be false as well. ;)

          • George Burkhard

            You clearly didn’t understand what I wrote, so I won’t bother arguing with you about this. Yes, (well behaved) curves are all flat if you look close enough. Hence, calculus works.

          • 2Etech

            And, don’t forget, there is a difference between fact and truth (newspapers report facts, not truth).

        • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

          Just the facts sir. :p

    • Jim Donivan

      All looks pretty correct to me.

  • aitog

    Some astronomers believes that one of the spiral galaxy bears the name America and one of the stars who left the galaxy was called Taylor Mitchell.

  • aitog

    This spiral galaxy M102 UL-Y+ is suffering children.

  • nocalls

    I love it when objects in space don’t follow the rules. Then either an excuse must be made for them, or the rules must be rewritten.
    I thought it was interesting that a distant galaxy was recently observed and estimated to have formed just 700 million years after the Big Bang, but yet it has elements heaver than Hydrogen and Helium. Either the age estimate was wrong, or the rules are wrong.

    • Jim Donivan

      sounds like a defensible position.

  • aitog

    Maybe Black Holes “don’t want” to be
    visible, by mogly pochlaniac zla energie ?

    • Jim Donivan

      I believe my cat has this.

  • mehran

    thats why i wanna be one when i grow up

  • Dave_Mowers

    If science is observation then science is also perception. How do we know any of it is real?

    Oh yeah, I remember the claim now, because we can make cellphones our science must be real and we must know how to perceive correctly. Therefore imaginary objects called “black holes” must exist as we perceive anomalies we cannot fully explain.

    If the unexplainable exists then our imaginations are incapable of understanding it, so it must be real; like God.

    • 2Etech

      What is God?

      • Dave_Mowers

        Exactly my point. I do not see where anyone in “physics” is trying to do anything beyond prove or disprove the existence of god so at this point, what use is science?

        Fantastic, if endless money can be printed to solve an unsolvable problem for those who get to siphon off a cut for themselves but what advantage does society gain from this wasted effort?

        How do you test and prove a hypothesis when you cannot go to the location of the anomaly? How can it be science to throw out a wild imaginative theorem which cannot be refuted because no one can actually observe the phenomena in real time?

        What difference does it make if there is a “god” when whatever that is does not determine our fates as we have free-will and people do whatever the h3ll they want to do regardless of the consequences?

        • Shawn Strizek

          And this also adds the questions:
          What is proof?
          What is existence?

          • Dave_Mowers

            So to fine tune it then, science has applications in the current time and real world function so why don’t we concentrate on the little questions instead of things we will never agree on no matter what “science” or “philosophy” you choose to frame it in?

          • Jim Donivan

            Proof is exactly what “true” believers do not have in any amount or to any degree.

        • Jim Donivan

          Science is not concerned with disproving god any more than it is interested in disproving the world was built in 6 days by your favorite deity.
          These things are self evident, to repeat, they re Prima facie.

  • aitog

    M101 ULX-1 to Home:

    E Pluribus Unum
    Annuit Coeptis
    Novus Ordo Seclorum

  • XXTime

    the Baby Bang (B.B.) Theory by Edmond Cohen, so to understand the Big
    Bang (B.B.) Theory; and accept both as the (B.B.) Building Blocks of the
    self creation universe.

  • David Ray Hawkins

    David Hawkins
    Knowing that all things have an equal and opposite. I replaced the E with M in the equation E=MC^2. In turn I replaced the M with E (instead I allowed for Dark Energy). The opposite of the speed of light^2, I reasoned to be the distance that light has travelled so far, so Dark Matter^2, I allowed to be that “expanded space”. . .I then plugged the percentages of each from Wickipedia. . .and lo’ n’ behold. . . .wouldn’t you know it. . . . 26.8%^2 times68.3%=4.9%This Means we now have three brand-new equations to work with: M=DE(DM^2). . .DM^2=M/DE. . . .DE=DM^2/M. I submit this as my little contribution toward a further understanding. . . David Ray Hawkins

  • Erik Bosma

    hey, first schrodinger’s cat, then schrodinger’s comet, now we have schrodinger’s hole!

    • Jim Donivan

      Hey! Thet cat ought ta be dead by now!

  • Stephen Anderle

    Seems to me that all black holes should act the same way depending on what and how much they are devouring. A little hydrogen, light elements, low luminosity and low energy x-rays. Helium and heavier elements high energy x-rays. lots of material going in high luminosity. Less material, low luminosity. OR. It might depend a little on the ratio between the inside diameter of the disk to the outside diameter of the disk. Narrower faster disk = low luminosity, high energy. Wider slower disk = high luminosity low energy. ???

  • George Burkhard

    Anyone know how they solved for the mass of the black hole without knowing the distance between it and its companion? The article implies that the measured the mass of the star and the period, but this is not enough information.

  • Hawkeye72

    ice »
    Black Hole’s Behavior Defies the Rules of Astrophysics

    So we’re back to square one..right?

  • Prakash

    What’s the difference between Dark Matter & Ether? Before there is natural selection there has to be mutation. Isn’t energy merely matter in motion? Do we really understand light, magnetism and gravity?

  • disqus_fmCqdYutu8


  • disqus_fmCqdYutu8


  • GrippedUP617

    Great reading your comments fellas….Loved it!


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