Through the Lenses of Black Holes

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Title: A Search for Stellar-Mass Black Holes via Astrometric Microlensing
Authors: J. R. Lu, E. Sinukoff, E. O. Ofek, A. Udalski, S. Kozlowski
First Author’s Institution: Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawai’i
Status: Accepted for publication in ApJ

When high-mass (≥8 solar masses) stars end their lives in blinding explosions known as core-collapse supernovae, they can rip through the fabric of space-time and create black holes with similar masses, known as stellar-mass black holes. These vermin black holes dwarf in comparison to their big brothers, supermassive black holes that typically have masses of 106–109 solar masses. However, as vermin usually do, they massively outnumber supermassive black holes. It is estimated that 108–109 stellar-mass black holes are crawling around our own Milky Way, but we’ve only caught sight of a few dozens of them.

black hole binary

Artist’s illustration of Cygnus X-1, a black hole in a binary system with a massive star. Black holes in binaries typically emit lots of radiation, making them easier to find. Finding isolated black holes, on the other hand, is tricky. [NASA/CXC/M.Weiss]

As black holes don’t emit light, we can only infer their presence from their effects on nearby objects. All stellar-mass black holes detected so far reside in binary systems, where they actively accrete from their companions. As matter from the companion falls onto the accretion disk of the black hole, radiation is emitted. Isolated black holes don’t have any companions, so they can only accrete from the surrounding diffuse interstellar medium, producing a very weak signal. That is why isolated black holes, which make up the bulk of the black hole population, have long escaped our discovery. Perhaps, until now.

The authors of today’s paper turned the intense gravity of black holes against themselves. While isolated black holes do not produce detectable emission, their gravity can bend and focus light from background objects. This bending and focusing of light through gravity is known as gravitational lensing. Astronomers categorize gravitational lensing based on the source and degree of lensing: strong lensing (lensing by a galaxy or a galaxy cluster producing giant arcs or multiple images), weak lensing (lensing by a galaxy or a galaxy cluster where signals are weaker and detected statistically), and microlensing (lensing by a star or planet). During microlensing, as the lens approaches the star, the star will brighten momentarily as more and more light is being focused, up until maximum magnification at closest approach, after which the star gradually fades as the lens leaves. This effect is known as photometric microlensing (see this astrobite). Check out this microlensing simulation, courtesy of Professor Scott Gaudi at The Ohio State University: the star (orange) is located at the origin, the lens (open red circle) is moving to the right, the gray regions trace out the lensed images (blue) as the lens passes by the star, while the green circle is the Einstein radius. The Einsten radius is the radius of the annular image when the observer, the lens, and the star are perfectly aligned.

Something more subtle can also happen during microlensing, and that is the shifting of the center of light (on a telescope’s detector) relative to the true position of the source — astrometric microlensing. While photometric microlensing has been widely used to search for exoplanets and MACHOs (massive astrophysical compact halo objects), for instance by OGLE (Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment), astrometric microlensing has not been put to good use as it requires extremely precise measurements. Typical astrometric shifts caused by stellar-mass black holes are sub-milliarcsecond (sub-mas), whereas the best astrometric precision we can achieve from the ground is typically ~1 mas or more. Figure 1 shows the signal evolution of photometric and astrometric microlensing and the astrometric shifts caused by different masses.


Figure 1: Left panel shows an example of photometric magnification (dashed line) and astrometric shift (solid line) as function of time since the closest approach between the lens and the star. Note that the peak of the astrometric shift occurs after the peak of the photometric magnification. Right panel shows the astrometric shift as a function of the projected separation between the lens and the star, in units of the Einstein radius, for different lens masses. [Lu et al. 2016]

In this paper, the authors used adaptive optics on the Keck telescope to detect astrometric microlensing signals from stellar-mass black holes. Over a period of 1–2 years, they monitored three microlensing events detected by the OGLE survey. As astrometric shift reaches a maximum after the peak of photometric microlensing (see Figure 1), astrometric follow-up was started post-peak for each event. The authors fit an astrometric lensing model to their data, not all of which were taken under good observing conditions. Figure 2 shows the results of the fit: all three targets are consistent with linear motion within the uncertainties of their measurements, i.e. no astrometric microlensing. Nonetheless, as photometric microlensing is still present, the authors used their astrometric model combined with a photometric lensing model to back out various lensing parameters, the most important one being the lens masses. They found one lens to have comparable mass to a stellar-mass black hole, although verification would require future observations.


Figure 2: Results of fitting an astrometric model (blue dashed lines) to the proper motions of the three microlensing targets, where xE and xN are the observed positions in the East and North directions in milli-arcsecond. The results do not show any signs of astrometric microlensing. [Lu et al. 2016]

Despite not detecting astrometric microlensing signals, the authors demonstrated that they achieved the precision needed in a few epochs; had the weather goddess been on their side during some critical observing periods, some signals could have been seen. This study is also the first to combine both photometric and astrometric measurements to constrain lensing event parameters, ~20 years after this technique was first conceived. For now, we’ll give stellar-mass black holes a break, but it won’t be long until we catch up.

About the author, Suk Sien Tie:

I am a second year PhD student starting at the Department of Astronomy at The Ohio State University. I’m broadly interested in most things, i.e. I’m still figuring out where my interests lie. I’ve worked on X-ray transients and have had some stint in instrumentation as an undergrad. Currently, I am working on high-redshift (z ~ 6) quasars in the Dark Energy Survey (DES). Instrumentation is a prospect I intend to pursue, motivated by the observation that we need more builders. Outside of work, I like to read, run, bike, travel, and eat.