Smallest Black Hole in Galactic Nucleus Detected

A team of astronomers have reported the detection of the smallest black hole (BH) ever observed in a galactic nucleus. The BH is hosted in the center of dwarf galaxy RGG 118, and it weighs in at 50,000 solar masses, according to observations made by Vivienne Baldassare of University of Michigan and her collaborators.

Small Discoveries

Why is the discovery of a small nuclear BH important? Some open questions that this could help answer are:

  • Do the very smallest dwarf galaxies have BHs at their centers too?
    Though we believe that there’s a giant BH at the center of every galaxy, we aren’t sure how far down the size scale this holds true.
  • What is the formation mechanism for BHs at the center of galaxies?
  • What’s the behavior of the M-sigma relation at the low-mass end?
    The M-sigma relation is an observed correlation between the mass of a galaxy’s central BH and the velocity dispersion of the stars in the galaxy. This relation is incredibly useful for determining properties of distant BHs and their galaxies empirically, but little data is available to constrain the low-mass end of the relation.
M-sigma relation

M-sigma relation, plotting systems with dynamically-measured black hole masses. RGG 118 is plotted as the pink star. The solid and dashed lines represent various determinations of scaling relations. Credit: Baldassare et al. 2015.

Identifying a Black Hole

RGG 118 was identified as a candidate host for an accreting, nuclear BH from the catalog of dwarf galaxies observed in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Baldassare and her team followed up with high-resolution spectroscopy from the Clay telescope in Chile and Chandra x-ray observations.

Using these observations, the team determined that RGG 118 plays host to a massive BH at its center based on three clues: 1) narrow emission line ratios, which is a signature of accretion onto a massive BH, 2) the presence of broad emission lines, indicating that gas is rotating around a central BH, and 3) the existence of an X-ray point source at the nucleus of the galaxy.

The spread in the broad emission lines was what allowed Baldassare and collaborators to estimate the mass of the BH, placing it firmly on the extrapolation of the M-sigma relation. In addition to helping us further understand this relation, this unique BH also constrains nuclear BH formation: we know that pathways must produce seeds at least this large! The group hopes that continued analysis of Sloan candidates might allow for the discovery of more such BHs at the centers of dwarf galaxies.



Vivienne F. Baldassare et al. 2015 ApJ 809 L14 doi:10.1088/2041-8205/809/1/L14