Tag Archives: black holes

Primordial Black Holes as Dark Matter?

LIGO Gravitational Wave Detection Postulated to be Due to Primordial Black Holes

Dark matter remains elusive, with overwhelming evidence for its gravitational effects, but no confirmed direct detection of exotic dark matter particles.

Another possibility which is being re-examined as an explanation for dark matter is that of black holes that formed in the very early universe, which in principle could be of very small mass, or quite large mass. And they may have initially formed at smaller masses and then aggregated gravitationally to form larger black holes.

Recently gravitational waves were discovered for the first time, by both of the LIGO instruments, located in Louisiana and in Washington State. The gravitational wave signal (GW150914) indicates that the source was a pair of black holes, of about 29 and 36 solar masses respectively, spiraling together into a single black hole of about 62 solar masses. A full 3 solar masses’ worth of gravitational energy was radiated way in the merger. Breaking news: LIGO has just this month announced gravitational waves from a second black hole binary of 22 solar masses total. One solar mass of energy was radiated away in the merger.


Image credit: NASA/JPL, http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/nustar/pia18842

Most of the black holes that we detect (indirectly, from their accretion disks) are stellar-sized in the range of 10 to 100 solar masses and are believed to be the evolutionary endpoints of massive stars. We detect them when they are surrounded by accretion disks of hot luminous matter outside of their event horizons. The other main category of black holes exceeds a million solar masses and can even be more than a billion solar masses, and are known as supermassive black holes.

It is possible that some of the stellar-sized and even elusive intermediate black holes were formed in the Big Bang. Such black holes are referred to as primordial black holes. There are a variety of theoretical formation mechanisms, such as cosmic strings whose loops in all dimensions are contained within the event horizon radius (Schwarzschild radius). In general such primordial black holes (PBHs) would be distributed in a galaxy’s halo, would interact rarely and not have accretion disks and thus would not be detectable due to electromagnetic radiation. That is, they would behave as dark matter.

Dr. Simon Bird and coauthors have recently proposed that the gravitational wave event (GW150914) could be due to two primordial black holes encountering each other in a galactic halo, radiate enough of their kinetic energy away in gravity waves to become bound to each other and inspiral to a single black hole with a final burst of gravitational radiation. The frequency of events is estimated to be of order a few per year per cubic Gigaparsec (a Gigaparsec is 3.26 billion light years), if the dark matter abundance is dominated by PBHs.

While low-mass PBHs have been ruled out for the most part, except of a window around one one-hundred millionth of a solar mass, the authors suggest a window also remains for PBHs in the range from 20 to 100 solar masses.

Dr. A. Kashlinsky has gone further to suggest that the cosmic infrared background (CIB) of unresolved 2 to 5 micron near-infrared sources is due to PBHs. In this case the PBHs would be the dominant dark matter component in galactic halos and would mediate early star and galaxy formation. Furthermore there is an unresolved soft cosmic X-ray background which appears to be correlated with the CIB.

This would be a trifecta, with PBHs explaining much or most of the dark matter, the CIB and the soft-X-Ray CXB! But at this point it’s all rather speculative.

The LIGO instruments are now upgraded to Advanced LIGO and as more gravitational wave events are detected due to black holes, we can gain further insight into this possible explanation for dark matter, in whole or in part. Improved satellite born experiments to further resolve the CIB and CXB will also help to explore this possibility of PBHs as a major component to dark matter.


S. Bird et al. arXiv:1603.00464v2 “Did LIGO detect Dark Matter”

A. Kashlinksy arXiv:1605.04023v1 “LIGO gravitational wave detection, primordial black holes and the near-IR cosmic infrared background anisotropies”

http://www.space.com/26857-medium-size-black-hole-discovery-m82.html – “It’s Confirmed! Black Holes Do Come in Medium Sizes”

Video (artist’s representation) of inspiral and merger of binary black hole GW151226 (second gravitational wave detection): https://youtu.be/KwbXxzgAObU

NEW BOOK just released:

S. Perrenod, 2016, 72 Beautiful Galaxies (especially designed for iPad, iOS; ages 12 and up)



Gravitational Waves and Dark Matter, Dark Energy

What does the discovery of gravitational waves imply about dark matter and dark energy?

The first detection of gravitational waves results from a pair of merging black holes, and is yet another magnificent confirmation of the theory of general relativity. Einstein’s theory of general relativity has passed every test thrown at it during the last 100 years.

While the existence of gravitational waves was fully expected to be confirmed, the discovery took several decades and represents a technological tour de force. Detected at the two LIGO sites, one in Louisiana and one in Washington State, the main event lasted only 0.2 seconds, and was seen as a change of length in the “arms” of the detector (laser interferometers) of only one part in a thousand billion billion.

LIGO signal 2

The LIGO detection of gravitational waves. The blue curve is from the Louisiana site and the red curve from the Washington state site. The two curves are shifted by 7 milliseconds to account for the speed-of-light delay between the two sites. Note that most of the power in the signal occurs within less than 0.2 seconds. The strain is a measure of proportional change in length of the detector arm and is less than 1 part in 10²¹.

Nevertheless, this is the most energetic event ever seen by mankind. The merger of two large black holes totaling over 60 times the Sun’s mass resulted in the conversion of 3 solar masses of material into gravitational wave energy. Imagine, there were 3 Suns worth of matter obliterated in the blink of an eye. During this brief period, the generated power was greater than that from the light of all of the stars of all of the galaxies in our known universe.

What the discovery of gravitational waves has to say about dark matter and dark energy is essentially that it further confirms their existence.

Although there is as of now no direct detection of dark matter, we infer the existence of dark matter by using the equations of general relativity (GR), in a number of cases, including:

  1. Gravitational lensing – Typically, a foreground cluster of galaxies distorts and magnifies the image of a background galaxy. GR is used to calculate the bending and magnification, primarily caused by the dark matter in the foreground cluster.
  2. Cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) – The CMBR has spatial fluctuation peaks (harmonics) and the first peak tells us about ordinary matter and the third peak about the density of dark matter. A GR-based cosmological model is used to determine the dark matter average density.

Dark matter is also inferred from the way in which galaxies rotate and from the velocities of galaxies within galaxy clusters, but general relativity is not needed to calculate the dark matter densities in such cases. However, results from these methods are consistent with results from the methods listed above.

In the case of dark energy, it turns out to be a parameter in the equations of general relativity as first formulated by Einstein. The parameter, lambda, (Λ) is known as the cosmological constant, and represents the minimum energy of the vacuum. For many years astronomers and cosmologists thought it might take the value of zero. However in 1998 multiple teams confirmed that the value is positive and not zero, and it turns out that dark energy has more than twice the energy content of dark matter. Its non-zero value is actually another stunning success for general relativity.

Thus the detection of gravitational waves indirectly provides further support for the canonical cosmological model ΛCDM, with both dark matter and dark energy, and fully consistent with general relativity.


http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/02/gravitational-waves-einstein-s-ripples-spacetime-spotted-first-time – ScienceMag article

B. P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration), Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 061102 – Published 11 February 2016 – http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102

NEW BOOK just released:

S. Perrenod, 2016, 72 Beautiful Galaxies (especially designed for iPad, iOS; ages 12 and up)


Galaxy Formation in an Expanding Universe: Dark Matter Halos and Supermassive Black Holes

This blog is based on a recent talk on the Horizon supercomputer simulation for galaxy formation. The talk (in English) was given at the Ecole Normale Superieure by Julien Devrient, of the University of Oxford, available on YouTube here:

The background for the simulation of galaxy formation on supercomputers is the standard Lambda-Cold Dark Matter cosmology with 4.8% ordinary matter, 26.8% dark matter and 68.4% dark energy, which are the measured values from the Planck satellite and other observations. These are the proportions at present, but until the last few billion years, dark matter was dominant over dark energy. The ratio of dark matter to ordinary matter has stayed essentially fixed since the universe was 1 second old, with about 5 times or so as much dark matter as ordinary matter.

The collisionless components to consider are cold dark matter (CDM) and stars, as the stars form inside the simulation.

Then there is a collisional fluid composed of gas, in both atomic (neutral and ionized) and molecular forms and consisting primarily of hydrogen, helium and a small amount, up to around 1% by mass, of heavy elements including carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, iron and so forth. This fraction increases during the history of the universe as star formation and evolution proceeds. This ‘primordial’ gas is heated by falling into the gravitational potential determined primarily by the CDM (but also by the ordinary matter) and it cools via various radiative processes that depend on density, temperature and composition.

There are many complicating factors and feedback processes. This is an extremely messy problem to address. Dust, supernovae, turbulent gas dynamics, magnetic fields, and black holes that merge and grow into supermassive black holes (SMBH) are all things to consider. The SMBH are surrounded by accretion disks and also may emit jets and these components are visible as highly luminous AGN (active galactic nuclei). Not all of these can be included in simulations at present, or they are treated empirically.

Although the physics is well understood for the collisionless component behavior and for the atomic and molecular gas, including the cooling (radiative) functions, the modeling must occur over many, many orders of magnitude, since scales range from less than 1 parsec to 100s of Megaparsecs (a million parsecs, where 1 parsec = 3.26 light-years). This huge range in scale, plus complex physics, makes the calculation extremely computationally expensive.

The Horizon simulation had 7 billion grid cells and 1 billion dark matter particles. The highest resolution is down to 1 kiloparsec. Gas cooling, star formation, stellar winds, two types of supernovae are included and the abundances of C, N, O, Si, Mg, and Fe tracked. Black hole formation was included. Two million CPU core hours were required for the simulation.

MultiScaleProblemFigure 1. The multi-scale problem

Many scales are involved in simulating galaxy formation – 11 or 12 orders of magnitude. Each tick mark in the above Figure 1 is 3 orders of magnitude (a factor of 1000) in linear scale. From the largest to the smallest objects (moving from right to left) we have LSS = large-scale structure: the universe has evolved into a web-like structure with filaments and sheets of galaxies and high-density and low-density regions. The scale is 100s of Megaparsecs to more than a Gigaparsec. Below this are the galaxy clusters, which are the largest gravitationally bound structures, at around 1 Megaparsec, and then galaxies which are found primarily in the 1 kiloparsec to 100 kiloparsec range.

Then within galaxies, star formation happens within molecular clouds and the scales are parsecs to 100s of parsecs. At the smallest scale, we have highly energetic active galactic nuclei (AGN), that are powered by SMBH (supermassive black holes), with millions to billions of solar masses, and have surrounding accretion disks, confined within a very small region of order 1/1000 of a parsec, reaching down towards the scale of our solar system.

multiscaleproblem.part2Figure 2. The Dark Matter Halo mass function and the galaxy mass function

It is impossible with current supercomputers and techniques to directly model across all these scales, but the Horizon-AGN Simulation, one of the largest galaxy formation simulations today, spans around 5 orders of magnitude by using adaptive mesh refinement strategies. When and where the density of matter is high and the physics is interesting, an increasingly finer mesh is employed for the calculations. Without this method, it would be impossible to make progress.

Galaxies are formed within the gravitational potentials of dark matter halos (DMH). There is about 5 times as much mass in dark matter as in ordinary matter (baryons, e.g. protons and neutrons). So the ordinary matter falls into the gravitational potentials of DMH, is heated up, and cools by radiation which allows for further collapse, and so on until galaxies are formed.

The interesting scales for DMH are from about 100 billion to 1000 trillion solar masses. The size distribution for the density perturbations that self-collapse under their own gravity follows a power law (with an index of close to -1 in the inverse linear scale). This comes from the cosmic microwave background measurements and inflationary Big Bang theory. How these density perturbations evolve and collapse to DMH is now a well-studied problem in cosmology.

One might assume that each DMH results in a single galaxy, and in the mid-range, this matches observations fairly well. But at the low-end and the high-end, this simple model breaks down, when comparison is made to the observed galaxy mass function (which is simply a measurement of how many galaxies we see per unit volume with a given mass).

At the low end we see fewer galaxies than expected. These are very faint however more and more dwarf galaxies with low luminosity yet with significant mass dominated by dark matter are being detected, and this is helping to resolve this issue. An important factor is most likely feedback from supernovae. As supernovae explode they produce blast waves which drive gas out and prevent molecular cloud formation and star formation.

Supernova physics is tricky as it can result in gas compression which enhances the star formation rate but also can drive gas out of a galaxy, partcularly if it is smaller and has a lower gravitational field, and this suppresses star formation.

In the left panel of Figure 2 above, the first black line is the DMH mass function, and the second black line is just shifted to the left by the baryon to dark matter ratio. What is being plotted is the frequency of galaxies expected for a given mass.  The actual observed curve for galaxy stellar masses is in red, and one sees fewer galaxies at the low end and especially at the very high end. The right panel shows the observational data which is replotted as the red line in the left panel.

At the high end of the mass function there are fewer galaxies with a rapid cutoff around 1 to 10 trillion solar masses for baryon content, which is about an order of magnitude lower than the DMH  mass function would suggest. At the high end it is believed that feedback from AGN (SMBH) is the cause of inhibited star formation, placing a limit on the maximum size of an individual galaxy. Of course multiple galaxies may form out of a single halo as well.

horizonagnFigure 3. The Horizon simulation without and with Active Galactic Nuclei included

The upper panel on the right in Figure 3 is the simulation without AGN, the lower one with AGN. The simulation including AGN is a better fit to observed galaxy properties.

The simulation had 7 billion grid cells and 1 billion dark matter particles. The highest resolution is down to 1 kiloparsec. Gas cooling, star formation, stellar winds, two types of supernovae are included and the abundances of C, N, O, Si, Mg, and Fe tracked. Black hole formation was included. Two million CPU core hours were required for the simulation.

Including modeling of AGN, the larger galaxies in the simulation are less massive and dimmer, and are more likely to be ellipticals than spiral galaxies. The high mass galaxies in the center of clusters are generally observed to be ellipticals, so this is a desired result.

There is much room for refining and improving galaxy simulation work, including adding additional physics and more small-scale resolution to the models. I encourage you to look at the YouTube video, there are many other interesting results discussed by Prof. Devrient from the Horizon-AGN simulation work.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRDITkkqqUg – Prof. Devrient’s talk

http://www.horizon-simulation.org/about.html – Horizon simulation home page

Black Holes Destroy Dark Matter (and Emit Gamma Rays)

Black holes can cause dark matter to annihilate in their vicinity by concentrating the dark matter and enhancing the collision rate between dark matter particles. The best observational candidates are supermassive black holes, such as the 4 million solar mass black hole found at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Some galaxies have much larger supermassive black holes, reaching as high as several billion or even tens of billions of solar masses. Most massive galaxies appear to have supermassive black holes in their centers.

Artist's conception of a supermassive black hole (public domain; courtesy NASA JPL)

Artist’s conception of a supermassive black hole (public domain; courtesy NASA JPL)

We infer the existence of supermassive black holes through their effect on nearby stellar or molecular cloud orbits. And we more directly detect supermassive black holes (SMBHs) by the radiation emitted from ordinary matter that is near the black hole (BH), but has not yet fallen into the BH’s event horizon (from which nothing, not even light, can escape). Such matter will often form a hot accretion disk around the SMBH. The disk or other infalling matter can be heated to millions of degrees by the strong gravitational potential of the BH as the kinetic energy of infall is converted to thermal energy by frictional processes. Ordinary matter (OM) heated to such high temperatures will give off X-rays.

Now if OM is being pulled into a SMBH, so is dark matter, which pervades every galaxy. Dark matter (DM) responds to the same gravitational potential from the SMBH. The difference is that OM is collisional since it easily interacts with other OM via the electromagnetic force, whereas DM is generally collisionless, since it does not interact via electromagnetism.

Nevertheless DM – DM collisions can occur, rarely, via a ‘direct hit’ (as if two bullets hit each other in mid-air) and this leads to annihilation. Two DM particles meet directly and their entire energy content, from their rest mass as well as their kinetic energy of motion, is converted into other particles. The cross-section strength is not known, but it must be small due to observational limits, yet is expected to be non-zero. The most likely candidates for decay products are expected to be photons, neutrinos, and electrons.

The leading candidate for DM is some sort of weakly interacting massive particle with a mass of perhaps 5 to 300 GeV; this is the range where DM searches from satellites and on Earth are focused. (The proton mass is a little less than 1 GeV = billion electron Volts.) So if two DM particles mutually annihilate, there is of order 10 GeV to 600 GeV of available rest mass energy to produce highly energetic gamma rays.

The likelihood of a direct hit is proportional to the square of the density of the DM. A SMBH’s gravitational potential acts as a concentrator for DM, allowing the density to be high enough that there could be a significant number of annihilation events, resulting in a detectable flux of escaping photons reaching Earth. Relativistic effects work to further increase the annihilation rate. And it is possible that the annihilation signal could scale as M³ (mass of the SMBH cubed), and thus the most massive SMBHs would be very strong gamma ray emitters. These would be highly energetic gamma rays with well over 1 GeV of energy.

Movie from NASA Goddard showing Dr. Jeremy Schnittman’s simulation

Dr. Jeremy Schnittman of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has investigated possible annihilation rates and the nature of the observable gamma ray spectrum for some simple dark matter models. He used a compute cluster to simulate hundreds of millions of DM particles moving in the general direction of a SMBH. One of his remarkable findings is that much higher gamma ray energies can be produced than previously believed, in the case of SMBHs which are rapidly spinning.

This is a result of something known as the Penrose process, which allows energy to be extracted from a rotating BH. There is a region called the ergosphere outside of the event horizon and when two DM particles annihilate in this region and produce two gamma rays, one gamma ray photon would fall into the event horizon (into the BH), and the other photon would escape to infinity, possibly in the direction of Earth. Dr. Schnittman’s simulation indicates that the energy boost can be as high as 6 times or more. The faster the SMBH is spinning, the greater the potential energy boost.

He also has looked at DM particles on bound orbits, which are likely to form into a (donut-shaped) corotating torus around the SMBH, aligned with its spin vector. The bound DM particle annihilations lead to lower energy gamma ray production, as compared to the unbound particles.

One of the important considerations is that the influence radius of the BH is very large. The size of the BH itself (event horizon or Schwarzschild radius) is small, even for SMBHs. The radius is proportional to the mass, via the relation 2GM/R = c² (G is the gravitational constant, c the speed of light and M and R are the BH mass and radius, respectively). A SMBH with a mass of 10 million solar  masses will have a radius of only around 30 million kilometers, or about 1/5 of the Earth-Sun distance (an AU, or astronomical unit).

But the gravitational influence is much greater, since DM particles are typically expected to be moving at around only a couple of hundred kilometers per second far away from the SMBH. Thus DM particles that are 1 million times further away than the SMBH will have their orbits in their galaxy perturbed by the SMBH. And the scale of influence is thus parsecs (1 parsec = 3.26 light-years) or tens of parsecs or even hundreds of parsecs, depending on the SMBH mass.

The most energetic gamma rays can be produced by unbound DM particles. These are on orbits which can approach near to the SMBH after falling from far away (a “swan dive” toward the SMBH) and these DM particles would then typically head out away from the SMBH in the opposite direction. But before they are able to, they have a direct hit with another DM particle and annihilate into gamma rays or some other decay products.

The search for gamma rays from annihilating DM around SMBHs is already underway. There is in fact a possible detection by the Fermi telescope at 130 GeV in our Milky Way galaxy, from the direction of the Sagittarius A* SMBH. Future more sensitive gamma ray surveys may lead to many detections, helping us to better understand both dark matter and black holes.


J.D. Schnittman, 2015. “The Distribution and Annihilattion of Dark Matter around Black Holes”, http://arxiv.org/abs/1506.06728

J.D. Schnittman, 2014. Phys. Rev. Letters 113, 261102,  “Revised Upper Limit to Energy Extraction from a Kerr Black Hole”

Dark Globular Clusters

Globular clusters are highly compact star clusters containing hundreds of thousands or even millions of old stars. The stars found in a globular cluster can be up to almost 13 billion years old, and thus act as good tracers of the early history of our Milky Way Galaxy, or of other galaxies in which they are found.

Our Galaxy has about 150 or so globular clusters, and our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy has over 500. Because they are so compact, they are tightly gravitationally bound, and tend to be very spherical, hence the description as globular. They also orbit our Galaxy in the halo and in various directions; they are not confined to the disk where most of the other stars of the Milky Way are found. This suggests a history for globulars (as they are also called) that predates the formation of the Milky Way’s disk and spiral arms. Many globulars may be remnants of dwarf galaxies that have been pulled into the Milky Way during its long lifetime, or have been captured by the Milky Way as it consumed another, smaller galaxy in its vicinity.


M13 globular cluster

The large majority of globular clusters are thought to contain little dark matter. They contain no dust or gas, their matter appears to be all in stars. Astronomers are able to measure the mass of globulars by determining how fast stars are moving around in the core, and by measuring the size of the globulars. Assuming the globulars are gravitationally relaxed, which most appear to be, then the mass within a certain radius is proportional to the radius and the square of the velocities of stars relative to the globular’s center and within that radius. Some assumptions need to be made about the falloff of matter density, and projection effects corrected, but these can be calculated and compared with observations to provide a self-consistent model.

Going through these steps, and also measuring the absolute brightness of the globular (which requires a distance measurement) allows something called a mass-to-light ratio for the globular to be determined. This is stated in terms of solar units, i.e., using the mass in relation to the Sun’s mass and the absolute brightness in relation to the Sun’s luminosity.

Typical mass-to-light ratios for most globulars are of order unity, say 1 or 2 or 3. This indicates little dark matter is present (we know the dark matter content of ordinary stars such as the Sun is low).

But now some possible dark matter-containing globular clusters have been found. To be more precise, some globular clusters with quite high mass-to-light ratios have been found around Centaurus A.


Centaurus A galaxy and globular clusters observed by the Very Large Telescope (ESO)

Centaurus A is a peculiar galaxy about 10 million light-years or so away, and is the fifth brightest galaxy in the sky by apparent magnitude. It is classified as a giant elliptical, or lenticular, galaxy with peculiar characteristics. It has a very prominent dust lane through the center as seen in the photograph above, and also possesses a large relativistic jet visible at radio and X-ray wavelengths. There is a black hole at the center of Centaurus A with a mass of over 50 million solar masses. Centaurus A may have as many as 2000 globular clusters.

A study of 125 of the brighter globular clusters in the Centaurus A galaxy, by Matthew Taylor and co-authors, was made at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The locations of the globulars are indicated in the green, blue and red circles superimposed on Centaurus A’s image. A certain fraction of the globulars with masses above a million solar masses showed the characteristic that the mass-to-light ratio was abnormally high, and becomes higher nearly in proportion to the mass of the globular. This set of globulars is denoted in red circles in the image. The most massive of the red circle globulars have the highest mass-to-light ratios.

The authors find, quoting from their paper, “a distinct group of objects which require significant dark gravitating components such as central massive black holes and/or exotically concentrated dark matter distributions.” These objects have mass-to-light ratios above 6, and half a dozen have mass-to-light ratios over 15, including one object with a very high ratio of 67.

Several explanations are proposed. One is rotation of the globulars in question, but the authors are able to rule this explanation out since the stability of the cluster would be destroyed. Another is massive black holes in the centers of these globulars. This would require black holes with masses in the range 40,000 to over 1 million solar masses, and would be quite an exciting finding in its own right. There is evidence for intermediate mass black holes in a few other globular clusters found in the Milky Way and other galaxies. An additional possibility is the accumulation of many smaller stellar-sized black holes and/or neutron stars in the center of the cluster that would modify the cluster’s dynamical properties.

Yet another possibility is the presence of significant dark matter. If verified there would be important implications for globular cluster formation histories. This study should lead to a rush for other observations to ferret out high mass-to-light ratio globular clusters and to allow astronomers to distinguish between the black hole, dark stellar remnant, and dark matter possible scenarios.

Already there is a Wikipedia entry for “dark globular clusters”.



http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1519/eso1519a.pdf, submitted to the Astrophysical Journal