Where Are the Missing Black Holes in the Milky Way?

  • #1
Vanadium 50
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TL;DR Summary
A simple calculation suggests there should be many black holes relatively nearby. Why don't we detect them?
Where should the nearest black hole be?

Something like 0.1% of stars end up as BH's, so that suggests about 100 million in the Milky Way. The easiest thing to do, instead of a complicated geometry problem, is to recognize that the cube root of 0.1% is 0.1, so that we expect BH's to have separations roughly 10x that of stars.

That, in turn, suggests that there should be one around 50 ly from us. However, the nearest identified one is more like 1500 ly. This implies a density 25,000-30,000 times lower. Now, one can say "maybe we just don't see them", but we should see the ones in binary systems due to the gravitational pull on the companion star, and indeed, this is how the nearest (and 2nd nearest) ones were discovered.

This also suggests that 99.9+% do not have accretion disks sufficient to make them bright x-ray sources.

So where are they?
 
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  • #2
How many of the the 0.1% are in binary systems? Could we extrapolate from large stars that we can see that would likely become black holes in the future?
 
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  • #3
Borg said:
How many of the the 0.1% are in binary systems?
About half of all stars are in multiple star systems.
 
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  • #4
In a random uniform distribution, there is more clustering than many would expect. That is even without a gravitational force to pull things together and make more clustering. With gravity, the high number of multiple star systems may be just the tip of the iceberg.
 
  • #5
If you want to say clustering gives you a factor of 2, I will buy it. But not a factor of 30,000. SNe are from short-lived stars, so they occur in regions of active star formation, but after time passes, they should get mixed in with the rest of the galaxy. After all, 4 billion years ago the sun was in a region of active star formation, and now, not so much.

Another way to look at it: say the lifetime of a progenitor is 20 million years and say the milky way is 10 billion years old. So there should be 500 black holes for every visible progenitor.

Betelgeuse, Spica and Rigel are all good candidates (possibly Antares, al;though it may be a little small), and the most distant is half the distance to the nearest black hole. So we expect 3x8x500 = 12,000 black holes within 1600 light years. We see one. Double the distance, and we should see 100,000. We see 2.

You ca say, half are solitary, and of the other half, maybe half are perpendicular to our field of view, and I'll even toss in 1% for the possibility that the period is so long we just haven't looked hard enough. That still leave us coming up around two orders of magnitude short.

So where are they?
 
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  • #6
A couple of thoughts.

How long lived is the accretion disc of a stellar mass black hole? The hole's long range gravitational behaviour isn't different from a star, so it's not going to be accumulating all that much matter, and it's radiating heat from gravitational infall of the disc. That'll run out and go dark on some timescale - how long? If the radiation loss is enough bigger than the accretion that the lifetime is short compared to stellar lifetimes then there could be a lot of quiescent holes out there.

Are black hole/star binaries likely to be very common? I'd tend to suspect a point-blank supernova isn't going to do all that much good to a nearby star. Distant binaries would obviously fair better, but then the wobble due to the dark companion is harder to spot.
 
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  • #7
So, lets look at various points:

Accretion disks: I don't know how long they last, or perhaps more relevantly, how often they are replenished by new dust and gas. But orbit perturbations don't depend on this.

Companion disruption: this can happen, for sure, but it takes a lot to do this, and SNe only last for weeks. Maybe as much energy impinges on the companion ad the companion itself produces: that's a lot, nut a year or two later things are more or less as they were. Also, much of the SN energy is in neutrinos from the p -> n process, so the companions will have n -> p: essentially replenishing fuel.

Further, there are neutron stars with planets. These are often more energetic SNe, and surely a planet is less robust than a star.

Finally, there exist stars that are so cliose that they touch. W Ursae Majoris, for example. Their disruption is dominated by mass transfer, not energy.

It is absolutely true that these become harder to spot with distance from the companion. Periods get long. But the amplitude of variation is much larger for a star than a planet. And going back to W Ursae Majoris, it's only 170 ly away. Its period is only 9 hours. So short-period binaries are not that rare. I estimated 1%, which may be wrong, but 0.01% seems very small.

There really are only three possibilities, and I don't see how any of them fit what is known:
  1. We never made these black holes
  2. We made them, but none are nearby
  3. They are nearby, but we just can't detect them.
 
  • #8
I was thinking (3), that accretion discs might cool faster than they reheat from new infalling matter so we don't see many of them. But I don't know how to do the calculations - d1.25 in this astro.princeton.edu pdf may help, but I haven't had a chance to read in detail.
 
  • #9
I was still thinking more along the lines of picking them up as really heavy planets - accretion disks are just a bonus. There are such objects - called microquasars - but a handful, not hundreds.

Note that my three options are not mutually exclusive. Anu or all could be true.
 
  • #10
Vanadium 50 said:
Something like 0.1% of stars end up as BH's, so that suggests about 100 million in the Milky Way.
Are 0.1% of stellar mass objects now BHs, or will we in the future see 0.1% of them be BHs?
 
  • #11
Dr_Nate said:
Are 0.1% of stellar mass objects now BHs, or will we in the future see 0.1% of them be BHs?
The estimate is "now", but I don't think this is known to this accuracy - another 5 billion years is ony a factor of 1.5, and after the Milky Way-Andromeda collision, there will be much less star formation.
 
  • #12
For first generation of stars there are abundant materials so many black holes were produced. Recycle by recycle fewer BH. It’s my thought on Christmas.
 
  • #13
As a sanity check, the same calculation with white dwarfs suggests that the nearest one should be around 9 ly from us. The nearest one is Sirius B, around 9 ly away from us.
 
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  • #15
No. The title says "distant universe". That's more than tens of light years.
 
  • #16
Binary stars that formed together tend to have similar masses, if one becomes a black hole then the other one is likely to become a black hole, too.

The supernova comes with a big mass loss, that can eject the other star.

Even if you have a visible star orbiting a black hole, you need the orbit to be close in order to detect it.

But most importantly, where is that large radial velocity dataset for tons of different stars? Radial velocity method exoplanet searches look at a handful of stars at a time. Gaia is making a big dataset. A look at early data gave us the nearest two black holes we know, we can expect more with the full dataset and further analysis.
 
  • #17
mfb said:
Binary stars that formed together tend to have similar masses, if one becomes a black hole then the other one is likely to become a black hole, too.
Can you point me to a reference? This is trivially true, in the sense that most stars are red dwarfs, and red dwarfs have similar masses. If I picked two stars at random, odds are that they will have similar masses. But it sounds like you mean more than this.

Looking at the nearest stars (a less biased dataset) and I have a mass ratio of 1,2 for alpha centauri, 2.0 for Sirius, 2,4 for Procyon, 1.1 for 61 Cygnui and 1.3 for 40 Eridani. Gliese 169 is 2.9. I could look at the SN progenitor candidates, which is a more biased (but possibly more relevant) sample, and get Spica 1.6, Rigel 7.0 (!), Betelgeuse (solitary) and Antares 2.5.

I don't think this is it.
 
  • #18
Onto the other issues:

"Maybe the orbits are hard to find" was addressed. I assumed we were missing 99% of them. Maybe it's 99.99%, buto accept this as an answer, I'd like to see an estimate. While it is true that there are binaries with such large separations that finding them via gravitational perturabtions is impossible (Proxima Centauri is an example), there are many we should. Note that the amplitude will be much larger than for typical planets.

"The primary won't survive" argument has two problems: one is my argument on energetics and neutrino chemistry above. The other argument is that the two companion stars to the Gaia black holes (obviously) survived. They are close - not W Ursae Majoris close, but a couple of AUs. So that argument doesn't seem to fit the data.

The argument that maybe its in the data but we haven't got to it yet sounds plausible. But we've found over a thousand exoplanets this way. That argument is getting less and less likely over time. Even now, it looks kind of marginal at best.
 
  • #19
Ibix said:
I was thinking (3), that accretion discs might cool faster than they reheat from new infalling matter so we don't see many of them. But I don't know how to do the calculations - d1.25 in this astro.princeton.edu pdf may help, but I haven't had a chance to read in detail.
I did read it.
The issue is that it takes "accretion rate" as a fixed parameter.
Which is not obvious!
If you have a compact object, the infalling matter might pass by at close hyperbolic orbits without colliding with anything or losing any energy, and escape back to infinity. So one thing to figure out about accretion is how a compact object intercepts infalling matter. Which is especially critical for a black hole - for a brown or white dwarf or neutron star, infalling matter that meets the surface heats it up, but for black hole, any energy reaching event horizon is swallowed up and only energy intercepted by something outside the horizon can be emitted.
About black holes and binaries: compare pulsars
https://www.aanda.org/articles/aa/full_html/2017/12/aa31518-17/aa31518-17.html
Something like 3...7% of solitary pulsars move less than 60 km/s relative to original speed
This suggests that black holes in binaries are rare relative to black hole precursors, not because the explosion damages the second component but because great majority of black holes take off at a great speed and leave their partner behind as a solitary star. And this would especially afflict distant binaries because of lower escape velocity of the black hole from the distant binary.
 
  • #20
As always it's me with the naive questions, but isn't it possible to detect them with (some variation of?) the "transit method" used to detect extra solar planets?
 
  • #21
sbrothy said:
As always it's me with the naive questions, but isn't it possible to detect them with (some variation of?) the "transit method" used to detect extra solar planets?
Stellar mass holes are small (the Sun's Schwarzschild radius is only about 3km) so transit across something as big as a star won't block or lens much light. So I don't think it would be a very sensitive technique compared to spotting the wobble induced by the hole's gravity.

Maths might prove me wrong, of course.
 
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  • #22
I agree with @Ibix : these BH's are tiny. Further, if you have a transit, how do you know it wasn't an asteroid? There are probably many tens of thousands of asteroids this size in our solar system.
 
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  • #23
Vanadium 50 said:
I agree with @Ibix : these BH's are tiny. Further, if you have a transit, how do you know it wasn't an asteroid? There are probably many tens of thousands of asteroids this size in our solar system.
Because a black hole transit would look completely different? Almost all lensing!
 
  • #24
snorkack said:
Because a black hole transit would look completely different? Almost all lensing!
My intuition tells me the transit would actually make the companion brighter rather than dimmer exactly because of the lensing effect collecting a larger solid angle of the light from the companion into the forward direction. Essentially microlensing.

This would not be the case for an asteroid.
 
  • #25
Given the size of the lens, I expect this is far too small to see in photometry. How do you know its not a sunspot?
 
  • #26
snorkack said:
Because a black hole transit would look completely different? Almost all lensing!
Wouldn't this actually be beneficial in this endeavor? I mean the more unique the event and so forth..... But yes, I realize the sheer sizes involved makes "my idea" unrealistic to put it very politely.
 
  • #27
Asteroids lens and occult. Black holes lens and occult. Presumably the two have different ratios of the two effects, bit if both are too small to detect, does this difference really matter?

Gravity must make this a lot easier: Gaia BH1 has a companion 10,000x heavier than Jupiter, a little closer in. So the gravitationally induced "wiggle" is 10,000x bigger. Why look at one in a billion effect when you have one that is so much lartger?
 
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  • #28
I did some more looking at binary star periods. This is non-trivial, as there is a high degree of selection bias, especially for dim stars. But the shortest period exoplanet known has a period of 2 years, and something like 10-15% of binary stars have periods less than this. So my 1% estimate seems close, and if anything, maybe a bit high.

These were mostly small MS stars...because most stars are small, MS stars.
 
  • #29
1) The galaxy looks much more like a square than a cube.
2) the center of the galaxy has about 30 times the stellar density of the edge.
Both of these together easily give two orders of magnitude.
 
  • #30
TeethWhitener said:
The galaxy looks much more like a square than a cube.
Not on the 50ly scale. Or even at the 300 ly scale, which is what you get when you replace the cube with a square.
TeethWhitener said:
the center of the galaxy has about 30 times the stellar density of the edge.
Not relevant. To estimate where the nearest BH is, I used the local density, which is appropriate. We can argue if my 5 ly should be 6, but that's the scale. For example, the nearest star to the sun is Alpha Centauri at 4.3 ly; the 2nd nearest star to that is Barnard's Star (6 ly) and the nearest star to that is Ross 154 at 5.4 ly.

If we were living in the galactic center, the nearest BH would likely be closer, but I am estimating what we should see in our own neighborhood.
 
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  • #31
It just occured to me that I don't even know how big these BHs are supposed to be. What scale are we talking about?
 
  • #32
Stellar-mass black holes are a few km in diameter.
 
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  • #33
Vanadium 50 said:
Stellar-mass black holes are a few km in diameter.
Thanks. But yes, that is peanuts to space.
 
  • #35
For such a stellar mass BH, how big would it's gravitational size of influence be? I mean how far out would it bend space-time?
 

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