Hidden 'monster black holes' discovered near our Milky Way

The Milky Way over Bamburgh Lighthouse in Northumberland Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/PA Images

Astronomers at the universities of Durham and Southampton have confirmed the discovery of black holes near our own Milky Way.

Monster black holes sometimes play a cosmic game of hide and seek, shrouding themselves from view behind giant clouds of gas and dust, according to new research.

Scientists believe supermassive black holes lurk at the centres of most big galaxies, but many are hidden from the view of most telescopes.

Now, astronomers at the universities of Durham and Southampton, working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), have confirmed in separate studies that two of these cosmic giants had been hidden by thick layers of gas and dust at the heart of galaxies near to our own Milky Way.

Using NASA’s space-based NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission, the scientists were able to detect high-energy X-ray emissions generated by the black holes as they feed on surrounding material.

The research could provide more information about supermassive black holes, allowing them to be studied in more detail.

A view of the Milky Way near Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Ady Annuar, a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Physics, Durham University, led a study looking at the black hole at the centre of the NGC 1448 spiral galaxy.

NGC 1448 is one of the nearest large galaxies to our Milky Way at 38 million light years away (one light year is about six trillion miles).

The study found that the galaxy had a thick column of gas at the nucleus, hiding the central black hole that was only discovered in 2009.

X-ray emissions as seen by NuSTAR and the Chandra X-ray Observatory suggest for the first time that there must be a thick layer of gas and dust shielding the active black hole in the galaxy from view.

Ady Annuar, who is also a member of Durham University’s Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, said:

Research co-author Professor David Alexander, in the Department of Physics, at Durham University, added:

The Durham-led study also found that NGC 1448 has a large population of young (five-million-year-old) stars, suggesting that the galaxy produces new stars at the same time that its black hole feeds on gas and dust.

Daniel Stern, project scientist for NuSTAR, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said: