Page last updated at 04:07 GMT, Saturday, 23 August 2008 05:07 UK

Black hole star mystery 'solved'

Computer simulation of a molecular cloud falling into a black hole (Science/AAAS)
The researchers modelled how molecular clouds are sucked into black holes

Astronomers have shed light on how stars can form around a massive black hole, defying conventional wisdom.

Scientists have long wondered how stars develop in such extreme conditions.

Molecular clouds - the normal birth places of stars - would be ripped apart by the immense gravity, a team explains in Science magazine.

But the researchers say stars can form from elliptical discs - the relics of giant gas clouds torn apart by encounters with black holes.

They made the discovery after developing computer simulations of giant gas clouds being sucked into black holes like water spiralling down a plughole.

"These simulations show that young stars can form in the neighbourhood of supermassive black holes as long as there is a reasonable supply of massive clouds of gas from further out in the galaxy," said co-author Ian Bonnell from St Andrews University, UK.

Ripped apart

Their findings are in accordance with actual observations in our Milky Way galaxy that indicate the presence of a massive black hole, surrounded by huge stars with eccentric orbits.

The simulations, performed on a supercomputer - and taking over a year of computing time - followed the evolution of two separate giant gas clouds up to 100,000 times the mass of the Sun, as they fell towards the supermassive black hole.

The simulations show how the clouds are pulled apart by the immense gravitational pull of the black hole.

The disrupted clouds form into spiral patterns as they orbit the black hole; the spiral patterns remove motion energy from gas that passes close to the black hole and transfers it to gas that passes further out.

This allows part of the cloud to be captured by the black hole while the rest escapes.

In these conditions, only high mass stars are able to form and these stars inherit the eccentric orbits from the elliptical disc.

These results match the two primary properties of the young stars in the centre of our galaxy: their high mass and their eccentric orbits around the supermassive black hole.

"That the stars currently present around the galaxy's supermassive black hole have relatively short lifetimes of [about] 10 million years, which suggests that this process is likely to be repetitive," Professor Bonnell explained.

"Such a steady supply of stars into the vicinity of the black hole, and a diet of gas directly accreted by the black hole, may help us understand the origin of supermassive black holes in our and other galaxies in the Universe."


SEE ALSO
Black holes 'dodge middle ground'
20 Aug 08 |  Science/Nature
Nasa's eye on the 'violent cosmos'
10 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Black holes reveal more secrets
24 Apr 08 |  Science/Nature
Rapid spin for giant black holes
12 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature
Huge black hole tips the scales
10 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature

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