April 22, 2013

Using Black Holes to Measure the Universe's Rate of Expansion

Prof. Netzer (Tel Aviv Univesity), along with Jian-Min Wang, Pu Du and Chen Hu of the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Dr. David Valls-Gabaud of the Observatoire de Paris, has developed a method with the potential to measure distances of billions of light years with a high degree of accuracy. The method uses certain types of active black holes that lie at the center of many galaxies. The ability to measure very long distances translates into seeing further into the past of the universe — and being able to estimate its rate of expansion at a very young age.

The viability of this theory was proved by using the known properties of black holes in our own astronomical vicinity, "only" several hundred million light years away. Prof. Netzer believes that his system will add to the astronomer's tool kit for measuring distances much farther away, complimenting the existing method which uses the exploding stars called supernovae.

According to Prof. Netzer, the ability to measure far-off distances has the potential to unravel some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, which is approximately 14 billion years old. "When we are looking into a distance of billions of light years, we are looking that far into the past," he explains. "The light that I see today was first produced when the universe was much younger."

One such mystery is the nature of what astronomers call "dark energy," the most significant source of energy in the present day universe. This energy, which is manifested as some kind of "anti-gravity," is believed to contribute towards the accelerated expansion of the universe by pushing outwards. The ultimate goal is to understand dark energy on physical grounds, answering questions such as whether this energy has been consistent throughout time and if it is likely to change in the future.

Physical Review Letters - Super-Eddington Accreting Massive Black Holes as Long-Lived Cosmological Standards

Super-Eddington accreting massive black holes (SEAMBHs) reach saturated luminosities above a certain accretion rate due to photon trapping and advection in slim accretion disks. We show that these SEAMBHs could provide a new tool for estimating cosmological distances if they are properly identified by hard x-ray observations, in particular by the slope of their 2–10 keV continuum. To verify this idea we obtained black hole mass estimates and x-ray data for a sample of 60 narrow line Seyfert 1 galaxies that we consider to be the most promising SEAMBH candidates. We demonstrate that the distances derived by the new method for the objects in the sample get closer to the standard luminosity distances as the hard x-ray continuum gets steeper. The results allow us to analyze the requirements for using the method in future samples of active black holes and to demonstrate that the expected uncertainty, given large enough samples, can make them into a useful, new cosmological ruler.

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