By Torsten Böker, ESA astronomer at STScI
Almost 25 years of HST observations have shown that most, if not all, large galaxies harbor a super-massive black hole (SMBH) in their nucleus. How and when these exotic objects formed is one of the puzzles of current astronomy. Many black hole studies are focused on images of the high-redshift universe because those can unveil the structure of galaxies in their distant past, and thus tackle the “chicken-and-egg” question of what came first, the black hole or the galaxy.
An alternative path to addressing this question is to study low-mass nearby galaxies, which have only very small central black holes or none at all. Why are these black holes “lagging” in their evolution? Are they still growing, and if so, what regulates their growth?
The answers most likely have to consider the presence of another type of compact massive object often found in galactic nuclei, namely an extremely massive and dense cluster of stars. In fact, these so-called “nuclear star clusters” (NSCs) are the densest stellar systems known, with many millions of stars packed in a radius of only a few light years. To measure their compact structure requires the highest possible spatial resolution, and consequently, NSCs have been studied systematically only during the last decade or so.
It has become clear that NSCs are found in nearly all low-mass galaxies, and that they are an essential ingredient for any recipe to understand the evolution of galactic nuclei. They are most easily observed in the absence of a luminous bulge, which is why our work is focused on late-type spiral galaxies. Fig. 1 shows a prototypical example of a NSC, namely the one in the nearby bulge-less spiral NGC 1042. This NSC is known to contain a low-luminosity SMBH with a mass of less than a million solar masses.
Other well-known examples for a SMBH within a NSC are NGC 4395, and of course our own Milky Way. On the other hand, the Triangulum Galaxy (Messier 33) also has a NSC and is very similar to NGC 1042 in mass and size, but it does not appear to contain any SMBH in its nucleus, at least none more massive than a few tens of thousands solar masses.
Why then do SMBHs exist within some NSCs, but not in others? What regulates the relative importance of the two types of central massive objects, i.e. the ratio of their masses? Does a SMBH destroy its parent cluster once it reaches a certain mass? Or does the presence of a NSC prevent the SMBH from growing its mass any further?
Figure 1: Hubble Space Telescope colour composite image of NGC 1042, created from WFPC2 F450W and F606W exposures. The structural fits to the NSC show unresolved residual emission, indicating the presence of an additional point source (from Georgiev & Böker 2014).
A systematic comparison of NSCs with and without confirmed SMBHs promises to shed light on these questions. Unfortunately, at present there are only a handful of galaxies known to host both a NSC and a SMBH, thus making a statistically sound comparison difficult. In order to improve this situation, my collaborators and I are working to develop observational methods to find more systems with coexisting NSC and SMBH. The challenge here lies in the fact that in this mass range, SMBHs are very difficult to detect, because they are much less active than their more massive counterparts.
We begin by using HST imaging to constrain the luminosities, sizes, and masses of NSCs in a large number of nearby spiral galaxies. We have recently completed a systematic analysis of all WFPC2 images in the HST archive that contain NSCs. By carefully analyzing the color and shape of the NSCs, we find some cases with point-like residual emission which may be indicative of an active galactic nucleus, and thus of a SMBH. Such residuals are, in fact, evident in NGC 1042 (see the inlays in Figure 1) – they likely are caused by the “extra” emission from the SMBH.
We then follow up these SMBH candidates with adaptive optics-assisted ground-based spectroscopy that will allow us to measure the age and total mass of the NSC, and to search for spectroscopic signs for the presence of a SMBH. On the theoretical front, we try to improve our understanding of dense stellar systems by analyzing poorly understood effects caused by the presence of large amounts of gas in the early days of NSC formation which may lead to an evolving stellar mass function via gas accretion, or to runaway growth of stellar-mass black holes.
In this way, we hope to better understand the mutual interaction of SMBHs and NSCs, and to ultimately to learn how “monster” black holes in massive galaxies have formed.