Merging black holes can fling stars out of galaxies at near the speed of light.
Our own sun orbits the Milky Way’s center at an impressive 450,000 mph. Recently, scientists have discovered stars hurtling out of our galaxy at a couple million miles per hour. Could there be stars moving even faster somewhere out there? After doing some calculations, Harvard University astrophysicists Avi Loeb and James Guillochon realized that yes, stars could go faster. Much faster. According to their analysis, which they describe in two papers recently posted online, stars can approach light speed. The results are theoretical, so no one will know definitively if this happens until astronomers detect such stellar speedsters—which, Loeb says, will be possible using next-generation telescopes.
But it’s not just speed these astronomers are after. If these superfast stars are found, they could help astronomers understand the evolution of the universe. In particular, they give scientists another tool to measure how fast the cosmos is expanding. Moreover, Loeb says, if the conditions are right, planets could orbit the stars, tagging along for an intergalactic ride. And if those planets happen to have life, he speculates, such stars could be a way to carry life from one galaxy to another.
It all started in 2005 when a star was discovered speeding away from our galaxy fast enough to escape the gravitational grasp of the Milky Way. Over the next few years, astronomers would find several more of what became known as hypervelocity stars. Such stars were cast out by the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. When a pair of stars orbiting each other gets close to the central black hole, which weighs about four million times as much as the sun, the three objects engage in a brief gravitational dance that ejects one of the stars. The other remains in orbit around the black hole.
Loeb and Guillochon realized that if instead you had two supermassive black holes on the verge of colliding, with a star orbiting around one of the black holes, the gravitational interactions could catapult the star into intergalactic space at speeds reaching hundreds of times those of hypervelocity stars. Papers describing their analysis have been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and the journal Physical Review Letters.
Loeb and Guillochon calculated that merging supermassive black holes would eject stars at a wide range of speeds. Only some would reach near light speed, but many of the rest would still be plenty fast. For example, Loeb says, the observable universe could have more than a trillion stars moving at a tenth of light speed, about 67 million miles per hour.
Because a single, isolated star streaking through intergalactic space would be so faint, only powerful future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2018, would be able to detect them. Even then, telescopes would likely only see the stars that have reached our galactic neighborhood. Many of the ejected stars probably would have formed near the centers of their galaxies, and would have been thrown out soon after their birth. That means that they would have been traveling for the vast majority of their lifetimes. The star’s age could therefore approximate how long the star has been traveling. Combining travel time with its measured speed, astronomers can determine the distance between the star’s home galaxy and our galactic neighborhood.
If astronomers can find stars that were kicked out of the same galaxy at different times, they can use them to measure the distance to that galaxy at different points in the past. By seeing how the distance has changed over time, astronomers can measure how fast the universe is expanding.
Via Guillaume Decugis