A team of international experts, including Université de Montréal Emeritus Professor Anthony Moffat and member of the Center for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec (CRAQ), have found a stellar-mass black hole in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbour galaxy to our own. This team is renowned for debunking several black hole discoveries. “For the first time, our team got together to report on a black hole discovery, instead of rejecting one,” says study leader Tomer Shenar. Moreover, they found that the star that gave rise to the black hole vanished without any sign of a powerful explosion. The discovery was made thanks to six years of observations obtained with the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope (VLT).
“We identified a ‘needle in a haystack’,” says Shenar who started the study at KU Leuven in Belgium  and is now a Marie-Curie Fellow at Amsterdam University, the Netherlands. Though other similar black hole candidates have been proposed, the team claims this is the first ‘dormant’ stellar-mass black hole to be unambiguously detected outside our galaxy.
Stellar-mass black holes are formed when massive stars reach the end of their lives and collapse under their own gravity. In a binary, a system of two stars revolving around each other, this process leaves behind a black hole in orbit with a luminous companion star. The black hole is ‘dormant’ if it does not emit high levels of X-ray radiation, which is how such black holes are typically detected. “It is incredible that we hardly know of any dormant black holes, given how common astronomers believe them to be”, explains co-author Pablo Marchant of KU Leuven. The newly found black hole is at least nine times the mass of our Sun, and orbits a hot, blue star weighing 25 times the Sun’s mass.
Dormant black holes are particularly hard to spot since they do not interact much with their surroundings. “For more than two years now, we have been looking for such black-hole-binary systems,” says co-author Julia Bodensteiner, a research fellow at ESO in Germany. “I was very excited when I heard about VFTS 243, which in my opinion is the most convincing candidate reported to date.” 
To find VFTS 243, the collaboration searched nearly 1000 massive stars in the Tarantula Nebula region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, looking for the ones that could have black holes as companions. Identifying these companions as black holes is extremely difficult, as so many alternative possibilities exist.
“As a researcher who has debunked potential black holes in recent years, I was extremely skeptical regarding this discovery,” says Shenar. The skepticism was shared by co-author Kareem El-Badry of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in the USA, whom Shenar calls the “black hole destroyer”. “When Tomer asked me to double check his findings, I had my doubts. But I could not find a plausible explanation for the data that did not involve a black hole,” explains El-Badry.
The discovery also allows the team a unique view into the processes that accompany the formation of black holes. Astronomers believe that a stellar-mass black hole forms as the core of a dying massive star collapses, but it remains uncertain whether or not this is accompanied by a powerful supernova explosion.
“The star that formed the black hole in VFTS 243 appears to have collapsed entirely, with no sign of a previous explosion,” explains Shenar. “Evidence for this ‘direct-collapse’ scenario has been emerging recently, but our study arguably provides one of the most direct indications. This has enormous implications for the origin of black-hole mergers in the cosmos.”
Despite the nickname ‘black hole police’, the team actively encourages scrutiny, and hopes that their work, published today in Nature Astronomy, will enable the discovery of other stellar-mass black holes orbiting massive stars, thousands of which are predicted to exist in Milky Way and in the Magellanic Clouds.
“Of course I expect others in the field to pore over our analysis carefully, and to try to cook up alternative models,” concludes El-Badry. “It’s a very exciting project to be involved in.”
Notes The work was conducted in the team lead by Hugues Sana at KU Leuven’s Institute of Astronomy.  A separate study led by Laurent Mahy, involving many of the same team members and accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics, reports on another promising stellar-mass black hole candidate, in the HD 130298 system in our own Milky Way galaxy.  The observations used in the study cover about six years: they consist of data from the VLT FLAMES Tarantula Survey (led by Chris Evans, United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, STFC, Royal Observatory, Edinburgh; now at the European Space Agency) obtained from 2008 and 2009, and additional data from the Tarantula Massive Binary Monitoring programme (led by Hugues Sana, KU Leuven), obtained between 2012 and 2014.
This research was presented in a paper titled “An X-ray quiet black hole born with a negligible kick in a massive binary of the Large Magellanic Cloud” to appear in Nature Astronomy (doi: 10.1038/s41550-022-01730-y). Link to the research paper.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement numbers 772225: MULTIPLES) (PI: Sana).
The team is composed of T. Shenar (Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium [KU Leuven]; Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands [API]), H. Sana (KU Leuven), L. Mahy (Royal Observatory of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium), K. El-Badry (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Cambridge, USA [CfA]; Harvard Society of Fellows, Cambridge, USA; Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany [MPIA]), P. Marchant (KU Leuven), N. Langer (Argelander-Institut für Astronomie der Universität Bonn, Germany, Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany [MPIfR]), C. Hawcroft (KU Leuven), M. Fabry (KU Leuven), K. Sen (Argelander-Institut für Astronomie der Universität Bonn, Germany, MPIfR), L. A. Almeida (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, Brazil; Universidade do Estado do Rio Grande do Norte, Mossoró, Brazil), M. Abdul-Masih (ESO, Santiago, Chile), J. Bodensteiner (ESO, Garching, Germany), P. Crowther (Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Sheffield, UK), M. Gieles (ICREA, Barcelona, Spain; Institut de Ciències del Cosmos, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain), M. Gromadzki (Astronomical Observatory, University of Warsaw, Poland [Warsaw]), V. Henault-Brunet (Department of Astronomy and Physics, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Canada), A. Herrero (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain [IAC]; Departamento de Astrofísica, Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain [IAC-ULL]), A. de Koter (KU Leuven, API), P. Iwanek (Warsaw), S. Kozłowski (Warsaw), D. J. Lennon (IAC, IAC-ULL), J. Maíz Apellániz (Centro de Astrobiología, CSIC-INTA, Madrid, Spain), P. Mróz (Warsaw), A. F. J. Moffat (Department of Physics and Institute for Research on Exoplanets, Université de Montréal, Canada), A. Picco (KU Leuven), P. Pietrukowicz (Warsaw), R. Poleski (Warsaw), K. Rybicki (Warsaw and Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel), F. R. N. Schneider (Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, Heidelberg, Germany [HITS]; Astronomisches Rechen-Institut, Zentrum für Astronomie der Universität Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany), D. M. Skowron (Warsaw), J. Skowron (Warsaw), I. Soszyński (Warsaw), M. K. Szymański (Warsaw), S. Toonen (API), A. Udalski (Warsaw), K. Ulaczyk (Department of Physics, University of Warwick, UK), J. S. Vink (Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, UK), and M. Wrona (Warsaw).
The Centre for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec (CRAQ) brings together all the astrophysicists in Quebec. Nearly 150 people, including some fifty researchers and their students from Université de Montréal, McGill University, Université Laval, Bishop’s University, Cégep de Sherbrooke, Collège de Bois-de-Boulogne and a number of other collaborating institutions are part of the cluster. The CRAQ is under the direction of Davif Lafrenière of the Université de Montréal. The CRAQ is one of the strategic clusters funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature and Technologies (FRQNT).
Université de Montréal / Center for research in astrophysics of Quebec
Center for research in astrophysics of Quebec