Washington: Astronomers have discovered 26 new black holes in the Andromeda Galaxy, one of the nearest galaxies to the Milky Way, using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Using more than 150 Chandra observations, spread over 13 years, researchers identified 26 black hole candidates.

Many consider Andromeda (M31) to be a sister galaxy to the Milky Way. The two ultimately will collide, several billion years from now.

"While we are excited to find so many black holes in Andromeda, we think it's just the tip of the iceberg," Robin Barnard of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge said.

"Most black holes won't have close companions and will be invisible to us," Barnard said.

The black hole candidates belong to the stellar mass category, meaning they formed in the death throes of very massive stars and typically have masses five to 10 times that of our Sun.

Astronomers can detect these otherwise invisible objects as material is pulled from a companion star and heated up to produce radiation before it disappears into the black hole.

The first step in identifying these black holes was to make sure they were stellar mass systems in the Andromeda Galaxy itself, rather than supermassive black holes at the hearts of more distant galaxies.

To do this, the researchers used a new technique that draws on information about the brightness and variability of the X-ray sources in the Chandra data. In short, the stellar mass systems change much more quickly than the supermassive black holes.

To classify those Andromeda systems as black holes, astronomers observed that these X-ray sources had special characteristics: that is, they were brighter than a certain high level of X-rays and also had a particular X-ray colour.

Sources containing neutron stars, the dense cores of dead stars that would be the alternate explanation for these observations, do not show both of these features simultaneously. But sources containing black holes do.

The European Space Agency's XMM-Newton X-ray observatory added crucial support for this work by providing X-ray spectra, the distribution of X-rays with energy, for some of the black hole candidates. "By observing in snapshots covering more than a dozen years, we are able to build up a uniquely useful view of M31," said co-author Michael Garcia, also of CfA.

"The resulting very long exposure allows us to test if individual sources are black holes or neutron stars," Garcia said.

The research group previously identified nine black hole candidates within the region covered by the Chandra data, and the present results increase the total to 35. The study will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

(Agencies)

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