Astronomy professor awarded grant to study black holes

We know that black holes are large vacuums through which not even light can escape.

We also know that they are created when a star runs out of nuclear fuel. The star explodes, and the core collapses in itself to create the gaping void.

But how much do we really know about black holes?

Unless you’re an astronomer, physicist, or other scientific expert, you probably know nothing more. Even then, the amount of data on black holes is limited.

Since they are an essential part of our universe, some might find it strange we know so little of black holes.

Thanks to a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), we will now be able to better understand the phenomena.

Misty Bentz, Ph.D. in Astronomy and assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, received the $862,769 grant after writing a lengthy proposal and competing with a long list of research ideas.

After getting reviewed by a panel of experts in various scientific fields, Bentz’s proposal was one of the few ideas that received a grant.

The NSF’s grant will help Bentz study super-massive black holes. These black holes can be anywhere from 1 million to 1 billion times the mass of our sun.

The grant will be used to measure the mass of some 45 super-massive black holes.

According to Bentz, mass is one of the important components of black holes because it is not fully understood where they come from and how they grow with time.

One way for astronomers to understand how the black hole has changed throughout its history is to try to understand how it has grown, and what it started out as.

“Knowing the mass is important because there isn’t too much you can know about any one black hole. You can know about its mass, if it’s rotating quickly or slowly, or about its electric charge,” said Bentz.

Black holes have no other properties that can be measured to give information on their configuration or function.

“They don’t have a chemical composition, a magnetic field, or a temperature. We would normally try to measure all of these to characterize and understand, but they just don’t have those things,” Bentz says.

Without the normal components to measure, astronomers must rely on the mass measurement. Measuring the mass will help researchers better predict the masses of black holes in other galaxies.

“My work mostly focuses on the masses themselves, like actually measuring the masses as carefully as I can in a few galaxies and then coming up with shortcuts to get quick mass estimates for other galaxies,” said Bentz.

Measuring black holes is expensive, and requires a very large amount of time and resources, so Bentz and her team will be focusing on a sample of 45 black holes.

“We try to do the best job we can measuring a handful of objects that are at many different masses,” Bentz said. “From that we try to understand the relationship between the galaxy and the black hole so we’ll be able to predict what kind of black hole each galaxy has.”