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May 3, 2010
New evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton strengthens the case that two mid-sized black holes exist close to the center of a nearby starburst galaxy. These "survivor" black holes avoided falling into the center of the galaxy and could be examples of the seeds required for the growth of supermassive black holes in galaxies, including the one in the Milky Way.

For several decades, scientists have had strong evidence for two distinct classes of black hole: the stellar-mass variety with masses about ten times that of the Sun, and the supermassive ones, located at the center of galaxies, that range from hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses.

But a mystery has remained: what about black holes that are in between?

Evidence for these objects has remained controversial, and until now there were no strong claims of more than one such black hole in a single galaxy. Recently, a team of researchers has found signatures in X-ray data of two mid-sized black holes in the starburst galaxy M82 located 12 million light years from Earth.

"This is the first time that good evidence for two mid-sized black holes has been found in one galaxy," said Hua Feng of the Tsinghua University in China, who led two papers describing the results. "Their location near the center of the galaxy might provide clues about the origin of the Universe's largest black holes - supermassive black holes found in the centers of most galaxies."

One possible mechanism for the formation of supermassive black holes involves a chain reaction of collisions of stars in compact star clusters that results in the buildup of extremely massive stars, which then collapse to form intermediate-mass black holes. The star clusters then sink to the center of the galaxy, where the intermediate-mass black holes merge to form a supermassive black hole.

In this picture, clusters that were not massive enough or close enough to the center of the galaxy to fall in would survive, as would any black holes they contain.

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