Finding Hidden Black Holes

Sheila Kannappan and Mugdha Polimera Scientists at the UNC-Chapel Hill, led by faculty-graduate student team Sheila Kannappan, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Mugdha Polimera, an international student from Abu Dhabi and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, have found a previously overlooked treasure trove of massive black holes in dwarf galaxies. This discovery offers a glimpse into the life story of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. The Astrophysical Journal published these findings on May 24, 2022.

The inability to see a black hole contributes to the complexity of studying them. Instead, scientists must observe black holes based on activity happening around them, such as how they consume matter by way of gravitational pull. However, this type of black hole activity can be hard to disentangle from similar activity from bright, young stars.

“We’re left with this result that is shocking,” Kannappan said. “Mugdha did a masterful job with the data. She has exhaustively researched every other possible explanation,” Kannappan said of the findings. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In 2019, Polimera received a Summer Research Fellowship offered by The Graduate School, which allowed her to focus exclusively on her research during the summer months. The Andrew and Kathrine McMillan Summer Research Fellowship, Polimera said, gave her a sense of focus.

That time to focus on her research gave her the ability to work on her dissertation and to better understand her research in context with other work in the field.

“Having summer funding gave me the time and opportunity to focus solely on the research and nothing else,” Polimera said.

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