Dynamical processes near the super massive black hole at the galactic center

Fabio Antonini

Note: imported from RIT’s Digital Media Library running on DSpace to RIT Scholar Works in October 2013.


Observations of the stellar environment near the Galactic center provide the strongest empirical evidence for the existence of massive black holes in the Universe. Theoretical models of the Milky Way nuclear star cluster fail to explain numerous properties of such environment, including the presence of very young stars close to the super massive black hole (SMBH) and the more recent discovery of a parsec-scale core in the central distribution of the bright late-type (old) stars. In this thesis we present a theoretical study of dynamical processes near the Galactic center, strongly related to these issues. Using different numerical techniques we explore the close environment of a SMBH as catalyst for stellar collisions and mergers. We study binary stars that remain bound for several revolutions around the SMBH, finding that in the case of highly inclined binaries the Kozai resonance can lead to large periodic oscillations in the internal binary eccentricity and inclination. Collisions and mergers of the binary elements are found to increase significantly for multiple orbits around the SMBH. In collisions involving a low-mass and a high-mass star, the merger product acquires a high core hydrogen abundance from the smaller star, effectively resetting the nuclear evolution clock to a younger age. This process could serve as an important source of young stars at the Galactic center. We then show that a core in the old stars can be naturally explained in a scenario in which the Milky Way nuclear star cluster (NSC) is formed via repeated inspiral of globular clusters into the Galactic center. We present results from a set of N-body simulations of this process, which show that the fundamental properties of the NSC, including its mass, outer density profile and velocity structure, are also reproduced. Chandrasekhar’s dynamical friction formula predicts no frictional force on a test body in a low-density core, regardless of its density, due to the absence of stars moving more slowly than the local circular velocity. We have tested this prediction using large-scale N-body experiments. The rate of orbital decay never drops precisely to zero, because stars moving faster than the test body also contribute to the frictional force. When the contribution from the fast-moving stars is included in the expression for the dynamical friction force, and the changes induced by the massive body on the stellar distribution are taken into account, Chandrasekhar’s theory is found to reproduce the rate of orbital decay remarkably well. However, this rate is still substantially smaller than the rate predicted by Chandrasekhar’s formula in its most widely-used forms, implying longer time scales for inspiral. Motivated by recent observations that suggest a parsec-scale core around the Galactic center SMBH, we investigated the evolution of a population of stellar-mass black holes (BHs) as they spiral in to the center of the Galaxy. After ! 10 Gyr, we find that the density of BHs can remain substantially less than the density in stars at all radii; we conclude that it would be unjustified to assume that the spatial distribution of BHs at the Galactic center is well described by steady-state models.