"We observed a dozen black holes" around Sagittarius A, the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, said study co-author Chuck Hailey, an astrophysicist at New York's Columbia University. "The galactic centre is a unusual place".
Each black hole continuously steals material from its companion's surface. I asked her how many black holes you'd expect to see in a random, similarly sized patch of space someplace farther out. Black holes have earned their name for a reason-they're incredibly hard to spot because they don't give off any energy readings unless they're actively chowing down on matter or information that can be recorded. But when black holes pair up with companion stars and interact with them, this produces telltale X-ray signals.
"Finding evidence for a large number of black holes at the center of the Milky Way confirms a fundamental and major prediction of galactic dynamics", Hailey says. So looking for isolated black holes is not a smart way to find them either.
The astronomers were also careful not to be fooled by the many other intriguing X-ray-emitting objects at the galactic centre.
By extrapolating from the properties and distribution of these binaries, the team estimates that there may be 300-500 low-mass binaries and 10,000 isolated low-mass black holes surrounding Sgr A*.
This research would not just shed light on the nature of black holes in the universe, but also on gravitational waves. These could follow the motion of stars very close to the unseen object as they orbited around it.
The idea that a plethora of smaller black holes may surround the "supermassive" hole at the heart of the Milky Way dates back decades.
Now scientists have developed a technique to reveal the smoking gun for hidden black holes at the galaxy's centre.
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As gravity takes over and eventually wins, it forms a singularity, a single point in space where gravity is so strong that no object - not even light - can escape its grasp once it crosses its boundary.
Black holes, which are vast amounts of matter asked into small areas, are typically ten times larger than our own sun but packed into an area roughly the diameter of NY city. It's believed that these types of black holes lie at the centre of most galaxies.
Stars form as gas and dust succumb to gravity and fusion is ignited.
The newly discovered black holes are within about 30.9 trillion kilometres of the supermassive black hole at the centre. "There are only about five dozen known black holes in the entire galaxy - 100,000 light-years wide - and there are supposed to be 10,000 to 20,000 of these things in a region just six light-years wide that no one has been able to find", Hailey said in the statement. "Some of them were formed comparatively recently".
Such black holes should each weigh 10 to 20 times more than our sun.
Hailey explained that every now and then, an isolated black hole catches a passing star by gravitational attraction and makes a black hole binary that will emit X-rays. Gravitational waves are ripples caused by the black holes colliding with each other.
First, their mass tends to pull them to the centre. And he hopes to see follow-up studies by other astronomers to help build on the knowledge of our early universe.
If you think about it, galaxies are pretty odd.