LOS ANGELES - Astronomers say the mysterious, massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way helped give birth to new stars, challenging earlier theories that black holes are solely destructive forces.
Scientists peering through NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory found that disks of gas near the black hole actually helped spawn a new generation of stars.
Their observations, announced Thursday, will be published in a future issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
"Massive black holes are usually known for violence and destruction," said Sergei Nayakshin of the University of Leicester in England, who made the discovery. "So it's remarkable that this black hole helped create new stars, not just destroy them."
Black holes are believed to be the invisible remains of collapsed stars. Their gravitational pull is so powerful not even light can escape.
This Jekyll-and-Hyde nature suggested by the new discovery may help scientists understand the physics of black holes, said Sterl Phinney, a professor of theoretical astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who was not part of the study.
Astronomers believe the gravity of the gas disks helped offset the tidal force of the black hole in a tug-of-war that allowed the stars to form.
Scientists have ruled out the possibility that a star cluster formed far away and somehow migrated near the black hole. Some 10,000 low-mass stars formed near the black hole. If there had been a migration, scientists surmised they would have found at least a million such stars.
The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, a cluster of stars with a black hole in the center and bending arms spreading out from the core. The solar system, containing the Earth and other planets, is on one of the spiral arms.