Formation of massive black holes in galactic nuclei: Runaway tidal encounters

Nicholas C. Stone*, Andreas H.W. Küpper, Jeremiah P. Ostriker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Nuclear star clusters (NSCs) and supermassive black holes (SMBHs) both inhabit galactic nuclei, coexisting in a range of bulge masses, but excluding each other in the largest or smallest galaxies. We propose that the transformation of NSCs into SMBHs occurs via runaway tidal captures, once NSCs exceed a certain critical central density and velocity dispersion. The bottleneck in this process is growing the first e-fold in black hole mass. The growth of a stellar mass black hole past this bottleneck occurs as tidally captured stars are consumed in repeated episodes of mass transfer at pericentre. Tidal captures may deactivate as a growth channel once the black hole mass ≳102-3M, but tidal disruption events will continue and can grow the seed SMBH to larger sizes. The runaway slows (becomes subexponential) once the seed SMBH consumes the core of its host NSC. While most of the cosmic mass density in SMBHs is ultimately produced by episodic gaseous accretion in very massive galaxies, the smallest SMBHs have probably grown from strong tidal encounters with NSC stars. SMBH seeds that grow for a time t entirely through this channel will follow simple powerlaw relations with the velocity dispersion, σ, of their host galaxy. In the simplest regime, it is M• ~ σ3/2 √M*t/G ~ 106M(σ/50 km s-1)3/2(t/1010 yr)1/2, but the exponents and prefactor can differ slightly depending on the details of loss cone refilling. Current tidal disruption event rates predicted from this mechanism are consistent with observations.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)4180-4199
Number of pages20
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2017
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Torsten Böker, Melvyn Davies, Dong Lai, Nathan Leigh, Cole Miller and Scott Tremaine for useful discussions. We thank Jenny Greene for discussions and for sharing several maser SMBH mass estimates. We thank Iskren Georgiev for catching an error in an earlier version of this paper's use of measured concentration parameters. We also thank Seppo Mikkola for feedback and for providing his AR-CHAIN code. NCS acknowledges support through NASA from Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship Award Number PF5-160145, through NSF grant AST-1410950, and from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to Brian Metzger. AHWK acknowledges support fromNASAthrough Hubble Fellowship grant HST-HF-51323.01-A awarded by the Space Telescope Science Institute,which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA, under contract NAS 5-26555. This work was aided by the hospitality of the Aspen Center for Physics.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Authors.


  • Galaxies: nuclei
  • Galaxies: star clusters: general
  • Quasars: supermassive black holes


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