The Observed Mass Distribution of Galactic Black Hole LMXBs Is Biased against Massive Black Holes

Peter G. Jonker*, Karamveer Kaur, Nicholas Stone, Manuel A.P. Torres

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The discovery of gravitational-wave radiation from merging black holes (BHs) also uncovered BHs with masses in the range of ≈20-160 M o˙. In contrast, the most massive Galactic stellar-mass BH currently known has a mass of ≈21 M o˙. While low-mass X-ray binaries (LMXBs) will never independently evolve into a binary BH system, and binary evolution effects can play an important role in explaining the different BH masses found through studies of X-ray binaries and gravitational-wave events, (electromagnetic) selection effects may also play a role in this discrepancy. Assuming BH LMXBs originate in the Galactic plane, we show that the spatial distributions of the current samples of confirmed and candidate BH LMXBs are both biased to sources that lie at a large distance from the plane. Specifically, most of the confirmed and candidate BH LMXBs are found at a Galactic height larger than three times the scale height for massive star formation. In addition, the confirmed BH LMXBs are found at larger distances to the Galactic center than the candidate BH LMXBs. Interstellar absorption makes candidate BH LMXBs in the plane and bulge too faint for a dynamical mass measurement using current instrumentation. Given the observed and theoretical evidence for BH natal and/or Blaauw kicks, their relation with BH mass and binary orbital period, and the relation between outburst recurrence time and BH mass, the observational selection effects imply that the current sample of confirmed BH LMXBs is biased against the most massive BHs.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number131
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 10 Nov 2021

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