June 5, 2023
Nearest known black hole to Earth, located 1,600 light-years away, found by astronomers

Nearest known black hole to Earth, located 1,600 light-years away, found by astronomers

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The closest known black hole to Earth has been discovered by astronomers.

The dormant black hole, called Gaia BH1, is 1,600 light-years away – three times closer than the last black hole to hold the record – in the constellation Ophiuchus. The black hole weighs 10 times the mass of our Sun.

A paper published last week in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society details the discovery of a “sun-like star orbiting a dark object”. The team of researchers first identified the black hole using the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, according to a news release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The researchers then made 39 additional observations with six different telescopes around the world over four months. Using a telescope in Hawaii operated by NSF’s NOIRLab, the team was able to confirm that the central “dark object” was a dormant black hole.

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“Take the Solar System, put a black hole where the Sun is and the Sun where the Earth is, and you have this system,” lead author of the paper Kareem El-Badry, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the press release states.

“While there have been many claimed detections of systems like this, almost all of these discoveries have subsequently been disproved,” El-Badry continued. “This is the first clear detection of a Sun-like star in a wide orbit around a stellar-mass black hole in our galaxy.”

The researchers don’t know how the binary system, in this case consisting of a star orbiting a black hole, formed in the Galaxy — but they noted that the discovery of Gaia BH1 “suggests the existence of a fairly large population of dormant black holes in binary.”

Astronomers estimate that there are about 100 million black holes in our galaxy, but only a few have been confirmed to date.

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The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics notes that almost all of the few black holes that have been confirmed are “active.” Scientists can tell if a black hole is active or inactive by X-ray radiation. Active black holes shine brightly as they actively pull surrounding material into space. Quiescent black holes do not emit high levels of X-ray radiation, making them more difficult.

“If a black hole is not actively fueled (that is, it is dormant), it simply mixes with its surroundings,” Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

What is a black hole?

According to NASA, black holes are the result of “a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.” Most black holes form when a large star dies in a supernova explosion. Stellar collisions can form significantly larger black holes.

The sizes of black holes vary greatly – with “stellar mass” black holes typically weighing 10 to 24 times the mass of our Sun, while “supermassive” black holes can be millions or billions of times the mass of the sun, says the NASA.

But you don’t have to worry about a black hole destroying the Earth anytime soon. The chances are incredibly small, scientists say.

“Black holes do not travel through space eating stars, moons and planets. Earth will not fall into a black hole because no black hole is close enough to the solar system to do that,” NASA noted in 2018, adding that The Sun is not big enough to become a black hole.

Contributed by The Associated Press.

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