The closest known black hole to Earth has been discovered by astronomers.
Called Gaia BH1, the dormant black hole is 1,600 light-years away — three times closer than the last black hole on record — in the constellation Ophiuchus. The black hole weighs 10 times the mass of our sun.
A newspaper Published last week in the peer-reviewed Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society describes the discovery of a “sun-like star orbiting a dark object.” The team of researchers initially identified the black hole using the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, according to a press release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The researchers then made 39 additional observations with six different telescopes worldwide over a four-month period. Using a telescope in Hawaii controlled by NSF’s NOIRLab, the team was able to confirm that the central “dark object” was a sleeping 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 get this system,” paper lead author Kareem El-Badry, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, mentioned in the press release.
“While there have been many purported detections of these types of systems, almost all of these discoveries have subsequently been disproved,” El-Badry continued. “This is the first unequivocal detection of a Sun-like star in broad orbit around a stellar 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 Milky Way, but noted that the discovery of Gaia BH1 “suggests the existence of a significant population of sleeping black holes in binaries.”
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The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics notes that nearly all of the few black holes that have been confirmed are “active.” Scientists can use X-rays to see whether a black hole is active or dormant. Active black holes shine brightly as they actively pull surrounding material into space. Dormant black holes don’t emit high levels of X-rays, making them harder to see.
“If a black hole isn’t actively feeding (that is, it’s dormant), it just blends into its environment,” according to the 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 after a large star dies in a supernova explosion. Stellar collisions can form significantly larger black holes.
The sizes of black holes vary considerably — with “stellar-mass” black holes usually weighing 10 to 24 times the mass of our sun, while “supermassive” black holes can be millions or billions of times as massive as the sun, NASA says.
But you don’t have to worry about a black hole destroying the Earth any time soon. The chances are incredibly slim, scientists say.
“Black holes don’t go around in space and eat stars, moons and planets. Earth won’t fall into a black hole because no black hole is close enough to the solar system to do that,” NASA listed in 2018adding that the sun is not big enough to become a black hole.
Contributions: The Associated Press.