A Monster Black Hole has Been Found Right in our Backyard (Astronomically Speaking)

The cross-hairs mark the location of the newly discovered monster black hole. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey/S. Chakrabart et al.

Black holes are among the most awesome and mysterious objects in the known Universe. These gravitational behemoths form when massive stars undergo gravitational collapse at the end of their lifespans and shed their outer layers in a massive explosion (a supernova). Meanwhile, the stellar remnant becomes so dense that the curvature of spacetime becomes infinite in its vicinity and its gravity so intense that nothing (not even light) can escape its surface. This makes them impossible to observe using conventional optical telescopes that study objects in visible light.

As a result, astronomers typically search for black holes in non-visible wavelengths or by observing their effect on objects in their vicinity. After consulting the Gaia Data Release 3 (DR3), a team of astronomers led by the University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH) recently observed a black hole in our cosmic backyard. As they describe in their study, this monster black hole is roughly twelve times the mass of our Sun and located about 1,550 light-years from Earth. Because of its mass and relative proximity, this black hole presents opportunities for astrophysicists.

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Astronomers Find a Sun-like Star Orbiting a Nearby Black Hole

Gaia BH1 is a Sun-like star co-orbiting with a black hole estimated at 10 times the Sun's mass. Credit: ESO/L. Calcada

In 1916, Karl Schwarzchild theorized the existence of black holes as a resolution to Einstein’s field equations for his Theory of General Relativity. By the mid-20th century, astronomers began detecting black holes for the first time using indirect methods, which consisted of observing their effects on surrounding objects and space. Since the 1980s, scientists have studied supermassive black holes (SMBHs), which reside at the center of most massive galaxies in the Universe. And by April 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration released the first image ever taken of an SMBH.

These observations are an opportunity to test the laws of physics under the most extreme conditions and offer insights into the forces that shaped the Universe. According to a recent study, an international research team relied on data from the ESA’s Gaia Observatory to observe a Sun-like star with strange orbital characteristics. Due to the nature of its orbit, the team concluded that it must be part of a black hole binary system. This makes it the nearest black hole to our Solar System and implies the existence of a sizable population of dormant black holes in our galaxy.

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A Recently Discovered Double Binary System is Unstable. Stars Could Collide, Leading to a Supernova

Artist view of a close orbiting binary star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Multiple star systems are very common in the Milky Way. While most of these systems are binary systems consisting of two stars, others contain three, four, or even six stars. These systems tend to be pretty stable since unstable systems tend to break apart or merge fairly quickly, but sometimes you can get a kind of meta-stable system. One that lasts long enough for stars to evolve while still being stable in the end. And that end could be a supernova.

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The Milky Way has an Inner Ring, Just Outside the Core

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals a spiral galaxy named Messier 95 (also known as M95 or NGC 3351). Located about 35 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion), this swirling spiral was discovered by astronomer Pierre Méchain in 1781, and catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier just four days later. Messier was primarily a comet hunter, and was often left frustrated by objects in the sky that resembled comets but turned out not to be. To help other astronomers avoid confusing these objects in the future, he created his famous catalogue of Messier objects. Most definitely not a comet, Messier 95 is actually a barred spiral galaxy. The galaxy has a bar cutting through its centre, surrounded by an inner ring currently forming new stars. Also our own Milky Way is a barred spiral. As well as hosting this stellar nursery, Messier 95 is a known host of the dramatic and explosive final stages in the lives of massive stars: supernovae. In March 2016 a spectacular supernova named SN 2012aw was observed in the outer regions of one of Messier 95’s spiral arms. Once the light from the supernova had faded, astronomers were able to compare observations of the region before and after the explosion to find out which star had “disappeared” — the progenitor star. In this case, the star was an especially huge red supergiant up to 26 times more massive than the Sun.

In the past century, astronomers have learned a great deal about the cosmos and our place in it. From discovering that the Universe is in a constant state of expansion to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and the Big Bang cosmological model, our perception of the cosmos has expanded immensely. And yet, many of the most profound astronomical discoveries still occur within our cosmic backyard – the Milky Way Galaxy.

Compared to other galaxies, which astronomers can resolve with relative ease, the structure and size of the Milky Way have been the subject of ongoing discovery. The most recent comes from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), where scientists have found a previously undiscovered inner ring of metal-rich stars just outside the Galactic Bar. The existence of this ring has revealed new insights into star formation in this region of the galaxy during its early history.

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Part of the Milky Way Is Much Older Than Previously Believed

Basic structure of our home galaxy, edge-on view. The new results from ESA's Gaia mission provide for a reconstruction of the history of the Milky Way, in particular of the evolution of the so-called thick disc. Image Credit: Stefan Payne-Wardenaar / MPIA

The Milky Way is older than astronomers thought, or part of it is. A newly-published study shows that part of the disk is two billion years older than we thought. The region, called the thick disk, started forming only 0.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

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Astronomers Find 70 Planets Without Stars Floating Free in the Milky Way

This artist’s impression shows an example of a rogue planet with the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex visible in the background. Rogue planets have masses comparable to those of the planets in our Solar System but do not orbit a star, instead roaming freely on their own.

The field of extrasolar planet studies continues to reveal some truly amazing things about our Universe. After decades of having just a handful of exoplanets available for study, astronomers are now working with a total of 4,884 confirmed exoplanets and another 8,288 awaiting confirmation. This number is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years as next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Euclid, PLATO, and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST) reveal tens of thousands more.

In addition to learning a great deal about the types of exoplanets that are out there and what kind of stars are known to give rise to them, astronomers have also made another startling discovery. There is no shortage of exoplanets in our galaxy that don’t have a parent star. Using telescopes from around the world, a team of astronomers recently discovered 70 additional free-floating planets (FFPs), the largest sample of “Rogue Planets” discovered to date, and nearly doubling the number of FFPs available for study.

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A Detailed Scan of the Milky Way Finds Possible “Fossil” Spiral Arms

Looking deep into the Universe, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope catches a passing glimpse of the numerous arm-like structures that sweep around this barred spiral galaxy, known as NGC 2608. Appearing as a slightly stretched, smaller version of our Milky Way, the peppered blue and red spiral arms are anchored together by the prominent horizontal central bar of the galaxy. In Hubble photos, bright Milky Way stars will sometimes appear as pinpoints of light with prominent lens flares. A star with these features is seen in the lower right corner of the image, and another can be spotted just above the pale centre of the galaxy. The majority of the fainter points around NGC 2608, however, lack these features, and upon closer inspection they are revealed to be thousands of distant galaxies. NGC 2608 is just one among an uncountable number of kindred structures. Similar expanses of galaxies can be observed in other Hubble images such as the Hubble Deep Field which recorded over 3000 galaxies in one field of view.

As we learn more about the cosmos, it’s interesting how some of the greatest discoveries continue to happen close to home. This is expected to continue well into the future, where observations of Cosmic Dawn and distant galaxies will take place alongside surveys of the outer Solar System and our galaxy. In this latter respect, the ESA’s Gaia observatory will continue to play a vital role. As an astrometry mission, Gaia has been to determine the proper position and radial velocity of over a billion stars to create a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way.

Using data from Gaia’s third early Data Release (eDR3) and Legacy Survey data – from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) – an international team of astronomers created a new map of the Milky Way’s outer disk. In the process, they discovered evidence of structures in this region that include the remnants of fossil spiral arms. This discovery will shed new light on the formation and history of the Milky Way and may lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of galactic evolution.

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In 1.3 Million Years, a Star Will Come Within 24 Light-Days of the Sun

Artist's impression of an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments around Tabby's Star. Could these be responsible for its peculiar dips in brightness or is there a biological reason?  A small red dwarf star (above, left) lies near Tabby's. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Within the Milky Way, there are an estimated 200 to 400 billion stars, all of which orbit around the center of our galaxy in a coordinated cosmic dance. As they orbit, stars in the galactic disk (where our Sun is located) periodically shuffle about and get closer to one another. At times, this can have a drastic effect on the star that experience a close encounter, disrupting their systems and causing planets to be ejected.

Knowing when stars will make a close encounter with our Solar System, and how it might shake-up objects within it, is therefore a concern to astronomers. Using data collected by the Gaia Observatory, two researchers with the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) determined that a handful of stars will be making close passes by our Solar System in the future, one of which will stray pretty close!

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Gaia Finds 12 Examples of Einstein Crosses; Galaxies Being Gravitationally Lensed so we see Them Repeated 4 Times

Credit and : R. Hurt (IPAC/Caltech)/The GraL Collaboration

In 1915, Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity (GR), a revolutionary new hypothesis that described gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory remains the accepted description of gravitation in modern physics and predicts that massive objects (like galaxies and galaxy clusters) bend the very fabric of spacetime.

As result, massive objects (like galaxies and galaxy clusters) can act as a lens that will deflect and magnify light coming from more distant objects. This effect is known as “gravitational lensing,” and can result in all kinds of visual phenomena – not the least of which is known as an “Einstein Cross.” Using data from the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, a team of researchers announced the discovery of 12 new Einstein Crosses.

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You Can Actually See the Milky Way’s Wave When You Map Its Stars

Spiral galaxies are one of the most commonly known types of galaxy.  Most people think of them as large round disks, and know that our Milky Way is counted among their number.  What most people don’t realize is that many spiral galaxies have a type of warping effect that, when you look at them edge on, can make it seem like they are forming a wave.  Now scientists, led by Xinlun Chen at the University of Virginia, have studied millions of stars in the Milky Way and begun to develop a picture of a “wave” passing through our own galaxy.

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