Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a black hole! But wait. You can’t see a black hole. Nevertheless, really smart astronomers at Ohio State University managed to discover a black hole right here in the Milky Way near Earth. Yikes! What should we know about this intriguing but scary celestial neighbor?
Let’s being at the beginning. First of all, exactly what is a black hole? While Sheldon and pals on “The Big Bang Theory” may understand all the science involved, I frankly couldn’t tell you anything about a black hole except it is something to be avoided in space. But Darth Vader fits that description, so a bit more detail is needed.
Black holes appear to be appropriately named. They emit no light of their own and “gobble up” (yes, a highly scientific term there) everything including light. With no light, things are dark, i.e., black. Accordingly, black holes are invisible. The philosopher in me is screaming, “But if you can’t see it, does it really exist? Is it near the tree that soundlessly fell in the forest?” But I digress.
So we can’t see black holes, so what are they? Black holes are points in space which are so dense that they create deep gravity sinks. The gravity pulls so strongly that even light cannot escape. A boundary around the mouth of a black hole called the event horizon is the point past which something that crosses can never escape. Cue Kansas’ “Point Of Know Return” playing in the background; of course, with black holes, it’s the point of NO return.
Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of black holes in 1916 with his theory of relativity; however, the term “black holes” was not coined until 1967 by American astronomer John Wheeler. In 1971 the first physical (as opposed to theoretical, I suppose) black hole was “spotted.” (Um, how do you spot what’s invisible?) The first image ever recorded of a black hole was not obtained until April 2019; it was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope. This scientific instrument spied with its lens eye a supermassive black hole, Messier 87, in the Virgo cluster. (Cool, my Zodiac sign is Virgo!)
Black holes have been found then, but how are they formed? According to scientists (because I personally wouldn’t have a clue), black holes form because of stellar death; in ordinary terms, this means the center of a very big star falls in upon itself or collapses. Once a black hole forms, it sucks up dust and gas from around it allowing it to grow. Black holes comes in various sizes from small to supermassive. The latter have masses equal to more than one million suns together. What bright person does this math? (Pun intended.)
Hearing details about a black hole make me a bit nervous. Who wants to get sucked into one and never emerge? Not me! And, to increase our anxiety, be aware scientists estimate there are as many as 10 million black holes in our Milky Way Galaxy alone. In fact, a supermassive black hole dubbed Sagittarius A sits at the center of the galaxy, some 26,000 light years from Earth. (Whew!) Ginormous Sagittarius weighs in at an approximate whopping 4.3 million solar masses.
Even scarier? The recently discovered black hole is pretty close to our home planet. It holds two records at this point– smallest black hole discovered and closest black hole to the Earth. “Closest” is a relative term, though. This black hole is (GASP!) 1,500 light years away. That’s still too close for comfort for me!
Our newly spotted celestial neighbor is located in a faint constellation known as Monoceros. For those of us who are not Latin scholars, this word means “unicorn.” Thus, the black hole has been dubbed the Unicorn. It is considered “tiny” because it is merely three times the mass of the sun.
Since this black hole is so “tiny” and also invisible, just how were Ohio State scientists able to detect the Unicorn? The Unicorn’s companion star, a red giant known as V723 Mon, ratted it out. It seems most known black holes are discovered because of their interaction with a companion star which creates lots of X-rays which astronomers can see. These companion stars are connected to the black hole by gravity. The gravitational pull from the black hole can distort a star into a football-like shape with one axis longer than another.
Because of the gravitation pull from the Unicorn on its companion star, scientists detected a wobble in V723 Mon. Their research ultimately led to finding the Unicorn and publishing credits in the Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in April announcing its discovery. Rats! I don’t subscribe to that publication and missed reading the announcement. But, should you want to plow through the scientific mumbo jumbo, the OSU scientists’ article can be found at https://academic.oup.com/mnras/article/504/2/2577/6261635?searchresult=1.
It’s pretty frightening to think about being sucked into a black hole that is a celestial neighbor here in our galaxy. That’s not neighborly! Perhaps we should simply focus on things right here on Earth. Then again, the federal government now appears to be publicly confirming the existence of unexplained UFO sightings here. Maybe our newly created U.S. Space Force can figure out how to push any unfriendly aliens into the Unicorn. They won’t be back to bug us if we can accomplish that!
Did you have any idea that millions of black holes are thought to exist? Had you heard about the discovery of this celestial neighbor? Does the existence of black holes put your view of man’s capabilities to control the world/space around him into a different perspective?