The gravity of the black hole in the constellation Unicorn (left) pulls on a nearby red giant. © Lauren Fanfer, Ohio State University
Black hole not far away
Researchers have discovered a black hole in space, which with only 1.500 light-years – by astronomical standards – is not far from us. Space phenomenon pulls on a nearby red giant and deforms it. We can observe a similar occurrence on Earth. It is the closest black hole to us that astronomers have discovered so far.
Black hole three times the size of our sun
Black holes are difficult to detect because they soak up all the light around them. © GEO Television / Look at S
The scientists call the black hole "unicorn", because it is on the one hand unique, and on the other hand in the constellation Monocerus "The unicorn" about 1.500 light-years away from us within our Milky Way lies. The unicorn is about three times the size of our sun. Compared to other black holes this is rather small. So far, very few black holes of this mass have been found in the universe. All the more reason for the team of researchers led by Tharindu Jayasinghe of Ohio State University to be delighted when they found it.
Tidal distortion as on earth
The black hole was discovered near a red giant star. Scientists can’t see the black hole because it swallows the light. Obviously, however, the two are connected by their gravity.
In fact, when Jayasinghe and the other researchers analyzed their data, they found that something was orbiting the red giant. The star had changed its appearance and its radiation intensity. An invisible force pulled at the red giant. It was a tidal distortion, like the one we know on Earth, where the moon triggers tides in the ocean.
No danger for mankind
The closer the moon gets to the earth, the stronger the tides will be. © german press agency
"Just as the moon’s gravity distorts Earth’s oceans and pulls the seas toward the moon, creating ebb and flow, the black hole distorts the star into an oval shape, with one axis longer than the other", explains Todd Thompson, co-author of the study and chair of Ohio State’s astronomy department.
One of the explanations was a black hole that had to be quite small in mass. Only recently astronomers consider it even possible that they exist in this "tiny" form. Scientists now hope to gain further insight into the life and death of a star. Because of its small size, the unicorn has no influence on our solar system. It’s too small and too far away for that. Jayasinghe’s researchers suspect that there are quite a few more of these small black holes in our galaxy.
What is a black hole?
A black hole is usually a former star that has collapsed after going supernova. This is what happens after a star bigger than our sun uses up all its fuel and ends up in an immense explosion. The mass subsequently clusters around the former nucleus, attracting anything nearby. Its boundary is called event horizon.
No object is able to get from the inside of this area to the outside. Not even light is immune to this and is absorbed in this nothingness. That is why it is so difficult to discover these phenomena in space.
The biggest black hole is in the center of our galaxy and holds it together. It is called Sagittarius A* and is about 27.000 light years away from us. Around it, scientists have discovered twelve other black holes that pull stars farther out to the center.
At the end of its eternally long life cycle, a black hole disappears with a flash, because its mass cannot decrease any further. So scientists assume it so far. It will take so long – who knows what will even exist by then.
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