In many science fiction movies, black holes are often the go-to way to plug plot holes and provide a quick deus ex machina when all seems lost for the space heroes. In the real world, we just watch them from a distance. But we keep finding closer ones.
Using the International Gemini Observatory, astronomers have discovered the closest known black hole to earth, which is still 1,600 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus. That’s three times closer than the previous record.
The stellar-mass black hole has been dubbed Gaia BH1 (a fine name) and weighs about 10 times the mass of the sun. Researchers were able to spot it in the wild due to the motion of a nearby Sun-like star.
“Take the Solar System, put a black hole where the Sun is, and the Sun where the Earth is, and you get this system,” explained Kareem El-Badry, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
“While there have been many claimed detections of systems like this, almost all these discoveries have subsequently been refuted. This is the first unambiguous detection of a Sun-like star in a wide orbit around a stellar-mass black hole in our Galaxy.”
There are an estimated 100 million stellar-mass black holes in the Milky Way alone, and they live up to their name by weighing about five to 100 times the mass of the sun. But few have been detected. Much of time, these black holes are active and can shine brightly in X-rays as they swallow up material from a companion star, which the companion may not be thrilled with.
What differentiates dormant black holes is that they are not engaged in any such activity, and tend to blend in with the sheer blackness of space.
But scientists did catch this one, which is the current record holder in proximity, until we find an even closer one and totally forget about it. Space is cold like that.