Astronomers have discovered the closest known black hole to Earth – it’s just 1000 light years away.
Of course, each light year is 9.5 trillion kilometres, but it’s still a darn sight closer than the next one along – 3200 light-years away from Earth.
The new discovery is so close that two stars near it can be seen by the naked eye.
European Southern Observatory astronomer Thomas Rivinius led the study, the details of which were published on Wednesday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
There’s still a lot of mystery and fascination surrounding black holes.
They’re a place in space where gravity has such a pull that even light cannot get out, hence they’re rendered invisible. A lot of the time this happens during or when a star dies.
This is also usually when they’re spotted by scientists on Earth – they’re caught sucking in sections of a partner star or something else that falls into their pull.
Astronomers believe there are between 100 million and a billion of them in the Milky Way.
This newly found black hole is tiny; about 40 kilometres in diameter. It was found not because it was swallowing something nearby, but because of the unusual orbit of a nearby star.
The new black hole (let’s refer to it as NBH for ease) was part of a three-star formation in the constellation Telescopium in the Southern Hemisphere. Its two nearby friends are not quite close enough to be sucked in by its pull, but one of them was observed to have a warped orbit as a result of NBH’s gravitational anomaly.
Investigating astronomers recognised this as a tell that a black hole could be nearby. They harnessed a telescope in Chile for a closer look and lo, found ‘something’ with a mass up to five times that of the sun, pulling the star inwards, creating the tell-tale warp.
And that’s how NBH was found.
“Washington, D.C. would quite easily fit into the black hole, and once it went in it, would never come back,” said astronomer Dietrich Baade, a study co-author.
While black holes sound quite scary, they do tend to get a bad rep. NASA says there’s no need to be afraid they’ll swallow Earth, the Sun or anything else too big.
“Black holes do not go around in space eating stars, moons and planets. Earth will not fall into a black hole because no black hole is close enough to the solar system for Earth to do that,” NASA states on its website.
“Even if a black hole the same mass as the sun were to take the place of the sun, Earth still would not fall in. The black hole would have the same gravity as the sun. Earth and the other planets would orbit the black hole as they orbit the sun now.
“The sun will never turn into a black hole. The sun is not a big enough star to make a black hole.”