Milky Way’s largest stellar black hole discovered 2,000 light years away from Earth

Milky Way’s largest stellar black hole discovered 2,000 light years away from Earth

The European Space Agency reports:

Wading through the wealth of data from ESA’s Gaia mission, scientists have uncovered a ‘sleeping giant’. A large black hole, with a mass of nearly 33 times the mass of the Sun, was hiding in the constellation Aquila, less than 2000 light-years from Earth. This is the first time a black hole of stellar origin this big has been spotted within the Milky Way. So far, black holes of this type have only been observed in very distant galaxies. The discovery challenges our understanding of how massive stars develop and evolve.

Matter in a black hole is so densely packed that nothing can escape its immense gravitational pull, not even light. The great majority of stellar-mass black holes that we know of are gobbling up matter from a nearby star companion. The captured material falls onto the collapsed object at high speed, becoming extremely hot and releasing X-rays. These systems belong to a family of celestial objects named X-ray binaries.

When a black hole does not have a companion close enough to steal matter from, it does not generate any light and is extremely difficult to spot. These black holes are called ‘dormant’.

To prepare for the release of the next Gaia catalogue, Data Release 4 (DR4), scientists are checking the motions of billions of stars and carrying out complex tests to ­see if anything is out of the ordinary. The motions of stars can be affected by companions: light ones, like exoplanets; heavier ones, like stars; or very heavy ones, like black holes. Dedicated teams are in place in the Gaia Collaboration to investigate any ‘odd’ cases.

One such team was deeply engaged in this work, when their attention fell on an old giant star in the constellation Aquila, at a distance of 1926 light-years from Earth. By analysing in detail the wobble in the star’s path, they found a big surprise. The star was locked in an orbital motion with a dormant black hole of exceptionally high mass, about 33 times that of the Sun. [Continue reading…]

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