Hubble detects wandering ‘black hole’ near our solar system

AUSTIN (KXAN) — NASA announced this week that the Hubble Space Telescope has detected what may be a wandering “black hole” nearly 5,000 light-years away in the Milky Way. This discovery led NASA to believe that the nearest black hole may be only 80 light years away. The closest star to ours, Proxima Centauri, is about four light years from Earth.

The wandering object was detected in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Earth is located in the spiral arm of Orion. It moves at around 100,000 mph.

According to NASA, at this speed, the object could travel from Earth to the Moon in about three hours. It took humans three days to travel that same distance aboard Apollo 11.

Is it a black hole or… something else?

Two teams worked together to locate the object: Kailash Sahu with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and a team led by Casey Lam from the University of California, Berkeley. They disagree on what it might be: a black hole or maybe a star.

Photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope show gravity warping around a star as a mysterious object streaks past it. (Courtesy of NASA, ESA and Kailash Sahu (STScI))

Black holes cannot be seen with a traditional telescope. However, Hubble was able to detect the gravity-warping effects caused by the object. We detect these effects when an object passes in front of a star because they literally deflect the light from the star.

Gravity warping around the star shows an object passing in front of it.  Scientists debate what it is: black hole or star.  (Courtesy: NASA, ESA and Kailash Sahu (STScI)
Gravity warping around the star shows an object passing in front of it. Scientists debate what it is: black hole or star. (Courtesy: NASA, ESA and Kailash Sahu (STScI)

Based on how the light from the star is modified, we can determine the size of the object moving in front of it. If the light changes significantly, it’s probably a black hole. If it’s only slightly modified and the color of the star changes, it’s probably another star.

Lam’s team thinks the object is probably a star, while Sahu’s team thinks it is a black hole. The debate concerns the methodology of the teams. Lam’s team used Hubble, while the other team didn’t.

How are black holes created?

Black holes are born from destruction. They are created when a supermassive star dies. These stars are about 20 times larger than our sun.

As they die, they explode in what is called a supernova. According to NASA, what remains after this explosion is then crushed under its own gravity. This gravity is so intense that it then sucks everything around it: even light and time itself.

When this supernova occurs, the rebound of the explosion can propel the black hole into space.

Are we in danger of being sucked into a black hole?

It’s not likely. While the black hole is moving fast enough, it’s not moving fast enough to reach our solar system any time soon. The likelihood of Earth being hit by a black hole, one of the study’s authors told Newsweek, is relatively low.

Arline J. Mercier