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Tiny 'Unicorn' is now the closest-known black hole to Earth

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 4/22/2021 Kaelan Deese
a close up of a star in the dark © Provided by Washington Examiner

Astronomers at Ohio State University have discovered what they say is the closest-known black hole to Earth, 1,500 light-years away, dubbing it "the Unicorn."

The nickname for the stellar-mass black hole serves as a double meaning because it resides in the constellation Monoceros, which is Greek for "unicorn." The name was also given due to its notably low mass for a black hole, which is still 3 times that of the sun in our solar system, making it essentially one of a kind.

"The most interesting thing is that it is probably the closest black hole, to the solar system, and it is also one of the smallest, if not the smallest black hole in the Milky Way that's been discovered, thus far," Tharindu Jayasinghe, a doctoral student in astronomy at Ohio State University, told the Washington Examiner.

ASTRONOMERS CAPTURE SHARPER IMAGES OF FIRST BLACK HOLE PHOTOGRAPHED

Jayasinghe, who is the discovery team leader of the research surrounding the Unicorn, said the black hole appears to be a companion to a red giant star, meaning the two are connected by gravity. Because black holes cannot be seen with the human eye, scientists use tools to measure light and other wavelengths in the surrounding area.

The researchers on the project noticed the red giant's light shifts in intensity periodically when observed, suggesting the black hole is tugging on the star and changing the star's form to reflect a "teardrop shape."

"So, if there was no companion to this red giant, it would essentially be almost spherical, but because you have a massive object, it essentially gets pulled apart," Jayasinghe said.

a star in the dark: Illustration of 'Unicorn' black hole. (Lauren Fanfer/Ohio State University) © Provided by Washington Examiner Illustration of 'Unicorn' black hole. (Lauren Fanfer/Ohio State University)

Researchers thought they discovered the closest-known black hole last year in the HR 6819 solar system roughly 1,000 light-years away, but upon reanalyzing the data, it was concluded the system does not include a black hole. With the latest discovery of the Unicorn, the second-closest black hole to our solar system is the V616 Monocerotis, roughly 3,000 to 5,200 light-years away, according to Jayasinghe.

A light-year is the distance a photon of light travels in one year, which is about 5.88 million miles. In a different context, a light-year is how far something travels in a year if it could travel at the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second.

Despite the Unicorn being the closest-known black hole to our solar system, it does not pose a threat to it in any way. Jayasinghe said the companion red giant is not currently interacting with the black hole but could potentially, after millions of years, allow it to form into a white dwarf, which is thought to be the final evolutionary state of a star whose mass is not high enough to become a neutron star or a black hole.

Scientists believe there are three classes of black holes. A stellar-mass black hole weighs 3 to dozens of times the sun's mass, while supermassive black holes can weigh 100,000 to billions of solar masses and are found near the center of most large galaxies. Some astronomers suspect there is a third, intermediate-mass category, ranging from 100 to more than 10,000 solar masses.

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Jayasinghe's and his team's research was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The publication comes nearly a week after astronomers released sharper images of the supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy, which was first captured in a photo in April 2019.

Tags: News, Ohio, Ohio State University, black holes, Science and Technology, Science, Space

Original Author: Kaelan Deese

Original Location: Tiny 'Unicorn' is now the closest-known black hole to Earth

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