Scientists have found a black hole that is not only the smallest ever discovered, but also the closest to Earth.
The black hole is located inside the galaxy – and is 1,500 light-years away, in a constellation called Monoceros – in Greek for “one-horned rhino.” As a nod to the uniquely compact size of the black hole as well as to the name of the constellation, scientists have called it ‘Unicorn. ‘
And although black holes are quite common in the universe, as are their discoveries, what makes this unique is that it was so close to us, and yet managed to go unnoticed. Scientists are said to have never paid much attention to it because they did not think a black hole could be so small – black holes generally have a solar mass (unit of measure) of 5 and more – which means they are at least five times the mass of the sun. La Unicorn, on the other hand, there are only 3 solar masses, or three times the sun.
“When we looked at the data, this black hole – the Unicorn – just appeared, “Tharindu Jayasinghe, who is pursuing his doctorate in astronomy at Ohio State University in the United States, and led the study, told the press.
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In the past, scientists have noticed that a giant red star in the sky is drawn by something – as if it were “dancing with an unseen partner,” wrote Jonathan O’Callaghan, a science journalist at Quanta Magazine. Yet no one but Jayasingle stopped to think that this invisible partner could indeed be a black hole.
Soon to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the study focused on this “unseen partner” armed with Jayasighe’s hypothesis, and analyzed data from a wide range of telescopes and satellites. Based on the speed of the red star, its orbital period, and the gravitational pull it seemed to experience, the researchers concluded that it could be a black hole, and determined its curious solar mass.
“Just as the gravity of the moon distorts the Earth’s oceans, causing the seas to swell to and from the moon, producing high tides – so too does the black hole distort the star into a football-like shape with one axis longer than the other , “Todd Thompson, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University who co-authored the study, said in a statement.
“The simplest explanation is that it is a black hole,” he added, “and in this case, the simplest explanation is the most likely.”