Scientists Find Small 'Unicorn' Black Hole Close to Earth

The black hole breaks two records: it is one of the smallest ever spotted and the closest to Earth.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The photo credit line may appear like thisOhio State University

Scientists at Ohio State University have discovered a record-breaking black hole. It is both one of the smallest black holes ever detected and the closest to Earth (1,500 light-years away and still inside the Milky Way galaxy).

“When we looked at the data, this black hole — the Unicorn — just popped out,”  lead author Tharindu Jayasinghe, a doctoral student in astronomy at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.

Black holes cannot be seen, of course, but they can be detected by their corresponding stars. This black hole, dubbed the Unicorn because it is so rare and because it is located in the constellation Monoceros — “The Unicorn," is only about three times the mass of our sun and is a companion to a red giant star.

The researchers spotted it by finding something tugging on the red giant star and changing its shape. That effect is called a tidal distortion and it often indicates a black hole.

However, its extremely small size at first made the researchers believe it could not be a black hole. It is only recently that scientists have discovered that black holes can indeed be that small.

“When you look in a different way, which is what we’re doing, you find different things,” Kris Stanek, study co-author and an astronomy professor at Ohio State and university distinguished scholar, said.

“Tharindu looked at this thing that so many other people had looked at and instead of dismissing the possibility that it could be a black hole, he said, "Well, what if it could be a black hole?’”

Once the researcher brought up that possibility, it soon became clear to all that they were indeed dealing with a tiny record-breaking black hole.

“The simplest explanation is that it’s a black hole — and in this case, the simplest explanation is the most likely one," Todd Thompson, co-author of the study, chair of Ohio State’s astronomy department and university distinguished scholar, concluded.


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