Astronomers May Have Discovered the First Wandering Black Hole - Beyond The World
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Astronomers May Have Discovered the First Wandering Black Hole

Astronomers have discovered a “free-floating” black hole for the first time by using a quirk of gravity’s effect on starlight. Until now, the only technique to spy on the mysterious cosmic objects was to seek for light reflected by stuff on the perimeter of a black hole.

Astronomers may have accomplished the seemingly impossible by detecting a wandering black hole for the first time.

Black holes themselves are invisible by definition because not even light can escape their intense gravitational pull. In recent years, the multinational collaboration behind the Event Horizon Telescope has photographed black holes for the first time. However, when we look at these photographs, we realize that the light we see is actually a disk of hot gas and material circling the edge of the black hole itself.

Sometimes black holes are observable because one or more stars orbit them, as is the case with the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole. Scientists predict that hundreds of millions of black holes will be discovered in the universe’s more isolated corners.

Astronomers have discovered what could be a neutron star or a vagabonding lone wolf black hole cloaked in the inescapable strength of its own gravity. For the first time, this was accomplished by studying how the same force distorts the light from a more distant star, a phenomenon known as gravitational microlensing.

An illustration of a black hole drifting through the Milky Way galaxy. The black hole is the crushed remnant of a massive star that exploded as a supernova, and the surviving core is several times the mass of our sun. FECYT, IAC

“This is the first free-floating black hole or neutron star discovered with gravitational microlensing,” said University of California, Berkeley, astronomy professor Jessica Lu, in a statement. “With microlensing, we’re able to probe these lonely, compact objects and weigh them. I think we have opened a new window onto these dark objects, which can’t be seen any other way.”

Lu was part of one of two teams that examined the same data from the Hubble Space Telescope’s microlensing event. Their research has been accepted for publication in the next issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Another team from Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute computed a slightly different mass for the object and determined with sufficient confidence that it is, in fact, a black hole. The Astrophysical Journal will publish the paper.

“As much as we would like to say it is definitively a black hole, we must report all allowed solutions. This encompasses both lower-mass black holes and potentially even a neutron star,” Lu said.

According to various estimates, it is between 1.6 and 7.1 solar masses. Because of the lower mass, it is possible that the object is a neutron star. When it reaches the upper end of the range, it becomes more obvious that the object is a black hole.

Whatever it is, the object is known as MOA-2011-BLG-191 and OGLE-2011-BLG-0462 (OB110462, for short) and is about 5,000 light-years away from Earth, so there’s little chance of it approaching us anytime soon.

The question over what kind of cosmic character is bending the light from stars behind it may be solved soon. In the second half of 2022, the Hubble Space Telescope will conduct additional observations and acquire additional data about the object.

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