Astronomers Find the Nearest Black Hole to Earth, Name It ‘Unicorn’

Scientists have found a black hole that is not only the smallest one ever found, but also the closest to Earth.

The black hole is located within the Milky Way galaxy – and is 1,500 light years from here, in a constellation called Monoceros – Greek for ‘single-horned rhino.’ As a nod to the unique size of the black hole as well as the name of the constellation, scientists have named it ‘Unicorn. ‘

And while black holes are quite common in the universe, as are their discoveries, what makes this one unique is that it has been so close to us, yet managed to remain undetected. According to reports, scientists never paid it much attention because they didn’t think a black hole could be so small – black holes generally have a solar mass (unit of measurement) of 5 and above – which means they are at least five times the mass of the sun. The Unicornon the other hand, only 3 solar masses, or three times the mass of the sun.

“When we looked at the data, there was this black hole – the Unicorn – just popped out, ”Tharindu Jayasinghe, who is pursuing his Ph.D. from the astronomy department at Ohio State University in the US, and who led the study, told the press.

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In the past, scientists had noticed a huge red star in the sky being pulled by something – as if it was “dancing with an unseen partner,” Jonathan O’Callaghan, a science journalist, wrote in Quanta Magazine. However, no one stopped except Jayasingle 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 the ‘unprecedented partner’ armed with the Jayasighe hypothesis, and analyzed data from a wide variety of telescopes and satellites. Based on the red star’s velocity, its orbital period, and the gravitational pull it seemed to be experiencing, the researchers concluded that it could be a black hole, and determined its curious solar mass.

“Just as the moon’s gravity distorts the Earth’s oceans, causing the seas to swell up and away from the moon, producing a high tide – so too does the black hole star to 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.”