Enormous Milky Way black hole is shooting out planet-sized objects

6 Jan 2017

An illustration of objects surrounding Sagittarius A. Image: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Within the heart of our galaxy lies a monstrous black hole that, contrary to our understanding of them, is shooting out planet-sized objects at a significant rate.

This particular black hole, known as Sagittarius A, is a well-known destroyer that has been in the heart of the Milky Way for some time now.

Astronomers have witnessed in the past that around every 10,000 years, a star gets too close to it. When it does, the intense gravitational power of the black hole rips that star apart to leave a completely destroyed object, with its remnants littered around the powerful centre of the destructive force.

Flung into space at 30m kph

But now, for the first time, a team of researchers from Harvard University has run an enormous simulation to determine the accumulated effects of this enormous star shredder in the Milky Way.

According to National Geographic, Eden Girma and the rest of her team ran a simulation for 50 such stars and found that, rather than destroying stars completely, Sagittarius A is actually creating new objects in their place.

As each star enters the destruction zone, its strands of material will cluster on the black hole’s outer edge, but over time will cluster to form a total of 11,473 new planet-sized objects.

In terms of size, each of them was found to be larger than Neptune, and in some cases, bigger than the gas giant Jupiter. They are all flung into space at a blistering speed of more than 30m kph.

The majority of these new objects are thrust into the no man’s land between the Milky Way and our neighbouring galaxies, but 5pc will continue to circle Sagittarius A forever.

Could answer former stars’ origin

This simulation now raises the possibility that within our own galaxy, there are millions of these cold, dead planet-sized objects drifting through space.

“In general, these fragments travel at extremely high speeds and can escape the galaxy completely,” Girma said.

“This raises the question: How many of the stellar fragments wandering through the Milky Way were actually created in other galaxies?”

The major difficulty is actually attempting to find these objects as, given the vastness of space, our telescopes will find it extremely difficult to spot cold objects that aren’t on the infrared spectrum.

If we were to find one however, Girma said, it could help us uncover more about the original stars and where they came from.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic