This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies.

Black Holes: Monsters in Space (Artist's Concept)

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies.

Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Got You! Astronomers Find an Especially Sneaky Black Hole

Black holes are tricky creatures. Since ancient times the practice of astronomy has been to point our eyes and instruments at all the glowing things in the skies above us. But black holes are defined by the fact that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational clutches. So how you do see something that is completely, totally black?

September 15, 2022

The usual trick is to wait for a lucky chance (or unlucky, depending on your point of view). Stars aren’t always born alone; in fact, most stars are members of a binary system. If one of those stars in a pair dies and turns into a black hole, and the orbits are aligned just right, then the new black hole can begin sucking down some of the atmospheres from its companion, eating it alive.

As all that gas falls into the black hole, it compresses and heats up to trillions of degrees Fahrenheit, Before finally crashing through the event horizon of the black hole, never to be seen again in our universe, that gas emits enough light to be seen across the galaxy.

So we don’t strictly see black holes themselves, but what they’re doing to their environment.

Until now.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, has captured in stunning detail the spidery filaments and newborn stars of theTarantula Nebula, a rich star-forming region also known as 30 Doradus.

The Tarantula Nebula

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, has captured in stunning detail the spidery filaments and newborn stars of theTarantula Nebula, a rich star-forming region also known as 30 Doradus.

Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University and University of Leiden

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University and University of Leiden

A team of astronomers has been busy studying a particular system, called VFTS 243, in the Tarantula Nebula of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy orbiting the Milky Way about 163,000 light-years away from us.

Astronomers have known about this system for a long time and had long suspected that it consisted of a giant blue-white star about 25 times more massive than the sun and a much smaller companion. They could determine this based on the light coming from the star – the astronomers could tell that it was in orbit around some companion. But what was that companion? A dangerously close black hole, or just some dim, small, boring star?

The astronomers were able to determine that all the light coming from the system is emanating from just a single blue-white star. There is no light coming from the smaller companion, at all.

Hmmm, small, dense object not emitting any light? Sounds like a black hole. Based on the orbit the black hole has a mass a few times that of the Sun but is only 33 miles across. It’s small enough and far enough away from its companion that it’s not able to suck down any of its gas, so it doesn’t light up for us.

We honestly don’t know how many black holes are truly out there. We only have rough estimates based on our understanding of the life cycles of stars and the examples of lit-up black holes that we’re able to find. This new result is huge, as it opens up the possibility of finding black holes in a brand-new way.

Who knows what other monsters are waiting for us, out there in the dark?

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Dive Deeper into the Universe

Journey Through the Cosmos in an All-New Season of How the Universe Works

The new season premieres March 24 on Science Channel and streams on discovery+.

Next Up

This Year, James Webb will Take a Close Look at a Lava World

The James Webb Space Telescope is gearing up to be an exoplanet extraordinaire. Among many other missions and targets, astronomers plan to use the observatory, now in its final stages of preparations to study…well, a world where it might rain lava.

What We’ve Already Learned From James Webb? (Hint: it’s a lot)

That was worth the wait. Just a quick handful of months since its historic launch on Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope has flown to its observing position, unfolded its delicate instruments and ultra-sized mirror, and run through a suite of checks and alignments and calibrations. The team at NASA behind the telescopes released their first batch of images from the science runs, and besides being gorgeous, they're powerful.

Why Astronomers Care About Super-Old Galaxies?

A long time ago, our universe was dark.It was just 380,000 years after the big bang. Up until that age, our entire observable cosmos was less than a millionth of its present size. All the material in the universe was compressed into that tiny volume, forcing it to heat up and become a plasma. But as the universe expanded and cooled, eventually the plasma changed into a neutral gas as the first atoms formed.

Astronomers May Have Found a Rare “Free-Floating” Black Hole

How do you see a perfectly black object in the middle of a pitch-dark night? It sounds like the start of an annoying riddle, but it’s really the question faced by astronomers when they want to search for black holes.

There’s a Hole in Our Galaxy

Folks, we just found a 500-lightyear-wide hole in our galaxy. Fess up: which one of you did it?

The Perseid Meteor Shower Reaches its Peak

Stargazers rejoice! The annual Perseid meteor shower is upon us. Here's what you need to know...(updated August 11, 2022)

You Love Supernova, So How About Micronova?

In space, even the smallest explosions are insanely powerful. Take for instance the newly discovered “micronova,” which sounds cute and cuddly and not at all deadly…except for the fact that it’s the explosive equivalent of a nuclear bomb a million times bigger than Mount Everest.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: How a Planet Left Our Solar System

Sometimes you just know. Something clicks, you have a realization that this relationship isn’t right, and it’s simply time to go. It can happen to anyone, at any time, even to planets, and even billions of years ago.

How to Watch the Orionids Meteor Shower in 2021

If you've seen a shooting star on a recent stargazing jaunt, you've spotted the very beginning of the Orionids meteor shower. It happens every fall in October or early November, and peak viewing hours are coming soon to skies near you.

The Best Planets are Rogue Planets

We can debate the status of objects in the solar system all day long, arguing if little Pluto is a planet or not. But to tell you the truth, any planet in any solar system got the short end of the stick. The real winners of the galactic game are the travelers, the roamers, the rogue planets.

Related To: