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Record-breaking black hole discovered; Named 'The Unicorn'

Astronomers call it “The Unicorn,” breaking the record for the closest black hole to Earth and one of the smallest on record.
Credit: Ohio State illustration by Lauren Fanfer

COLUMBUS, OHIO—Not every day do you get to make a big discovery in the science community. Discoveries made from outside our planet, however, are even harder, especially when these discoveries that are several thousand light years away.

With the advancement in technology and interest in the field, black holes are becoming more and more popular in the scientific community.

“It’s essentially a region of space time where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape it, not even light,” said Tharindu Jayasinghe, an astronomer at Ohio State University. 

So, when a black hole is discovered, it is a big deal, especially when it is a record-breaking one.

This most recent black hole discovered is the closest one to Earth and it is also one of the smallest.

Don’t worry, it is still over 1,500 light years away from Earth and weighs about three times the mass of our sun, which is considered “tiny” for a black hole.

Researchers as OSU call this latest black hole discovery, “The Unicorn,” because it was found in the constellation Monoceros, which is known as “The Unicorn.” Also, because of its proximity to earth and its smaller size makes it rather “rare”.

These findings were published on April 21st, in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So how do find a black hole?

According to scientists, black holes feed off materials from its companion star and during that feeding process there is a lot of X-rays that are created. X-ray beacons in the sky are then able to detect these black holes in space.

Researchers know how black holes are created but it’s still difficult to find them.

“Black holes are essentially dark unless they interact with another companion star where they just feed off material from it or they affect other stars nearby because of their gravity.”

Jayasinghe and his colleagues have been focusing on finding what they consider to be “quiet” and “non-interacting” black holes.

“Not all black holes feed off materials coming from their companion stars; some of them are far away from their companion and they are dormant or quiet.”

The Unicorn black hole influenced its companion star that was distorting the shape of the star.

The star was a Red Giant, which is a more evolved star that is big, cold and luminous. The black hole was able to distort the star into a tear drop shape.

“By monitoring the brightness of the system over time we were able to see that there was something going on and by taking more data we were able to characterize this and figure out that it was a black hole.”

With these findings, Jayasinghe said there are many other black holes that are waiting to be found.

“We’re trying to advance this field and see what we can see about black holes. How they were formed, how they are distributed in the milky way. There are still a lot of questions that are left unanswered.”