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Astronomers have found the closest known black hole to Earth

According to a new study, the closest black hole to Earth is only 1,560 light-years away. The black hole, known as Gaia BH1, has a mass about ten times that of the sun and orbits a sunlike star.

The majority of known black holes steal and consume gas from massive companion stars. This gas forms a disc around the black hole and emits a bright X-ray glow. However, hungry black holes aren't the most common in our galaxy. The tranquil black holes that are not in the middle of a meal, which astronomers have hoped to find for decades, are far more numerous. Previous claims of finding such black holes have not held up so far.

As a result, astrophysicist Kareem El-Badry and colleagues turned to newly released Gaia spacecraft data, which precisely maps the positions of billions of stars (SN: 6/13/22). A star at a safe distance from a black hole will not be eaten, but it will be dragged back and forth by the black hole's gravity. Astronomers can detect the star's motion and deduce the presence of a black hole.

Only one star appeared to be a good candidate for a black hole out of hundreds of thousands that appeared to be dragged by an unseen object. Follow-up observations with other telescopes support the black hole theory, the team reports in the Royal Astronomical Society's Monthly Notices on November 2.

Gaia BH1 is the closest black hole to Earth ever discovered; the next closest black hole is approximately 3,200 light-years away. But it's unlikely to be the closest thing that exists, or even the closest thing we'll ever find. Astronomers believe the Milky Way contains approximately 100 million black holes, almost all of which are invisible. 

"They're just isolated," says El-Badry of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

El-Badry anticipates that the next Gaia data release will bring more black hole bounty. "We believe there are probably a lot closer," he says. "Just finding one... implies that there are many more to be found."

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