Using a couple of NASA telescopes, researchers with Michigan State University have found what may end up being the closest orbit ever discovered between a star and a black hole. This binary system is located about 14,800 light-years from Earth in what is known as 47 Tucanae, a globular cluster of stars. Within this system, data indicates, is a white dwarf orbiting so closely to a black hole that its material is being pulled from it and onto a ‘disk of matter’ before being sucked in entirely.
Much of the data was obtained using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which indicates that the white dwarf is orbiting around a black hole every 28 minutes, or about twice per hour. What will ultimately happen to this star isn’t clear, but researchers don’t currently believe it will meet its fate at the hands of the ravenous black hole.
Indeed, researchers cite ample mystery surrounding the star — how these two seemingly unlikely objects managed to pair up is unclear, for example. It is possible the white dwarf is the core of what was once a red giant star. Less likely but also put forth is a possible pairing with a neutron star instead of a black hole, though researchers indicate this is less likely to be the case.
Speaking about this finding, the study’s co-author Jay Strader said:
For a long time astronomers thought that black holes were rare or totally absent in globular star clusters. This discovery is additional evidence that, rather than being one of the worst places to look for black holes, globular clusters might be one of the best.
Image courtesy of NASA