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A grapefruit-sized black hole may be hiding in our solar system

Published Jul 12th, 2020 9:02AM EDT
black hole in our solar system
Image: NASA

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  • An unseen object appears to be interacting with other objects along the edge of our solar system, and researchers don’t know exactly what it is. 
  • Theories of “planet nine” have been proposed, but others believe it may be a tiny black hole.
  • Researchers plan on scanning the skies for evidence of the black hole using a new survey.

The hunt for the ever-elusive “Planet Nine” has taken scientists down some very strange roads. The idea that a planet exists in the outer reaches of our solar system and can’t be easily seen has been floating around for some time, and observations of other objects in the area suggest that there’s something big generating a gravitational pull. The easiest explanation would be a planet, but it’s not the only possibility.

Now, scientists from Harvard University in partnership with the Black Hole Initiative want to test the theory that the object that appears to be lurking on our system’s edge is actually a black hole. Yep, you read that correctly; there may be a black hole lurking right in our cosmic back yard.

The researchers plan on searching for this so-called “primordial” black hole using data from the Legacy Survey of Space Time, or LSST mission. The researchers say that they can use the data to search for evidence of accretion flares, which are created when objects get too close to a black hole.

“In the vicinity of a black hole, small bodies that approach it will melt as a result of heating from the background accretion of gas from the interstellar medium onto the black hole,” Amir Siraj of Harvard said in a statement.

“Once they melt, the small bodies are subject to tidal disruption by the black hole, followed by accretion from the tidally disrupted body onto the black hole.” Dr. Avi Loeb, who is co-authoring the research, explains. “Because black holes are intrinsically dark, the radiation that matter emits on its way to the mouth of the black hole is our only way to illuminate this dark environment.”

The catch here is that the LSST hasn’t actually begun yet. The scientists believe that the survey will be able to spot such flares, but they won’t know for certain until the hardware begins scanning the skies twice a week as is currently planned. The black hole itself, if it exists, would be an incredibly intriguing object for future study.

A “planet-mass” black hole could exist with a mass of between five and ten times that of our own planet. Being a black hole, the object would be much, much smaller than Earth, and the researchers suggest it could be as tiny as a grapefruit. Even at that size, it would have enough gravitational oomph to produce the kinds of movements in nearby objects that have been observed on the edges of our system.