Astronomers Find Closest Star to A Black Hole

The globular cluster Tucanae 47. The binary system studied is near the cluster's core

Scientists have discovered a white dwarf star - a faint, dense star that has burned through most of its hydrogen and helium - circling just 600,000 miles or so from a suspected black hole, in what astronomers are describing as the closest such orbit ever known.

It's the closest orbital dance of its kind ever detected, but it's a unsafe one - if the tiny star gets too close, it could be obliterated by the black hole's insatiable appetite.

"We don't think it will follow a path into oblivion, but instead will stay in orbit", Bahramian added. As the system emitted gravitational waves, its orbit shrunk till the black hole began pulling material from the star.

While the star is still at a distance of one million kilometers for the black hole, it is very close in astronomical terms.

For the study, the researchers used data from the Australia Telescope Compact Array as well as NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NuSTAR telescope.

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A binary system in the globular cluster 47 Tucanae - about 14,800 light-years away from Earth but inside the Milky Way - has been known for years, but it was only in 2015 that astronomers found one of the stellar bodies was a black hole.

Discovered long ago, it was only in the past couple of years that astronomers realised the white dwarf - nearly out of nuclear fuel - was getting ripped apart by a nearby black hole.

"We think the star might have been losing gas to the black hole for tens of millions of years and has now lost the majority of its mass", said co-author of the study, Associate Professor James Miller-Jones from Curtin University and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

White dwarfs are the corpses of sun-like stars that have run out of fuel.

Imagine being caught in the clutches of a black hole, being whirled around at dizzying speeds and having your mass slowly but continually sucked away.

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While analyzing data collected about two other, unrelated X-ray binaries, Bogdanov and co-researchers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory realized the data could be utilized to further study the peculiar X9 system.

The discovery of this star - part of a binary system including a white dwarf - suggests what could well be the tightest orbital dance ever witnessed for a likely black hole and a companion star, according to researchers. Then, the white dwarf was brought closer to black hole with its powerful gravitational waves.

"In 2015, Dr. Miller-Jones and collaborators observed strong radio emission from X9 indicating the presence of a black hole in this binary", Bahramian continued. It has to low of a frequency that is too low to be detected with Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, that made ground-breaking detections of gravitational waves previous year. Yet astronomers have found good evidence they exist.

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Known as the X9, the binary system has a constant fluctuation in brightness almost every 28 minutes.

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At the time, the X9 discovery was unusual because black holes typically were not found in globular star clusters, like X9's. In this scenario, the neutron star spins faster as it pulls material from a companion star via a disk, a process that can decrease the rotational period of the neutron star to a few thousandths of a second.

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