A black hole has been identified hiding in the depths of space after scientists noticed its effects on a neighbouring cloud of gas.
There are thought to be over 100 million of these mysterious objects lurking across the galaxy, but they are difficult to spot because they do not emit any light.
This makes it tricky for scientists to verify their existence, but by looking for the effects of their gravity on other objects it is possible to pinpoint them.
A team led by Dr Shunya Takekawa at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan realised a gas cloud around 25,000 years away from Earth was moving strangely.
To understand what was going on, they employed the ALMA observatory in Chile to zoom in on the cloud and realised it was swirling around an invisible object near the centre of the galaxy.
The scientists found that an enormous mass around 30,000 times greater than the sun was the cause of this unusual motion.
“This and the lack of any observed object at that location strongly suggests an intermediate-mass black hole,” said Dr Takekawa.
“By analysing other anomalous clouds, we hope to expose other quiet black holes.”
Black holes can be relatively small, around five times the mass of the sun, or they can be supermassive – meaning they are millions of times more massive than the sun.
While astronomers think smaller holes group together to form medium-sized ones of the variety observed by Dr Takekawa and his team, it has been difficult to find evidence of these intermediate black holes.
The team hopes that by looking out for more strange movements in distant gas clouds, they will be able to successfully hunt for more black holes.
Professor Tomoharu Oka of Keio University, who co-led the team, said it was notable that the intermediate black hole they discovered was a mere 20 light years away from the supermassive black hole known to exist at the galactic centre.
“In the future, it will fall into the supermassive black hole, much like gas is currently falling into it. This supports the merger model of black hole growth,” he said.
The group’s results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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