Aside from a stray asteroid whizzing past Earth every now and then, our little corner of the Milky Way may seem pretty peaceful. But in reality, our galactic neighborhood is being held together by an army of the most destructive and mysterious beings in the universe: black holes. Now, for the first time, NASA has captured this terrifying squad in living color.
We first got a hint of how many black holes formed this squad in April, when a Nature article revealed estimates that the center of the Milky Way is home to tens of thousands of black holes. In April, when Inverse interviewed Chuck Hailey, Ph.D., the co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory and lead author of that paper, he explained that this mob of black holes occupies an area only three light years away from the supermassive black hole that also resides at the center of our galaxy — Sagittarius A*.
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Now, thanks to NASA we no longer have to imagine what the gaping jaws of death in the Milky Way’s core look like. On Thursday, the space agency published an image of the black hole cluster it rendered from data collected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
All black holes are completely invisible to us because they don’t emit or reflect light — they just gobble it up. Luckily, the region of space shown above is also inhabited by tons of stars, gas, dust for the black holes to feed on. For us to capture images of these perplexing, insatiable life-suckers, they need to be constantly feeding on these celestial bodies.
As debris from nearby stars spiral into a black hole, they form an accretion disk, which is a rotating disk of superheated particles. The debris in these discs heat up to millions of degrees and emit powerful X-rays before disappearing into oblivion. Telescopes like Chandra can pick up on those distant X-rays, which are represented by the bright white spots in the image.
While this image, with its numerous white spots, might seem more surreal than informative, astronomers can tell the relative sizes of some of the black holes by comparing their accretion disks. This also offers insight into how these monolithically destructive forces are transforming the core of our galaxy.
It’s a sobering thought: If you’re ever feeling stressed out or sad by minor Earth things, just remember that our existence is held in the balance by 10,000 to 20,000 black holes.