Tough Neighborhood

StarDate: April 27, 2009

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The space around a supermassive black hole is a tough neighborhood. If a star passes too close, the black hole's gravity rips it apart. It also rips apart clouds of gas and dust that might give birth to stars.

Even so, astronomers have found at least two young stars orbiting close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The stars probably were born close to the black hole -- in the middle of the bad neighborhood.

That neighborhood has presented a puzzle. Because of the black hole's gravity, new stars shouldn't form close by. Yet surveys of the space around the black hole show lots of young stars. So either they formed close to the black hole, or they formed farther out and quickly moved closer.

So a team of astronomers went looking for the solution. Using the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico, they detected two newborn stars within about 10 light-years of the black hole. Combined with an earlier discovery, that provides a sample of three stars that are so young that they must have formed where we see them today -- near the black hole.

One of the new stars is inside a disk of gas and dust around the black hole. The disk may be thicker and clumpier than astronomers had thought. Thicker clumps should have strong enough gravity to collapse to form new stars -- even against the pull of a black hole.

We'll have more about black holes tomorrow. And you can find out even more about them on our Black Holes Encyclopedia web site -- blackholes.stardate.org.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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