spaceSpace and Physics

The Milky Way's Black Hole Could be Surrounded by Ice

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Caroline Reid

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829 The Milky Way's Black Hole Could be Surrounded by Ice
MM00A-0703 Black Hole. Marsel Minga/Flickr. (CC0 1.0)

Supermassive black holes are usually described as hot, bleak voids of destruction, surrounded by a swirling disk of matter that gradually gets hotter and hotter. Well, scientists now think that this boiling mass may be surrounded by a pretty cool neighborhood. This surrounding, dusty area is so cool in fact that it's ice cold. And made of ice.

Over the years, water ice and hydrocarbon ice have been spotted in between the Earth and the Milky Way's central black hole, but never in the black hole's local vicinity. It was never thought that ice could exist close to the black hole because it was believed that its radiation would be powerful enough to melt any ice that formed nearby. 


However, Jihane Moultaka from the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France, and her colleagues have found evidence that these assumptions are incorrect. Their intriguing findings can be found in The Astrophysical Journal. They spotted evidence for ice around the Milky Way's central supermassive black hole using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile. When you look at ice in the infrared spectrum, it has a recognizable signature. Moultaka's team mapped the ice toward the center of the Milky Way and selectively removed signals they knew to be in nearby regions of space. The remaining signals indicated that there was still ice around the central black hole. 

It seems that the ice has found a way to survive around the volatile vicinity of this unforgiving object, but how? Fortunately, due to the extent of research that's been done in the Milky Way, it wasn't difficult to guess. The patterns of ice around the black hole were very similar to the maps of galactic dust around it. Moultaka's team believes that the dust is somewhere between 10 K and 80 K (–263oC to –193oC, or –441oF to –315oF). For the ice to stay this chilly, it might just be using the galactic dust as a heat shield. 

This has implications for the future of the region of space close to the central black hole. The ingredients needed for new stars to form is cold dust and gas. Before now, it was unreasonable to think that new stars could be born from the hot environments around black holes. However, these new findings hint that the center of the Milky Way might not quite be done with star formation just yet.

Header image: Marsel Minga/Flickr.


[H/T: New Scientist]


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