HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has announced one of its professors has led the charge in the discovery of a new “monster” black hole.

UAH said physics professor Dr. Sukanya Chakarabarti is the lead author on a new “Astrophysical Journal” research submission detailing the discovery of a new black hole 12 times the mass of our sun.

Chakrabarti, who serves as the Pei-Ling Chan Endowed Chair in the Department of Physics at UAH, said the black hole is also unique because of its location.

“It is closer to the sun than any other known black hole, at a distance of 1,550 light years,” she said. “So, it’s practically in our backyard.”

Black holes are seen as exotic as while their gravitational force is clearly felt by stars and other objects close by, no light can escape a black hole so they can’t be seen in the same way as stars.

Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti, the Pei-Ling Chan Endowed Chair in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, is the paper’s lead author.(Michael Mercier/UAH).

To find the new black hole Chakrabarti and a national team analyzed data of nearly 200,000 binary starts released over the summer from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite mission.

“We searched for objects that were reported to have large companion masses but whose brightness could be attributed to a single visible star,” she said. “Thus, you have a good reason to think that the companion is dark.”

Interesting objects were followed up with spectrographic measurements from various telescopes, including the Automated Planet Finder in California, Chile’s Giant Magellan Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

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Chakrabarti said these measurements give scientists a line-of-sight velocity thanks to a doppler shift. A doppler shift is a change in the frequency of a wave in relation to the observer, which Chakrabarti compares to the change in the pitch of an ambulance siren as it passes.

“By analyzing the line-of-sight velocities of the visible star – and this visible star is akin to our own sun – we can infer how massive the black hole companion is, as well as the period of rotation, and how eccentric the orbit is,” she said. “These spectroscopic measurements independently confirmed the Gaia solution that also indicated that this binary system is composed of a visible star that is orbiting a very massive object.”

The cross-hairs mark the location of the newly discovered monster black hole. (Courtesy of Sloan Digital Sky Survey / S. Chakrabart et al.)

UAH said the black hole’s location had to be inferred through this kind of analysis because it is not directly interacting with a luminous star. Noninteracting black holes don’t generally have the ring of dust around them that accompanies black holes that are directly interacting with a star. This makes interacting black holes relatively easier to see.

The University said the techniques used in the paper could also be used to find other noninteracting systems.

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“Simple estimates suggest that there are about a million visible stars that have massive black hole companions in our galaxy,” Chakrabarti said. “But there are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, so it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The Gaia mission, with its incredibly precise measurements, made it easier by narrowing down our search.”