Black Holes, Already Not to Be Fucked With, Hurl "Spitballs"

by Kastalia Medrano
Flickr / NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

Lest we forget for one second that space is terrifying, there is now new data about what the black hole in the center of our galaxy does to any star that gets too close. Not content with rendering unfortunate celestial objects “spaghettified,” black holes also turn them into “spitballs”, essentially, ripping them to literal shreds. Those shreds — streamers of gas — can then coalesce into planet-sized balls and find themselves subsequently spewed across the galaxy. The research was presented last week at the American Astronomical Society’s annual winter meeting.

The initial shredding could take place in a single day (for comparison, actual gas planets like Jupiter need many millions of years to fully form), with the resulting spitball forming in less than a year. And they’re not a phenomenon unique to the Milky Way — black holes at the center of galaxies like Andromeda are spewing them out at a good clip as well.

“A single shredded star can form hundreds of these planet-mass objects. We wondered: Where do they end up? How close do they come to us? We developed a computer code to answer those questions,” said lead author Eden Girma at the meeting.

Artist's rendering of galactic spitballs.

Mark A. Garlick/ CfA

To that end, some spitballs would be as light as Neptune and potentially as heavy as multiple Jupiters. They also glow — a symptom of the intense heat that went into their formation. They can still be hard to distinguish from rogue planets — only one in 1,000 of these similar-looking objects will end up being a spitball — but they could also be just a few hundred lightyears from Earth. Still, they won’t remain close for too long — about 95 percent are traveling at incredible enough speeds (20 million miles/hour) to soon clear the galaxy entirely.

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