Planets like Earth could survive near a brutal supermassive black hole, scientists predict

An artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole (Image: Nasa)

If a black hole suddenly appeared on the horizon, you’d expect it to scoff Planet Earth and then snack on the rest of the solar system for afters.

But is that really what would happen if we found ourselves in the gravitational thrall of a greedy galactic monster?

A team of European astrophysicists have published a paper exploring what might happen to Earth-like planets orbiting stars near to the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

This beast is called Sagittarius A* and is lurking 25,640 light-years away from Earth.

There is a dense cluster of stars called ‘S-stars’ orbiting this dark behemoth whose origins are debated.

In a pre-publication paper, a team from the universities of Heidelberg and Rome said it’s likely they ‘migrated’ into the vicinity of the hole from elsewhere because ‘tidal forces’ produced by the colossus stop star formation.

‘it is usually assumed that the S-stars formed elsewhere and migrated to their current locations,’ they wrote.

Although ‘the existence of planets or planetary systems in the vicinity of Sagittarius A* is still debated’, the researchers wanted to know what would happen to worlds like the familiar planets of our solar system if they were unlucky to be orbiting an S-star near the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole.

The science-fiction explanation would be that the hole would suck the planets away from their host star and then mercilessly munch them up.

But the scientists said this would not happen and, in fact, a solar system like our own would actually fare rather better than you might expect.

They built a simulation which imagined the S-stars had a structure a bit like our own solar system and featured either three or seven planets analogous to Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus.

The simulation predicted that the inner planets – including Earth – would stay ‘bound’ to their host star whilst orbiting the behemoth.

They wrote: ‘Since S-stars might have migrated in the Galactic Centre from elsewhere, they probably still keep their planetary systems throughout their voyage.’

‘Our simulations shows that the innermost planets i.e, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are more likely to stay bound to their host stars and almost all the Mercury-type planets remain bound to their… parent stars until the end of simulation,’ the team added.

However, the team did not say whether life could survive so close to a supermassive black hole – even though planets orbiting near to it are likely to remain bound to their star.


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