Sci-Tech

Black holes and new planets: a busy week among the stars

By Richard Poplak 8 December 2011

Strap yourself in, space cowboy. If you aren’t about to get sucked into a black hole with the mass of 21-billion suns, you’re about to get fried by aliens who live on a habitable planet only 22-billion light years away. It’s been a good week for astronomers, but a bad week for Earthlings. By RICHARD POPLAK.

I write this with trembling hands. Just outside our Solar System, smack bang in the so-called Goldilocks zone—not too cold, not too hot, just right—is an orb eerily similar to our own. It is named Kepler-22b, for the telescope that located it, and it could be crawling with creatures not unlike ourselves. What are their intentions? What do they want from us? And how long do we have before they’re frying us with death rays and drinking our brains through straws?

If this isn’t bad enough, and if Kepler-22b doesn’t set 2012 up as the Year of the Apocalypse, then there is the small matter of two vast black holes, discovered in galaxies far, far away—but really, what is “far” in an infinite universe? Far is close, close is far and time is meaningless. Just ask Einstein, who, after he realised his curved space theory anticipated such phenomena, wrote that there should be a natural law against them. He was terrified by the theoretical existence of black holes, and justifiably so—one of these newly discovered monstrosities has the mass of 21-billion suns, and is a swirling whirlpool of star-eating death so vast James Cameron is surely writing a screenplay already.

The first of the newly discovered black holes is at the centre of a drainpipe of stars known as NGC 4889, a paltry 336-million light years away, in a constellation called, eerily, Coma. The second, weighing in at a zaftig 9.7-billion suns, is in the centre of NGC 3842, in the constellation Leo. At 331-million light years away, this second black hole, although not as massive as the first, is still enough to gobble up an entire galaxy. The thing is, though, that what these two discoveries seem to prove is that at the centre of every galaxy lurks a celestial suck-hole, not unlike a fat kid slurping up a milkshake, and this keeps the restaurant in business.

What’s more, these terrifying zones of eternal nothingness hint at the origins of the universe—the quasars that explode into young galaxies, vast thermonuclear bombs dropped by God or Allah or Shiva or pure luck that wrench solar systems into being. The largest of these two new discoveries is 10 times the size of the Milky Way, and both set the record for the most sizeable ever discovered. (The previous title-holder was M87, tipping the scales at 6.3-million suns.) How did the holes (which only look like “holes” because they’re actually the remains of collapsed stars so dense, with such unimaginable gravity, that not even light can escape their pull) get this big? No one knows. But big they are. And the universe is lousy with them, like potholes on a South African highway, waiting to eat your SUV, or in this case, your solar system.

Which brings us to this ersatz earth, Kepler-22b, sitting hunched on the fringes of a nearby solar system. First, let’s count the similarities. It orbits a sun not unlike our own, and has a solar year that lasts about 290 days. Surface temperature is a pleasant 22°C. It’s a bit on the large side, but of the 2,326 candidate planets discovered outside our solar system, it is one of only 139 thought to be able to support life.

The planet is the first of its kind discovered by the Kepler telescope, which is assigned the task of beating the celestial grass for floating rocks not unlike our own. Unwilling to let sleeping aliens lie, the Kepler team have been at this since 2009, and 22b represents a watershed moment for the programme’s insane nerds who will end up killing us all. (Sorry, a bit of necessary, knee-jerk editorialising.)

That said, the planet’s size means it might be more gas than rock, more like Neptune in composition than earth. It is also 600 light years away, which means a travel time of 22-billion years by current technological standards—by which I mean our own technological standards. Whether there are Keplerian-22b’ers watching us as we strain to watch them, no one can say. One thing is for sure: At some point, Kepler, or a programme like it, will locate a life-supporting planet. And then our smugness, central to the make-up of a species that has long considered itself the centre of the universe, will hit the black hole of reality. And what then?

There are some positives to take from all this. Now that two enormous black holes have been found, Uranus is no longer the astronomer’s go-to dirty joke, so we can anticipate an uptick in cosmic comedy. Also, it might not be so bad to be alone. There’s enormous pressure in being the only sentient species in a billion-trillion light years. Assuming the other guys come in peace. DM



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Photo Illustration/Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA/Reuters

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