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An artist’s impression of Gaia BH1 and its companion star
An artist’s impression of Gaia BH1, the closest black hole to Earth, and its companion starCourtesy of International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine/M. Zamani

How likely are we to be swallowed by a black hole?

Right now, spaghettification doesn’t sound so bad

Black holes are one of the most powerful and mysterious phenomena in the known universe, so it’s kind of a big deal when you find one on your doorstep. On Friday, astronomers did just that, discovering a massive black hole in the constellation Ophiuchus (OK, so it’s actually 1,600 light years away from Earth, but that does make it the closest one ever recorded).

The newly-unearthed black hole is named Gaia BH1, after the spacecraft that collected the data that led to its discovery while tracking millions of stars within the Milky Way. Apparently, it’s ten times as massive as the sun, and is orbited by a star very similar to our own.

At 1,600 light years away, Gaia BH1 is significantly closer to Earth than any other black hole that we’ve previously observed – close enough that the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab considers it to be living in our “cosmic backyard”. For context, the next closest black hole is around 3,000 light-years away.

It’s understandable if a black hole being found (relatively) close to our home planet unlocks some primal fears. Does it affect us in any way, from thousands of light years away? Could we end up falling into its pitch-black depths somewhere down the line, and being spaghettified by its gravitational pull? Who knows, it might be preferable to what Earth’s got in store for us.

Below, we unpack what we know about the black hole so far.


Black holes are celestial objects so dense that even light can’t escape their gravitational pull, which is why they appear to our eyes as gaping holes in the fabric of space. It’s unclear to astronomers how the biggest black holes in the universe – which can be billions of times bigger than the sun – came to be, though the smaller varieties are thought to be the remnants of collapsed stars.

The fact we can’t actually see black holes also makes them incredibly hard to find (obviously). Sometimes, though, they will pull in space dust, gas, and smaller stars that emit a glow, allowing us to identify them in deep space. This is the case with Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way that was spotted for the first time earlier this year. It’s not, however, the case with Gaia BH1.


Dr Kareem El-Badry, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has been hunting a specific kind of black hole for four years, and located Gaia BH1 with the help of incredibly precise data from the European Space Agency’s GAIA spacecraft. More specifically, El-Badry found a star similar to the sun that was moving weirdly (or, in very technical terms, “jiggling”) as it danced through space with an unseen companion.

To investigate further, El-Badry and his team used a telescope in Hawaii, the Gemini North telescope, to measure the star’s movements. They came to the conclusion that a black hole ten times as massive as our sun was the only explanation.


Black holes are scary, there’s no denying it – unimaginably huge, invisible objects could be out there sucking in whole solar systems, and we know practically nothing about how they work. That being said, we shouldn’t be too worried about Gaia BH1, since 1,500 light years is still very far away, and there’s not much chance of us falling in anytime soon.

Anyway, it’s apparently “dormant” (in fact, El-Badry is dedicated to finding and researching “dormant” black holes). Basically, this means that it spends its time drifting through space and vibing with its nearby star, instead of pulling the star and everything else in its vicinity toward their inevitable doom.


We may have missed the opportunity to surrender ourselves to oblivion this time around, but don’t worry, there’s still time! The discovery of Gaia BH1 raises many questions about the formation of binary systems, such as the black hole and its companion star. According to El-Badry, it also implies the existence of many other black holes out there, lying in wait for unsuspecting objects to fall into them. (According to the NOIRLab, there could be as many as 100 million black holes in the Milky Way alone.) 

“[Gaia BH1’s] discovery suggests the existence of a sizable population of dormant black holes in binaries,” reads El-Badry’s paper on the newly-discovered black hole. “Future Gaia releases will likely facilitate the discovery of dozens more.” Fingers crossed!