Black hole blasts may transform 'mini-Neptunes' into rocky worlds

February 28, 2018, Harvard University
Credit: Harvard University

A team of astrophysicists and planetary scientists has predicted that Neptune-like planets located near the center of the Milky Way were transformed into rocky planets by outbursts generated by the nearby supermassive black hole.

These findings combine computer simulations with data from recent exoplanet findings, as well as X-ray and ultraviolet observations of stars and .

"It's pretty wild to think of black holes shaping the evolutionary destiny of a planet, but that very well may be the case in the center of our galaxy," said Howard Chen of Northwestern University in Illinois, who led the study.

Chen and collaborators from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) examined the environment around the closest to Earth: the 4 million solar known as Sagittarius A*.

It is well known that material falling into the black hole in occasional feeding frenzies will generate bright flares of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation. Indeed, X-ray telescopes such as NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton have seen evidence for bright outbursts generated in the past, ranging from about 6 million years to just over a century ago.

"We wondered what these outbursts from Sagittarius A* would do to any in its vicinity," said John Forbes, a co-author from the CfA. "Our work shows the black hole could dramatically change a planet's life."

The authors considered the effects of this high-energy radiation on planets within 70 light-years of the black hole that have masses in between Earth and Neptune's.

They found that the X-ray and would blast away a large amount of the thick gas atmosphere of such planets near the black hole. In some cases this would leave behind a bare, rocky core. Such would be heavier than the Earth and are what astronomers call super-Earths.

"These super-Earths are one of the most common types of planet that astronomers have discovered outside our solar system," said co-author Avi Loeb, also of CfA, "Our work shows that in the right environment they might form in exotic ways."

The researchers think that this black hole impact may be one of the most common ways for rocky super-Earths to form close to the center of our galaxy.

While some of these planets will be located in the habitable zone of stars like the sun, the environment in which they exist would make it challenging for life to arise. The super-Earths would be buffeted by supernova explosions and gamma ray bursts, which might damage the chemistry of any atmosphere remaining on the planets. Additional outbursts from the supermassive black hole could provide a knockout punch and completely erode a planet's atmosphere.

These planets would also be subjected to the gravitational disruptions of a passing star that could fling the planet away from its life-sustaining host. Such encounters might occur frequently near the Milky Way's supermassive black hole since the region is so packed with stars. How crowded is it in the Galactic Center? Within about 70 light-years of the center of the galaxy, astronomers think the average separation between rocky worlds is between about 75 and 750 billion kilometers. By comparison, the nearest star to the solar system is 40,000 billion kilometers away.

"It is generally accepted that the innermost regions of the Milky Way are not favorable for life. Indeed, even though the deck seems stacked against life in this region, the likelihood of panspermia, where life is transmitted via interplanetary or interstellar contact, would be much more common in such a dense environment." said Loeb. "This process might give life a fighting chance to arise and survive."

There are formidable challenges required to directly detect such planets. The distance to the Galactic Center (26,000 light years from Earth), the crowded region, and the blocking of light by intervening dust and gas all make it hard to observe such planets.

However, these challenges may be met by the next generation of extraordinarily large ground-based telescopes. For example, searches for transits with future observatories like the European Extremely Large Telescope might detect evidence for these planets. Another possibility is searching for stars with unusual patterns of elements in their atmosphere that have migrated away from the center of the galaxy.

Explore further: Hubble sees a supermassive and super-hungry galaxy

More information: Howard Chen et al. Habitable Evaporated Cores and the Occurrence of Panspermia Near the Galactic Center, The Astrophysical Journal (2018). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/aaab46

Related Stories

Hubble sees a supermassive and super-hungry galaxy

January 11, 2016

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the spiral galaxy NGC 4845, located over 65 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). The galaxy's orientation clearly reveals the galaxy's striking ...

Where is the closest black hole?

March 21, 2016

You know that saying, "keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer?" That advice needs to go right out the window when we're talking black holes. They're the worst enemies you could have and you want them as far ...

Could the Milky Way become a quasar?

February 27, 2015

A quasar is what you get when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material at the core of a galaxy. The region around the black hole gets really hot and blasts out radiation that we can see billions of light-years ...

Oxymoronic black hole RGG 118 provides clues to growth

August 12, 2015

Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the 6.5-meter Clay Telescope in Chile have identified the smallest supermassive black hole ever detected in the center of a galaxy, as described in our latest press release. ...

How massive can black holes get?

August 11, 2015

Without the light pressure from nuclear fusion to hold back the mass of the star, the outer layers compress inward in an instant. The star dies, exploding violently as a supernova.

Recommended for you

Birth of massive black holes in the early universe revealed

January 23, 2019

The light released from around the first massive black holes in the universe is so intense that it is able to reach telescopes across the entire expanse of the universe. Incredibly, the light from the most distant black holes ...

Astronomers discover an unusual nuclear transient

January 23, 2019

An international group of astronomers has detected an unusual nuclear transient in the nucleus of a weakly active galaxy. The new transient was identified by the OGLE-IV Transient Detection System and received designation ...

Scientist sheds light on Titan's mysterious atmosphere

January 23, 2019

A new Southwest Research Institute study tackles one of the greatest mysteries about Titan, one of Saturn's moons: the origin of its thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere. The study posits that one key to Titan's mysterious atmosphere ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rrwillsj
1 / 5 (4) Feb 28, 2018
Okay, I was willing to tentatively accept the possible conclusions of the actual research.

And then it all went off the rails! Panspermia? Really? Why not magic faeries and aether flying unicorns?

It's bad enough that nonsense is considered a possibility, out here in the Galactic Arm. However a infinitesimal possibility.

But in the Core? Come on guys, sober up!

How would you ever confirm or deny such predictions? And if you did make such an unreasonable claim? I'd be expecting one helluva skipload of verifiable evidence!
Tuxford
2 / 5 (4) Feb 28, 2018
"We wondered what these outbursts from Sagittarius A* would do to any planets in its vicinity," said John Forbes, a co-author from the CfA. "Our work shows the black hole could dramatically change a planet's life."

They would do well to wonder instead what the periodic cosmic ray superwave emitted therefrom would do to the climate and life here on Earth. Explore the ice core record as LaViolette has done and you might be surprised at what cosmic influences are confirmed therein, such as correlation with the last ice age, as well as more recent global climate changes.

Such a study would exceed the importance of deflecting killer asteroid efforts, as such climate change events occur far more frequently, and can be equally devastating, having forced indigenous populations to take shelter underground from the cosmic ray bombardment, as recent archeological evidence indicates.
Anonym381272
5 / 5 (1) Mar 01, 2018
Okay, I was willing to tentatively accept the possible conclusions of the actual research.

And then it all went off the rails! Panspermia? Really? Why not magic faeries and aether flying unicorns?

It's bad enough that nonsense is considered a possibility, out here in the Galactic Arm. However a infinitesimal possibility.

But in the Core? Come on guys, sober up!

How would you ever confirm or deny such predictions? And if you did make such an unreasonable claim? I'd be expecting one helluva skipload of verifiable evidence!


If you had read the paper, then you would see that the authors set up and described ways to verify/test the conclusions made in the study... Please read it before making ignorant comments...
jonesdave
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 01, 2018
They would do well to wonder instead what the periodic cosmic ray superwave emitted therefrom would do to the climate and life here on Earth. Explore the ice core record as LaViolette has done and you might be surprised at what cosmic influences are confirmed therein.........


And people might do well, instead, to read this paper:

Synchronous volcanic eruptions and abrupt climate change ∼17.7 ka plausibly linked by stratospheric ozone depletion.
McConnell, J. R. et al.
http://www.pnas.o...full.pdf

Consistent with the initial interpretation of the original Byrd measurements but in contrast to subsequent interpretations (21), the very pronounced enrichments of low-boiling-point heavy metals and halogens, as well as elevated concentrations of medium and larger insoluble par-
ticle fractions in the WD core clearly indicate a volcanic source for the glaciochemical anomaly.

(21) is LaViolette's strange interpretation.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.