Astronomers have spotted a black hole speeding through the Milky Way as it gobbles up the outer layers of a doomed companion star locked in a fatal gravitational embrace.
The discovery provides direct observational evidence that black holes with masses comparable to single stars can, as long theorized, form in supernova explosions, the catastrophic end result for the most massive stars.
"This is the first black hole found to be moving fast through the plane of our galaxy," said Felix Mirabel of the French Atomic Energy Commission and the Institute for Astronomy and Space Physics of Argentina. "This discovery is exciting because it shows the link of a black hole to a supernova."
The black hole, known as GRO J1655-40, is heading toward Earth, racing through space at about 250,000 mph in the constellation Scorpius. Lest anyone worry about a future collision, the black hole is 6,000 to 9,000 light years away, putting it more than 16-million years from Earth.
"It is much more likely that a normal star could produce discernible effects than a black hole, simply because they are much more numerous," Mirabel said.
While GRO J1655-40 cannot be directly observed, the companion star is visible, as are the effects of the black holes' titanic gravity. The hole is slowly consuming its companion sun.