The Milky Way's black hole is hurling giant 'spitballs'

"Only about one out of a thousand free-floating planets will be one of these second-generation oddballs," said researcher Eden Girma.
By Brooks Hays  |  Jan. 9, 2017 at 10:18 AM
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 9 (UPI) -- The black hole at the center of the Milky Way is chewing up stars like pieces of paper and launching planet-sized "spitballs" into the galaxy.

Almost all black holes, given enough surrounding material, will happen upon a star drifting too close to its intense gravitational pull. The star is pulled in toward the black hole and shredded by its accretion disk.

But new research suggests the stellar debris can reform into planet-like orbs. The orbs become planet-sized spitballs, as they're launched back out by the spin of the accretion disk.

"A single shredded star can form hundreds of these planet-mass objects. We wondered: Where do they end up? How close do they come to us? We developed a computer code to answer those questions," Eden Girma, an undergraduate student at Harvard University said in a news release.

Girma is the lead author of a new paper on the phenomenon, and is scheduled to present her findings at this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Girma's calculations suggest some of these spitballs could be within a few hundred light-years of the solar system. Her math suggests the orbs would boast a mass somewhere between Neptune and several Jupiters.

Having been flung outward at speeds of 20 million miles per hour, Girma predicts most of these spitballs will exit the galaxy. And because most galaxies host a black hole at their center, it's possible the phenomenon is ubiquitous in the cosmos.

Still, spotting one these spitballs will be difficult.

"Only about one out of a thousand free-floating planets will be one of these second-generation oddballs," said Girma.

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