The current scientific consensus is that a supermassive black hole lurks at the center of our galaxy. We know that’s true in other galaxies — there’s even photographic evidence of a black hole in M87. However, a new study suggests that the Milky Way might not have a black hole. The object, known as Sagittarius A*, may actually be a blob of dark matter, based on the properties of several objects spotted zipping around it. If true, this would have major implications for our understanding of the universe.
The problem is we can’t see Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A star”) directly, which is what you’d expect from a black hole. We can only infer its presence from the motion of objects around it, which do indeed appear to be under the influence of a very massive object. In the past, scientists have used the motion of objects like the star S2 to validate general relativity as they swung past the supposed black hole. But then there’s G2; this object, which may or may not be a cloud of hydrogen gas, flew past Sagittarius A* a while back, and it didn’t get torn asunder as expected.
Last year, a group of Italian researchers showed that the movement of S2 and G2 was also consistent with a different model, one in which the center of the Milky Way is inhabited by dark matter fermions. These particles are ultra-light, so they would not collapse into a black hole until there were about 100 times more of them. At the same time, they could cluster together in a dark blob and affect nearby objects with their gravity.
In the new study, which was accepted for publication in MNRAS Letters, the team expanded that model to the 17 best-characterized S-group stars orbiting the galactic center. And sure enough, it’s a fit — these orbits are compatible with a bubble of dark matter in Sagittarius A* instead of a black hole.
Scientists currently estimate the visible part of the universe only makes up about 20 percent of its total mass. The remainder is dark matter, a substance we have yet to properly characterize. Like black holes, we can only infer dark matter’s presence from gravitational effects. This study could mean that the two phenomena are related. The team proposes that these clumps of dark matter can reach critical mass and collapse into black holes. That could help to explain how these enormous supermassive objects come to be in the first place, something that we have only been able to speculate on. At the same time, this could account for a lot of the universe’s missing mass.
However, this is all far from certain. There could be other explanations, or the analysis carried out by this group could be wrong. We won’t know until scientists have spent a lot more time staring at this corner of space.
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