It’s a stellar black hole — the type that forms after stars die, collapse, and explode. Researchers had previously believed that the size limit was no more than 20 times the mass of our sun because as these stars die, they lose most of their mass through explosions that expel matter and gas swept away by stellar winds.
The findings were published by Chinese researchers in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
“Black holes of such mass should not even exist in our galaxy, according to most of the current models of stellar evolution,” said Liu Jifeng, head of the team that made the discovery. “LB-1 is twice as massive as what we thought possible. Now theorists will have to take up the challenge of explaining its formation.”
Scientists are now scratching their heads at how LB-1 got so huge.
The Chinese team has proposed a number of theories. LB-1’s sheer size suggests that it “was not formed from the collapse of only one star,” the study said — instead, it could potentially be two smaller black holes orbiting each other.
Another possibility is that it formed from a “fallback supernova.” This is when a supernova — the last stage of an exploding star — ejects material during the explosion, which then falls back into the supernova, creating a black hole.
Stellar black holes are believed to be commonly scattered across the universe, but they are difficult to detect because they do not normally emit X-rays — only doing so when they gobble up gas from a star that has ventured close enough. They are so elusive that scientists have only found, identified, and measured about two dozen stellar black holes, the press release said.
The researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences tried a different approach. Instead of looking for X-rays emitted by black holes, the team looked for stars that were orbiting some invisible object, being pulled in by its gravity.
Their efforts paid off — they soon spotted a giant star eight times heavier than the sun, orbiting around what turned out to be LB-1.
“This discovery forces us to re-examine our models of how stellar-mass black holes form,” said David Reitze, a physicist at the University of Florida. In May, Reitze’s team made its own breakthrough discovery — observing the never-before-seen collision of a neutron star and a black hole, which sent out ripples in space and time.