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Our resident black hole just lit up and scientists don’t know why

UCLA researchers speculate stars or dust clouds could be responsible for the sudden flare.

Using the Event Horizon Telescope, scientists obtained an image of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon.
NASA/Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

SALT LAKE CITY — Astronomers say the massive black hole at the center of our galaxy is considerably less black than usual.

However, they can’t say why.

CBS News reports scientists witnessed the “unprecedented” phenomena earlier this year via the Keck II Telescope in Hawaii. The black hole — Sagittarius A* — in question is located in the middle of the Milky Way 26,000 lightyears from Earth and is usually has a variable “flux level,” but the recent glow-up is unusual for the celestial body.

Tuan Do, a University of California Los Angeles astronomer, tweeted out a time lapse from Keck II showing the black hole light up, and it’s pretty drastic — the dark spot where the black hole is located suddenly flares up over two and a half hours, rivaling the brightness of photographed stars.

Vice notes the black hole became 75 times brighter on the near-infrared end of the light spectrum. Do said in an email the black hole actually flickers like a candle, but the sudden flare might be a sign that something is up in space.

“We think that something unusual might be happening this year because the black hole seems to vary in brightness more, reaching brighter levels than we’ve ever seen in the past,” he said.

Do also speculates that the event could have been caused by SO-2, a massive star that passed within 17 light hours of Sagittarius A*. The star’s close proximity may have disturbed the black hole’s event horizon, or a cosmic dust cloud passing by in 2014 could have caused a slow-burn reaction.

NASA’s website notes that black holes aren’t actually empty pockets of space — they’re really incredibly dense bundles of matter with a lethal gravitational field capable of sucking in anything nearby, including light.

As for what’s inside a black hole, Science and Telescope reports physicists don’t really know. However, theories and calculations indicate black holes contain an infinitely dense surface, or a singularity. If you were to fall in, you’d be spaghettified by gravity before even reaching the event horizon.

Meanwhile, observers would likely see your image freeze in place, redden and eventually fade away.

So while it’s possible black holes could theoretically contain wormholes leading through space and time, it’s unlikely you need to worry about Matthew McConaghey’s character from “Interstellar” getting trapped in your bookshelf any time soon.