Can Life Exist Around A Black Hole?
BBC Earth|January - February 2021
Much of the recent search for extraterrestrial life has focused on hunting down planets orbiting in the so-called Goldilocks zone – an area surrounding a star that has just the right conditions for life to emerge. Now, new research suggests that such Goldilocks zones could also exist near supermassive black holes by Colin Stuart
Colin Stuart

The Earth is in trouble. Dying crops and deadly dust storms put the planet under strain, leaving the human race in grave need of a new home. In a desperate attempt to find one, a team of brave astronauts led by Joseph Cooper venture into a wormhole near Saturn, emerging light-years away on Miller’s planet – an ocean world orbiting a supermassive black hole known as Gargantua. So goes the plot of the 2014 Hollywood epic Interstellar. But according to recent research, this idea might not be as far-fetched as it first appears.

The ability to spot other planets in space has made staggering progress in the last quarter of a century. We now know of more than 4,000 exoplanets – worlds beyond our Solar System orbiting distant stars. For those looking for life out there, conventional wisdom says that we should be looking for Earth 2.0; a planet just like ours, orbiting a safe, warm distance from a Sun-like star. Only there will we find the one thing that life needs: water.

In contrast to life-giving stars, black holes are seen as harbingers of death and destruction. They form when massive stars die, and their gravitational pull is so extreme that they act like giant cosmic trap doors. Fall in, and you get torn apart with no chance of escape. That hardly seems like the ideal setting for life to develop, but are we missing a trick?

SPACE DUST

Keiichi Wada, from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, thinks so. He works on the physics of black holes but has teamed up with colleagues who research planet formation to see if the idea is plausible. “The two fields [planet formation and black holes] are so different, usually there is no interaction between them,” Wada says. They set out to change that by combining their knowledge to model the formation of planets around supermassive black holes, just like Gargantua in Interstellar.

Planets form around stars when gravity starts to collect dust grains together into tiny balls, which then gradually collide with each other to fashion larger and larger objects. Wada and his team wanted to see if this could happen around a black hole. Their model, published last November, shows that at far enough distances from the black hole – at least ten light-years away – the gravitational environment is stable enough for planets to form in just the same way as they do around stars like our Sun. “This is the very first study that claims a possibility of direct formation of planet-like objects around supermassive black holes,” Wada says. “We expect more than 10,000 planets around one supermassive black hole because the total amount of dust [there] is enormous.” That’s a lot of unexplored cosmic real estate.

Planets could potentially form around black holes, but that’s no guarantee that they offer a life-friendly environment. On Earth, living things are hugely dependent on the light and warmth from the Sun to survive.

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