Generally thought to be the point of no return, our very own black hole seems to have ejected a star at hyper velocity.
In something known as the Hills mechanism – which occurs in binary star systems when they are disrupted by a super massive black hole – the stars are pulled apart and left to continue on their separate journeys. The closest star is pulled into an orbit around the black hole while the other is ejected at extremely high velocity. However, although this was proposed in 1988 by astronomer Jack Hills, it has never been confirmed.
Now, a worldwide team of scientists led by Ting Li have observed what they believe to be the first example of such a mechanism.
The team utilised data from the 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope as part of the Southern Stellar Stream Spectroscopic Survey – a survey that aims to map the kinematics and chemistry of long, dense regions of stars, known as stellar streams. Looking through the data for any stars with velocities greater than 800km/s, the team came across a star with a radial velocity of ~1020 km/s – that’s more than 2 million miles per hour. Further analysis revealed the star, known as S5-HVS, is a hot dwarf star more than twice the mass of our Sun and located 9 kpc (kila parsecs) – approximately 30 thousand light years – from the galactic centre in the Jhelum stellar stream system. Given the measured distance, the proper motion and the radial velocity, the total velocity of the star in the Galactic rest frame is a whopping 1755 km/s – almost 4 million miles per hour – making it one of the fastest known stars in the Galaxy.
To infer the origin of the star, the team studied the kinematics and traced the orbit backwards in time in the gravitational potential of the Milky Way. Remarkably, they found that the star can unambiguously be traced back to the Galactic Centre where it was ejected at a speed of 1800km/s 4.8 million years ago, making S5-HVS the first clear demonstration of the Hill Mechanism.
“This is the first clear demonstration of the Hills Mechanism in action.”
– Dr Ting Li, Carnegie Observatories and Princeton University