Black holes could turn 'mini-Neptunes' into rocky super-Earths

Explosions of high-energy particles may shape the way planets throughout the universe form, according to a new study.

Outbursts from supermassive black holes strip away layers of thick atmosphere from 'mini-Neptune' gas giants toreveal their rocky centre, dubbed super-Earths.

Experts have previously suggested that these celestial bodies, around ten times larger than our own planet, could support the building blocks of life.

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Explosions of high-energy particles may shape the way planets throughout the universe form. Outbursts from supermassive black holes strip away layers of atmosphere from Neptune-like gas giants to reveal their rocky centre, dubbed super-Earths (artist's impression)

Explosions of high-energy particles may shape the way planets throughout the universe form. Outbursts from supermassive black holes strip away layers of atmosphere from Neptune-like gas giants to reveal their rocky centre, dubbed super-Earths (artist's impression)

Planetary scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics examined the environment around the closest supermassive black hole to Earth.

Supermassive black holes are found at the centre of every known massive galaxy, shaping the matter that surrounds them. 

Sagittarius A*, which lies at the heart of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is four million times larger than the sun. 

Researchers think that the impact of this black hole may be one of the most common ways for rocky super-Earths to form close to the centre of our galaxy. 

Some of these planets will be located in the habitable, or 'Goldilocks', zone of stars like the sun.

In a written statement Howard Chen, of Northwestern University in Illinois, who led the study, said: 'It’s pretty wild to think of black holes shaping the evolutionary destiny of a planet, but that very well may be the case in the center of our galaxy.

It is well known that material falling into the black hole in occasional feeding frenzies will generate bright flares of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation. 

X-ray telescopes such as Nasa’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton have seen evidence for bright outbursts generated in the past, ranging from about six million years to just over a century ago. 

Supermassive black holes (artists's impression) are found at the centre of every known massive galaxy, shaping the matter that surrounds them. Sagittarius A*, which lies at the heart of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is four million times larger than the sun

Supermassive black holes (artists's impression) are found at the centre of every known massive galaxy, shaping the matter that surrounds them. Sagittarius A*, which lies at the heart of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is four million times larger than the sun

The authors considered the effects of this high-energy radiation on planets within 70 light-years of the black hole that have masses in between Earth and Neptune’s.

They found that X-ray and ultraviolet radiation would blast away a large amount of the thick gas of such planets near the black hole. In some cases this would leave behind a bare, rocky core.  

Whether or not life is likely to arise on such planets is a matter of some debate.

The super-Earths in this particular study would be buffeted by supernova explosions and gamma ray bursts, which might damage the chemistry of any atmosphere remaining on the planets. 

WHAT IS THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE?

In astronomy and astrobiology, the habitable zone is the range of orbits around a star in which a planet can support liquid water.

This habitable zone is also known as the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, taken from the children’s fairy tale.

The temperature from the star needs to be 'just right' so that liquid water can exist on the surface.

The boundaries of the habitable zone are critical.

If a planet is too close to its star, it will experience a runaway

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