In June 2000, astronomers made an extraordinary discovery. One that promises to solve one of the biggest problems in cosmology – how and why galaxies are created. Incredibly, the answer involves the most weird, destructive and terrifying objects in the Universe – supermassive black holes. Scientists are beginning to believe that these forces of pure destruction actually help trigger the birth of galaxies and therefore are at the heart of the creation of stars, planets and all life.
Exactly how our galaxy was created has mystified astronomers and physicists for years. Although there have been many theories, there’s little evidence to explain how the gas in the early Universe condensed to form the galaxy we see today. Now scientists realise they’ve been missing a vital ingredient – a supermassive black hole. The immense gravity of a giant black hole might trigger the gas to collapse in the first place. By churning up the gas around it, a giant black hole would trigger the birth of stars, planets and life itself. Despite being the most destructive thing in the Universe, scientists now think our supermassive black hole could be crucial in creating the galaxy as we know it.
The supermassive black hole in our own galaxy may be the reason we exist, but recent work suggests it may also be our end. At present Earth is so far away from the black hole that it can’t affect us, but physicist John Dubinski thinks all that could change. In January 2000 he graphically simulated the final fate of our galaxy. In 3 billion years we will collide with the next door galaxy, Andromeda. The resulting apocalypse will force the Earth and our Solar System out of orbit. Dubinski has calculated a worrying 50:50 chance that we’ll be sent hurtling in towards the black hole at the centre of this maelstrom. This would be fatal for the Earth.