Baby Black Hole Discovered?

Baby Black Hole Discovered?

Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory announced that they may have detected the youngest black hole in the vicinity of Earth. Though there are other theories to explain what they are observing, the top choice is that a black hole is forming from the remnants of supernova (SN) 1979C, which was discovered by an amateur astronomer and confirmed by other astronomers in 1979. If correct, the black hole would be only 30 years old based on when observations began.

Supernova 1979C, located 50 million light years away in the M100 galaxy – nearby in astronomical terms – was caused by the collapse of a star 20 times the mass of our Sun. X-ray data from Chandra and other space observatories, including Germany’s ROSAT, have revealed “steady, bright” x-ray emissions since 1995. This high luminosity may be the sign of material being sucked into the black hole.

“If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed,” said Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at a NASA press conference yesterday. Avi Loeb, also from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center explained that about 20% of all core collapsed supernovae are thought to end up as black holes.

Astronomers hope continued observations will help confirm their black hole theory, but another possibility is that they are seeing the formation of a “neutron star with a powerful wind of high energy particles…a ‘pulsar wind nebula'” according to NASA’s press release.

In any case, further study will help scientists understand how massive stars explode, identify the threshold that determines when a supernova forms a black hole or a neutron star, as well as better estimate the number of black holes in the universe. The discovery may also add validity to using the x-ray spectrum as an indirect tool to identify black holes, said Kimberly Weaver of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She added that this would be the first time “we know the exact birth date of a black hole” and that now investigators can “watch how it evolves and changes.” This is a “detective story” put together by astronomers around the world and “we have almost solved the puzzle,” she said.

The results of the current observations will appear in a paper in the New Astronomy journal.

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