Space observatories find baby black hole
DR EMILY BALDWIN
Posted: 16 November 2010
Evidence for a 30 year old black hole has been uncovered by an armada of space orbiting observatories, including NASA's Chandra and Swift satellites, ESA's XMM-Newton and the German ROSAT observatory.
This composite image shows a supernova within the galaxy M100 that may contain the youngest known black hole in our cosmic neighborhood. In this image, Chandra’s X-rays are coloured gold, while optical data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope are shown in red, green, and blue, and infrared data from Spitzer are red. The location of the supernova, known as SN 1979C, is labeled. Image: NASA/CXC/SAO/D.Patnaude et al, Optical: ESO/VLT, Infrared: NASA/JPL/Caltech.
The satellites detected a bright source of X-rays that remained steady from 1995 to 2007, suggesting that a black hole is being fed by material falling onto it, either from the supernova or from a binary companion. The object is thought to be a remnant of supernova SN 1979C – the aftermath of an explosion of a 20-solar mass Sun that had reached the end of its life – and is located 50 million light years from Earth in the galaxy M100.
“If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed,” says Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, who led the study.
Distant black holes are usually detected from their gamma-ray bursts (GRB), but SN 1979C belongs to a nearby class of black hole that forms when the core of a star collapses but does not produce such an outburst.
“This may be the first time the common way of making a black hole has been observed,” says team member Abraham Loeb, also of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “However, it is very difficult to detect this type of black hole birth because decades of X-ray observations are needed to make the case.”
An alternative explanation is that a young, rapidly spinning neutron star is producing the X-ray emission, which would make the object in SN 1979C the youngest and brightest example of such a “pulsar wind nebula” and the youngest known neutron star. Whichever interpretation is preferred, the discovery will provide a unique opportunity to watch this type of object develop from an early age, providing vital clues to the story of stellar evolution.
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