NASA sees birth of black hole

Posted by Emma Woollacott

NASA's Chandra telescope has found evidence of the youngest black hole in our area of the universe - just 30 years old at the point of observation.

NASA says the discovery will shed light on how massive stars explode, which ones leave behind black holes or neutron stars, and the number of black holes in our galaxy and others.

The 30-year-old object is a remnant of SN 1979C, a supernova in the galaxy M100 approximately 50 million light years from Earth.

"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, who led the study.

Data from several sources revealed a bright source of X-rays that remained steady from 1995 to 2007. NASA's concluded that it's a black hole being fed by material falling into it, either from the supernova or from a binary companion.

The team believes that SN 1979C, first discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1979, formed when a star about 20 times more massive than the sun collapsed.

While it's by no means the first black hole to be found, others have been detected through gamma ray bursts - which aren't produced by the majority of black holes. Most, like SN 1979C, form when the core of a star collapses, and don't generate gamma ray bursts.

"This may be the first time the common way of making a black hole has been observed," said co-author 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."

Although NASA reckons the object is a black hole, another possibility is that a young, rapidly spinning neutron star with a powerful wind of high energy particles could be responsible for the X-ray emission.

This would make the object in SN 1979C the youngest and brightest example of such a 'pulsar wind nebula' and the youngest known neutron star.