NASA find youngest local black hole

NASA scientists today reported finding what seems to be the youngest black hole known in our region of the universe. Space telescopes picked up tell-tale signs of the cosmic cannibal’s existence less than 30 years after it was created by a massive stellar explosion.

The supernova in an arm of spiral galaxy M100
The supernova blazes in an arm of spiral galaxy M100

The blast – known as a supernova – was spotted in 1979 in a relatively nearby spiral galaxy called M100 which lies about 50 million light years from Earth in the Virgo Cluster of galaxies and can be seen in backyard telescopes.

For a brief time, the supernova, discovered by an amateur stargazer and labelled SN 1979C, looked brighter than all the billions of other stars in the same galaxy put together.

Later, a bright source of X-rays was detected from the same spot by three telescopes in soace – NASA’s Chandra, Europe’s XMM-Newton and Germany’s ROSAT.

The X-ray radiation was seen to remain strong for several years from 1995 to 2007. It is thought to have been produced by a new black hole gobbling up material pouring into it.

Astronomers believe that the black hole formed when a star about 20 times more massive than the sun exploded and its core collapsed in on itself.

It became an invisible galactic plughole, so powerful that even light cannot escape its gravitational pull.

NASA’s Daniel Patnaude, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the research, said: “If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed.”

Though a black hole is the favoured explanation, the scientists point out that the X-ray emission could be produced by a young, rapidly spinning neutron star with a powerful wind of high energy particles. The results will appear in the New Astronomy journal.

Our picture showing the supernova in M100 is made up from images taken by the Chandra’s X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer space telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. The location of the supernova, known as SN 1979C, is labelled.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!

©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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