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Youngest-Ever Nearby Black Hole Discovered

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Nov. 14, 2010:  Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have found evidence of the youngest black hole known to exist in our cosmic neighborhood. The 30-year-old object provides a unique opportunity to watch a black hole develop from infancy.

The black hole is a remnant of SN 1979C, a supernova in the galaxy M100 approximately 50 million light years from Earth. Data from Chandra, NASA's Swift satellite, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton and the German ROSAT observatory revealed a bright source of X-rays that has remained steady during observation from 1995 to 2007. This suggests the object is a black hole being fed either by material falling into it from the supernova or a binary companion.

Baby Black Hole (m100, 550px)
This composite image shows a supernova within the galaxy M100 that may contain the youngest known black hole in our cosmic neighborhood. [more]

"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 in Cambridge, Mass. who led the study.

Scientists think SN 1979C, first discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1979, formed when a star about 20 times more massive than the sun collapsed. Many new black holes in the distant universe previously have been detected in the form of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). However, SN 1979C is different.  Not only is it closer, but also it belongs a class of supernovas unlikely to produce gamma-ray bursts.  According to theory, most new black holes are not announced by a bright GRB.

Baby Black Hole (anim, 200px)
Click to view an animation of a supernova forming a black hole.

"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."

The idea of a black hole with an observed age of only about 30 years is consistent with recent theoretical work. In 2005, a theory was presented that the bright optical light of this supernova was powered by a jet from a black hole that was unable to penetrate the hydrogen envelope of the star to form a GRB. X-ray data from Chandra and the other observatories fit this theory very well.

Although the evidence points to a newly formed black hole in SN 1979C, another intriguing possibility exists:  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. The Crab pulsar, the best-known example of a bright pulsar wind nebula, is about 950 years old.  More observations will either confirm or rule out this alternate explanation; for now, however, the black hole hypothesis appears to be  more compelling.

For more information and images, visit the Chandra home page: http://chandra.nasa.gov


Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More Information
The results described in thi story will appear in the New Astronomy journal in a paper by Patnaude, Loeb, and Christine Jones of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge.