NASA data may have uncovered galaxy's youngest black hole

A rare distorted supernova explosion leads scientists to believe they may be witnessing the birth of a black hole for the first time ever.

Supernova remnant W49B. X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

Black holes are created when a supernova explosion destroys a massive star. Scientists have discovered dozens of black holes, but all of them are already formed. So, when scientists recently saw different distorted remains of a supernova, they knew it something special.

What the scientists believe they observed was the infant phases of a black hole, or the youngest black hole ever recorded in the Milky Way galaxy.

Caught on film by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the "remnant," or W49B, is seen as a vibrant swirl of blues, greens, yellows, and pinks. As seen from Earth, it is about 1,000-years-old and is located roughly 26,000 light years away. A typical black hole, like SS433, is thought to be between 17,000- and 21,000-years-old, as seen from Earth.

"W49B is the first of its kind to be discovered in the galaxy," Laura Lopez, who led a study on the remnant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a statement. "It appears its parent star ended its life in a way that most others don't."

Although black holes are invisible, they can be found by watching their effect on nearby gas and stars. And, not all stars that die in supernova explosions end up as black holes -- often times they become neutron stars. However, W49B is not a neutron star, the scientists said.

Apparently, what led to the scientists seeing the supernova's distorted remains was a rare type of explosion that propelled matter at breakneck speeds along the poles of the dying star. Typically supernova explosions are symmetrical -- ejecting matter equally -- rather than oblong, as was the case with W49B.

"It's a bit circumstantial, but we have intriguing evidence the W49B supernova also created a black hole," said study co-author Daniel Castro, also of MIT. "If that is the case, we have a rare opportunity to study a supernova responsible for creating a young black hole."

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About the author

Dara Kerr is a staff writer for CNET focused on the sharing economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado where she developed an affinity for collecting fool's gold and spirit animals.

 

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