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A Science First: Witnessing the Birth of a Black Hole

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Oddly shaped supernova leads scientists to believe they’re seeing the birth of a black hole.

W49B, black hole, astronomyNASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory may have captured a galactic first.  The infancy of a black hole emerging from the stellar remnant W49B is likely in the process of developing, based on several independent observations.  The composite image was created with data from Chandra, radio data from The NSF’s Very Large Array, and infrared data from Caltech’s Palomar Observatory.

When stars collapse and supernova, they generally align symmetrically, sending stellar material evenly in all directions.  When W49B exploded, material was ejected from the poles much faster than from its equator.

In galactic timelines, the stellar remnant is only 1,000 years old, when viewed from Earth, a true baby.  When scientists traced the distribution of different elements their data suggested an asymmetrical explosion.  The shape of W49B is also odd, looking more barrel-shapped than other stellar remnants previously observed.

The data was scoured closely and no evidence was found indicating that the resulting explosion produced a neutron star. W49B is about 26,000 light years away, meaning that the light now reaching Earth provides scientists a picture of what the supernova looked like when it was 1,000 years old.

Image: Chandra X-ray Observatory

Source: Lopez L, Ramirez-Ruiz E, Castro D, & Pearson S (2013). The Galactic Supernova Remnant W49B Likely Originates from a Jet-Driven, Core-Collapse Explosion Astrophysical Journal arXiv: 1301.0618v1

how black holes form, explosion of star, where do black holes form

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  • Alan

    Factual error in last paragraph (typo perhaps?).

    If W49B is 26,000 light years away, then the light now reaching Earth is also 26,000 years old (not 1,000).

    However, the light we do see probably occurred 1,000 years after the explosion. In other words, the light of the explosion itself reached Earth about 1,000 years ago.

  • Alex S.

    If it’s 26,000 light years away, doesn’t that mean the light reaching earth is 26,000 years old?

  • Zachary Urbina

    Thank you both for your comments. The final line of the post was edited to reflect a more accurate description of what Chandra scientists are observing, with respect to traveling light.