Image courtesy NASA/ESO
Published November 16, 2010
Just 50 million light-years away there's a black hole that may appear younger than you.
This week astronomers announced the discovery of the youngest black hole yet spotted—the light we're seeing today came from the black hole when the object was about 30 years old. The find is giving scientists a first glimpse into the early development of these cosmic predators.
It's thought most black holes are born when massive stars go supernova, leaving behind ultradense cores that either form small but extremely massive neutron stars or collapse into black holes.
Although new supernovae are being discovered across the universe almost every week, seeing any newborn black holes can be tricky.
By definition, black holes are so dense that not even light can escape their gravitational pulls. (Find out why black holes don't suck.)
The only way we can see the objects is to catch them accumulating a surrounding disk of infalling material—and the newfound baby black hole appears to be undergoing this process.
"This may be the first time the common way of making a black hole has been observed," study co-author Avi Loeb, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement.
"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."
Baby Black Hole Has Monster Appetite
The exploding star that gave birth to the baby black hole was first seen through an amateur telescope back in 1979.
An international fleet of Earth-orbiting x-ray satellites, including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, later picked up the telltale x-ray emissions from the supernova, in the spiral galaxy M100. (Related: "What X-Rays Have Done for Astronomy.")
The telescopes watched the supernova remnant steadily from 1995 to 2007. Their observations revealed a continuous, bright source of x-rays—the signature of matter being condensed and heated as it falls into a black hole.
The scientists think the material feeding the black hole could be the previously ejected remains of the exploded star or gases being stolen from a nearby companion star.
Either way, the find has astronomers excited to glean new insights into how much material black holes gobble up in their infancy—and so far it seems this baby monster has quite an appetite.
"This particular hole is feeding at a prodigious rate—over one planetary mass is consumed per year—and that goes directly into growing the infant black hole," said Dan Evans, a physics professor at Elon University in North Carolina and a research associate at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, who is not associated with the study.
"For the first time, we now have a complete fossil record of how much material such a newborn black hole can eat."
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