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Astronomers find evidence of youngest black hole

posted 15 Nov 2010, 12:56 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 15 Nov 2010, 12:58 ]

A team of US and European astronomers say they may have witnessed the birth of the youngest black hole known to exist.

WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES (NOVEMBER 15, 2010) NASA - Earth's newest neighbor, a supernova spotted 30 years ago, appears to be a newborn black hole, astronomers reported on Monday (November 15).

Images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory suggest the object, 50 million light-years away in a neighboring galaxy, is a black hole in the making, the team of U.S. and European astronomers said.

The star is called SN 1979C and was spotted by chance by amateur astronomer Gus Johnson of Maryland.

Johnson spotted the supernova in 1979 at the edge of a galaxy called M100 and astronomers have been peering at it since.

At 30 years old, astronomers believe it is the youngest black hole in earth's cosmic neighborhood. It is also the first time scientists have been able to record the exact birth date of a black hole.

Kimberly Weaver, an astrophysicist at NASA'S Goddard Space Flight Center called the discovery of the black hole the "story of science in action."

"We know it's very young, it's in infancy if it is a black hole and we want to watch how this system evolves and changes in its youthful stages, from when it's first born to when it goes into a child and a teenager and it gets older and it creates more material because that's how we understand the physics of black hole systems," Weaver told reporters during a briefing at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

At 50 million light-years away, light and x-rays from the collapse have taken 50 million years to travel to Earth at the speed of light -- 186,000 miles (300,000 km) a second, or about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion km) a year.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton and the German ROSAT observatory have all seen that it emits a steady source of bright x-rays.

Analysis of the x-rays support the idea that the object is a black hole and that it is either being fed by material falling back from the initial supernova, or perhaps from a binary companion, the astronomers said.

Scientists believe black holes can be formed in a number of ways -- in this case by a star about 20 times the mass of our own Sun going supernova and then collapsing into an object so dense that it sucks surrounding material into its core.