Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry promotes critical thought and science education in Columbus, Ohio. More →

The Black Hole of Science News

Black Holes are formed when a star with a mass of 3 – 4 times that of our Sun, no longer has enough fuel for the energy it generates to withstand the gravitational pull of it’s own mass. It collapses in upon itself, and becomes so dense, not even light particles can escape it’s pull. You can’t ‘see’ a black hole visibily, because it doesn’t give off any light, and you cannot reflect light off of it because the light is simply swallowed by it. Therefore, it looks, quite literally, like a black hole in the middle of space. While the properties of such a strange object are certainly ripe for conjecture and speculation, we do have a good way to observe these objects, and learn more facts about them.

The Chandra X-Ray observatory was placed into orbit by the space shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999 and at over 45 feet, was the largest satellite ever deployed by the shuttle program. Chandra flies over Earth at a distance of around 128,000 km at apogee, or one-third of the distance to the moon, has a resolution fine enough that it could clearly read the letters on a stop sign, at a distance of 12 miles, but it uses no more power than it would take to run the average hair dryer.

Chandra was launched in order to to observe X-rays from high-energy regions of the universe, such as the remnants of exploded stars, like pulsars, quasars, nebulae, or… black holes. In fact, Chandra can observe xrays from particles up until the last second before they cross into the black hole.

So where am I going with all this? In an article published by PR Newswire, Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory have found evidence of the youngest black hole known to exist in our cosmic neighborhood. Now, young, on a galactic time scale, could be measured easily in millions of years. and bearing in mind that this black hole is located in the galaxy M100, which is approximately 50 million light years from earth, you would be correct in saying that the age of this black hole, is greater than 50 million years, relative to itself. (There’s that pesky relativity getting in the way of our self-centered view of the universe again.)

However, this is a remnant of supernova 1979C, placing the birthdate of this particular black hole at just about 30 years ago. 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. In a study led by Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. scientists have theorized that SN 1979C 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 because it is much closer and belongs to a class of supernovas unlikely to be associated with a GRB.Abraham Loeb, also of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics “This may be the first time the common way of making a black hole has been observed. 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. The results seen in the observations of SN 1979C fit this theory very well.

Now, there are other hypotheses in play: Although the evidence points to a newly formed black hole in SN 1979C, another intriguing possibility is that 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. However, there is not yet sufficient evidence to support this claim, and falsify the hypothesis that this is indeed, a very young black hole.

There are quite a few things to like about this. First, there is the idea of being able to study an astrological phenomenon from near it’s inception, giving us further clues as to how these objects are formed, and further reason to continue observing. It’s one thing to reason backwards by inference, but quite another thing altogether to be able to observe from the start. Another thing to like about this article is to see how scientists are not, as many science-naysayers would like to believe, “sticking to their story”. The scientists involved admit that there is more than one hypothesis that would fit the facts, and they are allowing for other possibilities. This is, what I like to call, “Science in Action”. Obviously, the only way to go from here is further observation, painstaking data collection and analysis, and following the evidence to it’s own conclusion. I know that I, as a neophyte astronomer myself, am thoroughly excited to see what becomes of this event in my own lifetime, and am thrilled for the opportunity of others to see how the story develops.

I only wish that there had been more mainstream media coverage of this important announcement. Three days later, on a google search for “Black Hole in M100″, the first page of results lists NPR as the only major news organization covering the story. Even on the next morning after the discovery, I checked sites like USA Today, Fox News, MSNBC, and a few others to see if any other big-time operations had anything to say. Only Fox had any mention of it at all, and this was buried under a whole host of links, two thirds of the scrolling distance down the home page. MSNBC’s “Science and Technology” category led instead with articles on the XBOX Kinect, new cell phones, and streaming music services, leading me towards the conclusion that MSNBC seems to think that science only serves a purpose when it’s entertaining us.

I for one, find the idea of studying an infant black hole immensely entertaining, if not enthralling, and that, is news worth writing about.

If anyone knows of some big news organizations that are giving this story it’s due – feel free to post about it in the comments below.


David is a science cheerleader, skeptic, atheist, musician, DBA, husband, father, and a few other things as well. If you like listening better than reading, check him out on CORI's official podcast, CORICast.

No comments yet. You should be kind and add one!

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

By submitting a comment you grant Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate and irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin’s discretion. Your email is used for verification purposes only, it will never be shared.


Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry

Join our Meetup group for discussion and new events.