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Birth of Black Hole Captured for First Time

13 January 2019

This rare event will help astronomers better understand the physics at play within the first moments of the creation of a black hole or neutron star.

The object was detected last June, suddenly flaring up and then vanishing within the Hercules constellation - roughly 200 million light years away from Earth.

All observations pointed to the formation of a black hole or neutron star - two massively compact objects that can form when giant stars reach the end of their lives and collapse in on themselves. The debris left from that collapse is swirling around the event horizon of the object and caused the very bright glow seen in the summer sky. "We know from theory that black holes and neutron stars form when a star dies, but we've never seen them right after they are born".

Other researchers involved in the work support the notion of the formation of a black hole or a neutron star. For example, it was more than 100 times brighter than a typical supernova, and flared up and disappeared much more quickly. Also, the light particles speeded up to about 30,000 km/s, about 10 percent the speed of light, causing the burst to fade away fast, by a few times quicker than the majority of supernovas.

Telescopes were trained on the phenomenon past year, which was 100 times brighter than a supernova. "That was enough to get everybody excited because it was so unusual and, by astronomical standards, it was very close by".

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It is assumed that astronomers witnessed the "moment" of becoming a star into a black hole.

The team used observational facilities at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the MMT Observatory in Arizona, as well as remote access to the SoAR telescope in Chile to look at the object's makeup. Comprehensive Strategy Astronomers have traditionally studied stellar deaths in the optical wavelength, which uses telescopes to capture visible light. Because of the X-ray emissions, Margutti and her colleagues suggest the original star in this scenario may have been relatively low in mass, producing a comparatively thinner debris cloud through which X-rays from the central source could escape.

In addition to Chornock, Roth, and Metzger, Margutti's core team also includes Indrek Vurm, senior research fellow at Tartu Observatory, as well as Northwestern CIERA postdoctoral researchers Giacomo Terreran, Deanne Coppejans, and Kate Alexander.

Because the collapsed star was surrounded by a relatively small amount of debris, the team was able to peer through the debris and get a glimpse of the object's "central engine".

A different team of scientists was able to gather data on the Cow over an even broader range of wavelengths, spanning from radio waves to gamma rays.

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This allowed the astronomers to study the anomaly long after its initial brightness ebbed.

Another team of scientists, analysing data from multiple observatories, including NASA's NuSTAR, ESA's (the European Space Agency's) XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL satellites, and the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array, claimed that it is a supernova - a stellar explosion - could be the source of the Cow.

"A "lightbulb" was sitting deep inside the ejecta of the explosion", Margutti explained. The second paper hypothesizes that it is a supernova - a stellar explosion - that gave birth to a black hole or a neutron star. "This is the closest transient object of this kind that we have ever found", Margutti observed.

The scientists also benefited from the star's relative closeness to Earth.

"We saw features in the Cow that we have never seen before in a transient, or rapidly changing object", said Raffaella Margutti, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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Birth of Black Hole Captured for First Time