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February 13, 2013

‘Young’ black hole is nearby, NASA says; doorway to a new universe?

Posted in: Science

A supernova remnant may contain the most recent black hole formed in the Milky Way galaxy, according to NASA. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA )

A supernova remnant may contain the most recent black hole formed in the Milky Way galaxy, according to NASA. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA )

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is bearing down on Earth, rattling nerves and making sci-fi fans’ eyes light up.  But the cool science news doesn’t stop there. Researchers believe they may have spotted the youngest black hole in the Milky Way galaxy, and — from scientists’ point of view —  it’s not far away.

When it comes to black holes, it can be hard to differentiate the science from the science fiction.  Remember Nikodem Poplawski’s 2010 theory — that our universe is within a black hole — which is within another universe altogether.  That sounds like Disney’s 1979 film “The Black Hole.”

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Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and cosmologist, recalls seeing the film in an essay on black holes, saying the hole in the film provides “a passage from one universe to another.”  He goes on to say the wormholes of science fiction provide an interstellar space-travel short-cut, a workaround to the “Einstein speed limit.”

And this fascinating space phenomenon is relatively nearby, just  26,000 light-years away.  So, astronomers plan to study it closely, NASA says.

The space agency, whose Chandra X-Ray Observatory provided data, says not only is the black hole nearby and young,  at just 1,000 years old as seen from Earth, but it also was created in a very rare way.

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“It appears its parent star ended its life in a way that most others don’t,” said Laura Lopez in a news release. Lopez led the study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The supernova explosion that occurred when this star ran out of fuel was “peculiar,” NASA said.  Oddities included the way the star exploded — with “jets shooting away from the star’s poles” — making the supernova elongated and elliptical.

Also surprising was what the supernova failed to leave behind.

There was no neutron star. The collapse of some massive stars leaves this dense, spinning core.  But not this time.  Megan Watzke, press officer at NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that, indeed, it’s that lack of evidence that points to the existence of a black hole.

“In this case … the lack of pulsations from the other possible explanation (a rapidly rotating dense star called a neutron star) add to the evidence that a black hole is there,” Watzke said.  “In other situations, however, astronomers can detect the black hole’s presence by its influence on the material around it.”

The possible black hole and the reason behind it remain something of a mystery.

As Lopez says in a blog post, these “exotic explosions can happen within our own galaxy, and further study … will give great insights into how these awesome events come about.”

The study and results of the Chandra observation on the possible black hole will appear in a paper in Sunday’s Astrophysical Journal.

[For the Record, 7:41 a.m. Feb. 14: An earlier version of this post failed to include the words “as seen from Earth” in describing the age of the supernova and possible black hole.  It’s an essential distinction.  The object is 26,000 light years away, and that means the light traveled that long to get here. However, astronomers keep track of ages of objects based on our vantage point on Earth.]

– Amy Hubbard

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