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50m-year-old mystery space object doesn't look a day over 30

Explosive extragalactic birth: Crab-type windy pulsar?

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NASA and a crew of international boffins have electrified the world of astronomy by announcing that they have discovered a '30 year old' black hole, the youngest known.

The black hole actually came into existence around 50 million years ago, but as it is located in the galaxy M100 we are currently seeing events just decades after its violent birth following a stupendous supernova explosion detected in 1979.

"If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed," said Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, top boffin on the black hole hunt.

Credits: NASA/CXC/A Hobart

Patnaude and his colleagues pulled together data from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Swift satellite, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton orbital scope and Germany's ROSAT observatory. The readings showed a bright X-Ray source lying in the spiral M100, 50 million light-years away across the intergalactic void. Black holes themselves don't emit radiation - hence the name - but matter falling into them is commonly wracked so severely as to squirt out X-rays.

Often a black hole can be detected by emissions of still-more-energetic gamma radiation as it forms, but theory predicts that it ought to be more commonplace for the enigmatic objects to be created without any giveaway gamma blast - as seems to have occurred following the explosion of SN 1979C.

"This may be the first time the common way of making a black hole has been observed," says Patnaude's fellow-boffin Abraham Loeb. "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."

No doubt savvy readers at this point will be saying to themselves: "Ah yes, but have they considered the obvious possibility of a rapidly spinning neutron star with a powerful 'wind' of high-energy particles?"

Such "pulsar wind nebulae" can also produce X-ray emissions - we here on the Reg astrophysics desk certainly thought of them almost at once - pretty much as soon as we read the next paragraph of the NASA announcement, in fact.

The answer is that yes, Patnaude and his colleagues have indeed considered the possibility of a windy pulsar and freely admit that in fact SN 1979C may be the youngest and brightest yet found rather than a common-but-hard-to-spot juvenile black hole. The Crab pulsar, best known particle-gale pulse nebula, is thought to be 950 years old.

The research analysing the X-ray emissions in M100 will appear in the journal New Astronomy. Meanwhile there's more from NASA here. ®

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