Has a Recent, Nearby Supernova Become a Baby Black Hole?

Article written: 15 Nov , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Back in 1979, amateur astronomer Gus Johnson discovered a supernova about 50 million light years away from Earth, when a star about 20 times more massive than our Sun collapsed. Since then, astronomers have been keeping an eye on SN 1979C, located in M 100 in the Virgo cluster. With observations from the Chandra telescope, the X-ray emissions from the object have led astronomers to believe the supernova remnant has become a black hole. If so, it would be the youngest black hole known to exist in our nearby cosmic neighborhood and would provide astronomers the unprecedented opportunity to watch this type of object develop from infancy.

“If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed,” said astronomer Daniel Patnaude during a NASA press briefing on Monday. Patnaude is from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and is the lead author of a new paper.

SN 1970C belongs to a type of supernova explosions called Type II linear, or core collapse supernovae, which make up about 6% of known stellar explosions. While many new black holes in the distant universe previously have been detected in the form of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), SN 1979C is different because it is much closer and core collapse supernovae are unlikely to be associated with a GRB. Theories say that most black holes should form when the core of a star collapses and a gamma-ray burst is not produced, but this may be the first time that this method of making a black hole has been observed.

There has been a debate on what size star will create a black hole what size will create a neutron star. The 20 solar mass size is right on the boundary between the two, so astronomers are not completely sure this is a black hole or a neutron star. But since the X-ray emissions from this object have been steady over the past 31 years, astronomers believe this is a black hole, since as a neutron star cools, the X-ray emissions fade.

This animation shows how a black hole may have formed in SN 1979C. The collapse of a massive star is shown, after it has exhausted its fuel. A flash of light from a shock breaking through the surface of the star is then shown, followed by a powerful supernova explosion. The view then zooms into the center of the explosion: Credits: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

However, as a caveat, co-author Avi Loeb said, it really takes about a lot longer than 31 years to see big changes, but he said the fact that the illumination has been steady gives evidence for a black hole.

Although the evidence does point to a newly formed black hole, there are a few other possibilities of what it could be. Some have suggested the object could be a magnetar or a blast wave, but the evidence is showing those two options are not very probable.

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. The Crab pulsar, the best-known example of a bright pulsar wind nebula, is about 950 years old.

“I’m excited about this discovery regardless if it turns out to be black hole or a pulsar wind nebula,” said astrophysicst Alex Fillipenko, who participated in the briefing. “A pulsar wind nebula would be interesting because it would be the youngest known in that category.”

“What is really exciting is that for the first time we know the exact birth date of this object,” said Kim Weaver, an astrophycisict from Goddard Space Flight Center, “We know it is very young and we want to watch how the system evolves and changes, as it grows into a child and becomes a teenager. More importantly, we’ll be able to understand the physics. This is a story of science in action.”

The age of the possible black hole is, of course, based on our vantage point. Since the galaxy is 50 million light years away, the supernova occurred 50 million years ago. But for us, the explosion took place just 31 years ago.

Read the team’s paper: Evidence for a Black Hole Remnant in the Type IIL Supernova 1979C
Authors: D.J. Patnaude, A. Loeb, C. Jones.

Source: NASA TV briefing, NASA


14 Responses

  1. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    Of course remember this did not happen 21 years ago. It is the most recent BH to come into existence as can be seen on our past light cone. Of course we really do not want new black holes violently forming a whole lot closer in space and in time as well.


  2. skoyles says

    The word here “youngest” shows again the need for a new tense syntax in our language. As Lawrence B. Crowell notes above this blackhole did not happen 21 years ago more like 52.5 million years.

    Ironically syntax provides us with immensely subtle capacities such as durational (progressive/continuous) aspects in future “I will be going” or perfected non-durational (simple) aspects in present “I have gone”. But our evolved syntax only equips us to talk in pre-Einsteinian ways.

  3. lacalaca says

    “How near is this blackhole?”
    As the post states several times it’s in a different galaxy from ours, so not even in the Milky Way but some 50 million lightyears away. That’s like really-really far.
    “Could it affecy the solar system?”
    Plain and simply: no. Please check the first answer again.

    Black holes aren’t really “holes” that suck everything from everywhere into themselves. I the Sun would be replaced by a black hole with the same mass, the Earth wouldn’t notice a damn thing (apart from freezing to death…).

  4. lacalaca says

    “I the Sun would be replaced by a black hole with the same mass, the Earth wouldn’t notice a damn thing.” I’m not sure of the grammar here but I can tell you it in Hungarian if that helps. 🙂

  5. Jon Hanford says

    Daniel Fischer has an interesting “behind the scenes” look at just how these results finally made it to the masses, culminating in the mysteriously announced Nov 15 NASA press conference: http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~dfischer/mirror/339.html

    Sorta makes one wonder “why all the hype”?

  6. Jon Hanford says

    “The word here “youngest” shows again the need for a new tense syntax in our language. As Lawrence B. Crowell notes above this blackhole did not happen 21 years ago more like 52.5 million years.”

    I think astronomers know perfectly well what their discussing, no need for new vocabulary(or another acronym). 🙂

    “Since the galaxy is 50 million light years away, the supernova occurred 50 million years ago. But for us, the explosion took place just 31 years ago.”

    Doesn’t this explanation suffice for the average lay reader?

  7. gherreram says

    How near is this blackhole? Could it affecy the solar system? These are questions that comme to mind and that await urgent answers

  8. jimhenson says

    Please explain if general relativity predicts that gravity travels the same speed as light? How can a test be performed to determine if gravity is faster then light? We see an explosion before hearing the sound, and in the lab light slows down and was even stopped by magnetic fields, but motionless light must still have gravity so gravity is not light even if they travel at the same speed.

  9. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Lacalaca, it is both grammatically and factually correct. But don’t let that stop you from telling us in Hungarian – it is always helpful to learn cuss words in other languages. 😉

  10. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Or at least I think it is correct (not english here), I could say the same thing. English is beautifully plastic with respect to word order et cetera. (It is the oldish spelling that suxz.)

  11. lacalaca says

    @Torbjorn thx, there u go. 😀
    Ha kicserélnénk a Napot egy ugyanakkora tömeg? fekete lyukra, a Föld semmit sem érezne bel?le.
    (Wow Google translate doesnt understand “kicserélnénk”, it’s literally “we would replace”.)

  12. lacalaca says

    Hey, where are my exist-only-in-Hungarian characters? 😀 o and u + double accent.

  13. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    A gravity wave travels the speed of light. Radially symmetric gravity is from a fixed curvature in spacetime, so nothing “travels” as such — at least classically. The graviton is a quantum particle associated with gravity, and this is a quanta of a gravity wave. It plays a role in gravity by mediating forces. This is a fun little video on the holographic graviton



  14. capper says

    Dear Mr. Larsson,

    I belatedly addressed your response in the HUBBLE DARK MATTER MAP article comments section. If you care to attempt a furthur response (I’d just give up if I were you), I’ll check back tomorrow.

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