Scientists Witness Apparent Black Hole Birth

By Mark Kaufman

Washington Post, November 16, 2010


Article shortened, and rearranged, Rydin comments added in red.


For the first time, scientists believe they have witnessed the birth of a black hole. The evidence began arriving 30 years ago from a star 50 million light-years away that had imploded, setting into motion events that created a region where gravity is so great that nothing can escape, even light. However, gravity does escape a black hole, meaning that mass still has to be inside!

The possible birth of a new black hole was announced by the implosion of supernova 1979c. The presence of the supernova was reported and soon was followed by astronomers using new and more powerful X-ray telescopes. Supernova 1979c was only the third one in a galaxy beyond the Milky Way, directly detected from the ground, and it has become one of the most important and studied.

The most persuasive data that astronomers were seeing a black hole came from the orbiting Chandra telescope, which confirmed previous information from other American and European X-ray telescopes that the X-ray emission from the imploded star was surprisingly steady. Usually, the X-ray radiation coming off a supernova decreases relatively quickly, and the fact that it did not over the 12 years it was observed strongly suggested that a black hole had been formed.

Several kinds of black holes exist in the universe, including "super-massive" black holes that appear to be at the center of most or all galaxies - sending out enormous jets of very high-energy detected in a different way. "This may be the first time that the common way of making a black hole has been observed," said Abraham Loch of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center. "Most black holes in the universe should form when the core of a star collapses and a gamma ray burst is not produced."

In announcing the discovery Monday at NASA headquarters, the researchers said that although the information they have collected is consistent with the birth of a baby black hole, they cannot rule out other possibilities. Nonetheless, they spoke enthusiastically about what they are learning, and will learn, about the evolution of black holes.

The researchers said that what they think is a black hole is about five times the mass of our sun and was formed from the explosion of a Star about 20 times as massive as our sun. When very large stars explode - or go supernova- they may leave behind a fairly massive remnant that can then collapse in on itself. Eventually it can collapse to the point of having no volume and infinite density - at which point it is a black hole. This is an assertion, since we cannot see inside the surface to see where the mass is located.

The theory that black holes exist was first put forward by T. Robert Oppenheimer, based on Albert Einstein's work on general relativity - that black holes dot the cosmos is now a well-accepted fact in astronomy and cosmology. Although they define darkness, black holes - or at least the disk surrounding the hole and pulling matter into it - can be quite bright. That process creates friction and light as huge masses of swirling matter are pulled down into what might be thought of as a kitchen drain. What is not established as a fact is that a singularity exists, since Heaston has shown that the singularity is due to a mistake Einstein made when he set c = 1, and Crothers has shown that the original Schwarzschild solution does not have a singularity at its center.