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M101 ULX-1

January 16, 2014

Sometimes, astronomy can be just plain weird. The darkest objects in the universe can also be some of the brightest, for example, and many of the objects visible to our telescopes no longer exist.

Both of those apply to a star system in the Pinwheel galaxy, M101, which is about 22 million light-years away.

The star system is known as M101 ULX-1. It consists of two prominent objects.

One of them is a black hole, which recent observations suggest is about 20 to 30 times as massive as the Sun. A black hole’s gravity is so strong that not even light can escape from it. But as gas is pulled toward the black hole, it forms a superhot disk that produces enormous amounts of X-rays, making it an easy target for space telescopes.

Much of the gas in the disk appears to come from a bright, heavy companion star. The star blows a strong “wind” into space. Some of the hot gas in this wind is captured by the black hole.

A star like this one lives a short life. When its time is up, its outer layers explode, but its core collapses to form a black hole. In fact, that’s probably already happened to the bright star in M101 ULX-1, so what astronomers see through their telescopes no longer exists. We haven’t yet seen the star’s demise, though, because it takes 22 million years for light from the system to reach Earth. So somewhere between here and M101, the light of an exploding star may be racing toward us — showing us the birth of a black hole.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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