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Young Black Hole

March 9, 2011

Queen Berenice spreads her golden tresses across the eastern sky this evening. They form a tight spray of faint stars known as Coma Berenices. The constellation is low in the east at nightfall, and climbs high across the sky later on.

One of the constellation's most prominent features isn't a star at all, though, but a galaxy -- a beautiful spiral known as M100. It's an easy target through small telescopes, even though it's about 55 million light-years away.

Telescopes in space have found that M100 contains what could be the youngest black hole ever seen -- only about 30 years old. It's the remnant of a once-mighty star that exploded as a supernova, which was seen here on Earth in 1979. While the star's outer layers were blasted into space, its core was crushed to form a black hole.

X-ray telescopes in space have been watching the supernova remnant -- an expanding shell of gas and dust -- for the last decade and a half. They found that it's remained a bright source of X-rays for all that time. The most likely explanation is that something is feeding a black hole at the center of the remnant, emitting a lot of energy as it falls inward. It could be material from the supernova itself that's falling back into the black hole, or gas pulled from the surface of a companion star.

If the X-ray source really is a black hole, it's a good laboratory for studying the early lives of these "dead" stellar remnants.

More about black holes tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011

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