Black Hole Birth or Neutron Star Formation Captured by Telescopes, Astronomers Believe

For the first time, astronomers have observed the formation of a black hole or neutron star

For the first time, astronomers have observed the formation of a black hole or neutron star

An worldwide team of astronomers believes they may have witnessed the birth of a black hole or an incredibly powerful neutron star for the first time. The ATLAS survey's Hawaii-based telescopes spotted a bright spot about 200 million miles away that quickly appeared, then disappeared a few days later.

"We saw features in the Cow that we have never seen before in a transient, or rapidly changing, object", said Raffaella Margutti, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and lead author of a study about the Cow to be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

But after combining data from a range of different sources, the Nasa-funded scientists say it is the exact moment that a star collapsed into a compact object, forming a black hole or a neutron star.

This object was either a black hole or a neutron star - both incredibly dense regions of space - and the stellar debris approaching the event horizon of the object was responsible for the flash.

Margutti said in a release from Keck Observatory, "We know from theory that black holes and neutron stars form when a star dies, but we've never seen them right after they are born". A supernova (from nova meaning "new" star) is a sudden explosion of a massive star which has reached the end of its lifetime, leading to the formation of a black hole or neutron star. It was similar to a supernova, except that it brightened, and then faded, faster than a typical supernova, and was intrinsically brighter at its peak.

Astronomers think a bright flash observed by telescopes last summer was created by a collapsing star.

The team at the Keck Observatory worked with the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and its ATLAS twin telescopes to investigate The Cow. With these observations, the researchers found evidence of hydrogen and helium.

Astronomers have traditionally studied stellar deaths in the optical wavelength, which uses telescopes to capture visible light. They also used a number of observatories to study The Cow, viewing it with X-rays, hard X-rays, radio waves and gamma rays, all of which allowed them to get a more comprehensive look at The Cow.

This enabled the astronomers to continue studying the anomaly long after its initial visible brightness faded.

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The relatively clean makeup helped astronomers, Margutti added.

Fortunately, about 10 times less ejecta swirled around The Cow compared to a typical stellar explosion.

"A "lightbulb" was sitting deep inside the ejecta of the explosion", Margutti said. Plus, there was less than usual amounts of material surrounding The Cow during the event, allowing astronomers to see through it to observe The Cow's "central engine".

In addition to Chornock, Roth, and Metzger, Margutti's core team also includes Indrek Vurm, senior research fellow at Tartu Observatory, as well as Northwestern CIERA postdoctoral researchers Giacomo Terreran, Deanne Coppejans, and Kate Alexander.

It also relatively nearby, allowing for a better view.

Calculating that the "offending" black hole was between 100,000 to one million times the mass of our Sun, the "tidal disruption event" proponents believe the star that was shredded was a dwarf star only about the size of Earth. Even though it was nestled in the distant dwarf galaxy called CGCG 137-068, astronomers consider that to be "right around the corner". The transient object, assigned the designation AT2018cow, was immediately nicknamed "the Cow" based on the final 3 letters of its name.

Professor Margutti said: "Two hundred million light years is close for us, by the way".

"Being given the opportunity to contribute to something as cutting edge and worldwide as understanding AT2018cow as an undergrad is a surreal experience", said co-author Daniel Brethauer, a first-year undergraduate student at Northwestern.

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