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Stellar explosion could be the birth of a black hole

The team of researchers believe the discovery could help augment the scientific understanding of baby black holes or young neutron stars.

(CN) — A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes they have identified the source of a bright blue flash 200 million light-years away.

According to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, what was initially thought to be a typical supernova, or exploding star, is likely a star giving birth to a black hole or a neutron star. The discovery could present an opportunity for astronomers to learn more about infant black holes and neutron stars.

Lead author of the study Dheeraj Pasham, a research scientist at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, told Courthouse News that researchers realized fairly quickly that they were not dealing with a typical supernova after the phenomenon was first spotted in July 2018 by a survey in Hawaii.

“It was clear that this kind of explosion was extremely unusual. People detect supernovae every day; you’re expecting hundreds every day,” Pasham said, explaining that a typical supernova evolves over a time frame of weeks to months, with a star exploding and its core collapsing, creating the “optical imagery” that slowly ramps up to its maximum brightness.

But this was different. It happened far faster and appeared far brighter than scientists would expect from the usual stellar explosion.

“Within two days, it just got bright. It got 100 times brighter than a typical supernova,” Pasham said.

The sighting was quickly reported throughout the astronomy community, prompting researchers to use a variety of telescopes to start hunting for what was behind the atypical event. According to Pasham, multiple scientists hypothesized that it was the birth of a compact object, or remnant of a star, like a small black hole or neutron star. Pasham said it was their research that provided the strongest evidence yet that this was the case.

“It’s sort of like a huge jigsaw puzzle where everybody’s contributing to putting everything together and we believe we put in that final piece that helps us complete the picture,” Pasham said. He added that X-rays proved vital to the discovery, as supernovae do not often emit X-ray particles.

Using NASA’s X-ray monitoring telescope aboard the International Space Station, which Pasham said was the only telescope capable of this level of work, Pasham and his colleagues collected X-ray data. According to a statement accompanying the research, they found that the explosion released hundreds of millions of X-ray pulses, which occurred every 4.4 milliseconds “like clockwork.”

Using the frequency of the pulses, the researchers calculated the size of the pulsing object. They determined that the object was roughly 621 miles wide — small by astronomers’ standards.

Pasham reasoned that only a compact object like a newborn black hole or neutron star could be that small.

“Our study actually provides a tool to study these baby black holes-slash-neutron stars,” said Pasham, adding that he was excited for future research to pin down which type of compact object they were dealing with. “Whenever there’s a new phenomenon, there’s excitement that it could tell us something new about the universe.”

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