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Friday, March 1, 2024 | Back issues
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Study Reveals Rare Inner Workings of Black Hole

(CN) – Last summer, a telescope system in Hawaii captured a flash of light more than 200 million light years away, offering astronomers a rare glimpse of a newly formed black hole – and a new study published Thursday reveals data gathered from the event.

The stellar event, referred to as Supernova 2018cow or “The Cow,” quickly flared and vanished from telescope instruments last June.

The Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii captured the light from a dying star in the Hercules constellation, and space debris swirling around the event horizon gave astronomers a glimpse at the early stages of a black hole or neutron star – the collapsed core of a giant star that could evolve into a black hole – forming. They published their findings in Astrophysical Journal Thursday.

Researchers from Northwestern University and the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics said they combined hard X-rays and radio waves of the event to study the explosion.

"We thought it must be a supernova," Raffaella Margutti, lead researcher with Northwestern, said in a statement. "But what we observed challenged our current notions of stellar death."

The anomaly was 10 to 100 times brighter than a supernova, which is when a star ejects most of its mass.

Within 16 days, “The Cow” had spent most of its energy, and its light waned within two weeks. Compared to other cosmic events that stretch over billions of years, researchers said the event captured last June was a blink of the eye for the cosmos.

The explosion from “The Cow” sent particles flying at about 30,000 kilometers per second or 10 percent the speed of light. What was left swirling around “The Cow” was about 10 times less than when compared to other stellar explosions, meaning researchers were able to peer straight into the object’s “central engine.”

"A 'lightbulb' was sitting deep inside the ejecta of the explosion," Margutti said. "It would have been hard to see this in a normal stellar explosion. But The Cow had very little ejecta mass, which allowed us to view the central engine's radiation directly."

Margutti added, “To have helped the world's experts figure out what AT2018cow is even in the smallest way was beyond my wildest expectations at the beginning of the summer and something that I will remember for the rest of my life."

Margutti and her team were able to examine “The Cow” long after it faded thanks to X-rays and radio and gamma rays. The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) first spotted the cosmic event, with follow-up viewings done by NASA.

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