Astronomers may have witnessed the birth of a black hole

Asia's Tech News Daily

Astronomer, Supermassive black holes, Space

Astronomers are increasingly drawing back the curtains on black holes. In the past few years, we of these fearsome creatures and measured the gravitational waves – ripples in spacetime – . But there’s still a lot we don’t know about black holes. One of the biggest enigmas is exactly how they form in the first place.

My colleagues and I now believe we have observed this process, providing some of the best indications yet of exactly what happens when a black hole forms. Our results are published in two papers in and the .

Astronomers believe, on both observational and theoretical grounds, that most black holes form when the center of a massive star collapses at the end of its life. The star’s core normally provides pressure, or support, using heat from intense nuclear reactions. But once such a star’s fuel is exhausted and nuclear reactions stop, the inner layers of the star collapse inward under gravity, crushing down to extraordinary densities.

Astronomer, Supermassive black holes, Space
First image of a black hole. Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

Most of the time, this catastrophic collapse is halted when the star’s core condenses into a solid sphere of matter, rich in particles called neutrons. This leads to a powerful rebound explosion that destroys the star () and leaves behind an exotic object known as a neutron star. But that if the original star is massive enough (40-50 times the mass of the Sun), the collapse will simply continue unabated until the star is crushed down into a gravitational singularity – a black hole.

Explosive theories

While stars collapsing to form neutron stars are now routinely observed throughout the universe (supernova surveys find dozens of new ones every night), astronomers are not yet entirely sure what happens during the collapse of a black hole. Some pessimistic models suggest the entire star . Others propose that the collapse to a black hole would produce .

For example, if the star is rotating at the time of collapse, some of the infalling material may be focused into jets that escape the star at high velocity. While these jets wouldn’t contain much mass, they’d pack a big punch: if they slammed into something, the effects might be quite dramatic in terms of the energy released.

Up until now, the best candidate for an explosion from the birth of a black hole has been the strange phenomenon known as long-duration . First discovered in the 1960s by military satellites, these events have been hypothesized to result from jets accelerated to mind-boggling speeds by newly formed black holes in collapsing stars. However, a longstanding problem with this scenario is that gamma-ray bursts also expel abundant radioactive debris that continues to shine for months. This suggests most of the star exploded outward into space (as in an ordinary supernova), instead of collapsing inward to a black hole.

While this doesn’t mean a black hole can’t have been formed in such an explosion, some have concluded that other models provide a more natural explanation for gamma ray bursts than a black hole forming. For example, a could form in such an explosion and produce powerful jets of its own.

Mystery solved?

My colleagues and I, however, recently uncovered a new and (in our view) much better candidate event for creating a black hole. On two separate occasions in the past three years – once in 2019 and once in 2021 – we witnessed an exceptionally fast and fleeting type of explosion that, much like in gamma-ray bursts, originated from a small amount of very fast-moving material slamming into gas in its immediate environment.

By using spectroscopy – a technique that breaks down light into different wavelengths – we could infer the composition of the star that exploded for each of these events. We discovered that the spectrum was very similar to so-called “” – a very massive and highly-evolved type of star, named after the two astronomers, Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet, that first detected them. Excitingly, we were even able to rule out a “normal” supernova explosion. As soon as the collision between the fast material and its environment ceased, the source practically vanished – rather than glowing for a long time.

This is exactly what you would expect if, during the collapse of its core, the star ejected only a small amount of material with the rest of the object collapsing downward into an enormous black hole.

Astronomer, Supermassive black holes, Space
The new study observed two events that may belong to third type of explosion, lasting only a short time. Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

While this is our favored interpretation, it’s not the only possibility. The most prosaic one is that it was a normal supernova explosion, but that a vast shell of dust formed in the collision, concealing the radioactive debris from view. It’s also possible that the explosion is of a new and unfamiliar type, originating from a star we’re not familiar with.

To answer these questions, we will need to search for more such objects. Until now these kinds of explosions have been difficult to study because they are fleeting and hard to find. We had to use several observatories together in quick succession to characterize these explosions: the to discover them, the and the to confirm their nature, and large high-resolution observatories (the , Gemini Observatory, and the ) to analyze their composition.

While we didn’t initially know exactly what we were seeing when we first discovered these events, we now have a clear hypothesis: the birth of a black hole.

More data from similar events may soon be able to help us verify or falsify this hypothesis and establish the link to that our team and others have been finding. Either way, it seems this truly is the decade we crack the mysteries of black holes.

Article by , Reader of Astrophysics,

This article is republished from under a Creative Commons license. Read the .

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