Birth of a Black Hole

Comparatively close to Earth, supernova remnant W49B offers astronomers the chance to examine an as yet little understood phenomenon. Harbouring the youngest black hole in our galaxy, the supernova exploded just 27,000 years ago.

At 26,000 light years away from us, the remnant in the images is the tender age of 1,000 years old. Not only is W49B unusual in its youth, its shape also is atypical. It was a rare kind of explosion that created this highly-distorted supernova remnant. Unlike most supernovae, it shot more matter out from its poles than from the equator creating a more elongated and elliptical remnant, the first of this kind to be observed in the Milky Way.

A supernova explosion occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel. The inner area of the star collapses leaving behind the dense spinning core of a neutron star. However in this instance there is no neutron star leading scientists to believe that the explosion has instead left behind a black hole. Before now, scientists have only been able to study black holes when already formed but W49B provides the first opportunity to study the birth of one.

Not just any star could create an explosion like this. To produce a supernova, a star must be at least eight times bigger than our sun. To produce a W49B-style asymmetric explosion, a star must possess mass at least twenty-five times greater than the sun. The size and mass of this star led to the only known gamma ray burst in the Milky Way and one of the most violent explosions in the universe. 


Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing