Astronomers may have just witnessed the first moments of the existence of a black hole.
A strangely bright and brief explosion, The Cow, which researchers first discovered last June, was probably produced by a newborn black hole or a super-dense star called the neutron star, which is reported in a new study.
"Based on his X-ray and UV radiation [ultraviolet]:" The cow "seems to have been caused by a black hole that devoured a white dwarf," said lead author of the study, Raffaella Margutti, assistant professor for physics and astronomy at Northwestern University in Illinois statement. (White dwarfs are the compact cores left over when relatively small stars die like our Sun.) The most massive stars die in violent supernova explosions, the remains of which collapse into denser neutron stars or black holes.) [Watch: Did Munching Black Hole Trigger ̵
"More Observations of other wavelengths across the spectrum led to our interpretation that "The Cow" is actually the formation of an accentuating black hole or neutron star, "added Margutti. "We know from the theory that black holes and neutron stars form when a star dies, but we never saw it right after birth, never."
The cow was a relatively close event: it is about 200 million light-years from Earth, in the Hercules constellation. Astronomers discovered the eruption with the Asteroid Terrestrial Impact System (ATLAS), a pair of survey telescopes in Hawaii. (The nickname of the event comes from the formal name AT2018cow, whose last three letters were made with a randomized formula.)
The cow fascinated the researchers from the beginning. It was incredibly bright – 10 to 100 times brighter than typical supernovae – and surprisingly short, fading after about two weeks.
"We knew immediately that this source would become the highest luminance within a few days of inactive phase." Co-author Ryan Chornock, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University, said in the same statement. "That was enough to excite everyone because it was so unusual and astronomically very close."
Researchers around the world soon trained a variety of telescopes on the enigmatic light source. For example, Margutti's team studied The Cow in X-ray wavelengths using NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency's International Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) and the XMM-Newton spacecraft. in radio waves using the Very Large Array (VLA) of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory; and in optical light using the MMT Observatory in Arizona and the Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope in Chile.
The scientists also studied the shape and chemical composition of The Cow using instruments installed on the two large telescopes of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
This last work revealed the presence of hydrogen and helium, thereby precluding cow scenarios involving dramatic fusions between black holes and neutron stars, the researchers said. So the light was probably generated largely by the newborn object devouring the debris of its ruined predecessor.
"It took a while for us to understand what we're looking at – I would say, months," said co-author Brian Metzger, associate professor of physics at Columbia University in New York. "We tried several options and had to go back to the drawing board several times, and thanks to the hard work of our incredibly dedicated team, we were finally able to interpret the results."
The new study appears in The Astrophysical Diary. The team announced its results today (10 January) at a 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle at a press conference – and they were not alone.
Several other research groups also presented their cow findings at the meeting, and not all agreed with the interpretation set out above. For example, a team led by Paul Kuin, an astrophysicist at University College London, supports the Black Hole Eating White Dwarf Hypothesis.
So there are still many secrets about this strange source of light.
0 of 10 completed questions
"The properties of The Cow put a strain on almost all the models we've tried to explain." Daniel Perley, an assistant professor of astronomy at John Moores University in Liverpool, said in another statement.
Perley led another research team that considers the supernova black hole / neutron star hypothesis to be compelling. He also presented himself today at the AAS conference.
"Whatever it is, it has to involve a form of energetic and very rapid explosion that interacts with an extremely dense material shell in the immediate vicinity of the blast precursor," Perley said.
Mike Wall's book on the Quest for an Extraterrestrial Life, " Out There " (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate ), is now appeared. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall . Follow us @Spacedotcom or Facebook . Originally published on Space.com .