The Universe’s Most Extreme Black Holes

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Black holes, the great
gravitational beasts left behind when stars collapse in a
supernova, are some of the weirdest and most exotic objects in the
universe. But even among these bizarre beasts, some black holes are
weirder than others. The youngest black hole ever observed — just
31 years old — was announced today, but it’s just the latest in a
long line of black hole superlatives.


31-year-old remains of supernova SN 1979c make up the youngest
known black hole.

This supernova in the galaxy
M100 approximately 50 million light-years from Earth, was
discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1979. The star that exploded
that year was just on the edge of the theoretical mass limit for
forming black holes, about 20 times the mass of the sun. After the
supernova, the leftover matter could either have collapsed into a
black hole or an extremely dense neutron star.

New observations from the Chandra X-ray
seem to clinch it in favor of the black hole,
astronomers announced today. As material falls in to a black hole,
it heats up to millions of degrees and spews X-rays. If the object
that was SN 1979c was a neutron star, the brightness of the X-rays
it emits would tail off with time. But if it was a black hole, the
X-rays would stay nearly as bright as the black hole gobbled new

Observations show that SN1979c blasted
out X-rays at a constant brightness level between 1995 and 2007,
definitely tilting the odds in favor of a black hole — although
the object could still be a rapidly spinning neutron star with a
powerful wind of high energy particles.

Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/D.Patnaude et al,
Optical: ESO/VLT, Infrared: NASA/JPL/Caltech

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