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A black hole in our backyard

NASA may have identified the nearest black hole in our galaxy.

By Rich_Maloof Feb 14, 2013 3:42PM

Man has been wonderstruck by the sky since he first thought to look up. Glimpsing celestial bodies, even with the naked eye, can be awe-inspiring whether you have a child’s curiosity or the wisdom of the ages. But it takes a scientist to look up there and get excited about what can’t be seen.

It was not the something but the nothing observed that told a young astrophysicist she might be looking at a black hole.

Photo: Marco Lorenz/Getty ImagesLaura Lopez knew that when a massive star is destroyed by a supernova explosion, it usually leaves behind a neutron star; a dense, spinning core made of the star material that isn’t blasted away. But while studying the supernova remnant W49B at NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory (some objects in space can only be observed by X-ray), she saw no evidence of a neutron star. The very unusual way in which this particular star met its end indicates that it may have left behind an even more anomalous object: a black hole.

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Researchers have discovered black holes in our Milky Way galaxy before but rarely one so close to home, and never one so young.

Lopez was initially drawn to study W49B when she came across a theory that the remnant was caused by a gamma-ray burst, an extreme kind of supernova that’s been observed in stellar explosions billions of light years away. But W49B is only 26,000 light years away — just a few neighborhoods from Earth, in galactic terms. W49B is also understood to be just 1,000 years old as seen from Earth; that is, a thousand years not counting the time it took for its light to travel here. Though this exceptional supernova remnant probably did not originate from a gamma-ray burst as first imagined, the knowledge that it’s both nearby and recent presents an unprecedented opportunity for astrophysical research.

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Lopez, a NASA Einstein Fellow and Pappalardo Fellow in Physics at MIT, is the lead author of a paper on the possible black-hole discovery due to appear in an astrophysics journal this weekend. For those laypeople willing to make their way through a little space jargon, Lopez has boiled down the astronomically complex science behind her finding in a guest blog for NASA.

Bing: See photos of black holes.

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Sources: NASA, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Cornell University Library

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Photo: Marco Lorenz/Getty Images

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