Institute of Astronomy

Astronomers may have witnessed the birth of a black hole

Published on 07/11/2015 

Hubble Space Telescope photo of NGC 3021. Image credit: NASA / ESA / A. Riess, STScI.

Recent work by astronomers at the IoA is the subject of a feature in the November issue of Scientific American. The project, which was led by undergraduate student Thomas Reynolds and Dr. Morgan Fraser, involved monitoring hundreds of thousands of stars in nearby galaxies, and waiting for one to disappear. The hope was that finding an example of a vanishing massive star might explain the puzzling lack of supernova explosions arising from stars more than about 16 times the mass of the Sun.

Core-collapse supernovae are the terminal explosion of massive stars, and mark the final death throes of stars between 8 and about 150 solar masses. However, over the last decade, astronomers have seen far fewer supernovae from the most massive stars than they expected. One possible explanation for this is that some of the more massive stars collapse directly to form a black hole, without an accompanying bright supernova explosion. To an outside observer, such an event would appear like a massive star simply disappeared.

From a survey of archival Hubble Space Telescope images of nearby galaxies, Reynolds and Fraser found one such candidate for a disappearing massive star. Whether this is truly the birth of a black hole is as yet unknown, but future observations with Hubble to confirm that the star has truly vanished can help confirm the discovery of a new type of stellar death.

Read the full Scientific American article at:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/astronomers-may-have-witnessed-2-black-hole-births/

Read the scientific paper behind the research:
Gone without a bang: an archival HST survey for disappearing massive stars
Reynolds, Fraser & Gilmore, 2015, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 453, 2885
http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2015MNRAS.453.2885R

Page last updated: 7 November 2015 at 10:50