NASA's "exceptional object" = a young black hole, right in our cosmic backyard

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has picked up what appears to be the youngest black hole we've discovered near our planet. This object could however instead be the youngest documented neutron star. Either way, it's an exciting find.

From NASA's press conference in Washington today:

The 30-year-old object is a remnant of SN 1979C, a supernova in the galaxy M100 approximately 50 million light years from Earth. Data from Chandra, NASA's Swift satellite, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton and the German ROSAT observatory revealed a bright source of X-rays that has remained steady during observation from 1995 to 2007. This suggests the object is a black hole being fed either by material falling into it from the supernova or a binary companion. [...]

The scientists think SN 1979C, first discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1979, formed when a star about 20 times more massive than the sun collapsed. Many new black holes in the distant universe previously have been detected in the form of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). However, SN 1979C is different because it is much closer and belongs to a class of supernovas unlikely to be associated with a GRB. Theory predicts most black holes in the universe should form when the core of a star collapses and a GRB is not produced.

"This may be the first time the common way of making a black hole has been observed," said co-author Abraham Loeb, also of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "However, it is very difficult to detect this type of black hole birth because decades of X-ray observations are needed to make the case."

The idea of a black hole with an observed age of only about 30 years is consistent with recent theoretical work. In 2005, a theory was presented that the bright optical light of this supernova was powered by a jet from a black hole that was unable to penetrate the hydrogen envelope of the star to form a GRB. The results seen in the observations of SN 1979C fit this theory very well.

Although scientists suspect that there is a fresh-faced black hole in SN 1979C, it's also possible that a young, quickly rotating neutron star is behind the X-ray emission. In this case, the SN 1979C object would be both the youngest neutron star discovered and the youngest, brightest example of a so-called "pulsar wind nebula."