The Case of the Disappearing Star

New data from the Hubble Space Telescope might just confirm last few moments of a star. In a study recently submitted for peer review, a group of astronomers from Ohio State University believe that they have stumbled upon the first actual sighting of a star becoming a black hole.

The star in question is N6946-BH1, a supergiant 25 times more massive than our sun, about 20 million light-years away from the Earth. Using previously collected data from Hubble, Christopher Kochanek and his team noticed the changes in N6946-BH1's behavior.

First spotted in 2004, the star was observed to have grown brighter in 2009 — about a million times more than the sun — and then slowly faded away. No visible wavelength has been seen from N6946-BH1 since.

The researchers suspect that it has become a black hole.

Plugging the Holes About Black Holes

In theory, a dying star goes into a year-long bright flare. It produces a huge amount of particles called neutrinos which causes it to lose its mass. Lacking the necessary gravity to hold on to the hydrogen ion cloud loosely bound around it, detached electrons reattach themselves to the hydrogen. The star cools down and only a black hole remains. 

"This may be the first direct clue to how the collapse of a star can lead to the formation of a black hole," says Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, referring to the Kochanek's findings. 

Credit: NASA

Although further study is warranted to confirm the findings, the researchers are optimistic. Kochanek stated, "I’m not quite at 'I’d bet my life on it' yet, but I’m willing to go for your life."  They plan to spot X-rays of a particular spectrum suspected to come from materials falling into black holes, using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, where N6946-BH1 was. This would remove the possibility that N6946-BH1 was either swallowed up by another star or was just covered with some space dust.

All this comes with some important caveats. First, the findings have yet to be peer reviewed, so these claims should be taken with a grain of that space dust.

More data should be available within the next two months.

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