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Supernova Shines Light On Black Hole Formation

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Supernova Shines Light On Black Hole Formation

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Supernova Shines Light On Black Hole Formation

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's Richard Harris says the story started in the backyard in Western Maryland.

RICHARD HARRIS: On the evening of April 15th, 1979, while countless Americans were rushing to finish their tax returns, Gus Johnson was on a cosmic pursuit in his backyard, touring one little corner of the heavens.

GUS JOHNSON: And I decided to share the tour using my eight-inch telescope and the pastor of my church.

HARRIS: The two men gazed up at a galaxy called M100 in the constellation Coma Berenices.

JOHNSON: For some reason, I don't know why, this little star in M100 caught my attention.

HARRIS: On a hunch, he pulled up a detailed chart of all the stars in this part of the sky.

JOHNSON: And it wasn't on it.

HARRIS: And Abraham Loeb at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says when a star that size explodes, it can end up in one of two forms.

ABRAHAM LOEB: Either it makes a neutron star, which is the densest form of matter that we know about. It has the density similar to that of an atomic nucleus and a size comparable to that of a big city, or it ends up in a black hole, which is an object to which you can get in, but can never get out of.

HARRIS: So fast-forward to today. To figure out what befell the 1979 supernova, Loeb and his colleagues turned NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to that corner of the sky. And they now conclude that the supernova most likely ended up as a black hole.

LOEB: If our interpretation is correct - and indeed, Supernova 1979C ended up as a black hole - then, of course, it's the first time that we are seeing a black hole being born in a normal supernova.

HARRIS: Alex Filippenko from UC-Berkeley says in that event, X-rays they witness could be coming from a huge cloud of glowing gas called a pulsar wind nebula, like the picturesque crab nebula.

ALEX FILIPPENKO: So, I'm pretty excited about this discovery, regardless of whether it turns out to be a young black hole or a pulsar wind nebula.

HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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