Brand-new info from NASA's powerful Chandra X-ray Observatory, a space telescope whizzing above your head in Earth orbit, has revealed what may be the most recent black hole that our Milky Way galaxy has made. The data also suggest that it was made in no normal supernova explosion. And best of all the images from Chandra are absolutely stunning.
Black holes are made when a massive star runs out of "fuel" for its fires, and then its own mass causes it to collapse to a smaller, denser thing. Lots of energy (and other stuff) is blown away in the resulting explosion, and sometimes a black hole is left in the middle—a dead star that's so fantastically dense even light can't escape its gravity.
Chandra's images aren't of the back hole itself—for, er, obvious reasons—but instead they show the glowing halo of matter and radiation that was thrown out when the star at the center exploded in a supernova. Scientists are particularly thrilled by W49B because it shows that when the star exploded it spewed material out along its poles at mind-boggling speed, which is a pretty rare thing to find because typically these big booms are more symmetrical. It's the first find of its kind in our own galaxy. W49B now glows beautifully in the visible range, and is an amazing picture in the X-ray spectrum. This data shows the exploding star threw iron-rich star stuff in one direction, while sulfur and silicon were more evenly blown around.
Why's this exciting? First off, because the star's unusual explosion allows astrophysicists to test and refine the models they have for the way stars work—W49B has confirmed many a theory. Secondly it's the sort of amazing science accompanied by beautiful images that help to show lawmakers why they need to invest in space and scientific innovation, and also to excite students about the subject.
And finally, don't panic! We aren't in any danger of being sucked away. W49B is about a thousand years old, as seen from the point of view of Earth, and its black hole is about 26,000 light years away (for context, the Earth is about 8 light minutes from the Sun). Space, you see, is big. Very big. And beautiful.