Keck Observatory captures a celestial birthing event for the first time

Keck Observatory captures a celestial birthing event for the first time

An global team of astronomers, using NASA telescopes, have captured the first ever image of a star that collapsed to form a compact object, and are debating whether it is a black hole or a neutron star.

The object was detected last June, suddenly flaring up and then vanishing within the Hercules constellation - roughly 200 million light years away from Earth.

The other team, led by Dr. Paul Kuin of University College London (UCL), believes that the Cow was a "tidal disruption event", and what scientists really witnessed was a massive black hole shredding a passing white dwarf star into a stream of gas with a powerful gravitational wave. With the first observations of the formation of a black hole or neutron star in hand, astronomers will be able to better understand what happens in the moments that a star dies, and a unusual new object springs into being. "We've never been able to see them right away at the time of formation", according to Northwestern's Raffaella Margutti, who led the research.

The star's exceptional luminosity was 10 to 100 times brighter than the typical supernova.

It also flared up and disappeared much faster than other known star explosions, with particles flying at 30,000 kilometers per second (or 10 pe rcent of the speed of light).

Still others argue the flare was emitted by a star in its death throes as it was devoured by a black hole.

The SOAR telescope, located in Chile, is operated by Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, a division of National Optical Astronomical Observatory, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

The Cow's chemical composition was calculated to contain helium and hydrogen.

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Astronomer Daniel Perley from Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom said that due to the Cow being extremely luminous as well as forming and disappearing quickly makes it so unique "that existing supernova models can't properly explain it".

Using data gathered from 16 telescopes around the world, Margutti's team analyzed data on the Cow over a broad range of wavelengths that spanned from radio waves to gamma rays, as well as hard X-rays, which are 10 times more powerful than normal X-rays.

This allowed the astronomers to study the anomaly long after its initial brightness ebbed. Because of the X-ray emissions, Margutti and her colleagues suggest the original star in this scenario may have been relatively low in mass, producing a comparatively thinner debris cloud through which X-rays from the central source could escape. "A "lightbulb" was sitting deep inside the ejecta of the explosion", Margutti says.

It also relatively nearby, allowing for a better view.

The scientists also benefited from the star's relative closeness to Earth. Even though it was nestled in the distant dwarf galaxy called CGCG 137-068, astronomers consider that to be "right around the corner".

Margutti's team at Northwestern includes graduate student Aprajita Hajela, postdoctoral fellows Giacomo Terreran, Deanne Coppejans and Kate Alexander (who is a Hubble Fellow), and first-year undergraduate student Daniel Brethauer. Study coauthor Brian Grefenstette, an instrument scientist at Caltech, explained that "if we're seeing the birth of a compact object in real time, this could be the start of a new chapter in our understanding of stellar evolution".

"Two hundred million light years is close for us, by the way", Margutti said. "To have helped the world's experts figure out what AT2018cow is even in the smallest way was beyond my wildest expectations at the beginning of the summer and something that I will remember for the rest of my life".

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