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NASA may have discovered youngest black hole in our galaxy

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Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA via
Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA via

Scientists using NASA's Chandra X-ray space telescope have discovered the remnants of a supernova 26,000 light years away that may contain a black hole that is only 1,000 years old, making it the youngest in the Milky Way galaxy.

"It's a bit circumstantial, but we have intriguing evidence the W49B supernova also created a black hole," MIT astrophysicist Daniel Castro said in a NASA news release Wednesday.

That evidence for a black hole is that W49B doesn't contain a neutron star, a tiny ultra-dense ball typically observed at the center of what's left over after a star has gone supernova. If a supernova remnant doesn't have a neutron star, it likely has a black hole at its core instead.

"I feel confident that there's no neutron star and thus there is a black hole," MIT astrophysicist Laura Lopez, leader of the study, told The Verge via email. "I won't say 100 percent confident though because science is never certain!"

In a paper announcing the discovery that's going to be published in the Astrophysical Journal on Sunday, scientists suggest taking a closer look to be sure, using an upcoming Japanese telescope, the Astro-H, due to be launched in 2014. Lopez herself told us she'd be taking another look later this year using the ground-based Magellan Baade Telescopes in Chile and hoped to create a 3D model of the supernova remnant.

Whether it has the youngest black hole or not, W49B is unusual. Instead of exploding symmetrically, spreading stellar material evenly in all directions, this supernova ejected material from the poles at much higher speed, which NASA notes resulting in more of a "barrel-shape" than in other supernovae. The display turned out no less gorgeous, as Chandra's imagery reveals (hi-res version here).

Check out more stellar imagery from NASA's Chandra mission on their Flickr page.