Keck Observatory captures a celestial birthing event for the first time

Rodiano Bonacci
Gennaio 11, 2019

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

Don't have a cow, man.

Officially called AT2018cow, the object has been nicknamed "The Cow", and if it is indeed a neutron star or a black hole - both of which can form when a massive star collapses - it will help scientists understand what exactly takes place when that kind of event occurs. 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.

An unusually bright star collapse was caught through a telescope. The bright glow was caused by the debris swirling around its event horizon, astonishing the researchers. In this case, researchers believe the outburst marked the formation of either a nascent black hole or neutron star with a powerful magnetic field, sucking in the surrounding material. "We know from theory that black holes and neutron stars form when a star dies, but we've never seen them right after they are born".

The team at the Keck Observatory worked with the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and its ATLAS twin telescopes to investigate The Cow. They found that it was composed of hydrogen and helium. "A "lightbulb" was sitting deep inside the ejecta of the explosion", Margutti says. "It would have been hard to see this in a normal stellar explosion. But The Cow had very little ejecta mass, which allowed us to view the central engine's radiation directly".

The findings were presented at the American Astronomical Society on Thursday and the research will eventually be published in the Astrophysical Journal. The object flared up quickly and then disappeared nearly as fast.

Just two days after hordes of astronomers the world over pointed their space- and ground-based telescopes at the mysterious celestial "cow", they realized this was a far from ordinary supernova: in a matter of days it had outshone anything previously observed in the history of astronomy, between 10 and 100 times brighter than any supernova observed by human instrumentation.

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