we think we’ve spotted the mysterious birth of one

Astronomers are increasingly drawing back the curtains on black holes. In the past few years, we have finally captured actual photos of these fearsome creatures and measured the gravitational groups – ripples in spacetime – that they create when colliding. But there’s nevertheless a lot we don’t know about black holes. One of the biggest enigmas is exactly how they form in the first place.

My colleagues and I now believe we have observed this course of action, providing some of the best indications in addition of exactly what happens when a black hole forms. Our results are published in two papers in character and the Astrophysical Journal.

Astronomers believe, on both observational and theoretical grounds, that most black holes form when the centre of a enormous star collapses at the end of its life. The star’s chief typically provides pressure, or sustain, using heat from intense nuclear responses. But once such a star’s fuel is depleted and nuclear responses stop, the inner layers of the star collapse inward under gravity, crushing down to extraordinary densities.

First image of a black hole.
Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

Most of the time, this extreme collapse is halted when the star’s chief condenses into a substantial sphere of matter, high in particles called neutrons. This leads to a powerful rebound explosion that destroys the star (a supernova), and leaves behind an exotic object known as a neutron star. But models of dying stars show that if the original star is enormous enough (40-50 times the mass of the Sun), the collapse will simply continue unabated until the star is crushed down into a gravitational singularity – a black hole.

Explosive theories

While stars collapsing to form neutron stars are now ordinarily observed throughout the universe (supernova surveys find dozens of new ones every night), astronomers are not in addition thoroughly sure what happens during the collapse to a black hole. Some pessimistic models suggest the complete star would be swallowed up without much of a trace. Others propose that the collapse to a black hole would produce some other kind of explosion.

For example, if the star is rotating at the time of collapse, some of the infalling material may be focused into jets that escape the star at high velocity. While these jets wouldn’t contain much mass, they’d pack a big punch: if they slammed into something, the effects might be quite emotional in terms of the energy released.

Up until now, the best candidate for an explosion from the birth of a black hole has been the strange occurrence known as long-duration gamma-ray bursts. First discovered in the 1960s by military satellites, these events have been hypothesised to consequence from jets accelerated to mindboggling speeds by newly formed black holes in collapsing stars. However, a longstanding problem with this scenario is that gamma-ray bursts also expel abundant radioactive debris that continues to shine for months. This indicates most of the star exploded outward into space (as in an ordinary supernova), instead of collapsing inward to a black hole.

While this doesn’t average a black hole can’t have been formed in such an explosion, some have concluded that other models provide a more natural explanation for gamma ray bursts than a black hole forming. For example, a super-magnetised neutron star could form in such an explosion and produce powerful jets of its own.

Mystery solved?

My colleagues and I, however, recently uncovered a new and (in our view) much better candidate event for creating a black hole. On two separate occasions in the past three years – once in 2019 and once in 2021 – we witnessed an exceptionally fast and fleeting kind of explosion that, much like in gamma-ray bursts, originated from a small amount of very fast-moving material slamming into gas in its immediate ecosystem.

By using spectroscopy – a technique that breaks down light into different wavelengths – we could infer the composition of the star that exploded for each of these events. We discovered that the spectrum was very similar to so-called “Wolf-Rayet stars” – a very enormous and highly-evolved kind of star, named after the two astronomers, Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet, that first detected them. Excitingly, we were already able to rule out a “normal” supernova explosion. As soon as the collision between the fast material and its ecosystem ceased, the source nearly vanished – instead of glowing for a long time.

This is exactly what you would expect if, during the collapse of its chief, the star ejected only a small amount of material with the rest of the object collapsing downward into an enormous black hole.

The new study observed two events that may belong to third kind of explosion, lasting only a short time.
Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

While this is our favoured interpretation, it’s not the only possibility. The most prosaic one is that it was a normal supernova explosion, but that a great shell of dust formed in the collision, concealing the radioactive debris from view. It’s also possible that the explosion is of a new and unfamiliar kind, originating from a star we’re not familiar with.

To answer these questions, we will need to search for more such objects. Until now these kinds of explosions have been difficult to study because they are fleeting and hard to find. We had to use several observatories together in quick series to characterise these explosions: the Zwicky Transient Facility to discover them, the Liverpool Telescope and the Nordic Optical Telescope to confirm their character, and large high-resolution observatories (the Hubble Space Telescope, Gemini Observatory, and the Very Large Telescope) to analyse their composition.

While we didn’t initially know exactly what we were seeing when we first discovered these events, we now have a clear hypothesis: the birth of a black hole.

More data from similar events may soon be able to help us verify or falsify this hypothesis and establish the link to other types of uncommon, fast explosions that our team and others have been finding. Either way, it seems this truly is the decade we crack the mysteries of black holes.

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