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Mystery space object: Black hole or exploding star?

"This could be a new type of supernova that we've just never seen before," said Michael Koss.

By Brooks Hays
Mystery space object: Black hole or exploding star?
Scientists aren't sure whether SDSS1133 is a long-burning supernova or the recoiling black hole ejected by host galaxy Markarian 177. (Michael Koss)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- For those who grew up on Windows 95, the befuddling new images from Pan-STARRS telescope will likely be instantly recognizable as the click of the spray can on Microsoft Paint.

In fact, the bright red explosion, dwarf galaxy Markarian 177, is the former host of a small, bright space object dubbed SDSS1133 that has astronomers quite confused. Scientists aren't sure if SDSS1133 is a supernova or a black hole.

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After studying the deep space object for several years, astronomer Michael Koss happened upon archival images of SDSS1133 dating back to the 1950s. If SDSS1133 was a supernova -- a dying star that collapses and explodes dramatically -- it had been burning for several decades.

"This could be a new type of supernova that we've just never seen before. But it would have to be one of the most extreme cases ever observed," Koss, a postdoctoral fellow with the Swiss National Science Foundation, told Space.com.

But it could also be a black hole.

Koss and his colleagues are continuing to analyze images of the burning phenomenon. Newer imagery from NASA's SWIFT telescope suggest the object may be a type of black hole known as an Active Galactic Nuclei.

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SDSS1133 has gotten exceptionally bright over the last several months. Supernovas usually explode in a brilliant flash of ultraviolet light and then slowly dim. Active Galactic Nuclei are black holes found at the center of a galaxy. They often burn bright as the strength of their gravity heats the galaxy's surrounding gas.

SDSS1133 isn't at the center of a galaxy, however. The nearest galaxy -- and its likely former host -- is 2,600 light-years away. Recent images from telescopes at Hawaii's Keck Observatory suggest Markarian 177, a dwarf galaxy located in the bowl of the Big Dipper, recently underwent a significant disturbance -- a disturbance that may have sent SDSS1133 spinning far from home.

"We suspect we're seeing the aftermath of a merger of two small galaxies and their central black holes," astronomer Laura Blecha, a researcher at the University of Maryland's Department of Astronomy, said in a press release.

If SDSS1133 is a traveling (or recoiling) black hole, sent flying into space by the fusion of two dwarf galaxies, it would be quite the find.

"Astronomers searching for recoiling black holes have been unable to confirm a detection, so finding even one of these sources would be a major discovery," Blecha said.

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Researchers hope additional observations by the Hubble Space Telescope or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory will provide some clarity in the coming months.

"Whatever we find, it's exciting," Koss said.

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