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Chandra telescope spots black hole 'missing link'


Chandra X-ray image of the central region of galaxy M82. Click to see the same image a few months later. Scientist said the dramatic fluctuation in intensity, along with short-term flickering, present evidence that the X-rays are produced by a black hole with the mass of more than 500 suns
 

(CNN) -- Scientists using a powerful X-ray observatory have found strong evidence of a new class of black holes, a mid-sized variety between small stellar specimens and supermassive ones.

The black hole discovery could force a re-evaluation of current theories on the birth and death of stars, said astronomers using the Chandra orbiting telescope.

Black holes are collapsed stars so gravitationally powerful they warp time and ingest copious amounts of matter and energy. Before Chandra zoomed in on the middling black hole, scientists had distinguished two disparate types of black holes: they either had the mass of several suns or that of 1 million to 1 billion suns.

The universe had "compact economy cars" and "luxury automobiles," Chandra scientist Doug Richmond told reporters Tuesday. "But there was nothing in between."

That was until the high-resolution camera on Chandra found one: a specimen with the mass of about 500 suns, located in galaxy M82 about 600 light years from the center.

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Only much smaller black holes have been detected outside the centers of galaxies. And jumbo-sized ones are known to dwell only in galactic nuclei, including one in our own Milky Way.

Hironori Matsumoto of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested the black hole "might eventually sink to the center of a galaxy where it could grow to become a supermassive black hole."

Chandra researchers also offered preliminary theories about the formation of the object, including the merger of scores of black holes or neutron stars. Regardless of its origin, the search for more mid-sized black holes and their role in the universe should keep astronomers busy for years.

"The implications for star birth and star death, both ends of the stellar spectrum, have to be rethought," said Chandra researcher Martin Ward. The British astronomer is a member of one of several teams that jointly announced the discovery as Chandra begins its second year of operation.



RELATED STORIES:
Black holes in a new light
August 16, 2000
Theory: Black hole winds allow some matter to escape
July 19, 2000
Hubble spies black hole blowing bubbles
June 5, 2000
Australian telescope searching southern skies for black holes
May 9, 2000

RELATED SITE:
NASA
The Chandra X-ray Observatory Center
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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