The Mystery of Black Holes
Reported December 2005
PHILADELPHIA (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- Black holes have baffled astronomers for decades. The first one was discovered in 1975. Now for the first time scientists are watching them unfold before their very eyes.
As a child, Peter Brown, an astronomy and astrophysics graduate student at Pennsylvania State University in Philadelphia, was fascinated by outer space. "Looking at Halley's comet thru the telescope when I was, when I was younger had a definite impact on me," he says.
As an adult, however, comets weren't enough for Brown. He wanted to see bigger, brighter things. Now for the first time he's able to see massive newborn black holes. "What fascinates me is that things that we're observing are so far away," he says.
Working with astrophysicists, Brown is part of a satellite project called Swift. Swift snaps photos of baby black holes being born, revealing a messier birth than previously thought. Dave Burrows, Ph.D., an astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University, says, "So instead of these things sort of being a one instantaneous event, they seem to go on for hundreds of seconds as the black hole kind of gobbles up material."
Researchers now believe after a star dies and collapses, forming a black hole, the black hole continues to cause havoc, devouring material while at the same time spewing it back out in a series of multiple outbursts of light.
"What we're seeing is a lot of interesting things happening in the first few minutes after the explosion that we could never really see before," Burrows says. Catching new glimpses of black holes helps scientists better understand how the universe formed and puts curious minds at ease.
"Black holes are inherently fascinating because they are sort of mind-bending concepts," Burrows says. Concepts that stargazers like Brown to learn more about.
The Swift satellite used to catch black holes in action is unique because it detects a light burst from a dying star and rotates within minutes to record the explosion. It received a "best of what's new" award from popular science magazine.
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Washington, DC 20009-1231
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