May 10, 2005

NASA Satellite Captures Black Hole Birth

GREENBELT, Md. (AP) -- The birth of a black hole has been captured for the first time, a NASA scientist said Monday.

NASA's Swift orbiting observatory detected the gamma ray burst of the collision between two dense neutron stars about early Monday and pointed its visible light and X-ray telescopes at the collision about a minute later, said Neil Gehrels, lead scientist for the Swift mission.

"The birth cry of a black hole is one way people like to put it," Gehrels said, adding the huge flash of gamma rays was "seen across the whole universe."

The satellite recorded the x-rays from the collision, but the visible light was too faint to be detected by the satellite. However, alerts sent to ground-based telescopes enabled them to view the afterglow of the collision, Gehrels said.

Astronomers have theorized the collapse or collision of massive stars is what produces black holes - so dense not even light can escape - and that the resulting gravitational energy sends gamma rays shooting out across time and space.

The collision matched what theorists had predicted would happen when two dying stars collide, Gehrels said, helping solve a "mystery that has been with us for 30 years."

Swift, named for its speedy pivoting and pointing, was launched in November to probe the workings of black holes. The satellite, a $250 million collaboration by NASA, Italy and Britain, is controlled by scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.


On the Net:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/swift/main/index.html