The cosmic ‘Cow’ may have produced a new neutron star or black hole

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A cosmic flare-up called the Cow seems to have left behind a black hole or neutron star.

When the flash was spotted in June 2018, astronomers debated its origins. Now, astrophysicist DJ Pasham of MIT and colleagues have seen the first direct evidence of what the Cow left behind. “We may be seeing the birth of a black hole or neutron star,” Pasham says.  

The burst’s official, random designation is AT2018cow, but astronomers affectionately dubbed it the Cow. The light originated about 200 million light-years away and was 10 times as bright as an ordinary supernova, the explosion that marks the death of a massive star.

Astronomers thought the flare-up could have been from an unusual star being eaten by a black hole or from a weird sort of supernova that left behind either a black hole or neutron star (SN: 6/21/19).

So Pasham and colleagues checked the Cow for flickering X-rays, which are typically produced close to a compact object like a black hole or neutron star, possibly in a disk of hot material around the black hole or on the surface of the neutron star.

Flickers in these X-rays can reveal the size of their source. The Cow’s X-rays flicker roughly every 4 milliseconds, meaning the object that produces them must be no more than 1,000 kilometers wide. Only a neutron star or a black hole fits the bill, Pasham and colleagues report December 13 in Nature Astronomy.

Because the Cow’s flash was from the explosion that produced either of these objects, a preexisting black hole was probably not responsible. Pasham admits he was hoping for a black hole eating an exotic star. “I was a little bit disappointed,” he says. “But I’m more blown away that this could be direct evidence of the birth of a black hole. This is an even cooler result.”

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