A cloud of stardust and radiation 26,000 light years away from Earth could contain the youngest black hole in the Milky Way galaxy.

Scientists from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray observatory released a photo of the striking phenomenon last week:


The celestial bloom is called W49B, and it’s the debris left behind after a supernova -- both physical material and radiation on varying wavelengths. W49B is about 60 light years across and resides in the eagle-shaped constellation Aquila.

The “cloud” seen here isn’t actually rainbow-colored in real life. As is common in pictures of space phenomena, scientists have color-coded the image of W49B based on the types of emissions observed. X-rays observed by the Chandra observatory are shown in blue and green, while pink hues denote radio data from the Very Large Array maintained by the National Science Foundation and yellow-stained infrared radiation was captured by the Palomar Observatory at Caltech.

W49B is also a curiously interesting supernova remnant, with a slightly distorted shape compared to what astronomers are used to seeing. A group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Copenhagen picked apart the latest data on the remnant in a paper that appeared in a recent issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

The star that formed W49B seems to have died in a rare type of event called an asymmetric explosion. Most supernova remnants take on a symmetrical spheroid shape as material of the expiring star bursts forth in all directions fairly evenly, but W49B’s parent star ejected more material at its poles than at the equator in an asymmetric explosion. Certain elements, like iron, were only present in certain areas of the blast, while other material like sulfur and silicon can be found throughout W49B.

This distribution of matter, plus the fact that the emissions from W49B on the X-ray and other wavelengths are more barrel-shaped rather than spherical, points “to an unusual demise for this star,” Chandra said in a statement.

Usually, a supernova leaves behind a dense, very hot core called a neutron star, but Chandra’s eye couldn’t pick up traces of the X-rays that normally characterize such an object. One of the more likely candidates for what lies at the heart of W49B is a black hole.

Scientists already know of other supernova remnants that contain black holes, like SS433, a binary system composed of a black hole that is producing huge jets of gas and a companion star that’s 20 times the mass of our Sun. The SS433 remnant, located about 18,000 light years from Earth (also in the constellation in Aquila), is thought to be between 17,000 and 21,000 years old.