SCIENCE -- August 25, 2011 at 5:40 PM ET
Star Swallowed By Black Hole
Researchers show how a distant black hole devours a star. Video credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab.
A supermassive black hole has been found shredding and swallowing a sun-sized star that wandered too close, according to two papers published Thursday in the journal Nature.
On March 28, NASA's Swift observatory detected several bright X-ray flares from the constellation Draco, 4.5 billion light years away. The teams, from Pennsylvania State University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said it was probably caused by a black hole that tore apart and devoured parts of a star.
Remains of the star were spewed out in a jet at 99.5 per cent the speed of light, according to the New Scientist. And luckily, the radiation jets blasted right toward the Swift spacecraft.
This is the first time scientists have been able to observe the onset, not just the aftermath, of such an event. "Now we've seen the start of this event for the first time," David Burrows, an astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University and first author of the study, told SPACE.com.
A black hole is an object that has collapsed under its own weight to a point, creating an object that is fantastically small, yet enormously dense. It sucks in everything it can absorb, and once formed, nothing -- not even light -- can escape its gravitational pull. Most galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers, weighing millions of times the sun's mass. Ashley Zauderer and colleagues found that this black hole lies at the center of its galaxy.
"The radio emission occurs when the outgoing jet slams into the interstellar environment," Zauderer said, according to NASA. "By contrast, the X-rays arise much closer to the black hole, likely near the base of the jet."