Image of how a black hole would lens the Milky Way galaxy.
Scientists believe they've witnessed a black hole in the act of swallowing a star. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Ethan Hein/Flickr)

NASA reports that for the first time, astronomers claim to have witnessed a supermassive black hole swallowing a star. Bursts of radiation from an interstellar constellation more than 4.5 billion light-years away from the Milky Way galaxy were sighted. These signified the consumption of a star by a tremendously large black hole, according to a recent study published in the edition of the scientific journal Nature published Wednesday.

Two studies describe blasts of radiation

Separate studies in Nature describe exceedingly bright blasts of radiation that scientists believe can only be explained as having originated from the destruction of a sun-sized star via the gravitational forces of a black hole. While scientists believe that the aftermath of such astronomical events hasbeen witnessed before – a fading afterglow of radiation from distant galaxies – never have they witnessed a black hole in the act of dismantling a star until now.

“This was the first time we saw one of these big black holes going from quiet and silent to very loud and noisy, producing a lot of light and radiation,” said astrophysicist Dr. Davide Lazzati of North Carolina State University.

The attributed black hole event, which was detected by the X-ray telescope of the Earth-orbiting Swift spacecraft, occurred in the constellation Draco, 4.5 billion light-years away. Gamma rays released by the destruction of the star carried a high-energy X-ray “afterglow” that Swift was designed to monitor.

Similar radiation emissions occur when a star explodes into a supernova, although the glow Swift discovered was considered to be too bright to have come from a supernova.

Swift beamed a black hole text

Swift notified astronomers via text message of the strange radiation emissions. Astrophysicist and lead study author Dr. David Burrows of Penn State University and other Swift astronomers immediately connected via conference call to discuss what the observation craft found at Draco. Before the conference call was complete, Swift sent word of another radiation burst. Within a day, two more busts were recorded, leading the scientists to believe that a black hole was at work because the observed energy patterns didn’t match any other explainable phenomenon.

‘This is crazy’

Astronomer and leader of the second black hole study Dr. Ashley Zauderer of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center was amazed by Swift’s discovery.

“This is crazy. … I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I called a colleague and said, ‘Will you make sure I didn’t make a mistake? Look at this data; it’s too bright.’”

Radio wave verification pointed to the center of the galaxy, in the exact area where a black hole would be located. The astronomy team’s hypothesis is that the radiation emissions came from a star the same size as the sun being torn apart by a supermassive black hole. The black hole’s tremendous gravitational force caused the star to stretch until it began to shred, sending chunks of plasma into the mouth of the black hole.

“It might happen once every 10,000 years in a galaxy with a supermassive black hole in the center,” Burrows said.

Black holes millions of times our sun’s mass

Sources

Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-black-hole-20110825,0,7532003.story

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/aug/HQ_11-271_Swift_Black_Hole.html

Maryland Joint Space Institute: http://bit.ly/okd11m

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