- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Astronomers reported yesterday the first strong evidence of a supermassive black hole stretching, tearing apart and partially gobbling up a star.

The event had long been predicted by theory but never confirmed.

“This is really fantastic stuff. This is one of the Holy Grails of astronomy,” said astronomer Alex Filippenko of the University of California at Berkeley.

A powerful X-ray blast drew the attention of astronomers to the event, located near the center of an otherwise inconspicuous galaxy called RX J1242-11. The galaxy is about 700 million light-years from Earth.

The international team of astronomers believes the blast was produced as debris from the destroyed star was sucked into the black hole.

“The last cry of help before the matter falls into the black hole is radiated in X-rays, which we have detected,” said Gunther Hasinger, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

The resulting flare was thousands of times brighter than all of the billions of other stars in the galaxy, astronomers said during a National Aeronautics and Space Administration news conference broadcast from Washington.

A black hole is a massive but unseen celestial object that has such an intense gravitational pull that nothing — not even light — can escape from it.

This particular black hole is estimated to have a mass 100 million times that of the sun. Astronomers said an unlucky star about the size of our sun neared the black hole after veering off course following a close encounter with another star.

The tremendous gravity of the black hole stretched the star, ripping it apart in perhaps just hours or days. The star came apart at a distance from the black hole comparable to the 140 million miles that separates the sun and Mars.

“In this case, David can’t outwit Goliath and Goliath wins because ultimately, gravity wins here,” NASA astronomer Kim Weaver said.

The black hole consumed anywhere from 1 percent to 25 percent of the doomed star, flinging the rest out into space.

Astronomers used NASA’s Chandra and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatories to capture the event.

Similar events are estimated to occur just once every 10,000 years in a typical galaxy, depending on how closely packed it is with stars. Astronomers have long sought to witness one.

Astronomers have seen other similar X-ray blasts before, but never were able to pinpoint them at the center of a galaxy, where black holes lurk. The new observations also revealed the characteristic X-ray signature expected of the surroundings of a black hole.

The blast was first seen in 1992 and remains visible as it fades.

A similar star-gobbling event could occur at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, Mr. Filippenko said. However, none of the stars that astronomers currently see at the Milky Way’s heart is in immediate danger of being swallowed, he added.

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