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Supermassive black hole swallows star

August 26, 2011


This illustration released by the journal Nature shows an artist’s conception a surge of X-rays from deep space, which resulted after a black hole tore apart a star. (Amadeo Bachar – AFP/Getty Images) For the first time ever, astronomers say they have witnessed a supermassive black hole devouring a star.

In two papers released Wednesday by the journal Nature, scientists described blasts of radiation so bright and powerful they could only be explained by a luckless, sun-sized star being torn apart by the gravitational forces of a “cosmic monster” — the supermassive black hole.

While scientists say this has happened before, this is the first time they have witnessed the event.

On March 28, a detector on the Earth-orbiting Swift observatory picked up a sudden burst of radiation. The burst came from a point in the constellation Draco, 4.5 million light years away.

Another bright burst of radiation soon occurred at the same spot, and then two more.

What the scientists saw was too bright to have come from a supernova, and the patterns too dissimilar for other space phenomena, like spinning neutron stars.

Ashley Zauderer, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who participated in the study, told the Los Angeles Times that she remembers thinking: “This is crazy… I didn’t believe it. I called a colleague and said, ‘Will you make sure I didn’t make a mistake? Look at this data; it’s too bright.’”

Zauderer and others did a radio-wave study that mapped the location of the burst — and it was right at the center of the galaxy, where a black hole should be.

Scientists aren’t likely to see another star get swallowed any time soon, but David Burrows, lead author of one of the Nature reports, told the LA Times they will keep looking.

“It might happen once every 10,000 years in a galaxy with a supermassive black hole in the center,” Burrows said. “But there are a lot of galaxies out there in the sky.”

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