Black hole eats a star

Artist's impression of a star being eaten by a black hole

The aftermath of a black hole's banquet of a star, was jets of energy blasted from the black hole, fortuitously pointed in our direction and detected by the Swift satellite. (Artist's impression)

A BRIGHT FLASH OF GAMMA RAYS observed on March 28 by the Swift satellite may have been the death rattle of a star falling into a massive black hole and being ripped apart.

When Swift detected the flash, astronomers initially thought it was a gamma-ray burst from a collapsing star.

However, research led by astronomers at the University of Warwick has confirmed that the flash—one of the biggest and brightest bangs yet recorded by astronomers—came from a massive black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy.

The black hole appears to have ripped apart a star that wandered too close, creating a powerful beam of energy that crossed the 3.8 billion light years to Earth.

Gamma-ray flare in a distant galaxy

A gamma-ray flare seen in a distant galaxy is thought to have been the death throes of a star being eaten by a black hole.

Careful analysis of the data and subsequent observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory confirmed Bloom’s initial insight.

“Despite the power of this the cataclysmic event we still only happen to see this event because our Solar System happened to be looking right down the barrel of this jet of energy,” said Dr Andrew Levan, lead researcher from the University of Warwick.

What made this gamma-ray flare, called Sw 1644+57, stand out from a typical burst were its long duration and the fact that it appeared to come from the centre of a galaxy nearly 4 billion light-years away.

Since most, if not all, galaxies are thought to contain a massive black hole at the centre, a long-duration burst could conceivably come from the relatively slow disruption of an infalling star, the astronomers said.

“This burst produced a tremendous amount of energy over a fairly long period of time, and the event is still going on more than two and a half months later,” said Joshua Bloom, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of California Berkeley. “That’s because as the black hole rips the star apart, the mass swirls around like water going down a drain, and this swirling process releases a lot of energy.”

Adapted from information issued by the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Warwick. Images courtesy NASA / Swift / Stefan Immler / ESA / A. Fruchter, STScI / Mark A. Garlick.

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