A giant black hole has been captured in the earliest stages or ripping apart and subsequently devouring a sun-like star, astronomers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.
On March 28, NASA's Swift orbital telescope alerted astronomers to intense and unusual high-energy flares in the constellation Draco, which has reportedly been streaming X-rays toward Earth. Scientists soon realized the source, known as Swift J1644 57, was actually the awakening of a distant galaxy's black hole and it consumed a star, which is so far away that it took light from the event approximately 3.9 billion years to reach Earth.
Incredibly, this source is still producing X-rays and may remain bright enough for Swift to observe into next year, said David Burrows, a professor of astronomy at Pennsylvania State University and lead scientist for the mission's X-Ray Telescope instrument. It behaves unlike anything we've seen before.
Scientists report that most galaxies - including the Milky Way - contain a central supersized black hole with a mass millions of times that of the sun. The newly discovered black hole is thought to be about twice the mass of the four-million-solar mass one in the center of our own galaxy.
As a star moves toward a black hole, it is ripped apart by the pressure, causing the gas to form into a disk that swirls around the black hole and become heated to extremely intense temperatures. As the disk spirals toward the black hole it creates dual funnels through which some particles may escape, researchers said, adding that jets driving matter at velocities greater than 90 percent of the speed of light form around the black hole's spin axis. In this case, one of those jets happened to be pointing at Earth.
The radio emission occurs when the outgoing jet slams into the interstellar environment, said Ashley Zauderer, a fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who led a second study of the event.