NASA scientists have managed to capture a distant galaxy's dormant black hole shredding and consuming a star.
On March 28, the space agency's Swift telescope detected several bright bursts of X-rays coming from a patch of the sky where no such rays have been detected before.
NASA has said the galaxy is so far away, it took the light from the event approximately 3.9 billion years to reach Earth.
Now two teams of scientists, led by David Burrows of Pennsylvania State University and Ashley Zauderer of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., say the bursts observed were probably chunks of a star that was ripped up when it wandered too close to the black hole.
The star was orbiting the black hole before it was devoured and so it continues to circle around the hole, which reportedly weighs a million suns, as they gradually get swallowed up.
Scientists have seen the aftermath of such tidal disruption events several times, but it's the first time they have seen evidence of this destruction at the onset. It may come in the form of a bright flare of ultraviolet, gamma and X-rays, which can theoretically last for years as the star is gradually consumed.
Now we've seen the start of this event for the first time, study co-author Burrows, an astrophysicist at Penn State, told Space.com.
Zauderer said the seeing the event was nothing like we expected for a gamma-ray burst.
Davide Lazzati at North Carolina State University in Raleigh told the New Scientist that finding other such outbursts could help reveal the density of stars in the central regions of galaxies, where giant black holes like this one live.
This striking video shows the scene: