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Black Holes Eating Stars: New Study Shows Intense Gravity Force at Work

Oct 26, 2015 02:06 PM EDT
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What do black holes do, gaping there in space? Researchers from Penn State, University of Maryland, NASA and elsewhere were able to look at data of a black hole taking apart a star in the middle of a galaxy around 290 million light years distant from Earth, and gave the event an acronym-name that sounds like "assassin."

For this research, the team used three orbiting observatories, including NASA's Swift Gamma-ray-Burst Explorer, to rake in data, according to a release.

"Swift is uniquely equipped to make rapid-response observations to fast-breaking events throughout the universe," John Nousek, who directs mission operations for Swift and teaches astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, said in the release." This event occurred near a supermassive black hole estimated to weigh a few million times the mass of the Sun.

Stars that move too near to a black hole can be sucked into its fierce gravity and be ripped apart by its tides. This is called a "tidal disruption," as a release noted. As a result, debris from the star is thrown outward at a fast rate, then the rest of the star falls toward the black hole. This results in X-ray flares that can persist for a few years, the release noted.

The other data-collectors for the study were NASA's Chandra X-ray observatory, and the ESA (European Space Agency)/NASA XMM-Newton observatory. They gathered part of the data during the tidal disruption event called ASASSN-14li that was first noted in November 2014, noted the release.

In a tidal disruption, the star remains are pulled toward the black hole after the star is broken apart. As the debris heats up, it generates a powerful X-ray light. Right after that, the light decreases, the material falls past the black hole's "event horizon," a point at which no light can escape, the release observed.

The astronomy team in this case looked at the X-ray light in different wavelengths (this is called the X-ray spectrum) and kept track of the changes over time.

The study's report was recently published in the journal Nature.

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