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

Oct 26, 2015 02:06 PM EDT

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.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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