Black hole consumes stars

Astronomers from observatories in Europe and Massachusetts believe they have proof that a black hole 100 million times as massive as Earth has swallowed part of a star in a distant galaxy.

NASA scientists and astronomers in Europe and Massachusetts announced on Wednesday that two orbiting X-ray observatories have captured the first evidence of a "supermassive black hole ripping apart a star and consuming a portion of it."

Scientists have long theorized about this possibility but this new evidence brings that theory into prominence.

"Stars can survive being stretched a small amount, as they are in binary star systems, but this star was stretched beyond its breaking point," said Stefanie Komossa of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Germany, leader of the international team of researchers studying this stellar event. "This unlucky star just wandered into the wrong neighborhood," informs &to=' target=_blank>MensNewsDaily

The X-ray burst the disintegrating star released as it spiraled to its doom was so powerful and bright it lingered for more than a decade after the black hole gobbled its stellar meal. For a while, it was one of the most luminous objects in the universe, excited scientists said during a news briefing Wednesday.

"This is fantastic stuff, one of the holy grails of astronomy," said Paul Hertz, a NASA senior scientist for astronomy and physics. "This is very strong evidence that stars are occasionally being ripped apart by black holes."

Astronomers believe that more sophisticated future orbiting observatories may let them actually catch black holes in the act of swallowing. That data could reveal how black holes evolve, Hertz said, reports &to=' target=_blank>

The researchers say that if a massive black hole disrupted a star at the center of our Milky Way 25,000 light years away, the resulting x-ray outburst would be 50,000 times brighter than the brightest x-ray source in the galaxy. It would not endanger Earth, but it would destroy the light gathering instruments aboard the orbiting telescopes. The energy output of such an event is enormous - enough to provide power for 100-billion Earths for as long as the universe has existed.

The chances of this happening, however, are considered very rare - about once every 10,000 years in a typical galaxy. But Guenther Hasinger told reporters at U.S. space agency headquarters in Washington that with billions of galaxies in existence, there should be many chances to see a black hole destroy a star.

"We very much hope that future x-ray survey missions, which scan a large part of the sky, will actually pick up these sources regularly," says Mr. Hasinger. "At that time we will be alert - we know the event now - and we will [alert] all the astronomers around the globe to follow this and we hope we can really learn from this experiment that nature is providing for us."

In the distant galaxy the German astronomers witnessed, the dying star's x-ray blast lingers, but is much fainter as it gradually fades from view, according to &to=' target=_blank>

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