Astronomers Catch Black Hole Swallowing Star
It's the first time they've witnessed the phenomenon as it happens
By Mark Russell,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 25, 2011 9:22 AM CDT
This artist's image provided by the University of Warwick shows a star being distorted by its close passage to a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy.   (AP Photo/University of Warwick, Mark A. Garlick)

(Newser) – While scientists have seen the aftermath of stars ripped apart by black holes before, they say they've finally seen the galactic violence in the act for the first time, reports the LA Times. The Earth-orbiting Swift observatory noticed an unusual radiation spike coming from a constellation 4.5 billion light-years away on March 28. As scientists, responding to a text message sent by Swift, discussed what was happening in a conference call, Swift's X-ray telescope recorded a second radiation blast from the same location ... and then two more.

Over the next few days, the astronomers determined the unusual energy readings couldn't be the result of a supernova or more typical stellar phenomena; they could only be attributed to a huge black hole tearing apart a star—which they believe is the size of our sun—and shooting out a jet of radiation. The astronomers believe the star edged too close to the black hole and was caught by its powerful gravitational pull, which tugged at the side of the star, eventually causing it to rip apart. The Times explains that chunks of its plasma traveled toward the black hole, while other bits of it were expelled in the bursts of radiation noted by Swift.
 

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