August 25, 2011

Swift Telescope Captures Black Hole Ripping Apart Star


NASA said on Wednesday that its Swift orbital telescope has captured a black hole ripping apart a star.

Two studies appearing in the August 25th issue of the journal Nature show off a cosmic accident that has been streaming X-rays toward Earth since late March.

The satellite first alerted astronomers of the intense and unusual high-energy flares from the new source of the constellation Draco.

"Incredibly, this source is still producing X-rays and may remain bright enough for Swift to observe into next year," David Burrows, professor of astronomy at Penn State University and lead scientist for the mission's X-Ray Telescope instrument, said in a press release. "It behaves unlike anything we've seen before."

Astronomers realized the source was the result of the awaking of a distant galaxy's dormant black hole as it shredded and consumed a star.  The light from the event took about 3.9 billion years to reach Earth.

"Our observations show that the radio-emitting region is still expanding at more than half the speed of light," Edo Berger, an associate professor of astrophysics at Harvard and a coauthor of the paper, said in a press release. "By tracking this expansion backward in time, we can confirm that the outflow formed at the same time as the Swift X-ray source."

Astronomers said that the "supermassive" black hole is a mass a million times that of the Sun.

The X-ray flare was a "relativistic outflow" of high-energy matter that flowed from the star as it was pulled apart by the black hole's gravitational pull and hauled towards it death.

Supermassive black holes are commonly found in the center of galaxies.


Image Caption: This illustration steps through the events that scientists think likely resulted in Swift J1644+57. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift


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