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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 February, 2004, 19:34 GMT
Huge black hole tears apart star
Black hole, Nasa
The findings are the best evidence yet of the theory, say astronomers
Astronomers claim they have observed a super-massive black hole ripping apart a star and consuming part of it.

Scientists think the doomed star drifted too close to the giant hole and gradually fell under the influence of its enormous gravity.

The tidal forces of the black hole pulled on the star, stretching it until it broke up.

The black hole then swallowed some of the matter left behind, causing a flare of X-rays that was detected on Earth.

The phenomenon has long been predicted by theory and similar X-ray spikes have been seen before.

'Brilliant flare'

But astronomers claim the new data, from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory and Nasa's Chandra X-ray observatory, is the best evidence yet that these events do happen.

This unlucky star just wandered into the wrong neighbourhood
Dr Stefanie Komossa, Max Planck Institute
The X-ray outburst is one of the most extreme ever detected and was caused by gas from the destroyed star being heated to millions of degrees.

The black hole is at the centre of a galaxy known as RX J1242-11 and is estimated to have a mass about 100 million times that of the Sun. RX J1242-11 is an estimated 700 million light-years away from Earth.

"This unlucky star just wandered into the wrong neighbourhood," said Dr Stefanie Komossa, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

"The centre of the galaxy flared up in a brilliant burst of X-rays thousands of times brighter than all of the billions of stars of this galaxy taken together."

Regular vision

Dr Komossa said the emission's wide spread of energy was characteristic of matter very close to a black hole.

"The gravity of that black hole is strong enough to swing around the stars in the centre and in the vicinity up to speeds of several thousands of kilometres per second," Professor Guenther Hasinger, also of the Max Planck Institute, told a news conference in Washington DC, US.

Black hole, Nasa
The black hole's tidal forces stretched the star to breaking point
It is estimated that about one-hundredth of the mass of the star was ultimately consumed by the black hole.

This small amount is consistent with predictions that the momentum and energy of the process by which the star is consumed would fling most of the star's gas away from the black hole.

"Every galaxy contains a black hole, and there are millions or billions of galaxies. In principle, we are expecting these events to happen all the time," said Professor Hasinger.

"We very much hope that future X-ray survey missions will actually pick up these sources regularly."




SEE ALSO:
Galactic impact makes black holes
09 Dec 03  |  Science/Nature
The give and take of black holes
26 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
Most distant black hole weighed
20 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature


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