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Friday, 15 May, 1998, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Hubble spies black hole gobbling galaxy
The Hubble gazes into the Black Hole's maw, shown in close-up (right)
Astronomers have been given an unprecedented look at an act of galactic cannibalism, as a black hole at the centre of a nearby galaxy devours a smaller galaxy.

New images from the Hubble Space Telescope show a black hole in the galaxy Centaurus A, a relatively close 10 million light years from Earth. Most such galaxies are about 100 times further away.

The Hubble's infrared camera is being used for the first time to study a galaxy
The black hole, bigger than a billion suns, has collided with the smaller galaxy which it is now devouring in a display of celestial fireworks.

Centaurus A is the closest of the "active galaxies", which are galaxies spewing out huge amounts of energy and light. Such energy is thought to come from black holes.

Black holes are mysterious space objects with gravitational pulls so powerful they suck in everything around them including light.

Such dramatic cosmic displays were common in the early universe when the galaxies were young and full of newborn, hot bright stars, but such violence is now rare.

Centaurus A is immense, perhaps 50 times larger than the Milky Way, home to the Earth and about 100 billion stars.

Even though the black hole contains a mass equal to a billion suns, it is compacted into an area about the size of the solar system.

Centaurus A is the first galaxy to be studied with the Hubble's infrared camera.

The images from the Hubble, which has a clear view of the cosmos from its orbit above the Earth's turbulent atmosphere, will enable astronomers to gain a better understanding of black holes and the effect they have on material captured in their gravitational trap.

See also:

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