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Friday, 15 May, 1998, 19:46 GMT 20:46 UK
Hubble spies a greedy black hole
A starburst firestorm in Centaurus A
A starburst firestorm in Centaurus A
Astronomers have taken an unprecedented look at cosmic violence involving a black hole. Our science correspondent David Whitehouse reports:

These are some of the most remarkable images ever taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

It has seen evidence of a massive black hole hidden at the centre of a nearby galaxy that is feeding on another galaxy in a spectacular collision.

Such celestial fireworks were common in the early universe when the galaxies were young and full of new-born hot stars but such violence is rare today.

Centaurus A and its dust lane
Centaurus A and its dust lane
Hubble has taken an image of the galaxy Centaurus A. It shows a dramatic dark lane of dust that is all that is left of another galaxy disrupted during its recent collision with Centaurus A.

It has seen blue clusters of hot young stars and silhouettes of dust tracts interspersed with orange-glowing gas. Elsewhere the sky is filled with the soft hazy glow of the galaxy's much older red stars.

This has been called a starburst firestorm. Stars are being formed in vast clouds of gas and dust compressed by the gravitational turbulence of the collision.

Located only 10 million light-years away, a stone's throw in cosmic terms, this peculiar looking galaxy contains the nearest so-called active galactic nucleus to Earth.

Active galactic nucleus is what astronomers call a gigantic black hole that swallows clouds of gas and throws off into space jets of superheated gas with vast energy.

The black hole in Centaurus A
The black hole in Centaurus A
Hubble has seen through the dust lane for the first time. It has seen a twisted disk of hot gas swept up in the gravitational whirlpool of a giant black hole at the heart of Centaurus A.

The suspected black hole is so dense that it contains the mass of about a billion stars compacted into a region of space not much larger than our solar system.

Astronomers are excited by these latest observations. Having an active galaxy just 10 million light years away offers them a unique chance to understand the details of supermassive black holes fuelled by galaxy collisions.

See also:

25 Mar 98 | Sci/Tech
Hubble sees starbirth
24 Apr 98 | Sci/Tech
Hubble's birthday picture
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