Light Lunch: First Ever Glimpse of Black Hole Eating a Star

Astronomers have known for many years that black holes are out there in the universe, sucking in and destroying any stars that happen to venture too close to their awesome gravitational pulls. But until now, what happens to those unfortunate stars has been pure speculation. In early 2011, scientists witnessed for the first time a black hole tearing apart and “eating” a huge star. Although the actual visuals weren’t as fantastically graphic as the animation below, they can help teach the scientific community a great deal about the nature of these massive mysteries.

What the scientists actually detected were extremely bright bursts of gamma rays in patterns unlike anything ever seen before. The flare happened in the center of a galaxy and the radiation expanded at 99.5 percent of the speed of light – all of which was evidence that the flare came from the destruction of a large star. The black hole that devoured the star boasted a mass of roughly 100 million times the mass of our sun, which is about the same size as the black hole at the center of our own galaxy. Even though it was discovered in the very last stage of its lifetime, astronomers on the project named the doomed star Swift J1644+57.

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See more in Space & Time or under Science. October, 2011.