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Giant Black Hole Shreds and Swallows Helpless Star
ScienceNOW ^ | 2 May 2012 | Ken Croswell

Posted on 05/03/2012 5:19:20 PM PDT by neverdem

Enlarge Image
Slaughtered star. A black hole (upper left) tears a helium-rich star to shreds.
Credit: S. Gezari/Johns Hopkins University and J. Guillochon, UC Santa Cruz/NASA

Some people seem born under an unlucky star. But some stars are equally unlucky themselves. Astronomers have spotted a star in another galaxy plunging toward a giant black hole and being ripped to shreds, sparking a flare so brilliant that observers detected it from a distance of 2.1 billion light-years. By watching the flare brighten and fade, scientists have achieved the unprecedented feat of reconstructing the life story of the doomed sun.

Giant black holes occupy the centers of most large galaxies, including our own, whose central black hole is 4 million times as massive as the sun and swallows a star once every 10,000 to 100,000 years. Astronomers have recently seen black holes in several other galaxies rip stars apart. But the new drama is unique. "This is the first time where we're really seeing one of these events from start to finish," says astronomer Suvi Gezari of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "What was so spectacular was the fact that we actually could figure out what type of star was disrupted."

Astronomers first picked up a signal from the constellation Draco in May 2010, when the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii spotted a flare at visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The scientists calculate that the black hole's gravity had torn the star apart a month earlier by pulling harder on one side of the star than the other. As stellar debris funneled into the black hole, gravity and friction roasted the star's remains until they emitted ultraviolet radiation, which NASA's GALEX satellite detected in June. The flare peaked in July 2010, outshining all the stars in the galaxy put together, and then faded, but was still aglow a year later.

As Gezari's team reports online today in Nature, the black hole is about 3 million times more massive than our sun, slightly smaller than the Milky Way's central black hole, and marks the heart of a galaxy dimmer than our own. The black hole swallowed only about half the star, which lost a huge amount of energy by plummeting into the black hole. Because the laws of physics dictate that energy must be conserved, the rest of the star shot away from the black hole at enormous speed.

The team has also pieced together the life story of the unlucky star. Born roughly a billion years ago, it once generated energy as the sun does, converting hydrogen into helium at its core. When the core filled with helium, the star became a red giant—a helium core surrounded by a puffy outer layer of hydrogen.

But the distant sun was doomed. Gezari doesn't know whether it was born in a bad orbit or another star's gravity kicked it into one, but the star began approaching the black hole. Before its fiery demise, when the star was about as far from its nemesis as Pluto is from the sun, the black hole stripped off its hydrogen envelope. That left the star with only its helium core, which was a third of the sun's diameter and bore a quarter of its mass. When the star ventured within 50 million kilometers, slightly closer than Mercury is to the sun, the black hole tore it to pieces. Gezari and her colleagues can infer its composition because they detect helium but no hydrogen in its glowing remains.

"It's quite impressive," says astronomer Giuseppe Lodato of the University of Milan in Italy, who was not affiliated with the scientists who discovered the event. "They're able to infer quite a few details not just about the black hole, but also about the kind of star that has been disrupted."

Ironically, only in death could astronomers study the star's life: It was so distant that had it not been destroyed, no telescope could have seen it.

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TOPICS: Culture/Society; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: astronomy; blackhole; blackholes; catastrophism; physics; xplanets
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To: neverdem; Erasmus
Good thing we have ERASMUS to explain what they 'meant'. I guess 'scientists' aren't sticklers for accuracy ?

Anyway, regardless of how it is said, 'momentum is conserved' is like saying the truck moved because it has round wheels.

I would be more apt to believe that half the star was sucked into the 'black hole' and the remaining half was spinning round the vortex so fast that centrifugal force ejected it our past the Scharzhild (sp?) radius, possible at a much higher speed than it was entering.

41 posted on 05/05/2012 10:35:56 PM PDT by UCANSEE2 (Lame and ill-informed post)
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To: dhs12345
Interesting thought: this happened over a billion years ago.

Oh yeah. Well... that's if you were actually 'there'.

If you were on Earth, why... seems like yesterday.

42 posted on 05/05/2012 10:38:55 PM PDT by UCANSEE2 (Lame and ill-informed post)
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To: central_va
THis crap always confuses me

You should see what it does to the scientists who have to explain it to a reporter.

43 posted on 05/05/2012 10:43:14 PM PDT by UCANSEE2 (Lame and ill-informed post)
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To: Condor51
From the headline I thought Whoopie Goldberg was dating Ted Danson again.

44 posted on 05/05/2012 10:45:42 PM PDT by dfwgator (Don't wake up in a roadside ditch. Get rid of Romney.)
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To: Charles Martel; SunkenCiv; All

I believe what the story said was that the star lived for about a billion years before being destroyed 2 billion years ago. Like saying Lincoln live for 50 years before being shot 150 years ago.

45 posted on 05/05/2012 11:14:41 PM PDT by gleeaikin
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Good thing we have ERASMUS to explain what they 'meant'.

You're welcome.


46 posted on 05/06/2012 10:14:00 AM PDT by Erasmus (BHO: New supreme leader of the homey rollin' empire.)
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