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Killer black hole devours star in a flash

20 Jun 2011

One of the biggest and brightest bangs ever recorded by astronomers came from a massive black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy. The black hole appears to have ripped apart a star that wandered too close, creating a powerful beam of energy that crossed the 3.8 billion light years to Earth.

Artist’s impression of the star about to be ripped apart. Credit: University of Warwick / Mark A Garlick (JPG, 3.6 Mb) 
Artist’s impression of the star about to be ripped apart.
Credit: University of Warwick / Mark A Garlick

The research, published in the journal Science, was carried out by an international team including STFC-funded astronomers from the universities of Warwick, Leicester and Hertfordshire. They used an array of space and ground based facilities including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Swift satellite, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Gemini and Keck Telescopes in Hawaii.

Dr Andrew Levan of the University of Warwick, the collaboration’s lead researcher said: "Despite the power of this the cataclysmic event, we only saw this event because our solar system happened to be looking right down the barrel of this jet of energy."

Professor Nial Tanvir from University of Leicester added: “It is rare for stars to get very close to the black holes in the centre of galaxies, but when they do, they will always come off second best.”

The UK Space Agency provides the UK funding for the Swift satellite.

Read the full press release on University of Warwick’s website.

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