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Black hole enjoys fantastically long stellar feast

X-ray glow gives away the slow chow down

9:00am, February 27, 2017
supermassive black hole

SLOW EATER  A supermassive black hole has set a record for the longest meal, slurping on a single star for more than 10 years. In this artist’s illustration of the event, gas from the star (red) falls toward the black hole, while a wind blows the other way (blue).

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Black holes are speed eaters, usually scarfing down a star in less than a year. But a supermassive black hole in a galaxy about 1.8 billion light-years away has been gorging on a single star for more than 10 years – longer than any other observed supermassive black hole meal.

Astronomers detected the extraordinary feast in X-ray images from ESA’s XMM-Newton spacecraft and NASA’s Chandra and Swift satellites. From 2005 to 2008, X-rays from the region grew 100 times brighter — probably as the black hole began devouring the star — and the glow has been largely sustained ever since. The consumed star may be a hefty one with 10 times the mass of the sun, which could explain the extended meal. The X-ray flare probably won’t dim significantly for several years, the astronomers report online February 6 in Nature Astronomy.

GALACTIC GASTRONOMY In a galaxy 1.8 billion light-years away, a star veered too close to a supermassive black hole and was ripped apart, creating what’s called a tidal disruption event. The black hole has been consuming the stellar remains more than 10 times longer than any other similar event. CXC/NASA


D. Lin et al. A likely decade-long sustained tidal disruption event. Nature Astronomy. Published online February 6, 2017. doi: 10.1038/s41550-016-0033.

Further Reading

C. Crockett. Milky Way’s black hole may hurl galactic spitballs our way. Science News. Vol. 191, February 4, 2017, p. 11.

N. Drake. A star is torn. Science News. Vol. 181, June 2, 2012, p. 8.

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