Black hole enjoys fantastically long stellar feast

X-ray glow gives away the slow chow down

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).


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

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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