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Black Hole Meal Sets Record for Length and Size

For Release: February 6, 2017

CXC

XJ1500+0154
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNH/D.Lin et al, Optical: CFHT, Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Press Image and Caption

A giant black hole ripped apart a star and then gorged on its remains for about a decade, according to astronomers. This is more than ten times longer than any observed episode of a star's death by black hole.

Researchers made this discovery using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift satellite as well as ESA's XMM-Newton.

The trio of orbiting X-ray telescopes found evidence for a "tidal disruption event" (TDE), wherein the tidal forces due to the intense gravity from a black hole can destroy an object — such as a star — that wanders too close. During a TDE, some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speeds, while the rest falls toward the black hole. As it travels inwards to be ingested by the black hole, the material heats up to millions of degrees and generates a distinct X-ray flare.

"We have witnessed a star's spectacular and prolonged demise," said Dacheng Lin from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, who led the study. "Dozens of tidal disruption events have been detected since the 1990s, but none that remained bright for nearly as long as this one."

The extraordinary long bright phase of this event spanning over ten years means that among observed TDEs this was either the most massive star ever to be completely torn apart during one of these events, or the first where a smaller star was completely torn apart.

The X-ray source containing this force-fed black hole, known by its abbreviated name of XJ1500+0154, is located in a small galaxy about 1.8 billion light years from Earth.

The source was not detected in a Chandra observation on April 2nd, 2005, but was detected in an XMM-Newton observation on July 23rd, 2005, and reached peak brightness in a Chandra observation on June 5, 2008. These observations show that the source became at least 100 times brighter in X-rays. Since then, Chandra, Swift, and XMM-Newton have observed it multiple times.

The sharp X-ray vision of Chandra data shows that XJ1500+0154 is located at the center of its host galaxy, the expected location for a supermassive black hole.

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