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Massive Black Hole Implicated in Stellar Destruction

For Release: January 4, 2010


NGC 1399
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UA/J. Irwin; Optical: NASA/STScI
Press Image and Caption

New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescopes suggest that a dense stellar remnant has been ripped apart by a black hole a thousand times as massive as the Sun. If confirmed, this discovery would be a cosmic double play: it would be strong evidence for an intermediate mass black hole, which has been a hotly debated topic, and would mark the first time such a black hole has been caught tearing a star apart.

This scenario is based on Chandra observations, which revealed an unusually luminous source of X-rays in a dense cluster of old stars, and optical observations that showed a peculiar mix of elements associated with the X-ray emission. Taken together, a case can be made that the X-ray emission is produced by debris from a disrupted white dwarf star that is heated as it falls towards a massive black hole. The optical emission comes from debris further out that is illuminated by these X-rays.

The intensity of the X-ray emission places the source in the "ultraluminous X-ray source" or ULX category, meaning that it is more luminous than any known stellar X-ray source, but less luminous than the bright X-ray sources (active galactic nuclei) associated with supermassive black holes in the nuclei of galaxies. The nature of ULXs is a mystery, but one suggestion is that some ULXs are black holes with masses between about a hundred and several thousand times that of the Sun, a range intermediate between stellar-mass black holes and supermassive black holes located in the nuclei of galaxies.

This ULX is in a globular cluster, a very old and crowded conglomeration of stars. Astronomers have suspected that globular clusters could contain intermediate-mass black holes, but conclusive evidence for this has been elusive.

"Astronomers have made cases for stars being torn apart by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies before, but this is the first good evidence for such an event in a globular cluster," said Jimmy Irwin of the University of Alabama who led the study.

Irwin and his colleagues obtained optical spectra of the object using the Magellan I and II telescopes in Las Campanas, Chile. These data reveal emission from gas rich in oxygen and nitrogen but no hydrogen, a rare set of signals from globular clusters. The physical conditions deduced from the spectra suggest that the gas is orbiting a black hole of at least 1,000 solar masses. The abundant amount of oxygen and absence of hydrogen indicate that the destroyed star was a white dwarf, the end phase of a solar-type star that has burned its hydrogen leaving a high concentration of oxygen. The nitrogen seen in the optical spectrum remains an enigma.

"We think these unusual signatures can be explained by a white dwarf that strayed too close to a black hole and was torn apart by the extreme tidal forces," said coauthor Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan.

Theoretical work suggests that the tidal disruption-induced X-ray emission could stay bright for more than a century, but it should fade with time. So far, the team has observed there has been a 35% decline in X-ray emission from 2000 to 2008.

The ULX in this study is located in NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light years from Earth.

Irwin presented these results at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

More information, including images and other multimedia, can be found at: and

Media contacts:
Janet Anderson
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala.

Megan Watzke
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.

Visitor Comments (14)

We on Earth are following the destructive nature of Black hole or they are getting influenced by us?

Posted by Pijush Banerjee on Saturday, 12.30.17 @ 05:05am


Posted by maria irala on Friday, 08.7.15 @ 22:13pm

Thank you... amazing black hole. Great site.

Posted by Hasan Y 305 lgor on Tuesday, 11.11.14 @ 00:43am

Dear Verginia G,
Thanks for the comments and I hope you keep looking at the sky.
P. Edmonds for CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Thursday, 11.18.10 @ 15:59pm

Flint Michigan has had an awesome naked eye sky observatory. The things we can see with the naked eye at first seems unreasonable and totally impossible. However, with NASA reports coming in validating what we are truly seeing is verification enough for me that we're not crazy. I am still perplexed as to why we can see these stellar sights with only the naked eye.

Posted by Virginia G on Tuesday, 11.16.10 @ 14:19pm

I have been specially interested in the interaction between a black hole and other structures in our universe. This presentation adds to a previous view of a collision between two galaxies, which impressed me very much about what is happening in our universe. Thanks for this opportunity provided by your spectacular efforts.

Posted by Wilfredo Severo Reyes on Wednesday, 10.13.10 @ 11:15am

Really cool pictures.

Great site

Posted by John on Monday, 09.13.10 @ 05:08am


Posted by rq on Friday, 02.19.10 @ 07:09am

Well, I assent to, but I contemplate the post should have more info then it has.

Posted by Vigrx Plus on Saturday, 02.6.10 @ 07:47am

Could this be the shimmering star in the sky lately tonight I saw it? At first I thought it might be a plane or something, it looked like it was moving that much, after a while I realized it was indeed a star, but the array of colors and movement or twinkling coming from it really amazed me so I got online to look for answers.

Posted by jim on Monday, 01.18.10 @ 20:14pm

Most excellent and kudos in the true meaning of its word. Continuously pleased by nature's trueness.
Thank you

Posted by J MADSON on Friday, 01.15.10 @ 09:19am

Would there be any intermidiate black holes in the globular clusters around our own galaxy?

Marvin L. S.

Posted by Marvin L. S. on Saturday, 01.9.10 @ 17:23pm

I appreciate the fine observation. I'm very interested in the activity
of black holes and plasma waves through out the universe particularly
in alignment relative to the alpha centori system. Most helpful.

Posted by John R. Fisher on Thursday, 01.7.10 @ 22:05pm

Thank you for sharing and showing all to us, this is so interesting to me, I love looking at the sky and seeing the stars beautiful. Thank you Jeanne

Posted by Jeanne M. Johnosn on Wednesday, 01.6.10 @ 17:06pm