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Cosmic murder and the death cry of a star

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
August 7th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

It must be the dread of every star,  if stars had consciousness, being devoured by a black hole. The violent process is by no means quick, and the ill-fated star could take millions of years to be finished off, and now according to scientists, the stars cry as it happens. 

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Astronomers have just announced the discovery of a star's death cry, while reviewing data from a black hole discovered just over a year ago. The black hole, Swift J1644+57, was discovered on March 28, 2011 by virtue of gamma rays emitted by a star falling into it. 

A black hole is a super-dense object created when a massive star, many times more massive than our sun, runs out of hydrogen fuel and has nothing left to keep it burning. Without the outward pressure caused by constant nuclear fusion in the core, the matter, which makes the star, collapses inward. If there's enough matter, that process can continue past a critical point so that the star becomes a nearly-infinitely dense and infinitely small point also known as a singularity.

Despite its small size however, the mass of the object is the same as the star it was before and anything which passes too close, may fall towards the singularity. 

These objects are commonly referred to as black holes because they cannot be seen; their gravitational pull is so great that even light waves, the fastest thing in the universe, cannot escape. 
In the case of Swift J1644+57, a star passed too close and was drawn into the clutches of this cosmic death-trap. As the star came near, the black hole shredded it, layer by layer, with its gasses swirling around the black hole as water down a drain. As the gasses approached the event horizon, which is the point at which light cannot escape, they swirled faster and hotter, while being strung out like spaghetti. 

These ultra-heated gasses emit radiation including x-rays and gamma rays, and as they fall past the event horizon, the black hole does a curious thing, which is not yet well understood. From the poles of the black hole are shot jets of matter moving at 90 percent the speed of light. The energy and matter fired in each direction is extreme can be easily detected from billions of light-years away. 

In this case, one such jet happens to be aimed right at Earth. No worries though, the matter will never reach us because Earth is much too distant. However, the high-speed gamma radiation reached Earth just recently and was detected by satellite. 

When scientists studied the energy burst, they discovered something new. Such a burst of direct radiation has never been recorded before. They found that as the material fell into the black hole, it essentially let out a pulse that would be audible, if sound could travel in space. This pulse, or cry as they have dubbed it, repeated every three and a-half minutes. 

A star falling into a black hole would have good reason to cry, or anything else for that matter. Nothing that goes into a black hole ever emerges and is ever seen or heard from again, nor can be. In fact, this is one of the enduring mysteries of astronomy, just what does happen to matter after it crosses the event horizon? 

Despite the fact the answer may never be found, scientists remain on the case. The data gleaned from J1644+57 may also help in their investigation. Scientists have answered many questions about the physical universe that they thought could never been answered. Perhaps the death cry of this one unlucky star may not have been emitted in vain, and will be a clue in deciphering yet another great mystery of astronomy. 

 

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