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Astronomers catch a black hole sneaking a snack

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 10th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

As astronomers make more observations of the universe, they catch things that have been long predicted but never before seen. In the most recent case, astronomers have observed a black hole partially consuming what they say is either a large planet or a dwarf star.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Astronomers using a European Space Agency space observatory, caught a glimpse of an x-ray flare in the heart of a galaxy some 47 million light years away called NGC 4845.

The x-ray flare drew attention and additional observations. Several space telescopes homed in on the phenomenon and observed something that caused the galaxy to brighten by a factor of 1000 before returning to normal brightness over the course of the following year.

Of course, the entire galaxy did not brighten, it only appeared that way to observers on Earth. Detailed observations revealed that the galaxy's supermassive black hole which resides at its center, likely consumed part of a planet, or small star which passed too close to escape entirely.

Most galaxies, if not all, appear to have supermassive black holes at their centers. These black holes may be millions to billions of times more massive than our Sun. They are frequently surrounded with swirling stars and planets which they have captured into highly eccentric orbits. Occasionally, these planets and stars will pass close to the black hole, and get stripped of their material. As the material stripped from these stars and planets falls into the black hole, it heats up and begins to emit x-ray radiation.

This radiation can be detected across the entire universe.

The supermassive black hole at the heart of galaxy NGC 4845, is thought to be as massive as 300,000 suns. The object which they consumed, although probably only partially, is either an extremely large planet or a brown dwarf star, between 14 and 30 times the mass of Jupiter.

Brown dwarf stars are small stars that did not grow large enough to ignite with nuclear fusion in their cores. They are thought to be common although difficult to detect because they emit virtually no radiation.

The observation is providing astronomers with a preview of something that will happen a lot closer to home over the next year.

Our supermassive in the heart of the Milky Way galaxy is expected to encounter a large cloud of dust and gas within the next year. That dust and gas will spiral into the black hole and emit x-ray radiation of its own. As this happens, astronomers expect to take close-up observations to learn more about the enigmatic phenomenon of black holes.

Black holes are believed to play an important part in the formation of galaxies, however their precise role is not clearly understood. These observations will provide astronomers with additional data they can use to develop their theories.

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