Stellar disruption by a black hole
Credit: Chandra Image: MPE/S.Komossa; XMM-Newton Spectrum: ESA/XMM-Newton/S. Komossa et al. Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Star, Interrupted

Voracious monsters lurk within the hearts of some galaxies. They gobble gas and dust and whatever else may wander close. Sometimes they continuously feed, and are very active and easy to spot; other times they lie dormant, only revealing themselves at rare instances when some unsuspecting prey falls into their maw. Using the most powerful X-ray telescopes available, astronomers now believe they've witnessed an example of such cosmic mayhem. An observation with the ROSAT X-ray observatory in 1992 showed an especially high X-ray flux from an otherwise obscure galaxy called RXJ 1242-11. Such extreme X-ray brightness suggested something interesting was going on near the galaxy, but the ROSAT data weren't sufficient to pin down what has happening. An observation by the Chandra X-ray Observatory confirmed the X-ray source was associated with the nucleus of the galaxy (inset, lower left) and that it faded substantially (but was still extremely bright) while another observation with the XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory showed the X-ray spectrum (inset, right) was similar to that expected from a star falling into a supermassive black hole. Astronomers believe this particular black hole weighs about 200 million times the mass of the Sun. The illustration above shows an artist conception of the remains of the star falling within the event horizon of this cosmic monster.

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Page Author: Dr. Michael F. Corcoran
Last modified Friday, 20-Apr-2012 15:20:51 EDT