Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Violence in the Cosmos

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A big black hole ripped apart a sun-like star, gobbled a bit of it and flung the rest out into the cosmic neighborhood in an act of celestial gluttony caught by two orbiting observatories, scientists said on Wednesday.

The doomed star probably went off-course and into the supermassive black hole's path after a close encounter with another star, according to astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory.

As the star approached the heart of a galaxy some 700 million light-years from Earth, the black hole lurking there stretched the star and ultimately tore it into bits. A light-year is about 6 trillion miles, the distance light travels in a year.

'Stars can survive being stretched a small amount ... but this star was stretched beyond its breaking point,' said Stefanie Komossa, leader of the international team of researchers who detected the event.

'This unlucky star just wandered into the wrong neighborhood,' Komossa said in a statement.

Aside from the sheer violence of the event, astronomers believe this is strong evidence to support a long-held theory that black holes are capable of pulling in cosmic bodies, stretching them until they break and then consuming them.

'This is one of the Holy Grails of astronomy,' Alex Filippenko, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, said at a briefing at NASA headquarters.
I'm not a fan of violence but this really is fantastic isn't it?


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