The interaction between a supermassive black hole in a galaxy called 2MASX J02301709+2836050 and an orbiting star is shown in this image taken by the Pan-STARRS telescope, in Hawaii, US, in an undated image provided by NASA. Niels Bohr Institute/Daniele Malesani/Handout via Reuters Access to licensing rights

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Black holes, notoriously voracious celestial bodies, typically devour stars unlucky enough to get close to them in one big gulp, annihilating them with their immense gravity. But it turns out that some people tend to snack rather than gorge themselves.

Researchers said they have observed a supermassive black hole at the center of a relatively nearby galaxy, taking bites out of a star similar in size and composition to our Sun, consuming matter equal to about three times the mass of Earth every time it comes close to passing the star on an elongated, ellipse-shaped obit.

Black holes are extraordinarily dense objects with gravity so strong that not even light can escape.

The star is located about 520 million light-years from our solar system. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, which is 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km). It was observed to have been ravaged by a supermassive black hole at the heart of a spiral-shaped galaxy.

As such black holes are, this one is relatively small, and its mass is estimated to be a few hundred thousand times greater than the mass of the Sun. The supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, has a mass about 4 million times the mass of our Sun. Some other galaxies contain supermassive black holes with masses hundreds of millions of solar masses.

Most galaxies have such black holes at their centers, and their surroundings can be among the most violent places in the universe.

Most of the data the scientists used in the new study came from NASA’s Neil Gehrels-Swift Observatory.

The star was observed orbiting the black hole every 20 to 30 days. At one end of its orbit, it ventures close enough to the black hole to suck in, or accrete, some material from its stellar atmosphere each time it passes — but not so close that the entire star is torn apart. Such an event is called “recurrent partial tidal disturbance.”

The stellar material falling into the black hole heats up to about 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million degrees Celsius), unleashing a massive amount of X-rays. It was discovered by the space observatory.

“What is most likely to happen is that the star’s orbit will gradually decay and it will get closer and closer to the supermassive black hole until it gets close enough to be completely disrupted,” said astrophysicist Rob Isles-Ferris of the University of Leicester in England. One of the authors of the study published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“This process is likely to take at least years, and perhaps decades or centuries,” Iles-Ferris added.

This was the first time scientists had observed a Sun-like star repeatedly being hit by a supermassive black hole.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions about tidal disturbance events and exactly how the star’s orbit affects them,” Isles-Ferris said. “It’s a very fast-moving field right now. This field has shown us that new discoveries can come at any time.”

Will Dunham reports. Edited by Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Obtaining licensing rightsopens a new tab

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: