Star versus black hole. Guess who wins?
On March 28, 2011, NASA's orbiting Swift satellite detected a flash of high-energy gamma rays in the sky. While this marks an extraordinary event - the amount of energy given off by these types of things dwarfs the Sun's entire lifetime supply of light! - Swift sees an event like this nearly every day, so at first no one thought much of it.
But on further examination, this event turned out to be more amazing than usual. The way the explosion got brighter and then faded didn't match with what we knew of the usual flavor of gamma-ray bursts. In fact, the only thing that made sense was that astronomers had witnessed what nightmares are made of: an entire star being literally torn apart by the ferocious gravity of a black hole!
The scale of this disaster is staggering: octillions of tons of matter were ripped away from the star, shredding it entirely. This material fell around and formed a disk circling the black hole, heating up to millions of degrees, and blasting out a beam of energy that marched across the Universe for four billion years until it fell into Swift's detectors. The image above shows the hard X-rays (seen here as red and yellow) as well as visible and ultraviolet light (white and purple) detected by Swift. The linear rays coming out of it are an artifact of the telescope and aren't real, but they do lend some drama to the image.
And what can be more dramatic than this? Most stars end their lives either slowly fading away or exploding as a supernova. To be torn apart by a black hole... well. What a way to go!
Image credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler
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