Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hungry, Hungry Black Holes 05.05.12

A black hole has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. Researchers with the space-based Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) have discovered a black hole actually in the act of consuming a nearby star.
CREDIT: NASA, S. Gezari (The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.), A. Rest (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.), and R. Chornock (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astro­physics, Cambridge, Ma.)

It all started out in such a normal way— no one ever suspected the black hole was capable of doing such a heinous thing, and then blam! All that remained was crumbs.
No, that’s not really how it started. In a way, the star itself is almost to blame for its demise. The victim is a star that ap­pears to be going through a major life change, of a sort. The star appears to have been going through its red star phase, and was in the process of swelling to 100 times its original radius. The star only made it a third of the way out, however, before the nearby black hole’s tremendous gravity began stripping off some of the gasses from the edge of the star. Based on the spectrum of the gases, researchers say the star was mostly composed of helium. The researchers with GALEX have made this nifty little computer simulated representation to let us know sort of what it would look like: http://
So, why is this important? Well, for once, researchers can watch a black hole in the act of “eating” something substan­tial. Black holes are completely invisible to us— we have no technology that is capable of seeing them— all we can see is the carnage they leave behind. By watching some poor star get sucked into one, though, we will have a much better under­standing of how black holes function and “look.”
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