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Black hole fires beam of energy at Earth while swallowing star

Black hole fires beams at Earth while destroying star: a massive black hole has been discovered devouring a star, causing the star to shoot beams of energy at Earth. The event is thought to occur only once every 100 million years.

By Denise ChowSPACE.com / June 17, 2011

Black hole swallows star: This artist's image provided by the University of Warwick shows a star being distorted by its close passage to a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy.

Photo illustration/Mark A. Garlick/University of Warwick/AP

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A powerful beam of energy has been spotted blasting out from the center of a massive black hole as it rips apart and devours a star in a rare sight that astronomers say likely happens only once every 100 million years, a new study finds.

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When a NASA satellite first detected the intensely bright flash deep in the cosmos, astronomers initially thought it was a powerful burst of gamma rays from a collapsing star, one of the most powerful types of explosions in the universe. But, when the tremendous amount of energy could still be seen months later, they realized something more mysterious was going on.

"This is a really, really unusual event," study co-author Joshua Bloom,assistant professor of Astronomy at University of California, Berkeley, told SPACE.com. "It's now about two-and-a-half months old, and the fact that it just continues on and is only fading very slowly is the one really big piece of evidence that tells us this is not an ordinary gamma-ray burst."

NASA’s Swift Gamma Burst Mission spacecraft first detected the gamma-ray flash, called Sw 1644+57, within the constellation Draco, at the center of a galaxy nearly 4 billion light-years away.

Using Swift observations and others by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Bloom and his colleagues concluded that the strange activity they were seeing was likely from a star being ripped apart by a massive black hole, rather than the effects of a gamma-ray burst, which typically can only be observed for about a day.

"This burst produced a tremendous amount of energy over a fairly long period of time," Bloom said. "That's because as the black hole rips the star apart, the mass swirls around like water going down a drain, and this swirling process releases a lot of energy."

These findings are published online in the June 16 issue of the journal Science.

Death of a star

Bloom's research showed that the highly energetic and long-lasting X-rays and gamma-rays were produced as a star about the size of our sun was violently shredded by a black hole a million times more massive.

But, what makes this a rare event is that this particular black hole has not been eating up matter around it like some other active black holes in the universe, Bloom said. In fact, the researchers sifted through historical records of that region of the cosmos and could not find evidence of previous long-lived X-ray or gamma-ray emissions.

"This event was not the act of gobbling lots of gas, but instead was a sort of impulsive thing," Bloom said. "This sort of thing could happen at the center of any galaxy, but the rate at which this happens is very low. It's sort of a one-off event that really shouldn't happen again."

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