Giant Black Hole Swallows a Star and Belches Out a Superfast Particle Jet

Jun 15, 2018

By Lee Billings

Marshaling a decade’s worth of data from telescopes around the world, scientists have captured new details of a gargantuan black hole feasting on a hapless star, watching as the black hole consumed its prey and burped out a jet of material moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light. The results are published in the June 14 edition of Science, and could help researchers better understand how black holes grow and influence their galactic surroundings.

“Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” says study co-author Miguel Pérez-Torres of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Spain.

The discovery’s first inklings emerged in January 2005, when a team led by astronomer Seppo Mattila of the University of Turku in Finland detected a brilliant pointlike source of infrared light from within Arp 299, a pair of merging galaxies some 150 million light-years from Earth. That July another team led by Pérez-Torres reanalyzing previously gathered data confirmed a bright source of radio waves from the same location.

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12 comments on “Giant Black Hole Swallows a Star and Belches Out a Superfast Particle Jet

  • But follow-up infrared observations with NASA’s Spitzer Space
    Telescope showed the source was far too bright to be a supernova,
    blazing with light that would outshine a typical small galaxy by
    several 100-fold.

    This is why it’s difficult for me to get too wrapped up in astronomy: the numbers, sizes, and events are too huge for me to wrap my mind around them. How do these guys go to that kind of job day after day?!



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  • I love cosmology. The vastness of space and the enormity of the numbers that define it. Next time you’re out sunbathing and getting nicely burned just think about how much energy reaches us from the sun. Even 93 million miles away it’s hot enough to toast us and it powers all life on this planet. But we only receive a tiny fraction of the sun’s energy. We are just a dot on the circumference of a sphere 93 million miles in radius. Work out the area of the surface of that sphere (4 pi r squared). It’s about 100,000 trillion square miles. Earth presents a circle 8000 miles in diameter to it. Divide one area by the other and earth only collects about a 2 billionth of the sun’s energy. The rest just radiates out across the cosmos and is lost. So multiply the energy that earth gets by 2 billion and that’s what the sun puts out. The sun has a lifespan of about 10 billion years. So now try and think about how much energy the sun will put out in its lifetime. It’s too big a number to really grasp.

    Ok next step is to think about a supernova. When a star goes supernova (explodes) it releases all of its stored energy that a star like our sun would put out in 10 billion years in a couple of seconds. So imagine if our sun went supernova (it can’t, it’s too small) and the earth got 10 billion years worth of normal sunlight in 2 seconds. You’d get a really nice tan in about a trillionth of a second and vapourise shortly after that. Even at tens of light years distance a supernova would destroy all life on earth.

    Our sun burns through 600 million tons of hydrogen every second. That it is large enough to do that for 10 billion years staggers the mind. Our sun is only one of about 200 billion in our galaxy and that galaxy is only one of at least 2 trillion in the universe. Even that 2 trillion number might be a massive under-estimate because most of the universe is too far away for us to see it and we can’t really be sure what’s its full extent is.

    So yes space is big. As Douglas Adams put it, if you think it’s a long way down the road to the chemists that’s just peanuts to space.



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  • *

    When a star goes supernova (explodes) it releases all of its stored
    energy that a star like our sun would put out in 10 billion years in a
    couple of seconds.

    And to think when this black hole gobbled up that star, it was noted to be more powerful than a supernova.

    I tell you, it makes my head hurt (and spin!).

    *



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  • *

    If it had grabbed a binary star system, or the star was involved with
    two merging black holes, it could have thrown a star out at near light
    speed!

    Lol, how is this helping my (as near as I can describe it) agoraphobia?

    But seriously, our language doesn’t have words that adequately encompass the sizes and power involved when the subject is the vast spaces beyond our planet! Including just our little corner of our galaxy!
    *



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  • Vicki

    Try going the other way. Prof Brian Cox holding a small pebble and saying that if the pebble were the nucleus of an atom, the first electron circling it would be……. and he pointed to a mountain on the horizon……

    Hope you have watched his Wonders of the Universe series?



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  • Olgun #6
    Jun 16, 2018 at 3:53 pm

    Try going the other way. Prof Brian Cox holding a small pebble and saying that if the pebble were the nucleus of an atom, the first electron circling it would be……. and he pointed to a mountain on the horizon……

    Hmmm. Somewhat of an exaggeration. If the nucleus of a hydrogen atom (a single proton) was a marble 1.5 cm in diameter then the electron would be 1 km away and would be a speck less than 1/1000th of an inch in diameter. Invisible to the naked eye. The tables of atomic radii and nucleus radii are easily found online. They are something of an anomoly whereby heavier elements with more electrons are often smaller in diameter than lighter elements. The smallest atom is actually element number 2, Helium. The largest is Caesium which is only number 55 in the periodic table. Lead which is number 82 is only half its size. Titanium with 22 electrons is bigger than gold which has 79.

    However it does demonstrate how incredibly insubstantial matter really is, all atoms are mostly empty space and how neutrinos can pass through them undisturbed almost never colliding with a nucleus. Talking of neutrinos which were made in the first second of the big bang and also inside stars we live in a massive sea of them, all invisible and almost undetectable. Hold out your hand and look at one fingernail. Every second 65 billion neutrinos pass through it. Squillions of them pass through your whole body every second and giga squillions through the earth. And on the subject of big numbers, a brunette tells her blonde friend she had sex with a Brazilian. “OMG you slut! How many is a brazillion?”



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  • I love cosmology. The vastness of space and the enormity of the numbers that define it.

    I’ve just finished re-reading the wonderful “Five Ages of the Universe”, by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin, their biography of the cosmos, written from a perspective deep into the future. How deep? The subtitle of the book, “Inside the physics of eternity” gives a clue. The authors take the reader on a historical journey from the point where time and space began, (or very shortly thereafter at any rate :), into the final, cold, dark heat death of the universe, when even neutrons will have long-since decayed.

    Using an exponential scale for their horizontal axis they chart the moments from the big bang and inflation, through the synthesis of baryons and on to the stelliferous period, (where we are now, at 10^13 years). But where it really gets interesting is the account of the future epochs, and especially the far distant future, up to 10^150 years. A fascinating read that is ultimately profoundly moving.



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  • The incredible vastness of our universe certainly puts the significance of our little planet Earth into sharp contrast. While our cosmologists should be applauded for increasing our understanding of how the universe works I do find it bizarre that some think they can explain in minute detail the very early history of the universe (e.g. inflation, etc) when there are two elephants in the room, namely dark matter and dark energy, which they have, as yet, no understanding of!



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