Saturday, June 18, 2011

"A singular event in the history of mankind”

All through junior high school I aspired to become a professional astronomer. This got me involved in a number of intense discussions/arguments with friends who wanted to know what relevance astronomy had to anything important.

Needless to say, I abandoned my pursuit of an astronomical career by high school. But I still think my answer to the question my friends posed still holds: Ultimately, astronomy has everything to do with everything. (GW)

Unusual Celestial Event Was Black Hole Swallowing a Star

By Sindyan N. Bhanoo
New York Times
June 16, 2011

In what sounds like a one of a kind murder mystery, a dying star has fallen into a black hole and been ripped apart.

The event, which was observed on March 28, was originally thought to be a gamma ray burst from a collapsing star but researchers suspected something more sinister was at play. Their findings appear in a pair of papers published online by the journal Science.

Traditional gamma ray bursts involve a deluge of high-energy photons bursting through the air. They generally result from the explosion of a star or when two objects collide in space.

In this case the burst was unusually long, said Joshua Bloom, an associate professor of astronomy at Berkeley and the first author of one of the studies.

The burst also came from the center of a galaxy four billion light years away. Most galaxies are thought to have black holes at their center, a clue that tipped off Dr. Bloom and his colleagues.

“Astronomers are not so different from real estate agents — location, location, location,” he said. “This picture had emerged for me and I saw that this was a black hole swallowing up a star.”

He and his colleagues used data gathered by the Swift Gamma Burst Mission, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory to confirm their theory.

They also looked at historical data to look for similar events involving the same black hole, but they found no other occurrences.

“This is a singular event in the history of mankind,” Dr. Bloom said. “This black hole was otherwise sitting dormant, a star got too close, its gas got ripped apart and in doing so some of it got spit up.”

There are still a number of unanswered questions that the researchers are exploring, like how large the star was in comparison to the sun, how close it got to the black hole and role of the hole’s spin in the event.


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