Discovering the unique behavior of a sun-like star, under the gravitational wrath of a low-mass black hole.
In an unexpected breakthrough, scientists have unlocked an intriguing space phenomenon: a ravenous black hole tearing away three Earth-sized chunks from a sun-like star every orbital pass.
Black holes have always drawn both scientific and public curiosity. At the heart of the nearby galaxy 2MASX J02301709+2836050, situated approximately 500 million light-years away from the Milky Way, a unique story unfolds. A sun-like star orbits dangerously close to a black hole, losing material equivalent to three Earth masses with each close pass.
Scientists from the University of Leicester, equipped with their newly-developed tool for the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, detected a distinct X-ray flash originating from the center of the aforementioned galaxy. This event, now named Swift J0230, surprised researchers with its cyclic brightening for 7-10 days before turning dark, only to repeat the cycle about every 25 days.
Filling in the Gaps
This cyclical behavior of Swift J0230 paints a picture different from previous findings of either quasi-periodic eruptions or periodic nuclear transients. Acting as a bridge between the two, Swift J0230 establishes itself as a crucial missing link.
Diving deeper into the phenomenon, scientists theorized that this sun-like star, during its elliptical orbit around a low-mass black hole, succumbs to its intense gravitational force. The snatched material, as it plunges into the black hole, heats up to about 2 million degrees Celsius, releasing a massive burst of X-rays, which was detected by the Swift satellite.
Dr. Phil Evans expressed his astonishment, stating that witnessing a star akin to our sun undergo repeated “tidal disruptions” by a black hole was a first. This new discovery acts as a bridge between previously known phenomena, reinforcing the interconnected nature of space events.
The Missing Link and Beyond
Dr. Rob Eyles-Ferris and Dr. Kim Page, integral members of the Swift satellite research, emphasized Swift J0230’s significance in connecting the dots between complete and partial tidal disruptions. With the new tool’s early success, they anticipate many more similar objects waiting for discovery.
Dr. Chris Nixon, shifting the focus towards the theoretical side, shed light on the size of the black hole in question. Unlike supermassive black holes commonly found at galaxy centers, this one is much smaller, estimated between 10,000 and 100,000 solar masses.
The team’s innovative transient detector for the Swift satellite, purpose-built to detect astronomical X-ray transients, has now put the world on notice. Dr. Evans emphasized the tool’s capabilities by highlighting that even a 20-year-old system, like Swift, could unravel new space phenomena with the right tool.
Dr. Caroline Harper, the Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, celebrated the discovery. Expressing her enthusiasm about the Swift mission’s potential, she acknowledged the partnership with NASA and looks forward to the future insights Swift might bring.
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