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Black hole eats star A black hole in a far-away galaxy "ate" a nearby star, resulting in a massive release of gamma rays that scientists saw as bright flashes of light. (Mark A. Garlick, University of Warwick)

Star Shredder

A black hole eats up a star and blasts energy trillions of miles through space

By Sara Goudarzi | null null , null

A monster black hole has shredded a sunlike star, releasing energy in the form of gamma rays, or streams of high-energy radiation, in space.

Earlier this year, astronomers detected bright flashes of gamma rays originating from the center of a faraway dwarf galaxy. They thought the rays were the result of a star collapse. But when the gamma-ray storm, called Sw 1644+57, continued for months, they knew something unusual was going on.

“This burst produced a tremendous amount of energy over a fairly long period of time and is still going on more than two-and-a-half months later," says Joshua Bloom, an associate professor of astronomy at University of California, Berkeley.

BLACK HOLES

Black holes are like powerful vacuums in space that gobble up all nearby matter, energy, and light. If a star wanders too close to a black hole’s gravitational pull, it, too, will get drawn in and then ripped apart.

When a black hole shreds a star, a long-duration release of gamma rays occurs.

“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." Bloom says.

Sw 1644+57 is one of the brightest and longest releases of gamma rays ever observed.

SEEN FROM EARTH

The dwarf galaxy in which the black hole lies is 3.8 billion light-years away from Earth. A light-year is the distance that light can travel in one year—about 5.88 trillion miles. This means that although scientists were just recently able to observe the bright flashes from the gamma ray storm, the events that caused it actually happened billions of years ago. It has taken all this time for the light to travel through space and become visible to observers on Earth.

Luckily, because of its vast distance from Earth, Sw 1644+57 is harmless to our planet and its inhabitants.

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