In a cosmic first, astronomers have discovered a black hole chowing down on what may be a giant rogue planet.
The supermassive black hole didn’t finish off its meal, which scientists say was either a huge Jupiter-like planet wandering freely through space or a brown dwarf, a strange object that’s larger than a planet yet still too small to trigger the internal fusion reactions required to become a full-fledged star.
“This is the first time where we have seen the disruption of a substellar object by a black hole,” study co-author Roland Walter, of the Observatory of Geneva in Switzerland, said in a statement.
“We estimate that only its external layers were eaten by the black hole, amounting to about 10 percent of the object’s total mass, and that a denser core has been left orbiting the black hole.”
Researchers made the discovery using the European Space Agency’s Integral space observatory, which noticed an X-ray flare coming from the center of a galaxy 47 million light-years away called NGC 4845.
Our Milky Way’s enormous central black hole is set to have a meal of its own soon. A gas cloud as massive as several Earths is spiraling toward the black hole and should be gobbled up later this year, astronomers say.
Observing more such events should help researchers better understand how black holes feed.
“Estimates are that events like these may be detectable every few years in galaxies around us, and if we spot them, Integral, along with other high-energy space observatories, will be able to watch them play out just as it did with NGC 4845,” said Christoph Winkler, ESA’s Integral project scientist.