The European Space Agency (ESA) has captured a rare astronomical event after its Integral space observatory witnessed either a small star or a big planet being consumed by a black hole located in galaxy NGC 4845, some 47 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo.
Astronomers were using ESA’s X-ray space observatory XMM-Newton to observe a different galaxy when they spotted a bright X-ray flare coming from the previously silent galaxy NGC 4845. Analyzing the flare, astronomers were then able to determine that the emission came from the galaxy’s central black hole as it devoured part of a planet-like object up to 30 times the mass of Jupiter.
Apparently, the object may have been a free-floating planetary-mass which had become cast away from its parent solar systems by gravitational interactions. Scientist also recorded a 2-3 month delay between the object being disrupted and the heating of the debris in the vicinity of the black hole, which has a mass roughly 300,000 times that of our sun.
Commenting on the rare event, Roland Walter of the Observatory of Geneva, Switzerland, said: “This is the first time where we have seen the disruption of a substellar object by a black hole. We estimate that only its external layers were eaten by the black hole, amounting to about 10% of the object’s total mass, and that a denser core has been left orbiting the black hole.”