For years, black holes have been scrutinized. Theory after theory has been proposed about them, with little fact separating them from the host of other phenomena relegated to the realm of science fiction. Now, however, scientists have some of their first concrete data on the subject, as x-ray telescopes have picked up a star disintegrating into a black hole.
The star was massive, weighing more than a million times more than our sun. The black hole was also colossal, but there is no need to panic, as the event took place 290 million light years away from Earth. While this distance was large enough to keep Earth out of the danger zone, it was not too far away for astronomical instruments to pick up exactly what happened.
It would seem that, while black holes do swallow up anything they come in contact with including light, they can’t keep that pace up forever. Therefore, while the star was being violently ripped to shreds within the black hole’s event horizon, the continued incineration of the star generated heat in the millions of degrees.
This massive heat wave generates x-rays that, once the black hole slows down its consumption rate, escape in every direction possible. This mass spewing of x-rays has been picked up by instruments here on Earth, translating to blips on a radar screen, which is how the violent event was viewed by scientists.
This observation is huge to astronomers. Up until now, much of what there is to be known about black holes has been a mystery. A glimpse into what happens when a celestial being comes in contact with one is invaluable, not only fleshing out knowledge of the black hole itself, but also opening doors to theories on extreme gravity and tidal disruptions.
This event has undoubtedly been a big step forward in our understanding of the universe. Our composite picture of the universe and how we fit in it is, after all, largely incomplete. Thanks to the sacrifice of a giant star some 290 million light years from Earth, however, it is a little closer to being completed and scientists now wait patiently for the next big clue to come from the infinite blackness that is our universe.