Star death

Star Death is A Violent Thing Especially when it’s ripped apart by a middleweight black hole. X-ray: NASA/CXC/UA/J. Irwin et al. Optical: NASA/STScI

We know that super-massive black holes can devour stars, and we know that stellar-mass black holes born of collapsing stars often anchor at the center of galaxies, but the elusive middleweight black hole is more theory than knowledge. While scientists have long thought they are hiding out there, hard evidence of their existence has been hard to come by. But NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, in conjunction with data from the Magellan telescopes, has captured what looks like the guts of a white dwarf star after being ripped apart by an intermediate-mass black hole.

Peering into the globular cluster at the center of elliptical galaxy NGC 1399 — 65 million light years from Earth — a burst of bright light can be seen above and left of center. Chandra’s image (the shot above is composite, with X-ray light in blue laid over a background snapped by Hubble) shows that the bright emission of light is an ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX). ULXs are a rare class of objects that emit more X-rays than stars but less than the supermassive black holes at the center of quasars. Exactly what makes up a ULX source remains a mystery, but it’s been suggested they are mid-sized black holes with masses somewhere between hundreds and thousands of times that of our sun.

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