Astronomers watch the central supermassive black hole of a galaxy eat something, either a planet or a brown dwarf.


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Astronomers watch the central supermassive black hole of a galaxy eat something, either a planet or a brown dwarf.

Astronomers were using Integral to study a different galaxy when they noticed a bright X-ray flare coming from another location in the same wide field-of-view. Using XMM-Newton, the origin was confirmed as NGC 4845, a galaxy never before detected at high energies. Along with Swift and MAXI, the emission was traced from its maximum in January 2011, when the galaxy brightened by a factor of a thousand, and then as it subsided over the course of the year. “The observation was completely unexpected, from a galaxy that has been quiet for at least 20–30 years,” says Marek Nikolajuk of the University of Bialystok, Poland, lead author of the paper in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

By analysing the characteristics of the flare, the astronomers could determine that the emission came from a halo of material around the galaxy’s central black hole as it tore apart and fed on an object of 14–30 Jupiter masses. This size range corresponds to brown dwarfs, substellar objects that are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen in their core and ignite as stars. However, the authors note that it could have had an even lower mass, just a few times that of Jupiter, placing it in the range of gas-giant planets.

All the instruments listed above are orbiting space telescopes. You can read the science paper here.

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