Black Hole Eats Alien Planet: Is Earth Next?

By Pierre Dumont , Apr 03, 2013 01:46 PM EDT
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A supermassive black hole has engulfed a giant planet the size of a "super Jupiter," with astronomers from the European Space Agency watching.

According to the ESA, the black hole was dormant for several decades and has a mass of around 300,000 times that of our sun. This type of flaring exhibited from the black hole is not unusual, and scientists predict that the supermassive black hole located at the center of our Milky Way galaxy will also flare, possibly sometime this year.

"The observation was completely unexpected, from a galaxy that has been quiet for at least 20-30 years," said lead researcher Marek Nikolajuk in a press release.

The event was so dramatic that the astronomers weren't even looking at the galaxy, called NGC 4845, when the observation was made. Using the ESA's Integral system, they were observing an entirely separate galaxy when they saw bright X-ray flares emitting from NGC 4845.

When a black hole sucks something into its grasp, heat and pressure turn the object into high energy gasses. As they are absorbed, energy from the gasses gets released in the form of X-rays. By using its Integral system and XMM-Newton, used to detect X-ray sources, the ESA was able to determine that the mass of the planet being sucked in was between 14 to 30 times that of Jupiter. This made the object either an enormous gas giant or a brown dwarf.

The process whereby the black hole consumed the planet lasted two to three months.

"This is the first time where we have seen the disruption of a substellar object by a black hole," researcher Roland Walter said in the release. "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."

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