Supermassive black holes have swallowed three stars in a stellar feeding frenzy, recently recorded by astronomers. These massive, mysterious bodies lay at the heart of galaxies, consuming stars, planets and dust that spiral in the abyss.
The ROentgen SATellite, or ROSAT, a German-made X-ray telescope launched in June 1990 and the XMM-Newton, a similar telescope, designed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and set into space nine years later, collected the raw data. The same year XMM-Newton was put into orbit, ROSAT went offline, but not before collecting nine years' worth of valuable information. Astrophysicists examined findings from these crafts, discovering the tell-tale signs of stars being consumed by supermassive black holes in a trio of galaxies.
Supermassive black holes eat a star once every 10,000 years on average, in a typical galaxy. When these stellar bodies are ripped apart by the massive gravitational pull of the enigmatic object, they emit a powerful flash of X-rays, which can be detected by observatories orbiting the Earth.
Flashes in space similar to these can be produced by a number of processes, so identification of the source of these flashes is essential in finding stars consumed this way.
Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology State University (MIPT) researchers set about their task of eliminating flares from other sources. All events occurring in our galaxy were deleted from observations, as there is only a single supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. They corrected brightness relative to distance, and ignored any sources that were too bright, or at too great of an angle.
Stars are destroyed by supermassive black holes over the course of just a few years. Correlating data between the two spacecraft, which collected data roughly a decade apart, allowed researchers to search for bright signals in earlier data which dimmed significantly in later images.
"The uncertainty of these estimates is quite significant since they are based on a very small number of occurrences - the full sample contains no more than two dozen "credible" X-ray sources... Progress in this area is expected to be made with the launch of the space observatory Spectrum-X-Gamma in 2016, which will be equipped with two X-ray telescopes," MIPT stated in a press release.
Spectrum-X-Gamma will allow astronomers to analyze interactions between supermassive black holes and surrounding matter in greater detail than ever before.
Ildar Khabibullin and Sergei Sazonov of MIPT believe there may be a fourth object in the data that may currently be in the process of being torn apart by its local supermassive black hole.
Discovery of the trio of stars consumed by supermassive black holes was detailed in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.