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Testing Relativity with a Shredded Star

Category: Science & Technology
Posted: 08:03AM

With the whole of the Universe to look at, a fair amount of astronomy is just luck and many were very lucky in March of last year. At that time a flash of light was observed that originally was just believed to be a gamma-ray burst; a not uncommon cosmic event. However this flash of X-rays survived longer than a gamma-ray burst, so researchers took a closer look and found a truly rare event.

Now called Swift J1644+57, the X-ray source was actually a star being destroyed by a previously quiet supermassive black hole, some 3.9 billion light years away. When the unfortunate star passed by the black hole it was ripped apart a much of its mass fell into an accretion disk. This disk spins around the black hole like the rings around Saturn, and as long as the matter does not cross the Innermost Stable Circular Orbit (ISCO), it will not fall in. The large flash the observatories detected was matter from the star crossing that threshold but not falling into the black hole. Instead it was ejected out in large jets, and one of them just happened to be point at Earth.

Thanks to relativity, the light from the jet was able to survive the trip to Earth, but that theory is not through with Swift J1644+57 just yet. Within the ISCO is the Quasi-Periodic Oscillation (QPO) which is created by the superhot matter still skirting the event horizon of the black hole. Researchers are able to study the flashes of the QPO to learn about the physics at this extreme environment, which also happens to be at a time when the Universe is different from our own.

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