Supermassive black hole wakes to feast on giant planet as astronomers watch

Astronomers at the European Space Agency have watched a hitherto-dormant black hole wake and gorge upon a nearby substellar object the size of a "super Jupiter", a months-long feasting that consumed a tenth of its mass. The sudden flaring of the black hole – believed to have a mass around 300,000 times that of our Sun – came after several decades of inactivity, the ESA said, but is a timely example of the appetite the super-dense anomalies can have. Scientists expect a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way to flare in a similar way, potentially as soon as this year.

This particular observation occurred in galaxy NGC 4845, roughly 47 million light years away from Earth, and caught the attention of astronomers by virtue of its extreme X-ray flaring. The XMM-Newton worked with the INTEGRAL space observatory, NASA's Swift, and Japan's MAXI X-ray monitors to pinpoint the cause.

Although NGC 4845 had never before been a source of high-energy output, that rapidly changed over the course of several months. At its maximum, the ESA says, the output made the galaxy brighter by a factor of a 1,000 in January 2011.

The cause of all that brightness was the vast appetite of a supermassive black hole, which awoke unexpectedly to consume great quantities of mass from an orbiting object. Exact figures on the size of the object are unknown, though there are estimates that it could be anywhere from 14-30x the mass of Jupiter, potentially putting it on a par, mass-wise, with a brown dwarf. Alternatively, it could have been significantly smaller – a few times that of Jupiter – making it more like a large gas giant.

Either way, the black hole at NGC 4845 took a big, prolonged bite out of it. Over a roughly 2-3 month period, ESA says, the external layers – or roughly 10-percent of the overall mass – were peeled away and consumed, as per this short animation from the agency:

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"This is the first time where we have seen the disruption of a substellar object by a black hole" Roland Walter of the Observatory of Geneva, Switzerland, and co-author of a paper detailing the incident, said. What remains is "a denser core" that has been "left orbiting the black hole."