Caught in the act: Black hole rips apart a star

On March 25, NASA's Swift orbital telescope captured a surge of X-rays from deep space, disgorged by what was clearly an immensely powerful source.

Closer observation revealed a "supermassive" black hole with a mass a million times that of the Sun.

The X-ray flare was a "relativistic outflow," or a jet of high-energy matter that flowed from the star as it was pulled apart by the black hole's gravitational pull and hauled towards its maw.

The jet, called Swift J164449.3+573451, moved at 99.5 percent of the speed of light.

"Supermassive" black holes are commonly found at the centre of galaxies. The newly discovered black hole is about the size of its counterpart in our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Even so, they are relative tiddlers, for some "supermassive" specimens have been measured at a mass of more than a billion Suns.

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