Seen those pictures of a giant snake swallowing a crocodile? Try witnessing a black hole eating a neutron star.
That’s more or less what scientists at The Australian National University (ANU) did when they analysed data showing the first such event ever recorded.
It may have happened a long time ago in a galaxy 8,550 million trillion kilometres away but, for the ANU team, it’s as vivid as the 1980s.
“This black hole ate a very dense star, known as a neutron star, like Pac-Man – possibly snuffing out the star instantly,” says Professor Susan Scott, referring to that decade’s classic video game.
The intergalactic feast was captured by special machines which detect ripples in space and time.
In August, two such machines operated by ANU partners in Italy and the United States picked up echoes of a cataclysmic event thought to have occurred almost 900 million years ago.
Analysis of the data strongly suggests it was the final moments of a neutron star, a collapsed sun that had become almost – but not quite – as dense as the black hole which, as a result, eventually swallowed it.
Scientists have never observed such a tussle before, however, it is also possible the object swallowed was not a star but another, much smaller or lighter black hole.
According to Professor Scott, that would be “a truly awesome consolation prize”.
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