Going out with a bang not a whimper

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Image caption Endgame: Artist's impression of a star swirling into a black hole

Ever wondered what it might be like to get sucked into a black hole?

Working with images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Nasa's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Swift satellite and the Gemini and Keck ground-based telescopes, scientists at Warwick University have enjoyed a ringside seat as the black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy has ripped apart and swallowed a star that strayed too close.

The spectacular display - somewhat prosaically called a panchromatic outburst - is described in the latest edition of the journal Science. The black hole, now known as Swift 1644+57, sits at the centre of a galaxy in the constellation Draco some 3.8 billion light years from earth.

The extreme brightness of the event - 10,000 times the luminosity of the sun, and visible for several weeks as a bright spot in the sky - seems to have resulted from a powerful beam of energy that just happens to have pointed a jet of intense light towards the Milky Way.

Speaking on the programme this morning Warwick University's Dr Andrew Levan said our best explanation of the event was that a massive black hole at the very centre of the galaxy had latched onto a star and ripped it apart by tidal disruption.

"The spinning of the black hole created two jets of energy, one of which is pointing straight at earth. Our solar system just happens to be looking right down the barrel of this jet of energy."

But black holes it seems are a bit like buses.

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Image caption Nasa's Chandra Deep Field South telescope looks deep into the past

In another study, this time published in the journal Nature, astronomers from the University of Hawaii report that massive black holes may have been common in the early universe.

Using the deepest X-ray images ever taken, in what is known as the Chandra Deep Field South, the researchers have been looking for black holes in 200 distant galaxies from a period when the universe was between 800 and 950 million years old.

The results suggest there may have been as many as 30 million super massive black holes in the early universe. "It appears we've found a whole new population of baby black holes," says co-author Kevin Schawinski of Yale University.

"We think these babies will grow by a factor of about a hundred or a thousand, eventually becoming like the giant black holes we see today, nearly 13 billion years later."

As the evidence suggests black holes may be common, but displays like the one being put on by Swift 1644+57 where the earth is caught like a rabbit in the headlights of a powerful beam of energy, remain rare. Enjoy the fireworks while they last.