On March 28, 2011, NASA’s Swift satellite caught a flash of high-energy X-rays pouring in from deep space. Swift is designed to do this, and since its launch in 2004 has seen hundreds of such things, usually caused by stars exploding at the ends of their lives.
But this time was hardly "usual". It didn’t see a star exploding as a supernova, it saw a star literally getting torn apart as it fell too close to a black hole!
The event was labeled GRB 110328A –a gamma-ray burst seen in 2011, third month (March) on the 28th day (in other words, last week). Normal gamma-ray bursts are when supermassive stars collapse (or ultra-dense neutron stars merge) to form a black hole. This releases a titanic amount of energy, which can be seen clear across the Universe.
And those last two characteristics are certainly true of GRB 110328A; it’s nearly four billion light years away*, and the ferocity of its final moments is not to be underestimated: it peaked at a solid one trillion times the Sun’s brightness!
Yegads. I’m rather glad this happened so far away. That’s not the kind of thing I’d like to see up close.
Although initially cataloged as a GRB, followup observations indicated this was no usual event. The way the light grew and faded seemed to fit better with a star getting torn apart. And what can do that to an entire star? A black hole. So instead of the star in question forming a black hole, it apparently literally fell victim to one!
The observations indicate the black hole in question may have as much as half a million times the mass of the Sun, meaning it’s very probably a supermassive black hole in the very center of a distant galaxy. Hubble Space Telescope observations (not yet released to the public) also place the event very near the center of a galaxy, which is consistent with this scenario.
So what happened?