Let the record show: I am the first writer for Ars Technica to use the phrase “om nom nom”. Astronomers caught a supermassive black hole in the act of disrupting and devouring part of a large planet or small brown dwarf (a starlike object that isn’t massive enough for nuclear fusion). The giveaway was a burst of gamma ray light, which peaked then faded slowly over time, very different from usual black hole behavior. The results were consistent with a one-time stripping of about 10% of the material off a planet at least 14 times the mass of Jupiter, which then fell on the black hole and heated up.
In the scenario proposed in the new paper, the super-Jupiter drifted close to the supermassive black hole in NGC 4845. The gravitational attraction on the near side of the planet was stronger than on the far side, pulling it out of shape. (This is known as the tidal force, and it is responsible for the twice-daily tides on Earth.) At some point, the internal force of gravity holding the planet together was insufficient to keep the black hole from ripping about 10 percent of the mass off in one burst. [Read more…]