Astronomers attempting to monitor a cloud of gas reacting to the black hole at the center of our galaxy got a huge surprise: A giant x-ray flare erupting from that black hole, the largest one ever detected.
So what caused it? NASA has two theories — and both of them have a black hole at their center.
The first is that it was the remnants of a giant asteroid being torn apart by a black hole and super-heated into producing the detected flares. If that's correct, notes MIT's Fred Baganoff who's co-authoring a paper on the phenomenon, it would explain something unusual that astronomers saw:
If an asteroid was torn apart, it would go around the black hole for a couple of hours – like water circling an open drain – before falling in. That's just how long we saw the brightest X-ray flare last, so that is an intriguing clue for us to consider.
There's another theory, though. Maybe all we were seeing in those flares were the tangled, mangled lines of many magnetic fields as they were sucked in towards the black hole's center.
Either way, one thing's for certain: At over 400 times the black hole's usual x-ray output, it was something exceptional.
Image: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.